Approaching the New Year like an HGTV remodel show
The New Year is coming up. Most of us are thinking about the resolutions we’ll make and our goals for 2024. Some of us are also reflecting on the year that’s ending.
How far have you come in 2023?
Take your time. I’ve noticed that when people answer quickly, they list two or three big accomplishments, then immediately pivot to all the things they failed to do. This is not an opportunity to beat yourself up. But you probably will anyway.
When people take their time with this question, though, I’ve found they are often surprised at how much they end up congratulating themselves for. This is true even for people who can legitimately say they had a year of dreadful performance.
I think this is because we don’t have clear “before” and “after” pictures of our actual year to look at, like those HGTV renovation shows.
We all need HGTV producers to do our year-end reviews
The typical HGTV renovation show goes like this:
- We see the existing home. This is the before.
- The client describes everything they want in their redesigned home. This is the brief.
- The host gets a bid from the contractor that is waaaaay outside the budget.
- To stay within budget, the client has to scale back their expectations dramatically.
- After the work begins, the contractor finds hidden problems that make some of the renovations impossible and increase the cost of others.
- The Big Reveal happens, and the client is thrilled with the result. This is the after.
There may be some discussion during the Big Reveal about the compromises and omissions, but in every show that I’ve ever seen, the client ends up beyond happy.
“That’s not real life,” you may be saying. “That’s television. Of course the clients are happy. They’re on TV. They’re probably under contract to pretend to be happy.”
My inner cynic wants to agree with you, but I actually think the clients are genuinely happy. Why? Because they’e comparing the before photos to the after photos instead of to the original brief.
The client gets a dose of reality early in the process, resetting their expectations. Then the producers of the show are smart enough to keep showing us the before photos, all along the way. What was ugly? What was broken? What were the problems?
Then, in the Big Reveal, they show the client the final result of all the work. All we see at that point are the improvements. We see the clever solutions, the interesting design, the beautiful upgrades.
We aren’t shown the things that didn’t happen. The things that were left undone aren’t highlighted. The hosts only talk about compromises made if the end result is clever and worth celebrating.
In this way, they have us comparing the work that was done to the original starting point. We’re comparing the after to the before, rather than comparing the after to the brief.
The New Year lesson to take from these shows
People do the opposite of this when we judge our own performance.
We focus on the things left undone, the mistakes made, and the compromises allowed.
Although I hear this with many of my clients, I remember one particular client from last year who was extreme about ignoring her successes and highlighting her failures and omissions. She would tell me about all the things she’d accomplished in the prior few weeks, then immediately pivot to how she should have done them sooner, how she didn’t do them as well as she wanted, and how there were so many other things left undone.
It was in working with her that I first used this brief/before/after analogy. Over the next several sessions as we worked together, I heard her language change and saw her confidence increase, as she paid more attention to her accomplishments.
There were two issues we worked on in particular, which I’ve seen over and over with clients, friends, and colleagues:
First, we are constantly comparing ourselves to our ideal brief instead of our before state. Second, we keep updating our brief over time.
Compare yourself to the before, not to the brief
Let’s talk about the first of those. We constantly compare where we are to the ideal rather than to our starting point.
The imagined ideal is full of stretch goals and impossible dreams. It’s the list of desired upgrades before we get that sobering bid from the contractor. At the New Year especially, it’s based in magical thinking and holiday-addled optimism.
We imagine that ideal, then we keep it front and center in everything we do. We might as well tape it to our computer screens, have it playing like white noise while we sleep. It becomes who we imagine ourselves to be, if only we weren’t so flawed and lazy and incapable.
What I’m suggesting is, take the time to really remember your before of a year ago. Ignore that list of unreasonable resolutions and unattainable goals. Forget the imagined ideal state. Forget the original brief.
Then, list out all the things you actually did. Because that’s what life really is. It’s full of compromises, accidents, and unavoidable situations not of your own making.
And it’s full of accomplishments.
The benefit of looking back at how far you’ve come
We also undermine ourselves by constantly updating our before picture.
I’ve seen this especially prevalent with people trying to master a new skill, tool, or process. It’s not just the J Curve at play here. It’s also the fact that as we progress, we constantly reset the baseline by which we judge ourselves… and others
We may keep the brief the same, but every time we progress, we throw away the old before picture and take a new one.
This is one way we are hard on ourselves, but it’s also a way we are unwittingly hard on others.
Recently I was working with a senior executive who is, frankly, impossible to keep up with. You know the type: high capacity, high competency, high productivity. They get things done. Even their “down time” is filled with other tasks.
Those people tend to thrive with a rolling before picture. In fact, they rarely even think about looking back. They tend toward positivity, growth, and the future. They can naturally recognize progress while maintaining an unwavering commitment to the brief.
The problem with this particular executive was that she expected everyone else on her team to think and behave the same way. She wasn’t pausing to recognize the progress and growth of the team as they went.
She just kept accepting, and then promoting, the new status as the baseline for growth. Don’t stop to think about the last step we took. Just take the next step.
While that fueled her and kept her moving forward, it was exhausting and demoralizing for her team. They kept hearing the message that their work wasn’t good enough. They rarely, if ever, heard her praise how far they’d come.
For her part, she didn’t understand why they had begun to show signs of checking out. They seemed to be less productive rather than more productive. Her natural tendency was to try to motivate them by adding urgency and highlighting how much was left to be done.
You can see where this is going. It created a negative cycle because she was training her people to ignore—or worse, reject—the progress that had been made to date. There was only more to do, never recognition for what had been accomplished.
This had never occurred to her before. Once she was aware of it, we were able to come up with some simple steps she could take to not only break that negative cycle, but reverse it.
It would be hard to work for a boss like that, wouldn’t it? That’s what you do to yourself when you keep throwing away your before picture and replacing it with a new one, without also recognizing all the accomplishments along the way.
Why HGTV projects never fail
Have you ever noticed how projects on HGTV never actually fail? They may fail, but I’ve never seen it. Admittedly, my HGTV consumption is somewhat limited. Nevertheless.
In the real world, home renovation projects fail all the time. Feuds erupt between contractors and subcontractors. Miscommunications and misunderstandings undermine progress. Deals fall through. Marriages fall apart.
So it goes in life and the workplace as well.
What’s the difference between the real world and the TV world?
The TV world has producers and editors to keep the focus on the ultimate goal: Everyone must be happy with the outcome. That makes for good TV.
The producers and editors make sure to keep the focus on how much better the after is than the before. They don’t spend all their time at the end complaining about how the after fails to live up to the original brief.
This isn’t deception. It’s simply managing perspective. Staying focused on the positive. There’s always positive to be celebrated.
Unfortunately, in life and business we don’t normally have editors and producers carefully curating the storyline and ensuring the end result makes for good TV.
But that’s actually the role of a good coach. It’s the role I play with a lot of my clients.
The producers and editors on HGTV don’t do the design, architecture, demolition, construction, or any other work on the house. They make sure the show comes out right.
So it is with a coach. I don’t manage my clients’ teams, or raise their teenage children, or run their companies, or plan their lives. They do all that for themselves. They are capable and talented.
I just make sure the show comes out right. And one way I do that is to make sure my clients understand not just where they hope to go, but also just how far they’ve come. It’s all about mindset, particularly when approaching the New Year.
I can help.
I work with top executives and middle managers to improve their leadership skills, their workplace culture, and the effectiveness of their teams. Also, I help individuals identify and achieve their personal goals. Would you like to become more aware, be more effective, be more empowered, and feel fully prepared for your next steps?
You can help.
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