Monday, March 19, 2012

Stress-Free Productivity and Getting Things Done ®

A concept I really like is the seeming paradox of stress-free productivity. I am a type-A workaholic that strives daily to embrace new challenges and to do ever more. I am also a blissed-out yogini who believes firmly in the mental health benefits of a strong yoga practice. Sometimes the fact that I want to make my mind more skillful, through the daily practice of yoga, so I can get more done and accomplish greater things feels like some kind of yoga blasphemy. But I don’t think so.

The Niyamas are the ethical internal disciplines of yoga. (The Yamas are the external disciplines that define our commitments in interacting with the rest of the world). The internal disciplines really capture the spirit of a daily yoga practice. With Sauca we align ourselves with others and “show up” fully to our practice. With Santosa we practice despite distractions and despite the lack of the “right” circumstances. With Tapas we show up consistently to practice and not just when we feel like it. With Svadhyaya, or self-study, we take responsibility in our lives and realize the only one we can really change is ourselves. Finally with Isvara-pranidhana we dedicate ourselves to an ideal. This is where we live as people with strong faith principles.  The entire eight-limb path of yoga follows a progression through the yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, to samadhi which is also an ideal that we strive for in terms of our integration and relationship with the world around us.

So striving with unwavering commitment to better oneself (and to maintain oneself in a highly-effective and productive state) is completely consistent with a yoga practice. And David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) is like the yoga of Daily Workflow and To-Do lists. :-)

One of the very first recognitions in yoga is that we all suffer from chitta vritti, or the constant “churning of our minds”. A big part of yoga is “stilling the mind” rather than let our brain-on-overdrive cause us stress, disturb our sleep, make us ill, and impact our relationships. GTD recognizes that many of us are continually churning through To-Do lists, trying not to forget things, and that this can cause a great deal of stress. Allen says “most of the stress people experience comes from inappropriately managed commitments they make or accept.” In particular, the commitments that are incomplete, and running open loop in your mind because you don’t have a plan yet for meeting them, can cause a lot of chitta vritti. GTD’s goal is to help you make your mind “still like water” so you can be truly relaxed while also being maximally productive (!).

So - why does your mind churn on To-Do list stuff?: Because you haven’t clarified exactly what the intended outcome is;  you haven’t decided what the very next action step is; and/or  you haven’t put reminders of the outcome and the action required in a system you trust. Without these things done you "stress" and "get anxious" and your mind keeps bringing your incomplete commitments up. Over and over.  GTD's goal is to give you simple tools to rectify this.

There are two Big Changes that might occur if you decide to embrace GTD. The first big change is getting stuff out of your head. ALL of it. The second is mastering the five stages of workflow. I’m not going to cover this is detail. My goal is to give you some teasers and tools so you can decide if you want to check this out.

1. Getting stuff out of your head.
If it takes less than 2 minutes to do, then do it now. If it takes longer then you need to get it recorded in a collection device in your collection system.

2. The five stages of workflow:
a) collect
b) process
c) organize
d) review
e) DO!

Collect -- Every open loop must be in your collection system and out of your head. You should have as few collection devices as you can get by with and you must empty them regularly.

Process – When you process each item in your collection devices you need to ask “is it actionable?”. If it is not then it is trash, something that might be done later on, or important reference material (in support of some other task). If it is actionable then you need to determine what outcome or “project” have you committed to and what is the next action required? A project is really an outcome that takes multiple actions to achieve.

Organize – You need supporting materials and reference files, a calendar (which contains only things that must take place on a particular day) and then Next Action lists.

Review – Review your calendar most frequently, then your focus list, and then your Next Action lists. Really you should review your lists as often as you need to in order to get them off your mind. But you should review your next action lists once a week at least.


So there are two tools, Nirvana and Evernote, that I think are simply amazing for implementing 80+% of GTD principles. (For the rest you need maybe a notebook or two plus Email and a Calendar. I use gmail). Nirvana and Evernote are both web-based and available on smartphones. Evernote also has a desktop application which I use extensively.

If you are going to try Nirvana and don’t know GTD then I highly recommend you spend some time researching and reading about GTD. You will get much more out of Nirvana. Also, Nirvana has a great community forum where you will find useful tips. From the Nirvana website:
  • Nirvana is task management software that's 100% web-based. Based upon the well known Getting Things Done method of keeping organized, it is fast, easy, available from anywhere.
  • GTD rests on the principle that a person needs to move tasks out of the mind by recording them externally. That way, the mind is freed from the job of remembering everything that needs to be done, and can concentrate on actually performing those tasks.
Besides implementing GTD faithfully, Nirvana manages to have a great user interface such that every action you want to take (record a task, set up a project) has very little wasted motion. You won’t be pulling down menus and clicking through buttons that aren’t meaningful.

Evernote’s tag line is “remember everything”. It implements an amazing, access-anywhere, reference system that allows you to capture just-about-anything into it.  To get stuff into Evernote you type it, email it, scan it, clip it (extensions for browsers), paste it, drag it (like attachments/files), print it, record it, photograph it, and more. I recently set up a “watched folder” into which I can download anything with one click. Evernote will immediately snarf each item into a separate “note”.

Oh – and you can copy a “note link” in Evernote which you then paste into your Nirvana task so your reference material is right with the task that needs it.  Like Nirvana, you capture things with very little wasted motion unlike, say, capturing items as files that are then stored in some organized folder system on your hard drive.

And both tools are free BTW.  It took me 3-4 weeks to figure out how to use Nirvana and Evernote. But I think both are easy to get value out of quickly (in 1 day) and then you just need to commit to incrementally learn more about them so you can really reap the benefits. When I first set up my To-Do lists in Nirvana I did it all wrong. The big “ah ha!” for me was really understanding that a project in GTD is the same as an outcome. If I need to accomplish a multi-action outcome, then I needed to set up a project in Nirvana. Too many of my first projects were more like collection devices or traditional To-Do Lists. The second “ah ha!” was when I really figured out how to use focus lists versus next action lists. Suddenly everything fell into place. Projects tied to outcomes had lists of actions. My focus list always had what I need to focus on “now”. My next action lists were quick to review when I needed to refresh my focus list. And then my Nirvana just got more-and-more complete as I learned how to set up repeating tasks and how to determine when tasks should be scheduled or unscheduled. With Evernote most of my “ah ha!” came as I learned all the different ways I could get reference material, in every form and format, into Evernote with just one click or menu access. And, then, of course, using “copy note link” to link Evernote to Nirvana.  So…

Do more, stress less!  


Key references:
Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen.
Nirvana can be achieved at
Evernote can be acquired at
Evernote ®: The unofficial guide to capturing everything and getting things done. 2nd Edition by Daniel Gold.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Counterculture of Courage Embraces Vulnerability

(Note: This blog rewords and/or heavily cites the references below).

We tend to think that being vulnerable is the same as being weak. But really the extent to which we are willing to be vulnerable is directly related to the depth of our courage and it is the birthplace of our creativity. Here are examples of being vulnerable:

Sharing an idea at work.
Saying “I love you” first.
Taking accountability for something that went wrong.
Calling someone who just lost their child.
Helping someone who is struggling.
Starting a company or a blog.

Each of these events demand that we “show up” completely, authentically, and creatively.
Many workplaces seem to have lost sight of the importance of courage (vulnerability) and creativity. Everywhere one can see examples of what Brené Brown calls the “scarcity culture” which has:

A prominence of people struggling with shame (Am I doing okay? Will I be laughed at?)
A pandemic of disengagement (Fear of being thought unworthy. Fear of speaking up.)
Rampant comparing and evaluating (Have I been promoted enough? Exhaustion as a status symbol. Am I making enough?)

And many people are exhausted and unhappy with this culture. We think the opposite of scarcity is abundance (more time, more money) when really the opposite of scarcity is “enough”. Just enough.  

The counterculture of courage says “we can do hard things” and fosters:

Engagement.      “Take care of yourself. When you are here I need you engaged.”
Courage.             Embrace vulnerability. Be authentic.
Clarity.               A clear sense of purpose and meaning.

If failure is not an option then neither is innovation. In a company these attributes, and respectful engaged discourse, must be cultivated by the organization’s leaders, to provide an environment that fosters innovation in all aspects of business. Within teams, continuous respectful dynamics including communication, responsibility, commitment, respect, conflict-resolution and trust must be viewed as fundamental to tackling shared goals. Finally, each individual must find it comfortable to step outside one’s comfort zone, possible to silence inner critics, acceptable to fail, essential to meet commitments to others, okay to continually challenge oneself.

Within such an environment each person can find purpose, meaning, success, and joy. What can every person do?

Let go of who you think you are supposed to be and embrace who you are. I.e. don’t let shame guide you (am I doing okay?). You ARE enough.
Embrace vulnerability. In a respectful environment don’t play it safe. Take risks. Speak up. Be authentic.
Work hard and show up.  “All in” engagement.
This is not easy. Failure is a step forward. Practice, practice, practice.
Be compassionate. With yourself and also with others. You are enough and so are they.

On the connection with Yoga: In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali it says 1:14 “Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break and in all earnestness.” Mantra Yoga Samhita V.4 states, “Sādhana is the practice by which the desired end may be achieved.”  And Shakti Parwha Kaur Khalsa: Sādhana is your personal, individual effort. It is the main tool you use to work on yourself to achieve the purpose of life.”

You engaged when you arrived at (your yoga) practice and you stayed to the end – respecting yourself and doing what you can do and nothing more and nothing less. A yoga class can be a terrific place to heal yourself: show up, be authentic, practice, work hard, and be compassionate (about whatever happens that day). Sometimes I go to class thinking “this will be great” and the whole session is like being waterboarded for 90 mins. On those days I realize that “whatever showed up for me” was what I needed at that time. I thought things would be great but apparently I needed a reminder that sometimes that’s just not what happens and I STILL need to be authentic, work hard, and be compassionate about what I do.  And always –

Namaste (the light in me sees the light in you)

Keys references:
Smart People Podcast Episode 45 – Brené Brown
Power of Vulnerability – Brené Brown
Brené also has a website, a blog, multiple books and other TED talks.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Fight or flight. Rest and renew.

Some days, on the yoga mat, in a humid 110-degree room, with 70 other sweat-drenched folks, I am acutely aware of what exactly is meant by “fight or flight”. I feel like…
I need…. to get out… of… here… NOW!

In Emotional Intelligence training a study was described which, in one part, had military personnel in a classroom, working together under a time limit, tasked to decide what to do under extremely threatening scenarios. A second part of the study had military personnel out in the field in a highly realistic exercise, working together under fire, to decide what to do. The team in the classroom selected the best decision from a number of options to handle their situation, while the team in the field made immediate decisions considering limited, if any, other options.

This captures the difference between decision making in “fight or flight” and decision making in “rest and renew”. The former reflects emotional and instinctive “gut” reactions made in the amygdala (limbic system of the brain) while the latter reflects rational decisions made in the frontal lobes of the brain. At work (and in life) this tells us that we, generally, make wiser decisions when we, and our teams, are not charged by emotions but are calm and able to rationally brainstorm options, discuss them, and make decisions considering multiple factors. This doesn’t mean that emotions should be suppressed.  Like other factors they should, ideally, be discussed openly and rationally to better inform our decisions. A “wise” decision that is emotional incompatible with one or more parties is unlikely to hold up over time. And if “letting off steam” is needed, then decision making should be postponed and emotions should be encouraged to be expressed in a safe and respectful manner. Emotional intelligence is the ability to be aware of our own emotions and those of others, in the moment, and to use that information to manage ourselves and manage our relationship. To recognize when our own emotions are ruling our thoughts (self-awareness), to empathize when other’s emotions are ruling them (social awareness), to exercise emotional self control (self-management), and to manage our own and team relationships (social skills).

Yoga recognizes our tendency to spend much more time in fight or flight than is healthy for us. The fight or flight response is our body's primitive, automatic, inborn response that prepares the body to fight or flee from perceived attack, harm or threat to our survival. But too much of this acute stress response can make us physically ill, lose sleep, and cause us to make less wise choices in our lives. One of the essential wisdoms of yoga is that by being aware of the unskillful mental states in our being, we are able to take the initiative with them, give them up, and cultivate skillful ones. In the practice of yoga we use asana (postures/physical practice), breathing, and/or meditation, to still the patterning of consciousness (citta-vritti) so pure awareness (parusa) can abide in its very nature (Yoga-Sutra I-2 to I-3). This allows us to recognize our unskillful mental states as they occur, to acknowledge them, and to see them clearly for what they really are (i.e. as unskillful mental states and not "the way things/we are or have to be").

… and so with the sweat streaming in my eyes… I focus on slowing down my breathing, moving from thinking into feeling each part of my body's alignment in the pose, again-and-again, as I shift into “rest and renew”. Whatever the circumstances I find myself in. On the mat and off.

Keys references:
Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation with Commentary by Chip Hartranft

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Launching Off the Mat. In the Office.

In the past year I have spent a lot of time thinking about what is important to me professionally and personally. The bottom line is simple:  To do things that matter with people I care about. This has been a significant motivation behind my decision to start my own company.

Culture is a set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization, or group. That might sound like some sort of corporate vision handed down (or nurtured) from above, but culture is really defined by every one of us; it is reflected in how we choose to “show up” every day at work. I think a happy and healthy as well as productive and effective work environment is an attainable and worthy goal.  And like most things worth doing this takes purposeful effort and winds up being more of a journey than a destination.

This blog is about my reflections on corporate culture. In particular, I am interested in two different approaches to personal growth and individual development. Together or separately I believe these can have dramatic and positive impact in how we show up at work, on a company’s culture, and in our lives and on our relationships. The first is Emotional Intelligence. One definition of emotional intelligence is to “the ability to sense, understand, manage, communicate, and effectively apply the power and acumen of emotions as a source of human energy, information, trust, communication, creativity, influence, and conflict resolution”. The second is yoga. Yoga is recognized in the West first as an exercise program, but yoga is, more broadly, about becoming skillful with respect to what and how one is thinking. Yogis undertake a daily practice in order to become aware of unskillful mental states, to give them up, and to cultivate skillful ones.

Myself, I started practicing yoga (yes - for exercise!) in 2006, attended teacher training with Rolf Gates in 2011-2012, and I received my first introduction to emotional intelligence in leadership training in 2007. I hope you’ll find some of my notes and reflections interesting.