On being ... that time of year?

By Ingrid Sapona

Last night, when I started thinking about what to write about, the idea I kept coming back to was habits. But, I knew that years ago I wrote a column on the topic (On being … a creature of habit), so I was reluctant to write about it again. Out of curiosity, I pulled out the previous column to see what I said about it before.

That column reflected on what happens when a habit I have -- but didn’t really even realize was a habit -- is disrupted. The thought I tried to leave the reader with then was that little disruptions in habit are a good thing because they help us become more aware of how we behave. My reflections the past few days about habits have been quite different. Indeed, the reason I think habits are on my mind today is because I’ve been working on adopting a few in relation to my business.

My consulting business is quite slow right now. So, I’ve been trying to use the time I have on my hands to explore some new business strategies and methods. To this end, I decided to look into using some sort of business contact management software. Up to now, it’s the type of thing I had rejected as simply inapplicable to my type of business.

I don’t know why, exactly, I decided to look into such software now, other than the idea that maybe trying something different would help. Well, that, and the realization that, though I’ve always thought of my business as unique, or at least very different from many other kinds of businesses (feel free to imitate Dana Carvey’s Church Lady and let out a mocking little, “aw, isn’t that special”), perhaps it’s time I get over it and try a few more tools and techniques that work for other successful businesspeople.

After a bit of digging and asking around, I realized my Microsoft Office for Small Business package includes contact management software. So, last weekend I installed it and started playing around with it. Interestingly, the challenge of thinking about how to use it in my business forced me to focus on my business in ways I hadn’t in quite some time. Suddenly, a number of new ideas about people, businesses, and organizations I might contact popped into my head.

Soon I realized that the feature that’s likely to prove most valuable for me is the one for creating “tasks”. In my case, most of the tasks involve calling or e-mailing someone -- a current client, a potential client, or someone that I should network with. Though I’ve always got a “To Do” list scribbled down that includes names of folks to contact, I find following-up with people (much less cold calls) very challenging. I eventually get to everyone on my list -- but because I find it so nerve-wracking, every unanswered call (much less the slightest rebuff) feels like an out-and-out rejection of me and my work. As a result, more often than not I struggle through one or two attempts at reaching, or meeting with, someone, then I give up on that person for quite some time.

With this program, when you input a task you’re prompted to assign a due date, which later causes the program to issue a reminder at the appropriate time. My inclination was to try to bypass these prompts (after all, being constantly reminded of things I should do is kind of like having a boss, which anyone who works for themselves is clearly keen to avoid). But, in the spirit of trying something new, I assigned various (appropriate) due dates to all the tasks I inputted.

The following Monday, I was working away when the first reminder of a task popped up. It caught me by surprise, but I dutifully read it. Sure enough, it was about calling someone whom I’ve never met but whose name was given to me by a client. I had included the phone number in the task, so I figured, what the hell, and I immediately made the call. I got their voice mail and left a message. Hey -- that wasn’t too bad. Later that day a few other reminders popped up and I dealt with each. (In some cases I postponed them for a few hours, but by the end of the day, I had completed them all.) I did the same the next day. As well, each day, as new ideas came to me, I added more tasks for later follow-up.

By the third day I noticed that much (not all, but lots) of the anxiety I normally feel when contacting people was gone. Somehow, the electronic reminders have helped me come to grips with the idea that following-up is just business -- it’s not personal. Also, I realized that getting in the habit of setting straightforward, fairly simple tasks and being in the habit of completing them helps make me feel I’m being productive, which is no a small feat when there’s little paying work to keep me otherwise occupied.

Now, I’ll bet you’re wondering about the title and how it relates to habits. As I said, I knew I had written about habits before and so I pulled out the earlier column. After re-reading it and thinking about whether I’d be rehashing something I’d already written, I noticed the date on it: January 15, 2003 -- five years to the day!* Well, as you can imagine, THAT got me thinking too…

Is it a coincidence that I find myself preoccupied with my own habits in mid-January? Hmmm…let’s see… The skies are gray, the days are cold and short, and we’re inundated with ads for things like diets, exercise programs, and smoking cessation methods. So what do you think? Is it me, or is it just that time of year?

*FYI, I e-mail On being ... to some readers on the 15th and 30th of each month and I post it on the blog the next day.

© 2008 Ingrid Sapona


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