On not having an a-ha moment

I went to a leadership forum last week. It was good! But I had some beef with it. (And I mean more than a certain former NC governor being there as a participant with a name tag that read “John Locke.” Barf.)

Almost every speaker told a story about the “a-ha moment” that catalyzed the pursuit of their passion, the start of their organization, or their drive to lead in general. One speaker talked about the time he and his wife were brutally attacked. Another told the story of the first time he witnessed extreme poverty. Another gave a timeline of a series of unfortunate events that happened in quick succession that caused her to reevaluate her life.

And it wasn’t just at this forum. In public health, I hear these stories all the time. And they’re great! They’re moving and inspiring, and I’m so glad these people had these moments and are willing to share them.

But what if you’ve never had an a-ha moment? What if, early in life, unprompted by a proverbial lightning bolt, you just decided that helping people, fighting for justice, and making the world–or at least your corner of it–a better place was not only what was right, but what you wanted to do?

That’s what happened to me.

I never really had an a-ha moment that made me want to help others or become a leader. Sure, I’ve had experiences that strengthened my resolve after making the decision, like cleaning up an elderly woman’s yard that was being used as the neighbor’s personal dumpster, witnessing mothers with HIV using contaminated water to mix baby formula, getting a self-portrait of a student with a noose around his neck in my anonymous question box when I was teaching, or holding the hands of many young women getting abortions without any support.

But were these a-ha moments? No.

And that’s okay!

While stories are incredibly important to understand and navigate the world around us, I’d like to change the expectation that every leader has to have a story that starts with some sort dramatic sign, calling, vision, or whatever in order to be successful.

What about you? Did you have an a-ha moment? Do you think every successful leader should have one?

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The case for sandwich-tasking

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Have you ever clicked on Word or Excel or some other program that you need to work in, only to discover that it’s already open because you were working in it an hour or so ago and then got distracted and abandoned that task, your spreadsheet getting buried under all sorts of other documents, windows, and tabs that are sparklier and more interesting?

Me neither. (Hahaha, I’m hilarious.)

Last year, I posted “give up multi-tasking” as something to stop doing in order to be successful.

And I still believe it. But it’s HARD.

Here’s the thing about multi-tasking:
I’m pretty sure I didn’t get a job offer (that I really, really wanted) based on my smart-alecky response to a question about multi-tasking. It was many years ago, but even then, I couldn’t bring myself to say, “Yes, I can multi-task, and I am SO GOOD at it!” Because I know that I cannot multi-task and expect any of the things I’m doing simultaneously to be of high quality.

My response in the job interview was something about not believing in multi-tasking, but instead being a really good switch-tasker, in that I can focus on one thing, get interrupted, and change gears really quickly to focus on something else.

But guess what? Switch-tasking is just a sneaky word for multi-tasking. And I was too naive to understand that. (Maybe that’s the real reason I didn’t get the offer.) The start/stop/start process with switch-tasking takes a serious toll: one study found that it takes over 23 minutes to re-focus on the primary task after an interruption (or series of interruptions). 23 minutes!

When I think about interruptions throughout my day, there are far fewer external ones, like coworkers popping into my office to ask a quick question, than internal ones, where, in the middle of writing an email, I suddenly decide that I NEED to check the weather or look up how many songs Neil Diamond wrote for other artists.

So, single-tasking?
Since there’s not a ton of mindfulness involved in my self-interruptions, I need a constant reminder to single-task instead. Sometimes, when I embark on a task, I’ll write it on a pad of paper right next to me. It serves as a visual reminder of the task (literally) at-hand. When it’s done, I cross it off and write down the next task. And when I think of something in the middle of a task I’m working on, I write it down on that same pad of paper and get back to work on the original thing. Yes, that’s an interruption too, but it’s much better than shifting my focus to the shiny new task that popped into my head and could derail me for who knows how long.

But nobody’s perfect.

Presenting: sandwich-tasking!
On my journey to single-tasking utopia, I’ve done a bit of a Bunny Hop. Instead of thinking of something else mid-task, writing it down, and going back to that first task, what usually ends up happening is I think of that new task and switch to it. And this could happen over and over again until I’m eight tasks away from the first one, and none of them are finished.

When I first discovered this pattern, I thought, “I know! I’ll make a rule that when I catch myself switch-tasking, I have to go back to the original task and finish it before I go back to the new one.” But then I realized that that’s interrupting two tasks–the original and the new one–instead of just the first task. So now, the rule is: when I catch myself switch-tasking, I HAVE to complete the new task before I switch back to the original. If the original task wasn’t written down, I write it down because I can easily lose sight of what it was when I finish the new task.

It’s still switch-tasking, sure. But now, I can make a complete task sandwich (with the bread being Task A and the insides being Task B) instead of an infinitely-layered open-faced task sandwich.

Now. Who’s ready for lunch?


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My Public Healthiversary

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I’ve been meaning to post at some point this fall to celebrate a decade in public health.  I figured today–December 1st, or Worlds AIDS Day–is the perfect day to do it, since HIV/AIDS education is what sparked my interest in public health in the first place.

When I was a junior in high school (more than 10 years ago), I joined a peer education program through the Fresno County Health Department. It involved an intensive retreat in the mountains to learn the ins and outs of the virus and everything we needed to know about transmission and prevention. And then for the remainder of the year, I went from classroom to classroom to educate my peers.

It was wonderful. I loved learning about HIV, and I loved sharing my knowledge of something somewhat uncomfortable in a way that was accessible to teenagers.

In college, I volunteered at the Boston Living Center, an AIDS service organization, every Saturday morning (which is no small feat for an undergrad!).

So when I finished school, I knew that I wanted to be a health educator.

After a brief detour in hospitality and a neighborhood revitalization project, in the fall of 2007, I made it: I joined Planned Parenthood of Delaware as a Health Educator and Community Outreach Organizer.

And I’ve been in public health ever since, working for amazing organizations like Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania (PPSP) and the Hepatitis B Foundation, on an amazing research study at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine, and now advancing place-based public health at Counter Tools. I also *finally* earned a Masters of Public Health from UNC in 2015.  (What’s funny is that I didn’t even know public health was a field of study until I was at PPSP. How was that possible?)

Public health is vast and complicated, and working in the field can be incredibly frustrating. But it can also be incredibly rewarding. From teaching young people about puberty to helping folks make their communities healthier by passing pro-equity policies, ten years have flown by.

And since it’s the season: if you’re looking for somewhere to make a charitable donation, please consider giving to a public health organization with a mission you feel passionately about.

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Room for Improvement

One of the many things I love about where I work is that there really is a demonstrated emphasis on work/life balance and self care. Case in point: 4th of July week. In honor of our organizational birthday, summertime, the end of one fiscal year and the beginning of another, and the 4th, we have what we call “Quiet Week.” The purpose of Quiet Week is to reflect and recharge. While many folks take vacation and are truly out of the office, those that stick around are encouraged to cancel meetings, work abbreviated hours, and/ work remotely as much as possible. (We have one other Quiet Week, which is the last week of the calendar year.)

For this year’s summertime Quiet Week, I took one day off, went into the office one day, and worked remotely two days. My Quiet Week to-do list included things that kept getting de-prioritized and pushed to a time when deadlines wouldn’t be looming and fires wouldn’t be burning.

On the list? A work area makeover. I recently moved to a new office at work, but there wasn’t much to be done there. I did put up some colorful art, though.

Tools office

Left and right: art done by me and brother, respectively, in elementary school (we peaked early); center: from zulily.com

It was really my home office that needed some TLC. It was messy, used space poorly, and generally made me feel blah and unmotivated. It had become purgatory for the household items that I liked and didn’t want to get rid of, but also didn’t have a place for.

desk before

close-up of my desk

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took this picture after starting the makeover, but you get the idea

As much as I loved the desk-on-sawhorses look, it was time to grow up. (What really made up my mind was cutting my knee on a sawhorse’s raw edge just minutes before going live on a webinar I was hosting.) You know that day off I mentioned? I went Charlotte to, among other things, pick up some office accoutrements from IKEA.

I also recently won an awesome print of Santa Clara and Merced Counties in California on EVERYTHING BUT THE HOUSE and was itching to put it up.

So on one of my quiet work from home days, I made some time to clean up my office, put my desk together (including a little chest of drawers that doubles as desk legs), and hang up my new print.

desk after1

desk after2

so much cleaner!

Not a huge difference, but I already feel so much lighter and inspired to work! And I really have to credit Quiet Week for the opportunity to do it. Without having the breathing room to work on non-urgent matters, this sort of thing never would have gotten accomplished.

Posted in (d)well, organization, self care | Leave a comment

Succeeding Through Giving Up

I needed this today. Maybe you do, too:

 Some of my favorites:

8. Give Up Multi-tasking

“You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.” ― Winston S. Churchill

10. Give Up On Saying YES To Things That Don’t Support Your Goals

“He who would accomplish little must sacrifice little; he who would achieve much must sacrifice much; he who would attain highly must sacrifice greatly.” — James Allen


12. Give Up Your Need To Be Liked

“The only way to avoid pissing people off is to do nothing important.”— Oliver Emberton

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January Cure 2017: not my fight

Last weekend, I had big plans to write another recap about the January Cure. This weekend, same thing.

But. The events after Inauguration Day, particularly the Women’s March and deluge of harmful executive orders, have made both doing and blogging about tidying up my house seem silly.

I did some of the tasks. They were helpful. Hooray.

But the fight against dog fur tumbleweeds is not the fight I choose right now.

The fight I choose is the one for humanity, compassion, science, equity, and equality.


At the Women’s March on Raleigh, 1/21/17


At Raleigh-Durham International Airport to protest the closure of our nation’s borders to refugees and the Muslim travel ban, 1/29/17


Here’s why I fight:



And this, too (via facebook.com/RBReich):

Week 1:

  • On January 20th, 2017, President Donald Trump (DT) ordered all regulatory powers of all federal agencies frozen.
  • On January 20th, 2017, DT ordered the National Parks Service to stop using social media after reweeting factual, side-by-side photos of the crowds for the 2009 and 2017 inaugurations.
  • On January 21st, 2017, DT brought a group of 40 staffers and followers to a meeting with the CIA to cheer for him during a speech that consisted almost entirely of framing himself as the victim of dishonest press.
  • On January 21, 2017, DT personally phoned National Park Service director Michael T. Reynolds and ordered him to produce additional photographs of the previous day’s crowds on the Mall, in order to show that the media had lied in reporting attendance had been no better than average.
  • On January 21st, 2017, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer held a press conference largely to attack the press for accurately reporting the size of attendance at the inaugural festivities, saying that the inauguration had the largest audience of any in history, “period.”
  • On January 22nd, 2017, White House advisor Kellyann Conway defended Spicer’s lies as “alternative facts” on national television news.
  • On January 22nd, 2017, DT appeared to blow a kiss to director James Comey during a meeting with the FBI, and then opened his arms in a gesture of strange, paternal affection, before hugging him with a pat on the back.
  • On January 23rd, 2017, DT reinstated the global gag order, which defunds international organizations that even mention abortion as a medical option.
  • On January 23rd, 2017, Spicer said that the US will not tolerate China’s expansion onto islands in the South China Sea, essentially threatening war with China.
  • On January 23rd, 2017, DT repeated the lie that 3-5 million people voted “illegally” thus costing him the popular vote.
  • On January 24th, 2017, Spicer reiterated the lie that 3-5 million people voted “illegally” thus costing DT the popular vote.
  • On January 24th, 2017, DT tweeted a picture from his personal Twitter account of a photo he said depicts the crowd at his inauguration and will hang in the White House press room. The photo is curiously dated January 21st, 2017, the day after the inauguration and the day of the Women’s March, the largest inauguration related protest in history.
  • On January 24th, 2017, the EPA was ordered to stop communicating with the public through social media or the press and to freeze all grants and contracts. EPA scientists were ordered to stop publishing their data unless cleared with DT transition personnel.
  • On January 24th, 2017, the USDA was ordered to stop communicating with the public through social media or the press and to stop publishing any papers or research. All communication with the press would also have to be authorized and vetted by the White House.
  • On January 24th, 2017, HR7, a bill that would prohibit federal funding not only to abortion service providers, but to any insurance coverage, including Medicaid, that provides abortion coverage, went to the floor of the House for a vote.
  • On January 24th, 2017, Director of the Department of Health and Human Service nominee Tom Price characterized federal guidelines on transgender equality as “absurd.”
  • On January 24th, 2017, DT ordered the resumption of construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline, while the North Dakota state congress considers a bill that would legalize hitting and killing protestors with cars if they are on roadways.
  • On January 24, 2017, DT’s director of strategy, Steven Bannon, said “the media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while. The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country.”
  • On January 25, 2017, DT signed an executive order to begin building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border that would cost an estimated $20 billion to $35 billon, and insisted Mexico would pay for it.
  • On January 25, 2017, DT tweeted “If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting” with Mexican president President Peña Nieto.
  • On January 25, 2017, Mexican president President Peña Nieto cancelled his meeting with DT.
  • On January 25, 2017, DT said he thought torturing terrorism suspects was justified. “Do I feel it works? Absolutely, I feel it works,” he told ABC News.
  • On January 25, 2017, the entire senior level of management of the State Department — many of whom had served under previous Republican as well as Democratic administrations – resigned.
  • On January 26, 2017, DT’s press secretary said DT will slap a 20 percent tariff on all imports from Mexico in order to finance the wall.
  • On January 26, 2017, DT’s vice president told congressional Republicans that the administration will initiate a “full evaluation of voting rolls in America, the overall integrity of our voting system in the wake of this past election.”
  • On January 27, 2017, DT closed the nation’s borders to refugees from around the world, ordering that families fleeing the slaughter in Syria be indefinitely blocked from entering the United States, and temporarily suspending immigration from several predominantly Muslim countries.
  • On January 27, 2017, DT established a religious test for refugees from Muslim nations, ordering that Christians and others from minority religions be granted priority over Muslims.

What will Week 2 bring?

More fighting.


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Retreat Reflection (and an activity!)


My organization had its third staff retreat last week, and I think it was a success!

The first one (in January 2015) was about getting to know each other and individual projects that contributed to the larger vision. We learned some training content, wrote professional bios for each other, and selected and started on Ship It projects.

The second one (in January 2016) was something some our staff had to fight for. We were in a real nose-to-the-grindstone phase and it was hard to stop to come together for a couple days to hash things out. But we had to. We were growing, and we needed to change some things in order to keep up. I shared The Logic of Task Pursuit from Robert E. Quinn’s Deep Change. During that retreat, we talked about what was broken and proposed and adopted fixes. It remains one of my best memories of my career there so far.

Last week’s retreat was centered around rallying our troops to support the implementation of the changes and initiatives we decided on last year. We’re making great strides (and by “great” I mean both large and wonderful), and we’re in another nose-to-the-grindstone phase. But this time, no convincing needed to be done; we all understand the value of the retreat now.

While I’m proud of the progress we made on our work last week, I’m particularly proud of a team building activity we incorporated. In planning the retreat, we looked to nonprofit leadership consultant Joan Garry’s blog post on nonprofit staff retreats and I borrowed this activity from her:

Ask every participant to write a two-page bio.

These are the guidelines:

  1. This is a personal bio, not your formal professional bio.
  2. It cannot be longer than 2 pages.
  3. If it takes you more than 2 hours, you’re overthinking it.
  4. You must include at least 1 photo, which cannot be a professional headshot.
  5. There must be some reference to the roots of your commitment to the work of the organization.
  6. The format is entirely up to you. I’ve had a finance staff member prepare his in an excel spreadsheet. I’ve seen a board member make a collage with statements under each image. One program staff member wrote a spoken word poem.
  7. Let folks know there will be a quiz. This is important. Make a joke about it. No grades, no judgment. But it ensures that folks read the book. What book? I’ll get to that in a moment.
  8. I always include an example when I send out the assignment. Give folks a frame of reference about how they might approach it.

Garry’s version dictates that the bio be submitted 3-4 days before the retreat (so that you can make the book and write the quiz). Because we didn’t want staff (beyond team leads) to have to prepare anything in advance, I modified the guidelines:

  1. This is a personal bio, not your formal professional bio.
  2. It cannot be longer than 2 pages (single-sided).
  3. You must finish by 1:45pm. (We started at noon)
  4. There must be some reference to the roots of your commitment to the work of the organization.
  5. The format is entirely up to you.
  6. This will be shared.

I provided sheets of paper and markers and colored pencils, but we also had access to our computers and a printer. When folks finished, they hung up their bios in a designated area. Everyone read each other’s throughout the remainder of the retreat.

The result was an amazingly diverse collection of off-the-cuff personal stories (and drawings!). Lots of them were funny, some were somber, and all of them were incredibly touching. I learned something new about every single one of my teammates–even the ones I’ve spent a lot of time with, driving across midwestern states.

If you decide to try this with your team, I highly recommend giving folks a limited amount of time to work on their bio in real time (not as an assignment to do on their own time). While some people finished the task in less than an hour, others took every single second allotted. Because a lot of people tend to overthink and aim for perfection, springing this activity on them (hopefully) forced them to go with the flow and settle with what they had–in a good way!

Since Joan Garry is generous–and brave–enough to share her bio as an example, I’ll share mine, too.

And please share your best staff retreat memories and favorite activities in the comments!

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