How to add some magic to your next planning session

Updated to Business, Productivity on December 30, 2022.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

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Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

At some point in my career I realized a small investment in technology can pay big dividends.

My first remote clicker let me walk, talk and click (look Mom!).

My first mini-video recorder (remember the Flip?), audio recorder, movie editing software and auto-back-up system—all made life better and moved my business ahead.

And then there was the Magic Wall.

The Magic Wall (some call it a ‘sticky wall’) took my facilitation options to a whole new stratosphere. Finally, I could coordinate a room full of geoscientists, or middle managers, or software designers to design a new strategic plan without a truck-load of flip chart paper.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself – first let’s look at the problem with traditional group brain storming and planning exercises.

First, the problem

If you’re helping your team or your client dissect any kind of mission-critical problem (like stale coffee in the lunchroom) you’ll likely start with a brain dump.

Some call it brainstorming, I call it frustrating, because I, the lonely facilitator who is getting paid to make this all come together, now has to wade through too many ideas in too few minutes.

A brain dump is when the team gratefully poops out all their frustration, lame ideas (let’s be honest here, making coffee more frequently, is not a game changer), and irrelevant points like coffee farmers in the Peru highlands are getting a bum rap from greedy importers and, of course, the gems we all came for.

The trick, with any brain dump, is to cut through the chaff to get to the wheat.

Before using a Magic Wall, I might have had 20 flip chart sheets – many with unintelligible scribbles – I had to wade through, put in order, prioritize, and then present to my restless audience.

For the next 20 minutes I would work up a sweat trying to keep this part of the day interesting and quickly get to the part where I needed the team’s input again. Not fun.

Enter the Magic Wall (you’ll thank me for this).

What is a Magic Wall?

The Magic Wall I use is made of a thin nylon material with a spray-on adhesive glue. I get them from the Institute of Cultural Affairs (I have no idea what one has to do with the other.)

The beauty is that normal paper sticks to the wall. You can also easily peel the paper off, move it and re-stick it – hence the “magic” in the name.

This allows me to collect individual ideas, quickly organize them, prioritize them, label them – all while keeping the audience engaged.

In fact, audiences love seeing their ideas multiplying in front of them. And at the end of your efforts you have a big, bold attractive map, or schedule, or plan, or grid ready to be transformed into a document.

Setting up the Magic Wall

A Magic Wall after the magic has happened

For the audience, I pack about 10 1/2 sheets of 20lb (regular photocopy paper) 8 1/2X 11 paper stock for each participant (I use a home paper cutter to cut regular paper in half). For extra points, use different colours to mean different things. For example: red = stop doing, green = start doing, yellow = change how we do it.

I also bring blank legal-size paper sheets for quickly labelling groups of ideas or solutions. This is really helpful for big audiences to help them keep track of what’s developing on the wall.

I give the audience sharpies (fine point) and instruct them to only write 3-5 words on a single sheet.

A basic kit to set up your Magic Wall

The Magic Walls I use are big – 5’ X 12’ (1.5 X 3.6m), so it’s a great idea to scout out the room first. Taping over doorways or removing wall sconces might get frowned on. If the full Magic Wall won’t fit, just fold it over (you’ll need help, trust me) so the extra material is tucked in behind and you have a smooth sticky wall facing your team.

A couple of tips

Once you get familiar with the Magic Wall I’m sure ideas will start flowing, like: party games (Hey! Let’s toss the kids and see if they stick!), wall clothes organizer, organizing your receipts for tax time (just fold and mail the sucker to your favourite accountant).

In addition, here’re a few I’ve gathered:

  • for big groups, make up pre-printed banner signs (I use legal size paper) with the team names, or subject topic names, or any grouping titles. I position these along the top of the wall before the work begins so the team can see in advance some structure to their work.
  • re-spray the glue on the wall (outside!) after 8-10 uses to keep it sticky. I use 3M spray adhesive sold at craft stores, but there are alternatives. Packing the wall is easy (it takes two people), just stretch it out, fold it over, lengthwise, on itself so the sticky side is protected and then continue to fold like you might fold a tarp.
  • bring both narrow painter’s tape (to position the Magic Wall on the wall) and wide tape (to fully anchor and finish off the border).
  • don’t spray the wall indoors (I did this once in a meeting room – I don’t think I was ever invited back).
  • don’t try to make your own. I tried—the results weren’t pretty. The Wall I use costs $60 + shipping.
  • before you tear down the wall, take a picture of your masterpiece, plus individual pictures of each section. The section pictures can be inserted into your report to provide a nice visual reference point.

There you go – easier than pulling a rabbit from your hat, but it’s still magic.