About five years ago, when people would ask me what I did for a living I’d confess that I managed a portfolio of homeowner associations, but in those few seconds before the blank stare or some exaggerated version of, “Wow! I could NEVER do what you do,” my mind would drift into fantasy and I’d feel my clothes begin to tighten with the expanding pressure of the blue and red Superman tights beneath. Yep, faster than the speeding bullets of cranky homeowners, more powerful than a locomotive pulling railway cars full of lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers and other mere mortals, and able to leap tall Seattle buildings with a single bound! Of course then I would wake up. Ultimately this is my personal story of taking back my life, back from the whirlwind; of getting off the Superman roller coaster and learning to live and work in a relaxed state of self-control and stress-free productivity. This is my story, but I have every confidence that it can be the beginning of your road to freedom as well. My road began with the help of nationally acclaimed speaker and best-selling author David Allen of GTD® fame. If you’re familiar with his work you will recognize much of what follows. Because of space limitations I have broken this introductory article into two parts. Part One explores a couple of core concepts that, when embraced, could cause a paradigm shift in the way you think about your work. Next month I will examine in detail a couple of tools which could really begin to get you moving forward.
So just how does a Portfolio Manager stay consistently on top of his/her game? How does s/he avoid the trap of putting out one community fire after another and completing bigger projects as time allows without ending up in what Pink Floyd described as the “English way” of “hanging on in quiet desperation?” Is it really possible for busy Community Association Managers to maintain healthy levels of pride and optimism for our future when we know full well that as we attend that party, or sleep, or God forbid, take a vacation, that the whirling tornado that is our job is even now touching down in undisclosed locations leaving behind a nasty trail of stress-filled destruction adding even more wreckage to the already huge piles of debris cluttering our minds and offices?
“The mind is an excellent place to process information; it is a terrible place to store it.” ~David Allen
I can think of no better jumping off point than getting comfortable with the above statement. It is so important that, at the risk of padding the word-count of this essay, I must repeat it: “The mind is an excellent place to process information; it is a terrible place to store it.” I’m not much into reciting mantras, but if I was this would be mine. Your assignment this month is to simply think about what I just said.
The minds of Community Association Managers are positively brimming with stuff; so much stuff that many of us are driven to the point of distraction, some even to despair. We are carrying around massive quantities of things in our short-term memory. We’ve got emails to answer, phone calls to make, bids to solicit, bills to code, financial statements to review, reports to write, meetings to attend, packets to assemble, sites to visit, delinquencies to collect, and developers to sue. There is grass to mow, weeds to pull, roofs to clean, elevators to fix, cars to tow, keys to make, special assessments to consider, websites to update, and violations to enforce, just to name a few! As our minds begin to resemble a hoarder’s living room our desktops, drawers, and every other flat spot or shelf can become covered with stacks of undefined amorphous blobs of paper. And then there are those relationships to manage with homeowners, board members, vendors and co-workers, not to mention spouse and kids. If we Managers are really committed to getting everything done, and our job demands that we are, then each piece of data, each scrap or pile of paper and every thought that has an action-item associated with it represents an open loop in our minds which must be stored someplace for easy retrieval, and at the proper time, or our career could very well go down in flames. Our employers give us great tools like computers, notepads, sticky notes, file cabinets, calendars, cell phones and middle-managers to help us manage the steady stream of commitments we make but we generally make limited use of each of them. Subconsciously we all understand that when it comes to actually getting things done for our clients the most important stuff is kept “right up here” (Point at brain). And that’s all good as far as it goes, but experience proves that using your head as a filing cabinet or personal information manager in a busy environment like ours can come at a tremendous price to our productivity and personal well-being. The price first shows up as reduced productivity, added stress, and stunted interpersonal relationships. When stress is buried or otherwise left unchecked it may turn up again as deep personal dissatisfaction with our job, a reduced capacity for meaningful hobbies, a rejection of social interaction, and other destructive patterns of behavior. In the extreme, stress can become the source of serious illness, burnout, job loss, or worse. I contend that most of our stress is caused by carrying around hundreds of open loops in our heads.
Out of Your Head and Into a Single Trusted System
Wouldn’t it be great if this marvelous brain of ours would only remind us of our prior commitments, unfinished projects and tasks when we could actually do something about them? Unfortunately, our brain isn’t wired that way. When the over-full kettle that is our brain arbitrarily decides to spill out one of these half-remembered commitments it comes at really strange times; like while we’re driving down the freeway, or in the middle of writing an email, or while we’re eating, or laying in bed, or conversing with a friend, or a hundred other times and places where we are either ill-equipped, indisposed, and least able to do anything meaningful about them. Because of the random timing of these reminders we usually just resolve to remember to remember, and the thought is pushed back into our subconscious where it remains an open, stress-inducing, loop. And this is how many of us live our lives, hour by hour, day by day, and month after month.
There is good news. The cycle can be interrupted. In fact, the first step to getting off of the work-related stress mill is surprisingly simple. It is this: Get and keep as much of this data as possible out of your head, off of your desk, out of your email Inbox and into a single trusted system which you review regularly. It is only when every open loop is captured in a safe place, a place completely trusted by the former storekeeper, that your mind is truly free to do what it does best: process information; create beautiful things; innovate; resolve conflict; interact meaningfully with others, or to just have fun. If your system is not trusted by your brain and reviewed regularly, it will immediately and permanently take back the controls.
Next month I will introduce you to two excellent tools which are right at your fingertips which, if customized properly and used consistently, can completely revolutionize your ability to get things done in a more relaxed, stress-free way. For further study, I highly recommend David Allen’s best-selling book, “Getting Things Done,” available online for about $10.