personal development

Find the Time to Focus (or not!)

 

When I was trying to find my way out of my high-achieving success box in my corporate job, I knew a key to making that happen was to find the time to focus. This can be a weird tricky thing, because sometimes what "focus" means is having a down-the-road end goal in mind, and the end goal requires that your mind has some downtime. If you've ever attempted to meditate and hated it, it's probably because of the way you can't get that mess swirling around in your mind to STOP for 60 seconds, for the love of God. But it makes sense, doesn't it? Why on Earth do we expect to swing from frantic-nonstop-circus in the brain to quiet, peaceful silence that rides on gentle waves? 

As a person who's driven to get shit done, focus that doesn't have a tangible outcome can feel uncomfortable and even pointless. Like, you want me to sit here and write about the things in my head with no particular goal in mind? Or spend ten minutes staring at a candle flame, listening to something zen, and paying attention to my breath for … what, exactly? It's like unfocused focus, if you will. Focused time to stop focusing on the usual crap to make space for what you really want to come in. 

Confused? Don't be. This is freeing in its own way. 

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We are constantly trying to get and keep ourselves on track. I can't count the number of times I felt myself slowly sliding down my office chair, staring at my laptop, knowing I had to get going but feeling so not able to do it. I would eventually end up at eye level with my keyboard, haul myself back up, take a deep breath, and dive in. In those moments, what sounded awesome to me was the option of having a few minutes to not be worried about what all needed to get done. The ability to take that time to let my mind wander, thinking of nothing in particular. When I began to take that seriously and scheduled my focused-unfocused time into my day, that's when things really started to change for me. 

When you stop trying to control your mind the way you do everything else in your life, it creates space for clarity. Not necessarily in that moment, but it will come (probably when you're in the shower!).

The other benefit is that you'll find your mind is more willing to listen when you've given it a little freedom to be off the leash. It was much easier for me to concentrate on work after I gave myself the opportunity to sit and write or do a meditation. Think of your mind as a busy toddler. If you keep trying to make it sit down and focus on coloring in the lines with no outlet for running around and playing, you're going to have a major uphill struggle on your hands. If you allow the toddler(mind) to go to recess and THEN give it some coloring pages, it will be much more willing and able to do so. 

Find ten to fifteen minutes a day to let your mind off the leash.


 

You Can be Grateful and Want More

 

Have you ever shared your discontentment with someone only to hear "You should be grateful for what you have!"? Is that something you say to yourself when you consider where you are and that despite outward success, it feels like something is missing? 

I confess: This kind of messaging drives me batshit crazy. 

It drives me nuts because I dealt with this myself and it would confuse me. I was fully capable of seeing and appreciating all of the great things I had going for me and still wanted life to feel different. Did that make me bad? Wrong? Ungrateful? When I would tell coworkers I didn't want the corporate life anymore, some would look at me like I was in need of medication, perhaps sedation. Was I serious? Did I really think there could be anything better than where we were? 

If you have experienced this—whether you say it to yourself as a way of diminishing your desires or someone else says it to you as a way of keeping you in check—know that this is the real truth: 

You can be grateful for what you have and desire more from life. 

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It doesn't make you bad, wrong or ungrateful. It makes you HUMAN.

When you accomplish something that energizes and inspires you, it makes zero sense that you would then be content to sit back and never aspire to anything again. It's healthy to want more. We are here to have experiences, realize our potential, enjoy life to the fullest. Resigning yourself to where you are because it's better than where a lot of others are is the wrong approach. Be grateful and appreciative for the abundance in your life. For the roof over your head, the food on your table, your health and so on. At the same time, acknowledge your desires as legitimate and natural. The more aligned you are, the more energy you have for the world around you and for others in need.

Instead of feeling guilty for wanting, think of how you can help those who have less than you at every step and how much more powerfully you can make an impact the more fulfilled you are personally. 

 

You Have Nothing to Lose

 

Do you ever find yourself in a position where the same thought or idea comes to you over and over again? It may come up frequently, or it may return to you over longer periods of time. What do you do when that happens? 

When I was still in my old way of operating, I would tell myself things like, "I'll get to that later," "Now isn't the time," "I don't know how to make that happen," "He/she is unlikely to respond to my message," and so on and so forth. The thing is, that when something wants your attention, it returns to you repeatedly. Putting it off clearly doesn't work. When something remains unaddressed it stays on repeat in our minds, subtly urging us to take some kind of action. 

Why is it hard to take that action? We tend to mentally fast forward downstream too quickly and instead of taking a small step, we imagine a whole series of steps that end in us crashing and burning. Therefore, we stay exactly where we are, unwilling to take a risk. But in all seriousness, what is the risk, really? Is it that the person you reach out to doesn't respond? That the idea you thought was awesome has some holes in it that you hadn't considered? Worst of all, is it the belief that you don't have what it takes to turn this idea or connection into a reality? 

In each of these scenarios, often the worst thing that can happen is that nothing changes. So, you take a chance, it doesn't work out, and you are where you were to begin with. What's the big deal about that? Why do we make it into such a thing, this overly dramatic sense of "failure" that because you couldn't control something down to the outcome, it wasn't worth doing to begin with and now you're a failure? 

I hope you're beginning to realize how freaking ridiculous it is to think this way. 

You Have Nothing to Lose

An easy way to begin to break this pattern is with people. The next time someone comes into your mind, reach out to them. If it's a professional connection you're hoping to make and you've decided it's not worth it because you think they won't respond, what do you have to lose by reaching out? What if they DO respond? Well, great. That's fantastic. Take it from there. If they don't, so what? You tried. Maybe the whole point of that experience is to get your mind thinking about who else you could reach out to. It is not the norm that we travel the shortest distance between points A and B when we take action. Our paths tend to be a little more meandering, often because it's in our best interest! We learn at every step. You could miss out on some really good realizations if everything was easy and instant gratification was more common than not. 

Start keeping track of the ideas that come to you. Write them down. There is something powerful about putting your thoughts down on paper. You may find that it opens up the floodgates and that ideas start rolling in at a rapid pace. Fantastic! Keep that channel open, write things down and consider whether the idea is something you're interested in pursuing or not. Is it for now or later? Does it have a quick and easy fix like reaching out to someone, or does it require a bit more thought? For instance, if you want to write a book, what are you telling yourself about why you can't do it or why the timing is wrong? What if the first step you take is just to brainstorm?

No matter what kind of idea it is, take some kind of action, no matter how small it may be. Make a habit of continuing to take the small next steps until it becomes a habit to act instead of to postpone. 

 

When It's Time to Stretch

 

In the last year, the goals I've set have a different feel to them. My current approach, so different from my old-school control-all-the-things-push-hustle-grind, is solid. Every goal I set is aligned with an intention. I balance between taking inspired action and allowing information, next steps, and opportunities to flow in. Generally speaking, when it comes to goals, I have high confidence in achieving the desired outcome because I know what I'm capable of and that my approach is tailored to my strengths and the way I operate. 

This time, it's different. 

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Until a few days ago, I wasn't able to put my finger on just why this goal of putting a book into the world feels so other. I tend to have a lot more highs and lows in my thinking. Sometimes, I'm super confident and pumped about it all, and other times, self-doubt creeps in and asks, "Why exactly do you think you can pull this off?" And by "this," I mean not just having a published book, but putting out content that makes an impact on many people on a scale far beyond what I've done so far in my professional life. 

I have no evidence I can do this. 

We get exposed to a lot of collective thinking that exposes us to this idea that accomplishing big things has to be hard. There's an attachment to the idea that struggle is required. We are also told that it's about who we know. But let's face it—most of us don't know people, as in we don't have connections in high places. We have ideas but no way of gauging whether other people will think they are any good beyond talking to those close to us. Most of the time, all of the above stops people from taking action in the direction of doing something that feels like a major stretch. And by stretch, I mean you truly have no evidence that you can make it happen. 

So what? If every single human thought that way, invention would be dead. Why did the Wright brothers believe we could fly? Why did scientists believe we could prevent disease through vaccination? Why did anyone in their right mind believe we could travel to outer space?

It's called faith. Belief in what you cannot see and for which there is no evidence. It's powerful. It requires you to top off your tank of self-belief and to keep that baby as full as you can, even if you waver from time to time. And if you haven't done the deep work to determine why that tank is leaky or how to reprogram your old ways of thinking and habits to stop talking yourself down and seeing yourself as incapable, life is going to be a relatively dull ride instead of the exhilarating experience it could be if you can find the faith in yourself that allows you take chances. 

Do you have a secret longing to do something that feels too scary to contemplate? Is it because you don't have the evidence you can make it happen? It's time to stretch


 

What if they don't like it?

 

One of the most challenging aspects of personal development is detaching from the need for validation from others. Of course, the double-edged sword is that high achievers can be driven to succeed through this take action/be rewarded cycle that we are taught from our earliest days. Some people have strong feelings about reward systems and whether or not we should use them. Personally, I don't think reward systems are inherently bad. When humans are young, using a system of rewards can help teach and reinforce in some powerful ways. The challenge is that once the lessons are learned, we continue to operate in that primitive way, long after it's outlived its usefulness.

Because we crave the approval of others, we can default to a mode of operation where we seek it at the expense of ourselves. Think of the person who continues to pursue climbing the ladder professionally, even if ascending the ladder creates more stress and overwhelm, less time with family, poorer health, etc. Why does this happen? Perhaps the story they tell themselves is that it's the price they pay (see the dread blog) in order to have the other things they want. Even worse, maybe it stems from believing there is no choice. That to stop ascending, to stop gaining reward through recognition, promotion, and more pay is the path to irrelevance.

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Consider that for a moment. If you stop "ascending" in the framework of this very restrictive definition, you're irrelevant? All is for naught? Just because no one is tangibly reinforcing your value externally?

Dude. That's. Fucked. Up.

This is why it's so important that you know and appreciate your intrinsic value internally. I have to admit, as the date of my book launch draws closer, I'm starting to freak out a little bit. I wonder, "What if no one likes it?" When that thought pops up, I remind myself that I wrote this book for me. Because I felt called to do so. I accomplished something very personally important to me. I remind myself that I know it will provide value to others, which is my ultimate goal. And some people will hate it. And they'll let me know they hate it. I'll have to stay centered in my internal sense of self. I'll weather it and come out better off on the other side not despite of, but because of the test and having to make it through with my sense of self-worth intact no matter what anyone else says.

Are there areas of your life where you hold yourself back because you aren't sure people will like what you have to say, what you've created, or what you want to stop chasing? Identify those areas. Get clear on what you believe the consequences of taking/not taking action in those areas are. Identify when it's the reactions of others that have a strong influence on what you have prioritized. Then, start making decisions that are about YOU and not them.

 

Familiar, Creeping Dread

 

For years and years of my adult life, I felt a recurrent, familiar dread in the rhythm of the work week. Before the dread set in, there was some buoyancy. Once the weekend was in sight, it started to feel like rolling downhill instead of slogging my way up. I used to say that Thursday was my favorite day of the week. For me, the end of the Thursday work day felt lighter than the preceding days. People tended to be in a good - at least, better - mood on Fridays, with everyone looking forward to their reprieve from the grind. I remember making plans for just how awesome my Friday evening was going to be, filled with relaxation and doing things like watching a movie with a vodka tonic in hand, only to find myself depleted, exhausted, and barely able to keep my eyes open at 9 pm. What a waste, I would think to myself, that one of the two nights I can truly enjoy every week goes down in this sad way, with plans unrealized and the need to recover taking over all other plans.

Saturday was always the best day of the week. It was the one day where I would wake up refreshed and even if there was a lot to do, I knew I'd be hanging out with my family, prioritizing at least one or two fun things to do along with taking care of household needs, errands, etc. Inevitably, the familiar pang would arrive on Saturday evening, a precursor to Sunday, knowing that the ability to be present would slowly seep away as the end of the weekend approached. And that was when the dread would really kick in. Sunday afternoon. My mind started moving forward into the work week, thinking through what needed to be done, who I'd be meeting with, what fires might pop up, which team members were going to be in conflict - the list went on.

Sunday night was the worst. It was more the exception than the rule that I would get a decent night's sleep before the work week began. I would go to bed at a reasonable time and watch the hours tick by. I would do the thing that insomniacs do, telling myself "Five hours of sleep is fine, I can work with that" and then "If I don't get at least four hours of sleep, this is going to be a rough week" and my mind would finally shut down around that time, allowing me a few precious hours of rest, but not nearly enough to keep me energized as the week progressed.

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Dread was such a regular in my life that I didn't question it much. I knew a lot of people who felt just like I did. We talked about the dis-ease of Sunday like it was a fact of life. One of my friends calls it the "Sunday scaries." Like so many other not-so-good aspects of my mindset at that point, I registered that it was there, and that it sucked, but it fell into the category of "the price we pay." As in, we must in some way "pay", or more accurately, sacrifice, in order to have the other benefits that come from staying in a particular situation. This is such a regular and consistent bit of messaging in our culture of success that we resign ourselves to it.

But actually, it's bullshit.

You do not have to accept dread as a fact of life. You do not have to fall in line with the "pay the price" concept of success. I'm not telling you to run out and quit your job, because that isn't the answer. No matter where you work, if you have already bought into the foundational trap of accepting a limited concept of "this is the way the world is," your experience of life will remain consistent. That is, you will get more of what you're resigned to. Ask yourself the following:

  • What in my experience lends itself to dread? Is it the hours I work? Not prioritizing my need to refuel, e.g. exercise, eat, sleep, etc.?

  • What am I tolerating? What have I resigned myself to? When am I saying "that's just the way it is?"

  • Are there other places in my life where something similar is happening? (I'll give you a hint - the answer is "yes") Where else are you deciding to go along because it is what it is?

Once you've identified these areas, you'll begin to see the pattern and can start thinking about ways to change what you're accepting as the sacrifice you're not happy making. What can you do differently? Where can you shift your priorities? To avoid crashing and burning, take it one small step at a time and make a single change before you move on to the next.


 

The Unsettling Unknowns of Transition

 

We've all been there, in those strange periods of time when a change has been initiated but remains incomplete. Even if you have some vague notion of what is changing or how it's changing, the details are hidden. Maybe it's because the lack of transparency protects the process, or maybe it's because lack of transparency is part of the culture in which the change is happening. Either way, it can be unsettling. You know something will change but don't know whether you'll be directly affected. It could be that the change itself will be positive, but since there is no proof of that either way, you tend to stay in the land of unease, hoping for the best but skeptically doubting the outcome. 

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Transition periods happen frequently in our professional experiences. Restructuring, downsizing, relocating, and reorganizing are all a part of doing business and keeping up with the needs of growth, clients, the industry, etc. But just because transition is a given doesn't mean that it's pleasant to be in suspension, waiting to see what will happen while fretting about the possibilities. The good news is that the fretting part is optional. A few adjustments to your mindset and your expectations can mean the difference between anxiously and impatiently waiting or calmly going about your business until what's done is done. 

Here are 3 things you can do to manage a transition period in a way that serves you. 

  1. Loosen your grip. You have no control over the outcome. How does it help to consider all of the worst case scenarios when you truly have no idea what's coming next? When you start to worry, remind yourself, out loud if you need to, that expending your energy on worry and anxiety has exactly zero impact on how things turn out. 

  2. Focus on what you can do. Until the change shows up, keep doing your thing. Sure, it may change, but it hasn't yet. Show up, be present, and tune in. What do you like about what you're doing? How can you capitalize on that during the period of uncertainty? Maybe you need to be deliberate about sprinkling in more fun or down time for yourself.  Don't talk yourself out of it because "Oh, it's all just so crazy right now - I can't possibly leave!" Actually, while everything is still what it is is the best time to make sure you're taking care of yourself. 

  3. Trust the process. Whether or not things go the way you want them to, they will go the way they need to, and ultimately it's for your benefit. This is by far one of the hardest things to do if your Type A and like to have an iron grip (see #1) so don't expect to nail this one quickly and easily. If you have to, mentally return to other periods of time when something went in a direction that you didn't anticipate and assess how it turned out. Was it ultimately fine, perhaps positive, even if you didn't initially think it would be? It's easy to fall prey to black and white, doom and gloom thinking. When those thoughts come up, repeat #1 and #2 and trust that thing are always working out for you.