by David E. Poisson, CAE
For many of us, despite our best efforts, it’s difficult not to sweat the small stuff, as Dr. Richard Carlson counsels in his bestseller. In the title industry where you are faced daily with so many crises —mostly not of your own making— finding balance in your life becomes an unrelenting challenge.
A few months ago I began listing several strategies I thought might help me keep the so called small stuff from getting to me. In the months since, not only have I found renewed enthusiasm for my work but I’ve also managed to forget much of what precipitated my putting this list in writing in the first place.
None of these recommendations is especially novel. You probably remember reading one or more of them elsewhere. Furthermore, there is nothing about them that is particularly profound or necessarily lifechanging. However, taken together—and in light of the stresses each of us confronts every day—I have found them to be a very effective balm for the mind and body.
1. Cut down the time you spend in the office by one hour. When I started working years ago, we wore the number of hours we put in like merit badges across our chests. The more hours, the more badges. And just as with merit badges, long hours not only demonstrated perseverance but also trustworthiness, loyalty, helpfulness, and obedience. If only our achievements had been as impressive as the number of hours we logged.
I, for one, am delighted to see the emphasis many enlightened executives are putting on results, rejecting once and for all the obsession with marking time. I’ve now made it a practice to leave the office an hour sooner than I used to. It isn’t always easy, but fortunately technology—voice mail, cell phones, and e mail—makes it easier than ever. In fact, when you consider how much greater control of our lives we are now able to enjoy thanks to technology, the idea of bragging about how much time we spend at the office seems almost retrograde.
2. Limit your calls to five minutes. My seven year old daughter likes to tell her friends that her daddy’s job is to go to lunch and talk on the telephone. There is no question, the telephone can be a jealous mistress. In your profession, you deal with calls to and from lenders, customers, friends, and family. These calls can occupy a significant amount of our workday if we’re not careful.
I now try to make a point of limiting the calls I make or receive to not more than five minutes. There are, of course, still calls that occasionally take me more than five minutes to complete, but these are the exception rather than the rule. With technology, this challenge can more easily be met by exchanging e mail addresses with your callers, allowing you to communicate without time constraints when the circumstances warrant—and your schedule allows.
3. Don’t drive for a week—bike, walk, or take public transportation. A little over two years ago I moved our company headquarters out of downtown Washington, D.C. to the northern Virginia suburbs nearer to my home. After two years of making the one and a half hour commute each way, every day, I decided there had to be more to life than sitting in traffic 15 hours a week just going back and forth to the office. But even without the lengthy commute I once had, I still found there were days when just getting behind the wheel for any period of time was taking its toll. So I decided to take a week’s vacation from driving—and began pedaling.
It’s remarkable how exhilarating the feeling is when you’re able to leave your fellow commuters behind as you wend your way home under your own power. It isn’t something I’m able to do every week. But done occasionally, it works wonders for the mind—to say nothing of what it does to help mitigate the impact of CAE, or “cocktail and appetizer excess” at evening events.
4. Make water your drink of choice. An inveterate coffee drinker who once kept track of my consumption by the pot rather than by the cup, I found myself constitutionally incapable of getting through a meeting without having a full cup of coffee in front of me at all times. No water, just coffee —and lots of it. Coffee at breakfasts. Coffee at luncheons. You may be the same way at the multitudinous closings you regularly attend. Water had about as much chance of crossing my lips as the Cubs and Red Sox did of facing each other in the World Series.
We all know that water is good for us. It replenishes our bodies. It keeps us from becoming dehydrated. But the greater benefit I found from making water my drink of choice was that instead of being on edge, I was able to keep mine. By substituting water for those countless cups of coffee—and, yes, the cocktails before dinner—I find myself far better able to maintain my composure when the stresses of the workday would normally dictate otherwise.
5. Throw things away that you haven’t looked at in a long while. Like a lot of people I’ve long been a pack rat. I’m nowhere near as bad as I used to be, but I still keep things longer than I should on the outside chance I’ll be able to take care of them “just as soon as I get a free moment.” Regrettably those free moments never come, and the pile just keeps getting higher and higher.
Lately I’ve found that getting rid of those piles has a hugely liberating effect. With fewer things cluttering my desk and taking up valuable space in my file drawers, I can focus on the things I need to get done today, without feeling overwhelmed by the glut of things I didn’t get to yesterday—and all of the yesterdays before that.
6. Don’t buy anything you don’t really need for one month. It never ceases to amaze me how easily I am able to fall into the trap of buying things I don’t need. It seems at times that if I don’t carry a balance on my credit card I’m somehow not living up to my obligations as a red blooded American consumer.
Recently, however, as I’ve looked around my personal space at all of the things I thought I needed but that have gone unused, I’ve begun to question whether my conspicuously consumptive behavior is really all that satisfying. It isn’t. I decided to take a month long respite from buying and, in the process, discovered newfound gratification in the simpler things in life. Walks in the park have brought me every bit as much satisfaction as —no, even more than—the ones I used to take through the aisles of Sports Authority and Best Buy—and for a whole lot less money.
7. Let go of negative thoughts. As with other industries, when those of you in the title industry gather together, it’s easy for conversations to degenerate into a recitation of all the things going wrong in our lives. We complain about our members, our staff, our budgets, our travel schedules, and all the other curves being thrown our way.
I’ve been party to those conversations all too often myself. But when I think of how much I really enjoy my profession, I realize my complaining is both pointless and stupid. Instead, I now make it a regular practice to remind myself of just how fortunate I am to have the job I do. I think you in the title industry feel the same way about you chosen careers.
8. Break a bad habit. Changing the way we look at the world inevitably requires us to change the vantage point from which we view it. If we always look at our lives the same way, they can appear boring. And the habits we develop over time have a way of reinforcing the feeling we sometimes get of being in a rut. We get up at the same time, get to work the same way, follow the same routine when we get to the office, and on, and on, and on. Of course, not all habits are bad. Some help us get through the day quicker and more efficiently so that we can get to the things in our lives that really matter. But some of our habits can be thoroughly debilitating.
Habits like eating or drinking excessively harm our health. Losing our temper can cause our relationships with others to suffer. And other habits, like talking too much and listening too little, can sometimes even cost us our jobs.
My bad habit—okay, one of my bad habits—is procrastinating. I like to think that I procrastinate just so I can cleverly outwit myself into producing better by putting pressure on myself. However, about all I manage to do is make myself anxious and put those around me under needless stress.
Together with my staff, I’ve begun working to break my habit of delaying projects by adopting an annual work plan. We post a listing in our office of every project we have to complete in the year, the name of the person responsible, and the deadline by which the project is due. I still occasionally have to slip the proverbial term paper under the door, but it’s a lot tougher to do with the rest of my staff doing their part to keep me honest. With the title industry being so deadline oriented, I think it would lend itself easily to some sort of work plan.
9. Spend a day alone. Don’t call anyone, e mail anyone, or get together with anyone. Of all of the things I’ve done to try to find balance in both my personal and professional lives, this one yielded greater rewards than perhaps all of the others combined. We are all social beings. We enjoy the company of others. But it isn’t until you force yourself to spend a day alone that you really begin to discover who you are and what makes you tick.
Admittedly, it isn’t easy when we’re home to break away for a day and spend it alone—at least not without appearing to be antisocial. But with as much travel as many of us do, it really isn’t as difficult to find a day alone as it might otherwise seem. Many of us, when we attend meetings, arrive a day earlier or stay a day later. We just don’t choose to spend those days alone. I find spending a day alone a rare opportunity to take stock of who I am and where I am headed, without the filters and shading provided by my relationships with others. Although I wouldn’t say I’m ready to embrace monasticism or otherwise to drop out, I did nevertheless find the experience both enlightening and recuperative.
10. Create a “family night.” Don’t take calls. Just spend time with one another. So many of us, particularly those of us with families, bemoan the toll our work takes on our family lives. Yet some do much to try to accord our families as great a priority as we give our work. We try to make up for it by calling from the road or by bringing something home. But let’s face it, that doesn’t even come close to making up for all the time we spend away from home without our loved ones.
Our family has created a family night. It’s only one night a week, but it is absolutely sacrosanct. On those nights we take no calls, check no e mails, do no advance planning for the next day’s meetings—nothing—other than spend time with one another. We take turns choosing what we’re going to do together and what we’re going to eat. The important thing is, it is as important in our lives as that upcoming meeting, or, for your industry, the completion of end of month closeouts, or any of the many other things that in our lives seem so pressing but to our children ring hollow.
11. Give up negative relationships. One of my biggest peeves is the demands negative relationships put on me. Not so much because of how much time they take from me but because of the time they take from the people who are positive influences in my life. How often have you found yourself saying to a good friend, “I wish I could talk to you right now, but I’ve got this [fill in the blank] crawling down my back that I’ve just got to take care of. You understand, don’t you?” And good friends usually do—or, at least, they say they do. But isn’t it odd that in the end the person to whom we end up giving most of our time is the one to whom we’d rather give the least?
In just a matter of a few short weeks, I’ve managed to reclaim literally hours of time I otherwise used to spend trying to win over those whose glasses are always half empty. Now the lion’s share of my time is spent instead topping off the glasses of those who persevere to keep theirs half full.
12. Read, write, or do whatever you can to expand your mind, just as long as you do it in a field other than the title industry.
In my current job I’m a recruiter and management consultant. However, having been trained as both an educator and a lawyer, I use whatever free time I have substitute teaching or doing volunteer legal work. By doing so, I keep from developing too narrow a professional focus and, however modestly, I give back to my community.
Find Your Own Balance
To be sure, the tips I mentioned in this article will not necessarily help every reader find as much balance in their life as they have helped me find in mine.
Because the challenges we face daily are different, how we choose to balance our lives and our work is something we must each determine individually. The important thing to recognize is that unless and until we do find balance, we are denying ourselves the full measure of enjoyment for our lives.
David Poisson, CAE, is vice president, Association and Nonprofit Practice for SearchWide, an executive recruitment and management consulting business in Potomac Falls, Virginia. This article has been adapted for the title industry from one he wrote for Executive Update. David can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 703 421 6899.