There are mornings, here in the Pacific Northwest, when the fog covers the fields in a sheet of gray, and I can only see a few feet ahead as I walk out to feed the horses,
Then there are mornings when a mental fog descends, and the path that seemed so clear the day before is nowhere to be found.
When I’m lost in the fog and can’t find the trail, I need markers placed a few feet ahead of me more than big goals or strategic objectives.
Traditional planning focuses on goals, objectives, and indicators–and these all have their place. But when I’m walking the trail of transformation in uncharted territory, I want signs that reassure me to, “Keep going.” I once meandered onto a goat path while hiking up a mountain and ended up completely lost as the sun was going down.Now, when I’m hiking, I keep my eyes peeled for little orange tapes wrapped around branches to reassure me that I’m on track.
Because a mental fog can roll in without notice, I want to be prepared. One day, I’ll be on fire writing my book. The next, I’m ready to throw my hands up and cry, “Uncle.” When I can’t see more than ten feet ahead, I need a marker at nine feet. When I’m lost in a morning funk and finding writing a book too overwhelming, (yes, it is!), identifying one small step to take can be a lifesaver.
Maybe to find that step I’ll choose to sit quietly or have a brief chat with the muse, that compassionate voice I call upon in just these situations. She’s very good at coming up with three to five very specific, small, no-nonsense steps: “Read a little Elizabeth Gilbert to motivate you.” “Write 800 words even if you hate your words.” “Pick up your closet floor.” “Breathe.” When I follow her suggestions and take one or two steps, I will often find my groove and be on my way again.
I reserve long-range planning for clear, blue-sky days, with no fog interference. Then I can stand at my whiteboard and plot my best-guess trail map for my project over the next three to six months.
How markers can help
- If you’re starting a business: What’s the one small, but necessary thing you could do right now to support your key direction for the week?
- If you’re designing a course: What small portion of the design could you develop?
- If you’re painting: What’s the smallest step or gesture you could take that would allow you to feel like you are advancing–as simple as selecting brushes or setting up your easel?
- If you’re needing exercise: What’s the smallest thing you could do today to move forward on your program?
But when the fog comes in, I say that markers are what’s going to keep you on the trail.
When you return from a vacation, does anticipating all those waiting e-mails make your stomach twist? (I’m just back from my staycation.) Or, after devoting a morning to sorting through your inbox, does your brain go in circles as you find yourself getting increasingly cranky and irritated?
You may have email apnea!
Linda Stone, technology consultant and former Microsoft and Apple executive, whose work was written up in Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s book The Distraction Addiction uses the phrase “e-mail apnea” to refer to our tendency to hold our breath while doing email. As with sleep apnea, we’re usually unconscious that we’re holding our breath.
Watch out! As you’re confronted by a host of small, tech-related aggravations throughout the day, you may intermittently hold your breath without realizing it.
- After numerous delays, you settle into your desk and discover that your computer has crashed and must be rebooted. Your mental clock starts ticking while you beam messages to your computer to “Hurry up already!”
- You’re about to invoice a client when your QuickBooks accounting software starts performing a quirky dance that causes it to delete your invoice total. Now you have to spend forty of your precious minutes (with none to spare) diving into the user support boards on the Internet with your query: WHY DOES QUICKBOOKS DANCE QUIRKY???.
- You discover that you need to upgrade some obscure piece of software you installed three years ago and it asks for your user name and password, which, fortunately, you saved in that handy software that allows you to save your passwords (phew) but now THAT software requires a master password before you can access it, and WHERE THE HECK DID YOU PUT IT, and now that you’ve found it and retrieved you password and FINALLY start to download your upgrade, your computer asks you for a password and WHICH OF THE BLOODY APPLE PASSWORDS IS THAT?
It’s the same feeling or lack of feeling I get when the telephone company puts me on hold for an interminable time…just because they can.
Ouch. I stopped breathing just writing about it.
Here’s a tip that’s simple, elegant, bold, and so obvious that we tend to forget it: Just breathe.
The first and most important step in de-stressing is to notice all the small moments when we stop breathing. All of these annoyances are perfect opportunities to practice tech-mindfulness, something we increasingly need, because, frankly, the tech-induced stress isn’t going to get any lighter.
Our aggravations provide us with time for mini-breathing meditations because truth be known, the software is going to take the time that it does to open, install or upgrade, customer service will return to speak with us someday, and QuickBooks is still, annoyingly, QuickBooks.
There are lots of breathing exercises out there. Mine is super simple:
Breathe in through your nose for a count of four, hold for a count of four, then breathe out (preferably through your nose) for a count of eight. The longer exhale is super important for your relaxation.
Don’t worry or get too heady about it. Even a few medium breaths are better than the alternative.
If you have a better breathing exercise or stress buster that works for you, please pass it along. We all need to stick together on this!
OK. Post done. Now I can breathe.
Last week I wrote about developing your imagination. This week I thought I’d balance things out with a left-brain productivity booster.
Normally, I’m not a fan of the “just make it happen” school of sports and military inspired productivity talks. Like the oft-cited quote from heard former Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi’s: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
Interesting factoid: at the end of his life, Lombardi is purported to have said to a journalist: “I wished I’d never said the thing…I meant the effort. I meant having a goal. I sure didn’t mean for people to crush human values and morality.”
Organize Tomorrow Today: 8 Ways to Retrain Your Mind written by Dr. Jason Selk and Tom Bartow draws from elite sports performance coaching, but the focus on training your mind intrigued me enough to want to read it and I’m glad I did. Selk was formerly “director of mental training” for the St. Louis Cardinals and Bartow is a basketball coach turned leadership trainer, who draws heavily from the wisdom of UCLA’s famed basketball coach, John Wooden.
Here’s a summary of the points from the book I found to be most useful:
Pick the three most important things you want to focus on each day and then choose the one that is the most important.
Don’t try for a jillion. The authors say we have to respect our “channel capacity” (great term!) and acknowledge that we can’t do all we assume we can. Trying to do more than is do-able throws us off our game. (Smaller priorities can be fit around bigger ones or done after you’ve accomplished your most important things.) The authors are particularly interested in finding the key things that will improve our performance if done consistently.
“Choosing wisely is difficult because it is counterintuitive. It is easier to put a list together of all the possible things you need to get done than it is to actually choose your one most important task and then master it.”
Guilty as charged. After reading the book, I’ve started to look at what is most important to my business/life each day, and keep a list of those items in front of me as I manage the rest of my stuff.
“Focusing on one primary task makes action much more realistic–one simple, positive change builds momentum and primes you for the next success.”
The authors also advise not to fixate on results. Your results are data. But an athlete who keeps looking at the scoreboard will likely fumble the play. More important during a game is focusing on the practices that can lead to success. Athletes bent on peak performance learn to identify the specific competencies that they need to develop and then they practice, practice, practice.
For me as a writer, focusing on results would be like worrying about being published, instead of sitting and writing. I need to work daily to develop my craft so my book will eventually be publishable. I can explore the specific steps to take to improve such as writing more vivid imagery (see last week), adding more dialogue, and practicing imitating the writers I admire.
Evaluate yourself in a productive way.
Evaluation shouldn’t be self-flagellation. The authors recommend spending two minutes a day to fill out a success log with the answers to these four questions:
- What did I do well in the past 24 hours?
- What is one thing I want to improve in the next 24 hours?
- What is the one thing I can do differently to help make the above-mentioned improvement?
- How did I do today with my “3 Most Important/I Must?”
I like the focus on reinforcing the positive and setting realistic goals that allow you to succeed.
“Setting goals too high and hoping to ‘get close’ is one of the most damaging things you can do to your performance.”
They recommend disciplining your self-talk to focus on what you do well before you look at how you want to improve.
I remember when my niece, a fellow equestrian, used to criticize herself out loud during her riding lessons. I’d hear her castigating herself with negative self-assessments, even when she was receiving positive feedback from her trainer. It was painful to hear. (Her trainer had to tell her to knock it off.) When I asked her why she was so hard on herself, she said that it would help her improve. The authors argued the reverse, writing:
“What you focus on expands. Focusing on the negative is essentially like fertilizing the weeds in your yard.”
Do a mental workout daily
They suggest taking five minutes to do these steps:
- Take a centering breath (Breathe in for six seconds, hold for two, exhale for seven.)
- Speak your identity statement – basically an affirmation of your strengths and an acknowledgment of the best of who you are.
- Visualize three “done wells” from the past 24 hours. Then visualize three things you want to do well in the next 24 hours.
- Repeat your identity statement.
- Take another centering breath.
I like this!. It’s compact, do-able, and positive. I can see it sharpening my focus without turning me into a do-aholic,
Watch out for thoughts that pull you off your game plan.
Give up viable excuses. (This is one that was a bit too yang for me. Mothers, in particular, know that there are things that can and should pre-empt your plans.)
Don’t focus on what you can’t control. I really like this one. I cannot control the President of the United States. (Alas, who can?) Yet how much time do I spend worrying about him. I’m not giving up watching political satire, (thank you Seth Myers for making me laugh), but I need to make sure all the national upset doesn’t take me away from focusing on improving what I can change, like my performance.
Give up problem-centric thinking. Like the above, this suggestion is useful for anyone (like me) who is vulnerable to occasional bouts of awful-ing.
“When we focus on small, incremental improvements instead of perfection, the human spirit takes over, and all things become much more possible.”
So there you have it. I’ve started using the three priorities system and find that useful. Next I’ll try the mental workout and put less of my precious energy into do-loops of worry about current politics. (Note to self: I do not. Need. To Fret.)
To learn more, check out Organize Tomorrow Today: 8 Ways to Retrain your Mind.
And don’t forget to keep growing your imagination!
This week I‘m having a blast designing a business storytelling class for a client, interspersed with writing my blog. Working on two deadlines, I’ve had to ask myself:
How much is enough?
The question isn’t that straightforward. I’m always tempted to try to do more than I need to.
Years ago, in a meditation group, I learned the concept: “No more, no less.” The idea is that you should give–or do–as much as you can with the caveat: no more and no less. Discernment is key.
With both my training work and the blog, I want to give a lot. When I teach, I want to be well prepared and not caught short.
But how do I determine what’s enough? I don’t have an easy metric I can turn to.
Women, I believe, end up doing more than we need to out of a fear that we aren’t quite enough. (Guys, you’ll have to tell me if this applies to you.)
Tara Mohr, the wise-beyond-her-years author of Playing Big, talks about all the ways the inner critic can sneak up and tell us we’re not enough. That critic is a nasty, sniveling killjoy, who’s easy to recognize when she uses her judgmental, demeaning, “it’s all or nothing” tone of voice. At other times she’s sneakier, using a very reasonable sounding voice to dupe us. She’ll suggest that we’re not quite ready to take on a project, book, or new job because, well, we need to prepare more. There’s always so much more that we should know before we attempt to…(you name it.)
That’s where the critic hooks me as I prepare a workshop. I think I need to read two more books, consult some alternative source material, create a super-fancy slideshow, and put off designing until I get more: 1) information, 2) experience, or 3) confidence. Entranced, I forget how much wisdom lives inside me, how well I know my subject, and the wealth of experience that I’ve had. (Tara says that men are less likely to get hooked in this way.)
Once I start believing that I should do more, I spin out in a whirl of overwhelm and worry. In my tizz, I start forgetting things, including the things I actually need to be doing.
It’s time for me to remember the mantra: “No more. No less.”
How much do I really need to do? Before I can even decide, I need to slow down and breathe. (And stop acting like a happy puppy dog running in circles trying to please!) Time to call up a cool, calm and more objective side of myself.
I grab a cup of tea and ask myself a few questions;
- What’s going to best serve the client? What’s the goal from their perspective?
- What really has to be done?
- What’s most important?
- What else would I like to do if I had time?
- What would be enough?
- What would make this really fun?
Chances are I’ll work on my special slides anyway, because they are fun and they allow me to exercise a bit of creativity. But I know that I’ll be working on them for my pleasure, not because the client requires them. And I’ll probably have to keep reminding myself to make sure the basics of my project are complete before I lose myself adding some artistic flair.
How much to give?
This question gets complicated quickly. Giving can be very pleasurable and who wants to be seen as a cheapskate? But what if you’re on a restricted income and you learn that your grandson is asking for that terribly expensive and probably violent video game for his birthday? Do you get it anyway, knowing it’s way outside your budget (and preferences)? Or, do you just say, “no” and come up with a simpler and more heartfelt alternative, trusting that it will be enough. (Even if you have to wave good-bye to a bit of guilt.)
What about that mountain of requests from legitimate nonprofits that really need your help? How do you even decide how much to give? Once again, it’s time to take a big breath and consider what’s behind the impulse to give. Are you OK doing what you can, or do you believe that you have to do more in order to be seen (or see yourself) as the good, kind, generous and lovable soul you are.
When we don’t know that we’re enough and have “done enough,” it’s hard to enjoy the feeling of generosity behind what we do.
How much to do in a day?
Another complicated question. I have a big appetite for what I think I can accomplish. At the end of my day, there’s usually a mountain of stuff undone. And that leaves plenty of room for regret, even though, in truth, I did plenty.
Maybe I should add a ritual to my day (do you have one?) to step back and reflect on everything I did experience, give, or realize. Chances are I did what I could do. No more. No less.
Really understanding what is “no more/no less” requires contemplation–weaving together head with heart. Given how fast today’s world comes at us, we need an inner litmus test that allows us to feel complete and good in the face of all that we could have done or could have given.
That’s enough for today. There’s more I could write…another day. Instead I’ll stop.
No more. No less.
From animated film by Peter Dronen on YouTube
Do you ever feel like you’re just rolling the rock uphill?
As I face that huge to-do list of things-that-have-to-be-done, I’ve been thinking about Sisyphus, the hero of Albert Camus’s famous 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus described Sisyphus, a mortal in Greek mythology, who offended the gods and was punished by being condemned to roll a rock uphill for eternity. Each time Sisyphus reached the top of the hill with his rock, its weight would send it cascading back down the hill. For Camus, the myth demonstrated man’s existential plight, and the absurdity of having to do work that is futile, day in and day out. (Watch Peter Dronen’s animated film here.)
That’s how I feel in the springtime when life and all the weeds return to my garden. The gods warned me (through a number of gardening colleagues) not to plant such a huge garden, but I, as a proud, inquisitive, and energetic mortal, decided to defy them. I created something way bigger than I can manage. During the springtime, I weed one area one day, then move on to the next, return in a week to the first, to find, guess what? A new set of weeds has taken over and my work must begin again. Like Sisyphus, I will never get it all done.
Should I just throw in the spade and crumple into a pile of (unwanted) buttercups?
An actress friend of mine from New York City has a different take on the matter. When she heard how overwhelmed I was feeling trying to manage our property, she laughed. “Oh, you get used to that living in New York City. Every day there’s so much you can do in The City, but you realize that you will never do most of it. You get used to knowing that what you do will only be a smidge, compared to what you can’t do.”
A lightbulb went off! I saw that I had been believing that I should get it all done. It was as if my life was constructed around a huge game called “accomplishing all there is to do.” But I had forgotten that I’d chosen the game. Maybe there’s a different game out there called “it will never be done and much of what lies ahead of me will never get finished.” Sure, there are responsibilities in life, like mine to my family and clients, that have to get done; I am accountable for managing these. There are consequences for not doing some things. Yet I’m the one who chose many of the obligations on this man-made mountain I have chosen to climb.
Awareness may be the first step in recovery. But I still need strategies that can help me navigate the absurdist drama before me. I’m experimenting with these.
Stop and smell the roses. Or the peonies. Or the unwanted buttercups.
The peonies are blooming in the garden and they are luscious beyond belief. Their intoxicating perfume lifts me out of my hopelessness about the garden. The weeds can wait. Checking into my here-and-now sensory experience, helps me bypass my mind’s diagnosis of “there is too much to do.”
Get some perspective.
Have you ever been sick, really sick, when even doing the simplest task seems out of reach? When I’ve been laid low by sickness or hurt in an accident, one of the gifts I’ve received has been to watch the list of what I expect from myself miraculously shrink. When I am able to leave my bed, I delight in what I can do, such as make my first cup of tea, in the face of all that I can’t.
I want to remember that perspective, that gratitude, as I get swept back into the rhythm of regular life.
Track your real accomplishments.
On the surface, this can seem like returning to the land of the ever-present to-do list, checking things off the list, and watching how new items magically spring up to replace what you’ve checked off. But I’m talking about a different kind of reflection.
This week, I discovered a little software app called “Idonethis.com” that allows you to track accomplishments. (It’s free in its hobby-personal version , and requires almost no learning curve.) You can either list tasks and check them off (the old way) or pause a moment, reflect, and record what you accomplished that matters most to you.
For example, my big accomplishment on Tuesday was not tied to any goal. It was a surprise insight that came out a conversation with one of my former podcast guests. “Don’t try to write another career book about working in the 3rd act of life. Connect working with the kind of questions of meaning that show up in writers like Parker Palmer and Richard Rohr.”
One five minute insight meant more to me than a mountain of to-do’s done. And taking a moment to record this was very satisfying, a glimmer of meaning I could take from my work.
Meditate. Become more mindful.
This is a longer-term strategy, so I won’t write about it here, although I know it’s the door into a way of being that is not dependent on the world becoming fixed, ordered, or behaving as it should.
From animated film by Peter Dronen on YouTube
Camus was interested in finding meaning in an absurdist world where the tasks of life seemed overwhelming and futile. (And if you need to practice feeling the absurdity of life, just turn on NPR and listen to the news out of Washington, D.C.)
He thought the world was godless. I don’t agree, but I appreciate his wrestling with the question “why bother” in the face of the craziness of life. His essay closes with Sisyphus accepting his fate and the absurdity of his work, finding, within his choice, the possibility of happiness.
Accepting that part of life that may always seem a bit futile, absurd, and at times overwhelming, seems wise.
Take that you forest of weeds.
Some years ago, I was walking my beloved Springer Spaniel, Lady, to the dog park. She was pretty well trained to heel off-leash, and sat calmly beside me as we waited to cross a busy arterial and enter the dog-friendly area on the other side of the street.
Bad choice. Before I knew what happened, I saw a brown and white bullet race across the street, into the heavy traffic. She’d seen a squirrel. I screamed “LADY” at the top of my voice, hoping to startle and stop her, but she continued to run right into the trajectory of an on-coming car. Then I heard her hit.
Mercifully, the god of small animals was with us that day. She hit the tire of the car from the side, and bounced off. One moment sooner and she would have been under that tire. She limped to the side of the arterial, shaken, but miraculously alive and intact.
I never let her walk off-leash near busy city streets again. Her primal instinct for SQUIRREL was stronger than any command I could give.
How we all chase squirrels
Dogs aren’t the only squirrel-chasers. We humans, too, have our own versions.
We sit down at the computer, primed with our to-do lists, and set about our work, (spoken as one who works, with some freedom, for herself). But then the squirrels come out, with messages sent to tempt us. Is Meryl Streep really dead like that click-bait notice says? Does Brad Pitt have a new girlfriend? And the President just tweeted…whaaaat?
Yep, it’s SQUIRREL time!!! Before we know it we’re charging ahead, off-leash, forgetting our erstwhile priorities, mumbling, “I’ll just check this one little thing.”
SQUIRREL isn’t just about the Internet. It could be any distraction we know we shouldn’t take on. Maybe it’s a committee we could join, a tempting invitation from a friend, that extra piece of research, or a magazine that just arrived. The challenge with SQUIRREL is when something else starts driving our brains.
Not that we always have to be rational. We don’t. It’s just that SQUIRREL can lead us into an alternative reality from which we emerge minutes or hours later, with nothing to show for it, frustrated with ourselves and what we haven’t been able to accomplish.
There are a few ways to put ourselves into obedience school.
One, is to get clearer about our intentions and what really matters, taking time to focus before we plunge into our work, or our day.
Second, we can use those handy-dandy Internet tools like Freedom that block websites and apps while we know we need to be working. These are great for writers or others interested in doing deep work. A New York Times article summarizing science research suggested that we’re happier when we can stay focused on one activity rather thinking of something else. (And yes, there’s a new psychological diagnostic code called Internet addiction.)
Third, we can allow ourselves to play SQUIRREL, but with intention. Give yourself a finite period of time and web surf, catch up on all the Facebook traffic you missed, or feast on click-bait. Until your time is over. (Maybe set a timer.) SQUIRREL loses its power when it’s played with intention.
Finally, you can just call the game for what it is. My husband and I will sometimes disappear in the evening into our respective offices “for just a few minutes.” As time clicks away, it may take one of us calling out, “Are you playing SQUIRREL???” to break the trance. We laugh at how easy it is to be seduced.
I’ve heard that awareness is the first step in breaking any habit. Lady couldn’t reflect on her habits. But we can. Which I plan to do. Right after I find out if Angelina might take Brad back.