Monday, August 15, 2011

As Easy as Writing It Down

Executive Summary:
Sometimes we take for granted the power and intelligence of the simplest solutions.  Once such is the task of writing down our strengths and weaknesses so we can leverage the former and address the latter.

The Rest of the Story:
A short while back I published a post titled “What’s True in Games is True in Life:  Play To Your Strengths” about, naturally, ensuring that our business strategies are designed to leverage our strengths and avoid business in fields in which we are weakest.  In this post I want to provide a suggestion to help with this idea and many other business or work, or personal, challenges.

My suggestion is simply this:  write down your strengths and your assets, and then write down your weaknesses and roadblocks.  I want to write that this idea is so “dumb” that we often skip over it, except that it’s not dumb.  It’s very smart.

The idea of writing down our strengths and weaknesses is so obvious and simple that we want to dismiss it as a “dumb” idea, but it’s really very powerful.  Also, because it’s so simple, there’s really no excuse for not doing it.

The very act of writing down our strengths, weaknesses, assets, roadblocks, our vision, and our fears does something miraculous.  First, it forces us to put what are often vague notions or slippery ideas into words, into language that we can share with others to collaborate, to drive, and to garner help.  Second, it allows us to capture those slippery doubts or visions and splat them on the page or screen in front of us so we can focus on them.

By putting our vague thoughts into concrete words and phrases we eliminate the anxiety and stress that naturally accompanies uncertainty and intangible notions crawling around in the backs of our minds.  By putting them in front of our eyes, we can focus on them and either use them, or eliminate them, and eliminate the stress as well.

When our thoughts and ideas are in words directly in front of us, we can begin to take action.  Do you begin to see the power of the simple exercise of writing our strengths and weaknesses down?  There’s one last piece that we must acknowledge.

The act of writing our strengths and weaknesses down also forces us to admit or acknowledge that which our egos are reluctant to confess.  This allows us to objectify our personal challenges and address them as well.

You think this all sounds silly?  I challenge you to try it, right now.  Pick a project or objective which you are reluctant to start, or that you want to start, but don’t know how.  Go ahead do it.  Now follow along with my non-business example of fitness, which I suspect will make a fine metaphor for any business, work, or personal challenge.

Step 1:  Write down your challenge or mission
My challenge is this.  I need to get into proper fitness for a series of mountain climbing and canoeing adventures next summer.  My actual goal has more specifics, but I don’t need to bore you with mountain names or dates.

Step 2:  Write down your strengths and your assets
  • I’m in fair shape already; at least my legs are in good strength
  • I have a great deal of experience with mountain climbing, the outdoors, and canoeing, and I have all of the equipment that I need
  • I have been in proper shape and form before, so I know what I need to achieve
  • I have friends who will probably accompany me, or even push me, on some of my training missions.

There that was easy.  Notice that not every strength or asset is a physical thing; some of it is experience or resources such as people that I can leverage.

Step 3:  Write down your weaknesses and roadblocks
  • I have a chronically torn muscle in my back that acts up when carrying heavy loads for long periods of time or when otherwise overworked (this is a particularly significant problem when it comes to paddling and portaging a canoe and gear for several days)
  • I am rehabilitating a damaged shoulder after shoulder surgery
  • Time is a resource in short supply
  • Even knowing that I want to do this, I have not done well in terms of motivating myself to get into shape

That was also pretty easy.  The first two weaknesses were easy to identify because they are already in the forefront of my mind when I think about the challenge.  The last one, I didn’t want to admit or write down, especially in front of an audience, but it is true, and I can’t very well make an example if I’m not willing to follow my own guidance.

Step 4:  Make a plan that leverages your strengths and addresses your weaknesses
In terms of priority, the weakness in my back is my greatest threat to completing my mission and the one that may need the most work to remove.  It will be my top priority.  My shoulder rehabilitation is next, and my overall fitness level should be something I can easily achieve with 9 months to accomplish it.

So, first I need a plan to strengthen or repair my back with limited time available.  An idea that I have had, but have not been motivated to try, is to wear a weighted backpack, without a waist support, while doing my routine chores, especially while walking the dogs.  This should allow me to gradually increase the weight and durations I carry them without demanding any special time.  I need to start immediately in the event that I decide that conditioning won’t do it and I need to get a physician or specialist involved.

For my shoulder, I already have physical therapy scheduled, but need to create some time for additional stretching and strengthening exercises.  If I make my shoulder a priority over other activities such as TV or hobbies, meaning that I can’t do the latter until I have first taken care of my shoulder, it might help me make more time.

Realistically though, giving up the time I currently invest in hobbies or TV will probably not be enough.  I don’t spend much time on these.  I will need to schedule a specific time each day that I devote to rehabilitating my shoulder.  Hopefully, the schedule will only be temporary and can be tailored back to TV and hobby time when my shoulder is stronger.

In terms of my overall fitness, I would like to combine strength and endurance conditioning.  Running is what I enjoy and miss while my shoulder gets in the way of even that.  I have an errand that I run every morning.  I’m required to walk a mile going to do it, but can run on the way home and can change my route.  I’ll make that my running time.

I’ll combine the strength conditioning with my shoulder rehabilitation and use that scheduled time to work on my whole system between days when my shoulder is my focus.  I’ll engage my physical therapist (an unlisted asset) to help me outline a training plan.

I don’t know how much my shoulder might inhibit necessary activities such as paddling or swimming, so I’ll try each of them out and see if there is hope, or if I have a bigger problem than I currently assess.  [Actually, I did this two weeks ago and was pleased to find that both activities will certainly be viable once I have completed my recovery]

So my plan so far addressed each weakness except for the motivational issue.  Commitment is a great motivator, especially if it’s a commitment to a person whom I respect.  So, I’ll commit to and schedule the climbs and canoe trip.  I won’t let my partners down because I’m out of shape.  Now the plan is no longer about exercising (a chore) it’s about going on an adventure with my friends (a noble goal and one that I look forward to enjoying).

Now that my exercise is not a chore, but a means to an end, I’ll do one last thing.  I’ll post my detailed plan in my visual workspace (or in this case, life space).  That way, I’ll need to look at it every day, and also everyone I live (in other cases it may be “work”) with will also see that I have committed to this plan.  This keeps it an item of physical and mental focus and further leverages my family and friends and colleagues.

I haven’t discussed my detailed plan here, it’s only a blog post, but it’s worth mentioning.  In my more detailed plan I can further leverage my experience and my friends for some hiking trips on weekends that afford me some hobby time.  My experience gives me familiarity with several nearby hikes of varying difficulty that can also be accomplished in winter months.

Also, if I’m willing to slough off the potential public embarrassment, as my back and shoulder become stronger I can replace my weighted backpack with my canoe on a few dog walks and make sure that the unstable load will not be too much for my injured system.  It should also help me rebuild the strength that I need.  [It would be impossible to back out of the canoe trip if my neighbors witnessed my preparations and teased me about it – a further motivator to follow through with my conditioning plan]

At this point I have outlined a pretty fair plan.  I left out deadlines to engage doctors or to meet certain goals, but goals and deadlines should be an important part of any plan.  Detailed plans keep us moving and eliminate the pause or lost motivation when we don’t know what to do next or are uncertain if we are making progress.

Hopefully you get an idea of how powerful the activity of writing out our notions can be.  I was interrupted four times while writing this post and outlining my own plan, but let’s say that even with the interruptions included it took less than an hour to accomplish.  Is there any reason not to make the insignificant effort to write down our strengths, weaknesses, our confidences and concerns, or our assets and roadblocks?

The value it provides to making concrete that which is squirming around in our heads, and giving us the focus and clarity to address our threats and make use of our strengths is immeasurable.   Take thirty minutes right now, or at least before you go to bed tonight, and do this exercise with the challenge you picked above.  I’ll bet that the clarity you achieve from the basic strategy you outline will make you excited to draft the detailed plan in the morning.

Stay wise, friends.

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