Conscious In, Conscious Out

I have a client. Her name is Tamara. You may know her. She’s the jewelry lady in Minnesota.

In a recent meeting with her, I assigned her a potentially challenging task, one few people would be strong enough to tackle.

I told her to take three weeks off.

She’s been doing some Marie Kondo-style decluttering, and her work doesn’t really need her all that much right now. I can tell that her heart is in her box room, not in her inbox, and I’ve assigned her the very difficult task of doing what feels good, for Christ’s sake.

Tamara, like most of us, has mixed feelings about this assignment.

(It’s not like the culture has taught us how to do this, after all.)

On one level, she wants to give her decluttering work her full attention. But is it okay to do that? Will she regret it later? And what will that require of her on the work front? Does it require separating herself from work completely? Would checking in to make sure there’s nothing that needs her attention be cheating? Is opening the inbox every day to check for important things a slippery slope back to work? Or the only sane thing to do?

Excellent questions, all.

Tamara is the boss, and on a level it would be impractical to separate herself from her business entirely for three straight weeks, since she has to make key decisions and take important actions on a regular basis.

Her current front burner project is her Kondo work, but she does need to know how to keep her ship afloat while being away at the wheel.

I asked Tamara a question about this: “For the next three weeks, could you get away with working 30 minutes or less per day, if you only focus on the critical stuff?” She thought for a moment, and answered yes.

So I gave her the specifics of the assignment:

For the next three weeks, pick a 30-minute slot each day and show up for work then, and only then. Open the computer, spend 30 minutes taking care of whatever’s coming up, and get the hell out afterwards. That’s it. If “whatever’s coming up” takes less than thirty minutes, get out sooner. If it takes more than thirty minutes, do the rest tomorrow.

So that’s what she’s doing. Instead of “working”, she’s opening the computer for 30 minutes, taking care of only what’s necessary, then closing the computer and not thinking about work for the rest of the day.

This is our answer to keeping her Kondo time safe from being infected and overrun by work. She’s consciously deciding when to show up, and consciously deciding when she’s leaving each day. Work is encapsulated, compartmentalized and contained through this tiny little commitment. Kondo is safe. (But so is work, too.)

This is an essential strategy for bossing, whether it’s applied to how you take time off or how you approach the inbox. Consciously decide when you’re going to begin an activity, and consciously decide when you’re going to stop the activity.

Conscious In, Conscious Out. CICO.

Do this, and projects move forward quickly, stress goes through the floor, and the resources of time, money and energy are preserved for all the important things in your business and life.

You can start building your CICO skills immediately, by making two simple decisions before beginning any activity or task.

First, you decide what it means to go “in”.

All too often we use vague and unaccountable words to describe the activities we’re engaging in. Going to work. Showing up on social media. Working on the book. Getting organized. Catching up.

On some level, we use these terms as a way to encapsulate things of that nature, so we can just go in that general direction without having to get too precise about it.

And that makes sense. When we go to the grocery store, we say we’re “getting groceries”, because it would be madness to say “We’re going to buy milk, and eggs, and crackers, and yogurt…” and two dozen other things. It’s linguistic efficiency. It’s a better way of describing it. It’s an impeccable system that has worked for humans since the invention of language.

That system falls down, however, when we think we know what we mean by “getting groceries”, but we really don’t. If you don’t have a list, and you’re just going to the store because you know some of the items you need, all kinds of things can happen.

You can end up wandering the aisles looking for things that seem important to you. You can have difficulty making decisions. You can completely forget items that were important or critical to your meal plans for the week. And, invariably, you will leave the store with a whack of items you never set out to purchase, and the trip will have taken far longer than you had anticipated. That’s not “getting groceries”. That’s “wandering around a grocery store hoping it will all work out.”

If you had a list, though… you could have been in and out of the store in a fraction of the time, and all your decisions would have been straightforward and easy. You could avoid all the rabbit trails and distractions by having that one outcome in mind: buying the items on the list. Nothing else.

This applies to everything.

If you’re getting organized today, and you are conscious of that meaning getting all the files in one place, you will by default be conscious of what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean shopping for a new filing cabinet. It doesn’t mean reading that article on productivity hacks. It doesn’t mean tidying your desk or sorting that stack of bills. It means getting all your files in one place.

That’s not to say that you can’t do all those other things – of course you can. You just can’t do them yet. Give this task a turn, and tell the other tasks to wait. Be conscious of the decision that you’re going in for the files right now.

This critical bossing skill comes down to simply deciding the specifics of what you’re going to do right now. The stuff, the specific stuff. Not the “type” of stuff.

That’s Conscious In. That’s what you do first.

Second, you decide (PRIOR to going in) the criteria for getting out.

One of the reasons things like “going to work” or “writing a blog post” or “catching up” take so long – and become so draining – is because we don’t consciously decide when we’re going to leave.

When we go in without a clear metric of success or completion, we open ourselves up for all those rabbit trails and distractions and flights of fancy. The work feels endless because it is endless. We literally have not specified an end, so anything that’s connected to that task can feel like part of the task. And that feels hard.

We are not working towards perpetuating hard. We are working towards building an easy-to-run ittybiz, and deciding on our exit criteria makes all your tasks easier by default. When you consciously know where the end is, you can reach it. You can get out of that task, and into something else that’s important to you.

The act of deciding when to get out involves picking one of three metrics for completion:

  • Achievement. You’ll stop when the blog post is completed and at your target of 1500 words. When the inbox is down by 30 emails. When three boxes are unpacked.
  • Information. You’ll get out of the inbox once you see if that payment came in or not. You’ll close the movie site once you verify the showtime. You’ll close your browser tab once you double-check the wording of that quote you’re using in a presentation.
  • Time. You’ll spend 45 minutes decluttering the living room. You’ll engage with your audience on Facebook for 20 minutes. You’ll take a 15-minute break in between tasks.

All of the activities that could be included in your day are like a room full of people raising their hands with questions after your presentation. “Conscious In” is pointing to one person and giving them your full attention. “Conscious Out” is closing it up so you can move on to the next person.

This is completely intuitive in a Q&A session, but not nearly as intuitive in regards to your business and personal activities. Take the same turn-based approach you would give to a room full of people and apply it to your activities, and you will be shocked at how quickly you rack up completed tasks.

This metaphor can be of particular help to those who have a hard time choosing between multiple tasks that feel equal in importance or urgency. Those are two people raising their hands. You don’t have to feel guilty or worried or stressed about picking the person on the left if you’re committing to move to the person on the right once the first question is answered.

(Also? The next time you’re on a Q&A call, notice how a presenter will rarely answer a question and say “Do you want to throw a few more questions in there while we’re down here?” They move on to the next person. And if it turns out the questioner says they want to ask another question, the presenter says they’ll get back to them after a few more people have a turn. You’re allowed to do this with your activities, too.)

Conscious In, Conscious Out. And everything gets easier.

Conscious In is a commitment to focus on one chosen activity at a time.

Conscious Out is a commitment to get out of that activity once your completion metric is reached.

Every time you take the Conscious In, Conscious Out approach, you will feel a sense of winning, because you’ve just scored a goal, like you would in a sport. Winning feels good. It makes you want to continue winning, and becomes a virtuous cycle. And over time – a surprisingly short amount of time – you start feeling a hell of a lot more control over your business and life.

Nobody with clear objectives ever said “where did the day go?”. They know exactly where it went, and nothing about that was surprising.

Things you can do next!