Prevent frustration and overwork with these powerful, yet simple tools

When work­ing on a team, have you ever been frus­trat­ed because a project did not turn out quite right?

It turns out that our expec­ta­tions are often linked to frus­tra­tion and over­work. If we want to pre­vent frus­tra­tion, we must con­sid­er how we com­mu­ni­cate our per­son­al expec­ta­tions. Con­sid­er these ques­tions:

How often do you clear­ly set your per­son­al expec­ta­tions?

How often do you com­mu­ni­cate those expec­ta­tions to your team?

Do you do that a way the brain is wired to under­stand infor­ma­tion?

Do you review your expec­ta­tions and results con­sis­tent­ly?

In this post, I’ll help you learn how to be clear with your team and your­self. Appro­pri­ate­ly clar­i­fied expec­ta­tions will pre­vent frus­tra­tion, pre­vent busy work, pre­vent over work, and help you achieve more focus and momen­tum.

First, some thoughts on personal expectations (internal processing)

Per­son­al expec­ta­tions are a pic­ture of what suc­cess looks like. But because it’s a per­son­al expec­ta­tion, it’s high­ly like­ly that no one else knows it, except for you. For some, the expec­ta­tion could be as sim­ple as every­one show­ing up in the same room at the same time. For oth­ers, it looks as elab­o­rate and orna­ment­ed as Dis­ney­land.

Notice expectations everywhere

We must grow in our aware­ness of our expec­ta­tions. We have expec­ta­tions for how to spend our per­son­al time, expec­ta­tions on when you will leave work, how many vaca­tion days you will use, and how hot that caramel mac­chi­a­to will be…

Every time you go anywhere—a gas sta­tion, a web­site, a con­fer­ence room—you have an idea of how things will unfold. You expect the noz­zle on the gas pump to click off when your tank reach­es a cer­tain lev­el. You expect web­sites to be easy to nav­i­gate. You expect con­fer­ence rooms to have chairs and a place to plug in your lap­top. You could prob­a­bly tell me sto­ries of times when your expec­ta­tions were NOT met. And I bet you wouldn’t have to look at any notes!

On the oth­er hand, when our expec­ta­tions are exceed­ed, we are wowed. When our expec­ta­tions are not met, we get frus­trat­ed and dis­con­tent. To avoid frus­tra­tion, notice your expec­ta­tions.

To avoid frus­tra­tion, notice your expec­ta­tions.

It is easy to grow numb or for­get about our expec­ta­tions. It takes less ener­gy and effort to do the brave work of think­ing before we “do.” The prob­lem is many of us do not take the appro­pri­ate time and ener­gy (ener­gy is the secret killer in this sce­nario) to fig­ure out what we real­ly want to see hap­pen.

In our work envi­ron­ments, it might seem sim­ple and obvi­ous that we should agree on expec­ta­tions before jump­ing into doing our work. How­ev­er, it’s all-too-com­mon for peo­ple to jump into a task, take it to com­ple­tion, only to find out you and your team or boss are on a dif­fer­ent page. To work toward bet­ter clar­i­fi­ca­tion, we must set expec­ta­tions on a reg­u­lar basis. To illus­trate this, we will look at rhythms and rit­u­als.

4 Steps to Prevent Overwork and Frustration

Whether you are a dis­ci­plined per­son or more of a free spir­it, we all oper­ate our lives with a set of rhythms. Again, we must become aware of our rhythms, regard­less of how you might be wired. Some of us are more inten­tion­al about how we struc­ture our days, weeks, and lives — while oth­ers pre­fer a more free-flow­ing sched­ule. Both are great!
One prob­lem is that we keep things junked up in our head. The sim­ple solu­tion is to get things out of your head.

1. Set your personal expectations by thinking through your situation smarter

The 5 Cs tool (internal auditing)

Audi­tors at the Gov­ern­ment Account­abil­i­ty Office (GAO) use a set of ques­tions to fig­ure out what’s hap­pen­ing with­in a team. Below is the con­densed ver­sion. You can view their full set of tools at [https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-14–704G]

  1. What’s the cri­te­ria for suc­cess? (How do you think should it be? The client? The team?)
  2. What’s the cur­rent con­di­tion or real­i­ty? (How is it?)
    • What’s the gap between the cri­te­ria and the con­di­tion?
  3. What’s caus­ing the cur­rent real­i­ty?
  4. What is the con­se­quence of the cur­rent real­i­ty?
  5. What’s your rec­om­mend­ed cor­rec­tive action to poten­tial­ly solve the issue?

A few other powerful questions

  • What is the prob­lem we’re try­ing to solve?
  • What item, if we focused on it for the next 3 months, would pro­vide the great­est momen­tum?
  • What are we work­ing toward?

Ask­ing ques­tions like the 5Cs gives you a pic­ture on why you’re work­ing on what you’re work­ing on.

2. Externalize your thinking using writing, visuals, or audio

Often, peo­ple jump right into a meet­ing, phone call, or con­ver­sa­tion to solve an issue with­out any exter­nal­ized think­ing. They did­n’t take the time to fig­ure out what they need to fig­ure out—and they waste your time doing so. While every­one is not an ana­lyt­i­cal thinker or “exter­nal proces­sor,” every­one will ben­e­fit from the process of get­ting things out of your head and onto a page, screen, board, wall, or oth­er mis­cel­la­neous buck­et. Where does­n’t mat­ter as much as when. The best time to do this is before meet­ings, phone calls, and oth­er team-ori­ent­ed envi­ron­ments.

Physical visualized thinking

Dig­i­tal tools are great. Some­times, they’re too close to your email and oth­er pings. So here are some ana­log tools that are great for get­ting think­ing out of your head.

  • Large post-it pages (Easel pad)
  • Reg­u­lar 3x3 sticky notes (mul­ti­ple col­ors if need­ed)
  • Slick­ynotes (a fun, glue-free alter­na­tive to Post-Its)
  • Haro­go­ma chalk, chalk­board, or chalk­board wall
  • Legal pad
  • Back of an enve­lope
  • Mole­sk­ine
  • Muji note­book
  • Field Notes Note­book
  • Rite in the Rain Note­book
  • 8.5x11 sheet of paper — col­ored or white
  • 11x17 art paper — avail­able at Wal­mart or Sta­ples in the art sec­tion
  • Graph paper
  • Doane Paper — lines and graph
  • Dot grid paper (Rho­dia)
  • White­board, White­board paint
  • Note­cards and bul­letin boards

The key with phys­i­cal tools is to find the com­bi­na­tion that is the most attrac­tive to you. If you are resist­ing writ­ing in a Mole­sk­ine, try an enve­lope, or the edge of a news­pa­per. If Field Notes are too small, try large art paper. Just try dif­fer­ent medi­ums until you find one that allows you to get what’s in your head onto some­thing in the phys­i­cal world.

Digital visualized thinking

Some­times, your mind is churn­ing and all you have is your lap­top or phone. Here are some tools to have ready to go to get your think­ing out of your head...

  • Google Docs (Set up a tem­plate)
  • Google Sheets
  • Mind Node, Mind Man­ag­er, etc (Mind Map­ping Soft­ware)
  • Keynote or Pow­er­point
  • Microsoft Word
  • Adobe Illus­tra­tor, InDe­sign
  • Ulysses
  • Scriven­er
  • iA Writer
  • Stream of con­scious writ­ing

Spoken externalized thinking

If you are dri­ving or unable to get some­thing down on paper, you can cap­ture your thoughts with a voice recorder or

  • Voice memo
  • Self­ie video
  • Voice mail
  • Tas­cam or Zoom dig­i­tal recorder

3. Share or “communicate” your thinking clearly

Now that you’ve tak­en some time to fig­ure out what you need to fig­ure out,

  • 1‑page sum­ma­ry
  • Email
  • Phone call
  • In-per­son meet­ing
  • Dig­i­tal Zoom meet­ing
  • Voice memo, voice mail, or etc

Tem­plate for 1‑pagers, emails, con­ver­sa­tions, or meet­ings:

  • Here are the main peo­ple that need to know this:
  • Here’s the bot­tom line:
  • Here’s what we need to do:
  • Here’s sup­port­ing info: (if any)
  • Here’s the cri­te­ria and dead­line
  • Here’s how often we will fol­low up and touch base
  • Here’s back­ground (if any)

4. Follow up, confirm, and repeat back

Touch­ing base with your team to make sure you fol­low through with what you agreed on builds trust. With­out this, teams can start to get frus­trat­ed and over­worked. Here are a cou­ple ideas for how to fol­low up:

  • Email — Want­ed to check in to see where we are with ________. Could you give me a 5 minute call to dis­cuss?
  • Slack or oth­er instant mes­sages Hey can we touch base about ______? Want to make sure we are still on the same page.
  • 10 minute coach­ing con­ver­sa­tion (The Coach­ing Habit) What’s on your mind? What else? How can I help?

Clear is kind, unclear is unkind.” Brene Brown

Recommended reading

Cal New­port Deep Work
Steven Pinker The Lan­guage Instinct
Brene Brown Dare to Lead

Question: how have you found ways to clarify your expectations to avoid overwork and frustration?

Direct statements

We all have things we wish we could come right out and say, but often don’t for our own rea­sons. We may want to pre­serve a rela­tion­ship, not hurt some­one’s feel­ings, or reveal what we tru­ly think. We beat around the bush hop­ing that they might pick up what we’re try­ing to say. Usu­al­ly, this strat­e­gy does not work.

The prob­lem is that we want to com­mu­ni­cate some­thing but we have fear or uncer­tain­ty in our head or heart. We feel a sense of pause and we don’t say what we wish we could. So we either say noth­ing at all, aka silence, or say a bunch of stuff to light­en the blow.

Adopting a shared language

One of the tools that can help us grow as lead­ers and with our teams is adopt­ing a shared lan­guage. What’s cool about work­ing with a small group is that you can set rules for that spe­cif­ic set of peo­ple. While you can’t con­trol every­thing in your life, orga­ni­za­tion, or larg­er struc­ture, you can con­trol your direct cir­cle of influ­ence. An easy way to do that is to devel­op a shared lan­guage that your group under­stands and can use when need­ed.

No one is going to assign you the task to “devel­op a shared lan­guage.” This is some­thing that you must take own­er­ship of and make hap­pen the next time you gath­er. It’s kind of like a more seri­ous ver­sion of an inside joke. Your group gets what you’re say­ing, but if you weren’t a part of that group, you might be a lit­tle con­fused. Of course, as your group grows, it’s impor­tant to share the shared lan­guage, just like a nice friend will explain the inside joke to you.

Shared language solutions

Brene Brown has a phrase in Dare to Lead that goes like this: “clear is kind, unclear is unkind.” This is kind of a mantra or anthem to say that unclar­i­ty is not going to be tol­er­at­ed. By beat­ing around the bush, you may think you are being kind, when in real­i­ty, your lack of clar­i­ty is dam­ag­ing the group. Bet­ter to be clear about what you think than bury your true thoughts deep down inside you.

Hen­ry Cloud in Bound­aries for Lead­ers notes that a For­tune 500 busi­ness uses the phrase “just give me the 10%.” This is a way of say­ing, “can you please skip the BS?” In a sit­u­a­tion where some­one is obvi­ous­ly hedg­ing around an issue, you can give them the free­dom to be clear and kind by ask­ing them to give you the 10%, or what is real­ly on their mind.

The David Allen Com­pa­ny used to say “Silence means we are OK with what’s going on.” Silence can be a ter­ri­ble thing to deal with in lead­er­ship and in rela­tion­ships. But who said silence has to be mis­er­able? Declar­ing that every­one is going to agree on what silence means helps every­one. This comes with an implic­it expec­ta­tion that peo­ple WILL speak up if they have an issue. Oth­er­wise, the silence com­mu­ni­cates approval and sup­port. The trick is to prac­tice this and to ask peo­ple to speak up, oth­er­wise, their silence com­mu­ni­ties they are OK with what’s hap­pen­ing.

Communicate early and often

I’ve expe­ri­enced it and I’m sure you have too. You’re get­ting close to a dead­line for a project and you’re wait­ing on 12 essen­tial details to com­plete every­thing. 

You’re so close to the dead­line that hav­ing any con­ver­sa­tions or com­mu­ni­ca­tion will KEEP you from com­plet­ing the project

So what do you do? 

You skip them... and get to work. 

Seri­ous­ly though... who has time to com­mu­ni­cate ear­ly and often when you have a dead­line to meet? 

It’s eas­i­er to go silent and com­mu­ni­cate less when there’s a big event or dead­line right around the cor­ner. How­ev­er, one of the strate­gic behav­iors I want all of us to con­sid­er as lead­ers is this:

We communicate EARLY and OFTEN.

Part 1: Com­mu­ni­cat­ing EARLY

This means we talk about stuff while we can still make plen­ty of adjust­ments. When you com­mu­ni­cate late, there’s often no time left to make changes. On Nov 13, I wrote about how we plan in advance so that ‘lack of time’ is nev­er an issue. Around CFC, we don’t want to fall into the “I did­n’t have enough time” trap. That’s not a good excuse! By com­mu­ni­cat­ing ear­ly, we can keep each oth­er in the loop before it is too late.

When you com­mu­ni­cate ear­ly... you can let your team know about stuff while there’s still time to fig­ure out key details and oth­er solu­tions. 

When you com­mu­ni­cate ear­ly... you allow time for prop­er plan­ning. See my post from Nov 13 for more plan­ning tips and tricks: https://public.3.basecamp.com/p/HonuXbbxWwdGMvnDsXg1nJXG

Part 2: Com­mu­ni­cat­ing OFTEN

This just means we’re in the pat­tern of a con­sis­tent con­ver­sa­tion — not a irreg­u­lar mono­logue

So far my per­son­al attempts to achieve this have been:

  • Month­ly vol­un­teer train­ing meet­ings (Sat­ur­days) 
  • Weekly(ish) posts here in Base­camp (like this one)

But I’m sure there’s more I could do and that we could all do... 

Next steps...

  • What, if any­thing, do you have to com­mu­ni­cate that would be bet­ter for your team to know SOONER than lat­er?
  • How often have you com­mu­ni­cat­ed? 
  • What can we do bet­ter to make sure com­mu­ni­ca­tion is hap­pen­ing EARLY and OFTEN?