WBR: Getting Our ACT Together
Raise your hand if you wrote yet another report over the weekend. Or if you were up writing at 11 PM on a weeknight. Or if you woke up at 3 AM fretting about a report you haven't written yet.
Raise both hands if you've ever felt guilty spending time with your family or friends because you weren't working on a report.
If you don’t have one or both hands in the air, this post (and Part 2) is not for you. Keep doing a great job balancing work and life. Keep writing pithy reports you finish in an hour before heading home to your blissful, report-free evenings.
If your hands are in the air – first, wave them around like you just don’t care and then keep reading.
There are lots of reasons reports take up so much of our lives. Some of these reasons are structural, some are systemic, and some are specific to our particular job environment. Those reasons are hard to change. But one reason reports suck up so much of our time is a reason we can easily change: Our reports themselves suck.
Right now, you might be frantically nodding in agreement. Perhaps you’d already made up your mind that our reports are not user-friendly. Or perhaps I convinced you with these posts that none of our reports are actually readable.
But maybe you’re not nodding in agreement. Perhaps you’re protesting that your reports are deep, rich, nuanced, individualized, market-driven, and in a word, fantastic - they just take too long to write.
Well my friend, that’s actually a problem. Because by definition, a report that takes too long to write is one that is not fantastic. A report that takes too long to write is one that leads to procrastination, perfectionism, or sacrifice.
Personally, I spend time in Camp Procrastination. My vulnerability when faced with reports that take too long to write is to put them off. Suddenly, I need to graph the test results on a nomogram, research every therapist in a 50-mile radius who treats that child’s specific disorder, or peruse 15 journal articles about the child’s diagnosis. Or worse, I need to organize my books by color, learn Italian, and start a blog.
Maybe you live in Camp Procrastination with me. If so, I’ll get around to saying hello to you later. For now though, I think we can all agree procrastination is not fantastic. Reports that are months late help no one.
But maybe you’re much more conscientious than I am. Perhaps instead you frolic in Perfectionism Meadow or take in the view from atop Sacrifice Mountain.
I get so many emails from colleagues who say they’ve written reports at birthday parties, at weddings, or on vacation. Or in airports, in the back of a taxi, while their kids are playing without them, or while at a meeting. Or in the middle of the night, at 3 in the morning, and while crying and drinking an adult beverage. I know colleagues who write 2, 4, or 6 (or more) reports a week this way. These colleagues are climbers of Sacrifice Mountain. Sacrifice Mountain sure has a great view. But the climb is not fantastic.
I also get perfectly-spelled emails from my friends in Perfectionism Meadow. These colleagues can only write one report a week (or month). Their process is slow, deliberative, and exhaustive. They confess they spend 20+ hours writing a report. And then they triple-check the report for accuracy. And then they fuss with the formatting. The product is great, but the process is not fantastic.
Some unlucky souls discover their Camp Procrastination sits smack in the middle of Perfectionism Meadow right on top of Sacrifice Mountain. Their reports are perfect… and written in 20-hour marathons fueled by tears and wine. (See: Me on internship & post-doc).
A colleague sent me an email last week that poignantly summed up how many of us feel about reports. She said:
Reports have been the bane of my professional existence. When I think of so many precious hours of my life spent writing reports that don't get read - I feel regret. I should have spent the time loving and living life.
I asked this colleague's permission to post her quote because it felt so powerful. I should have spent more time loving and living life. Oh man. Does that hit you the same way it hit me?
So here we are, fully aware of the problem: We spend too much time writing reports that are not fantastic - either because parents can't read them, or because they are late, or because they are so perfect it hurts, or because of the sacrifices we need to make to get them done. Or in some cases, for all of those reasons.
The solution is also pretty obvious, if we're willing to expand our definition of what "better" means. We need to Write Better Reports (can I trademark that yet?). But if this is so obvious, why aren't we doing it yet?
Where We're Going
In later posts, I'm going to ask you to consider completely changing your report template so that you can write better reports. The last post was all about changing how you write. In future posts, I'm going to ask you to consider changing what you write. I'm going to ask you to find a new report model. One that works better for you and better for the families you see. I don't know what that model looks like for you - I have some suggestions, but these are your reports so you'll have to figure it out for yourself. Hopefully you'll come up with better ideas than I ever could.
But before we dig into that, I want to talk about mindset. For reasons I've laid out before, there are good reasons many of us write long unreadable reports. Challenging that status quo is going to be hard. It's not enough for some of us to say "Hey guys let's do something different!" and for others of us to say "Okay maybe! When we get some extra time!"
Changing how you work so you can get out of the camp, out of the meadow, off that mountain... it's going to be a journey. We'll have to be willing to examine why we aren't writing better reports already and why many of us are unwilling to experiment with a new report style. And why it sounds so weird to even say "I think we should write better reports" out loud.
So I hope you'll forgive a little diversion into why we're stuck, and how we might move past this stuck place.
How We Got Here
Recently, I watched a "Coffee Chat" between Rebecca Bransetter Ph.D. and Angela Watson . Rebecca runs the Notes from a School Psychologist blog. Angela runs Cornerstone for Teachers and is the author of Fewer Things, Better. While I'm not a teacher or a school psychologist, many of their ideas apply to those of us who work with kids and have insane expectations on our plates.
Angela and Rebecca talked about Mindset Shifts to help us be more productive. They talked about the power of finding new, more effective ways to work, rather than trying to "work harder." They also spoke of the courage it takes to question whether there is a better way to do something.
Rebecca gave an example of an archaic procedure she had to follow at her school until she dared to ask if there was a more efficient way. Angela responded with this quote:
No one who is [doing it this way] is doing it because they thought this was the "best way." It was just the easiest. And it was a relic from what they were already doing. If you have a better way, if you’re willing to experiment with something better... Isn’t it worth trying?
Your sanity is in the balance here. Your ability to keep doing the job you love is hanging in the balance. I think it’s worth taking that risk to see if there’s something better.
This perfectly sums up the state of reports in our field. No one who writes reports the "traditional way" does so because they've considered all the other options and think this one is the "best way." Surely no one thought "I think the best way to communicate with families is to put the most important information at the end of a dense, 20+ page document."
We write reports like this because this is how they've always been written. And once you've started writing reports this way, it's hard to stop. It's hard to think of, let alone try, something new. It's easier to keep writing them the same way, even if that way is working for no one.
Well, it's easier in the short term. In the long term, families are missing out on opportunities for something better. And we're sitting around a lonely campfire, in a barren meadow, on top of a cold mountain.
So why don't we change?
Recently, I read a book called The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris. Russ Harris is a prominent ACT therapist. He's also the author of The Happiness Trap book and website, as well as a slew of other books on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
In The Confidence Gap, Harris talks about this place we all get "stuck." This stuck place is where we are when we're living with a problem, but are afraid or unwilling to change it. Afraid of the hard work it will involve. Afraid of how people will react. Unwilling to see the feathers we'll ruffle. Unwilling to cope with the self-doubt we'll feel.
He likens this emotional space to the "Waiting Place" from the Dr. Seuss book, Oh the Places You'll Go!
He describes this stuck place as a sort of emotional DMV. A place where we wait and wait, watching precious moments tick by, hoping they'll eventually call our number. Once they call our number - that's when we'll feel a bolt of inspiration or courage.
We all get bogged down in the "Waiting Place" at times: waiting until we're in the mood, or we feel confident, or the time is right, before we start doing what really matters to us.
The Confidence Gap is not at all about report-writing, but I couldn't help thinking about our field's "report problem" while reading Ch. 18. The two central questions of that chapter are:
Why do we get stuck in this Waiting Place?
How do we get out?
Harris likes acronyms, so his answer to why we get stuck is FEAR:
Avoidance of Discomfort
Remoteness from Values
In ACT, cognitive fusion is when we become tangled up with our thoughts and let them dictate our behavior. We treat our thoughts as if they are absolute truth, or commands we must obey. A thought about reports that I fuse with regularly is "There is one right way to write reports." Another one I fuse with all the time and especially while writing this blog, is "Who am I to demand we should change how we write reports?" Some other common examples of fusion include:
Perfectionism: e.g., My report style must be perfect before I put a new idea out there. I can't experiment or change my mind. I can't do something different unless I know it will be the best.
Self-Judgment: I need to get better at writing reports the 'normal' way before I do something different. I need to get caught up before I try something new. I need to be able to work harder instead of messing around with trying to "work smarter." If I can't even manage regular reports, how will I handle something new?
Self-Doubt: My supervisors were amazing and they wrote reports the old way. All the books on reports say to write them the old way. Why would I think I can do better? How audacious and arrogant! And if I write shorter reports, will I even be worth what I'm charging parents?
Predicting the Worst: Parents and referral sources will hate my new report style. They'll demand I change it back. They'll complain on-line. I'll lose business.
Re-hashing Old Failures: I experimented with something before and it didn't work. Supervisors told me not to do it that way. I asked a question online about doing it this way and everyone said it was a bad idea. I still feel my face heat up when I think about that one time I tried something new and it fell flat.
Telling Ourselves We Can't: I can't come up with a new way to write reports! I'm not creative. I don't know every single way there is to write a report. I haven't read all the books out there on reports. I've never even cracked a book on communication models or information science. This isn't for me.
Fusion with Feelings: Just thinking about changing my reports fills me with anxiety and dread. That's a good reason not to change them. I would do it, but I'm afraid of what will happen and nervous about how it will affect my business.
Questions from Harris to ask yourself when you're stuck:
What stories am I fusing with? What thoughts have I decided are absolute truth? How are my feelings dictating my actions?
Sitting down to revise your entire report template sounds daunting. It sounds like hours of work. I took a week off work to change my report style. Who has time for that? Who has the luxury of not working for a week? And who wants to spend that week on "workation"?!
Sometimes we get stuck in the Waiting Place because what we're waiting for is time or energy. We think, "I'll play around with my report template when I have a long weekend. If I feel like it." Spoiler alert: We definitely will not have the time or energy that weekend.
I tend to make this problem worse for myself by setting unmanageable goals that I approach rigidly and without curiosity. I decide "I need to revise my entire report from the ground up" rather than ask, "Hmm... is there a way I could cut down the Test Results section?" Or, I decide "I need to reduce the grade level of all my report summaries to 9th grade reading level" rather than ask, "Can I shave off one grade level next time?" No wonder then that I procrastinate! Of course my brain and body rebel when I try to strap them in for a 100-hour work marathon with no clear end in sight.
Questions from Harris to ask yourself when you're stuck:
Is my goal in some way excessive? Am I trying to do too much? Am I approaching my goals with curiosity about possibilities, or as rigid "shoulds" that I have to do?
Avoidance of Discomfort
Hunkering down in the Waiting Place is a way to avoid discomfort. It isn't any fun doing the same old thing. But it sure is predictable. You don't have to take any risks. You don't have to do something you don't feel like doing.
Harris writes that when you're stuck, you're "waiting, waiting, waiting; desperately hoping that if you just wait long enough, the 'right' thoughts and feelings will show up." You know, those feelings of wanting to spend time revising your report template, which are surely just around the corner.
Staying stuck also means avoiding responsibility for the problem. "Reports are hard," you can tell yourself. "They just take a long time and there's nothing I can do about it." You never have to feel the sting of "The specific way I write my reports makes things harder for me and for the families I see. I could do something to fix this. I could provide something of better value in less time if I try."
Questions from Harris to ask yourself when you're stuck:
What thoughts and feelings am I trying to avoid or get rid of? What discomfort am I struggling with? Am I avoiding responsibility for the problem by staying stuck?
Remoteness from Values
In ACT, your values provide your motivation. When you're in touch with your values and commit to pursuing them, you're willing to endure discomfort. Kelly Wilson, another prominent ACT therapist, defines willingness as "deciding where you want to go in life and then heading off in that direction, even if that means feeling some pain along the way."
If you don't know what you value, or don't see a path to those values, you're not going to be willing to take risks. Or endure pain. You'll stick with the status quo, where at least you know what the costs are.
Of course, you do have lots of values about your reports right now. You also endure plenty of pain to pursue those values. Your values might be providing a report with depth, or one that is highly individualized. You might value diagnostic clarity or tailored recommendations. You might value a report that enriches a family's life with your empathy, expertise, or advocacy.
Those values are vital and meaningful and get you out of bed in the morning. But those values won't get you out of Procrastination Camp or Perfectionism Meadow. They won't get you off of Sacrifice Mountain. Because those values are only part of the picture.
If you are taking too long to write reports, you've lost touch with at least some of your values. Some part of your experience is being missed in your pursuit of other values you hold. Families are getting something they need from you, but at what cost - to them, and to you?
For me, the values I had lost touch with were:
Being truly 'present' with friends and family when I'm with them, rather than nagged by guilt about an overdue report
Honoring my commitments and doing what I said I would
Finding ways to work smarter rather than harder
Producing reports that are actually useful for families
Practicing in a way that lets me serve the most families I can without burning out
Taking real rest when I or my family needed care
Helping the next generation of testing psychologists avoid some of this suffering
When I spent time getting in touch with those values, a week's work and some courage to try something new suddenly didn't seem like too much to ask.
Questions from Harris when you're stuck:
What values am I forgetting or neglecting? What values am I acting inconsistently with?
Our acronym-loving friend Harris also has an acronym for how we get "unstuck" from this place. He says the opposite of FEAR is to DARE. Next week, we'll look at what DARE stands for and how we might apply it to creating a mindset shift for ourselves.
(I've already written this part, but I'm deliberately breaking this post up into two posts to try to work on "excessive goals" and not set up an expectation that I'll write a book chapter for every WBR post. Baby steps over here!)
Note: This post is written at the 5th grade level. There are 248 sentences. Average sentence length is 12.8 words. 31 of the sentences are hard to read; 9 are very hard to read. There is 1 use of the passive voice.