December 2016 • Volume 104 • Number 12 • Page 46
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The Power of Pocket-Sized Plans
Big plans may stir the blood, but making a series of small, attainable changes in the New Year might be the surest route to improvement.
Make no little plans, for they have
no magic to stir men's blood.
Make big plans, aim high in
hope and work…
- Daniel Burnham1
Lawyer-turned-writer Gretchen Rubin "dedicate[d] a year to trying to be happier" and wrote about it in The Happiness Project.2 As she planned the year, she was struck by the small scale of the changes she wanted to make in her life, noting that "'Go to sleep earlier' and 'Tackle a nagging task' didn't sound dramatic or colorful or particularly ambitious."3
She acknowledged the exhilarating, inspiring power of more "radical happiness projects," like Thoreau's move to Walden Pond, but ultimately decided that the small-scale goals were right for her. She didn't want to "undertake that kind of extraordinary change" - instead, she wanted to "change my life without changing my life, by finding more happiness in my own kitchen."4
In 2017, I'm going to try to find more happiness in my own office, high atop the second floor of a former post office and courthouse in downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Defying Daniel Burnham's advice to "make no little plans," I've sketched out some small-scale, pocket-sized goals for 2017 that I think will make me happier at work. See if any of them strike a chord with you.
Get outside during the work day. When I'm not with clients or at my firm's main office in Kansas City, Missouri, I work alone in a shared office space, where it is all too easy to stay rooted at my desk all day. This is not a humblebrag about how hard I work; some of that time is spent falling down internet rabbit holes and engaging in other completely unproductive activities. But there are tangible benefits to a lunchtime walk - a 2015 study found that "even gentle lunchtime strolls can perceptibly - and immediately - buoy people's moods and ability to handle stress at work."5
So in 2017, on the days when I'm in the Iowa Field Office, I'll do my best to get outside and walk during the day. It may not be at lunchtime, but I'll go out each day at some point, whether it's to get a cup of coffee, drop off a check at the bank, or just to look around at things I might have missed in downtown Cedar Rapids. And when it's minus-29 degrees, I'll take my stroll in the unlovely but still useful Skywalk that connects our downtown buildings like tunnels in a Habitrail.
Ditch one time-wasting, annoying thing during the work day. And that thing will be Facebook, at least while I'm at work. I won't disconnect entirely - I like keeping up with far-flung family and friends from college and law school, and I enjoy seeing pictures of my parents' garden, Labrador puppies,6 and friends' kids on their first day of school.7
But reviewing my Facebook feed distracts me, and not in a good way. Often it is liberally salted with posts that rile me up8 or just make me unhappy. I'll save FB for after work - and in that time slot, it will get crowded into a relatively tiny and manageable space.
Clean up one corner of my office. Years and years ago, I started form files and subject matter files, just like I'm forever nagging at you to do. Over the course of two-and-a-half decades, the dead trees have really stacked up. (I threw out my back moving boxes of those files when I changed jobs.)
The thing is, I have electronic copies of most (if not all) of these materials now, and those are the ones I use. Yet the paper copies take up all the space in my filing cabinet, and the stuff that I really do use lives in cardboard boxes stacked five-high on the floor. (It's another back incident waiting to happen.)
Fear of Throwing Stuff Away (FOTSA) is real, but I'm going to beat this debilitating condition and ditch the paper copies. I'll take a quick look to make sure that there are no pirate treasure maps or other priceless documents in there, but I'm pretty sure that most of it is going to end up in the Shred-It recycling box.
Pay attention - strictly - in CLE classes. The fact that I don't do this already is fairly inexcusable. It's part of my job to prepare and present continuing education classes for my firm's clients. I know how competitive it can be to get a spot on the panel, how diligently people work on their slides and their talking points, and how hard the presenters try to make the learning experience great for the participants.
Yet I still fall prey to peeking at my phone and getting distracted by other stuff when I'm at a conference. I'm cheating myself - not to mention setting a crummy example. Lawyer see, lawyer do. (How many times have you seen one lawyer take out her phone and look at it, only to have everyone else in the vicinity follow suit?) When I take a continuing education class in 2017, I'll treat it like a client appointment - worthy of my full attention for its duration.
Respond promptly to kind words. Have you ever gotten a nice email from someone - maybe it's a thank-you note, or a welcome bit of praise for something you've done - and then procrastinated forever about sending a response because you wanted to say just the right thing in response? (It can't be just me who does this.) In the coming year, if someone makes my day with a kind word, I'll respond promptly and sincerely - if not perfectly.9 As M*A*S*H character Frank Burns observed, "It's nice to be nice to the nice."
Schedule time to complete tasks that are important but not urgent. Client meetings, work trips, and other definite appointments hit my calendar right away, for the most part. But I'm less good about scheduling time to complete long-term projects - the ones that Stephen Covey terms "important but not urgent."10 I tell myself I'll start work on them "soon," but more urgent matters crowd them out and before long, a looming deadline has transformed the long-term project into a short-term, "urgent" project - but not in a good way.
In 2017, as soon as I take on a long-term project, I will schedule time to complete it and do my best to honor those appointments when they come up on my calendar. The stress reduction that I hope this will bring about will help me with my final small project for 2017, which is…
Stop biting my nails. I've been trying to quit for half a century. Now that the Cubs have won the World Series, it seems that anything is possible. This could be my year!
I hope it's your year, too. Here's wishing you a happy and healthy 2017.
Karen Erger is vice president and director of practice risk management at Lockton Companies.
- It turns out that these may not be, exactly, Burnham's words. See Patrick T. Reardon, "Burnham Quote: Well, It May Be," Chicago Tribune, January 1, 1992 ("The problem is that nowhere is there a piece of paper on which Burnham wrote the statement, nor is there an account of him saying those…sentences in that sequence at a specific moment in time.") But, as Reardon's piece also points out, the quote is a great way to begin a column.
- Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project, p. 3.
- Id., p. 12.
- Gretchen Reynolds, "The Benefits of a Lunch Hour Walk," New York Times, January 1, 2015.
- This is a not-subtle hint to my husband, Tom, who says he reads this column. Our dearly beloved 13-year-old black Lab departed this life last year, and while no one can fill Henry's outsize and kind of smelly dog bed, I wouldn't mind having a thick and fluffy layer of black dog fur build-up on the bottom of my socks again.
- And maaaan, is that ever a controversial topic - please don't deluge me with hate mail about how you despise it when people post those back-to-school pictures. I agree that parents shouldn't be pressured into creating first-day photos "with a level of planning and importance that makes a Vanity Fair cover shoot look casual," (Peter Bradshaw, "That first day of school photo: tyrannical, stressful and emotional," The Guardian, September 7, 2016). But c'mon, admit it - most of those pictures are as cute as a bug's ear and way more fun to look at than the latest political rant or tired meme.
- I have some hope that this will pass off after the election year is over, but we'll see.
- Though I know it looks that way, this is not a pathetic bid for readers to send nice emails about this column. (Although, as indicated above, I will respond promptly in the unlikely event that I do receive any.)
- Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, pp. 150-154.