Navigating Growth: Extending Your Branches

I have always liked maps. I love to look at them, to imagine traveling with them, using them to find new and more interesting or pleasing ways to get somewhere. GPS is seriously useful, but not the same. There I said it; judge away. I like to hold and touch and SEE the big picture.

adventure-beautiful-bright-243597.jpgAnd I see that I have always believed that having that big map – the big picture with all of the details for how to get there – for all of my decisions was absolutely necessary. I mean how can you decide which direction to turn if you don’t know where you are going?

My recent experiences fly directly in the face of that idea and all of its conventional wisdom. It has thrown me for quite a loop.

You see, I’m building a community. The idea for my private FB group came to me in stillness (that’s meditation for those of you not allergic to the word – allergy sufferers forget I said anything). I got more inspiration on a walk. I got other pieces in the shower but it didn’t all add up to a map, a detailed plan. It was a little more loosey-goosey than that. So I held onto it, wanting to get the destination firmly in mind, perfecting the path.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think there’s good to be found in working on your vision, but sometimes we (I) can get stuck there, moving pieces around mentally and never getting to the trip. It’s like planning a dream vacation your whole life and never actually packing a bag. For many of us the dreaming is the safe space. It is where we can try to imagine how it should be without taking any of the risks associated with trying to make it so.

The dreaming space is where my son hangs out in preparation for Halloween. He LOVES Halloween and he spends months thinking about his costume. He wants it to be whatever he wants it to be: one year scary, another year clever and literary, this year I think he’s going for political satire (yes, that’s my kid) and he works at that vision. He sees the big picture – him going to the door, the adult GETTING it, the candy, the pride. He sees the impact he wants to have. He begins to think of the details associated with the costume. We talk about those details and invariably when we get to about 2 weeks out, he begins to have doubts. He begins to think maybe his idea isn’t so great after all. This year his big worry is: “What if they don’t get it?” Oh honey, I know. Then he moves into the familiar. Maybe he should dress up as something easy, something that comes in a bag with all of the pieces, something everyone will recognize right away. Maybe he’s got the destination all wrong. It is only the time pressure (and maternal nagging) and the siren call of the candy payoff that forces his hand, that moves him out of dreaming and self-doubt into action.

I began to feel this same thing happening with the idea of this community I wanted to build, but with no candy payday to push me forward. I was sort of sitting still fondling the vision, and the longer I looked, the more I noticed the self-doubt that was creeping in around the edges. I began to hear internal message and all of those messages boiled down to some version of “Who are you to do that? Who do you think you are?”

I began to wonder if maybe I needed some training. I began to compile a reading list. I thought of some other things I would probably need to do before getting started in order to be “ready.” Let me interrupt myself (again) by saying there’s nothing wrong with training, reading, or otherwise preparing yourself for a new venture, unless you are doing all of that as a way to 1) delay action indefinitely OR 2) feel good enough to pursue something to which you feel called right now. That’s exactly what I was doing.

The fix wasn’t in more school or a more specific vision. The fix wasn’t in reading the “right” books. The fix wasn’t in preparation. The fix was in releasing the need to perfect the big vision long enough to take the next small step. The way I chose to do that was to change the conversation in my head from “What do I want to do?” which is a super important but LONG conversation that gets all of those internal naysayers in full screech mode TO “What small step should I take next?”

WHOLE different question, right? Reflecting on what small step to take next is far less daunting and while it tends to generate its own mental obstacle course, that tends to look more like confusion than self-abuse which I would argue is easier on the spirit.

“I don’t know” feels better than “No you can’t” AND it can be answered by a question perfectly grounded in possibility and shared with me by a friend who learned it from Iyanla VanZant. “Well, what if you did know?” Pretend you do know what to do next. Now what’s the answer?

It’s such a wonderful question because it sidesteps the fog that our brains use to keep us still. It’s a wonderful question because it brings us back to stillness, to what we DO know, what we can know, what we ARE capable of and out of the hunting and overwhelming picture of the perfection we’d like to create.

I believe the answer to that question, the question of what to do next, is usually quite simple. It is almost always something we already know how to do, and if we can quiet our minds enough, we can access it – either right there in stillness or sometime after like on a walk or in the shower.

It is tempting, when we get an answer, when we see a step that is as small as writing an e-mail or making a phone call, to make it bigger, to turn it into more, to consider everything about it, another brilliantly executed stall tactic by the safety monitor in our minds.

child-costume-fairy-127968If instead, we accept that simple step and execute it, we build trust in ourselves, trust in the benevolence of the universe, and trust in the possibility that we can be enough right now. If we just get the costume we envisioned,  create the props that give costume clues, wear the long johns if necessary, the KitKats and Twix bars will flow and MAYBE next year we will remember that it is okay to do it just the way we want.

When Not Having a Choice is Better

pexels-photo-568027-2Years ago I was in a dark place. I had had a miscarriage and had nearly died in the process. My body and my spirit felt pretty broken and I couldn’t seem to see a way out.

Friends tried, in different ways, to help out. Some checked in. Some just sat with me. And one, in a moment of divine inspiration, found just the right thing to say – a goal I don’t really recommend as it is so easy to go wrong.

This particular friend is one of my closest and oldest friends. We’ve known each other since 7th grade. He worked from home at the time and I was a full-time graduate student. He called and asked if I wanted to join him at the dog park with my pooches.

As our canines played (well, and mine caused trouble), I described the difficulty I was having in following my usual routines. I didn’t want to go to class. I didn’t want to do the mountains of required reading. Writing papers seemed completely out of the question. I didn’t even really want to walk my dogs, a flashing neon signal that things were not right with me. He listened, really the best thing folks can do when someone has had a trauma, and during a pause he said: “What if you stopped seeing all of these things as a choice? What if they were just things you HAVE to do?”

Before I go further in, I want to assure you that I am not suggesting that the answer to anybody’s depression is just getting back to work. And I can honestly say that had my state of mind continued much longer, I likely would have benefited from medication to help my brain find it’s healthier pathways again. But in that moment, my friend’s words DID work for me.

Looking back on it now I recognize what was going on. He was reminding me that I had already made a commitment. I had already made a decision. And those commitments were to myself, to what I believed at the time was my highest good. Rather than asking myself: “Do I want to do this,” or “Do I feel up to that,” I might have just as easily asked myself if I was going to keep my commitment to myself that day. By allowing myself so much wiggle room, I was failing myself, and piling self-judgment about that failure onto my aching heart and soul.

It is so much easier to see this now, when I am self-employed and SO MUCH of my day relies on my ability to keep my commitments to myself. I could choose, at any time, to skip writing a blog post or skip creating a new PDF for folks. I could choose to skip networking lunches. I could choose to make bigger chunks of my schedule unavailable to clients. I could EASILY make myself  busy with the domestic demands of having high standards and children in the same physical space. I could do all of those things (and some days I would like to do that), but then I would not be keeping my commitments to myself.

The trouble with not keeping our commitments to ourselves is pretty deep trouble indeed. There is the initial trouble of allowing every action item to become a decision, which is TORTURE. We don’t do this with all of our action items, right? We don’t decide every morning whether or not we are going to brush our teeth. We just do it. We are committed to keeping our teeth clean. I, personally, am committed to not hearing a dentist’s drill any more often than absolutely necessary. So I don’t rethink this decision every day. I just do it. When it comes to our bigger commitments to ourselves, or to ones that we are not trained to do as children, we act like it’s reasonable to recheck our decisions whenever we’re not feeling fantastic.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve got news for you. A big part of life is not feeling fantastic. Yep. And there are things you can do about that, but truth is no matter how good you get at managing your mind, you will not feel fantastic all of the time, so there will be days you won’t feel like it, whatever IT is. What can keep you going on a day like that? Sometimes for me it’s just relying on that decision by my yesterday self. SHE, who felt a little better and spent some time making decisions about what to do when, can be trusted and SHE needs me to follow-through, even when I don’t feel my best.

The other tricky bit about not keeping our commitments to ourselves is that we train our brains to distract us. When we so readily desert our plans in favor of whatever is shiny (or on FB or Netflix or even laundry), we are telling our brains that they should divert us in other ways. The message is clear: “I can be interrupted. I can be stopped.” And our brains love to hear that “I can be stopped” message because our most primitive selves, they really aren’t interested in all of this deeply satisfying forward motion. They are interested in keeping things the same. So when you reward the urge to be distracted, when you reward the urge to go off plan, you give that primitive brain encouragement to continue to distract you and tell you why your whole commitment idea really stinks anyway.

I know I’m sounding like a little bit of a hardass this morning, and it may be that I’m just talking to myself because it is rainy and miserable and cold here and it seems like a perfect day to ditch ALL of the plans. And there are times to do that. And there are reasons to not. For me, here in the dark, cold, wet gloom of Maryland February I felt the call of EVERYTHING ELSE. So I checked myself. What are my commitments to myself today? What did my earlier motivated planning self say we should do today if the field trip I was supposed to chaperone got canceled, because you KNOW that bossy bitch had a backup plan. Yes, she did. And it was even pretty nice. Just a couple of required items and then maybe a movie and a game with the kids. She planned it. I’m doing it, because sometimes it’s better not to have a choice.

What To Do When You’re Too Busy

I remember seeing a couple on a TV show (or maybe a movie) scheduling a time to have sex. I remember nothing else about the show, the context, anything else. I just remember my horror. I remember thinking that was crazy. I remember rolling my eyes at how people could let their lives become that busy, rigid, regimented. I remember all of those feelings. I think I was around 23. And now I shake my head at my own darned self.

Adulting Can Be Extremely Busy

My family has entered an extremely busy phase. I thought we were in this phase before, but it turns out that the previous phase was just a very busy phase; THIS is the extremely busy phase. The exact circumstances aren’t that important, but I will share that my husband is a full-time seminary student on top of working, so if you have any experience with some version of that, you may have a sense of what things are like here. I am also nurturing my fledgling business, and oh, right, the kids. I won’t go on and on, because like I said, the circumstances aren’t that important. What is important is the way that we handle this phase. We’ve been bumping around a bit, trying to get to the place where we can actually observe ourselves so we can make adjustments. It has been a rough couple of months, but we reached meta this morning – we took a look at ourselves and realized there was a lot to improve on.

How are we going to make this crazy whirlwind better? The short answer is that we’re going to schedule things that are important to us. This will now be a mark of the level of priority – if it makes it on the calendar, it is important. I realize, however, that that is a short answer indeed and that it is not very helpful if you’re not already good at the whole scheduling thing. So, let me break down some other things we’re doing.

8 Steps to Fix “Too Busy”

  1. If it’s a triage situation – like you’re emotionally bleeding out/exhausted/freaking out: Get Real Clear on What’s Not VERY Important and eliminate it. I was going to say “scratch it off your list,” but ELIMINATE feels better right now. Get rid of it. My husband and I are both crossing one thing off our respective lists this morning because we realized he is leaving town and we needed to talk about all of this AND just see each other for a few minutes. I’ve been sick, and oh, yeah, the kids. We each found the least important part of our respective days and are eliminating them.
  2. Feeling better when you're overwhelmed.Stop allowing yourself to be “overwhelmed.” Overwhelm makes us spin, which is incredibly unproductive. The thoughts that create overwhelm are usually some version of: “It’s too much. I can’t possibly do it all,” or the classic circular: “I’m so overwhelmed.” Spinning won’t help that feeling. When I get that spin feeling, I try a thought like: “I need to figure out how to do this day/week/month” so that instead of feeling more overwhelmed, I feel determined to get down to business. That always feels better and is far more productive than the “I don’t know” freaking out that comes with overwhelm. This is particularly difficult if I am tired, which leads naturally to…
  3. Recognize the importance of, and schedule self-care. When we are extra-busy we have a tendency to make cuts in the worst places. We stay up a little later to finish one last bit of work or to have 10 minutes to ourselves. We get a little less careful with how we eat because we think we don’t have time to cook and eat proper meals. We skip taking a few minutes to just breathe because we’re sure we just don’t have time for that. I say all of this without scolding because I’m just as guilty of it as everyone else. I am especially guilty of the sleep part. And my body lets me know. I get less productive. I get WAY more grumpy. I get SO tired of it all. And if I keep pushing, I get sick. Usually not terribly sick and not for very long, but my body lets me know. Want to go from busy to totally UNPRODUCTIVE? Push hard enough that you get sick. Make your body force you to stop. The benefit? You may get some rest. You may recognize that you’re doing yourself in. The cost? All of that stuff you had to do just gets moved around more. Being busy does not get solved by being tired, poorly nourished and stressed out. It’s really that simple. If you don’t take care of you, it will all get worse.
  4. Sit with your goals/plans/big list for a few minutes each day. Check in. What is it you are trying to accomplish? What takes priority this month/this week/today? What steps do you need to outline for yourself to get from where you are to there? When are you going to do those things? Write it down or type it in – whatever your planner penchant is – do that.
  5. Make planning a part, but not a terribly LONG part, of every day. I’ve talked here about my morning meeting and how invaluable I find it. Every day I move from looking at my goals/plans/objectives to actually planning out when I’m going to do those things. I allot very specific amounts of time, not depending on how long I think it will take, but based on how long I want to spend on each item. 90% of the time I actually finish in that amount of time (which is always shorter than I think it will “take”).
  6. Check in with involved parties on a regular basis. We have in the past, and will begin again, having the Sunday evening meeting. This is when we review what’s coming up in the next month and in the next week so we know who’s going to be where and when. So we identify gaps (oh yeah, kids) in case we need to enlist childcare. So we don’t get caught off-guard by someone else’s meeting or travel. So we can prepare for events rather than constantly reacting to them. AND so we can thank each other for picking up one another’s slack.
  7. If it’s important to you, schedule it. And yes, I mean everything, including haircuts, naps, walks, extra long showers because you have a cold, trips to the drugstore because someone’s prescription is ready, lunch dates with your spouse. If it’s important, treat it like it’s important. Schedule it and honor your schedule… which leads me to….
  8. You can handle it all. Learn to trust yourself.Honor your schedule. If you MUST make a change, be conscious about it. Think it through. Recognize all of the implications. Review the rest of the day and see what impact it will have. Never do it because you don’t “feel like” doing what’s next on the schedule. Honor your commitments to yourself and the overload gets a lot less stressful because you will know that you can count on yourself to meet your obligations. You will know that you are reliable and capable. You will know that you are trustworthy with your own time.

You Are In Charge

There’s a lot more I could say, but I’m looking at this like an emergency room situation. These are the basics for moving from insanely and overwhelmingly busy to just plain busy – but busy that is directed, goal oriented, planned, and all-inclusive. This is busy that assumes taking care of oneself in all of the ways. This is busy that allows for productivity skyrocketing because you actually feel good AND feel able to do it all, and you can, OR you can make some decisions that make it all work.

You may fight me on this but you really are in charge. I know, I know, we’re not all self-employed, BUT we are all able to make can keep commitments to ourselves. We are all able to adjust our level of effort so that we can actually complete tasks in a reasonable amount of time. We are all able to use calendars and timers. We really are, and if you are where I was, if you scoff at the use of such tools to mark the time in your day, that’s okay. Just call me in a few months when you’re EXTREMELY busy and I’ll tell you how I do all of that.

 

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Trading Places

No, I’m not talking about the old Eddie Murphy movie (and to show my age I felt weird about calling that old, but I digress). I’m talking about the idea of trading places with another person in order to get a fresh perspective. We talk about this pretty regularly, particularly when we’re trying to encourage our kids to be aware of other people’s feelings.

“How would you feel if someone did that to you? What do you think she felt like when you said that? Do you think he was happy? Were they trying to hurt you? What do you think they were thinking about?” Maybe it’s just me and my poor tormented children, but these discussions happen pretty often when trying to untangle whatever happened at recess. This notion is a big part of our adult culture as well: “Walk a mile in their shoes.” Now, don’t misunderstand me all of this talk we’re talking doesn’t mean we’re walking the walk, but that is a subject for a different post altogether. Right now I’m just interested in this idea of ways that we can shift our perspective by trading places.

we get so afraid of the futureThe difference for me right now is that I’m less interested in developing empathy (just for the moment, no worries) and more interested in gaining some perspective on the things that are going on for me. One parent in seminary and one parent as a fledgling entrepreneur can make for a lot of household uncertainty. Some days the uncertainty feels daunting and we just want more information. We just want to know what’s going to happen. Where will we be? Will all of this work out? Should we be doing things differently?

When I’m feeling freaked out or if that freaking out turns into some kind of b.s. self-abuse about being good enough, it is a good mental exercise to trade places with a friend. Let her look at the situation and tell me what SHE thinks. We’re not always good at being kind to ourselves. We’re not always good at seeing the big picture when we’re part of the landscape. We’re not always good at taking a longer view, but oftentimes someone else who knows us can, and sometimes we can access that without even talking to them. When our self-kindness and calm fails us, we can borrow some from someone else. I do this regularly. When I need calm and compassion I mentally trade places with my sister and see what she would say. When I need business advice, I mentally trade places with my mentor and see what she would say. When I need a pep talk, I imagine what my dear Dad would say. When my own capacity to be kind to myself and pick myself up is out of gas, I call in for a little mental trade.

But this trading places thing can go farther, and here’s where it gets really interesting. Every now and again I make it a point to imagine my future. I choose a point down the road, maybe a year, maybe five, sometimes ten, and I picture everything I can about that time. I try to get detailed. I try to see everything. I try to know exactly what’s happening, not by pushing, but by inhabiting that mental space, seeing it, being the me of THAT time. When that vision is really solid and I’ve been living there for a few minutes, I ask HER for advice for today. What do I need to know? What should I do? How can I get there?

using a vision of the future to guide actionIt’s been fascinating. She always calms me down, and I guess that part isn’t surprising, but the rest of it is. There’s real advice there. There’s steps to take to get to the future I’m imagining. There are things to consider and plan, with a vision of what that will bring. THAT is powerful magic. THAT is motivating and grounding all at the same time. THAT makes moving forward feel both brilliant AND safe, like of COURSE I’m going to do X because that’s how I get THERE. And when I’ve gotten my questions answered, I trade places back. I return to my present with fresh eyes, a fresh perspective, a list of next steps on the road, and a vision to guide me.

What would your future self tell you about where you are today? What would you ask? What would happen if you tried trading places for just a few minutes? I can help you with that.