Ever think about your spine?
Well, whether you think about it or not, the spine sure is a nifty feat of engineering we rely on. For starters, it allows us to stand upright despite the forces of gravity. It supports the head (with that big brain inside) and that alone may be worth its weight in gold. With the head perched on top of the spine, we can see into the distance, which does come in handy, even though we’re mostly looking at our phones these days.
The spine makes it possible for us to move, navigate space, change direction, and reach for that low-hanging fruit or for the stars. And that’s just what meets the eye.
Under the hood, the spine protects the spinal column, a kind of switching station for the nervous system – sending important (often life-saving) messages where needed.
In short, the spine supports agency, the capacity to act.
When people euphemistically refer to having a spine or backbone, they're speaking of this posture of self-agency, of impact.
It's easy to surrender to the sometimes crushing weight of demands, expectations, emails, meetings, commitments, obligations, interruptions, and distractions. We can end up ricocheting our way through another busy day, only to end up unsatisfied, or defeated, or wondering what we actually accomplished.
To be productive in today's world, there's no way around it: you must stand up to these daily forces. You have to have a strong spine to navigate the day.
Here are 15 ways to keep your spine strong, and maintain the ready posture of productivity.
1| Know What You Want and Why
Purpose is the clarifying engine of productivity. I'm not talking about life purpose or the big goals - those are important, though sometimes they stay too conceptual or pie-in-the-sky.
I'm talking about purpose translated on the ground in your day-to-day work and life. Where purpose meets the road. Where purpose shows up in your actions and tells the truth.
Understanding your intent gives you a new center of gravity, so that you don't get pulled in a million directions, or confused or coerced by outside forces.
When you plan your day, get clear about what you want to achieve out of each task - and why that is important. I know this sounds basic, or understood - but it's so easy to leave this out of the daily equation.
For example, look at your meetings. Why are you attending? Seriously, why? What is something you want to gain or achieve from the meeting? Do you want to contribute an idea you've had? Do you want to clear up confusion? Do you want to learn about a topic? Do you want to demonstrate your support? Specifying in advance exactly what you want to get out of the meeting - and why that is important to you - will amplify your attention and results.
Make it a habit to pause periodically for a split second to confirm "the why" behind what you're doing. This simple technique alone will help you move through your day productively, intentionally, upright.
And if there are activities in your day that the reason you come up with is "because I have to," dig a little deeper. If you truly do "have to," how can you find something that would restore its value for you? What's a reason that would enable you to give your full consent to it? You may be surprised how this simple "head game" can re-up your motivation and impact.
Note: "Because I have to" is not the language of agency and is a red flag that you're headed into spineless territory.
2| Believe something
What is your perspective? What matters to you? What do you care about? What do you stand for? What do you stand against? What do you believe? What is your opinion?
Understanding your values, point of view, and what is important to you will give you clarity to navigate the day.
Here's a super-simple way to access greater conviction and clarity: Brainstorm a list of what matters to you in your professional and personal life. Revisit and revise. Keep it alive. It will help you make the small and large decisions.
People often assume they, of course, know what they believe, or their opinion. However, it's a noisy, loud world out there. It's easy to lose touch with your own voice when everyone else is speaking.
Do you have a strong belief about the direction of a project? Stand up for it and see what happens. Your stand may draw new information or creative solutions from others. And maybe, you'll change your stand (remember, the spine is not rigid. It is incredibly flexible.) But the important thing is: you will be standing, moving, progressing.
Wishy washy is not the posture of productivity.
3| Follow a Method
Look to the highly accomplished in any field - whether athletes, artists, authors, academics, or entrepreneurs - and you'll likely find they follow a method of some kind. They have a systematic way to approach their craft, their work. They don't wait on inspiration, perfect conditions, or feeling like it. They don't leave their efforts to chance.
Instead, they use the architecture of regular disciplines to construct and propel their day. Their method is their spine. It allows them to move forward, shift directions, bend, reach, and not succumb to the fickle fury of mood or that constant stream of email.
What disciplines do you have (or can you adopt) that will protect your focus, time, and efforts? Do you have an exercise routine? Do you go to sleep by a certain time? Do you have a method for defining and prioritizing your work? Do you have rules you follow related to email or to meetings? How do you determine what to do, when - for your best performance? How do you organize your week?
With a clear method, you can move your way through the madness, and make daily progress.
You likely have a method - perhaps without realizing. Strengthen it by making it a deliberate way that you work. And then, test and tweak your method. Find the habits that make the most of your day and energy - and make them your method.
4| Make Decisions
Decisions are the meter of progress. Want to move forward? Then, make a decision. Every day, you're confronted with so many decisions. Yet, it's easy to put them off for another day.
I've found that people often avoid making decisions for two main reasons: 1) They don't want to limit their options; or 2) They don't want to make a mistake.
Here's the interesting thing about decisions. They almost always help you move forward, even if the decision is "wrong." It is far easier to redirect when you're moving than when you're standing still, paralyzed.
Making decisions magnifies your sense of impact, which turns the biochemical dial of motivation. When you're stuck or apathetic, the hormonal chemistry of motivation drains - only compounding your inertia.
How to get better at being decisive? Start small. Really small. Start in your inbox.
Don't read an email and then move on to the next. Decide your next move. Will you respond? Will you decline? Will you delete? Will you accept? Or agree? What do you need to do? If you aren't in a frame of mind or setting to make decisions, don't look at your email. Email should be about making a decisions and moving on.
If you do this with you inbox, you'll build your decisive muscle, which will give you the spine and support you need for those big decisions. You will be moving forward, pivoting when necessary, redirecting if needed - progressing all the while.
5| Work with Your Mindset
Do you know where your mind is set?
Action follows thought. And so thoughts are powerful levers of action and performance.
Thoughts direct how you see the world and, therefore, the options for action. Think differently and you can see new options.
Think something is impossible? Or that you'll never change? Or they'll never change? Or this is the only way to do something? Or this is the problem? Well, it might as well be true, because other realities will be hidden from you. You're confined to the field of your thinking.
Understanding your own thinking and refining your mindset is a linchpin of productive performance. Being creative with the story you tell yourself about a situation, problem, or person, will help you move in the direction you desire.
I love the art of reframing - taking a situation that has all the indicators of being stuck one way - and considering how to frame it so that it features something else that opens up another perspective, another reality.
Let's be clear: reframing is not lying, nor is it glossing over or magical thinking. Reframing is rigorously questioning assumptions and considering what else may be true. As a result, It can set a new course, uncover new solutions, and prompt effective action.
Here are some questions to uncover and adjust your mindset related to a situation or challenge:
What is the story I'm telling myself about this situation?
What is another story I could tell myself about this situation that would be more productive?
How might someone else look at this situation productively?
How might this situation be beneficial?
What assumptions do I have related to this situation? What if they are not true?
How might I see this situation as an opportunity?
What might I be missing in this situation?
6| Say No
If you only say yes, I'm going to take a wild guess that you may be overcommitted, overstretched, and possibly suffering from a weak spine.
Confronted with so many daily decisions combined with the desire to participate, help, be seen as a team player or good friend, it's easy for the go-to response to get stuck on "Yes."
But here's the irony: "No" gives your "Yes" power. If you don't have a "No," you really don't have a "Yes."
If you are yes-person, if the only response you're comfortable with is "Yes," eventually you will end up disappointing other people or yourself. When everything is a "Yes," at some point, you will not be able to keep up with all those yeses, all those commitments. Even if you show up and are counted - the toll may be felt in other corners - in your relationships, your health, your mood, your energy.
If the thought of saying "No" makes you sick, nervous, or break out in hives, try this: Identify what your "No" is a "Yes" to. Every "No" is a "Yes" to something else. For example, maybe saying "No" to helping a colleague this time is a "Yes" to giving your full focus to a priority project.
When you have the capacity to say "No," and use it, you are able to stand confident in your "Yes." Your "Yes" actually means something.
7| Establish Boundaries
To stand tall in work and life requires boundaries. Boundaries direct and protect your attention, time, and energy. Without boundaries, you're vulnerable to a thousand whims and fancies.
What do you care about or need to protect?
Your attention? Shut down social media.
Your energy? Instate an end time to your work day.
Your relationships? Put the phone away during meals.
The quality of your work? Keep the distractions away.
Your positive outlook? Limit the time you spend with negative people.
Do you know Parkinson's Principle? The shorthand is: Work fills available time. With this in mind, if you install an end time to your work day, you are likely to get more done than if you leave it open-ended. You may think it's a sign of productivity that you work around the clock. But instead, you lack the limits (the boundaries) that intensify focus, efficiency, creativity, and innovation.
8| Do hard things
The posture of the courageous is depicted as upright, strong, bold. The stance of the coward is, well, cowering - bent over, hiding, hovering, scampering, spineless.
When you venture out of your comfort zone, courage ignites and you find yourself standing up a little taller. Courage takes vulnerability, but builds confidence.
What have you been avoiding because it feels too hard? A conversation? A project? A fledgling skill? A creative expression? A declaration? Just do it. Do the hard thing and watch your energy and self-respect rise. Stand up to the hard stuff and things become easy.
9| Determine Your day
Determine your day or someone else will. Gird yourself with a plan. Know what is most essential to achieve and keep your eyes on that target through the day. Without this compass, this focal point, you're lost in the chaotic, alluring headwinds of email and meetings and interruptions. A plan keeps you on the ground, moving toward your destination.
And sure, you can choose to change your plan. But that is different than simply showing up and being tossed around aimlessly. When you make conscious choices about each thing you do, you build the stature to navigate the day responsibly.
Mistakes are not the worst thing that ever happened. In fact, they often are part of getting to the best thing that ever happened.
Mistakes happen. Don't make them worse by avoiding responsibility or, worse, blaming your mistakes on others, your dog, or the weather. Don't indulge in blaming yourself (which is different than taking responsibility).
Use your beautiful mistakes to rise higher, become better. Own your mistakes. Otherwise, they'll own you.
Get curious about your mistakes. They may hold the secret to your future success. But if you are running away from them or so cautious that you never make them, you'll never know.
11|Communicate with Candor
Candor is defined as "the state or quality of being frank, open, honest, and sincere in speech or expression; freedom from bias; fairness; impartiality." It comes from the Latin word for "to shine."
Candor is refreshing, straightforward, clear, kind, true. Candor lacks pretense and hidden agendas. It promotes connection and responsibility.
Sometimes it's easier to avoid that elephant in the room, but that usually only compounds the problem. Candor helps you name the elephant and forge a productive path. It keeps you honest and invested.
For me, the early twenties was just plain awkward. I was starting to work and figure stuff out. I was tentative and unsure. But something changed that: I joined a gym and started lifting weights. Strength in the body somehow translated into greater steadiness and confidence.
Take a walk, do yoga, run, stretch. The body, mind, and emotions are a package deal. When you build lung capacity, physical strength and flexibility, you experience your own sense of agency and confidence. You literally - and figuratively - improve your posture.
Many people tell me that they want more confidence. There's one way to get that: cultivate competence. Learn, explore, refine, and practice, practice, practice.
If you want to stay in the game, then work on your skills. Identify the weak parts, and work those. Often people rely on their strength, which, in turn, they overdevelop, while ignoring their weaknesses, which may sabotage their strength.
A masterful musician doesn't just practice the part she has down. She practices the hard part, the place she struggles or stumbles. The frustrating passage. Over and over and over again. She diligently earns her way to the performance she seeks.
What skill do you want to cultivate? What do you want to learn?
14|Abstain from People pleasing
The cold hard truth is: not everyone will like you or what you do all the time. Darn. People-pleasing is a trap that has ensnared many, but never turns out well in the end. It weakens your spine, abdicates responsibility (your power), undermines confidence, and is just plain exhausting.
What to do instead? Any of the other 14 tactics in this article.
15|Give and Get Help
The posture of generosity and receptivity creates the equilibrium needed for a productive posture.
Give too much and you may lose your own footing. Give too little and you may shrink into self-absorption.
Get help all the time and you may become dependent. Never ask for help and you may limit your capacity.
When giving and getting help - ebb and flow in dynamic balance, you are buoyant. You rise to the occasion and accomplish your goals.
15 ways to exercise the posture of productivity. Experiment with one and see what happens. You may find yourself standing a bit taller, with a strong center of gravity, and a clear vision for how you want to navigate the day and what you want to reach for.