Archive | Self-development

How to Inch Towards Your Ideal Day

inchworm
Inchworm via Wikimedia Commons

Several years ago, back when I was contemplating a change in careers, I did an exercise where I described my “ideal day.” My description basically reads as follows: I spend my mornings writing, followed by some other, related creative activity: podcasting, giving a talk or interview, or attending a conference. The afternoons are devoted to a job that I love that brings home the bacon.

When friends call now – as they often do – to tell me that they’re tired of their job/industry/routine/life – I often begin by asking them to describe their ideal day. What I haven’t shared with them is that while my own description sits above my desk to remind me of my goals, I’ve not yet managed to achieve them. Most days, I write for an hour in the early morning and then do “real work” for the rest of the day. Sometimes, I start at 5 a.m. to squeeze it all in.

That changed this summer. With a bit more time on my hands, I slowly began to inch myself closer to realizing my ideal day. This didn’t happen magically; it was deliberate. Here are three changes I instituted that helped:

Saying No

One of the main upsides to running your own business is that you get to maximize the activities you like and minimize the ones you don’t. Otherwise, why not just go work for someone else who tells you how to spend your time?

Now that my business is up and running, I am fortunate to have a high number of repeat clients.  This means that I can spend less time selling and more time doing what I love – which is the design and delivery of workshops and coaching.

So I made a conscious choice this summer to considerably reduce the amount of business development that I do. Once I let go of cold calls, in particular, I suddenly had a lot more time in my day to devote to other things. Learning how to say “No” – as much to myself, as well as to others who were asking me to sell for them – was vital to this shift in behavior.

Taking Project Management Seriously

The second change I implemented was to get much smarter about managing my workload. I do a lot of work with universities, and the autumn tends to be my busiest time of the year for that work. So as the my calendar for the next few months begins to fill up, I am making sure to adhere to one of the fundamental principles of project management – which is to always work backwards from your deadlines.

The basic idea here is quite simple:  as soon as you have a deadline, work backwards so that you know exactly how much time you need allocate to that project each month/week/day etc. to hit it. As I tell my students, one important corollary to this old time management chestnut is to be sure that you block out your calendar to prepare for these deadlines. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself committing time to other projects and before you know it, you’ll be completely over-committed and stressed out.

It’s really hard for me to adhere to this principle, because my instinct is to always say “yes” and take on more work. But creating space to get “enough” work done and respecting that space is the only way to allocate time for other things you really value, like family, writing and exercise.

Embracing a Portfolio Mindset

I’ve written a lot about how I’ve embraced a portfolio career in later life. But a portfolio career is much more than a variety of different revenue streams. It’s also a mindset.

A portfolio mindset means that when you’re doing something that is part of your portfolio but not necessarily an income-earner – in my case, writing and volunteer work fall into this category – you don’t berate yourself endlessly when you’re spending time on those activities.

This was an incredibly hard transition for me to make. I’m very rule-bound. So if I decide that I will only spend one hour writing a day and eight hours “doing real work,” it’s really hard for me to break out of that routine.

But with more time on my hands this summer – largely due to Covid and its impact on my work – I found that I was better able to use my time to do a range of things that matter to me – even if I wasn’t earning money from them. The trick wasn’t finding the time. It was there. The trick was to re-frame that time as valuable and useful.

Writing with the wrong hand

All of which is a long way of saying that this summer I practiced what I call “writing with the wrong hand.” This is my shorthand for doing some things even when – and often especially when – they don’t feel comfortable.

My hope is that if I practice hard enough, some of these transitions will begin to feel routine. And then I will be that much closer to becoming my future self.

This blog originally ran on Sixty and Me.

Tips for Adulthood: Create an Image File

leather jacket

Photo by Yehor Milohrodskyi on Unsplash

On occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

I’m a great fan of decluttering. On a therapeutic level – and especially if you’re in the midst of a life transition – it feels cleansing to shed something. On a practical level, when you declutter, you also discover things wonderful things you’d forgotten about entirely.

When I was clearing out my own stuff recently I happened upon a folder that I didn’t recognize at first. It was entitled “Image Folder,” and it took me a minute or two to clock what it was.

Back when I took some time off to re-think my life a few years back (Chapter 326c), I assiduously tackled Julia Cameron’s The Artists’s Way as a tool for getting in touch with my creative self. Among the many techniques Cameron advocates for igniting your creativity, one that I’d completely forgotten about was her suggestion to create an image file:

“Start an Image File: If I had either faith or money I would try…List five desires. When you spot them, clip them, buy them, photograph them, draw them, collect them somehow. With these images, begin a file of dreams that speak to you. Add to it continually for the duration of the course.”

Here are five dreams that jumped out of my own image file:

a. Write and perform. Not surprisingly, my file contained several images of pens and microphones. This was clearly a nod to my desire to write and perform more. But there’s also a photo in there of someone jumping really high on a trampoline. At first, I wasn’t quite sure what that symbolized. And then I realized that it was an exhortation to have fun and take more risks. Or at least that’s how I interpret it now. That’s exactly what I’ve started doing with my new memoir writing project, which is all about family.

b. Travel and explore. Also unsurprisingly, the file contained several photos of assorted travel destinations. Some were of your proverbial sandy beach, but others showed a dense wood and an English stately home. When we first moved to England 14 years ago, I dragged my young kids to countless stately homes (think Downton Abbey) for tours of the houses and grounds. I believe that this image, in particular, was a reminder to “Be British” – a New Year’s resolution I set years ago to get to know my second home country better.

c. Be more fashionable. Don’t get me wrong. Most days I still amble about looking like a graduate student who is 5 minutes shy of eating her next Stouffer’s frozen pizza. Interestingly, however, my image file also contained a surprisingly high number of photos of lithe women wearing long, flowing blouses and – in one instance – a super-cool black leather jacket. Interestingly, there was also a picture of jewelry in there that looked exactly like the necklaces I’ve subsequently inherited from my mother.

d. Invest more time in cooking. One of the more surprising photos in the file – for anyone who knows me well – was picture of a bunch of spices. During that sabbatical year I took off to kick-start my career, I started investing more time in cooking. Among other things, cooking sated my inner project manager. Because I wasn’t working, I needed an outlet for that side of my personality. Once I settled into my new career as a communications consultant, however, the cooking goal fell somewhat to the wayside. But I’ve returned to it during lockdown. The new rule is that I make only three meals a week, and the other three members of my family each have to contribute one of their own. (The seventh night we do takeout, per the Lord’s Commandment that you have one day of rest.) We mainly draw on the New York Times Five Weeknight Dishes for inspiration. Not surprisingly, we are eating a lot better now.

e. Drink better beer. I was far from shocked to discover a photograph of a large glass of beer. In the immortal words of Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh, “I like beer.” In the years since I’ve become a lightweight in the drinking department, I’ve become a real connoisseur of low-alcohol beers (which I define as beer with an APV under 4%, but most people classify as under 3%.) That may sound wimpy, but I live within spitting (stumbling?) distance of a veritable beer emporium which houses some 400 plus types of beer. (I choose my neighborhoods well.) And in recent years, there’s been an explosion of high-end, low-alcohol beers from which to choose.

What made me so happy about discovering this file was that I feel that in the three years since I made it, I’ve moved forward on all five of the dreams captured in those images. It’s still a work in progress, but I see all of this as part and parcel of moving towards my future self.

So this week’s challenge is to go out and collect images that inspire you to be your future self. Tell me what you find in the comments section…

How to Move Forward After a Major Life Change

swimming pool
swimming pool
Swimming pool hair girl by voodoovood via Pixabay

The aftermath of a parent’s death – especially when it’s your second parent – provokes a range of feelings: confusion, loneliness, anger, regret…and, of course, sadness. Sooner or later, however, you’ll find yourself back in “normal life” and wondering what to do with yourself.

As I undergo this grieving for my own mother’s passing, I find myself reflecting – in real time – on how one manages the complex array of feelings that accompany re-entry. Here are some tools that are helping me:

Decluttering

The first thing I did when I returned home from clearing out my mother’s apartment after she died was to start clearing out my own home. I didn’t intend to do a full-scale decluttering. But as soon as I pulled on one string – clearing out a filing cabinet that was so over-stuffed with workshop materials I could no longer close it – I found that – almost seamlessly – I began moving on to other drawers, inboxes and rooms. (Well, OK, not this one…) The purge took a couple of days, but boy, did I feel lighter afterwards.

In a recent article on managing transitions, best-selling author Bruce Feiler talks about how helpful it can be to “shed something.” He has in mind something a bit more abstract than emails: “mind-sets, routines, delusions, dreams. Like animals who molt when they enter a new phase, we cast off parts of our personality or bad habits.”

Sure, yes, that too.

But as an erstwhile disciple of Marie Kondo, I also believe that tidying can be a useful vehicle for preparing for that new mindset. If we can get rid of all our excess stuff, and pare down to the things we really love…err, “spark joy,” we’ll see our lives more clearly, and be able to enact change in the new status quo.

Swimming

Because of the Coronavirus, it has been four and a half months since I last stepped into a swimming pool. I was so excited when my local gym finally re-opened that I signed up to participate in their “test day” to try out the new, socially distant workout procedures.

I can’t describe how refreshing it was to put my head back underwater again. Swimming confers many benefits, but one of them is mindfulness. There’s something about swimming up and down those lanes, and following that black line, that really puts you in the moment. I always feel more focused and relaxed when I emerge from the water.

Swimming is also, quite literally, cleansing. Research shows that there is a link between water and generating new ideas. I find that as I re-enter the pool this summer, I am not only re-discovering a natural way to calm down and strengthen my body; I am finding inspiration.

Rewrite Your Life

Which brings us to creativity. As Feiler points out in his essay, a life transition is fundamentally an exercise in meaning-making.

A parent’s death will, invariably, trigger all sorts of memories – some good and some painful. These will flood you when you least expect it. As Feiler writes, transitions can and should be “healing periods that take the frightened parts of our lives and begin to repair them.”

I have long felt on the brink of writing something much more deeply personal about my life – something rawer and more revealing. When I met my future self in an exercise recently, she gave permission to put down the manuscript I’ve been trying to publish for the past two years and pursue this new writing project. It’s one I’ve been taking notes on for ages, but have feared writing because it’s so personal.

“It’s OK to move on,” she was telling me. “Write the book you’re afraid to write.” I feel that my mother’s death has empowered me to do just that. I am embracing this moment to embrace myself, which is part of owning my story. Let the healing begin.

This post was originally published on Sixty and Me.

Tips for Adulthood: Five Insights from Brene Brown

vulnerability

vulnerabilityOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

It took me a while to get around to reading Brené Brown’s best-seller, Daring Greatly. It wasn’t because I doubted the book’s key claim (captured in its subtitle): “How the courage to be vulnerable can transform the way we live, love, parent, and lead.” I’ve drawn on Brown’s work in storytelling workshops I run with Executive MBAs. Vulnerability is vital to engaging and inspiring others.

I just didn’t think I had all that much more to learn on this score.

I was wrong.

So when a friend gave me Daring Greatly as a Christmas present, I thought why not? Everyone else seems to have devoured this woman’s oeuvre. Why not me?

I’m so glad that I did. Here are five new ideas I picked up from this book:

a. Shame. One of Brown’s core concepts is shame:  we all carry it around, we avoid it like hell, and the only way to address shame in our lives is to speak about it. True dat’. I carry a lot of shame around, and often for things I have no control over. I’ve done enough therapy over the years to be able to identify that shame and know where it comes from. But I don’t talk about it all that much. Reading Brown’s book inspired me to anchor my next writing project around the place of shame in my own life, and to explore how it has shaped who I am.

b. Feedback. For Brown, vulnerability lies at the heart of how you give feedback, whether as a boss, teacher, mentor or friend. In my previous job, I quickly discovered that when offering constructive criticism to someone you manage, it really helps if you can identify with their professional challenges. It’s far more effective to say “I understand how frustrating it is when other people don’t share your deadlines” than to say, “You need to stop pressuring people to complete projects before the deadline.” Brown also advises that you sit on the same side of the table when delivering that feedback. Literally. The implicit message when you sit next to someone is that you’re not there to critique them, so much as to jointly improve the situation. In my line of work, I think of this is the difference between editing someone’s work and coaching them. Even in the current age of social distancing, it’s a useful metaphor to bear in mind.

c. Teaching. Brown –  a Professor of Social Work – writes “I realised that if education is going to be transformative, it’s going to be uncomfortable and unpredictable.” I loved this. I think one of my greatest anxieties during my early career as an academic was the erroneous belief that I needed to know all the answers. But Brown’s approach to teaching is liberating. In my work as a communications consultant, I’ve learned that it’s so much more fun for me – and worthwhile for the participants – when I approach my workshops as a process of knowledge transformation, rather than knowledge transmission. Crucial to that shift is embracing the idea that the best part of life are the suprises. You learn so much more from them, than from all your careful planning.

d. Parenting.  Brown poses the simple – but potentially lethal – question: “Are you the adult you want your child to grow up  to be?” Ouch. In my own case, the answer to that question is a mixed bag. In a lot of ways, I think I’ve modelled a strong set of values and behaviours in the way I’ve raised my kids. In other ways, I’m a terrible role model. My son, who’s just completed his freshman year of college under lockdown at home, barely came out of his room for six weeks because he was studying so hard. We were proud of him, but also a bit concerned.  I kept telling him to take a break and relax. But I often said this to him after working straight through a three-day weekend or having risen at 5 am to cram in an extra hour of work myself. Who was I kidding? As Brown says, what you do as a parent is much more important than what you say. So if you want your kids to change their behaviour, you first have to own up to your own weaknesses.

e. Family Culture.  Brown also introduces the concept of “family culture.” It’s the idea that every family, just like every organization, has a recognizable corporate culture. A divorced friend of mine has been dating a man for the past several years. They both have kids and they bring their respective families together for meals a couple of times a week. But she’s struggling with the relationship. At the end of the day, she’s concerned that she and her boyfriend don’t share the same “culture”:  the same values, traditions, and mores. And she wonders if, deep down, this means they aren’t meant to be together. Brown’s notion of “family culture” instantly resonated. It helped me to understand the myriad times I’ve felt like the odd (wo)man out when spending time with someone else’s family. I now see that I simply didn’t “get” their culture.

All of these concepts are intuitive, but I found it really helpful to name them. What place does vulnerability play in your life?

 

Image: Fear, Emotion, Anxiety, Vulnerability by John Hain via Pixabay

Three Steps to Becoming Your Future Self

future self

future selfAs the reality of an extended quarantine sets in across many corners of the world, we’re all discovering new ways to spend the extra time on our hands. Some of us have begun virtual volunteering. Others, like my neighbor, are tackling a spate of long-overdue DIY projects. For many, it’s a great time to catch up on books, TV shows and podcasts.

I believe it’s also a great time to check in your long-term, big picture goals. There’s nothing quite like a life-threatening global pandemic to remind yourself that only go round’ once. Or, as the title character in one of my all-time favorite musicals, The Music Man, puts it: “You pile up enough tomorrows, and you’ll find you’re left with nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays.”

But how do we begin to chip away at our big-ticket dreams? Let’s take it in stages.

Step One: Write Your Own Obituary

One technique I’ve found particularly effective  is to write my own obituary. That might sound scary and perhaps even off-putting. But hear me out.

You don’t actually write your obituary. You write two of them. The first is how you think your obituary will read when you die, and the second is how you’d like it to read.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll discover at least two versions of yourself lying in wait. The first is a perfectly acceptable continuation of your current trajectory. Still married…or finally divorced. Living in the same house…or with a remodelled kitchen. Running the company…or  living it up as a snowbird in a condo in Arizona. LINK

That’s all fine and dandy. But it’s the second obituary you really want to pay attention to. Because she’s the future self you’ve only dared to dream of. Which brings us to the step two.

Step Two: Envision Your Future Self

The second step is to go and visit that alternative, future self. I had occasion to do this recently with an old friend who’s also a life coach. He’d read a blog of mine where I talked about the importance of  “practicing my future self,” which for me meant spending more time writing every day. But he took it one step further. He invited me to do a short visualization exercise with him over Zoom in which I would actually meet her.

I thought, “Why not?”

Once we’d done some relaxation and time-travel together, my friend asked me to describe that future self:  what she looked like, where she lived, etc.

The interesting thing about this part of this exercise was that my future self didn’t look all that much like me. She was dressed in a long, flowing skirt and had her hair drawn up in a bun. “Elegant” was a phrase I used to describe her. (“Schlumpy” might be the word of choice on any given day right now.) Rather than living in a city, as I have since the age of 18, she lived in a village on the edge of the sea in rural Italy.

Most interesting of all, the walls of her house were painted yellow. I don’t own a single item of yellow clothing and I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a home with yellow walls. But the morning that I spoke with my friend, I’d seen a an image of Daffodils in my Twitter feed. The author described “yellow” as a happy color, which was news to me. Clearly, that post had resonated.

Above all, my future self radiated calm. She wasn’t galloping through life. She was trotting along at a productive but relaxed pace, with plenty of time each day to accomplish everything she wanted.

Part 3: Talk to Your Future Self

Towards the end of the exercise, your future self presents you with a gift. She also tells you something.

My gift was a fancy pen, very similar to the one my old boss gave me and which I used to write my morning pages. That pen disappeared when my bag was stolen a couple of years back. I replaced it, and then subsequently lost the new one. At that point, as I explained to my friend, I decided that I didn’t deserve a fancy pen. So I started using a regular one.

Needless to say, my friend picked up on the term “deserving.” Clearly, my future self was telling me that I was worthy of a fancy pen. Translated: I was worthy of believing in myself as a writer.

Not only that. When he asked me to recount my future self’s message, I told him that she’d given me permission to put down the manuscript I’ve been trying to publish for the past two years and pursue an entirely new writing project. It’s one I’ve been taking notes on for ages, but have feared writing because it’s so personal.

“It’s OK to move on,” she was telling me. “Write the book you’re afraid to write.”

Write the book you’re afraid to write.

Boy, did I need to hear that.

Try visiting your future self and see what she’s telling you to do with your life. You might just be amazed.

Image: Future Self by Eddi van W. via Flickr

Quarantine Activity: Check In With Your New Year’s Resolutions

South London

 

South LondonI woke up in a panic the other morning; I couldn’t remember what day it was. At various points throughout the day, I had to consciously remind myself that it was Monday, not Tuesday. Making matters worse, the clock in our living room died last weekend. So every time I tried to check the time, a blank wall stared back at me.

Because of the Corona Virus, it’s a weird time to attempt to have any semblance of a routine right now. Monday bleeds into Wednesday. You fail to change your clothes for days on end because…why bother? It takes you several weeks to grasp that your feet are actually sticking to the kitchen floor because you’ve forgotten the last time it was cleaned.

So I decided that one way to mark time would be to circle back to the ten resolutions I set in early January to see if I’m making any progress. After all, if you can’t tackle your goals when you’re under quarantine, when can you?

We all know that the success rate for sticking to New Year’s Resolutions is abysmally low. But on the principle that you’re more likely to realize any goal if you say it out loud, I thought I’d use this blog post as my own, personal accountability yardstick to see how I’m getting on in 2020.

Here’s what I learned:

a. Affirmations.  Of all the resolutions I set for myself back in January, the one I’ve committed to the most – because I’ve incorporated into my morning ritual – are my affirmations. I have them sitting right next to my computer so that I recite them aloud before I start work. They are mostly keyed to believing in myself as a salesperson (my least favourite part of running my own business). And guess what? The first quarter of this year was my highest earning one since I started my company two years ago. Those are a keeper.

b. Walking. I vowed in January to walk more without purpose. (I believe the technical term for that is “wandering.”) Needless to say, living under lockdown here in London has made walking a necessity. While I know North London fairly well, I moved to South London five years ago and still lack familiarity with much outside my own neighbourhood. So I’m using these walks to explore this part of the city. Each time I go out, I make sure I stroll along at least one street I’ve never been on before. Then I take a photo of that street’s name. Fun!

c. I’m doing a 24/6 workweek. With one exception, I have consistently “honored the Sabbath” for the past three months. I know that’s nothing to jump up and down about, but I’m really pleased with the direction of travel. And when I work on Sundays, I mainly use that time to catch up on emails and plan blog posts, which I don’t think of as “work-work.” Plus, because most of my work right now entails adapting my communication consultancy to a virtual space, working hard right feels good right now. That said, I do need to start using some of the project management tools I teach to ensure that I’m carving out time for the “important but not urgent” category of work.

d. I’m *still* not writing enough. I need to own this. I do write every morning. And it always makes me feel happier, more relaxed and more authentic. But I’m not writing enough outside of blogging. And this is a disappointment. I need to figure out how to write more each day and still accomplish everything else I need to get done. Sorting that out is my priority for June. (See below)

e. I’m not a bath person. While I’ve occasionally contemplated taking a bath over the past few months, I’ve never managed to actually make it happen. So I’m striking that one off the list. Ah, the liberation! Calgon – do NOT – take me away!

Most of us write down our resolutions on January 1st and then fail to revisit them for another 365 days. My new vow is to do a quarterly check-in with myself. Who’s in?

Share how your 2020 goals are shaping up in the comments section.

Image: The Shard and South London by Phyl Gifford via Flickr

How to Tackle an Addiction to Work in Three Easy Steps

workaholic

workaholicMy chief goal for this year is to figure out why I work. Yeah, I know that sounds absurd. But when I created my New Year’s resolutions this year, I  realized that while my writing and personal goals were crystal clear, I couldn’t articulate a work goal beyond “work more.”

Another way to say this is that I am addicted to work. One definition of addiction is: “a psychological and physical inability to stop consuming a chemical, drug, activity, or substance, even though it is causing psychological and physical harm.” Coming from a large, sprawling Irish family with its fair share of substance abuse problems, I use the term “addiction” advisably. But I think in my case, it’s apt.

Now that I have  – in classic, 12-step fashion  – identified the problem, it’s time to step back and begin to craft a solution.

Here’s where I’ve gotten so far:

What would you do if this was your last day on earth?

This is the question the HeadSpace App uses to guide its meditation on prioritization. Given that Headspace is a mindfulness app, the question is posed softly and gently. But it is, of course, the eternal question we all need to answer.

Oddly enough, it’s also the first question I ask my friends who come to me for career advice. “I don’t know what to do with my life,” they will say, or some version therein.  I always begin by asking, “If you had an entirely free day tomorrow with no commitments whatsoever, how would you spend it?” Or, if you prefer, “What your 90-year-old self would advise you to do?”

In my case, I know I’d prefer to spend at least a third of my day writing. Of all the things I do in a day, writing is the activity where I feel most authentic and most relaxed. But at the moment, I’m not even close to achieving that 1/3 goal.

Practice Being Your Future Self

I’m stealing this strap line from a Harvard Business Review article. The upshot of the article is that once you’ve figured out the key components of your ideal day, you need to block out time to practice being that future self. (This is a familiar piece of advice to anyone who wants to be a writer, which essentially boils down to:  Start writing.) But what really resonated for me in this article was the way the author, Peter Bregman, framed the “future self” imperative. He writes: “You need to spend time on the future even when… there is no immediately apparent return to your efforts. In other words… if you want to be productive, you need to spend time doing things that feel ridiculously unproductive.”

That framing really hit home for someone who consistently conflates being productive with being busy. On any given day, doing the thing that you love can feel like you’re taking valuable time away from the 10,000 things you “need” to get done. Not so, says Bregman: “It’s the wildly important stuff that never gets done because it’s never urgent enough…or it’s too risky or terrifying” that you need to prioritize. True dat’.

Create Affirmations

Once you’ve set aside your “me” time, create some affirmations to reinforce that positive image of yourself. I’ve written before about how I’ve used positive self-talk in both my writing and my work. But in recent weeks, I’ve really doubled down. I’ve made a brand new list of ten affirmations tailored to the first quarter of this new year, which I repeat out loud every morning before I start my work day.

Of those ten, the hardest one to utter – but the one that matters most – is this: “It’s easy for me to say no to people.” It isn’t. And that’s not (entirely) because I often need the money. It’s because – courtesy of my addiction – I measure my productivity not in terms of number of sales or level of income (like most business people), but in terms of the number of hours worked. And with that as my metric for a job well done, more is always better. Isn’t it?

I’m trying really hard to focus on these three, big-ticket goals as I slowly work my way towards managing my addiction to work.

What strategies do you employ when you need to hit re-set on your own work/life balance?

Image: Workaholic writer via Pixabay

New Years Resolutions 2020

new year's resolutions

new year's resolutionsHappy New Year!

In recent years, I’ve dedicated myself to a concept at the start of the year, rather than a list. Past years have featured concepts such as slow living, authenticity and balance.

Although I’m quite drawn to thematic New Year’s Resolutions, I’ve not yet sorted out what this year’s watchword is. So I’m going to revert to form and list ten small, discrete goals I’d like to commit myself to in the coming months.

Here goes:

a. Take more baths. I’ve long suspected that, much like the pet vs. anti-pet distinction – you can neatly break people into two groups: those who are pro-bath and those who are pro-shower.  (Apparently, I’m right! There’s a whole #teambath vs. #teamshower debate I’ve blissfully ignored for years.) Given the rapidity with which I approach life, I’ve always stood solidly in the shower camp. But I want  to make 2020 the year of the bath – at least once or twice a week. I think it will help me to sleep better. And, courtesy of my 16 year-old, we now possess about  50 assorted bath bombs and I’m curious to see whether those actually make a difference. Some people drink wine in baths. I think I’m going to try reading…which brings me to my next resolution.

b. Watch more good TV.  My husband and I don’t watch a lot of television. On weeknights, we read before we go to sleep. And we’ve deliberately chosen not to subscribe to Netflix, Amazon TV or any of the other streaming services so as to make watching television that extra bit harder. But we also know how very good television has become over the past decade and are woefully behind on household names such as The Crown, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Shtisel. So on weekend evenings, I’m going to priotise good TV and see how many of these series we can work our way through. (Have already tried – and dropped – Fleabag. Sorry to disappoint.)

c. Work less. I’ve fessed up before to how hard I find it not to work on weekends. Although the ultimate goal here is to stop working on weekends altogether, I don’t think a cold turkey approach is realistic for me. But I do think I can manage to adopt a 24/6 strategy. Stealing a page from  Tiffany Schlain’s new book, 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week, which is all about unplugging from technology one day a week, I’d like to extend this concept to work altogether. I made this commitment about 10 years ago – declaring the Sabbath “me-time”  – and I really did feel the mental and physical benefits. So I’m going to try and renew this vow in 2020.

d. Schedule in Admin Time. One of the things I can never quite find enough time for is the assorted admin that governs both my work and personal lives:  responding to emails, billing clients, keeping track of expenses, planning blog posts. If you subscribe to the Getting Things Done methodology (and I now do, courtesy of Nozbe), you’re also meant to check in with all of your projects – as well as an empty drawer you stuff things into – once a week. Nozbe recommends that you find a nice place to do your half day of admin – a nice cafe, etc. – to make your administrivia more palatable. I think I first need to find that half-day, commit to it, and then find the location. (Currently eyeing converted Edwardian era laundry-turned-cafe/pub in my ‘hood.)

e. Write more. A little bit over a year ago, I began writing fiction. But I’ve also conceptualized a series of essays about family. While I’m at it, I need to find an agent for my book manuscript or bite the bullet and self-publish. Because writing for me is a joy, I try to be less hard on myself in this department than I am about hitting goals in my paid work. But there are certain milestones I’d like to hit this year – like getting a short story accepted – and that requires putting in the work.

f. Walk more. I don’t own a car, so that certainly gives me a leg up on this  goal already (no pun intended). But most of my walking is purpose-driven:  it gets me from A to B. On Christmas Day, I took a long, meandering walk around my neighborhood while listening to a podcast. It was utterly refreshing. I am blessed to live in a city with a seemingly infinite number of wonderful nooks and crannies, many of which you wouldn’t know about unless you stumbled upon them. So I am going to try and take more advantage of walking in the New Year. Lucky for me, new research suggests that my naturally brisk pace may decelerate aging. Yippee!

g. Eat less meat. Yeah, yeah. I know. Everybody’s doing it. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to cut down on your meat intake. Especially if you’re a meat and potatoes gal such as myself. But after listening to a recent BBC Radio 4 programme featuring author Jonathan Safran Foer on what we as individuals can do to help mitigate climate change, I decided I could make an effort in this direction. Foer says , “There are four acts which matter significantly more than all others, these are flying less, going car free, having less children and adopting a plant-based diet.” I’ve already done #2, it’s too late for #3 and I’m somewhat limited on #1 by where I live in relation to friends and family. That left eating less meat.

h. Meditate longer. I’ve long prided myself on my near-daily mindfulness practice. But my husband – a fellow Headspace aficionado – recently suggested that I increase my daily dose of meditation from 10 minutes to 15, as he does. Initially, I resisted. “I’ve got too much to do!” I retorted. He arched an eyebrow. So I tried it. He’s right. It’s better.

i. Create a new set of affirmations. This one’s a case of “Practice what you preach.” Not only have I extolled the virtues of affirmations on this blog, I also encourage clients to use affirmations to set and achieve their business goals. But your goals shift over time, so it’s important to update your affirmations accordingly. Check.

j. Celebrate the Sabbath. I don’t mean this literally. But I’ve discovered  that one of the most important ways for me to relax on weekends is not to go out on Friday nights. Whenever I do it, I always feel exhausted and anxious on Saturday morning, even if I had a good time. So I am going to start turning down all social invitations for Friday nights. Bonus! This will make more time for more “good TV”!

As I look over this list, I’m not quite sure if they add up to a collective watch word for 2020. I’ll keep working on that…

What do you hope to achieve in 2020?

Image: Top New Year’s Resolutions by Forth With Life via Flickr

My Love-Hate Relationship with Being Busy

vive la vie

vive la vieI was trying to plan an outing with a friend I’d not seen in a while. But when I looked at my calendar, I realized that my next window wasn’t for another month. “I’m really sorry,” I said. “October is insane. I’m afraid that’s the reality of being a freelancer.”

“No it isn’t,” she quipped. “That’s the reality of being Delia.”

Work First, Life Second

Although the comment stung, I knew she was right. Much in the way that other people are addicted to their phones or other, more nefarious substances, I’m addicted to busyness.

And the primary way that I make myself busy is through work. I frequently work on weekends. I tell myself that this is down to the “plight of the freelancer”  – and there is some truth to that – but I know that a lot of it is my own inability to stop working.

I was really proud of myself recently for carving out a three-hour window to see friends every Friday evening between now and Christmas. I finish teaching at 4 o’clock on Fridays and I’m usually totally beat. So I thought, “Yes! That’s when I’ll chill!”

I told another friend how excited I was about finding this window for my social life.

“You and your windows!” she said, shaking her head. (Are you seeing a pattern here with my friends?)

My friend organizes her life around seeing her friends, and slots her work in around that. I do the reverse.

Fear of Death

I’d love to tell you that my endless busyness is driven by the fact that I’m a high-energy person. I am. And particularly now that I love my job, I don’t mind working extra hours when I need to. Work is fun.

But it runs much deeper than that. There is a fear of the abyss – of how to deal with the thoughts and fears that crop up when I don’t have 10,000 things to tick off my to-do list. I worry that if I slow down, I won’t re-start.  It is, at the end of the day, akin to a fear of death. In my mind, to stop moving is to stop being. And who am I without constant movement?

This fear is particularly acute on Sundays, when I always feel like I’m right on the edge of a tidal wave of despair. But if I swim fast enough, I can just escape being swallowed up. Over the course of the day, what might have been depression morphs into a prickly disquietude. And I ward it off through work.

Paying it Forward 

When I was growing up, my mother used to say “I’m cold; put a sweater on.” It was her way of projecting onto me her own needs.

I hate to say that I now do this with my own daughter. Except that instead of telling her to put a sweater on, I tell her to stop being so busy.  My daughter does a gazillion after-school activities. (Apple, meet tree.) Her motto, which is emblazoned on a neon sign in her room –  is “Vive la Vie!”

Unlike me, however, my daughter isn’t busy because she’s fleeing something. For her, living life to the fullest means never saying no. If someone invites you to the theater or to a bubble tea or to a political protest at the last minute, you say “yes,” even if you’ve got a mound of homework to get through. She doesn’t want to miss out on life’s experiences.

I admire this in her. Just like I admire my friend who organizes her social life first and her work life second.

And yet, I am constantly admonishing my daughter to do less. “You’re too busy!” I tell her. “Slow down a bit!”

Who am I *really* talking to?

Vive la Vie

Not for the first time, I find myself taking life lessons from my teenage children. I think it’s time to put my money where her mouth is and vive my own vie.

Which is to say, it’s time for me to let go of the fear and be OK with slowing down.

I  won’t be able to do this  overnight. But I can start with Friday afternoons. Are you free for a coffee?

Image: Sentir la Vida via Flickr

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Why Running Your Own Business is Empowering

strong woman

strong womanI had lunch with a friend the other day. Like me, she launched a new business in her 50’s. Now, she’s launching another one (after taking a year out to recover from cancer.) When I asked her how she was feeling about all of this change in her life, she smiled.

“I feel great,” she answered. “I feel empowered.”

Her comment got me thinking about the word “empowerment.” Much like “leaning in,” empowerment is one of those buzzwords we all throw around  without really defining what we mean by it.

Saying No…and Saying Yes

One of the most important lessons you learn as you age is how – and when – to say “No.” Just as there are good reasons to accept work that doesn’t pay as well as you’d like when you need the money, there are equally good reasons to turn down work even if you have time.

Lately, however, I’ve also been enjoying the freedom of saying “Yes.” It’s not that I’m taking on work that I don’t really need or want. It’s that when a random opportunity crops up that’s slightly outside my comfort zone, I’m not instinctively saying “No” before I fully consider it.

I was offered two potential pieces of work this week that are both slight reaches for me. One is fairly far outside of my knowledge base and the other is for an audience I’m not familiar with.

I’m not sure I’m going to end up doing either of them. But the simple act of being open to an unexpected opportunity felt empowering because I was expanding my set of choices.

Setting Boundaries

My old boss once told me that I was exceptionally good at “ordering chaos.”

He was right. And while he meant it as a compliment, it can also be a curse. Whether it’s a paper, a project, or a meeting, if I encounter something that isn’t well-organized, I can’t help myself:  I fix it.

The problem is, sometimes that’s not my job. I was in a meeting the other day where the potential client was very much in brainstorming mode. I love that sort of thing. But at a certain point I could barely suppress the urge to leap up out of my seat, grab a marker and commandeer the white board to help structure the thinking.

That was problematic on two fronts. First, no one asked me to stand up; I simply felt compelled. Second, I sensed that if I did take ownership of that white board, I might very quickly end up running that project for them. And I knew I didn’t want that.

So instead of trying to order that particular piece of chaos, I walked away from it. I told those assembled exactly where I thought I could make a contribution, asked them to reach out to me when they were ready, and then exited the room.

My old work self would *never* have done that. She’d have taken notes and started project managing. But newly empowered Delia simply said, “Call me when you need me.”

Asserting Your Worth

Taking a page from Kayleigh and Paul on the Creative Class podcast, I raised my freelance rates this year. I didn’t do anything drastic, and I stayed within my market. I also waited until I had a solid track record of success – with the testimonials to prove it – so that I could justify the increase, should anyone challenge me. (They didn’t.)

With one of my clients, I also went back and asked for more money when the scope of the initial work expanded – in time and volume – beyond what we’d originally agreed.

A year ago – and certainly 5 years ago  – I never would have done either of those things. My M.O. would simply have been to keep absorbing more work, even if it felt unfair or over-burdening. Indeed, I would have felt guilty had I asked for more pay.

This time, in contrast, I felt like I was simply asking for my payment to reflect my true value and effort.

Empowerment as Liberation

Most people think of self-employed people as liberating themselves from offices. But I never had a problem with offices.

What I needed liberation from was myself:  my inability to say no to things I didn’t want to do, my reluctance to embrace things I might want to do, and my tendency to wildly over-compensate for other people’s shortcomings.

So I do feel empowered. But not in the sense of finally being CEO in my company of one. Rather, what running my own business has taught me is that I am free to make choices that make me happier. And Lordy, does that feel good.

Image: Strong Woman (Unsplash) via Wikimedia Commons

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