March 12, 2020

3 ways we undermine our own work (and how to stop)

The world is loaded with complexity. “Hardifying” just adds more.

I learned a new word recently from someone I know: Hardifying. This person says he has a knack for “hardifying” everything.

Here’s how that might go.

Something can be done in three steps? Perfect, let’s make it 10 steps with three subcategories under each.

3 ways we undermine our own work (and how to stop)

A project needs to be started and finished this afternoon? Great, I have a million ideas. Let’s make an idea board and talk through six different possible approaches. Oh, and did I mention this other idea I had?

I need to co-lead a retreat with a colleague I had a heated conversation with last week? I’ll just need an hour or six to figure out what I did to make her so mad, then I can work with her on the agenda.

Does any of this sound familiar?

How we hardify

Our professional lives are loaded with complexity, and no doubt, many of the projects and initiatives we take on are not easy. But some of us have a tendency to layer on additional complexity. We may have difficulty seeing the forest for the trees. We may become distracted by ideas when we simply need to choose a direction and move things forward. And we may be cyclical thinkers who get trapped in our own rumination, adding an excess of nuance to every decision we make.

However you hardify – and many of us do, so I promise you are not alone – you need to understand your pattern, so you can stop it before you are sucked in.

The devil in the details

The person who makes a three-step task into 30 mini-tasks might be a master planner, or she might simply be prone to getting caught up in the weeds. Breaking up tasks and developing a road map is a real skillset, and one that can ensure all the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed. But if you are someone who gets lost in details and never finishes the full project, you need to step back … and then start moving forward.

The way out of the weeds is to simply start. Details matter, but you have to start somewhere, and as a list-maker, you know what needs to happen next. So pick a logical starting place, and then … Go! One step at a time.

The big dreamer

A very different type of person is the big-picture thinker who spends a lot of time pondering directions and spinning ideas but has a hard time putting their butt in the chair to just get the work done. It can help to get real with a colleague who has a different natural tendency, so you can balance one another out. If you are dreaming up wild and wonderful ideas, that’s great. Even better if a partner can help bring them back down to earth.

The key is to start getting concrete once the ideas are flowing. What are the dependencies? What steps are needed to bring this to life? So you can not only start, but also finish and deliver on your big idea.

The overthinker

I’ve talked about rumination before. In this context, it might involve staring at a dark ceiling at 3 a.m., stressing about what you said last week. But it can also look more like playing chess. You are excessively weighing the politics and unintended consequences of every small move you make … instead of just trusting yourself to make the right decision, and then getting the work done.

Politics and unintended consequences matter, but when we get overly caught up in the stories we tell ourselves and the hypotheticals involved with all our actions, we don’t get much done. And we don’t do ourselves any favors as professionals and leaders.

This kind of mentality may be rooted in imposter syndrome – when you don’t trust yourself to make good decisions, all decisions are harder. Even the small ones. But when you are so caught up in trying to avoid any mistakes, you don’t develop a rubric for how you will react when you do.

The truth is, you will make mistakes. But you will also do what it takes to repair them. This is where you need to put your trust — and your time — rather than running circles in your mind. Explore what you would do if things went sideways. This exercise will interrupt the rumination. It will also help you develop a game plan, and a fledgling sense that whatever happens, you will handle it.

Winning the War of Art

However you hardify, these tendencies keep you from accomplishing things. And if you really make a habit of hardifying, you could become known as the person in the room who makes things more difficult.

A book I love called The War of Art describes how we can be our own worst enemy, allowing fear, doubt and other feelings to take the form of resistance to the creative process. I believe hardifying is really an insidious form of resistance to our creative work. Fortunately, these patterns can be unraveled, and that is what the War of Art really is: overcoming our own resistance to our creativity.

Do you hardify?

If you see yourself in these descriptions, how has it affected your work? And have you been able to overcome these issues?

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