What do you do when things just aren’t working?

I’m writing this from my sick bed, where I’ve been hauled up for over a week with the flu and an ear infection. It’s the perfect setting for writing about when things just aren’t working. I’m the literal embodiment of this right now. My balance is so out of whack that I keep walking into walls and my brain is so fuzzy my partner caught me putting a mass of snotty tissues in the dishwasher (because I thought it was a bin) and I put my pencil case full of pens in the bin (because I thought the bin was my bag). You get the picture.

At some point we all have to navigate and make decisions in this just isn’t working anymore situations. Whether it’s with work, striving toward our goals, careers, relationships, living arrangements, planning, friendships, collaborations, ideas, or projects.

When I’m working through tough decisions I always turn to pen and paper. I write out how I feel and why things aren’t working — usually out of pure frustration and to let off steam. Then I look for patterns of activity, events and behaviours preceding the breakdown. I look at where I might be at fault, where I might be wrong or potentially misperceiving things. I try to log everything that was done and said, then inevitably go in circles, get frustrated, phone friends, agree and disagree with them and slowly and painfully come to some sort of decision and way forward. A totally effective process, I know.

I like to think I’m getting better at managing stressful this just isn’t working anymore situations. Particularly when it comes to business matters (because work is more transactional than friendship for example) where roles, responsibilities and expectations are defined and you are more clearly accountable. But earlier this month when I had to fire a client three-months into our collaboration, I was reminded that maybe I’m not quite as good at navigating this stuff as I thought.

Some quick context — deciding to fire this client was particularly challenging because they promised great things, we’d worked together before, they were enthusiastic and generously paid me in advance for a series of infographic projects. Sounds good, right? These projects were locked in as my main income for a quarter of the year. Hooray. But then this client kept missing project milestones, then deadlines, breaking working agreements, changing their mind, disappearing, not communicating, changing the scope of the brief — the list goes on. It was a scheduling nightmare. It impacted my other client work and totally sapped my energy.

I was in a rut, overwhelmed with stress and frustration and my usual totally effective process for making tough decisions wasn’t getting results. I needed to try a different approach. Thankfully I came across this article by Tasha Eurich, To Make Better Decisions, Ask Yourself What, Not Why. Tasha explains that while asking why is critical for solving problems in a team — so you can understand external events and see who dropped the ball and how to prevent it in future — if you want to understand yourself better, get insight and make better decisions you need to ask yourself what questions.

Through changing the language of my questioning — as she suggests — I was able to shift my questions (which had me going in circles) from why can’t I resolve these work issues, why is this stressing me out so much, why are they doing this to me? to what is upsetting me so much about this situation, what is not working, what are my options to resolve this situation? This simple language shift was invaluable and helped me clearly see the situation, the problems and plan my way forward with more confidence.

Tasha writes, “why questions draw us to our limitations; what questions help us see our potential. Why questions stir up negative emotions; what questions keep us curious. Why questions trap us in our past; what questions help us create a better future. For example. Let’s say you’re in a terrible mood after work. Asking why do I feel this way? is likely to elicit such unhelpful answers as because I hate Mondays! or because I’m just a negative person! What if you instead asked what am I feeling right now? Perhaps you’d realise that you’re overwhelmed at work, exhausted, and hungry. Rather than blindly reacting to these feelings, you take a step back, decide to fix yourself dinner, call a friend for some advice about how to manage your work stress, and commit to an early bedtime.”

This what not why method was great for helping me get unstuck and make a decision. Do you have strategies you use to help you figure out a way forward? I’m always on the lookout for approaches and tools to help untangle the emotions from the facts in these difficult situations — if you have some methods you like, I’d love to know about them.

Additionally, this challenging client experience has helped me reevaluate my pricing and write a clearer contract & terms of engagement. If you are a freelancer and would like links to some of the resources check out this discussion on contract clauses you should consider — that covers rates, invoicing terms, a kill fee, edit cycles, and dealing with scope creep. Along with Jessica Hische’s perspective on the dark art of pricing, and her email helper for negotiating incoming project terms which is pure gold.