Case study: Rubric for decision-making about divorce

Someone emailed me at to ask if I could help her figure out whether or not to get a divorce.

For anyone who doesn’t know me already, I’ve been a blogger since 2003 and have written a parenting advice blog since 2005. I got a divorce in 2008. Since then, I’ve been a little like Wallis Simpson, in that I’m famous for being divorced*. That means that people who are considering divorce sometimes think of me as non-scary divorced person**. As I’m a generally happy person with a decent relationship with my ex-husband, I think sometimes I’m the only person people “know” who isn’t living some horrible post-divorce bitter regretful scenario***.

So I get a lot of questions from people that usually boil down to “Should I get a divorce?” Now, there’s no way for me to answer that. I’m biased toward NOT getting a divorce (divorce is a horrible process that teaches you things you might not want to know), but I’m more biased toward emotional and mental health for everyone. And I can’t see the future. If you’re in a bad relationship, maybe it can become good again. If you get divorced, maybe being free of the bonds of that bad relationship will let you work on all the other problems you have. There’s no way to know.

But I do think there are some constants, some things that are always true. About marriage and divorce, and kids inside marriage and divorce. So that’s what I laid out for the anonymous person who asked for my help. What she told me of her story: She and her husband had been married for ten years. They had two elementary-aged kids. She was happy in her job and so was he. For the past 3+ years things had been painful between them. Unresolvable fights, lack of common viewpoint, disconnection, lack of trust, lack of sexual interest. They’d done individual and couples counseling for several years, and had understood each other’s positions, but didn’t like each other any more than before counseling. She was clearly in pain in the relationship, but was afraid of splitting up her kids’ family when there wasn’t something obviously horrible in the marriage (addiction, cheating, abuse). And she was very concerned that the level of pain she was feeling was “normal” and that she didn’t have a right to complain about it or consider leaving her marriage, because what if everyone else had it just as bad and they stayed?

She was spinning and spinning, caught between the things she knew about herself, her husband, and her kids, and what she’d always thought was true about marriage and family, without knowing how much of that actually was true objectively or specifically to her. She was trying to fly without being able to see the horizon. And her husband wasn’t actively participating in making a decision. She asked if I could help.

I told her that I could tell her what decision to make, but that wouldn’t actually be a solution. So I proposed instead that I come up with a rubric of sorts that led her through questions to find a path that made sense.

I asked her questions, about what the relationship had been like, what made them get married, what her husband thought about their marriage, what her core values were, what relationships/marriages she admired, what she wanted her kids to know about marriage and family. And then I came up with questions to help her use those answers as yardsticks so she could measure how the marriage she could create realistically compared to her own values and needs as a mother and person. I prefaced those questions with several things that are true about marriage and divorce that we don’t always understand (but that Louis CK talks a lot about) but that frame the decision as creating healthy function and peace for everyone in the situation instead of as Bad vs. Good. I asked her to think about the work she’d need to do if she decided to get a divorce.

I sent her the write-up and she replied that the questions were “spot on” for her situation, and were a “valuable framework” for her to make decisions.

I don’t know what she’ll decide. It’s not my life and not my decision. I could only help her recognize things that were important to her and use those to help her sort through things. I hope she reports back in once she’s decided.

* I would NEVER have let Edward abdicate for me.
** As opposed to Wallis Simpson, who I think was a little scary.
*** Most of the people I know who are divorced are pretty happy and well-adjusted, and their problems are normal problems. But I don’t think regular, content people get a lot of media time.

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I just got this testimonial in from Pooja Makhijani:

“When I approached Magda with a “harebrained” idea (my words), she said, “Nonsense! This is a very *good* idea!” And within 24 hours, as she promises, she sent me a detailed road-map for execution. It has served as a checklist — printed out and hanging in my workspace! — as I prepare for the launch of my product.

Not only did Magda provide concrete actionable advice and responses to several emails-worth of follow-up questions, she also provided encouragement and cheerleading to help me access the skills I need to make my idea a reality.”

Pooja’s idea is fantastic and when she’s ready to go public I’ll let everyone know what it is so you can all subscribe.

Find your own solution with me. The how-to and details are at

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Case study: Problems with small business cash flow

The first Flash Consulting problem I did was from a woman who runs a very successful small business. She initially phrased the question as an accounting question (cash vs. accrual, which I know enough about to be able to find problems in a financial statement but not enough to survive an audit, so don’t hire me as a bookkeeper). But as she explained it, it became apparent that the problem was really about cash flow and a need to reframe ideas about good service.

In brief: She’d booked over $250K in the previous month but had only seen actual cash payments of less that 10% of that. Her clients were on a net 60 (meaning the invoice she sent asked them to pay within 60 days), but she had an additional $300K outstanding that was past due from the 60 days.


Seriously, she was running a business that was doing so so well (and they’re great at what they do), but they were struggling because clients weren’t paying. Maddening.

I asked her if she’d built in a penalty for not paying at 60 days, like a 2% service charge for every 30 days past due the payment was. She said she hadn’t, because she wanted to give good customer service.

Aha! That was the core of the problem right there. She’d put herself into a position of weakness in an effort to be good to her clients. When, in reality, the best thing you can do for clients (and friends, and kids, and bosses, and vendors, and grandparents, and lovers, and pets, and ANYONE) is to create good boundaries and then enforce them.

Randi Buckley of Healthy Boundaries for Kind People always says that creating boundaries is a form of kindness. And it’s true. When you make good boundaries you’re being kind to your client by telling them what you expect (I bet some of those clients in the outstanding $300K had no idea my client was so annoyed at them for not paying), and you’re being kind to yourself by asking for what you need (she had a right to the money she was owed and it didn’t do anyone any good for her not to have received it). By creating healthy boundaries you get to put yourself AND the client on the same side of the line you draw, instead of making you adversaries.

So here’s what I suggested:

1. Offer the late $300K clients a percentage discount off what they owed if they got it in in 10 days.

2. For future transactions, create both a stick to prevent late payments (a percentage penalty for every 30 days late a payment was) and also a carrot for early payment (a percentage discount for payment within 10 days of receiving the invoice). Note: This is super-common in many industries already, in different configurations. (I didn’t create the idea out of my unicorn brain.) A big part of why it’s so common is that it’s great for both sides. It creates value for both of you—if the client can pay early, they save money and you get your payment faster. If the client can’t pay right away, they can still pay on time as per the original terms of the deal. If the client has to be late, they can pay a penalty which creates more value for you.

My client expressed trepidation about assessing anyone a penalty. “If you enact the standard penalty you will never once charge it, and that will be even better client service,” I said. Having that line in the terms of the contract means you can give them a call the day the payment was due and give them the chance to pay right away and offer to waive the penalty if they can get the payment in in three days. Setting up the terms like that means that you can make penalty exceptions for clients while still being paid in a reasonable amount of time, and make everyone happy at the same time. It frees you up to give great customer service while still being paid for your work.

My client was happy with the solution I gave her, and asked me to bill her. (I didn’t include either a stick or a carrot in my bill. She paid right away.)

I don’t know if she collected all $300K in ten days or not. Maybe if she reads this she’ll write in and tell me how it went. (I’d never ask about someone else’s business. But how awesome would it be to have given someone a 1,200,000% return on investment, if her $250 Flash Consult with me allowed her to collect $300K?)

tl;dr version:
Building in a penalty AND a discount when you bill clients lets you give fantastic customer service while still being paid.

Find your own solution with me. The how-to and details are at

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Case Study: Big family division of labor changes

A 30-something married mother of two came to me because her husband’s work situation was about to change, and it was going to radically change the distribution of labor in their house, and she was afraid they weren’t going to take full advantage of this change.

Her husband had been away from the house 13 hours a day M-F since before their kids (a preschooler and a baby) were born, so she worked her fulltime job and did all on-the-scene child stuff, too. When her husband was home he was super-engaged and a full participant with the kids and the house, but he simply wasn’t home most of the time. He was switching jobs to one that would keep him out of the house 7-8 hours per day (roughly the same amount of time she spent out of the house) with some work-from-home time that was flexible.

They were both afraid that they were going to screw up the change and not make good use of this new (awesomely flexible) job to divide labor fairly.

I was in love with this problem, because who doesn’t love designing an entire family life from scratch? So that’s what I told them to start with. Instead of thinking of it as “which jobs should I shift from Wife to Husband?”I suggested they look at it as a blue ocean exercise in which they questioned assumptions, then designed parameters, and then started from scratch within those parameters. (Blue Ocean Strategy is a business strategy that I think has a lot in common with Universal Design for Learning.)

I told them what I thought they should prioritize as the first decisions about parameters, based on their interests and personalities. (One of my solution-creating principles is to honor who people are at all times.) And then once they had those decisions made, I gave them a list in descending order of what to privilege when dividing up actual jobs (both physical and mental).

I sent her my recommendations, and half an hour later she messaged me that she was crying reading them, and that it was way more than she’d thought they could expect. Three days later she sent me an email saying that she and her husband had spent time talking about my recommendations, and had then started a shared document to go through and type in what was important to each of them in all life areas (!!), and had gone back and forth over two days coming up with how they wanted their life together to look once his new job started. They created an entire plan for not only who was going to do what, but how they were going to work together for the kids and home and to support each other’s individual and couple goals. A life plan.

That’s when *I* started crying, to see that they’d taken this idea I gave them and had gone so deep with it that it had become a mission for them as a family team.

Who gets to do something that honors people so much? And that honors *me* so much? I’m just so thrilled to be able to do this.

tl;dr version:
A client came to me because her life was changing and she was afraid she was going to miss the opportunity to make full use of that change. I designed a rubric and priority tree for decision-making, and she and her husband went way deeper with it than I’d imagined, and we were all kind of amazed by that.

Find your own solution with me. The how-to and details are at

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Case Study: Virginia Champoux

Virginia ChampouxVirginia Champoux came to me when she felt like her life was out of control.

She said, “I was recovering from breast cancer and I’d just closed the store I owned and ran for over a decade. I was at a total loss of what to do next, and was feeling so much fear that I couldn’t even make a plan for the next day, let alone figure out how to find a job.”

I took the case, promising not only to help Virginia find a direction for her career that excited her, but to create a plan for the next four weeks so Virginia knew what to do when she got out of bed.

I focused on several things: 1. Virginia is a do-er, who needs something to keep her busy, and will ignore her own emotional needs in order to be busy, 2. Virginia has extensive experience in creating and promoting events and organizations and leading teams, in the physical world and on the internet, but her experience wasn’t neatly corporate-focused. 3. Virginia is extremely self-directed.

The first and third points were why Virginia was feeling so scared, because she didn’t have the store activities to focus her. I knew that she needed some time to grieve the store, but that Virginia processes emotions by activity, so I prescribed a plan for the next month that I knew Virginia could comply with but would never think of for herself: 2 1/2 liters of water every day (Virginia’s in Canada, where water comes in liters), yoga every day or as close to it as she could get, and work on the charity online auction she was running to raise money for women’s cancers research as if the auction was her paid job.

The next phase was to look at Virginia’s resume and figure out what the through line of her experience was. Virginia’s concern was that no company would want to hire her because she didn’t have experience that neatly fit into a corporate structure. I thought that this was just leading to fear and paralysis and that terrifying cycle in which you rethink every decision in your life, so we needed to look at what was actually going to be important once Virginia did find a job: Did Virginia WANT to work for a corporation?

The truth was that she didn’t. Virginia is more entrepreneurial than that, and knows that her skills are strong enough that she can make big changes for smaller organizations and wouldn’t be happy making small changes for a big organization. So I came up with a couple of different career paths she could work on, and told her how to adjust her resume for each one. (I don’t tell anyone what to do, I just present the options and spell out the pros and cons of each, as I see them.)

Virginia’s reaction to these plans made me happy: She was pleased but slightly skeptical of the water/yoga plan, but vowed to try it. And she was relieved by the career paths, because the revelation that she IS employable (although probably not a great fit for a huge megalo-corporation, which she wouldn’t want to work for anyway) was a big exhale moment. She said, “Releasing my problem to you allowed me to have time to breath and think about other things.”

After a couple of weeks she sent me an update. She started drinking water and doing yoga, because it was on the plan I drew up for her, and it was helping with her physical healing and emotional focus. She threw herself into the auction and raised almost $9000 in five days. She put together her resumes and has started interviewing for both in-house (with small companies) and consultant positions to help her decide which direction she wants to go in. The fear is lessened because she has a direction and knows she just needs to put in the work of searching for a job and sorting through what will be the best fit for her. And she’s started developing clients for a business that she’s growing, and can decide as she goes if this will be a side business or her primary business.

tl;dr version:
Virginia had fear paralysis and was looking at herself as having limited options. I gave her a plan to diffuse the fear to allow her to act, and reframed her as the one who decided what she did next.

Find your own solution with me. The how-to and details are at

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The Whole Truth

Yesterday I sent off a solution to a client about a really tricky and heavy personal relationship problem. The kind that affects multiple people’s lives for years to come. I felt really good about having gently loosened the threads to find the through line and give him a clear path that might not fix things entirely (because you can’t control other people), but would give him peace of mind that he’d walked the direct path.

He wrote back to me, thanking me effusively for showing him all the sides in such an analytical and clear way, and affirming his own emotions about it so he didn’t have to be bound by them while he worked toward a solution. Which was awesome. And then he said this: “There were a few omitted details and a major negatively impacting event that might alter (the way this plays out).”


You know how when Olivia Pope finds out that you left out something major, she just stares at you and then figures out how much she’s going to hurt you once she cleans up your problem? Yeah. I was staring hard through the computer screen at my client.

If you’re working with me, don’t leave out important things, whether big or small.

I have no idea what my client’s omitted things were, but I guarantee that if he’d told me what they were, the solution I gave him would have maintained the same tone, but would also have gotten closer to an easy, unburdened path for him.

Last week I wrote about how I unstick problems. But that’s actually just the theory of how I do it. How I actually do it is that I go into a room in my mind with the problem, and the problem itself sort of turns into a heat map, and I walk around inside the territory of the problem and look for the stuck spots and the movable spots. And that’s where I dig in and shift things around. If I don’t know what the actual territory of the problem is (because you left something out), I can’t do as good a job. And I really want to do the best job possible solving your problem.

Why do people leave things out? Because they’re embarrassed, I think. Sometimes people have done things that are naive or stupid or mean-spirited or just plain bad. And they don’t want to tell me about it. But you should tell me about it, for the following reasons:

1. I’m a service provider. You’re paying me to solve your problem, not to make you godparents of my kids or nominate you for Concerned Citizen of the Year or let you into heaven. Who cares what I think of what you did? I’m just trying to help you make it better.

2. I have done an awful lot of things that are naive, stupid, mean-spirited, and/or just plain bad myself. Even if I wanted to judge you, I couldn’t judge you in good conscience, unless you have no remorse and want to keep on doing it. (In which case I’d just tell you I couldn’t solve your problem, and we’d part ways.)

3. If I know what really happened, solving your problem gets a lot easier, and the solution I give you is better.

So you should tell me all the key parts of your situation. Even if you’re not sure how they all come together, or which part is the real problem. And then I won’t have to give you the “I’m going to hurt you” stare when you tell me my solution was almost-but-not-quite.

Ready to just tell me what’s going on, and what you need to hand me to worry about so you can take a break from worrying about it? You can find me at

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How To Unstick Yourself

I started offering Flash Consulting (I solve any problem in 24 hours  (for $250) on a whim, because I have a talent for taking what feels like  a complicated situation and refining it into something simple that has clear action steps. As I started solving people’s problems and sharing a little bit about the situations I was encountering, people started asking me about my process. I had to think about how to explain it, because it’s just the way my brain works, but I’m going to try to explain how I go at the tangled and untangle it, or find the stuck spot and unstuck it.

1. Understand that there are always stable parts and moving parts of any situation. Usually when you have a decision to make, you assume that there’s only one moving part (yes or no, stay or go, black or white, wrong or right). But in any situation there are always parts that can’t change (a contract you’ve signed, a relationship you’re in, some developmentally appropriate behavior, some other parameter of the situation) and parts that can move (how you deliver the items you’re committed to delivering, attitude about performing an action, your response to someone else’s action, the metric you use to define success). Identify at this point what you think are the stable parts of the situation and what are the moveable parts.

(I get a little buzzing feeling when I find the moving parts.)

2. Figure out what the actual problem is. If your problem is about something someone else is doing, that’s not the real problem. Example A: “I need my kid to sleep through the night” is not the real problem. The real problem is that you’re not getting enough uninterrupted sleep yourself. Your child sleeping through might not fix that (insomnia!), and you could get uninterrupted sleep even if your child doesn’t sleep through (you sleep while someone else deals with your kid!). There are a number of different ways to get yourself uninterrupted sleep and only some of them involve your child’s sleep. Example B: “I need my supplier to shorten the time it takes to deliver my order” is not the real problem. The real problem is that you’re late delivering to your clients because you’re waiting on an order from your supplier. The solution to that problem is to adjust your own order process to account for the supplier’s time. That might mean developing a better sales prediction model or altering the way you pay your supplier or are paid by your clients, or any other part of your process that gets you what you need when you need it. In both those examples the thing you think is the problem isn’t under your control AND it isn’t the core of the issue.

The heart of this is that there is ALWAYS a way to fix your problem. And there is rarely a way to control someone else’s behavior. Those two true things combined mean that the way to fix your problem has a lot more to do with you than with others. That’s what I focus on.

(When people hire me for a Flash Consult I have to figure out if they want me to solve the problem they present me with, or dig into the real problem if that isn’t what they’ve identified. Sometimes people are delighted when I give them a solution that solves their actual problem that they hadn’t realized was the actual problem. Sometimes people have become so identified and enmeshed with what they think the problem is that if I give them a solution that isn’t what they expected, they aren’t happy.)

3. Look for the emotion (pain or delight). You can come up with A solution, but if it doesn’t eliminate the pain in a situation or create delight, it’s not THE solution. The right solution creates a positive emotion or a lack of a negative emotion. Often the emotion results from conforming to or not conforming to your personal or company values. If you have a situation in which you’re making money but aren’t upholding one of your other company values, it’s not the right solution. If you are upholding your values but aren’t making money, that’s not the right solution. (If you’re a company that doesn’t have “making money” as one of its values, you should get out of business.) If you have a solution that conforms to an external idea of what you should do but doesn’t conform to your personal values, it’s not the right solution.

(If I feel uncomfortable suggesting something, that’s a sign to me to keep working to find the solution. If I suggest something and the client feels icky uncomfortable instead of bubbly/challenged uncomfortable, that’s a sign to me to keep working to find the solution.)

4. Evaluate which parts are stable and which parts are moving. Now that you know what the actual problem is and where the emotion is in the problem, re-evaluate what you thought had to stay stable and what you thought had to move. Sometimes it’s a total inversion of the way the scenario looked when you first identified it.

If you’re doing this in a meeting, there’s going to be some naysayer who pops in right exactly now to tell you your flipped version of what stays and what moves can’t possibly work. This person is your best friend. Cede the floor to them and listen carefully. They are helping you find the holes in your plan. Your response to what they say isn’t going to be, “You’re right, dammit. We can’t do this. Let’s pack up and go home.” Your response is going to be, “Good point. We need to look at this angle and change this piece to avoid that. You just saved us $100,000. Thank you.” (I LOVE pessimists.)

(If you work together with the naysayer enough, eventually you two become Sherlock and Moriarty and sharpen each other’s skills.)

5. Sacrifice non-essentials. You knew what you thought was essential when you first looked at the problem. Now that you’ve examined what the true problem is, are the same things essential? Maybe not. Make as straight a path as possible to get to the solution to your problem. You can come clean up the non-essentials later, once your big issue is resolved.

To work through these steps, often I draw a diagram so I can block out what all the pieces are and how they relate to each other. My drawings are messy and incomprehensible to anyone but me, but they get things straight in my head so I can make recommendations. Other times I write down a narrative and as I write through these steps toward the climax and resolution of the story, that’s the recommendation.

Solving people’s problems is a giddy kind of fun for me. I hope seeing some of my process helps you untangle your own situations. If you hit one that you can’t unstick, you can find me at

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