Before-we-start agreements

It can be so easy to jump in to a task, a job, or project.

How­ev­er, this can cre­ate issues. Have you ever been far along in a project and real­ize you wish you could go back to the begin­ning and set up an agree­ment that would allow you to work bet­ter? Maybe you’re wish­ing you would have been paid ahead of time, bound­aries on your time, or more real­is­tic deliv­er­ables.

Whether you are a salaried employ­ee, free­lance con­trac­tor, or vol­un­teer com­mit­tee mem­ber, if we’re not care­ful, we can fall into sit­u­a­tions where expec­ta­tions are mis­aligned, balls are dropped, and peo­ple get frus­trat­ed . . . includ­ing you.

Here’s a potential solution... set up an agreement

Some­thing you can try is set­ting up a “before we start” agree­ment.

Step 1 — Pause your per­son­al work on the project. Before your jump head-first into your project, remem­ber to pause and clar­i­fy and agree first. If you’re already work­ing on the project, don’t wor­ry, it’s not too late. Pause now before you do any­thing else. This is bet­ter than wait­ing until the end!

Step 2 — Cre­ate your “front end” agree­ment. You can also call this your Front-loaded Agree­ment, Before-We-Start Agree­ment, Work­ing Expec­ta­tions Agree­ment, or Memo-of-Under­stand­ing (MOU). It’s impor­tant you cre­ate this in writ­ing and not just out loud. Hav­ing it dig­i­tal and eas­i­ly recall-able helps, too. It does­n’t have to be more than 1 typed page with plen­ty of mar­gins and white space. Here are some poten­tial sec­tions to out­line:

  • A short descrip­tion of the work to be pro­vid­ed
  • Bound­aries of time and ener­gy
  • Expec­ta­tion on deliv­ery date
  • Vari­ables that could change the deliv­ery date or oth­er con­di­tions
  • What this “does­n’t include” sec­tion (help­ful to keep the scope nar­row)

Step 3 — Share the agree­ment dig­i­tal­ly. Share a copy of your doc­u­ment with your boss or team dig­i­tal­ly and make sure every­one has enough time to process what’s been writ­ten. It’s impor­tant they have a copy on their end so they can refer back to it down the road.

Step 4 — Make the agree­ment and move for­ward. If you need to make adjust­ments, do so, then re-send it to every­one. Now that you have the clar­i­ty on the expec­ta­tions and deliv­er­ables, you and every­one else is now account­able. You’ve set up the bound­aries and your mind will actu­al­ly be able to relax and focus on the out­come.

How should it look when it’s done?

Have you ever been dis­ap­point­ed when you don’t get the final OK from a client, boss, col­league, or spouse? For many of our jobs and per­son­al com­mit­ments, some­one else typ­i­cal­ly decides if the final prod­uct is good to go, or if it still needs adjust­ments or improve­ments. In oth­er words, you’re not the final green stamp of approval. This can cre­ate frus­tra­tion because you thought you were done . . . only to dis­cov­er you have to go back and redo work that you thought was per­fect. What if I told you that a sim­ple ques­tion could change every­thing?

How should it look when it’s done?

The ques­tion “How should it look when it’s done?” is a way of ask­ing some­one to “paint done for me.” In oth­er words, you’re ask­ing them to clar­i­fy the cri­te­ria that will give you their bless­ing or green light. (If you can get it in writ­ing, even bet­ter.) It’s a way of ask­ing what is their ver­sion of fin­ished and suc­cess­ful? But we don’t always ask this ques­tion.

Too often, we oper­ate with an assump­tion of what it will look like when it’s done for our­selves. And this is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly hap­pen­ing in the mind of your client, spouse, boss, or col­league, too. We don’t take the time to clar­i­fy, define, and get spe­cif­ic on the final out­come. This hap­pens in a split sec­ond with­out much thought or effort — and that’s the prob­lem.

Figuring out what “done” looks like takes a little effort and courage.

Tak­ing time to fig­ure out what done looks like takes a lit­tle effort, and a lit­tle courage. Pro­duc­tiv­i­ty writer David Allen often says you have to think hard­er than you think, but not as hard as you might think. In oth­er words, this think­ing process DOES take effort but not as much effort as your brain thinks. Your brain is exag­ger­at­ing how much time, ener­gy, and thought must be required to clar­i­fy.

It’s eas­i­er in the short term to leave things unclar­i­fied and ambigu­ous. It’s easy to not ask the ques­tion because you don’t want to know the answer. It’s easy not to have to tell your boss that you can’t or aren’t ener­gized to do that thing. It’s easy to com­mit to a dead­line with­out check­ing your cal­en­dar or oth­er com­mit­ments. It’s easy to say yes. It’s easy not to cause a ruckus.
It’s hard to ask a sim­ple ques­tion because cer­tain­ly you have ‘work’ to do. It’s hard to clar­i­fy expec­ta­tions because what if you’re not sure you can pull it off by the pro­posed dead­line and you look incom­pe­tent or worse . . . a fail­ure? It’s hard to stop and think for a sec­ond because most of us are mov­ing so fast, this behav­ior is uncom­mon.

From your own expe­ri­ence you also know that when you leave things a lit­tle grey and unclear, that it nev­er ends well on the oth­er end. You know from your own expe­ri­ence that you have so much more free­dom to fig­ure things out and make adjust­ments BEFORE it’s the final hour.

Ask the simple question and negotiate.

Con­sid­er ask­ing the sim­ple ques­tion “what should this look like when it’s done?”—then step back and what what hap­pens. You may find that clear expec­ta­tions are com­mu­ni­cat­ed. More often than not, you may find that their expec­ta­tions are too much or not pos­si­ble. In this posi­tion (on the front end of a project before the final hour), you have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to nego­ti­ate. You have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to dis­agree. You have the chance to agree on what is real­is­tic for the time need­ed to com­plete the project based on the resources you have.

This last part is the key. In these dis­cus­sions, you are set­ting your­self up for suc­cess, even if you can’t do what is being asked. This is your oppor­tu­ni­ty to say “while I can’t do that, I can do this.” You must be clear and up front with what you can real­is­ti­cal­ly com­mit to based on the oth­er cir­cum­stances and com­mit­ments in your life. Think about your fam­i­ly, your free time, your per­son­al goals. Think about the oth­er “work things” already on your plate that you’ve agreed to. Then talk with your client about what you can agree to accom­plish with full ener­gy.

Variations on the question…

  • What does done look like?
  • Paint done for me” (Bre­nee Brown)
  • What does suc­cess look like?
  • What does wild suc­cess look like?

The Focus Tool: Attend, Avoid, Access

If you are feel­ing dis­tract­ed and like you need to get focused, you need the right tool to help your brain work bet­ter. You need to rewire your brain back to how it is sup­posed to work.

By default, our brains don’t func­tion in the most use­ful way pos­si­ble. We fall into old pat­terns, begin wor­ry­ing, and fear sets in. If you’ve ever talked your­self out of doing your work, you know this is true...

The focus tool works like this:

  1. Attend — you attend to, or focus your atten­tion on some­thing super spe­cif­ic
  2. Avoid — you delib­er­ate­ly avoid doing oth­er things
  3. Access — you access the rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion to make progress

1. Attend to a specific result

Atten­tion and atten­dance are close­ly relat­ed. Attend­ing is about show­ing up. What­ev­er it is that you are try­ing to do or accom­plish, you must attend to what that is. In oth­er words, you have to go to that place in your brain. It is easy for us to attend to the WRONG things and be dri­ven by what is in front of our face or what is both­er­ing us. But if we want to accom­plish our big goals, we have to go to that space.

2. Avoid distractions

To keep our atten­tion fixed, we must active­ly avoid infor­ma­tion and activ­i­ties that are not rel­e­vant to the goal. In oth­er words, we must make a deci­sion to say “no” to inter­rup­tions and oth­er “emer­gen­cies” that show up. If you don’t decide ahead of time to active­ly avoid any­thing that’s not direct­ly relat­ed to the result we are work­ing on, we will get caught up in what­ev­er some­one else is decid­ing is impor­tant.

On the prac­ti­cal side, this means clos­ing your email appli­ca­tion and not check­ing it for hours. It means leav­ing your phone in a dif­fer­ent room with the ringer OFF. It means iso­lat­ing your­self from activ­i­ties and con­ver­sa­tions that will pull you off track.

3. Access key info

The third part is to access the rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion to make progress. In front of your face or at the top of your mind, you must remem­ber or access what is going to help you keep going.

Some of us work well with a dead­line to moti­vate us. “Access” in this con­text looks like keep­ing that dead­line front and cen­ter while we work on the project.

Some us work well with some kind of visu­al prompt. “Access” in this con­text looks like hav­ing a real pic­ture of what you’re try­ing to cre­ate in front of you while you work.

Brain science: executive functions aren’t default

This is my take on how psy­chol­o­gists and neu­ro­sci­en­tists talk about how the brain works. Hen­ry Cloud uses the terms attend, inhib­it, remem­ber to describe the same thing. The key is to remem­ber that our brains nat­u­ral­ly devi­ate to a “fear” mind­set where we are not oper­at­ing at our best.

Managing your negative inner voice

It’s 6:55 am. You just woke up and real­ize you have a meet­ing at 7:30 am and agreed to grab cof­fee for your cowork­ers. The line at the dri­ve-thru is always wrapped around the build­ing by 7:00 am and the slow barista is prob­a­bly work­ing today, but you think you can make it.

You spring out of bed, jump into the show­er and do the abbre­vi­at­ed ver­sion of your morn­ing rou­tine. You run through the events of your day and it dawns on you that you are hav­ing your in-laws over for an ear­ly din­ner tonight. You agreed with your spouse a few days ago to orga­nize the mess in the liv­ing room before they arrive at 5:00pm, but you have a work-relat­ed call that’s going to end 30 min­utes before that — at the ear­li­est. You devise a plan. As you fin­ish pulling on your socks, you real­ize: you haven’t yet said a sin­gle word today. All of this think­ing has hap­pened in your head.

Has any­thing like this ever hap­pened to you?

Most adults have an inner voice that nar­rates, rea­sons, and strate­gizes all day long. Psy­chol­o­gists call this inter­nal mono­logue or self-talk. For most adults, the inner voice could be what caus­es stress in your life.

How you talk to yourself impacts your quality of life and well being.

We all deal with this inner voice dif­fer­ent­ly, but what if man­ag­ing your inner voice could help you become more pro­duc­tive and pleas­ant in your life and work?

What if managing your inner voice could help you become more productive and pleasant in your life and work?

Negative talk

Your inner voice is what inter­prets your boss’s lat­est com­ment. Why did he say that? Am I going to get fired? Was it the expres­sion on my face? Why is he always like this?!

Positive talk

On the oth­er hand, your inner voice is what brings mean­ing and under­stand­ing to your life. Oh yeah, I remem­ber why I took this job. I can put up with this. I’ve got this!

We talk to our­selves all the time. You may have heard of the phrase “pos­i­tive self talk!” — a chant that sounds nice but can seem a lit­tle weird. Here’s a dif­fer­ent way to think about it: telling our­selves sto­ries.

Telling ourselves stories

We have the abil­i­ty to tell our­selves sto­ries in our lives. Jonathan Gottschall illus­trates how we tell our­selves a sto­ries in his book, The Sto­ry­telling Ani­mal: How Sto­ries Make Us Human:

We are, as a species, addict­ed to sto­ry. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself sto­ries . . . The sto­ry­telling mind is aller­gic to uncer­tain­ty, ran­dom­ness, and coin­ci­dence. It is addict­ed to mean­ing. If the sto­ry­telling mind can­not find mean­ing­ful pat­terns in the world, it will try to impose them. In short, the sto­ry­telling mind is a fac­to­ry that churns out true sto­ries when it can, but will man­u­fac­ture lies when it can’t.”

Jonathan Gottschall

Even if you don’t remem­ber your dreams, you may have expe­ri­enced the joy of wak­ing up and being able to see some­thing so much more clear­ly. You may have also expe­ri­enced the oppo­site: wak­ing up and feel­ing fear or anx­i­ety about an issue, only to find out lat­er, every­thing was ok. This is because our brains con­tin­ue to work while we are sleep­ing: solv­ing prob­lems and bring­ing mean­ing to our lives, even when the mean­ing is wrong. This can become prob­lem­at­ic when we have a neg­a­tive or wrong mind­set regard­ing issues at work.

Our inner voice intersecting with our work

Many of our jobs today are knowl­edge-based posi­tions. We make sense of infor­ma­tion and make deci­sions based on inputs. You know this is true because if you’re read­ing this and fol­low­ing, you prob­a­bly don’t work in a fac­to­ry every day. Peter Druck­er called this knowl­edge work. Mer­lin Mann sim­pli­fied this by say­ing we bring val­ue to infor­ma­tion.

Bring­ing val­ue to infor­ma­tion in our work requires our brains to be func­tion­ing at their best. Too often, as you prob­a­bly expe­ri­ence, our brains are not at our best. Qui­et­ing the neg­a­tive voice in our heads could be your path to doing bet­ter work in your job and mak­ing great con­tri­bu­tions in your fam­i­ly.

How we talk to our­selves is direct­ly cor­re­lat­ed to how pro­duc­tive and pleas­ant we will be. In oth­er words, man­ag­ing your inner voice is some­thing you will always have to deal with and it will always impact your work­ing mind­set.

A possible solution....

Dr. Neil Fiore, author of The Now Habit: A Strate­gic Pro­gram for Over­com­ing Pro­cras­ti­na­tion and Enjoy­ing Guilt-Free Play explains that many adults bring over a I have to inner voice from child­hood. This “have to” voice leads to pro­cras­ti­na­tion and stress. An exam­ple would be I have to do my tax­es or I have to attend this event.

Accord­ing to Fiore, the “have to” voice cre­ates stress and frus­tra­tion because it reminds us what it was like to be a help­less child when we could not con­trol our sched­ule and assign­ments. The real­i­ty is, we are no longer chil­dren, and while we do have oblig­a­tions to our fam­i­lies, job, and coun­try, mak­ing our­selves do stuff cre­ates a sense of over­whelm and make our­selves feel like a cog in the sys­tem.

His solu­tion is to use a “I choose to” voice, which reminds us that we have agency, we have con­trol, we are adults. When you tell your­self I choose to do my tax­es (or what­ev­er), you remem­ber you have con­trol over when it gets done and how it will hap­pen. You may not con­trol the dead­line, but you do con­trol how you can man­age it. This can apply to oth­er tasks in your job and fam­i­ly such as orga­niz­ing your files, send­ing an email, or clean­ing the toi­lets.

The secret to man­ag­ing your inner voice is to remem­ber it needs to be man­aged. Just like a good man­ag­er would do at a great com­pa­ny, con­sid­er how you may be able to play the role of the manger for your thoughts. Remind your­self that you have the abil­i­ty to CHOOSE what to focus your atten­tion on, you can CHOOSE what to ignore, and choose what things you will allow to loop in your brain as you oper­ate in your dai­ly life.

Use criteria to create momentum

Objec­tive data, truth, facts, sci­ence, and proven stud­ies all accom­plish some­thing for those that con­sid­er them­selves thinkers: pro­tec­tion.

A plea to “be objec­tive” rids any hint of sub­jec­tive emo­tion, sto­ries, feel­ings, and ideas from being cred­itable. It counts sub­jec­tiv­i­ty as some­thing not to be used or val­ued.

But what if we’ve got­ten it wrong? What if dis­miss­ing sub­jec­tiv­i­ty (and all the emo­tions and less­er things that go with it) is a big mis­take?

Human tendency: to know things.

There’s a pull we have as humans to want to know why and find the real answer that caus­es some­thing to be true. So when we find facts backed by bal­anced stud­ies and research, it’s like find­ing a firm foun­da­tion. By plac­ing our trust in facts, we don’t have to rely on our inad­e­qua­cies, weak­ness­es, or fear that we might be wrong. How could I have known that study was­n’t con­duct­ed prop­er­ly — it’s not my fault!

On the oth­er hand, as humans we have feel­ings, ideas, and sto­ries that aren’t backed by any kind of con­clu­sive, sci­en­tif­ic study. We have raw heart and emo­tion. The best lead­ers, thinkers, writ­ers, and doers have all fig­ured out some way of man­ag­ing their raw emo­tion so they can get through the day and engage with oth­er peo­ple.

One option some­times offered is to “put our feel­ings in the back seat.” That we can put our emo­tions on the side­lines and count them as part of the expe­ri­ence of what it is to be a per­son.

Maybe you’ve heard some­one say some­thing like, “oh that’s just sub­jec­tive” or “I hear what you’re say­ing but that’s not real­ly root­ed in facts.” Basi­cal­ly, a ten­den­cy to dis­miss things that are felt...

Another option... define criteria

Maybe there’s anoth­er option. Maybe the ten­den­cy to dis­miss things (espe­cial­ly sub­jec­tive remarks) is an inabil­i­ty to define cri­te­ria.

Defining criteria takes effort and concentration

Many of us do not take the time to define cri­te­ria. Defin­ing cri­te­ria takes effort. It takes time. To define cri­te­ria for some­thing means we have to do the hard work of think­ing.

Defining criteria requires our slow, deliberate brain (not our fast, fear brain)

Our slow brain is the part of our neu­rol­o­gy that engages in high­er-order think­ing, plan­ning, and rea­son­ing. Our fast brain is the part of our head that thinks we are going to jail if we don’t behave prop­er­ly.

When we have to “define cri­te­ria” we have to go beyond objec­tiv­i­ty.

Sustained focus is a competitive advantage

Today’s cul­ture requires each of us to set per­son­al bound­aries to allow our­selves to focus on what we choose to focus.

It’s harder than ever to focus

In our day and age today, it’s hard­er than ever to focus. No only do phones ping and email ding, but there’s an expec­ta­tion in our rela­tion­ships at work and home that we’re always on, always avail­able.

Are you growing?

To gain this com­pet­i­tive advan­tage, you must grow in your abil­i­ty to focus.

Some strategies