November can be a really busy month. Projects are hitting their stride in the run up to the end of the calendar year (and a holiday break). Your life has returned to its normal level of “busy”, with commitments and concerns outside of work. More demands are trickling in as everyone’s life gets fuller. Check in, how are you feeling (personally) about your work and commitments? Do you feel excited and challenged, or overwhelmed…like you are barely hanging on? Maybe a bit of both?
It is easy to slip into impulsiveness when life is over-flowing; saying “yes” to things you really want to do (but may not have time to do) or by saying “no” before the person making the request has even finished speaking. Or maybe you studiously avoid making eye contact in the hope that the work will just sort itself out. You are perfectly normal if one, or all, of these things are happening when you get busy.
Doing things is a comfort zone, that’s why often those who are the busiest tend to take on more. Being busy, being needed, can feel good even if it makes life difficult. This may be happening in your work life, or your home life, or both. Check in, what compels you to say “yes”? What need of yours is being met by saying “yes”? Which of your needs are you ignoring by taking more on? Is saying “yes” an impulse, or a well thought out response?
Protecting your time and schedule is a way to cope with feeling overwhelmed or ensuring you have control, and makes it feel necessary to say “no”. It’s not that you shouldn’t say “no”, it’s more in how you say it. Say “no” with compassion. Rather than an abrupt statement refusing the request (driven by impulse), acknowledge this other person’s/team’s need and importance, and then contextualize why having you take on more now isn’t going to get them the results they are looking for. “This is such a good initiative, and I would like to help. Right now, I am on a tight deadline to complete the reporting for year-end, and I can’t do justice to your request…”
Quietly withdrawing to avoid being tasked with more work is also an impulse. A healthy way to approach requests is through acknowledging what is right in the moment. If you are busy, don’t hide. Help the person making the request to understand that their project is important, but you are unable to help in the timeframe they need. If you are hiding so as not to be asked to do something because you don’t know how to say “no”, it may work, or the work may find you anyway. Learn how to say “no” with compassion, it’s an important skill to have.
Your time and needs are important. So is learning to advocate for them through voicing what is, and is not, possible during busy periods in you work and life. Balancing saying “yes” and “no” is all about using your voice to help others understand you care, but have commitments you’ve made that are also important (which includes your own well-being).
I take any opportunity that presents itself to speak to professionals who’ve retired from their careers. I want to know what their perspectives on work and career look like from the “other side”. Retirement, for many people, is far off (I’m working on the “Freedom 85 Plan” myself), and I often wonder what wisdom looking back has to offer. So, I ask those in the know…retirees. Everyone I spoke to had a unique story.
Like the woman who had just left a corporate job at 59. She had no regrets and said her best career decision was to get off the treadmill of climbing “the ladder”. Over time, she feels she likely did as well there as she would have done if she kept moving up in a much bigger company. “Not financially, of course!” she explained “but in terms of my own happiness. I got to raise my kids my way because of a predictable schedule and great working relationships with the leaders at the company. I never missed a birthday or a recital, and now my kids are doing well in careers of their own.” Her parting wise words were “Happiness is up to you, never leave your happiness up to someone else, especially at work; they’ll screw it up because they are not you!”
I spoke with a 76-year-old plumber who started with his Dad, and then ran the business himself until he retired about ten years ago. “Was my work meaningful? That’s an odd question. I never thought of it that way.” He said, and then added “But I seemed to meet people at a very stressful point, when their toilet was overflowing, or they had water in their house from a burst pipe. It felt good to help them out because I knew what to do to make the plumbing right.” He also raised a family on his earnings. “It was different in my day, my wife looked after all the home stuff, but I can tell you, I wouldn’t have been able to run my business like I did if she hadn’t been there to manage that…we had a real partnership that way.”
A 67-year-old retiree wondered aloud if his relationship with his kids would have been more like the ones he now has with his grand kids (who were happily running around the living room as we chatted). “I worked a lot, it’s what you did in my day, but I guess in looking back, and now seeing what I missed with my own kids through my grandchildren, if I had to do it all again, I’d have spent more time with them.” He then added “but then I wouldn’t have been able to support paying for their education, living in the bigger house, and having the things we did…so I guess it’s all about your priorities.”
In all the conversations I’ve had (and I strike one up with anyone I meet who tells me they’re retired), not a one of them wished they’d worked more hours, or climbed higher in their careers. Many had regrets about what they missed by prioritizing work over other things, or that they waited too long to move out of jobs that were not good for their souls, and into jobs where they were appreciated and supported.
What do you want to see in the rear-view mirror of your career? In the rear-view mirror of your life?
It’s instinctive to harden towards those circumstances and people that are difficult, as a way to mask vulnerability, or keep yourself intact. Meeting challenges head-on is a good instinct to have, facing the threat. Yet, it may not be giving you what you actually need. For many years I “armored up”, toughened myself to hold my limits in place against those who would trample them (and me in the process). I hid my perceived weaknesses behind a well thought out argument, cutting off dialog before we got anywhere near compromise. I made decisions from a place of fear.
And of judgement. Judgement of myself foremost, but judgment of others as well. I wielded it like a shield so I wouldn’t get hurt. Not surprisingly, it didn’t have the intended effect. It drove people away, making them wary of me (at work and at home) making me feel worse about myself (without understanding why). As long as I was making decisions based on fear, I couldn’t see that I was experienced as being inconsistent, no one knew which Carleen they were going to get; reasonable rational Carleen or defensive/offensive Carleen. I thought I was being resilient, when in fact I was being tough. Hard on myself and hard on others.
Toughness was what I thought was called for, but when put in place to shore up fears and judgment it can only hurt, not help, and not heal. How then to get to resilience, without becoming a door mat? Judgement has many synonyms in the dictionary, one of them is discernment. Discernment is based on rational, objective thinking, while judgement is based on assumptions. Healthy boundaries are created with discernment and put in place with compassion, first for yourself, and then for others.
This still requires you to face the threat head on, so there may already be something that is strong in you that can help. The next “move” is to be open and curious about the threat, as that is how you get to discernment. Doing so is also an act of compassion, for yourself and others, allowing you access to more information, so you can more accurately assess what is being called for, and make your needs known to others in ways they understand (even if they don’t agree with you).
Resilience is facing the threat, knowing you will do so with compassion that leads to discernment. Knowing that in discernment you have the tool to make healthy decisions, putting in place boundaries that work. In so doing, giving yourself what you need to be respected, understood, helped and, sometimes, what you need to heal.
“People cry, not because they are weak. It is because they've been strong for too long.” – Johnny Depp
Loving your working life sounds like a great aspiration, but it can also feel distant and vague, like something you’ll achieve when you look back over your career. I am a huge fan of perspective taking, but there are big implications to your well-being when you wait to love your working life (and then only enjoy it from the rear-view mirror). Let’s take a practical look at what falling in love with your work means.
To start, the word love seems out of place in the context of work and career. If we look at the definition of love, it is “an intense feeling of deep affection that nourishes your well-being.” Given that many of us spend more than 40 hours a week preparing for, thinking about, commuting to, being at, and doing work, it needs to nourish us. Your work needs to support life; yours, your loved ones and your community.
With a word like “love”, it’s easy to romanticize what our working life should look like, and often this is a version of perfection. No stress, easy commute, pressure-free. Check back in with the definition of love, there is no promise of perfection. Love is complicated and, just as in relationships, something you don’t do once, but over and over again, recommitting to it each day. You fall in love with your work one moment at a time, and it is this deep affection for what you do that sustains you through the mess that is competing demands and stress.
Can you remember the first moment you were able to find joy in something you did? It was likely at school where you discovered you not only enjoyed doing something, but were good at it. This is the moment where love at work begins, because that one moment becomes motivation to continue to curiously pursue more of what you enjoyed, taking the next step to explore what a subject was all about, and what you could do with it.
Then comes the point in time when you transferred your interest and acumen to the workplace, and here there were moments where you realized what a difference your work could make to both others and yourself. You may have been recognized, possibly even valued, by a client, employer or team mate. Or you connected the dots yourself and were hooked on that feeling of having something meaningful in your life that only you could do.
Falling in love with your work is not about promotions, raises, bonuses or awards. While those things are nice, It’s the moments that give you energy to keep going, to get out of bed and pursue the work you enjoy doing in ways only you can. The meaning comes from understanding that you are connected to both yourself, and something bigger than yourself through your work. What moments give you that spark of understanding? What moments sustain you, allowing you to love your working life?
Standing in my living room, I am completely confounded. I forgot the reason I came into this room. I’m certain it isn’t to watch the dog hair dance with the dust in the sunbeam coming in from the window, but that is what I am doing in this moment, fascinated.
I am three voices all at once. The voice that chastises the condition of my housekeeping (look at all the dog hair!). Another that is urging me to remember what I came for (time doesn’t scale, get a move on!). A third voice that marvels at how things like dog hair and dust can stay afloat…wondering if there is an air current in the room that holds them aloft…as curious as a three-year-old.
Voice three wins, I pull out my phone to “google” how dust can travel upwards against gravity. Surprise; my inkling was correct, it’s a warm air current from the floor vent. And then I remember what I came for, and my day continues. Except that because voice three won out, I am a little happier and satisfied. I have a smile on my lips.
Voice three doesn’t always win out, usually it is the loudest voice that gets my attention, cutting through the fugue of competing demands on my time. However, I recognize that constantly yelling at myself (even mental yelling) is not a great way to live. Sometimes you just have to rebel…against yourself. Sometimes you have to take the moment. Even when that moment is not “Instagram-able”, it still has immense value.
This brief moment of wonder gives me a feeling of well-being. Later today, it will give me something to talk about at dinner with my family (other than work). I am especially exciting to share it with my son, who is also curious and learning about air currents in science. Later this week it will motivate me to dust and to brush the dog (probably not in that order). Most of all, it breaks the rigidity of a demanding day with a moment of inquisitiveness.
Switching pace and focus, even just for a few moments, has so many benefits. Clearly my body was signaling to me that I needed a break, short-term memory loss (like forgetting why you walked into a room) is often a sign we need to give ourselves a moment to let our brains catch up to where we are. We are not living to work; we are working so we can truly live. Being deeply curious about the world around us is a part of that living.
I am grateful for my ability to stop and enjoy this simple moment. What simple moments are you experiencing today?
I was on a flight recently, where the voices seated in front of me became loud enough to hear. Person One was telling Person Two all about his workplace, and it was grim (hence the loud voice). There seemed to be nothing of redeeming value at his place of work, and when Person Two helpfully offered an alternative way to approach the concern, Person One launched into all the reasons why that couldn’t possibly benefit him either. Then a heavy silence followed (and I put my headphones on to escape the awkwardness).
I contrast this to a different flight where a similar event took place, this conversation also began with negativity about work, but when the second person helpfully offered an option, the first person pursued it with curiosity. Even though the turn of conversation began with a healthy amount of skepticism from Person One, she stayed open enough to the option offered to ask questions, allowing Person Two to share his own experience with making his job better and how it had benefited him. This led to a constructive exchange where their voices became softer and those seated around them were no longer privy to their conversation. At the conclusion of the flight, as we were all standing up to de-plane, they were shaking hands and exchanging business cards and commitments to keep in touch.
It’s a good reminder that opportunity doesn’t exactly knock, or announce itself. If we are not paying attention, negativity can kill opportunity. I’m not advocating perpetual positivity; there is enough misguided advice floating around to make positivity feel toxic (I’m talking to you “Hustle like you can’t lose” social media posts). Healthy skepticism isn’t a bad thing. However, only seeing the world through “wet-blanket” negativity ensures you remain stuck in whatever is creating negativity for you – it’s a paradox.
When you feel really negative about something at work, see if you can get curious enough to prevent building a story that reinforces your untested view (or try to build more than one story). Talk to someone you trust who will explore alternatives to your perspective. It could be you are right; good companies make bad decisions sometimes. It could also be the beginning of a new opportunity (like my example of the women on the plane), or it may build resilience in the face of an unfortunate circumstance. Life will never only be sunshine and roses, we know this. Thankfully, it also isn’t always doom and gloom.
If you are stuck in a negative place (it happens to all of us, part of being beautiful human beings), give yourself compassion. Take a break, disrupt your routine (go for a walk, etc.) and have faith that this too shall pass. Opportunity will be there when you need it, if you remember it comes softly (and without announcement).
I’m sitting in my sunny kitchen, on a beautiful morning, basking in this moment of balance and “rightness”. It is a good moment to soak in; I sip my coffee and stretch my legs into a sunbeam. Moments like these are precious, they create access to gratitude and thankfulness, which are really important to well-being. They can also create a “call to action”, to have life stay this way, an internal voice that demands “…if you made this happen today, you can make it happen every day!”
It would be easy to mistake that voice for self-confidence… it’s not. Unless I control the universe (which I don’t), creating the conditions for my peace, outside of myself, is not within my power (influence, yes… power, no). Making a commitment to have life always balanced and calm is a set up for failure because that call to action, sets out on a path to control things, so peace is defended. Can you feel peace move out of possibility with the gear up to defend it? Creating a condition where there is a threat and a forthcoming battle (even when none may exist). This defense takes constant vigilance. I have to remind myself; the goal is not to always have peace…peace only comes from knowing whatever life throws my way I will handle it and find my way back to well-being. Peace comes from inside of me, not from the world around me.
There is a Zen saying “the obstacle is the path”, which means that if I am chasing peace as my goal, I’m vulnerable to every life hiccup and concern, because I’ll see them as in my way, I’ll be constantly guarding the “status quo”. However, if I am open to the fact that there will always be obstacles (like excruciating moments of personal failure) as well as times of deep contentment, I am not taking a defensive position, but am open to whatever comes, knowing I’ve got this.
“I’ve got this” doesn’t mean I won’t screw it up, it means if I do, I’ll figure it out and learn something in the process. This is not an easy thing to keep top of mind, but with self-compassion I accept that I am a work in progress. So, I’m going to grab another cup of coffee and enjoy the calm I‘ve created within myself, and the fact that I have a moment to enjoy it.
You’ve also survived 100% of your worst days, how do you let that comfort and source you?
Boundaries are a necessary part of well-being. They are also slippery little devils that are at risk of eroding with the pounding of each “wave” of life. Most of us, and I include myself in this, have a difficult time defending our boundaries without feeling like we’ve failed at something (or failed someone). It can be excruciating.
Boundaries are commitments we make that ensure we do not infringe on the well-being of others, or our self. Simple enough. Enter trade-offs. Trade-offs are those mitigating circumstances we accommodate to keep the peace (with others or within ourselves). As an example, I’ll sacrifice my yoga class to watch my son’s hockey practice because it’s important to him that I be there. However, I’ll sacrifice kiddo’s hockey practice to an urgent deadline at work to meet a client’s needs. So on, and so forth.
Trade-off’s present themselves as the little lies we tell ourselves when confronted with competing demands. They sound like this: “It’s just this Wednesday, the rest of the month I can get to that yoga class.” “It’s just this one hockey practice, I won’t have urgent deadlines like this all the time…” Boundaries are the 10,000-foot view, something that is good when looked at as part of the “big picture”, but difficult to practice once you get into the muck of life.
It’s important to pay attention to these rationalizations, because here is the thing; if that yoga class were so important to me, I would find the time. I find/hold the time needed to get to my son’s hockey. Notice the pattern? If it is important to someone else, I’ll be there, so if I am paying attention, the element of sharing an experience with someone is what compels me to commit (and re-commit) to an established boundary.
Seeing this pattern is key to understanding my own motivations for keeping boundaries in place. I trade things off all the time, why? Why do I let work-time over-ride family-time? What does it give me when I flex that boundary? What does it take away from me (and others)? These are very important questions to consider, and a source of rich information. Are you flexing boundaries out of love or out of fear?
It is also the act of re-commitment that keeps healthy boundaries in place, because there will always be circumstances where we need to flex a boundary (especially the ones on our time). What boundaries do you have that are well established and working for you? Which ones get eroded? Check in. You may find the motivation you need to get a healthy boundary working for you more consistently.
As I write this, I’m sitting on my back deck, enjoying the last of the summer sunshine. It’s the time of year when I savour the remaining days of our vacation, basking in newly made memories of beaches and hikes, while anticipating fall and a return to routine. It’s bittersweet. Already it is dark by 8:00, a sure reminder that summer’s languid days are coming to an end.
I love fall, it is my favourite time of year. It’s always been a time of fresh starts, perhaps because of the way the school calendar works in North America… back to school means taking stock, readying yourself for what’s next… and replenishing what’s been outgrown over summer.
I’m looking at what I may have “outgrown” this summer, feeling overwhelming gratitude for my readers, as well as a calling to make a deeper connection with you. Our lives are infused with potential, and through that vein I want to explore more of what a working life has to give; so often our focus is pulled to deadlines, schedule and what is not working, yet working life has the potential to give back and to nourish, ensuring our lives benefit from the fruits of our labour.
Starting this fall you’ll see a continued focus on potential, career growth, and how to make it all work at work, but there will also be more blogs like this one, taking stock of what your working life offers your whole life, and pausing to enjoy it – celebrating work as a way to empower living (versus living to work).
I hope you enjoy the tweaks and find this new blog material compelling as you savour your summer and ready yourself for fall.
One of my past clients e-mailed me to let me know she had just closed a massive project at work, and she was really satisfied with the work she and her team had accomplished (her biggest project to date). I love it when my clients reach out to let me know how they are doing, it’s a privilege to be invited back into their lives as a trusted colleague. Ever the coach, I had a question: how she was going to celebrate?
Celebration is key to acknowledging that you did something meaningful. Things like team meals and spot awards are great ways to have others acknowledge you (and you acknowledge them), but it’s also important for you to acknowledge yourself when you have milestone accomplishments (especially since only you will ever know the magnitude of the accomplishment for yourself, as others don’t witness private struggle).
A few years ago, I had a really challenging year, and having worked very hard to embrace the chaos and push forward I hit a wonderful milestone. On vacation that summer I pick up a trinket that spoke to me; a tiny pewter sea urchin. Its little nubby spikes remind me to persevere because not everything that looks difficult on the surface is actually difficult in the end. It sits on my desk, and I’ve picked it up and held it so often its nubs have been burnished from dull pewter to light-catching sparkle. An everyday reminder that when I chose to stay with a problem, I bring new light to it.
My client is going into vacation in the best way possible, on the high spirits of a great accomplishment. Prompted by my question she’s thinking she may get herself something special as well; a new coffee mug. Not just any coffee mug, one that she falls in love with from an artisan pottery shop somewhere on her travels along the coast. One that will bring back great vacation memories AND remind her of her own unique awesomeness every time she holds it in her hands, feeling the warmth of both coffee and accomplishment.
We are worth this. Celebrations should continue into every day; never turn away from reminding yourself what you have accomplished. Let it sustain, and inform, your work going forward. What milestones and accomplishments do you acknowledge for yourself? How do you celebrate them every day?
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I believe in giving back to others in many tangible ways. When I learn something new, or see something that might help others, I share it using my blog and website. You can always find my latest blog entries here, on Facebook or Linked In.