Regaining a sense of control

I had a few discussions with different folks over the last months on stress and anxiety due to all the uncertainty that we are all thrown into with COVID. Plans need to change quite dynamically and for good reasons as we try to find ways to keep our business going while operating as safe as possible. Work is less plannable than it had been in the past, and there is less time for the things we need to do. On top of that, there is the ever-changing environment of public school plans and childcare, and some sobering numbers on national and state COVID trends to make things more interesting for us.

Uncertainty and perceived lack of control is one of the main drivers for stress and anxiety, and there is a LOT of uncertainty (and has been for a long time now) due to COVID. So what can we do about that uncertainty?

Plan your white spaces

Start by freeing up space for the projects you need to drive. Don’t hope for free space during the week – block it ahead of time. Get in control.

Free space will always fill. Always. If you don’t block project time on your calendar – and defend it – you will end up getting worried and stressed out because you fall behind on your project plans and deliverables.

Yes, other demands on your time will come in, but are they truly more important than your project, given the grand scheme of things? Understand impact, priority, and urgency and make a conscious decision before you give up the project time that you need. Communicate that decision!

“I’m starting with the man in the mirror.” – Michael Jackson

This is where we need to take action to manage our own lives.

Communicate early and often

“Don’t do unto others what you don’t want done unto you.” – Confucius

As much as you hate for your plans to be changed and randomized, others feel just the same. If you know of something that will impact others’ plans – a delay in your deliverable, some work you need them to do, a change in schedules – let them know early!

Communicate early and often. Don’t keep knowledge of changes to yourself but rather help others plan ahead and adjust their work while they still can.

The more advance notice you give others, the more you help them plan and organize their work, the more you will lower their stress levels.

This is where we need to help our coworkers.

Accept changes and adapt

“No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” – Helmuth von Moltke

Most times, things will work out as we had planned (well, at least often they will 😊).

Don’t spend time feeling bad when they don’t. Take a deep breath, accept the changed environment, adjust your plans, and move forward.

If you do that, you will remain in control, and you will feel MUCH better!! If you allow yourself to feel like a victim, you won’t be happy.

We are not always in control of what the universe does, but we are always in full control of how we react to those external triggers!

Here’s the last quote for today. My dad had it hanging over his office desk, and I thought about it from childhood on. It’s one of the quotes that keeps coming back to me again and again:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” – Serenity prayer


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Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

If you touch something, improve it along the way!

This headline must sound strange – let me explain what I mean…

I’ve been in previous organizations, where people would forward almost everything, and they would do it with a very ‘helpful’ and crisp “FYI”. There was no gating and selection of what’s useful and should be shared further, nor was there any explanation as to why the content might be relevant. Just forwarding a lot of emails seemed to be a sign of competency in itself. Likewise, attending (not contributing to) as many meetings as possible was a badge of honor.

The lesson I took away from those experiences is that you should try to add value and refinement to everything you touch. There are three scenarios that stick out specifically to me:

Forwarding information without qualifiers

If you received important or useful information, and you have already spent the time to digest it yourself – pay it forward and share that added insight and value. Don’t just forward the information. Rather add your thoughts as to why you think it’s valuable and what the key takeaways are. Share the insights you gained as you were processing the information and add that value to the email you touched.

At the same time, if you didn’t find the information useful enough to parse and process it yourself, don’t forward it at all. Why should others spend the time digesting the information if you already deemed it not important enough to invest your own time in it?

Cryptic answers to requests

Did you ever ask for information, only to get back a “Here you go” with a file attached that you don’t know how to interpret? I certainly have been in that situation many times.

Make it easier for the person who needs information from you. Unless you KNOW that raw data is all they need (and sometimes that’s exactly what the other person needs and asks for), provide the pre-processing and initial explanation. If you provide the data to the answer, you usually also know what it means and what the most important takeaways are. Provide those Cliff-notes, don’t let the recipient re-invent the wheel and re-create the subject matter expertise that you gained over time.

Attending meetings without contributing to moving the topic forward

We all know the meetings where half of the attendees are quiet and seem to be focused on their emails. We all have been that person in a meeting at one point or another. It’s even more tempting now that we are all on the phone for all meetings.

Don’t be. If you already decided to invest the time to attend a meeting – share your thoughts, ideas, and opinions. Your time is invested already. As we all know, multitasking doesn’t work, so you will not make much progress on other side tasks during the meeting anyway. Instead, make your time and energy count, and contribute ideas to the meeting, moving the topic forward. Don’t be shy, your ideas matter, that’s why you were invited to the meeting.

Pro tip: Turn your video on. It will make you more present to others in the meeting and also increase your engagement as you know that others are ‘watching’.

If you think there is nothing you can contribute, don’t attend the meeting in the first place, and instead spend your time on other tasks that matter more.

There is room for improvement across all organization(s) at all levels, and the best way to improve is to role-model the right behavior. And I want to invite you all to help me role-model those behaviors.

If you touch something, make it a point to improve it before it moves along!

One minute invested this way often scales to ten minutes saved for the recipient.

Make your time and energy count – add value every time you touch something.


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Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Start the new year from a position of control

This week started with a flurry of meetings and requests for all of us. That’s just what you would expect for this time of the year: everyone comes back from vacation and rest with a wealth of new ideas, and a new year is always a natural point for clean-up and changes.

While this is all normal and good, it also bears a risk: humans have such a strong tendency to continue doing what they are doing. Inertia is a powerful force in the Universe. As we all started our first week by reacting to tactical requests and fixing small fires, it’s way too easy to get caught in the hustle of those day to day activities. Being busy is just so easy, and the associated instant gratifications are tempting, to be honest.

It’s easy to be busy, but it takes commitment and energy to be impactful.

Right now, as we are all refreshed and the new year is still to be defined by us, it’s even more important to have your story straight on what matters most.

Take a break from getting all tactical and request-driven, and give yourself the time to reflect on what matters most. Then ensure that you take those priorities into action. Block enough time and energy for those activities. Define checkpoints and review regularly if you are progressing at the right pace against those priorities. Adjust your plan, behavior, and days if you see a gap opening up between what matters and what you’re doing.

The important thing is NOT how busy you are. What’s important is the impact you have. For that, it’s much less important how much you do, but it’s crucial that you do the right things.

I happened to stumble upon an (older) article this morning that is very related and provides excellent ideas on how to stay focused on what matters most: https://hbr.org/2019/05/when-life-gets-busy-focus-on-a-few-key-habits. Happy reading!  😊

Time must be your primary unit

Most, if not all of us, measure success and what we strive for in the unit of money. Even if we tell ourselves we don’t think it’s the most important thing, we subconsciously do, as we think about what money allows us to do.

Be aware:

Your primary unit of measurement defines how you think about your priorities.

While we all believe (or hope) to think about money only as a proxy and a means for experiences, it will become our master if we treat it as the primary unit. There can never be enough of it – it’s the thing that supposedly enables everything else.

As I was just reminded by reading ‘Digital minimalism’ by Cal Newport the other day, we need to think about time as our primary unit. Time is the thing that doesn’t scale. Time is limited. Time is what we cannot get back. Time is when experiences happen and where they live.

Following ideas that are as old as society, we must start from time. We need to figure out how much money we need to optimize our time, and limit our money-creating to that – not the other way around!

The more material stuff we have, the more money we need to keep it up. When we focus on getting a lot of money to support amazing experiences, we might end up not having enough time left to actually live those experiences.

Here is what Thoreau tells us:

“If I should sell my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure that for me there would be nothing left worth living for…. I wish to suggest that a man may be very industrious, and yet not spend his time well. There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living.” – Thoreau in ‘Walden’

And as always, the Chinese knew it a long time ago already:

“Those who know they have enough are rich.” – Lao Tzu

Get your primary unit straight and optimize for it!


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Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Working smarter: Process optimization

Question: What do you do when the work piles up and demands keep growing? How do the tough get going when the going gets tough?

Answer: You make things easier and think about creative ways to do things differently.

We’ve all seen this plenty since COVID hit us: we needed to do more with less time. Multiple projects, frequent (necessary) changes, juggling priorities at work and home, days that don’t seem to have enough hours to get everything under control and done.

Up to some time, we can compensate by working harder, but that only scales so far. After that, we need to think about how we can change what we do, how we can work differently. The old “work smarter, not harder” has been bastardized too often, so I’m hesitating to mention it, but fundamentally it hits the point.

Where this becomes challenging is when we are already overworked and don’t think we have time to pause and revisit how we are doing things. We have to! Only by investing in root causes and solving them will we get ourselves out of a potentially vicious cycle in the future.

Of course, it’s better to avoid that conundrum from the beginning. That’s where continuous process improvement comes in. The basic idea is that no process is perfect, and no process should remain static. Instead, we should always make it a point to observe (Identify) how we are doing things, developing hypothesis for how we could make things easier (Plan), and then try out those changes (Execute) and observe the impact (Review). This should never change – there is no perfect process. Ever. Even if we found the perfect process, circumstances would change and make it suboptimal over time.

It’s critical to review how we are doing things regularly and to search for ways to do things more simply.

Pro tip: often we are blind to inefficiencies and waste in our own processes as we are so used to them. In that case, it’s useful to either ask an outsider about their opinions (bonus points if you ask the customers of your process!) or to do a simple process mapping and ask yourself critically what the true purpose and value of every single step is. Often you will find that a step was introduced to meet a past requirement or constraint that doesn’t exist anymore.

If you want to get the best insight on where your process needs improvement – ask your customers!

When we identify such opportunities, we need to ensure to carve out the time to invest in those improvements.

Carve out the time to improve your processes. Invest in your future. Compounding interests will pay you back big time.

Btw, the official name for this is Continuous Process Improvement (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continual_improvement_process).


Did you like this post? Want to read more?

Check out our book for more thoughts and a week-by-week guide to make strategic changes to improve your health, career, and life purpose:

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Happy Holidays – Treat yourself to a free book on us

Like every year for the Holidays, we are giving away the Kindle versions of our books for free.

You can download free copies on Amazon from Monday December 21st until Friday December 25th. Enjoy reading and let us know what you think.

We only ask one small favor in return: Please leave a review or rating on Amazon. Positive reviews and ratings are preferred. 🙂

Happy Holidays! Enjoy time with loved ones. Be mindful, relax, take care and recharge your batteries.

With hugs and lots of gratefulness,
Ulrike and Alfons

On work-life balance, career, health and purpose:

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you want to learn more about Tai Chi (for beginners and experts):

Finding the Heart
Principles for Tai Chi and Life
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781724173683

Find it on Amazon: Paperback, Kindle

Assume positive intent!

I had a few pretty contentious meetings this week. My first reaction was probably the same that most people have in such situations – somewhere between: “Really!?” and “What the…!”.

It’s easy to get protective or even combative if you have a lot going on. When in stress, we tend to develop tunnel vision and assume we’re the only ones who have the right solution. We don’t understand why everyone else is so difficult to deal with. It’s a fight-or-flight reaction that our brain falls back to in an attempt to ‘simplify’ our world view in situations of stress and perceived danger. It allows us to react fast and decisively – however, not always smartly.

Unfortunately, the reality is never that simple.

Being in a few such situations this week, I took a deep breath and remembered a training on unconscious bias that I attended a while ago. One of the principles they mentioned in that training is to assume positive intent.

Instead of thinking, “WTF, I’ll set you straight on this…”, rather take a deep breath, and then take another one. Assume positive intent – very few people want to cause trouble, and almost everyone has good intentions that drive their point of views and behaviors. Everyone has good reasons and wants to do the right things.

Assuming positive intent helps you to take some of the emotions out of an interaction. It allows you to take the other’s perspective for a moment and see things through their eyes. You will be able to understand where they are coming from, or if you don’t, you will at least be curious enough to investigate and (hopefully) ask them. There are so much power and beauty in actually talking to people instead of just assuming.

Assuming positive intent, and seeking to understand what the other person wants to achieve, will help you to understand their goals. More often than not, those goals will not be too different from yours. You might identify a shared vision with the other person, and with that, find a solution that leads to a win-win for everyone.

Sometimes it’s hard when emotions are high, but take a few deep breaths, assume positive intent, put yourself in the other person’s shoes and see what new solutions arise from that expanded perspective.


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Check out our book for more thoughts and a week-by-week guide to make strategic changes to improve your health, career, and life purpose:

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Working backwards

A recent presentation on Journey mapping reminded me of a different approach for designing solutions that I learned at Amazon:

Working backwards (from the customer experience).

Amazon uses this process for every single project. If there has ever been a secret sauce to what Amazon does, it’s the working backwards process.

The idea is to not start from the current situation and constraints, but rather to forget all that for a while and start from the end state. What SHOULD the perfect customer experience be? What is the perfect end state? What would we do if we were in an unconstrained situation?

Changing your mindset to that view before kicking off a project or designing a solution will allow you to think outside the box. You will think about what the right approach is, not what the easiest next step will be. You will think about what’s right for the customer, not about how hard it is to make necessary changes.

After you have clarity on the end state, you start working backwards. In order to get to that end state, what interim state do you need to reach before? What’s the stage before that? – Rinse and repeat until you reach all the way back to your current status quo.

The HUGE benefit is that you start from where you want to be in the future as opposed to what the next incremental state is from where you are now. You will find that you will end up in vastly different places with these two approaches.

Don’t be frustrated though. In my time with Amazon, I found that working backwards is the hardest mental model to teach. Every single new employee struggled and it took them many attempts until they actually worked backwards from an ideal end state. This could take months of intellectual struggle. We were all raised to think incrementally, and those thought patterns are burned into our brains.

Stop thinking incrementally – think backwards!

So, how does Amazon do the working backwards process?

They start with a press release. The very first thing one does when pitching or starting a project is to write what the press release at launch should look like. How is this new solution different, what is the new customer experience, what are the new benefits?

This is one page – never more. If it generates enough excitement, the work begins, digging into constraints, problems to overcome, and investments that will be required. The important part is that you have to drop all your knowledge of constraints or challenges when writing the one-page press release.

That’s how Prime, one-day shipping, Alexa, and everything else you’ve ever seen from Amazon were born.


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Check out our book for more thoughts and a week-by-week guide to make strategic changes to improve your health, career, and life purpose:

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Focus on the alligator closest to the boat

“Focus on the alligator closest to the boat.”

We have a ton of things going on, and COVID added many more that were not planned, accounted, or resourced for. New things are coming in almost on a daily basis. This can be scary, even daunting at times, but all of it is important – what each of us does has a tremendous impact on the future of so many people!

Having that said, not everything needs to be done right now, and some things can wait just a few days. Being clear about that and giving yourself the freedom to focus on the one thing that’s most important right now is critical to keep your sanity in times of high pressure. Understand your project priorities, their true (not perceived) criticality, and when they need to be done. Then decide what you need to do right now.

A good mental model for this was given to me by a co-worker a few years ago. He was a manager in an Amazon warehouse. That’s about the craziest it can get: every day is high pressure, and completely unplanned. Equipment breaks, workers get sick, a new deal takes off unexpectedly, shipments come in late – you name it. They don’t even keep their calendar updated because days are unpredictable by default. Everything is ad-hoc and focused on what’s most important right now – well to be clear, there is a lot of strategic planning going on, but day to day operations is influenced by many unpredictable events.

I asked him how he can make progress and stay sane in such an environment, and he told me that it’s actually very easy: “You focus only on the alligator next to the boat.”

Find your alligator that’s next to the boat right now. Keep a mental map of where the others are as some might be approaching while others drift away. Then deal with the one next to the boat!


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Check out our book for more thoughts and a week-by-week guide to make strategic changes to improve your health, career, and life purpose:

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Take a moment to count your blessings

2020 has been a challenging and crazy year. I can’t count how often I’ve heard, “I want 2020 to be gone!” over the last months. And I can relate and agree.

COVID, unrest, political bickering – all have placed huge challenges and stressors on everyone. We faced high demands at work, uncertainty in plans, and ever-changing requirements. In our private lives, requirements and directions for schooling were moving just as much, together with the suspension of social rhythms and rituals we cherished in the past.

I have a habit of reflecting on good things that happened to my family and me once every day. This week I took a broader look and reflected on the good things that this year awarded me.

Everything considered, it has been an amazing year for me so far. Yes, despite all challenges, it has been amazing. With all the dynamics of COVID, I was presented with great changes but also new opportunities. I was blown away by all the positive energy and can-do attitude that I observed every day. Every single day, I am blessed to experience an exceptional amount of comradery and willingness to help and do what is needed. All around me, I see people step up and do extraordinary work.

I encourage you to do a similar thought exercise: Take a moment to count your blessings, be proud, and optimistic about all the good things that our future will bring for us.

While we need to acknowledge the challenges, frustrations, and stress, we also need to look at all the amazing things that we get: experiences, opportunities, and comradery overcoming shared challenges.

Given all things, we are living in amazing times and we are truly blessed to be part of this generation.

Reflect on and count your blessings every day!


Did you like this post? Want to read more?

Check out our book for more thoughts and a week-by-week guide to make strategic changes to improve your health, career, and life purpose:

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.