A client recently described the challenges in moving a project forward because many stakeholders were concerned the objective would not be met by their stated deadline in the future. Understandable, since they are working on a statewide initiative that must meet nationally regulated standards—a huge, months-long project.
It wasn’t the difficulty of the tasks or countless regulations that stalled progress, however; it was the discussion about possibly not meeting future deadlines—despite the progress toward meeting them.
With spring quickly approaching, I offered a suitable analogy to help think through the issue. The problem seemed to be that the stakeholders were focusing on the harvest before the soil had been prepared and the seeds planted.
Keeping the harvest in mind, the most important steps now are to cultivate the soil and plant the correct seeds. Then the team can water, weed, monitor, fertilize and adjust as needed in continued preparation for the harvest. Worrying about the “what ifs” and possible missed objectives, still months away, seems to be wasted time and energy.
Much to my delight, the gardening analogy provided a way for my client to clearly communicate to the stakeholders that they needed to focus on first things first: prepare now, harvest later. The project moved forward.
What projects are overwhelming you? While it’s important to have the end goal in mind, success happens when we take one step at a time forward. Break the objectives into chunks. That may sound overly simplistic; however, simplicity works well in a fast-paced environment to minimize “what if” distractions.
How’s this for simple? Start at the beginning.
Pause. Individually or in a group, picture the harvest. Become clear on the desired outcome. With that vision in mind, describe what needs to be done when and who can best accomplish these steps. If you or others start leaping into the future, stop the conversation. Come back to right now. What can be done right now? This week? This month?
If the “what if” worries about the harvest persist, even after bringing the discussion back to the current need to plant seeds, there’s a skill that can help reduce the tension and anxiety – a skill that can help adjust those feelings, simply by influencing your thinking. It’s the cognitive skill of reappraisal, basically paying attention to your thinking – all that chatter in your head, the stories you tell yourself – and asking critical questions. “What’s the reality or truth here?” “Is this as catastrophic as I’m imagining? “What can I influence and what can’t I?” Really listen to the stories you’re crafting in your head. You’re the author! Choose to write a different story to keep moving forward without stress and anxiety about next steps. You may need to help your team members with this skill, using the same type of questions. As you reappraise the situation this way, you change your thinking, your feelings, and ultimately your behavior.
You will be surprised at how far you will go, and how fast, when you focus on planting the seeds rather than worrying about the harvest. Reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Robert Lewis Stevenson, “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds you plant.”