How to design a year to show up for yourself and others.
should have taken today off; it’s been a tough day…it’s always a tough day.”
This was a conversation I was having with a client late last year. It had been
three years since his wife’s passing and the day of our discussion would have
been her 49th birthday. Before I could even ask my next question as to why he
hadn’t, he followed-up by explaining that he had too many meetings booked to
take the day off.
was what he said next that highlighted the real problem “Hopefully, next year
will be different.”
client is a successful and busy leader. As an important decision maker working
in a fast-paced, sales-driven organization, the chances are high that by the
time the date nears next year his calendar will again be filled with meetings.
Chances are even higher that his sense of obligation as a leader will keep him
from cancelling those meetings and prioritizing this day for himself.
reality is that without taking proactive action to block off that day for
himself, the outcome will not change.
situation is not unique to my client. It’s a common pattern I’ve witnessed,
especially with well-intentioned and often over-extended leaders. They allow their calendars to be driven by other people’s
priorities adding their own as an afterthought.
consequences are as predictable as they are frustrating. Not only does this
reactionary approach lead to regret, resentment and stress, but to quote John
Danahoe, the former CEO of eBay:
world will shape you if you let it. To live the life you desire, you must make
choices are demonstrated through our actions. Speaking with my client that day
I was reminded of how often I personally have reacted to similar situations by
waving my white flag, surrendering to the busyness. After missing too many
important events and disappointing both myself and the people I care the most
about, I created a simple annual exercise to proactively design a blueprint for
the year ahead.
the past couple of years, I have shared this with friends, family and leaders
to help them build capacity, foster vitality and ensure the things most
important to them take precedence over
other people’s agendas for them.
exercise requires only three things: access to your calendar or schedule –
professional and personal, something to capture your reflections, and one hour
of undisturbed time. I love to hit a coffee shop, turn off my Wi-Fi and turn on
my favorite playlist with a tasty drink for this annual ritual.
by Looking Back at the Previous Year
the first 30 minutes to look through the previous year’s calendars reviewing
both your past personal and professional priorities and commitments. Looking
week by week, record observations from the following categories:
- Specific dates and activities that were scheduled into your calendar that you’d like to make time for in the future. These could include birthdays, anniversaries, personal and professional events, traditions and experiences.
- Specific dates or activities that you weren’t available for or that weren’t scheduled (and perhaps missed), that you’d like to make space for in the coming year.
- Vacation time, specifically recording how much and when it was taken.
- With as much detail as possible, any additional time you took off that was either unscheduled or scheduled last minute. This could include sick days, mental health days, caregiver days, time-off for personal appointments or any other unexpected emergencies.
close off the first part of the exercise, take a mental step back and record
any trends that you notice. This is not meant for you to judge or beat yourself
up, but instead build awareness of what worked and what didn’t, when you felt
energized and when you felt drained, what you want more of and what you need
less of moving forward.
you’ll notice decisions that were made from a sense of obligation to others or
based on the opinions of others, as was the case with my client. Consider where
your personal expectations and values have positively or negatively influenced
deepen this reflection, imagine a stranger looking through your recorded
observations; what might they think are your values and priorities? This
distancing perspective often helps you see things with less emotion and more
Forward at the Year Ahead
the next 30 minutes focus on the year ahead of you. Building from your recorded
insights and reflections, take action to transform hopes into reality by
designing your future.
- Begin by building from your previous year in review. Start by transferring all the important dates into your calendar. If they are recurring, simply set them up to repeat year after year.
- Consolidate a list of things that you’d like to make time for in the following year that may not have specific dates yet. Reflect both professional and personally. These may be general, such as attending a large industry conference, going to an outdoor music concert, or taking your kids camping for the first time. Add in reminders or placeholders for these events now.
- Shift to focusing on vacation and personal time. Whether you have designated paid vacation days, or you are self-employed, everyone needs some dedicated, work-free regenerative time. In today’s 24/7 connected world, there may not ever be an ideal time to book a vacation or take personal time off. Wherever possible, officially schedule it your calendar or, at a minimum, tentatively block it. Much like my client, there will always be meetings and projects that will fill the calendar squeezing out your vacation time if you wait. Be proactive and make it a priority
close the exercise, repeat the same general reflections as you did in the first
30 minutes and record how you feel as you notice trends for the year in front
the strangers perspective – have you designed a future that reflects a
fulfilling personal and professional life?
our call, my client went through this exercise. With his permission, this is a
part of what he shared:
after our call I blocked my wife’s birthday for next year as a vacation day.
Now nothing can be booked over it. I plan to spend the day hiking which was
something we loved doing together. Giving myself this permission and taking
action has been incredibly empowering. Even more than that, I realized how
important it is for me to be of service to others. Looking at the past year it
became so clear that I was giving all of my energy away by trying to be
available to everyone, every day. I am redefining what being “of service” means
to me and looks like in my actions. I have scheduled time to share this with
others both at work and personally.”
your priories come to light through your choices, but they come to life through
After a particularly exhausting Friday which consisted of back-to-back meetings, I resentfully looked at the following week only to realize a glaringly obvious problem—it was just as busy.
The most frustrating part of my predicament was that I was following the sage productivity advice. Looking at my calendar, you would see that it was beautifully color-coded with blocks for meetings, exercise, design/writing, email-checking, personal appointments, coaching calls, reflection, and reminders, all snuggly nestled around my travel and speaking schedule.
It was very pretty to look at, unfortunately, I still felt like I was chasing the carrot I could never catch as the fulfilling parts of life felt just out of reach.
What was clear was that although spots in my calendar were filled up with priorities, there was no space in my brain or energy in my body to effectively carry them all out. Instead I just felt perpetually overscheduled and fried by the end of the week.
At around the same time, my speaking schedule was getting busier, so I invested in an online scheduling platform to work with my calendar and automate my bookings and meetings. To begin using the platform, I had to set specific scheduling parameters such as when my workday began, how long meetings would run, or how many meetings a day.
Coming up with these guidelines was easy as I had been trying to follow these for the past year. The challenge was that I’d had little sustained success. I remember thinking, “This is exactly what I need: a system to make the decision for me!”
A few of my scheduling boundaries included:
· A pre-set maximum number of meetings a day
· 40-minutes blocked for lunch
· Meetings would default to 45-minutes versus the standard 60-minutes
· A 15-minute buffer between meetings
As a researcher, I monitored the changes, charting the day-by-day impact (yes, I love data and am a geek for trends). Immediately, I noticed an amazing difference throughout each day.
Adding a time buffer between meetings gave me the opportunity to shake off the emotions from the previous meeting and mentally reset for the next one. I found myself standing up and moving around more between appointments leaving me less exhausted at the end of the day.
At lunch, I started getting outside more, sitting, walking and just enjoying my lunch away from my desk.
The most notable change was that I now had the energy to start the day, and this energy was sustained until the end of the day. It wasn’t just physical energy, which was noticeable, but I also felt this high-quality mental energy that enabled me to carry out more focused work. I found myself more contemplative in how my “to-do’s” aligned with my business strategy. I was less distracted and more able to work on one thing at a time and finish it!
Within days, my family noticed the difference, too—I was more present and more disciplined at shutting off work. I was more patient, and I laughed more. The weekends stopped being a reprieve to catch up and became a time to actively recharge and recover by exploring new things such as learning to box and connecting with friends and family more.
And yet, with all these positive changes, about two months in, I found myself trying to override the system, attempting to squeeze in more meetings. People would request meetings and, even though I’d reached the maximum allotment for the day, I’d just squeeze them in, anyway!
Now, it may not be obvious, but I’m a logical and self-aware person. I realized that no one else would be checking my calendar and scolding me if I overrode it, so I had to ask myself, Why would I do this?
Upon reflection, I realized that there were a few areas this automated platform didn’t address. It didn’t manage my driving emotions not to disappoint. Nor did it manage my deeply ingrained belief that I should give 110% at work every day. Finally, it did not address my shear hubris that if I was feeling so good, I could or should do more.
Yet, as I started squeezing more in, my energy started leaking out and the benefits quickly dissipated. I had successfully found my tipping point, and it became clear that I needed more personal management before I could leverage the automated management. I practiced a ritual that I use when working with clients that forced me to slow down, shift out of “busy mode” and consider the impact of my choices.
When I feel I need to override the system here is the 1-minute habit I now practice:
1. I take a moment to fully stop.
Fingers off the keyboard. If in a conversation, I stop myself from automatically accepting meetings and say I will check my schedule and get back to the person.
2. I refocus by checking-in with compassion for myself.
I ask myself, What am I feeling right now? I take a few deep breaths and tap into my self-compassion by acknowledging that things are difficult and that I feel pulled in many directions.
3. I then challenge my reality with curiosity.
Why would I choose to be less effective today? This question forces me to think instead of getting swept away in the feelings that contribute to short-sighted decisions.
4. Finally, I shift my thinking out to the world.
I ask myself, What is the value and consequence to saying “yes”? This question realigns me with my values and, just as important, the impact my choices will have on others, before moving outside my boundaries.
Yes, some days require me to go over my allotted number of meetings. Sometimes, I must book a lunch meeting due to a client’s schedule. However, the value of boundaries is that they give you the space to work within.
Now, whether automated or not, my schedule serves as a great reminder to not let the busyness of the moment override my vision of my future. But only my choices will ensure it!
A few years back I decided to take my
husband away for a surprise vacation. This was partly motivated by the flight
reward points I had been accumulating with my business travel. My hope was that
when redeemed, it would save us a bundle on the travel costs. Excitedly I
called the rewards companies customer service to arrange our free flights. However,
after a somewhat confusing and frustrating conversation, my hopes for free
flights were quickly deflated.
Mini Disappointments = Mega Opportunities. In the realm of disappointments, this was a mini one. The often-toted advice in this type of situation would be “shake it off” and “don’t give it another thought.” As common as this advice may be, its not very helpful. Ignoring the emotions of disappointment doesn’t make you better at handling them, nor does it strengthen your resilience for future ones.
Small disappointments are great opportunities to practice being disappointed. As counter-intuitive as this sounds, consider how often you feel frustrated or let down by misunderstandings. It would be unrealistic to expect to go through life without experiencing disappointment. How you handle these small disappointments can make a stark difference over time in how you react to the big ones. To build these skills it helps to understand the neurochemistry of disappointment.
Dopamine and Your Expectation Circuitry. Disappointment is directly connected to the neural transmitter, dopamine. Most know dopamine as a “reward” chemical. This is only partly correct. When it comes to disappointment Cambridge University Researcher, Dr. Wolfram Schutz studies suggest its role is less around achieving the reward but instead, more around the anticipated correctness of the reward.
Overlaying this science on my experience, it can be assumed that my brain anticipated getting a reward in the form of a free flight, causing my dopamine levels to surge. Once on the phone and it became apparent my reward was not going to be met, my dopamine levels fell, and the familiar pang of disappointment was experienced.
Here are three strategies to help
manage the neurological anticipation and handle the disappointment in a more
- Take a moment to feel the disappointment. Don’t try just to ignore the feeling or simply “brush them off.” Suppressed or ignored feelings do tend to build up over time making them harder to manage in the long run. Whether a big or small disappointment, acknowledge it. Research from Matt Lieberman out of UCLA used fMRI’s to show activity in the emotional system of the brain is lessened by recognizing and identifying the negative emotions being perceived. By admitting to yourself you feel disappointed, you dilute the intensity of the feeling. Interestingly, it is within the same emotional brain system that the nucleus accumbens is located which is responsible for the dopamine circuitry in the first place, which helps you manage your reactions at a neurochemical level.
- Keep disappointment in perspective with the ‘Rule of 10’. Your emotional brain is notorious for blowing
things out of proportion. One way to offset this response is to mentally put
parameters around your disappointment to keep it in perspective. Ask yourself,
will this have an impact in 10 minutes from now? 10 hours from now? 10 days, weeks,
months or years? The big ones need a lot
more of our mental and emotional resources, so keep the small disappointments within
- Don’t lose focus on what is good. You tend to experience loss more strongly than reward, even at a neural level (check out this great review in Scientific America). Without intentional action, you are prone to lose sight of the good or minimize the positive possibilities for the future. At the least, there is often an opportunity to learn something from disappointment, even if it means increasing our disappointment tolerance and strengthening your resilience with the strategies shared.
disappointment takes up a lot of mental real estate, energy, and enthusiasm
that is better spent in other ways. Resilience isn’t about not feeling emotion,
its about strengthening your ability to recover and learn from disappointment
and setbacks in a way that makes you stronger in the face of future challenges.
me, this was a small disappointment but a great opportunity to practice for the
next time without losing sight of the fact that we were very lucky to be going on
I am superwoman!
Oh yes, that is what my perpetually optimistic superwoman brain has historically had me believing when things were going well and I’m firing on all cylinders. The times when I am working on a project that I love, or when I am being challenged to learn something new, and especially when I am juggling multiple opportunities. During those periods if you suggested that I consider taking a break, slowing things down, setting more realistic expectations, my responses previously were:
- Time? I manage it!
- Energy? Got lots of it!
- To-Dos? Crossing them off!
- Sleep? Who needs it!
That is until the mere mortal Superwoman
loses her powers and just isn’t that super anymore.
During one of my power-drained days when I
was running on fumes, I decided to look up the story of superwoman.
Superwoman was first introduced in 1947. Lois Lane had a dream that she became
superwoman after she got a blood transfusion from Superman. However, her powers were drainable and could
only last for 24 hours.
Granted, the blood transfusion concept; not
so good. Yet I couldn’t ignore the
symbolism in the story.
- The idea of having superhuman strengths and powers were just a dream.
- The powers were not eternally infinite – they were more quickly drained by over-use and within a certain period were gone until adequate recharging.
That day as I sat on the couch, tired,
ineffective and in low spirits, I was reminded that I am not superwoman and no
amount of wishing will make it so. No
one has superhuman strengths because we are HUMAN and that includes me. I am not ‘less’ of a person if I can’t find
an extra 5 hours in a day, or if I need to get more than 5 hours of sleep or if
I can’t cross off every “to-do,” every day.
And for the days that I do seem to pull off
the impossible superwoman feats, I need to remember it is an expectation, not
the rule and all energy is finite. If I
keep in the mode of relentless pursuit of trying to do it all, I drain my
powers and there are consequences.
It is funny how I often I’ve thought of
Superwoman as a symbol of strength, but maybe I can use her as a reminder of my
humanness. To remind me to accept my
limitations and acknowledge them – not to be constrained by them or defined by
them, but to have compassion for the fact that I have them.
To know my energy limits is a strength and
to restore my energy is a responsibility – that knowledge is my superpower.