As I explore the concept of followership in the workplace, one skill has popped up again and again as simultaneously the most critical and also the most difficult: setting boundaries. Setting boundaries, of course, is not only for work - we all need to set healthy boundaries for ourselves in many aspects of our lives, regardless of whether we’re playing the roles of leader or follower. Professionally speaking, though, I see boundary setting as a followership skill because it primarily addresses the execution of individual or collective labor, whereas leadership qualities tend to address the organization of that labor.
Do you ever feel that physical or emotional sensations are simply “happening to you,” and that you don’t have much control over them? When you feel tense, anxious, angry, frustrated, or anything else, does it seem that you have no choice in the matter, even if a part of you would truly prefer to feel differently?
All work is creative, no matter what your job description. No matter what you are producing or generating, whether it be digital, material, or ephemeral, you are a creator. Once we begin to look at our jobs this way, a new line of inquiry sometimes appears: What are we creating? Is it something we consciously chose? Is it something we enjoy or feel satisfaction from? Are we making a contribution that we consider valuable?
This week, rather than sharing my own thoughts, I'd like to share three contemporary books of non-fiction that have recently held me in rapt attention on the couch, night after night. If you are looking for a comforting, inspiring companion during these turbulent times, you cannot do better than inviting one of these three authors into your home.
Sure, I could drag over a chair and climb up, but my tall husband is usually happy to help retrieve a teapot or vase more quickly. Friends or partners helping each other in this way feels reciprocal and satisfying, at least when relationships are healthy. It actually strengthens our social bond.
It’s almost a cliché to say, “trust yourself,” when beginning any new endeavor, but I find it’s tricky to pin down in terms of concrete experience. How, exactly, do I trust myself on purpose? What is it I’m trusting, anyway? Changes of any kind, even good ones, can trigger our survival instincts and release various flavors of anxiety and doubt. When we’re feeling any degree of fear, it’s not obvious how to find our way back to ease, confidence, or trust.
Overwhelm is a common experience among nearly all of the working people I know. We are all busy, that’s for sure, and the labor system we live in tends to ask for more and more, and then some more. Perhaps that’s just its nature. For me, the difference between feeling overwhelmed and feeling engaged, as I operate within this system, is usually a question of perspective. That is, how do I internally react to what companies, managers, institutions, governments, or family members are asking of me?
When we set out to make a change in any part of our lives, especially the kind of change related to our own creative growth, we often experience some level of resistance as our mind and body approach a new way of doing things. Whether we’ve decided to wake up earlier, exercise regularly, learn a new skill, or simply say no once in a while, changes require a bit of extra effort and support in order to gain traction, as my gifted teacher Amy says, in the new terrain.
Last week I wrote about a single technique to begin calming the inner critic, that voice in our heads that likes to remind us of all the reasons we might fail. This week, I’d like to share another stand-alone practice that can give your new goal or project an energetic boost, or start the proverbial ball rolling. It’s a writing exercise, but not necessarily a time-consuming one. I often do it in the mornings before breakfast in about five minutes. Here it is:
What if the goal or project you imagine had already been achieved? Write a few sentences in the present tense describing what you might be doing and what might be happening around you as if it were already true. For example, “I wake up in the morning having slept well. I have time to myself every day after work to cook, read, or spend time with my family. I organize my work so that the pace is challenging yet manageable, and communicate clearly and confidently with my colleagues.”
These statements may sound somewhat general. Yours, or course, will be tailored to your particular situation and current life goals. The “As If” writing technique asks us to travel into a parallel universe in which we are already living the lives we want, already achieving the goals we have identified. It matters not at all how likely or feasible this future may seem to your rational mind. In fact, it’s likely that your rational mind will reject all or part of this exercise. That’s fine. Just acknowledge the response and keep writing from your imagination, listening for another part of you that may be curious about the possibility that you are describing.
“As If” is one way we can use our innate creative faculties, not to design a painting, product or service, but to design our own life path. Once an idea takes hold in the imagination, our nervous system begins to seek out parts of that vision, or anything that may closely resemble it. We literally see things we may not have seen before: objects, colors, people, job listings, or connections that all accumulate momentum, feeding our goal and ultimately generating the circumstances for it to take shape.
Some guidelines for your “As If” journal:
1. Write in the present tense
2. Keep a small size journal (4x6 or 5 x7) and write a one-page entry per day (small tasks are most easily accomplished than big ones). If your journal is larger, write half a page.
3. Write only statements that feel positive and attractive to you, scenarios you would enjoy if they were to happen.
4. Write in the morning (really, anytime that fits your schedule is fine, but I find this exercise supports my mood for the rest of the day)
5. If your rational mind tries to tell you that what you’re writing is impossible, politely ask it to take a mental seat and wait until you’re done writing
6. Don't over-think this exercise. If you find yourself becoming anxious, stop and try again tomorrow
If you have experience with this or similar techniques, please share your story in the comments!
And if this kind of practice feels inspiring to you, please consider contacting me for a free empowerment consultation. Empowerment coaching is a goal-oriented system that guides you in shifting patterns of thought that are holding you back and creating vision-based strategies that result in lasting change.
All this month, I’ve been writing about goal-setting, focus, and creativity. When we set out into new territory in a bold way, however, there’s often some resistance in our system that slows us down, so I wanted to address that phenomenon as a kind of complement to this series of posts. There are many types of resistance, but in this article I’d like to focus on one very typical one: the inner critic.
Many of us have an inner critic, that voice of doubt, judgement, or skepticism that appears when we speak or act out of our comfort zone, or even within our comfort zone. Sometimes new situations or people trigger the inner critic to pipe up and remind us that we’re not clever enough, not prepared enough, will surely fail, or maybe don’t deserve an opportunity we’ve been given.
I struggled for many years as my inner critic argued convincingly that I wasn’t a real artist and didn’t have enough training or ability or social skills for this or that project I felt inspired to take on. I tried many, many strategies to escape this ingrained pattern, and ultimately the key was, ironically, to stop trying to escape.
The tactic I’m suggesting to you in this blog post will not completely shift a negative thought pattern, but I do believe it is an indispensable and foundational step to begin a process of doing exactly that. Together with other techniques, the simple and regular act of WITNESSING the critic begins the process of its release. WITNESSING is a kind of calm, non-judgmental observing, as though from the back row of the theater of your mind. Many “mindfulness” practices are very similar.
Consider this brief internal sequence:
1. Mentally step back and observe the critic. Give it your full attention.
2. Ask yourself, what is the critic really saying? Or what would it say, if it could speak?
3. Ask yourself, what physical sensations are present in my body when I hear that message?
4. If sensations are present, gently suggest to the body to let them go with a few long exhales.
Again, this kind of awareness-building will not completely shift a negative thought pattern by itself, but it is a powerful first step. When you observe a negative thought or sensation, you put some metaphorical distance between you and the critic. With that distance, you can begin to question its function in your life, its origin, its validity. It may seem less intense, or less absolute.
You can, of course, observe anything in this neutral, nonjudgmental way, but I offer it specifically for the purpose of taming the inner critic because inner critics tend to be so persistent! Like cats, they really want our attention! And also like cats, often once we give it to them, they just wander off.
If you’d like deeper, practical support with your inner critic or with changing any sort of negative thought pattern, I invite you to learn more about my empowerment coaching work. I am continually amazed and inspired by this work and honored to be able to offer it professionally from my home office, both in person and via video conference.
If you have an inner critic, how do you manage your relationship with it? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
Advice on “how to be creative” may feel like a contradiction in terms, because if we’re following a formula, or set of repeatable instructions, it seems like we're tamping down our creativity, not enhancing it. And yet, we live in an adult world that ignores our innate creative nature, so much so that some of us have started to believe we have lost our creativity somewhere on the way from childhood to adulthood.
Rest assured, it is still there, but we may need some extra support once in a while to remind us where to find it. And while there is nothing that will spark your creativity more than literally creating something, making a soufflé or a pair of earrings or a garden bench takes time and raw materials. In this post, I'm interested in how we can access our creativity in subtle drips and drops, to gently increase its flow through our days and weeks.
If you aren’t sure why you might want to re-discover or strengthen your creativity, consider how it often translates into the work world as initiative, curiosity, and innovation. Consider how it may manifest in your relationships as playfulness, spontaneity, or adventure. I believe these qualities are examples of our innate creativity channeled into our daily lives in ways that make them meaningful.
That said, here are four tiny tips to try at home, at work, or anywhere in between:
1. Stories – Whether realistic or fantastical, a good story or novel stimulates your imagination, re-familiarizing you with the realm of possibility. Reading stories trains your mind to imagine things that do not actually exist (at least not yet). This is one of the many thresholds of creativity. If you've ever spent time with children, you know how much they love story time before bed. Every adult has an inner child who never forgot about that sacred time. As Julia Cameron writes, your inner artist is a child. Indulge her. Try NPR Books if you're not sure where to start.
2. Nature – A generous and visceral reminder of the eternal process of growth and change, the natural environment embodies the creative cycle. Walk in nature, listen to the birds, keep a potted plant on your desk, or simply observe the trees, flowers and grasses that peek through our urban landscapes. Consider that your life also is a unique process of growth and change.
3. Doodle – No great masterpieces, or even recognizable images are needed for this to work. Lines, circles, loops, scribbles, and squiggles are the name of the game. Fill up the margins of a notebook or keep scrap paper and a pen by the phone. Make some tiny marks with real ink on real paper with your real hand. The linking of body and mind through this simple movement instantly puts you into the mode of creator, whether you realize it or not.
4. Organize - I truly believe that creative opportunity is everywhere. If I'm really feeling stuck or unmotivated, sometimes I'll just organize a drawer or a closet. This seemingly mundane act of spatial problem-solving is a super practical way of boosting your creative energy. The trick is to actively choose to see this as a creative challenge rather than an unpleasant chore, and to get some part of your body engaged with the ordering of physical objects in ways of your own choosing.
How do you keep your creative energy going? Please leave your personal tips and tricks in the comments. And if you're interested in exploring your own creativity more deeply, check out my upcoming retreat, CREATE, March 22-25, 2018.
As we turn gently into 2018, I’ve resolved to be ruthlessly honest with myself about screen addiction. It’s not just an urban legend – it’s a real thing we are all vulnerable to, that is, all of us who use the internet, computers, and smart phones. If you don’t use those things or use them sparingly, you have my admiration, and even a little bit of my envy.
For the rest of us, we need strategies to prevent distraction. At least, I do. I freely admit it! If chocolate chip cookies are in the house, I will eat them, which is why I try not to buy them (or make them) in the first place. I am human; therefore, like most humans, I have a certain weakness for sugar. Similarly, if my phone is in my hand, I will check my email.
Because I choose to have computerized devices in my life, I find I need to monitor my usage of them with some diligence in order to be productive, especially since I am self-employed and largely set my own schedule. Below are a few things that I’ve discovered work well in the ongoing quest to deliberately focus my time and attention with choices and goals that serve my own creative evolution, help me get my work done, and contribute positively to the lives of others.
1. To Do Lists
If I’m going to sit down in front of a computer, I absolutely need to have a list of specific things to do. This is the only thing that will prevent me from reading news articles, researching stray ideas that float through my mind, shopping, and scrolling the FB newsfeed all day long. I also like to remember that there are teams of thousands of engineers out there working tirelessly to create algorithms, behavior cues, and personalized content to distract me. What do I have to defend myself against them? I have my To Do List.
Every morning, I wake up, meditate, and make a list of what I will do that day. Some days the list has one or two things, some days thirty things. I eat breakfast, and BEFORE I go to my desk, I have the list in hand, so that I know what do to. It’s worth noting that I actually write the list by hand, with a real pen, in a real notebook, away from all devices.
This system is not perfect. Of course I often still read the news and check my email, but because I have the list and specific things to achieve, I waste much less time in this way. I manage to stay relatively focused and minimize distractions throughout my work session, whether I’m sitting down for an hour or an entire afternoon.
2. Proactive Enriching Activities
The second thing that I find necessary when living with devices is to have planned non-scrolling activities scheduled into my day, activities that I deliberately engage in to prevent distraction in the first place. For example, I’ve made a rule that I’m not allowed to sit at the computer after 8pm. Instead, this is my designated reading time (as in real books) on the couch. I treasure this time and find it both enjoyable and professionally useful.
Morning exercise is another scheduled activity that I use to ensure that 30 more minutes of my waking day are dedicated to my health and well-being, and therefore cannot be co-opted by FB scrolling or other types of fidgeting. Pre-planned activities might include exercise, household chores, in-person or online classes, or family time. Even online content (newspapers, curated blogs), as long as I'm deliberately choosing it, can fall into the category of Proactive Enriching Activities.
These activities may change month to month and year to year, but I try to keep building them into my days so that I'll simply have less opportunity to become distracted by social media or mindless screen habits.
3. Social Time
Lastly, I spend time with other people - no phones allowed. I am a textbook introvert and sometimes have to push myself to socialize. However, I do sincerely believe that we need strong social bonds to sustain our general health and well-being as well as to ensure a safe and free society. Digital habits slowly but surely erode those bonds, even while deceptively claiming to support them.
It's taken me a while, but I have now cultivated a few friendships in the community where I live. Even if I'm in my introverted cocoon mode, I make an effort to meet these folks in person for coffee, dinner, or a drink on a regular basis. A meal shared with others is a meal I can't be held captive by my phone or laptop, one hand swiping while the other shovels untasted food into my mouth.
When I'm with people, I try to ask questions I don’t know the answers to, and I practice attentive listening, which I believe to be one of the most underrated business and life skills in our contemporary world. Others help me remember that, like them, I am a complex, brilliant, frightening, imperfect human being, and that we’re all in this life together.
What are your favorite strategies for staying focused and avoiding screen and social media distractions? Leave your thoughts in the comments!