Just Ignore that To Do List!

Yes, you read that right! When I make this suggestion in my resilience workshops, the gasps and protests don’t take long to surface. It seems blasphemous in our multi tasking, addicted to busyness culture to suggest that one ignore the “to do” list.

Once people get over their shock, I explain that it isn’t a permanent state of affairs, but rather a conscious choice one needs to make on a regular basis. In my experience, the more driven I am by my to do list the more my health suffers. I experience a myriad of chronic, and seemingly unsolvable, problems like stomach issues, neck and shoulder pain, insomnia and migraines.

We live in a quick and easy fix, immediate gratification type of society where we turn to medical experts to help us with our health issues. I know I have certainly had my share of visits to the doctor. I’ve recently been exploring how the brain starts to wire itself towards pain when we feel threatened. There’s a lot to be threatened by today and so it’s no surprise that so many people I talk with experience these baffling health issues as well.

Our to do list can also be threatening, especially if it’s long and not achievable, includes tasks that are highly unpleasant that stay on the list for weeks or months, or just reminds us that we are never “done” no matter how hard we may have worked that day. I think these to do lists often provide us with the illusion that if we just do all these things, we can control events and prevent bad things from happening. I know that some of my clients are really threatened by NOT doing their to do list as they really believe very bad things will happen.

While world events might be beyond our control, our to do list is in our control. Give yourself a regular break from being driven by the to do list and see what happens. Or at the very least, take some items off the list that don’t need to be there. I let go of several big to dos in the last 6 months that were keeping me in a constant state of “not enough.” My health has definitely improved and I’ve certainly been enjoying life more … and, even more important, nothing bad has happened 😉 In fact, a couple of remarkable things have happened that probably wouldn’t have if I had kept to that list.

How is your to do list working for you?

How to Climb a Mountain

“Take a look back … the view is spectacular,” my husband Dave suggested as I stopped in the middle of the path, sure I was about to pass out or fall backwards down the mountain. I was about a third of the way up the Bump and Grind and all I could see was the long path ahead of me.

“I can’t look now,” I sputtered. “I’ve got too far to go,” while thinking to myself that I wished I had never agreed to this … I wasn’t ready and it was too hard.  But I couldn’t really turn around now as I was deathly afraid of going down the steep side. I knew that if I got to the top I could descend on the less steep side.

I set off again on a mission to get to the top as fast as I could. And then stopped again, thinking I would pass out or fall. And then set off again … and, well, you get the picture. I did eventually get to the top and take a look down … it was spectacular and I was very proud that I had challenged myself to do this hike when I wasn’t entirely ready!

It seems to me this experience is a perfect metaphor for life. We can never be quite prepared to take on a challenge. All we can do is keep taking a step at a time (which BTW was what I kept telling myself on the way up. Just one more step, just one more step …) and eventually we will tackle that tough challenge.

But, while hiking down the gradual slope, I realized that I had missed out on a lot by my impatient, goal driven approach. I was trying to go too fast and it was taxing both my leg muscles and lung capacity too much. I also needed to give myself permission to stop occasionally, look around, enjoy what I was seeing AND celebrate the fact that I had made it that far. I really didn’t enjoy my trip up the mountain.

I see this all the time in my coaching practice. People striving for goals, trying to go too fast, not stopping to appreciate what they’ve experienced, not reflecting on what they’ve learned, or not celebrating what they’ve accomplished to that point. It robs them, just as it robbed me, of the joy in the journey.

So the next time you’re impatient to reach a goal, resist your urges and stop to take a look around. You just never know what you might discover about yourself or others.

How to Set Boundaries Without Drama

One of my favorite talks is How to Lead When You’re Feeling Burned Out and inevitably the timing of the talk coincides with me needing to practice what I preach! I gave the talk several times this past fall and most of the questions the audience asked came back to boundaries, albeit phrased like “These are all great tips but how do you do this when it’s impossible to say no and take time for myself?”

And then I found myself in the middle of having to say no and I too thought it was impossible … at least to begin with 😉 I realized that there were four things I needed to figure out:

  1. What were the competing values I was dealing with? In my case it was a competing value between my own health and wanting to keep a client happy. My tendency is to keep a client happy and deal with my own health later, but I know (and tell others!) that this is not a good long term strategy. So I got clear that it’s ok for me to value my health over my client’s happiness and that became my guiding value.
  2. Whose monkey was it? William Oncken’s brilliant metaphor of collecting monkeys, which are tasks or problems that we take on for various reasons that rightly belong to someone else, became very relevant. This piece of work that had grown into a rather large monkey did, in fact, belong to my client, not me. Sometimes the ownership of the monkey may not be as clear, but in those cases, it’s ok to ask someone who also has a partial ownership in the monkey to take it on (especially if that other person has not properly looked after that monkey in the past!)
  3. What feelings was I experiencing? I was stressed and frustrated but digging deeper, I realized I was a bit resentful. Feeling resentful comes from not being appreciated or being taken advantage of. This can happen when we impose “I should do this in order to be a good ___” or by someone else imposing their expectations on us. Getting clear on our feelings and, in particular, tuning into resentment can alert us to the fact that we need to set a boundary.
  4. What fears were surfacing? I was afraid that if I set a boundary my client would be upset, think less of me and then I would never get another contract ever from anyone else! I know that sounds irrational as I type it but these are the sorts of irrational fears that often prevent us from setting a boundary. In this case, I was able to get some perspective and realize that, given everything, it was doubtful this would happen and even if it did, it would not directly lead to no contracts ever! Often we don’t set boundaries because we are afraid a relationship will end. In that case, we need to ask ourselves if this is a healthy relationship to be in!

Working through these four things allowed me to set a boundary in a direct, respectful and grounded way. I was able to use my guiding value for why I could not complete this work and I did so from a place of confidence instead of frustration or resentment. Boundaries without drama has become my mantra!

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Are You Safe or Trapped?

Dave and I have been teaching and giving talks for over 30 years and so it was surprising to both of us just how much angst we both experienced getting ready to present at DisruptHR Victoria. To be fair, it was a bit of a different format – 20 slides automatically forwarded every 15 seconds – and it was being video taped but nonetheless I have given hundreds of talks over the years … WTF? Why did my inner critic rear its ugly head to such a degree? My first thought was that my angst was all about not having control over when the slides advanced, but upon reflection there was a lot more going on.

Serendipity being what it is, I was just reading Tara Mohr’s Playing Big and Denise Jacobs’ Banish your Inner Critic, both of which offer insight and tips for dealing with your inner critic, albeit from slightly different perspectives.  Both of them suggest that the inner critic is a hardwired safety instinct. The role of the inner critic is to protect us from harm,  whether that’s physical or emotional.  This insight alone has helped me reframe what’s happening. Instead of the usual “this is ridiculous” message I give myself, I’m now saying, “Thank you for trying to  protect me, but I’ve got enough experience to handle this.” It’s a subtle but powerful shift that leaves me feeling more grounded.

My next insight came from Tara’s book … that our inner critic will yell most loudly when we are getting ready to play a bigger game. I realized that while I have given many talks, I can only think of one or two that were actually videotaped and none were going to get circulated more broadly.  There were several firsts in this talk … first time with a 5 minute, highly structured talk, and first time with a video about to be circulated. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to be “perfect,” another sign that the inner critic truly has a hold on you. I reminded myself of the Leonard Cohen quote I often say when perfectionism is taking over

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

My final insight came from Denise Jacobs’ book. She has a chapter on “comparison syndrome” that really resonated for me. She talks a lot about the role of social media in feeding the inner critic and how to deal with that by tracking your triggers and then eliminating some of those sources. It was her ideas around becoming self-referential, however, that were so helpful to me. In preparing for the DisruptHR talk, I watched quite a few talks from the previous year, watched a number of shorter TED talks and read quite a few blogs about what to do/not do. The more I did this “preparation” the more freaked out I became. I was becoming other referential, not self referential. I needed to stop preparing and comparing,  get centered in on what I wanted to say and trust my own experience.

Jacobs’ suggests that to be self referential you determine your success by looking at who you’ve become over time. You then focus on becoming the best version of yourself. I was so anxious my first day of teaching high school English (many years ago now), I actually vomited in the staff washroom before I made it up to the class to teach! I realized that I had come a long way.  Embracing my “onlyness,” the space in which only you can stand, allowed me to embrace who I am and what I have to offer and do the talk “Tammy style” instead of “everyone else style.”

I’m happy to say that I got myself centered and, while I did feel many nervous flutters while waiting to give my talk, I did not vomit 😉 I have not seen the tape yet, but I will deal with that inner critic when the time comes 😉 In the meantime, I’m excited that I took the risk and very appreciative of the entire learning experience!

3 Tips for Putting Down Your Armour

It seems a natural response to being hurt, facing challenges or experiencing unexpected tragedy is to respond with fear and anger and armour up. Armouring up can be anything from “From now on I copy everyone in on my emails to cover my butt.” to “I will not share anything authentic with you again.” to “I’m going to isolate myself from others.”

But research is clear about the role of optimism in resilience. While these armouring up responses are normal, it’s when they become a long term habit that our overall wellness, effectiveness and satisfaction with life can be affected.

While some people seem to be more naturally optimistic, there are times when all of us need to be intentional about it. Here are three practices I use to put down my armour:

  1. Lighten up. Lightening up means that we don’t take ourselves seriously and we put things into perspective, hopefully finding humour in situations. While that may not always be possible in extremely distressing situations, it can also mean giving yourself permission to “park the issue” even if it’s for a short time. This gives your brain a chance to get out of fight or flight. To lighten up, practice the “pause.” When you find yourself overly stressed, anxious, serious, in a rush, etc, take a deep breath, pause for 4 seconds, name what you are experiencing and then ask yourself a question to shift into more optimism. Some of my favorites are “Will this be important a year from now?” “Can I do anything about this?” “Can I invest my energy into something more important or positive?”
  2. Reframe. Reframing means that we interpret and make meaning of our experiences in a way that is optimistic. Resilience researchers followed children raised in neglect or abuse over a long period of time to see how they fared as adults. Those who did well (lived productive happy lives) did not attach the same meaning to their earlier experiences as those who continued in a cycle of neglect and abuse. The “stories” we tell ourselves about what happens to us can be even more important and crucial in determining how we do than what actually happened to us in the moment. Those children who were able to reframe their early childhood as learning experiences that helped them develop their strength and confidence did better than those who told a story of how their early childhood damaged them. Reframing also relates to how we think about things that didn’t go right for us, or failures. Resilient people are able to reframe mistakes or failures as opportunities to learn or create something different in their lives.
  3. Develop a daily ritual that facilitates connection to yourself, others, nature. Some of the things I do are to write down 3 things I appreciate or am grateful for, go for walks, review my file of thank yous from others, watch uplifting videos or read something uplifting, and send a text or email of appreciation to someone. I find that doing this helps me to lean more towards optimism than pessimism, put down my armour and connect to others in a meaningful way.

What are the strategies you use to put down your armour and develop your optimism?

This blog is the A in our PAUSE model of resilience – Active Optimism. Watch for the U in a future blog!!