Strategy 1: Be Intentional
The first strategy is the most fundamental and serves as a cornerstone for the other strategies. It seems deceptively simple, but it can lead to life-changing results: be intentional.
Seems easy, right? Maybe not so much. The concept manifested in my life a number of years ago when I was looking at what I wanted professionally. That led very quickly to an examination of what I wanted personally. I challenged myself to take a serious internal look and ask, “Am I doing the work that needs to happen to get there?”
I found what I was lacking was intentionality. I had great ideas and great desires, but I wasn’t doing the work. I wasn’t setting the appropriate framework. So, as I outlined these eleven strategies and looked at this one in the context of the other tactics, it was clear that without being intentional, none of the other strategies would be as effective. Establishing a strong foundation of intentionality and using that as the jumping-off point for doing the work to achieve the personal or professional growth you want is critical for your success.
Included in each chapter are strategy questions for you to work through and reflect on as you go through the book. These questions are designed to help you outline and develop your strategies for your own personal and professional success. Make sure you have a journal, notebook, or electronic document handy so you can capture your answers. Since this book is constructed to provide you context for working on what you’re currently pursuing, writing down your answers along the way serves the dual purpose of additional depth and reflection, as well as creating a memento of your journey. It’s also a great first step toward putting the strategy of being intentional into action!
The first two questions I’d like you to answer as you begin to think about what you want to achieve from this book are:
➔ What area(s) of your professional life would you like to improve?
➔ What area(s) of your personal life would you like to improve?
You don’t need long answers for these with lots of justification and explanation. A simple bullet-point list will do. The goal of these first two questions is to give you a little more direction for what you might want to work on so you can begin to build intentional strategies in those areas. You might find yourself crafting a list that has a lot of items on it or some items that might be simpler to address than others. I know I have a tendency to be the Queen of All the Things All at Once. I often start these lists and quickly get overwhelmed by how much I keep adding to them, and eventually I don’t start anything at all because there’s just too dang much on there.
You don’t need to work on everything that goes on the list. You can pick one item from each list, a couple from each list, or just a single item to get you started. All I ask is that you’re reasonable with yourself about your own capacity and commitment in terms of your ability to do some work in each area. It might even be a good strategy for you to identify one single area of improvement and use that as the basis for your initial work through this book. Think of this like setting a micro-goal. Instead of “I’m going to the gym to work out for ninety minutes,” maybe the goal is “I’m going to go to the gym and open the front door,” understanding that once that’s done, you’ll go inside and work out. Once you’ve made your way through the questions with a narrower focus, you can then go back and work through the questions again with a new area of emphasis.
Okay, back to the first question: What area(s) of your professional life would you like to improve? Depending on what’s going on in your work life when you picked up this book, this might be a specific situation you want to improve or a relationship you want to address. It might be a larger career goal, like getting a promotion. It might be gaining supervisory experience. It might be joining a board or a commission or a nonprofit outside of your current workplace. If you’re having trouble pinning it down, consider asking yourself these questions: What would I like to be different about my professional life right now? What professional accomplishment would I like to be celebrating a year from now?
You can also look at job descriptions of positions you’re interested in and identify skill sets you need to develop for future careers of your dreams. If you’re stress-prone, maybe pick something off your “2:00 a.m. list” (that’s what I call the list of things that I wake up thinking about at 2:00 a.m.) and work through that. Whatever you select, please don’t overthink it or spend a lot of time trying to come up with something “more important” than whatever you first identify. The strategies outlined in this book are intended to become an operating framework for you as you become familiar with them, and you can easily apply them to other areas you want to improve down the road.
Now onto the second question: What area(s) of your personal life do you want to improve? Again, this doesn’t need to be some massive overhaul or an earth-shattering, revelatory exploration into turning your life upside down. It’s just about identifying something you would like to make better—whatever that means to you. It could be new friendships you want to build, fears you want to overcome, skills you want to develop. I’ve played with everything from learning new methods of being creative, like watercolor painting or drawing, to practicing new recipes in the kitchen so I could cook at home more. I’ve engaged these strategies to help me clean out my garage and declutter my house, and I’ve also explored more intangible things like working on my inherent tendency to say no to things at first.
The first year I started working with this strategy in the context of my personal life, I decided I wanted to defy the internal framework I had adopted somewhere in the first three decades of my life that said, “I’m not a runner,” so I decided to challenge myself to run a half-marathon. Granted, I ran it very slowly, and even using the word run is pretty generous, but in the end, I accomplished it. I’d never run more than a couple of miles before, but I took the challenge seriously and used intentionality to stick to a training schedule that ultimately helped me accomplish my goal.
Own Your Days, Don’t Let Your Days Own You
As you think about what it means to be intentional in the area(s) you’ve identified, I want you to think about when you’ve owned your days and also times when your days have owned you. Allow me to explain.
Sometimes we get to the end of the day, week, month, or maybe even an entire year, and we look back and say, “Whoa. Did I intentionally achieve anything I even intended to? What even happened to my time? How did I get here?” It doesn’t mean that sometimes great things don’t just happen, and it certainly doesn’t mean that it’s a bad thing when good things do just happen. I have always said there have been plenty of times I was successful in spite of myself, and that’s not a terrible thing! But as I once learned from a contractor I worked with early in my career, “Hope is not a method.” It’s not going to accelerate your level of professional or personal success.
So, what does that look like in terms of reaching your goals? I’d like to invite you into a moment of self-awareness. Grab your notebook and jot down a couple of responses for this next question:
➔ What are some examples of when your days have owned you instead of the other way around?
At one point in my local government career, I found myself working in the budget office, and during budget season, it certainly didn’t feel like I had a whole lot of ownership over my days. I was just kind of being swept along with the tide of to-do items, council and commission meetings, community outreach meetings, and endless data entry. I survived it, of course, and things were fine, but at the end of it, I reflected back and saw that I had been just “making it through.” The work was not as high-value or as productive as it could have been, and there had been very high costs to me personally in terms of the stress from a busy season that ultimately took its toll on my health with some added pounds and insomnia. Some of my examples from that season of how my days were owning me included cutting out all exercise, sacrificing healthy meal planning, giving myself the green light for fast food more often than I know is good for me, and not setting any boundaries around time as it related to going in early, staying late, or even working on my days off. Yes, it was busy, but those behaviors weren’t mandatory by any means!
Question three—What are some examples of when your days have owned you instead of the other way around?—is designed to help invite you into some self-awareness because that is the platform for being able to be intentional.
Choose to Engage
As you build on your self-awareness and focus your energy on increasing intentionality, one of the core concepts to explore is “choosing to engage.” When we look at owning our days instead of allowing our days to own us, we might find we have a tendency to fall victim to the flurry or the whirlwind of the days and weeks and months that seem to fly by in a blur. It’s not just that the days have owned us, but it’s that we haven’t engaged in the activity of all this time that’s passing us by. I’ll give you a minor example of how this shows up in the workplace.
I always laugh at this example because I was definitely the one doing this for many, many years. It’s a great demonstration of how we can experience something without ever even engaging in it. I’m talking about Donut Day.
Now, when I’m in a workplace and get a whiff of that fried dough and sugary aroma, I’m like, “Oh, man! Donut Day! Best day ever!” But for a lot of years, I was the person who acted like there was suddenly an outrageous amount of peer pressure to eat a donut. To be clear, I’ve never actually experienced intense adult peer pressure trying to get me to eat a donut at work, but there were many times I certainly behaved like that was what was going on. There’s usually someone in your work environment who behaves like this, and what happens? Eventually, they eat a donut. They pick it up, take a bite, and in between moaning about how good it tastes (I mean, seriously, the maple bacon ones? Come on!), they start complaining about eating the donut. “I shouldn’t be eating this. It’s too many calories. This isn’t on my diet plan. Now I’m going to have to go to the gym longer. You shouldn’t have even brought these into the office.”
The entire time they’re eating the donut, they’re negating the awesome experience of eating a donut! They're not engaging in it. This is such a good example for how we engage—or don’t—in whatever we’re experiencing. Regardless of where you are or what you are doing: choose to engage in it. If you're at work and you've registered for a webinar, engage in watching the webinar. Don't be distracted by six other windows that pollute your other computer screen while simultaneously responding to text messages and adding items to your Amazon cart. If you’re out for a date night with your partner, engage in date night and distance yourself from the mind chatter crowding your head. If you’re at work and things are challenging, sink into the experience and engage in it deeply. You can always schedule breaks and tap back into personal stuff when needed. If it’s vacation, do not open those emails Sunday evening before you go back. Bottom line: Engage in what you are doing and experience it to its depths. Schedule specific times to address all the other minutiae that creep in and crowd out your ability to be present. Don’t negate your own experiences. And for heaven’s sake, if you are going to eat a donut, do it and enjoy every darn bite! (How’s that for a great assignment?)
At this point, I also want to offer a bit of a disclaimer. When I talk about this topic, I often find there’s at least one person saying, “Well, Nicole, that’s great, but I got to work and I was ready to engage, and then I got a call from home that the water heater broke and leaked all over the floor. I had to leave and couldn’t engage and be present at work because I had to deal with that issue.” Or: “I was going to be engaged in the staff meeting on Tuesday morning, but a personnel issue came up that had to be handled, so I wasn’t able to be engaged in the way I wanted to.” That's not what I'm talking about. I'm not talking about the unexpected issues that pop up that you have to deal with, or the fires, literal or figurative, that need to be put out. I’m talking about an overall mindset of being engaged where you are and being very present with what’s in front of you.
Find Your Framework
Let’s get back to being intentional. One of my best strategies to help in this area is the idea of finding your framework.
If you ever see a dog riding in the car with its head out the window, it usually doesn’t matter if it’s a five-minute ride to the grocery store or a two-hour tour out in the country. Generally, their framework is sort of how I feel about Donut Day at work: best day ever! It’s simply how they operate. They’re thrilled to be riding in the car. Everything is an adventure. It really is the best day ever. It’s how they see the world.
Your framework is what informs your basic view and perception of what you encounter each day. Challenging situations might be viewed as obstacles to overcome or opportunities to practice skills. Requests for our time and attention might be seen as bothersome interventions or an affirmation of how highly we are thought of by others. A negative framework casts everything in a negative light, and a positive framework tends to help us see situations more positively. Think of your framework as the system running in the background that helps you understand, filter, and respond to situations you encounter every day.
When we’re talking about pursuing personal and professional success, it’s highly beneficial for us to not only be aware of our operating framework, but to strategically operate using a framework that’s intentionally constructed to maximize our success.
First, what framework(s) are you operating with? In the strategy workbook section, spend some time building awareness around this. Get objective about the assumptions you make or perceptions you’re holding about how you need to do business or go about your days. Are you possibly operating under someone else’s framework of what’s expected, what’s possible, or what you “should” be doing? Are you even aware of what operating framework is guiding your decision-making? Oftentimes, just taking the time to build awareness around and then question our own assumptions is enough to help us discover new ways of behaving and alternatives for pursuing the successes we want to obtain. Try answering these questions to get you started:
➔ What are some of your frameworks or key assumptions you operate within at work or home that drive your behaviors?
➔ Which of these could you challenge?
Once you’ve found the framework you’re currently operating under, it’s time to discover—and then intentionally work toward—what framework you want to have. For this, I recommend identifying a phrase that represents this framework.
I tend to use the word mantra. Not everyone likes that. Some people are afraid I'm going to ask them to chant and light incense and rub crystals together, so if it works better for you to substitute the word framework for mantra, please feel free. You might also use the word touchstone or even perspective—whatever phrase calls to mind what you’re trying to achieve and the operating framework you’d like to have guiding your actions.
The point of this exercise is to identify something that can function as a guidepost in either your personal or professional life. I teach this with executive leadership teams, and I have them develop a mantra for their team or their department. I had a police chief in a rural community do this exercise, and he came up with the mantra “People First.” When I asked him to share a little about it, he said, “Nicole, what this means for me is I have vacancies to fill in this department, so I want to focus on people first in terms of filling those positions and getting my team together. Once that's done, I want to focus on people first, meaning my team and building that team culture and accelerating how we work together. And so once that's done, third, I want to turn to people first, meaning how we practice community policing initiatives and how we are present in and working with the community.”
Um, wow! I absolutely loved this perspective and approach, and as we discussed it with the group, he relayed that he appreciated having a clear filter to help guide what he says yes to and where he spends his time and resources. Having the mantra in place helped him clarify his thoughts around his priorities and gave him an operating framework moving forward.
The example above is one way an intentionally chosen mantra or operating framework can serve us in our work lives, but this effort can be equally important in our personal lives to move us closer to the goals we want to achieve.
A number of years ago, in lieu of adopting New Year’s resolutions (that I would mostly fail at or forget about until the following year’s exercise of adopting them all over again), I started choosing a mantra for the year to serve as my operating framework instead. To give you a flavor of what this could look like, the very first one I chose was “Be Intentional.”
It was a year in which I was ready to change jobs, and I realized that in order to do so, I was going to need to change organizations. I was in a place where there was no more room to grow. Although I knew my best option was to look outside of the organization for my next move, I was still a little bit stuck and needed a starting point for how to generate enough momentum to get a new position. On the personal side, I also knew I needed to focus on my own health in a big way. I was ready for a new challenge that would inspire me to live differently. (I’m not talking about wholesale change, like giving up all carbs and sugar for eternity or deciding to become a professional bodybuilder. Just something to challenge myself a bit in a focused manner.) At the beginning of the year, I committed to be intentional as my mantra. I wrote it down and kept it posted in prominent areas, and when I was making a decision about what to do with my time or how to address certain challenges or areas of friction, I reminded myself that I needed to be intentional about whatever response I would have to the situation.
As a direct result of that mantra and working on my intentionality, two big things happened. First, I got very intentional about building out my connections and my network to make sure I was ready to change jobs when it was time. I sat down and created my elevator speech (that brief, less-than-thirty-seconds self-intro and key concept or two you want the other person to take away from the interaction) about why I was ready to leave my current organization and what types of opportunities and organizations I wanted to join. I also created a list of potential people who could help me make the shift. This included people to review application materials, potential hiring authorities in organizations in which I was interested, and people in my existing network who were connected to other potentially influential people.
Then, I set about investing time in reaching out to all these people and getting on their calendars so I could learn from them, build better connections, and ultimately arm them with my story so I would be fresh in their minds as they heard of opportunities. I utilized vacation time to accommodate the time needed to do this and considered it an investment in my next step. I committed to taking one step every week toward being ready for my next position, whatever that might end up being. Some weeks it was going to lunch with a connection who had contacts within places I wanted to work. Some weeks it was as simple as making sure I had a nice interview outfit already in my closet so I wouldn’t have to scramble to get that done once I was already in a process. It often simply meant sending emails or making phone calls to people to get meetings and introductions set up.
Regardless of what it was, I kept that commitment to intentional action every week to get me closer to where I wanted to be. While I didn’t achieve my job transition that year, I significantly increased my network and was far better prepared for the interview process when it came time to interview for the job I actually wanted—and eventually obtained in January of the next year!
The second thing I did, and which I frankly have no desire to do ever again, was challenging myself to run that half-marathon I mentioned earlier. This was something I never thought I could achieve. I remember setting the goal and wondering why on earth this, of all things, was what I wanted to achieve. At the time, I felt like the completion of a half-marathon symbolized unlocking my potential to achieve greater objectives than I ever allowed myself to believe I was capable of before. I wasn’t sure how I was going to fit the training into my schedule. I wasn’t sure how I would even approach the training itself. I wasn’t sure what type of music or podcasts or audiobooks I would need to download to keep me going during the training runs. But with be intentional running through my head, I researched and developed a training plan. I experimented with what types of media I liked to listen to while I was running. I practiced running on a treadmill and also running outside. I found running buddies to join to keep my training up. And I very intentionally built in time for running and exercising to get me ready for the half-marathon. I am very happy to say I achieved it, and I am just as happy to say I won’t be doing it again!
The following year, I started to look beyond what achievements I wanted to unlock in terms of tangible career progression or personal accomplishments, and I decided I was ready to challenge some of my own existing operating frameworks. That year, the mantra became say yes more. I chose this because I’m naturally a bit of a commitment-phobe. I tend to be hesitant in saying yes to larger-scale changes or time commitments. Some of this is out of fear, like: What if something better comes along? Some of it is born out of an operating framework I’ve developed that produces fear around integrating my work and professional life and making sure I have enough space for everything. With say yes more, what would that look like for me? What kinds of experiences would I have by saying yes more frequently that might otherwise be outside my scope? With that mantra, I ended up setting off for a year that held more unique and unplanned experiences than almost any other in my life.
In the very first month of my new job, I had an opportunity to join the Honorary Commander program at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, Arizona. It’s a two-year program aimed at teaching community leaders about Luke Air Force Base and all its operations as a way to grow ongoing support for the base. While it was not an overwhelming time commitment, there were definite expectations of time and activities to be attended. When I first talked to the organization that runs the program about joining, in my head I was like, “No way. I just started a new job. I'm trying to get my feet under me. I’m still trying to figure out where all the bathrooms are in my new building. I can’t possibly take on this commitment too.”
And then I remembered my mantra: say yes more.
So I decided to say yes to joining the program. Fast-forward half a year, and I not only met an amazing group of people I now consider friends and family, but I also ended up being able to fly in an F-16 fighter jet and take control of the stick and do two barrel rolls! (I also got to puke in an F-16 fighter jet!) That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I would not have had without that mantra helping me make the decision to say yes.
After I had settled into a comfortable rhythm in that new job, and after life had returned to a more predictable pace, the next mantra I chose was open and allow. This was a challenge to myself to work on my inner control freak. (Which, to be honest, I should probably just call my outer control freak.) When I’m in a comfortable place and change is not creating stress that requires my attention, I have a tendency to turn that energy toward trying to control or even prevent any deviations from the path I’ve identified for myself. For me to be open and to allow things to evolve differently than I was intending or would prefer was a serious challenge. I wanted to be more open to new experiences and to be free from some of the friction and disappointment that can come with being too controlling.
This, too, led to some adventures I never would have had otherwise, like impromptu road trips, trying out some new recipes (some successful, and some not as much), and the reimagination of my career path. More importantly, I reprogrammed my operating framework from one of worry and control and constant concerns over how things would turn out to one of flexibility, adaptability, and openness to even greater joys than the ones I was planning for. This also happened to be the year I was surprised with one of my greatest joys: getting pregnant. So all I have to say about that is to maybe be a little more specific in terms of desired outcomes!
Another important aspect of working with mantras is to choose something that guides you and perhaps even drives you, but it should not drain or shame you. I’ve had clients and friends work with mantras like be happier and let it go, and while on the surface, these seem like great things to strive for (and they are!), there was a tendency for these to cause a lot of shame when the folks utilizing them felt they weren’t achieving their mantra. The point of a mantra is not perfection—it’s to help guide you into new behaviors. I also recommend finding language that brings you ease.
In the case of let it go, that particular client was working on resolving past hurts and issues that were causing trouble in the present. We talked through what she was trying to achieve, and as she explained what the phrasing let it go meant to her, she talked a lot about how she needed to do the work of letting go of what happened. She needed to “just move past it” and improve. Instead, we came up with the mantra release. To her, being allowed to release what was holding her back brought more ease than taking on a truckload of difficult and active work to let it go. Search for a phrase that inspires you and drives you but is still something that gives you a peaceful or excited feeling when you read it or say it.
Put some thought into what the mantra or framework is that would help you the most right now. It might be on the personal side, or it might be on the professional side. I like to start by jotting down some ideas and some achievements I’d like to pursue or ways I’d like to feel in the coming year. I also write down phrases or words that inspire me or that represent something I want more of. If you’re a visual person, draw a picture of how you want your life to look at either work or home and see if that inspires some wording for you. The result should be a few words or a short sentence at most. Something you can repeat in your head while you’re driving, sitting in a meeting, considering options, or when you start to feel like you need guidance. It should encapsulate what you’re working toward and be clear enough to move you forward. Answer these questions to help you find your framework:
➔ What feeling/state of being would I like to have in the coming year?
➔ What am I looking to accomplish or experience in the coming year?
➔ What words/phrases inspire or motivate me?
➔ What words/phrases represent or encapsulate all this?
Pinpoint Your Power Phrase(s)
Last note on the mantra conversation: While this exercise is intended to help you draft a mantra that speaks to you and serves as your guidepost for a longer period, this can also be a very powerful strategy to get you through shorter periods that are perhaps exceptionally challenging. In their simplest form, mantras provide excellent opportunities to do a deeper dive into a certain area you’d like to work on.
For example, I had a client who was working through a difficult family situation, and her mantra became rest more. It was an excellent reminder that while she had difficult work to do, she also needed to rest in order to continue to be whole and healthy. I thought that was so beautiful and also very bold in terms of prioritizing herself in the midst of caring for others. We usually think when we need to achieve higher or do something difficult, we must double down and grind harder, work longer hours. This individual intentionally chose to rest more to make sure she was rejuvenating enough to be able to do things she needed and get to where she needed without sacrificing her own health and well-being.
I refer to these mini-mantras that are geared at a more short-term time period as Power Phrases. I find them to be a very effective tool in navigating whatever I’m running into and reminding me specifically of how I would like to go through the experience of the situation at hand. Whether it’s a job interview that’s coming up, a large family gathering that might be wrought with “bite your tongue” moments, a particularly difficult day, or even a dentist appointment you might be dreading, these Power Phrases can be useful in helping you own those experiences rather than those experiences owning you. You can even use the same reflection questions above to help you generate yours!