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.

Are difficult people following you everywhere you go?

Wher­ev­er you go, you will always deal with dif­fi­cult peo­ple.


Many of us buy into the myth that at anoth­er job, in anoth­er orga­ni­za­tion, things would be so much eas­i­er.

The truth is there will be dif­fi­cult peo­ple there, too. But we don’t let our­selves believe that.

We buy into a myth that it can’t be like this at Dis­ney, or Apple, or Pixar.

You don’t want to believe that dif­fi­cult peo­ple is actu­al­ly the same thing as “peo­ple.”

You don’t want to believe there are dif­fi­cult peo­ple every­where because you want an excuse. You’d love to leave where you are now. So why don’t you? If it’s that bad, then you should get out of there.

Except, you know deep down that you could do some­thing. Except you don’t want to put the time into fig­ur­ing out the dynam­ics of how to sur­vive where you are now. You don’t want to lead.

That’s ok. If you don’t want to step up and lead, then you’re stuck. But here is your new rule: you can’t com­plain.

Com­plain­ing means you don’t want to be the one to solve the prob­lem. You can solve your prob­lem by mov­ing to a new job, set­ting appro­pri­ate bound­aries, and to lev­el up.

You can solve your prob­lem by set­ting the expec­ta­tions for what you can tol­er­ate and what you can’t. You can solve your prob­lem by tak­ing 5 min­utes to have a con­ver­sa­tion that will give you so the peace of mind you need. You can solve your prob­lem by tak­ing a moment to pause, reflect, and respond.

Lead­ers don’t react, they respond. Just like your body responds to good med­i­cine (see Hen­ry Cloud’s Bound­aries).

Lead­ers solve prob­lems. The prob­lem you’re in right now can be solved — and it starts with you.

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.

Excellence is your next email”

In an inter­view with Daniel Pink, lead­er­ship guru Tom Peters says “excel­lence is your next email.”

Peters is known for say­ing, “Excel­lence is the next five min­utes.” That’s true, too.

The point of his com­ment is that it’s com­mon to believe excel­lence is some huge kind of feat. In oth­er words, our default is to believe excel­lence requires enor­mous plan­ning, prepa­ra­tion, and per­se­ver­ance. The truth is excel­lence starts with how you approach all the mico-deci­sions in your life and work. This includes seem­ing­ly mun­dane deci­sions like com­mu­ni­cat­ing with our cowork­ers and how we main­tain our envi­ron­ment.

Excel­lence starts with how you approach all the mico-deci­sions in your life and work

Josh Mitchell

Peters con­tin­ues: “In a five line email, you reveal every sin­gle impor­tant ele­ment of your per­son­al­i­ty and view of life.” Peters remarks to Dan that they both know this is true.

Cue it up to 10:50 to hear Tom Peter’s riff on “Excel­lence is...”

When life and work get crazy, spend­ing time to thought­ful­ly craft a mes­sage in writ­ing requires focus and think­ing. We resist high­er lev­el think­ing and rea­son­ing. We want to achieve the end goal with­out deal­ing with the messy mid­dle.

As you reflect on your work, do you approach micro-actions with any lev­el of excel­lence?

Excel­lent email writ­ing does­n’t have to look super fan­cy or be “Eng­lish on stilts.” It does­n’t mean you have to start have all the cor­rect gram­mar and punc­tu­a­tion (key word start). It means you have con­sid­er your read­er and the issue at hand. It means paus­ing and think­ing about the ques­tions some­one might have when they read your writ­ing. It means car­ing for oth­ers: show­ing empa­thy and con­nec­tion.

What are you reveal­ing about your per­son­al­i­ty when you send an email?

What are you reveal­ing about your view of life when you share your writ­ing?

Peters’ obser­va­tion rings true for me. Many of my cowork­ers and col­leagues reveal so much about their val­ues in the way they write. Some take the time to write thought­ful, clear words. This earns trust. Oth­ers spew out infor­ma­tion onto the screen. This caus­es frus­tra­tion and extra work.

Have you con­sid­ered how you can spread excel­lence in your micro-actions?

Direct statements

We all have things we wish we could come right out and say, but often don’t for our own rea­sons. We may want to pre­serve a rela­tion­ship, not hurt some­one’s feel­ings, or reveal what we tru­ly think. We beat around the bush hop­ing that they might pick up what we’re try­ing to say. Usu­al­ly, this strat­e­gy does not work.

The prob­lem is that we want to com­mu­ni­cate some­thing but we have fear or uncer­tain­ty in our head or heart. We feel a sense of pause and we don’t say what we wish we could. So we either say noth­ing at all, aka silence, or say a bunch of stuff to light­en the blow.

Adopting a shared language

One of the tools that can help us grow as lead­ers and with our teams is adopt­ing a shared lan­guage. What’s cool about work­ing with a small group is that you can set rules for that spe­cif­ic set of peo­ple. While you can’t con­trol every­thing in your life, orga­ni­za­tion, or larg­er struc­ture, you can con­trol your direct cir­cle of influ­ence. An easy way to do that is to devel­op a shared lan­guage that your group under­stands and can use when need­ed.

No one is going to assign you the task to “devel­op a shared lan­guage.” This is some­thing that you must take own­er­ship of and make hap­pen the next time you gath­er. It’s kind of like a more seri­ous ver­sion of an inside joke. Your group gets what you’re say­ing, but if you weren’t a part of that group, you might be a lit­tle con­fused. Of course, as your group grows, it’s impor­tant to share the shared lan­guage, just like a nice friend will explain the inside joke to you.

Shared language solutions

Brene Brown has a phrase in Dare to Lead that goes like this: “clear is kind, unclear is unkind.” This is kind of a mantra or anthem to say that unclar­i­ty is not going to be tol­er­at­ed. By beat­ing around the bush, you may think you are being kind, when in real­i­ty, your lack of clar­i­ty is dam­ag­ing the group. Bet­ter to be clear about what you think than bury your true thoughts deep down inside you.

Hen­ry Cloud in Bound­aries for Lead­ers notes that a For­tune 500 busi­ness uses the phrase “just give me the 10%.” This is a way of say­ing, “can you please skip the BS?” In a sit­u­a­tion where some­one is obvi­ous­ly hedg­ing around an issue, you can give them the free­dom to be clear and kind by ask­ing them to give you the 10%, or what is real­ly on their mind.

The David Allen Com­pa­ny used to say “Silence means we are OK with what’s going on.” Silence can be a ter­ri­ble thing to deal with in lead­er­ship and in rela­tion­ships. But who said silence has to be mis­er­able? Declar­ing that every­one is going to agree on what silence means helps every­one. This comes with an implic­it expec­ta­tion that peo­ple WILL speak up if they have an issue. Oth­er­wise, the silence com­mu­ni­cates approval and sup­port. The trick is to prac­tice this and to ask peo­ple to speak up, oth­er­wise, their silence com­mu­ni­ties they are OK with what’s hap­pen­ing.