I use a whiteboard to start conversations for me.  Yes, it's the normal 2ft x 3ft variety, and no, it doesn't have any special abilities.  What makes it special is the conversation topics people write on it and the interactions I strike up based on it.  A whiteboard is a fabulous conversation starter.

A Lousy Conversation Starter Yields Lousy Conversations

I have a habit of asking coworkers, "How is your day going?"  I mean the question in earnest but inevitably I get the same responses.

Pretty good.
Fine.
It's going.

I ask a generic question and I receive generic responses.  Although I genuinely want to know how the person's day is going, that doesn't come through in my conversation starter.  The responses give me nothing to work with and no inspiration for follow-up discussion.

I want to walk away from a conversation feeling more connected to the other person, and my lousy question doesn't cut it.

Enter the Whiteboard

Our break room has a whiteboard sitting out in plain view, begging to be written on.  Every week a new question gets posed.  The questions are sometimes silly and sometimes more meaty, but either way they encourage conversation and foster camaraderie.  Throughout the week, people respond to the original question or add witty commentary on earlier responses.

This is a great conversation starter for introverts like me.  There's always a discussion topic at the ready.  I can reference the board and ask a person to describe her own experience with the best burger in town or what board game she liked playing as a child or what book she's read that really impacted her.

The whiteboard lets me dive into specific topics without springing it upon someone.  It's similar to when a person is wearing a unique clothing item or is traveling with a dog or baby.  There's a ready excuse to start a conversation.

So thank you, O Whiteboard, for letting me skip the small talk.

I love a quiet evening at home.  I love reading, I love fires in the fireplace, I love a nice glass of wine.  The draw of an evening at home, especially after a long day, is strong.  Of course, I understand that not every night can be spent at home.  And even if it could, I wouldn't want that.  I value being out in the world, meeting new people, and experiencing new things.  The struggle comes when I have an evening commitment and not much energy left.  My introvert's inner dialogue becomes a battleground over the use of that energy.

The battle features my Introverted Side and my Extroverted Side.  My Introverted Side is my default way of operating and the side that craves the quiet evenings.  My Extroverted Side is the one that craves experiences and knows that good things come from stretching outside one's comfort zone.

Take networking for example.  An event full of new people, small talk, and business cards is well outside my comfort zone.  But I encourage myself to try new things and recently signed up for an evening networking event.  The night before I reminded myself why I wanted to go and what I hoped to get out of it.

Inner Dialogue: The Night Before

  • Extroverted Side: I'm excited about the networking event tomorrow!  Last time we met some cool people and felt inspired!
  • Introverted Side: True, but I remember the room being crowded and loud.
  • ES: Sure, but that's just because there were lots of engaging conversations happening.
  • IS: Ugh.  I hate small talk.  I'm nervous I won't know what to say to people.
  • ES: You can do it!  Besides, aren't you reading that book Networking for People Who Hate Networking that talks about approaching networking differently?
  • IS: Yeah, that's true...  Okay!  I can do this!
  • ES: That's the spirit!

The next day arrived.  After a long workday, it was time to head to the event.  The introvert's inner dialogue resumed.

Inner Dialogue: The Day Of

  • IS: I'm beat.  I'd love to head home and enjoy a walk and a glass of wine.  What a nice way to spend the evening!
  • ES: Wait a minute!  We already talked about the networking event for this evening.
  • IS: Yeah, but I'm feeling kind of tired.
  • ES: You'll have fun once you get there.  And besides, who knows whom you might meet!
  • IS: Yeah, but it's halfway across town and traffic looks heavy.
  • ES: But, but... I was looking forward to it.
  • IS: Yeah, I'm just not up to it.  Maybe next time.

I headed home and did indeed enjoy a quiet evening.  But the next day I had second thoughts.

Inner Dialogue: The Next Day

  • IS: I think you were right.  We should have attended the event.
  • ES: Oh yeah?  Why do you say that?
  • IS: Well, I can enjoy a night at home any time.  That networking event only comes around once a year.
  • ES: That's what I was trying to tell you!
  • IS: I know, I know.  I promise to go next time.

 

I confess.  I'm a geek when it comes to personal finance.  I've consumed countless books, blogs, and podcasts on the subject.  There's a recurring idea in personal finance that forced me to reexamine how people make decisions and achieve their goals.  The concept is paying yourself first.  Only recently did I realize that paying myself first doesn't only apply to money!  I urge you to pay yourself first energy-wise as well.  Here's why.

Pay Yourself First

Let's start with "pay yourself first" as it applies to personal finance.  Let's say you have a savings goal and decide to put any money left over at the end of the month toward the goal.  That sounds like forward progress, right?  

The flaw is that rarely is any money left over.  All the other expenses for the month (rent, utilities, food, entertainment, etc.) are going to come out first.  Despite the good intentions, you've paid yourself last.  And the leftovers will be paltry.  You are unlikely to gain traction toward your goal.  

In paying yourself last, it's hard to argue that your actions align with your goal.  So if you're serious about the goal, you need to pay yourself first (or put the desired amount of money toward the goal first) before spending the rest of your monthly income.  High priority expenses shouldn't be given the leftovers. 

Energy Bank Income vs. Expenses

The same logic applies to your energy bank.  Unless you're superhuman, your energy levels fluctuate daily.  Your energy bank starts at a certain level and gets replenished by sleep, energizing activities, and/or reaching your prime time of day.  These are the "income" equivalents to the energy bank.  Throughout the day, different actions and events withdraw energy as "expenses."

For years I've monitored the fluctuation in my energy reserves, but here's the mistake I made.  My energy levels are highest in the morning, yet I used to save important activities for the end of the day when I'm running on empty.  This meant I was setting myself up to fail on my so-called important goals.

Just as my money usage needs to align with my money goals, my energy usage needs to align with my personal goals.  I can only gain traction on my personal goals if I have the energy to put toward them.  

How I Pay Myself First Energy-wise

If I’ve decided to learn a new skill, it is unlikely to go well when I’m lowest on energy.  The same is true for exercise, hobbies, and time with family.  I can't declare that these are important and then schedule them for times that I have only energy dregs left.  It's incongruous.

This realization caused me to adjust my morning routine.  More accurately, it caused me to form a morning routine.  Too often after work I was too tired for activities I wanted to do.  Each day I proclaimed I'd do it the next day, but then the next day would come and I'd be just as tired as the previous day.

My highest priority actions and activities should be done when my energy levels are highest.  So now I schedule important activities before my workday.  I wake up at 6am, do a brief session of yoga, enjoy my morning coffee, and tackle something I care about.  For example, today I'm using that time block to write.

With this change, I feel accomplished before my workday even starts.  If nothing else, by the end of the day I will have done something that is important to me because I paid myself first energy-wise.

Use Your Energy Wisely

Here's my charge to you:

  1. Identify your top personal goals.
  2. Determine your peak times of day.  When do you have the most energy, drive, and focus?
  3. Examine the activities you have scheduled for those peak times.  Are they in line with your goals?  Have you scheduled your most important activities for times that make you likely to succeed?  Or are you giving your goals the leftovers?

Make sure your actions reflect your goals energy-wise just as money-wise.

If effective delegation were easy, I would have mastered it by now.  But it's not.  And how to delegate as an introvert involves an extra layer of complication.  You see, delegation is communication in disguise.  And that means it requires energy.  And doing it well requires even more energy.  So no, I haven't mastered the art of delegation yet.  But here's why I'm trying.

The hardest part of delegation is communicating well enough for another person to succeed.  I know what the tasks are and who would be good at performing them, but I want to communicate to others the way I'd want to be communicated to.

Delegation at its Worst

I don't want to be the kind of leader who communicates random tasks.  When done poorly, delegation looks like this:

"We need pastries on Thursday."

Umm...  I don't know what quantity to get, by when on Thursday, or whether the kind of pasty matters.  Even worse, I don't know why the task itself matters.  Is the boss planning on being hungry?  Are the pastries on sale on Thursday?  Are we having an event?  I'd likely grumble all the way to the bakery and back.

Effective Delegation

Effective delegation does not give a person a random task, but rather a role to play.  It gives the person enough information to be successful, without crossing into the realm of micromanagement.

Let's try again with the pastries.  I'd be much more happy to take care of them if I were told:

"On Thursday we have 4 prospective customers visiting the office at 10am.  I'd like them to feel welcome, so please make sure there are fresh pastries available in the conference room when they arrive.  One of the visitors has a nut allergy."

Ah!  Much better.  Now I get what we're doing, and I'm eager to help out.  I know how many people will be present, so I can estimate the quantities.  I know we're aiming for a welcoming environment, so I might take it upon myself to arrange the items nicely and tidy the surrounding area.  Thankfully the crucial nut allergy was mentioned to save us the embarrassment of having too few options.  In short, the second wording gives me something to be a part of.

How to Delegate

So what was the key difference between the two examples?  The communication style.  If I'm going to delegate something, I need to:

  • give a context for what we're doing.  I'm more invested when I know why something matters and whom it will impact.
  • state the logistics, including when the item is due and in what format.
  • describe the expected outcome.  I'm not going to tell someone how to do the task, but I want my team member to understand what the end goal looks like.
  • share any known resources.  There's no reason to make someone do something the hard way if I have a tool or information that will make the task easier or the outcome more successful.  This also minimizes errors and duplication going forward.
  • indicate the priority.  Unless the person is on stand-by, she will need to know how this item compares in priority to current work.

That's a lot of steps!  While none of these steps is particularly difficult, the effort required to communicate the task greatly increased.

How to Delegate as an Introvert

So how does delegation differ for introverts?  As an introvert I am constantly aware of the energy cost of different activities.  The mistake I've made countless times is to only measure the energy cost of doing the item against the energy cost of delegating the item.  I tend to skip the long-term calculation.

It's tempting to keep a lot of tasks for myself because the energy required to delegate effectively feels high.  But this is a flawed calculation because if I never delegate, the item will belong to me next time, the time after that, and so on.  Failure to delegate requires my energy each time the item arises.  So instead I should calculate how much energy will be saved in the future by equipping others to run with ball.

I want to give my team members space to grow.  That can't happen if I keep all the tasks for myself.

When I saw two friends at the end of the grocery aisle, my stomach clenched.  I hadn't seen them in months, so I should have been grateful for a chance to catch up.  But I was picking up supplies for the afternoon of cooking I had planned.  I find bulk cooking saves me effort during the week and builds up my introvert energy reserves.  I hadn't allocated energy for social time that day, and I feared the minutes spent in conversation would risk the energy reserves I was trying to accumulate.  I didn't want to make that trade.

It's easy to see how introverts might get accused of being antisocial.  I just revealed a time where running into friends caused minor anxiety.  It would be easy to assume I shun people and social time.  But that's not true.  I cherish quality time with friends.  I value meaningful activities.  I enjoy surprises, and most of the time adapting comes easily to me.  If I come across as antisocial, it's because my energy levels are threatened or low.

The feeling when my reserves are depleted is raw and desperate.  I avoid it at all costs.  When my energy levels are threatened, my brain jumps into a scarcity mentality.  I calculate the bare minimum actions I must do.  I drop pleasantries and ignore social cues.  My primary goal becomes protecting my reserves.

Running out of energy is a daily fear.  I know there are much larger concerns in the world, and I have no intent to diminish those.  But on the small-scale, personal level, running out of energy is my greatest fear.  To protect myself, there's a constant calculation in the back of my mind about how much energy remains.

So no, introverts are not antisocial.  But yes, next time I see you at the grocery store, you might find me behind the cereal boxes.

I have a feeling my grandmother never once heard or used the phrase "context switching."  Growing up on a farm there was hard work to be done and little time for competing priorities.  Yet for me the concept is so familiar that I've even wondered how different personality types respond to context switching and are affected by it.  Is it easier for some folks than others?  Does the energy use required impact introverts more?  Susan Cain's 2011 blog post for Psychology Today shed some light for me, which made me reflect on context switching for introverts and the impact in my own life.

What I've observed is:

When I switch gears to another category, it takes more energy than when I switch activities within the same category.

Categories at work might be project planning, personnel and hiring, project creation, strategic thinking, mentoring, problem-solving, etc.

For example, if I'm working on a plan for an upcoming project, my brain is running through a bunch of logistics, such as who needs to be involved, what is the timeframe, what needs to be included in the first release, etc.  Switching among those tasks seems to use the same part of my brain.  But if I then need to switch to, say, emailing a response to a job applicant, my brain comes to a crashing halt and takes time to start up again.  Now I need to account for things like answering politely, communicating clearly, and remembering what not to say during the hiring process.

Categories at home might be spending quality time with family members, household chores, reading, exercising, planning for an upcoming event, etc.

For example, I usually talk with my parents on the phone on Sunday evenings.  It's a ritual I look forward to, but depending on what I've been doing beforehand, the idea of a phone call, even to loved ones, can sound draining.

I find that a lot of my energy is gobbled up during context switching.  I try to structure my days to avoid it, but is seems like this aspect of modern life is here to stay.

Even though I felt betrayed by my own body language, I had to laugh.  My coworker and I had an awkward exchange that was a textbook-perfect example of how personality type affects communication.  Although I didn't ask her afterwards, I'm willing to bet we saw the same situation very differently.  I’ll share the same story twice to decode my introvert body language.

The Extrovert’s Version of the Story

I stopped my coworker in the hallway to ask how she wanted our team to celebrate her upcoming birthday.  She always arranges a birthday lunch for each of us, so I wanted to do the same in return.  Her response was kind of weird though.  She tried to deflect the question and writhed sideways as if physically uncomfortable.  I just wanted to do something nice, so I’m not sure why she responded so strangely.

The Introvert’s Version of the Story

An outgoing coworker stopped me in the hallway and asked me an unexpected personal question.  It was a perfectly reasonable question, not too intrusive, and came from a place of genuine caring.  But I wasn't ready for it.  As I thought about my answer, I unconsciously turned to the side almost as if to protect myself.  I realized this a few moments later and turned back, hoping I didn’t seem disinterested or rude.  The combination of the unexpected attention, answering a personal question, and our close proximity made me feel vulnerable even though my coworker radiated nothing but warmth.