Every Minute Counts

Yesterday, I downloaded a time tracking app onto my phone. Lately I’ve had this gnawing feeling that I’m wasting time, letting social media or pure distraction steal minute after minute from my life. I figured that the least I could do is collect data, move from a gnawing feeling to a factual certainty. So, I downloaded an app for my phone (and its companion Apple Watch app) and proceeded today to start to track my time. While I was setting up categories and starting and stopping the counter, my family asked me what I was doing. I explained it and my daughter laughed. “It’ll last for a couple of days and then you’ll give it up,” she snarked.

She’s probably right. (For more on why, see my past post on the topic, Habitually Bad at Habits.)

But even though this time tracking thing is unlikely to stick, the idea of understanding and holding myself accountable to using my time well intrigues me. I’m not sure why, but I tend to feel the inherent limitations of time acutely. Every night when I put my head on the pillow, I’m reminded that I’ve lost another day. Every Sunday as I rush to finish the weekend, I panic over the finiteness of a week. And every August as the kids get ready to go back to school, I mourn the loss of a Midwestern summer. As much as I try to live a life filled with opportunity and possibility, the passage of time reminds me of the inevitable limitations of life.

I’ve never been happy with limitations.

Just tonight, I stood at my sink and listened to fireworks erupting as part of our community’s annual summer fair. It struck me, listening to them in the distance, that it would have been nice to be there watching. I knew it was happening (I had been in the exact place where they were going off earlier in the day) but instead I found myself completing the unremarkable, mundane task of washing dishes. Boom, boom, boom went the once-a-year fireworks while I scrubbed crusty mac-n-cheese off a Corelle bowl. Rat-a-tat-tat they echoed as I swished soapy water in a glass. I watched the fireworks in my imagination and silently cursed myself for a missed opportunity that I would never get back.

I might have wallowed in my “wasted moment” guilt except that I remembered that earlier in the summer I had watched fireworks on the Fourth of July, hanging out on the beach with my family. And that caused me to remember the many other times when I hadn’t been washing dishes when the fireworks had gone off. I remembered going downtown as a young woman, walking hand in hand with my boyfriend (now husband) sitting by the river on a blanket. I remembered another time when we took his speedboat out on the lake and watched from the bow, careful not to fall off the waxed paint. I remembered the times, more than I can count, when we had gathered with family and friends as our kids raced around the high school football field before full dark, begging for food and drink and cheap light up toys. I even remembered sitting on a picnic table in my backyard as a child watching big-eyed with a S’more in my hand as they went off above the field behind my school.

So, I stopped beating myself up and realized that there would probably be another opportunity to see fireworks.

For me, there is a tender balance to be had in sucking the marrow out of life. Somehow we’re supposed to squeeze life hard enough to extract the great moments, but not so hard they break. Live focused on every day but recognize the value of the past and the possibility of the future. Let some things go and hold tight to others. It must be something about being middle age that makes me feel like every single decision is about finding (and holding) the right middle ground. It’s excruciating, standing on the knife edge of a well-lived life where fifteen minutes one way or another can throw off my equilibrium. But I can’t help it, that’s where my mind is now — every minute counts.

My husband just came downstairs wondering when I would be coming to bed. The time tracker on my watch shows that I’ve been writing for nearly an hour and a half and by the time I proof and hit publish in the morning these 800 or so words will have taken two hours to create. Sitting here in the dark I’m not sure whether I am proud of my progress or frustrated at my folly.

Maybe I’ll let you decide.

When Things Go Wrong

Earlier this summer I had a tough meeting with one of my work teams. We had a project that was giving us a lot of trouble. The technology was more complex than we originally thought, the requirements weren’t as clear as we would like. Most of the people around the table — including me — hadn’t been involved when the key decisions has been made. I had been asking for an updated timeline for at least a month and no one could give it to me.

Sitting in the room, with everyone telling me that it would take another six to eight weeks to just assess how long the project would take to deliver, I could feel the weight pulling the team down. They needed a way to put a win on the board and there I was, asking harder and harder questions. I took a deep breath and tried to give them a hand up.

“I hear you saying that you can’t do it any faster, but what if we took a new approach? If I could eliminate any other work from your calendar for 24 hours, what could you do?”

For me, one of the biggest challenges of leadership is not in leading in time of success, but rather leading in times of failure. When everything is going well, nearly any leader can motivate their teams and help them to do good work. Companies delivering big market share and profits can investment and provide generous benefits; sports teams who are the top of their league can easily recruit and create a legacy.

Success is self-fulfilling and empowering.

It’s harder when things go wrong. In his TED talk, Stanley McChrystal said something I really liked. “Leaders can let you fail and yet not let you be a failure.” No person or team that tries to do anything amazing ever gets there without stumbles. I’ve written in the past about my own misses and the fact that those moments have helped me grow into the leader that I am. I understand the sinking feeling in one’s center when you know that your talent, intent and focus isn’t enough. The feeling that you won’t be able to meet the expectations of those who count on you (or worse yet yourself) sucks. And if you aren’t careful it sucks you into a slime-filled pit without a handhold for escape.

Failure is exhausting.

Two days later, after putting aside all other work and focusing simply on the question of how long it would take to get to the finish line, we came back together. The answer was grim, the timeline was far longer (and the project far more expensive) than anyone had predicted. They were disappointed and they knew I would be disappointed. In my heart I knew that if I reacted with any of the fear, the frustration or the fury that I was feeling I could never expect them to tackle an assignment like that again. They would seek out easy assignments and — if they did take on hard work — I couldn’t count on them to tell me the whole truth when things were bleak. In a millisecond I knew there was only one thing I could do.

I thanked them for delivering a timeline that — only days earlier — they had told me couldn’t be done in less than six weeks.

What followed after that was a focus on the path forward. I reiterated that even though none of us were happy, we were in a better place with an aligned foundation for improvement. I asked them about their assumptions and what changes were possible to shorten the timeline. I reminded them of the business risk inherent in the timeline and our shared accountability to deliver the functionality. I asked for commitment on next steps, ownership, and our plan to communicate our status transparently to the broader team. And, I thanked them again for the good work they had done.

Later that week, I had a one-on-one discussion with a middle manager on the team. He had been part of the meeting and expressed surprise at how I had reacted to the news. Wasn’t I worried? He noted that I had actually seemed pleased in the meeting and he didn’t understand how that was possible. Looking across the desk between us I explained my thinking. I assured him yes, of course I was worried. But I was happy that we had arrived at an answer, even if I wasn’t happy with the answer itself. We had a start.

The best leaders that I have worked for, the ones I aspire to emulate, have reacted the same way. In the times when I found myself standing in the slime pit, dejected and without any clear path out, they have climbed in. Bracing their backs against the slippery wall, they have interlaced their fingers and formed a step for me to climb. Putting my feet in their hands I was able to grab the ledge and painstakingly pull myself out. It was never easy, but it was possible. That is what I want to give my team; not a way to avoid the pit, but a way to climb out of it.

And, if I’ve done it right they’ll pull me out, too.

Habitually Bad at Habits

My brother’s best friend during childhood ate dinner every night at 5:00pm. Every night. Weekdays and weekends. School days and summer break. Every single night. In contrast, my family lived by a kind of vagabond flexibility. True, some days the five of us gathered together around the table at 6:00pm but others we were fending for ourselves and eating at the picnic table at 8:00pm. We were as likely to go out for a linner (late lunch / early dinner) with the senior crowd at 3:00pm as we were to eat brunch at 11:00am and then gorge on snacks watching Love Boat.

As a child I remember being incredulous of his family’s consistency; as an adult, I am in awe.

I suck at building habits. My life is a cautionary tale of one failed attempt after another to build routine and standardization into my life. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the power of positive habits, so much so that I’ve invested in more than a few models and techniques for building them. Here’s just a short list of things I’ve tried to build habits around that have been massive failures:

  • Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day
  • Doing 15 minutes of daily planning
  • Exercising 3-4 days per week
  • Reading every evening before bed
  • Taking maintenance medication
  • Blogging 2x per week
  • Creating an evening facial routine
  • Prepping meals for the following week
  • Writing regular correspondence
  • Keeping a journal

You get the idea. The failures range from work to personal and from things that will benefit me to things that benefit others. It doesn’t matter which aspect of my life it falls into, even when I want to build the consistency of structure, sooner or later it falls under its own weight because I just can’t hold it up.

Lately, I reassessed my Strengths Finder results and found that I was fairly consistent from the last time I took it about six years ago. My five dominant strengths are Strategic, Achiever, Input, Learner and Communicator. I’m willing to bet that Discipline — the strength of routine and structure — is non-existent in my pattern. And I can tell you this, it is truly annoying to know the power of positive habits (Strategic, Input, Learner), to be singly focused on leveraging those benefits (Achiever) and to still be unable to get it done.

Today, I listened to a TED Radio Hour podcast called A Better You that included a segment by Matt Cutts around the power of changing habits in 30 days. He argued that doing one thing every day for 30 days is long enough to build a new habit. After listening I was excited about the possibility of real change — imagine building TWELVE new habits in a year. My brain quickly identified not one but a handful of things I needed to conquer and (in typical Mel fashion) I decided I would do them all in the first month. If one is good than five is better, right? Right?

[Cue Mel’s inner voice: “Wrong you idiot, it’s one thing for a reason. One thing. One.”]

By the time I had walked from my car to my desk I had backed myself off fixing everything that is wrong with me and I had picked one thing. I won’t tell you what the thing is, but I will tell you that today I did it and I marked a big black X on my calendar to show that I had done it. Tomorrow I’ll do it. And Thursday. And Friday. And if I can do it for 26 days after that I’ll pat myself on the back and go onto the next thing and do THAT for 30 days.

So, how long do you suppose it takes to build a habit for building habits?

A Home Rooted in Stories

Last weekend my brother and his wife moved into their new home. Well, new to them. The house itself is more than 70 years old, lovingly built and renovated by the same couple throughout their marriage. You can see their uniqueness throughout the character of the rooms: a great room off the entry perfect for entertaining; a large, private master suite with only a sliding glass door for escaping to the backyard; a central galley kitchen designed for efficiency; small private spaces for hobbies including a dark room, library, office and wine closet. It is the kind of house that leads to questions and wonder in every oddly shaped room, layer of plaster and bricked up window. It is a house begging to share its stories.

I know many of them — the owners were my grandparents.

My grandfather returned from World War II ready to marry his sweetheart and start his life. He told me once that there weren’t enough homes available for the returning GI’s — he just wasn’t able to find a home to purchase. So, being the resourceful person he was, my grandfather moved his new wife and infant son into his parents’ house, bought land from his father and proceeded to build his young family a home. Years later, he could articulate the thinking behind each of the design decisions and the practical evolution as his family grew and their savings made enhancement possible.

When I was growing up we visited their house every Sunday. It was a family ritual that needed no explanation and brooked no argument; few things overruled our 5:00pm trip down familiar roads to my father’s childhood home. I learned the little bit of patience I have from those visits, over the 2,500 hours of amusing myself and my brothers while the grown ups chatted. To be honest, I learned about life without even knowing it. Once during a job interview I was asked what interested me about the automotive industry. I answered, without embellishment, that listening to my father and grandfather “talk shop” had taught me about business before I even knew I cared about business. Family, loyalty, conflict resolution, straight talk — I learned all of that and more as a child at their feet. 

I remember that sometimes grandpa would fall asleep and we would all wait patiently for him to wake up knowing he would smile and assert that he was just reading his eyelids. I remember my grandmother disappearing into the kitchen to come out with plate after plate of snacks (cut fruit, cheese, chips, cheese balls) that we would eagerly devour. I remember getting old enough to be given permission to go off on my own into their bedroom (the only room with a tv) to sit on the bed and watch 21 Jump Street and Star Trek the Next Generation. I remember summers throwing lawn jarts, climbing trees and playing hide and seek under the massive willow tree — the one that was later struck by lightening. I remember one glorious summer afternoon (and only one) when we churned ice cream by hand — it was filled with chunks of Oreo and delicious.

As an adult I created new memories. I got dressed there for my wedding, journeying across the driveway to walk down ‘the aisle’ — a cobblestone path through the grass to my parents’ back deck. We brought our children as infants and toddlers, setting them on the carpet and pulling out familiar toys while grandma brought fresh baked cookies. I remember the warm feeling when my kids first asked if they could go over to “Old Papa’s” house, watching from the kitchen window as they ran across the driveway on their own. They would open the door and head straight to the back bedroom without any warning; grandma and grandpa didn’t mind, their door was always open.

My grandfather only admitted to one time when he and my grandmother had truly disagreed. It was when his business had been taking off and his peers in industry had suggested that he needed to move to an affluent town to ensure financial success. Achievement was important to grandpa and he thought they needed to do it. My grandmother was adamantly against it — she argued that they had to remember where they came from and stay true to their roots. More than 20 years into my own marriage I have a hard time seeing that argument in my mind’s eye. It must have gotten pretty heated, but my grandma was a strong woman and she loved her family more than anything. She won and they didn’t move.

I have a hard time imaging my life if she had lost.

There was a time in my life when I was convinced that my past, present and future would be lived within a few miles of that house. I thought I might be the one to live in their home. My parents were living in my great-grandparents house across the driveway and I had moved home to raise my own young children just a few miles away. I envisioned the changes I would make, how I would be true to the history while building a bright future for my own family. And then I moved away, pulling up roots four generations in the making to start over in a place where we had no history at all.

I would be inclined to be maudlin if not for my brother and his wife. I’ve watched as they have embraced the old while creating a new space totally their own. Walking into the front door brings a feeling of comfortable recognition tied to their own character. The house includes furniture that was my grandparents, pieces that were once mine and things all their own. They’re creating new stories, stories that the next generation will share. I can’t help but think that perhaps it has worked out the way it was meant to — that the house was always destined to come to them. I like that.

Grandma would have liked it, too.

Stuff That Matters

Like most kids growing up along the coast of Lake Erie, I spent a lot of time at Cedar Point. Before I could drive there were family outings and school trips; after I carpooled with packs of friends or on double dates. I remember the excitement of being tall enough to ride the coasters and the disappointment of being too tall to follow my brothers into kiddie land. But my strongest memory was my inability to win a life-sized stuffed animal.

Believe me, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Cedar Point has a huge section of carnival games and I had a talent for weaseling money out of my father. Getting him to hand over bills for the promise of glory was easy, but winning a game designed to favor the house was hard. A couple of years I ended up with a charity prize, but most years I ended up with nothing.

Until one summer during college when I went with my mother.

Brimming with the positivity of a sunny day and great company I smooth-talked mom to the front of the park. We walked along the booths and after carefully assessing the options I decided on the game: shoot an oversized, lightweight ball at three plastic cups stacked in a pyramid, knock all three cups out of the red circle and you win. Sure, I’d lost a boatload of money playing that same game over the years. Sure, it was a sucker’s game with a $2 buy-in and no prize for second place. I didn’t care, I looked up at the huge prizes hanging there and decided — like every sucker since the dawn of time — that this time was going to be different. I paid my money and fired.

And watched, stunned, as all the cups fell.

Over the years I have enjoyed my fair share of accomplishment and every single one has come after more effort, time and sacrifice. But the crazy thing is that none of them has brought me the palpable excitement that I felt when a young man handed me an oversized Buster Bunny for knocking over a bunch of plastic cups. Carrying that huge stuffed animal around — a bright blue three-foot tall sign that I had done something so few others had done — was thrilling. I didn’t even mind leaving earlier than usual when we realized we couldn’t ride anything with Buster in tow.

I felt a little of that last weekend when I discovered Buster buried under the junk of four generations.

Stuff is complicated. Our society whipsaws us with inconsistent messages. Everywhere we look there are signals that we need to buy more, upgrade more and have more. We measure our success by the size of our homes, the make of our car and the brand of our clothes. But, keep your eyes open long enough and you’ll also see evidence that we should abandon our stuff. Buy a tiny house, donate your old books, and purge your junk drawer.

My stuff is complicated. From my vantage point at my writing desk I can see the pottery my kids made in art class and a child’s rocking chair that my grandmother bought for us kids but managed to sit in as an octogenarian. There’s the box of my grandfather’s marine pins, the custom coaster I made for one of our pinball tournaments and a chalk drawing a friend made of my daughter as a toddler. It’s all so random and yet each and every thing I can see has a story, each item a square in the patchwork of my life.

Over the years these bits and pieces of me have moved from drawer to box, from one room to another. Each time I move them I wonder if I am doing the right thing. Is now the time to let go? I ask myself is this flotsam and jetsam good stuff or bad stuff? Is it sentimentality or scrap? Am I caring or crazy? Will it matter some day when I’m gone and my kids and grandkids try to make sense of it?

Damn if I know.

All I know is that I’m writing this blog on an iPad Pro within inches of a 1949 Royal typewriter. It is one of two my grandmother used in bygone years and I rescued it from the barn the same day I found Buster. We put it in the back of the truck and drove home, more useless stuff that we didn’t need. After cleaning it up and buying a new ribbon I sat down in front of it and my heart swelled thinking of my grandmother. My fingers took on a life of their own, words appearing in ink through the physical force of my love. When it was done I looked down at the bright yellow paper and, eyes blurring with unshed tears, I made a decision.

I’m going to keep it; I’m going to keep all of it.

 A Driving Love Story

When I started driving I realized something — I was too small to be comfortable in most cars. People would comment that they thought they saw me driving down the street, but they weren’t sure; my head wasn’t visible over the seat back. I would have to adjust the seat to its farthest front position just to reach the pedals, and after air bags were invented I wondered what would happen if one deployed. But, I adapted and moved on. Years later I came home from work and told my husband about a car that had been mocked up to show a six foot tall man the experience of a short woman. I shared how funny it had been been that my male colleagues had been shocked to be unable to see the front of the car, a daily experience for me.

“Wait,” he said, “You can’t see the front of the car?”

Maybe that’s why I fell in love with the first Mazda MX-5 Miata when it was released. Sixteen years old and desperate for the freedom that comes with a set of car keys, the two door roadster immediately caused my heart to go pitter patter. I started telling my parents that it was the only car designed to fit me and ribbing my dad that if he truly loved me he would buy me one. It became a repeating gimmick — me making demands that were so outrageous that I knew they would never be met and my parents handing me keys to their practical sedans and hand-me-downs.

By the time I returned from a study abroad experience in Australia and saracastically asked my then boyfriend (now husband) if my dad had finally gotten around to buying me a Miata it was a well-practiced schtick. He laughed. “Why do you keep saying that? Who would possibility do that?”

Turns out, my parents.

It’s been nearly 24 years but I still remember the feeling of pulling into the driveway. I had been traveling for 36 hours straight and all thoughts of exhaustion were sucked away by the sight of that shiny red convertible with its top down on a sunny June day. The pictures show me bedraggled with a 1,000 watt smile, my bemused husband looking on stunned. My parents hadn’t told him of my plan — somehow they knew enough about the two of us that they thought I might ask and they knew he wouldn’t be able to keep the secret.

And guess what, I loved being behind the wheel of that car every bit as much as I thought I would.

I drove that car the day I got engaged, getting a horrible sunburn on every spot not covered by clothes or the seat belt. I drove it throughout my senior year in college, including a trip down the highway with an 8′ rug rolled up and sticking out the open top. I drove it with a 3′ tall stuffed Buster Bunny that I won at Cedar Point strapped into the passenger seat. That silly car could only fit one pathetic milk crate in the trunk, but I didn’t care — I was in love and everything else was just details.

We carried on that way, blissfully in love, until I ran into a freak snowstorm in upstate New York hit on my drive back to college over Thanksgiving break. I drove white-knuckled for the better part of seven hours and then spun out on a off ramp. With my headlights pointed toward oncoming traffic I got turned around by sliding back and forth into guardrails. I finally made it back to my dorm, parked illegally and collapsed on my bed. I don’t know whether I was more distraught by the accident or the fact that I realized that my car wasn’t perfect. All I know is that I started to wonder whether a 20-something who lived in the midwest could really own a Miata. Maybe our relationship couldn’t survive winter. Maybe the honeymoon was over. I agonized and then finally confessed to my parents.

Always pragmatic, they offered a solution. Mom had a practical, front-wheeled drive hatchback. We could swap cars and titles; I could have her car and she could take over the Miata. She didn’t have to drive when the weather was bad, and if she did, she could borrow any one of a number of other cars available to her. I felt the sadness of a break-up, but squared my shoulders and went to the Secretary of State office to process the paperwork. I had given up my perfect car for practicality, choosing dependable and reliable over fun. And for fifteen years I played the dutiful adult driving that car and then a series of sedans and sport utility vehicles, one right after another.

And then, I got a call. My mom had kept the Miata all those years eventually buying a second winter car. Now they had decided to upgrade and they wondered if I wanted to buy my car. I hemmed and hawed. By this time I had been married for fifteen years; I had two children and my driving life was designed for carpools and car seats, not convertibles. And yet my parents knew me, knew what I had given up those many years ago in a necessary moment of adulthood. They listened to my many practical reasons to say no and then paused a moment. “Ok, well what if we just gave it to you?”

Thankfully, I said yes.

No, it is not practical to own a 23-year old car. No, it is not practical to take up garage space for a car that only comes out six months a year. No, it is not practical to invest in a new top or tires or speakers. No, it is not practical to drive a car without modern safety features at 70 miles per hour down the freeway singing like a freak to 80’s rock and modern dance hits. But, I haven’t faced a moment yet that is so hard or so demoralizing that it can’t be made better by dropping the top, climbing behind the wheel and driving my little red convertible for 30 minutes. When I drive my Miata I feel like the sexiest woman in the world even though I passed into middle-aged frumpy years ago. No, it’s not practical, but I’ll tell you what — I plan to hold onto that steering wheel so hard that someone will have to pull it out of my cold dead fingers.

It may be impractical, but that’s love.

My Tank Is Empty

After a relaxing and enjoyable weekend I came into a challenging Monday. I left several meetings with disappointments or backslides, some small and some serious. On Tuesday I found myself texting as my car dropped me at the airport and giving quick updates via phone after I cleared security. I’ve been in “fight or flight” mode for what feels like months due to the sheer amount of stuff that needs to get done and the higher-than-normal number of obstacles that keep popping up.  In a moment of transparency I texted a colleague, “Help me stay positive. I’m feeling a bit beaten down.” Her response was classic:

“That is scary. You’re the most positive person I know.”

Minutes later I shared that anecdote with my husband and we just sat there with a moment of silence between us on the phone. And then instead of lecturing me about taking on too much (we both know that is true) or reminding me that I don’t have the world on my shoulders (we both agree that I don’t) he simply told me that I’m a rock star and that he wishes he could do more to help. And then we talked about the time when I leave industry and throw out my shingle as a motivational life coach — you know, some day when the kids are grown and on their own. I smiled knowing even without seeing him that he was smiling back and that we would be ok.

It’s a pattern we’ve repeated many times over the years.

But, I’ll be honest, it hasn’t always been this easy. There was a time when I was younger and our relationship was still finding its way when we weren’t as understanding of each other. I remember moments where my admissions of being overwhelmed by my work turned into anxious questions like, “Are you going to get fired?” or “If it’s so hard why do you keep doing it?” There was a period of time when I tried to keep my stress to myself because it just wasn’t worth the further stress of having a conversation. It felt easier to pretend to be the Mel who was always happy, always under control, always ok. 

But it didn’t feel good

It won’t come as a surprise to readers of Too Much Mel that I’m a sharer. I share victories and defeats, I share ups and downs, and there is no one that I share more with than my husband. If you’ve been on the receiving side of a conversation with me, you know it can be exhausting. So, now imagine that you live with me. Imagine the chatter while getting ready in the morning, while packing up my laptop bag, while watching a movie, while driving to the store, while shopping and while sitting at dinner. Imagine the nearly never-ending podcast references, work anecdotes, self-reflection and story-telling. And now imagine me not sharing at the times when I just didn’t feel like I had enough *oomph* to persevere. Not sharing when my Mel tank was empty and what I desperately needed was a fill up.

Not only did it feel bad, it was bad.

I don’t remember when it changed. There wasn’t some eureka moment where all of a sudden I came to understand that it was inherent in his nature to try to protect me from any and all harm or when he came to understand that it was inherent in my nature to push harder and do more. I read an article recently about marriage longevity and it said that the key is to understand and appreciate the other person’s crazy — because we are all crazy. It’s crazy how much he worries. It’s crazy how hard I work and how much I take on myself. We’re crazy, but we’re crazy together. So, now we can acknowledge quickly when my Mel tank is empty and we know exactly how this particular chapter of our story is going to end: I’ll be exhausted and laying on the bottom of a pit and he’ll pick up the pieces. And thankfully at this point he won’t even tell me I told you so.

Even though we both know he could.