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Archive for March, 2008

I mostly work from home, and I spend a lot of time talking on the phone. Recently, I noticed that my attention span was really falling.  No matter how interesting the call was, I’d find myself checking e-mail, reading blogs, and sometimes even IM-ing with my husband. It’s horrible, but it’s also hard for me to stop if I’m sitting in front of the computer. Even as yoga teaches me to be present in the moment, the dark forces of technology entice me to try to do more at once and stay disembodied.

To address the problem, I got a second chair for my office. On long calls, I step away from the computer and sit in my rocking chair. This keeps distractions to a minimum and helps me focus on the one conversation that I’m having and the one moment I’m experiencing.

Of course, I’m also constantly struggling to stay in the moment when I’m with the monkeys. And it’s never harder than right before bedtime. Once we get close to putting the monkeys to bed, my brain is thinking 10 or 15 minutes ahead. I start focusing on the work I need to do when they go to bed, or the movie I want to watch, or the glass of wine that I’m going to quietly enjoy while doing nothing.

Often, as I’m singing them a few songs before bedtime, I’m so distracted that I mess up the words. To classics like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and Rock-A-Bye Baby. I know its kind of sad that I can’t muster up 5 more minutes of focus, but I can’t seem to stop my mind from wandering. And unlike the rocking chair in my office that gets me farther away from the computer, I can’t come up with a solution that gets me farther away from my…well, my brain.

Any one else have similar problems? Or developed a solution?

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I pretty much stopped reading books about parenting after the first year of the monkeys’ lives. In part, I stopped reading because I was less desperate for help. In part, I stopped because I finally realized that there was no answer in any book that would really help me figure out my kids and figure out how to be the best parent I could. Those answers, I realized, had to come from me, my kids, my husband, and our relationships. Otherwise they wouldn’t work.

On one visit to Atlanta, though, my mom gave me a book,  Scream Free Parenting, written by  Hal Runkel, who she had seen speak at her synagogue. I read it because she asked me to, and was rewarded with one pearl of wisdom: we can’t always control our kid’s behavior but we can always control our reaction to their behavior.

I’m pretty sure this is something that’s covered in therapy 101, but it’s a useful reminder for me as a parent. It’s also a useful reminder for me as a leader, a manager, and an employee at work. We all encounter situations where we think that the folks we’re working with are acting badly, acting out, or just acting stupid. And sometimes, we want to act out too, in response to them.

It makes sense that if we scream at our kids in response to their screaming and whining, we’re not actually helping the situation, we’re modeling bad behavior. Likewise, if someone overreacts to something you’ve done at work, overreacting to their reaction isn’t going to help. In fact, it’s going to make things worse. Instead, try to do what you do with your kids: take a deep breath, take a moment, and respond as calmly and reasonably as you can. At the very least, you’ll feel better about your role in the situation. The best case scenario is that you calm down the other person, too, paving the way for a more rational, direct conversation.

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I had a chance to have dinner with an old friend the other night. Once we got through the stories about how cute our kids are and the stories about what our mutual friends are now doing, we started comparing notes on the whole part-time working mom thing.

We both love working part time and really value the time that we get with our kids. We both love our jobs and have been very focused on our careers for many years before having kids and even once our kids were born. And we both feel that our jobs, in their current instantiations, are a little bit boring. More specifically, we both think that our jobs would be more interesting and engaging if we didn’t have the time/travel restrictions that we do.

I try to avoid traveling too often, limiting trips over a day to one a month and not traveling more than two weeks in a row. (Try is the operative word). She works a 26 hour work week, scattered over the course of four days. What this has meant for both of us is not going after opportunities that would otherwise interest us and not taking on challenging projects that would fully engage us and provide opportunities to grow and learn.

Both of us are in situations that many would envy – doing the work we love, part-time, while still taking time to focus on our growing families. It seems like a dream. But then there’s that boredom, that itch to do more even as you know that you don’t want to take on more.

My friend’s interpretation of our situation: the mommy track is alive and well. But that doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t feel like I’m being mommy tracked by my company. And I’m trying not to mommy track , making sure I stay engaged, am still learning, and continue to hone my art. Yet the feeling persists.

I’m constantly hearing and reading about “The end of work as we know it” and how traditional careers are becoming less common as people “customize”their careers. Yet as someone who’s trying to capitalize on/create those trends in the workplace, I’m finding challenges. Challenges that stem from my company and my client’s ideas of how much I should be putting into work, a little. But even more surprising and difficult to manage, challenges from my own ideas about what’s OK to do and not do,  what makes an engaging job, and what makes a job worth doing. 

Is the mommy track alive and well? And what can we mommies (and daddies, and artists, and…) do to make sure we’re not getting in our own way as we try and redefine what it means to have a successful career? 

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I was trying out a new pair of jeans by wearing them around the house the other day, and I asked Mr. Daddy if he thought I should keep them. He commented on the length and the color, but the crux of the question for jeans is all about one critical component: how my butt looks.

 “They’re good,” he said, “better than some of your other jeans, like your skinny jeans. I think you should keep them.”

“Just good?” I replied, sticking my butt out a little for him to get a closer look. “I think they look really good.”

“OK, just stand normally.” He paused to reflect. “I don’t know, I think your jeans should make your butt look bigger, more luscious. These jeans make your butt look smaller.”

And here we had come to the heart of the matter. His criteria for making my butt look good is the exact opposite from my criteria. He doesn’t love them because thinks they make my butt look smaller. I want my butt to look smaller.

Needless to say, I’m keeping the jeans. We’ve talked about how various pairs of jeans look on me before, but we’ve never had the conversation that we had the other night: what criteria are we using to determine whether the jeans are good or not. And we’ve never stopped to ask: are we using the same criteria? This hasn’t really been a problem in my life becasue as vain as I am, we’re talking about jeans, so the disconnect doesn’t really damage our relationship.

But it is representative of something that happens all of the time: two people (or more) are discussing a topic, making evaluations, and disagreeing without knowing why. Without taking the time to discuss our criteria, we assume that we have a shared sense of what good looks like. It happens between clients and consultants. And it happens between managers and teams. Often, it happens late in the stage of a long discussion or project, once time has been spent and decisions have already been made.

In a way, the assumption of a shared standard is nice – it feels better than assuming that you’ll disagree with someone. But not taking the time to articulate those standards can have dire implications. Imagine, I could have returned these priceless jeans!

Authors note: This may surprise you, but the image above is not my butt. But they are my jeans!

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Tonight, I was playing in the basement with the monkeys before dinner. Urban Super Dad called down to let us know that dinner was ready. “OK, Monkeys,” I said, “time to go upstairs for dinner.” It was 6:30 and I was hungry. “We’re playing,” was the response, accompanied by a complete lack of movement towards the stairs. “OK,” I tried again, “Who wants to go upstairs to check the mail?” This, of course was a big hit. Within seconds we were all upstairs, had quickly checked the mail, and were washing up for dinner.

The trick is one employed by parents everywhere, I’m sure. Don’t worry so much about what you’ll do once you get there, just get everyone going in the right direction, and it’ll all work out. By shifting my focus from something that they weren’t excited about – dinner – to something that they were – the mail – I was quickly able to get the monkeys where I wanted them – at the dinner table.

It’s a tactic that smart managers use, too. My boss does it to me. He’ll tell me over and over again that he wants me meeting with a certain kind of person. I show a complete lack of interest. Then he points me to a couple of specific interesting people at specific organizations, and there I am, meeting with a certain kind of person.

Peter, our communications lead, just successfully did the same thing. He’s been trying to get folks at the company to write articles and submit papers to conferences for over a year, and has had limited successes with one or two people. Recently, he tried another tack. He told them all about a great conference in Paris, and told them that our company would pay for attendance for whomever gets accepted. Within weeks, eight people submitted abstracts, three of which were accepted. It really moved the needle.

This tactic works because it involves figuring out what’s going to motivate people to act quickly and get them in the direction that they need to go in. It’s requires thinking of both the short term and the long term benefits of the actions that you’re trying to get people to take. It requires you to articulate not just why an activity is good for your company or your family, but also why it’s good for each individual involved.

Even better, it helps you avoid the hassle of convincing people that they need to do something that you want them to do. I could have spent 15 minutes trying to convince my kids to go upstairs for dinner. We might have finally gotten to the table, but by the time we got there, we all would have been worn out and dinner would have been cold. Instead, we had a nice family dinner. Oh, and we got the mail.

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To say I’m not a creature of habit is an understatement. I get easily bored when I follow the same schedule day after day,  rarely walk the same route to the grocery store,  and don’t even like to eat the same thing for breakfast two days in a row.

You can imagine the shock that hit my system when the monkeys arrived. Suddenly, I was responsible not just for one baby who wanted routine and consistency, but two. I was outnumbered. And truth be told, it didn’t take long before I learned a thing or two from them, and began to crave the predictability of a schedule and routine not just for their benefit but for my own. We became a highly routinized baby care machine for the first year of the monkeys lives. And even now, at 2.5 years old, we’re still pretty entrenced in our routines. Although we do mix it up with a variety of choices at breakfast, we always walk the same route to school, always nap at the same time every day, and have a very specific bedtime routine.

I’ve learned from them that a little predictability goes a long way towards keeping the chaos that comes with living with multiple small people if not at bay, then at least at a manageable level. And it helps ensure that everything that needs to happen does, so that the household runs sort of smoothly.

Which brings me to my post from last week about trading off sex for work. I think one of the reasons that its such an easy thing to do, and to keep up once you’ve established the habit, is that work tends to follow routines and schedules, and sex does not.

Whether we prefer to play it loose or are creatures of habit and structure, most of us have routines for the things that have to get done. But we don’t always have routines for the things that we like to do, like sex, reading, exercising, or spending 15 minutes a day just breathing. At least I don’t – do you? (Ok, I have heard of people that routinely have sex every night, but I don’t believe they exist.)

A team that I’m on at work has started building time into thier daily schedule for team inversions. Yes, they get together at the same time every day and practice being upside down together. How great is that? Another team at work has built in a highly ritualized group snacking time. These scheduled pleasures go a long way towards building a sense of team and help the teams keep their brains engaged over long days of mind-numbingly hard thinking.

While the anti-structure part of me wants to be able to fit in the fun stuff spontaneously, the realist know that it’s a recipe for letting it not happen. Ask any mother of a toddler who doesn’t have a specific exercise schedule how often she works out and you’ll see what I mean. I’ve already started a routine around yoga. I’m going to start creating them around other things: reading, sex and movies. Hopefully, that will be enough to keep me from taking on too much extra responsibility at work.

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At our company retreat the other day, I was doing some thinking about how I can grow in the next year and came up with the idea that I should be more authoritative. I am one of the leaders of my company, and while I think my leadership has impact in small group settings, I’d like to amp up my impact in larger group settings and with people who are meeting me for the first time.

After I shared my goals with my team, a colleague approached me and told me that he didn’t think I should try to be more authoritative at all. In fact, he said, he really liked my leadership style, which comes across as supportive and directive, but not bossy, enabling others to grow around me. It was nice to hear, and I think he’s right in that I shouldn’t try to change my style with small groups as I try to have more impact on large ones.

I was thinking about all this today as I was hanging out with my kids at bath time, counting down from 3 to 1 and insisting that they stop doing…something. I don’t even remember what it was and it was only about an hour ago. It just blurs with all of the other things I was on them about today: not hitting each other, not stepping on me, not whining to get what they want, not grabbing toys, not rattling the delicate banister, not, not, not.

What struck me is that it’s much harder to strike the right balance between authoritative and supportive with my kids then it is at work. That’s partly because the folks I work with don’t ever turn their bodies into noodles and droop onto the floor in public to avoid following directions, or run away from me giggling and covering their eyes when I’m trying to talk to them. But even when they don’t always act like professional adults, and I can usually manage to be one.

Unfortunately, I think I get sucked into the games my kids play with me, and react accordingly. I’m going to try to see if there are things I do at work that I can bring to leading my kids with more ease and less dominance. And perhaps, there are ways that I command my kids that I can translate into large group settings to project a more powerful presence. I wonder how a client would take to hearing, “I’m going to count down from 3 to 1, and if you’re still beating that dead horse, then…”

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