I am both fascinated and frustrated by knots. I love how, with just a couple of twists and turns, a simple rope can turn into a device that helps propel a man up a mountain or anchors a ship to a pier. I am frustrated by the fact that every piece of chain, string, or hose in my shop always ends up in knots just by laying in a box.
I was untangling my headphone cable the other day as my mind replayed a recent conversation with a friend. Pete’s job had given him a good beating over the past several weeks and he needed a place to vent. He was all knotted up, much like the headphones I had in my hands. Pete wasn’t mad or angry, just frustrated. The frustration came not from one particular event, but from a series of small events that started to overwhelm him.As I sat down with Pete, I could hear the anxiety in his voice. The number of things he was worried about formed a large knotted ball of threads. He would move quickly between a number of different people and several conversations that didn’t go well. As Pete recounted each of the threads that comprised this big ball of anxiety, I kept thinking to myself, “Wow, that doesn’t seem so bad.”
I had seen this behavior before, and often. I do this same thing to myself. I have a lot of little things go wrong that contribute to my big knotted ball. Eventually the ball gets big enough to cause me to retreat and become fearful. My anxiety is because of the ball, not the individual threads.
Over the years I have developed a technique to help overcome this situation. There are three easy steps:
• Name It
• Create an MVP
This method is rooted in the idea that we are most afraid of the unknown. If you want to alleviate fear, give the source a name. The problem with the knotted ball is that all of the entangled elements have lost their identity and have been taken over by the nameless mass.
1. Split It – Your anxiety lies in the mass, so the logical first step is to decompose the mass into its individual threads. Sit down with a piece of paper and write down every thread that is contributing to the knotted ball. The threads may not be related and often aren’t. It might be a combination of work and home situations. Just picture the ball shrinking as you write each thread down on paper. Don’t stop until you no longer see the ball.
2. Name It – Give each thread a name. It may sound optional, but it’s not. It is very important that you give the thing that is dragging you down a name. It takes the problem from your head and allows you to talk about it on a first name basis. It is no longer anonymous. It is no longer unknown. When you finally resolve the problem, you will be able to retire the name giving an even greater sense of accomplishment.
3. Crete an MVP (Minimum Viable Progress) – Those in the product building community will likely recognize the term MVP. In that world, MVP stands for Minimum Viable Product. I changed the last word to suit my purpose.
In the product world, an MVP is the smallest amount of work needed to produce a product that gains the maximum amount of learning. The idea is to take a large bet (like designing a brand new product) and help reduce the risks associated with the investment by taking smaller development steps, learning from the step, adjusting according to that learning, and then taking another small iteration.
The Minimum Viable Progress step is one designed to make you feel like you are making progress toward improving your situation. For each thread on your newly created list, ask yourself, “What is the smallest amount of work I can do that will make me feel like I have accomplished something toward making the problem better.” Write it down. Aim low – its called minimum for a reason.
The MVP step is critical. You may decide you have the capacity to do more, but only consider doing so after you have completed each of the MVPs listed first. If your knotted ball turns into a list of 20 things, you might be hard pressed just to get the MVPs done. Moving a little on each item prevents it from re-entangling itself and gives you the satisfaction of knowing that no single thread is being ignored.
Once you have accomplished the MVP for an item, add a new MVP step for that thread. What is the next small step that gets you closer to eradicating the issue? This process continues until you are satisfied that you have killed the previously unnamed problem. Feel free to give your newly defeated problem a headstone – it now has a name.
When Pete and I finished our discussion, I could see the anxiety start to melt. All we did was take the first step of splitting his knotted ball into smaller threads. He began to realize that much of his anxiety was due to the compounding nature of the events and not the events themselves. Now it was up to him to name the threads to remove the fear of the unknown and develop his list of MVPs so that he could get meaningful progress – progress that gave him a better peace of mind.
Unfortunately, I haven’t found a good way to apply this method to the headphone cable I was working on.