In Order to Advance, Sometimes You Have to Retreat

Water - Water resources

Next week will mark one year in business for Spark Consulting. Thanks to the advice of several wise friends who’ve been down this road before me, I scheduled my first “get outta Dodge” corporate retreat, and spent the early part of this week in Berkeley Springs, WV, reflecting on the past year, planning and dreaming for the coming year, and thinking about the larger “why” of doing this. The picture to the right is of my view from my retreat location.

Driving out, I was worried: would I be successful in shutting out the day-to-day work of actually running the business long enough to focus on assessment and planning and visioning? Would I really get what I wanted and needed out of my retreat?

When I arrived, I shut off my email synch to both my smartphone and my tablet, set my phone on vibrate, and got to work.

And it worked. I was able to keep my attention on the larger issues I needed to think about, and stay away from email and phone calls and social media, at least for two days. The amount of deep focus and perspective and learning I enjoyed was remarkable.

On the drive back to DC, I got thinking about the concept of a retreat. It has (at least) two connotations: one being a military retreat that signals that your battle plan may be in trouble, and the second being the idea of withdrawing into safety, privacy, or seclusion for purposes of reflection.

I think they’re related, though. Sometimes, in order to progress, we have to take a step to the side and regroup. And that deviation from the planned route can give us a different view of the whole landscape around us, and our place in it.

Which is hard to do. Small businesses face a lot of pressures on our time and resources. Associations face a lot of pressures on our time and resources. We tend to experience the cycle of business and the fiscal year and events and renewals and campaigns speeding up and speeding up and speeding up, with no way to get off or even slow down.

But that’s a lie. Even if it feels hard and painful and maybe impossible, we need quiet time to reflect periodically, to back up and see the whole picture not just the details in one tiny little corner, to lift our eyes from the problems right in front of us that seem insurmountable and get the perspective that comes from seeing the entire horizon.

What are you doing to secure that vital introspective time for yourself? For your association?


Unplugging, part….3? 4?

It must be that time again. A friend and colleague is updating a resource for ASAE on timesavers to promote work/life balance, and it got me thinking about some of my principles for work/life balance more generally:

  • Give yourself permission to set boundaries. Do the same for your staff members.
  • Beware false urgency – just because you *can* respond in 30 seconds doesn’t mean you need to or should.
  • Your smartphone is supposed to serve you, not the other way around. Unless you’re an obstetrician, under indictment, or the President, default to turning off email synch outside work hours.
  • Spend some time away from technology every day, even if it’s only a few minutes, and outside if possible.
  • Read for pleasure as well as business.
  • Have a sanctuary in your home with no smartphones, tablets, laptops or TVs. Mine is my bedroom (which also promotes good sleep hygiene), but it can be your den, a meditation room, your workshop, workout space or sewing room, your back porch, the spot where you eat breakfast, etc.
  • When you go on vacation, GO ON VACATION. Trust your staff to be able to handle things in your absence. Don’t check in. Make sure at least one person knows how to reach you in case of a true emergency, and make sure that person can actually determine what constitutes a true emergency, and other than that, demonstrate your confidence in your employees’ abilities.
  • Have at least one absorbing hobby or outside activity that has nothing to do with work. I learned this one in grad school. I was in an academic program, which has a truly unique and odd set of pressures, and I quickly noticed that students who had nothing major in their lives to offset grad school tended to lose perspective on a regular basis. You will, too.
  • Get some exercise. You don’t have to get up at 5 am every morning to train for an Ironman, but find some way you enjoy moving your body and do it on a regular basis. What constitutes “regular”? That’s for you to decide.
  • Remember: attention doesn’t scale. Choose carefully where you spend your limited supply.

What do you do to ensure – or at least promote – work/life balance? What does that concept mean to you?


It’s not a meme, but…

What are your professional learning habits?

Jeffrey Cufaude poses this question and answers it well.

He also asked other people to weigh in, so…


Read voraciously

And not just business books which, for the most part, at least in my experience, are just going to make you dumber. Don’t just read “fast food” fiction either. Read non-fiction. Read literary fiction. Read great magazines like MIT’s Technology Review, the New Yorker, and GQ (where the feature writing is OUTSTANDING). Read classics. Read stuff that’s been translated from some other language. Read the paper. Read smart bloggers, and not just those who blog about association management. Re-read the books that changed your life in college or grad school. Read.

TED Talks

I definitely second Jeffrey’s TED Talks recommendation. Smart people talking about interesting stuff in 20 minutes or less. Again, don’t just view what you know – seek out stuff that’s completely unfamiliar.


When you get invited to speak, attend the full conference if at all possible, even if it’s not specifically in your field. There are limits to this. I had the opportunity to attend the AAP conference when I first started at NACHRI, and I attended the general sessions, but the breakouts were way the hell over my head. But I went to the general sessions, and heard some great talks. And when you’re there, use the opportunity to talk to people (aka “the other attendees”) you otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to meet, particularly if they seem different from you in some major way (age, gender, where they live, race/ethnicity, profession, seniority, etc.). Actually, that’s good advice for life in general.


This is a topic I revisit here periodically, but I cannot overstress the importance of occasionally going off the grid for awhile. Our brains, our psyches, and our hearts need time away from the electronic hamster wheel. Different people need different amounts of time away and at different intervals of frequency, but we all need some time out to process, think, recharge, and refresh. (And yes, I think Seth Godin’s “if you really loved what you were doing, you’d never need time off” position is complete and utter bullshit.)

What are your professional learning habits?

It’s Not Personal

Recently, I made the decision to disconnect from a bunch of “Facebook friends.” I culled my list by about 20%. My criteria? Not totally scientific, but if I’d never met you in person or had any significant direct interaction (or it had been 20+ years since that last happened), you only contacted me when you needed me to do something for you, or you were primarily using FB for business/promotional reasons, you were pretty much guaranteed to get axed. I dumped virtually all the brands I was following at the same time, too, taking that list from 150+ down to under 25, most of which are in my neighborhood.

There’s been some blowback. To say the least.

But here’s the thing: it’s not personal. Really it’s not. That’s why, if you’re one of those who did get cut, I’m probably still following you on Twitter and/or connected to you on LinkedIn. I’m not trying to be a douchebag, and I’m definitely not trying to say I’m too “important” for anyone.

What I am saying is that I’m really, really busy. We all are. Cases in point:

  •  I haven’t seen my best friend from grad school in over 2 years, and he lives less than 100 miles from me.
  • I have two nieces and a nephew I adore, and I only see them about 2-3 times a year. I talk to their father, my only sibling, maybe twice a year outside those visits.
  • Up until recently, when I’ve been fortunate enough to see him 3 times in the last month, I had only seen one of my best friends in DC twice since his son was born. His son will be two in two weeks.
  • I haven’t seen a dear girlfriend and her new son in over 6 months. Other close friends? I saw them in the past week, but it had been 3+ months since the last time, in which time their little girl got her first tooth (two more on the way) and is standing with almost no help.
  • Another girlfriend and I recently had to set up a regular monthly “date” to make sure we didn’t fall off each others’ calendars, and she and I have been close for almost a decade.

Clearly, I have a hard time keeping up with those who are truly my nearest and dearest. Do I really care about the latest promotional blog post from someone I met once at a conference or what someone I haven’t seen or spoken to since 1989 did last weekend? Well., maybe, but remember: attention doesn’t scale (which may be my new motto).

What hard choices have you made recently to enable you to focus on what – and who – really matters?

Handling Information Overload

I’ve been thinking about information overload for the past month or so.

It started with Jeff De Cagna’s breakfast session on Solving 21st Century Problems back in early March.

Then the #assnchat for March 16 focused on this topic.

Then I read this fun piece by Garrison Keillor in Salon.

And, in thinking about it, I realized that I actually do a pretty good job of this. I’m not always totally on top of every latest rumor about every bleeding edge technology or device. But I’m reasonably well-informed about most things related to social media and association management, while still being productive and successful in my job, spending a fair amount of time volunteering for ASAE and other groups in the DC community, writing this blog, writing an active and well-syndicated NFL blog, preserving time to read non-work-related stuff, having a life outside of all that and unplugging on a regular basis – all WITHOUT a smart phone.

In short, I have some tips to share for managing information overload.

My number 1 tip may be the hardest to replicate: be a fast reader who has good recall. I was already pretty good at this, but I got REALLY good in grad school. I do NOT recommend starting grad school just to acquire this skill. That’s like cutting off your arm to cure a paper cut. But anything you can do to speed up your pace and increase your retention will help. Yes, that means practice, and it also means focusing on one thing at a time.

That brings me to tip 2: multitasking is a myth. Music (preferably without lyrics) in the background while you’re writing? Sure. Skimming the headlines on the elliptical machine? You bet. Repeated cycling back and forth from working on next fiscal year’s budget to answering your email? Not so much. Every time you force your brain between disparate tasks, you lose momentum. That’s disastrous, particularly for tasks that require “flow.”

Tip 3: know and use the difference between “reading” and “skimming.” That rapid pace deep retention reading I do? I don’t use it for everything. I don’t need to devote that level of energy to my morning WaPo, or most magazine articles, or some emails, or most tweets, or some blog posts. The trick is to be able to QUICKLY identify which level of attention/retention is required and choose appropriately. But be a voracious reader and skimmer – you never know where your next great idea will be coming from.

Tip 4: choose what you pay attention to carefully. Social Media Today just wrote about this under the guise of trimming your lists. But the point is: only pay attention to what you’re really paying attention to. No matter how “famous” the person is, if you’re not getting anything out of following them or reading their blog, cut ’em. Be ruthless. You’ll never get to the meat if you’re inundated with fluff.

Tip 5: have a solid information organization system. Mine’s basically 3 pronged: my totally old skool, no-wifi, no email Palm Pilot (feel free to mock me, but I think, used properly, it’s the greatest productivity tool ever invented), my bookmarks, and my relentlessly pruned and managed RSS feed. It’s not fancy, it’s not necessarily the latest technology or gizmo, but it enables me to keep basically everything I need to hand. It’s supplemented by a carefully chosen group of Google docs (not everything, just the really important stuff), and, again, carefully chosen tweeps to follow. I don’t need to be in touch with everyone, and I prune for value all the time.

A few more:

Only touch things once to the greatest degree possible. Your Outlook inbox is not a filing system. Neither is a giant pile o’ papers on your desk. Neither is an about-to-topple-over-and-crush-you-in-the-middle-of-the-night stack of books and magazines next to your bed. If it’s quick, deal with it now. If it’s not quick but important, put it on a relentlessly pruned, SMALL pile to deal with as soon as you get a block of time (and keep a list of your priority items and make sure you know when your next block of time is coming – and the one after that). If it’s FYI or for future reference, file it IMMEDIATELY. And when you *have* a block of time, don’t futz around on Twitter. Twitter’s for “I have 5 minutes between finishing this task and my next meeting.” Likewise, when all you have is 5 minutes between finishing this task and your next meeting, that is NOT the time to start writing the organization-wide marketing plan for next year. Fit the tasks to the time you have.

Set boundaries. Does technology really “set us free”? I’m not sure that it’s progress that Dad can email from the Blackberry while on a conference call while pushing Junior on the swings, particularly given what we know about our lack of ability to truly multitask. With very few exceptions (you’re a doctor or Barack Obama – and if so, thanks for reading, Mr. President!), no one’s life is dependent on your being accessible 24/7. Trust me – you’re not that indispensable. None of us are. And constantly checking up on your staff (which is what refusing to be offline EVER is all about) tells them that you don’t have confidence in them. Is that really the message you want to send?

Does that message (that it’s OK to set boundaries) have to come from the top of your organization? It certainly helps, but in my experience, no. You *can* set your own boundaries, particularly if, when you’re on the job, you’re 100% on, and you’re clear about when you are and aren’t available – and if you really feel that you can’t set boundaries in your current organization, you might want to look for another job.

Related to that, beware false urgency. Just because Twitter and FB and email and smart phones make it possible for me to answer you in 30 seconds at any time of the day or night doesn’t mean that you actually need that. Have you ever noticed that if, say, you’re somewhere without Internet access for a few days, when you return to your email, there are THOUSANDS of messages? And if you start at the end of the various chains, you notice that 80% or more of the “issues” resolved themselves? There’s a lesson there.

Own your life (work and otherwise). Own your time. Make conscious choices about how you want to spend it and what’s important to you. Put down the iPhone every once in a while. Set your priorities and don’t let yourself be distracted from them by what’s new and shiny. It’s trite, but no one ever said, on her deathbed: “Why did I spent all that time with my friends and family? Why didn’t I spend more time on my Droid?”

Edited May 25 to add:  Amber Naslund (aka @ambercadabra) has a great blog post about how she keeps herself organized and together in 10 relatively simple (but not necessarily easy) steps.

On the Importance of Unplugging

Or, as Phil Baumann would call it, “defraging,” and thanks to @EdBennett for the link.

It seems like I end up musing on this topic at least once a year. This go round was motivated by watching a bunch of my colleagues get to the end of the year scrambling with their “use or lose” vacation. And NACHRI has VERY generous carry over policies, so it’s not like we can only carry a week. Why is this a good thing? Around here, it definitely does NOT come from the top, as our CEO provides a good model of work-life balance, particularly when it comes to truly vacationing (as opposed to “going on vacation” but taking your Blackberry and laptop).

Studies have demonstrated that being “always on” can produce serious depression and lead to shallow relationships. Technology, particularly social media technology, can eat your life if you let it. It’s almost addictive, to the point that Firefox includes add-ons that will control it for you, if you can’t for yourself. And it may exacerbate problems like ADD/ADHD.

Constantly checking our email, FB updates, or Twitter stream precludes contemplation, deep conversations, “flow” states, and being in the moment – we’re too busy worrying about all the *other* moments we might be missing. And in the meantime, we’re missing *our* moments.

I’m not saying dump all technology or social media. I’m just encouraging us all to think about both the benefits and the costs all this convenience brings us. Every person has to decide what the right balance of on/off is for herself. But be honest with yourself – are your online relationships hurting your face-to-face relationships? When was the last time you put away the computer and the smart phone for a week – or even a day? Did you lose any vacation because you “didn’t have time” to take it last year? When was the last time you sat in silence and watched something of nature? When was the last time you took a walk without a phone or iPod? When was the last time you read a novel – or an actual print newspaper? When was the last time you went out with your significant other – or best friend – and both of you turned off your cell phones for the evening?

KiKi’s encouraging us to think about a Tech Detox, too. Go to her blog to offer your ideas about what that would include for you.

How do you unplug?

Why do we feel like we have to be “on” all the time? OK, sometimes you genuinely have too much work to do in 40ish hours a week. That was the case for me at one of my previous associations. Small organizations ALWAYS have WAY more hats than heads, and I was so invested in our awesome mission that I kept adding and adding and adding until it burned me out. Sometimes you’re working with people in vastly different time zones. I’ve taken conference calls at times that are pretty wacky from a US East Coast perspective to accommodate clients across the country…or the world. Sometimes, it’s part of your known job requirements – you’re an obstetrician delivering babies or a network geek running downtimes, and odd hours are part of the package you accepted when you chose that profession.

But what about the rest of us? The woman taking a call during an intimate dinner for two at Citronelle? The guy sending text messages during Radio Golf? The roomful of bloggers tweeting madly throughout Blog Potomac but not actually talking to each other?

As Shashi Bellamkonda pointed out at Blog Potomac last week, virtual connecting can be addictive. It feels like you’re making friends and genuinely interacting with people, and, if we’re all honest with ourselves, there’s a certain degree of ego involved, too: “I’m so important that my organization will crumble if I’m unavailable for 10 minutes” and/or “I’m so interesting that that socnets will skreech to a halt without a constant stream of my pithy observations.”

The thing about being “on” all the time is that it can seriously interfere both with our actual face-to-face relationships (and our ability to form and nuture them) and with our ability to really *think* about stuff. We’re not multitasking mavens – we’re just distracted…all the time.

So, as I tweeted during Shashi’s presentation:

  • Do you unplug?
  • How do you know where/when is appropriate to be plugged in/unplugged?
  • How and when?

One person – @lalamax – responded: Take a real lunch – no phone, no computer.

My general unplugging guidelines include:

  • Unplug when face to face with someone – no taking calls of more than a “can I call you back?” duration or tweeting or texting under the table at dinner.
  • Unplug on vacation – the only reason I want to turn on my computer is to make a restaurant reservation or find out when Rebirth‘s gig at the Maple Leaf starts.
  • Unplug on weekends – if at all possible, I want to get out & play and spend face time with people I love.
  • Unplug late/early – I still like to start the day with a cup of coffee and the actual, physical Washington Post and end the day with a good book or an even better spouse.

What about you?