How to know if a work challenge is building or busting your chops

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Punch in the Face Impact
The other day I got a panicked text message from a client.

“Help me Pam. I am totally scared. Call me.”
Expecting to hear the worst, I called him right back.

“What’s going on?” I said.
“I just got asked to take on a big project and I am scared out of my mind” he replied.
Knowing that he was new in his consulting business and that a big project was exactly what he had been asking for, we worked together to diagnose the scary parts so he could move out of the panic zone and get busy.

If you get in a similar quandary, here is how I suggest getting out of it:

1.  Decide if the work challenge is intriguing or repelling

It is easy to get caught up in thinking you should take on certain tasks or projects, or work with certain people because they are good for your career.  But all projects are not created equal, and some challenges, while adding worthy bullet points to your resume, may not be worth your time.

Questions to ask at this stage:

  • Will learning this skill or gaining this experience make me happier, more employable, faster, stronger or generally more capable, regardless of the specific outcome of this project?
  • Does this experience relate to my strategic plans, personal values or areas of interest?
  • Is there another better way I could learn these things without engaging in this project?
  • Is the money I would make doing this project (or taking on promotion) worth the strain and stress?
  • And if you have concerns that the person you will be working for is a tyrant or a diva: Do I have strong enough personal boundaries to not end up crouched in the fetal position on my living room floor every night after work?

Super challenging and stressful work can be a fantastic thing when done for the right reasons.  And it can be the quickest path to poor health and mental agony if you are doing it only because you think you should.

2.  Better, barter or bag parts of the assignment that don’t agree with you

My buddy Martha Beck has a wonderful coaching tool called “Better, Barter, Bag.” When faced with a lukewarm feeling about a task at hand, ask yourself:

  • How could I make this task better? (add chocolate, partner with someone, do it while listening to your favorite music, think about it differently)
  • What could I barter or negotiate to make this feel better? (“I would be happy to do the strategic planning part of the project Joe, but when we get to the nitty gritty details of putting a project plan together, could you do that part?”)
  • What could I bag to make this feel better? (I am happy to take on this new initiative, Mr. Senior V.P, but in doing so, this will mean that I will need to take the reorganization project off my plate.”)

If you work for yourself, remember that clients pay you to get the task done, not to do it all yourself.  You may be able to hire someone who is better, faster and cheaper than you are to complete a portion of your task.  That way you can focus on overseeing the quality of the outcome, and not get drained by work that doesn’t play to your core strengths.

3.  Figure out the kind of support you need to get back in the flow.

I used to work with a sales training program that used a ropes course to teach salespeople about peak performance. The instructors used a diagram loosely based on the concepts of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow. I find this chart is immensely useful when coaching panicked entrepreneurs.

slide12
The vertical axis represents level of challenge.
The horizonal axis represents level of mastery (knowledge, skill, experience).

  • When you are in a situation with a huge amount of challenge and little mastery (Panic Zone), you feel out of control and afraid.
  • When you are in a situation with little challenge and a lot of mastery (Drone Zone), you feel bored.
  • When you are in a situation that is very challenging but you have the right amount of support (Flow Zone), you feel alert and alive, in the flow.

So if you are in the panic zone, the quickest way out of it is to master some skills or knowledge.

Ways to gain mastery:
  • Read an excellent how-to book on your specific topic
  • Talk to the smartest people you know who are already doing what you want to do and ask them for advice
  • Take a class
  • Hire a coach
  • Ask your Twitter network for resources and suggestions
  • Connect with a forum on your specific topic and ask users for advice
  • Solicit a mentor

4. Give yourself permission to say no.

This can be a classic crack pipe vs. wheatgrass juice moment, and saying no to a significant opportunity may sting.  It may help to realize that when you say no to things (or people) that don’t bring out your best or highest achievement, you open space for people who do.
Good luck with your challenge. And please post your own tips for getting out of the panic zone here!

3 Responses to “How to know if a work challenge is building or busting your chops”

  1. fas says:

    Better to try then to say no and miss out ?

    fas’s last blog post..Acrylic painting – Oil painting – Paint brush

  2. Hmm, interesting. I seem to be in the panic zone, but honestly, knowing where I am already feels better. In my case, starting a new job w/a huge sales component and never having done sales, feels pretty daunting. Breaking it down into pieces is helpful in avoiding the overwhelm feeling. Thanks for the post Pam!

    Carrie Tallman’s last blog post..What is Money Really?

  3. Andy Pels says:

    I sometimes have those panic moments and can really see how your suggestions will work on the next one. Besides the helpful practical tools, it’s good to be reminded that attitude and perspective alone can go a long way. Thanks!

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