Books That Changed My Life – The Feeling Good Handbook

This post is part of an ongoing series on books that have greatly influenced my life.

Today, I want to be open and honest about a fairly dark period in my life. It’s important that we reflect on these times, so that we may learn from them and make ourselves more resilient. Life has a way of throwing challenges at us when we least expect it, and while we cannot control what happens to us, we can control how we respond.

During my second and third years in college, I went through what in hindsight was a period of fairly deep clinical depression. I was often melancholy, unmotivated, and (despite being surrounded by a wonderful group of friends) lonely. The cult of macho surrounding my fraternity boy existence demanded strength, so I hid my feelings and pushed them aside. I felt lost, and wondered why everyone else seemed so happy and successful, when I doomed to a life of perpetual failure.

It took some time and a few fairly harsh experiences for me to realize that I could not solve this on my own. I felt ashamed, but knew that I must seek help if I was to break free. Thankfully, I found a wonderful psychologist who helped teach me why I felt the way I did, and importantly, how I could change the way I thought. The connection between thoughts and emotions, while not obvious to me at the time, sparked an intuitive reaction that motivated me to learn more. And the more I read, the more I understood how critical our patterns of thought were to our well being.

Which brings us to the book I’m writing about today, The Feeling Good Handbook by Dr. David Burns.

By the time I got to this book, I’d already read a number of others on the subject of Cognitive Behavioral therapy, such as Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism, so I was fairly well versed in the theory that our thoughts can have a pronounced effect on how we feel. But Burns’ book was by far the most well written and practical of the bunch, and the result was nothing short of amazing. The idea is that by simply applying some reflection and logic to our thoughts, we can generate dramatic changes in our mood and the way we perceive the world around us. Sound like snake oil? I thought so too, until I tried it.

It turns out that we humans tend to think in extremely illogical ways. For example, when we forget to respond to a client e-mail, we might think “I’m such an idiot, I should have responded to that! My boss is upset and I’ll be passed over for that promotion.” In that one stream of thought are three brilliant examples of what Burns calls cognitive distortions. These are ways that we warp our patterns of thought in ways that distort reality, often in ways that make things appear a lot worse than they really are.

  1. “I’m such an idiot, I should have responded to that!” – Ah, the should statement. What a useless word! All it does is create shame and regret. We cannot change what we have done, and hindsight is always perfect, so what good does it do to retroactively criticize ourselves?
  2. My boss is upset…” – So, you can now read minds? Perhaps your boss is upset, but you can’t know until you speak to them.
  3. “…I’ll be passed over for that promotion.” – Now you can predict the future? How do you know for sure that this one incident will knock you out of the competition?

I don’t think that it is possible to describe how powerful the impact of becoming conscious of, and later learning to direct, my thoughts was on my life. Besides affecting a profound change in my emotional well being, it greatly influenced my ultimate choice of college major (psychology), knowledge I (despite being in a totally unrelated field) still make daily use of.

How We Create Our Own Stress

Between stimulus and response is our greatest power – the freedom to choose.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’ve written before about how kids can be amazing teachers if we just let them, and this week yet another example of that came to pass.

It was later in the evening, and I was in the process of giving my son a bath. It had been a trying day at work, so my mind was drained and it was all I could do to keep up with the boundless energy of a four year old. My son is an extremely perceptive little guy, so he noticed that his dad was a little less talkative than usual.

Him: Daddy, why are you so tired?

Me: Sorry buddy, Daddy had a really crazy day at work.

Him: Why did you make your day at work so crazy Daddy?

Me: No buddy. Daddy didn’t.. pause

I was about to say “No buddy. Daddy didn’t make his day at work crazy, all the <insert various mean but yet appropriate for kid words here> at Daddy’s work made his day crazy.” But his question made me think: did the people at work really make my day crazy, or was it how I chose to react that caused the problem?

If you think about it, we’ve all probably been guilty of this classic mistaken attribution of our bad days at some point. “That guy really ruined my day!” “If only my flight were on time, I wouldn’t be so stressed out!” “That damn kid, if he would just leave me alone I wouldn’t be in such a bad mood!”

All of these responses, while completely natural, are based on a fundamentally flawed idea – that the things that happen to us determine our own response.

The jerk at the coffee shop this morning didn’t make you angry, you got upset because you felt he was disrespecting you and the other customers. The flight being late didn’t stress you out, your worry about not being on time did. And the kid demanding your attention? Well, perhaps you hold a belief that he should be more independent at his age, or that you deserve some quiet time to yourself, and his threatening that makes you uncomfortable.

Mind you, I don’t want to imply that merely being aware of this fact will allow you to flow through life with the calmness of a Vulcan. Nor am I saying that one should feel bad about reacting to life’s little challenges in a, well, human way. Being aware of our thoughts and how they affect us is not the same as the ability to turn those thoughts in a more productive direction. But awareness is certainly key, and a valuable skill to have in your emotional toolkit.

The next time you feel yourself becoming angry, or your blood pressure rising, take a moment to consider what is going through your mind, and how it is affecting your emotions. Consider carefully if you are creating your own stress, and if so, if it is really a productive use of your energy. We have so many things to do and so little time to do them; why add more unnecessary tension?

The Power Of Living The Intentional Life

in·ten·tion [in-ten-shuhn]

noun

  1. an act or instance of determining mentally upon some action or result.

  2. the end or object intended; purpose.

From dictionary.com

It is far too easy to coast through life without determined direction. Especially in today’s world of endless distractions (anyone ever try the random article feature of Wikipedia?), one can drift from action to action without giving so much as a thought as to a higher goal or purpose.

I fall prey to this from time to time (perhaps more often than I’d like to admit). Take this scenario: I’ll open an article to read, which links to another, then another, then another. I’m a very intense reader, such that I easily get lost in the sea of words without much sense of time passing. I look up, and before I know it, hours have passed and I have little to show for it except having increased my knowledge around some random area of interest, and a lingering feeling of guilt over having not been more productive.

I’d like to pause here, and let you consider your reaction to the above passage. What questions would you ask me? Would you say, “But what’s wrong with reading? Don’t you think reading is a wonderful way to increase one’s knowledge? Would you have us all be machines who simple churn out production every hour of the day?”

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Understand, I am not saying that spending time (even a lot of time) reading random wikipedia articles about the 2007 Asian women’s junior handball championship is, in and of itself, a bad thing. I love reading, and think that it is an absolutely crucial part of lifelong education. If you look at your goals and your lists, and you decide that the best use of your time is to learn about the history of a random Louisiana highway, then by all means, go forth and don’t feel an ounce of guilt.

What’s the difference, you might ask? Simple: in the second case the act was done in an intentional manner. There’s quite a difference between carefully choosing among various ways to spend your time (a most valuable and precious commodity), and letting whim take your by the leash and drag you wherever it chooses.

When I talk about “living the intentional life”, I mean to say that I strive to spend the limited hours of my life in a conscious and considered manner. I have goals that I want to achieve, and, whether it be to become a better father, publish a science fiction novel, or even have a clean set of clothes to wear come Monday morning, the only way to accomplish them is through calculated allocation of the one resource I control fully: my time.

“But where’s the fun,” you say. “Where’s the spontaneity in that?”

Let me be clear: living in an intentional manner in no way conflicts with embracing spontaneity.

Let me give an example. As I planned my day, I intended to spend several hours in the afternoon writing this post. When the time to begin came around, I sat down, closed all my browsers, shut the office door, and began writing. I was humming along nicely, when I noticed that it was snowing quite heavily outside my office window. At that moment, the goal of finishing this post became less important than spending some quality time playing in the snow with my young son. This was a conscious choice to deviate from my original intent for the sake of some impromptu fun, and I do not have one ounce of regret for making it. In fact, one of the reasons I was able to do this on a whim was because I had spent earlier time in the day wisely working on various tasks around the house. In this way, intention breeds spontaneity, instead of smothering it.

All you have to do in order to live with intent is to use your power of reason and will to direct your own activity. From time to time, stop whatever you are doing, and ask if this is really how you want to be spending what little time you have left on this Earth. If it be in pursuit of making an army of snow angels with your children, so be it. If it be working towards restoring that classic car you’ve always dreamed of, so be it. Even if it involves nothing more than sitting with a cup of tea and reading the tabloids, so be it. Free will is one of the most basic and powerful of all human abilities; use it wisely and there is nothing you cannot accomplish.

Reflections Of A Failed Closer

I have a problem with closing things out.

There, I said it. I’ve always had a nagging notion in my head that while I’ve made leaps and bounds in terms of my personal productivity and effectiveness, something still just wasn’t quite right. After careful consideration (and a lot of not-so-gentle nudging from my wife, bless her patient heart), I’ve finally admitted what I’ve known all along, but didn’t want to hear.

Starting things is easy. You’re excited about the new project or achieving something. Your energy level is high, as is your interest. You want nothing more than to focus on getting this done. And as you work, it feels wonderful to make progress.

But as time goes on, the luster fades. The once intriguing effort turns into a dull, draining mountain of seemingly endless tasks. You avoid looking at the list of remaining work because every time you do, you feel like you will never get through it and finish. Whenever you try to start work, you always think “Oh how boring this will be, why don’t I just do something else.” And, of course, that is exactly what happens.

Now, in the spectrum of productivity, I consider myself to be fairly well into the realm of the good. I make lists, I update them, I do some planning around how to spend my time, and I try to be intentional about my actions. Thus, the idea that I can’t finish things naturally introduces a good bit of cognitive dissonance, which is to say, it’s not a comfortable feeling. If I see myself as a productive individual, why would I not also be someone who follows through and completes things?

If you’re noticing a preponderance of psycho-babble so far, that’s good, because what I’m trying to get at here is how important it is to understand the psychology of not following through.

Humans are not a rational animal, but a rationalizing one.

Leon Festinger

Emotions are an incredible driving force in our lives. They shape how we perceive the world around us, and how we make choices. Unfortunately they are also, at least at times, based on no part of rational thinking. And when emotion and reason collide, emotion usually wins.

It might sound a bit extreme, but I truly believe that my struggle with not closing things out might be the single most important hurdle I need to overcome in my journey towards realizing my full potential as a human being. Think about it: when your life has ended, will people remember you for all the things you started? Have you ever heard anyone say “Boy, remember Josh? He sure was an incredible starter. Think of all the unfinished novels he wrote! What an accomplished guy!”?

Perhaps it’s a mark of a cruel world, but in the end, people are largely remembered (and thereby judged) by what they finished.

That is why I want to devote some time here to exploring my problem in depth. I feel that, while there might be some tough introspection ahead, in the end it will be an important journey, and an interesting one. And, I hope, one that will be useful to others who suffer from the same weakness.

My Response to “20 Things The Rich Do Every Day”

Not too long ago I was reading the post 20 Things The Rich Do Every Day That The Poor Don’t over on the RichHabits blog. To be honest, a lot of what was in there did not surprise me. For example, there were multiple habits that revolve around what psychologists call an internal locus of control. People with this trait believe that they can affect their future with their own action. Writing down goals, believing that good habits create luck, seeing education as a key to success; all these are characteristics of someone who believes that with hard, intentional effort, you can make yourself successful, despite the “lot that life has handed you.”

Don’t believe that? Read the stories of self made people, like Chris Gardner, John Rockefeller, or even J.K. Rowling (hey, there’s even hope for writers!). None of these folks came from money, and some faced incredibly dark times before becoming successful. If you want to watch a movie practically guaranteed to make you cry, try The Pursuit Of Happiness, which tells Gardner’s story of homelessness and despair, before finally getting his chance.

As someone who’s struggled with bad habits in periods of my life, I am an absolute believer that the patterns in our lives can have a tremendous effect on the path it takes. Seeing this list only reinforced that belief.

I would stop short, however, of saying that all poor people are simply poor because of bad habits. I think that is far too simplistic an explanation, which ignores factors like the incredibly skewed distribution of wealth. Circumstances and societal factors absolutely play a role in either increasing or decreasing poverty. Coming from a background in science, I also understand that corrolation does not imply causation; that is, just because the rich happen to be good goal setters doesn’t automatically mean that setting goals will make you wealthy.

That doesn’t mean that the habits listed are not valuable. Quite the opposite, I would say. These skills build upon an overall trait that I consider paramount to success in life: resiliency. Having a large network, for example (habit number 12), would come in very handy when you unexpectedly lose your job. Believing that good habits lead to success (habit number 17) means you are more likely to be motivated to maintain those habits, even when things get rough. All these add up to someone being more able to hit back when life gets them with a roundhouse punch.

We cannot control the cards life deal us. But we can absolutely put ourselves in the best place to run with the hand we are given. I think that is why this list is something anyone wishing for success, financial or otherwise, should read.

How Children Remind Us To Appreciate Beauty In The Seemingly Mundane

If you’re anything like me, there will be times when you’ll find yourself getting caught up in the day to day minutae and struggles of life. Maybe the pot roast didn’t come out quite right. Maybe the car wouldn’t start (naturally on the same morning when you had an absolutely crucial client meeting to get to). Perhaps life has just decided to throw every majorly annoying curveball at you at the same time, to the point where it feels like an MMA fighter is using your head as substitute punching bag.

At times like these, thoughts tend to fly through our minds, filling our perception with negativity. We see reality not through rose (or even clear) colored lenses, but through a persistent cloud of reddish haze. Things that normally wouldn’t phase us feel like those padded gloves smashing into our metaphorical jawbone.

At times like these, we have a tendency to to totally overlook the little, everyday opportunities to enjoy the moments in our lives. We miss the wonderful smells of nature as we walk through the park. We don’t notice the calming sound of rain on the roof, or see the brilliant colors and textures of an Autumn sunset.

But, if we let them, our children can be wonderful reminders to appreciate the beauty in the mundane.

Case in point: this morning was just one of those times when things don’t want to go right. After the umpteenth small thing going wrong, likely my computer misbehaving, I was about ready to start bashing my head into the nearest wall. Then, I happened to notice my young daughter staring in absolute enchantment at a reflection of light on the ceiling from a toy mirror. As I flexed it back and forth, the light danced across the painted surface, making playful patterns. She cooed and giggled at the little creature in wonder.

I couldn’t help but enjoy her glee, but it also made me see the artistry in this tiny natural phenomenon. Something I would have completely missed, but to a child it was obvious.

I never cease to be amazed at the lessons our children can teach us, if we will only listen.

The Quiet Of Morning

It’s nearly 7 AM, and as I’m drinking my morning tea and reading, I suddenly feel the urge to write about how my newly acquired habit of getting up early has affected my life. At the moment, the house is still, with only the cats wandering around (well, one of them at least, the other, being a total lazybones, is curled up on the chair next to me).

It’s pretty well established that one of the common habits of successful people is waking up early. There’s also plenty of good tips on how to start doing it. I’m not going to re-hash those here; instead I’m going to just talk briefly about my experience.

All my life I’ve been a habitual late sleeper. In college I actually failed a class that began at 8AM, at least in part because I skipped almost a quarter of the lectures. My first job out of college had hours of 12pm – 8pm, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to be up until 2-3 AM, then sleep until 11 or so. Even after getting a job with normal hours, I still never broke the ritual of later mornings.

So what finally made me change? That’s easy: becoming a parent. Espeically after my second child was born, I found quiet time to be at an incredible premium. It was rare both of the kids were asleep at the same time, except for late at night or early in the morning. And given that, by the end of the day, my brain tends to be about as useful as a pile of noodles, it was only logical that the single easiest way to regain some of that valuable reflective time was to get up earlier.

Now, several months later, I would say that I am a successful “early bird”. What lessons did I learn throughout this process?

The first is that slow, gradual progress is better than huge leaps. At first I tried going all out (i.e. going from waking up whenever to 5:30AM or so) and immediately failed. My body simply couldn’t handle the dramatic change in schedule, and I quickly fell back to my old patterns. A gradual change worked much better, where I set my alarm around 10-15 minutes earlier every few days. There were still difficulties, but it was a much smoother transition.

The second is that my choice of alarm was more important than I thought. The traditional clanging bell or other constant noise did more to annoy me then wake me up, and it usually resulted in an angry slap of the snooze button and a failure to get out of bed. I experimented with several options before settling on the Sleep Time iPhone app. It uses the iPhone’s built in accelerometer to determine what stage of sleep you are in, and tries to wake you when you’re at a “light” period. It also starts the alarm very softly and gradually increases in volume, which wakes me up in a much more gentle fashion.

The third is that this works better if I don’t eat breakfast right away. Making my traditional green smoothie or eggs and veggies takes up a decent amount of time, and time is extremely valuable. Instead, I make myself a cup of coffee or green tea, sit down, and get to my morning work. Only after I’ve accomplished some useful things do I stop and think about eating. This also means that I can still eat breakfast with my family most days.

And speaking of useful work, the fourth lesson is that being intentional about what to do with my time in the morning is crucial. It’s very easy to get lost browsing the news sites or reading blogs. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as that is what I really want to do. So, before I get started, I’ll stop and think about what I want to accomplish in the hour or so I’ve got.

Finally, I would say the consistently getting up at the same time, even when I didn’t necessarily have to (such as weekends) or got poor sleep (because that would never happen with two small children) helped get make this a successful habit. I’m not sure if there is some scientific reason behind this, but from a purely personal experience perspective, always getting up at the same time seemed much easier than modifying the time based on factors like when I went to bed the night before. Yes, this means there are days when I’m running on a less-than-desirable amount of sleep. But I find that my body usually does a decent job of telling me when I’m burning the candle too long and need to get to bed earlier. I will say that the one exception to this rule is when I’m sick; in that case I just let myself wake up when my body decides it’s time.

There’s no doubt in my mind that learning to be an early riser has been a huge help in keeping my reading and writing habits alive during the challenging period of raising two small children. The stillness of the morning (well, except for the one cat whining to go out or be fed), the feeling of a clear mind, and not having several voices clamoring for my attention are all wonderful things to experience. If you’re thinking about taking the plunge and getting up earlier, my advice: go for it.

What I Am Thankful For – 2013 Edition

It’s been a long time since I wrote anything here. For a variety of reasons, I’ve simply found that other things have taken a priority. I’ve been largely OK with that, but part of me has decidedly missed the habit of writing. And so, on this day of thanks, I sit here with my warm cup of tea beside me, and struggle to adequately describe just how grateful I am for all that I have been blessed with.

My life is far from perfect. But that doesn’t mean I don’t live an incredible easy life, compared to most. And that is a fact I remind myself of multiple times a day.

Being a parent brings its share of challenges and struggles, as anyone with children knows well. But I love my family more than life itself, and I would not trade my time with them for anything in the world. I’ve heard it said that no one will make you feel worse than your children, but no one will make you feel better than your children. That’s about as accurate a statement about parenthood as I know. So today, I am thankful for my two wonderful children, my loving, supportive wife, and the rest of our family, both blood and those incredible friends we hold so dear.

Work has been stressful as of late, with lots of deadlines looming and multiple demands on my attention. I’ve had a lot of difficult interactions where I struggled mightily to keep my patience intact. I feel that I may have engaged in a little too much complaining on the home front, but to her credit, my wife has listened to my rants with a patient ear. But I do love my job, despite those challenges. I’m given an amazing amount of autonomy and freedom to manage my time, and I enjoy being at the forefront of new initiatives. My company has always treated me with respect and appreciation, which is more than I hear from many. So today, I am thankful for the opportunities I have been given and continue to enjoy, even in these, well, interesting economic times.

Over the last year or so I’ve become far more interested in politics and the state of our nation. As a result, I’ve read a lot of negative things about the good ol’ US of A. Depending on what you read, we’re either becoming a totalitarian state, following ancient Rome into collapse, or on the verge of massive economic disaster. Maybe some of these doomsday prophecies will turn out true in the end, but then again maybe they won’t. I don’t know that anyone could argue that we do not still represent an amazing achievement in the annals of human history. Ask yourself: has anyone done a better job of walking the delicate line between freedom and anarchy? Has anyone been responsible for more progress in the realms of social, economic, and political liberty? Who else has endured through countless crises, only to emerge stronger and lead the world into what may be the most prosperous era in recorded history?

Does this mean that the good times will continue on indefinitely? That the so-called Pax Americana will stretch on ad-inifinitum? That we will face down all of the many challenges we will encounter in the coming years, from a dwindling supply of natural resources to a world economy that seems to be stuck in neutral, and come forth the same dominant force in the world? Certainly not. There’s any number of things that could happen that would result in a (quite possibly less than graceful) fall from power. Greater, more enduring empires have fallen before, and will surely do so again. Some day, America as we know it will cease to exist. It will become a thing of stories, a mere blink in the great expanse of history.

But for the here and now, I can think of no place where I would rather raise my children. Despite what many might say, I still believe we are the land of opportunity, where individuals are empowered with an incredible level of freedom and abundance, where one has the ability to make their way in life as they may choose. This is something that I strive to remember each and every day. And so, today, I am thankful for being a part of this still great nation.

Book #1 of 2013 – “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand

As part of my trying to diversify my writing on the blog, I thought I might start commenting on books that I read. So, without further ado, here’s the first! (Note: I’m actually on the fourth book of the year but am playing catch-up.)

Atlas Shrugged is, in my opinion, probably one of the most iconic (and controversial) books out there. From what I’ve seen, people read it and generally either consider it gospel or blasphemy. Many tout it as a warning of how interventionism and central planning will be the downfall of our modern economy, and perhaps society in general. I actually found myself in the middle of the road, albeit with a decided lean.

One the one hand, I see some logic in Rand’s obvious belief in free capitalism. Markets can only work when the values of goods and services are allowed to set themselves according to demand, not by the whims of planners. Governments bailing out failed businesses (“Too Big To Fail”?) at the expense of taxpayers and more successful ones seems to encourage mediocrity and rampant speculation. Look no further than our current situation, where those who patiently save and practice frugality are punished by record low interest rates, while the traders who throw piles of money at the market reap huge profits. And when they make poor choices (can anyone honestly say that investing in mortgages where the holders’ incomes weren’t even verified is a prudent decision?) and suffer, here comes the almighty Fed and the U.S. government to help them out. As a result we have a ballooning debt and a stagnant economy. I’m not an economist so I certainly can’t pretend to say all this is exactly what Rand foretold, but the similarities are striking.

Taking the opposite side, I believe firmly that what Rand describes is really more of an ideal than reality. If all corporations were honest, and all workers fairly treated (and by that I mean paid what their work is worth, and not made to work under dangerous conditions – at least not unwillingly), then sure, we could have a totally free market with no regulation. That not being the case, there has to be some allowance for governments or regulatory bodies to oversee things and ensure that people are not defrauded or placed in danger. Without unions, coal miners or high rise construction workers might still be working under horrific conditions (Lunch atop a Skyscraper anyone?). Having only read one of her books I can’t say for sure, but I have a suspicion Rand might well (at least partially) agree with me. In the famous “John Galt speech” (which yes, those of you who know what I mean, I read the whole thing), there’s this little tidbit:

The only proper purpose of government is to protect rights; a government’s only proper functions are: the police; the armed forces; and the courts, to settle disputes by objective law.

If there are laws prohibiting children under a certain age from working, or requiring that workers are protected with basic safety measures, and a corporation fails to follow those, then the government has every right to lay sanctions upon them. Or if a company turns out to have defrauded folks out of their money (though in many cases I’d argue that defrauding should be defined quite narrowly – if you foolishly invest your money without understanding where you’re putting it, shame on you), they should be made to give it back.

Naturally things like this are all part of a larger continuum, where conditions swing from one end to another in a cyclical fashion. Things go too far down one path, and we are forced to make hard course corrections. I think history has generally shown that human kind is fairly clueless at recognizing when our path has drifted to far to one side, and as a result we generally defer dealing with reality until it hits us squarely in the jaw. My psychology background has also taught me that there are a lot of reasons why we generally make poor decisions, most of which we are completely unaware of. Hopefully Rand’s tale turns out to be more of a cautionary one, rather than a stark look at the future of our society.

Dealing With Too Many Voices

When I was a DBA (and, to a lesser extent, now as well) I frequently got into a scenario where I’d have multiple groups clamoring at me to accomplish a request from them on short notice. This sometimes became a problem, such as when there was only x hours in the day and I needed y hours to finish everything that folks were requesting. Or, when I had multiple people demanding immediate service (that never happens, right? Oh wait, it just happened today, that’s why I’m writing this. #Facepalm). Earlier in my career I would tend to get worked up, let my blood pressure go up, and perhaps engage in some creatively worded conversations with the people competing for my time. But after realizing that (a) this really wasn’t helping things, since people still want what they want; (b) all the yelling wasn’t helping my health, I came up with a couple rules on how to handle these, let’s say, explosive situations. In both cases, they’re remarkably effective at both alleviating the confusion over relative priority and lowering my stress level.

First: don’t even try to work out on your own which request is more important. Sure, you can ask questions and try and rank things in your mind according to things like which client things are for, how long things take, etc. Ultimately though, you’re going to be wrong in someone’s eyes and that someone is going to be unhappy with it. And moreover, unless you’re a manager, you’re not paid to determine things like that. You’re paid to get things done and write code, period.

Second: let the competing groups do just that – compete! Send an e-mail to the various requestors stating something like this:

Hi there folks, this is your friendly neighborhood (DBA | Architect | Database Developer) speaking. I thank you all for putting in your requests to me, and I acknowledge that each of you has requested that I handle them immediately. Unfortunately I can only work on one task at a time (unless someone’s developed cloning technology, which would be super!), so I will be doing these in the order which they were received. Before you begin thinking of arguments to get me on your side, I will warn you that this decision is not mine to make, so please do not send me justification of why you need to come first. If you feel that your request should take priority, please work with the owner(s) of those requests in front of yours to adjust their priority. If you all can amicably agree to shuffle things around I’m happy to oblige. I’ve listed the relevant work items below in order along with their owners. If I do not hear back I will assume you are all fine with this and will proceed in the order shown. Thanks!

Let the various people battle among themselves for the lead. Yes, this can sometimes get a little bloody, so you should probably check with your boss to make sure this is allowed before doing it. Which brings us to our third point…

Third: let your boss handle it. Managers are paid to, well, manage! If people cannot agree peaceably (or otherwise) on a pecking order, let your boss hear each of their cases and then tell you what to do. This will take the pressure off you to make a decision that is clearly one at a level above yours. Certainly your boss may (and perhaps should) ask for your input in the matter, but the decision should rest with them.

Since I’ve put the above rules in place I’ve never been more than slightly annoyed when these situations inevitably come along. It may not stop (or even lower) the volume of whining coming your way, but it will let you deflect and delegate all the stressful aspects of the problem.