“You’re Too Hard On Yourself!”

Analog comment from my grandma after reading this blog:

I think you’re too hard on yourself.

Analog comment from my fiance:

You’re your own strongest critic.

Yes, I evaluate my lessons with a very critical eye.

But hear me out: I’m extremely careful to be methodical and specific when I look back at my lessons.  First, it helps me improve my planning and teaching.  Second, it also helps even out the highs and lows I feel after classes.

After the “blah” day of teaching, I didn’t go home and say, “Well, that sucked.  I guess I’m a horrible teacher after all” and drown my sorrows in Plants vs. Zombies.  First I looked at what went well, and to my surprise, I could list off a bunch of learning that I knew took place that day.  When I looked at what went wrong, it was actually one aspect of one activity.  It wasn’t a catastrophe just because it wasn’t perfect.  Even though I felt a little off, the class made progress.

On the flip side, sometimes I feel like a lesson just went Amazingly well and I can’t even believe how competent I feel.  I still look back at exactly what went well and why.  Then, when I ask myself what could have been improved, I realize that actually, it wasn’t perfect.  Even though I felt like a veritable teaching wizard, I can still make progress as an educator.

So in a way, yes, I’m hard on myself.  But by being rationally critical of the learning that took place on a given day, I open the door for my own growth as a teacher and I gently close the door that irrational, unsubstantiated fears of inadequacy would otherwise pour through on the “blah” days.

Goals, Patience, and Distraction

When I first started working at the learning center, I felt really new.  The teachers and students all had way more experience there than I did and I often responded to questions with, “I’m not sure, but I’ll find out.”

I was really, really looking forward to the day when I stopped being “the NEW coordinator” and became “the coordinator.”

That’s not the kind of goal I can keep in the forefront of my mind.  It’s all about just doing your best across a long string of days, and I wasn’t about to start repeatedly asking myself, “Are we there yet?”  So I moved my focus to other things: volunteer management,  schedules, conferences, teacher observations, new classes, and a hundred other things.

(By the way, research actually shows that one important strategy for maintaining patience is to distract yourself.)

Maybe a month ago I had an opportunity to chat with one of our students.  As we talked and she asked me for advice, I realized that I had automatic credibility because of that long string of good days I had worked.  I wasn’t new anymore.  It was a Pinocchio moment in which I became real.

It felt great to achieve that goal from over a year ago.  While I think I was right to not think about it all the time, I’m not sure I had to completely forget about it.

For those goals where you need to take your eyes off the prize, how do you not completely lose sight of them?  Do you just rely on chance circumstances to remind you?

On Infrastructure

A great quote from a NY Times Health article a few weeks ago:

“…fragile bones don’t matter, from a clinical standpoint, if you don’t fall down.”   – http://bit.ly/21SoFI

In context it makes sense, makes a point, and is not totally banal.

Out of context, however, it’s in a way the ultimate example of short-sightedness.  And I think it applies to more than just bone density.

I immediately saw an analogy with systems in an organization.  I hear it saying that it doesn’t matter if you have weak infrastructure as long as you never make a mistake and never have to quickly respond to an unanticipated need.

Though it’s tempting to work even harder at being perfect, since thinking about this quote I’ve been focusing more on strengthening the systems at the learning center.

On Getting Upset

Oh, Cookie! by esti- on Flickr
Oh, Cookie! by esti- on Flickr

When I do something badly, I get upset.

When people around me make decisions I disagree with that impact me, I get upset.

When I set a goal and then am moved in a different direction, I get upset.

Someone asked me why I let these things upset me.

The answer is change.  Because when I’m upset, I think harder, faster, and more creatively to make the situation change.  When I’m upset is when I say, “That’s it, I’m not letting [mistake] happen again and here’s how,” or “I know [this] is the right answer and I just have to make sure I’m heard,” or “Ok, [goal] just got harder but so help me I’ll get there anyway.”

Because if I don’t get a little pissed off sometimes, a one-time goof becomes a habit, what was once a mishap becomes normal, and the standards bar slides down unchecked.

A life of anger is not the answer, but neither is one of complacency.

One-Page Strategic Plan!

My organization has a one-page strategic plan, and it’s pretty much the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.

Go us!

Seriously, I’ve been a skeptic of the net value of a strategic plan given the amount of time put into writing it and the likelihood of it being used. With this one, though? Consider me on board!

Older or Wiser or Just Different

I’m really not trying to pose as a seasoned veteran of the nonprofit sector when I say this, but I’ve noticed that I’m less inclined to try to change systems now than I was when I started.

It’s on all levels, from seeing if we can get a more efficient volunteer timesheet system to sinking a couple of hours into managing my contacts more effectively to seeking additional programming for my students to sending emails to my representatives regarding Adult Basic Education.  I would have been all over all of those things three years ago, but right now they’re on the back burner.

Now I’m finding myself throwing more energy into trainings, gaining deeper knowledge of what resources I have, and focusing more on volunteer recruitment, retention, and recognition.

Vintage wine by Guttorm Flatabø on Flickr
Vintage wine by Guttorm Flatabø on Flickr

In what may be a parallel situation, for the first time in the year plus that I’ve had an RSS feed, I’m seriously considering drastically reducing the number of blogs I read so I have more time to actively comment, write my own content, and read outside of my computer box.

Am I growing up or getting old?

My Latest Lists

At work, I’ll periodically get this sinking feeling that I’m forgetting to do something.

Juggling Now, Soon, and In Two Months is hard for me – they don’t feel like they should be on the same list. Also, a list with 25 things on it, some huge and some small, can be kind of scary.

Pen and Paper by LucasTheExperience on Flickr
Pen and Paper by LucasTheExperience on Flickr

I’ve tried Checkvist and liked it, and I’ve tried Google Calendar Tasks, but the main problem with both is two-fold:  it doesn’t feel concrete to me when it’s electronic, and I can avoid the list by just not opening the list’s webpage.  Lifehacker has an interesting poll on the five best To-Do List Managers, and for them as for me, pen and paper won.

My latest strategy:

  1. Write down every task or project I can think of. I work on this for a day or so to ensure it’s as complete as possible.
  2. Estimate time per task. In the left margin, I write in the estimated minutes it will take.  This step eliminates a lot of “this list is scary!” for me.  “60 minutes of stats” is easier for me to tackle than “annoyingly time-consuming volunteer stats.”
  3. Rewrite the list in two columns: Longer Term and Shorter Term.  I fill in some details like due dates and collaborators in Longer Term.  I just make a plain bulleted list of the shorter-term projects (which are usually 60 minutes or less).  The process of rewriting it helps me internalize it.
  4. Circle my first four tasks. This way I can evaluate what my next priority is in a quick and ongoing way.
  5. Check them off when they’re done. It feels gooood.  🙂
  6. Keep my list in plain sight. The list lives just to the left of my computer.  It does not get put away, it does not travel, it does not get buried.  And it gets more and more crossed off until it’s done.

It’s not perfect.  I think they keys that make it work for me are that I sit down and really think about it in terms of minutes and that it’s always on my desk and in my face.

What makes a To-Do system work for you?

The Zone (and strategy) Paid Off

I have to say, I think today’s presentation went well.  I didn’t see anyone fall asleep even in the dim lighting, I got a few questions at the end, a couple offers for help, and people laughed.

Important Statistic
"Important Statistic"

I’m particularly proud of one of my images, a graph.  It was my one and only statistic.  I didn’t mention it yesterday because I wasn’t positive it would go over well.  My audience was appreciative, for which I was grateful.  Yay.  (Also, in case you were wondering, it is a real graph of the first 8 numbers in the Fibonacci sequence.)

The Jeopardy! rip-off game was really fun too.  It always surprises me how much fun that game can be.  We decided to have the teams wave a scarf in the air to buzz in with answers, and it actually worked really well.   Notable team names were “Bad Reflexes” and “The Table.”  The most popular category was “Two Truths and a Lie: Staff Edition,” in which teams had to pick the one lie out of three statements about me and my officemate.  The ESL and GED categories were fine too though.

Based on comments I got after the presentation, my chosen strategy of using pictures, a conversational approach, and an interactive (and not too difficult) quiz game was well-received.  I seem to have hit upon a lot of information that people were actually interested in by using this model.  I also had a “wish list” slide to talk about our big dreams, and a couple of coworkers came up to me to say we should schedule a time to talk about how their programs could fulfill some of my site’s wishes.  Sweet!

So I guess I’d call it a success.  Now for a nap.

The Zone

I’ve officially stayed up later than I should have preparing to present about my site at tomorrow’s staff meeting. I could have been done a couple hours ago, but I can’t seem to stop. And now here I am jotting down a blog entry! Poor judgment, but enjoyable.  Can’t waste The Zone.

I’m loving Google Docs because I can collaborate with the other presenter. We would have stayed late to work on it together, but our building Closes (yes, that was a Capital C) at 9:00PM. Google Docs is the next-best thing.

I wish I could share the presentation, but I’m not even half-confident enough about my photo release situation to set it free on the Internet. Something to think about for the future.

I really enjoy giving presentations like this one, and I think it has potential to be fun for my audience as well (as opposed to Evil). (Thanks to Beth Kanter for that link.)

My strategy for respecting my audience was to use no statistics, a huge number of pictures, and basically to give a “day in the life” talk instead of a preview of our annual report submission.  Also, it should be relatively short, and we also have a Jeopardy! game planned with both pithy and frivilous categories to get people involved, or at least competing.  Will report on any resounding successes for sure.

Investing Time in the Process

Sometimes we still think like the small program we were just a few years ago.

Our program has seen exponential growth in the past few years.  We have accomplished amazing things.  Our trajectory is to double again in two years, which is both daunting and exciting.  One way to smooth this is to focus on processes: you need them, you need to be able to share / replicate them easily, and they need to be as streamlined as possible.  In other words, you should take the time to write them down.

I think we could have been much more efficient even just in these past couple of months by simply writing down everything we taught a temp how to do, or even having our temps keep up the lists.  It would have taken slightly longer to do the first time, but would have left us with an easy-to-replicate process.  Simple time-investment.  Instead, with every new temp and new employee, we’ve had to reinvent the wheel, racking our brains to figure out what to teach them when and how.  It’s a waste of time.  It happens because we go into it in a one-time mentality when it’s really a piece of a pattern that will repeat.

I’m really not a person who’s all about standardizing and formalizing, but when you have a big program, it’s the only effective way to do it.

How do you go about transitioning your thinking from small-scale to large-scale?  What are best practices for understanding what should be a process and creating and using said process?