Life coaching expert Tal Fagin responds to a reader who feels pulled in a million directions. She offers solutions on how to slow down and find daily practices to keep you grounded.
The summer is half over, and I feel as if it is passing me by. I live in a beautiful part of the world where I am literally surrounded by flowers, but I can never seem to stop and smell them. Or at least, I don’t. Instead, I over-schedule myself with work and other commitments, lose hours to mundane, time consuming tasks and otherwise get lost in a swirl of constant doing. My To-Do List feels like a self-regenerating monster, threatening to take over my life, and no amount of effort seems to lighten the load. Meanwhile, the things that really matter to me—the family and friends I want to connect with, the books I want to read, the hobbies I fantasize about taking up, even just the walks I want to take—there just never seems to be time for those. Now that I think about it, it’s not just my summer, perhaps it’s my whole life that is passing me by. I feel ridiculous for complaining. I have a rich, full, happy life and so much to be grateful for, but mostly I just feel pulled in a million directions. I know that there are tons of articles and self-help books out there advising all of us about the dangers of stress, the benefits of mindfulness and the beauty of simplicity, but I don’t have time to read them! How can I possibly slow down, enjoy my summer (and my life) and just relax a little bit without shirking my responsibilities or disappointing everyone who depends on me?
Can you help?
As a former doing addict, my heart goes out to you. I used to be harried and in a hurry all the time, too, perpetually rushing from place to place, executing tasks like my life depended on it and fervently worshipping at the alter of efficiency and accomplishment.
Fortunately, I don’t live my life like that anymore and my strong suspicion is you don’t need to, either. I mean, what is the point of a “rich, full, happy life” if you feel as if you are missing the whole thing, constantly in motion and clearly spread way too thin?
What to do?
I have so much to say on this ubiquitous problem, I could write a few books of my own. Since you are short on time, however, I will get straight to the point. Besides, it’s August and I would rather ditch my laptop and head to the lake instead.
Here is my down and dirty, body-mind-soul list of small changes, practical tips and simple practices to help you defuse the frenzy and tame your To Do List so you can start doing all those “things that really matter” to you and generally live with more ease, purpose and joy:
1. Befriend Your Breath. Consider your breath your new best friend. Wherever you are, whenever you feel yourself getting overwhelmed or “pulled in a million directions,” just stop and breathe. In fact, before we go any further, please indulge me and try this simple exercise: Put down the computer. Sit back in the nearest chair. Close your eyes. Take a long, deep inhale. Hold it for a moment, then let it go. Do this three times. Five if you are feeling ambitious.
How do you feel?
Given the countless stressed and beleaguered clients with whom I have begun sessions this way, my guess is … better.
Science now confirms what yogis have known for centuries. It is all about the breath. When we experience stress – whether that be from a car careening toward us on the highway or thoughts like “I have too much to do and not enough time!” – our fight or flight response kicks in. A cascade of stress hormones are activated, producing a host of physiological changes, including rapid breathing and an increased heart rate. By contrast, intentional, slow, deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms us down.
2. Check Your Ego. “The more you do, the more you are!” At least, that is what our security and approval seeking egos would have us believe. If you are anything like me, your ego practically jumps up for a high five every time you complete a task. That momentary rush of achievement is fleeting, however, and the need for further accomplishment almost immediately rears its ugly head.
Have you ever wondered why?
Our society takes a “busier is better” view of life. Effort is praised over rest. Speed, efficiency and productivity are lauded over slow, deliberate practices that yield no immediate results. Hard work and sacrifice are considered pre-requisites to success. No doubt you have been influenced by these pervasive attitudes, but have you ever thought to question them?
Try asking yourself why so much activity? Why can’t you—or don’t you, as you so aptly self-corrected—slow down?
I began my own adult life as a corporate lawyer, marking my time in a leather-bound, angry red journal, my daily value literally measured in billable hours. Years later, after swapping my legal career for baby-raising, the message—you are only as worthy as you are productive—lingered. Not only did this impact the way I conducted my days (getting to the Gap for socks suddenly took on the same urgency as drafting a merger agreement overnight), but it diminished my sense of delight in my new role. All my life, my story had been one of an independent, hard-working achiever. Staying home felt like a cop out. Rather than settling into and fully appreciating the gift of full-time motherhood, I somehow felt like a slacker.
But that’s enough about me.
What is the story you are telling yourself about your always-on nature? What benefits do you derive from all that doing? Is there another story you might craft, another version of you that you might prefer? Is it worth all that you are giving up in the process?
Put another way, if I could sprinkle you with magic dust, and remove the notion that busy-ness establishes validity, how might you live differently?
3. Heed Your Heart. Now that you’ve got your ego in check, start paying attention to your heart. Just like the breath, it is there for you, a dependable, ever-beating compass, ready to point you due north in any given moment—if you would only pay it heed.
The body speaks to us in infinite ways, and unlike the mind, it never lies. Just like your tummy grumbles to signal chow time and your feet ache to protest being confined to stilettos, your heart constricts, tightens and shuts in on itself to let you know when you are doing (or thinking about) something disagreeable. By contrast, when your heart feels light and open, warm and content, that is your body’s way of saying, “More of this, please!”
All you have to do is learn to listen, and act accordingly. In other words, do more of what makes you feel good. Do less of everything else.
What’s that you say? It’s not that easy? You can’t just go around “shirking responsibilities,” and “disappointing everyone who depends on me” living by the whims of your heart’s desire? Who would pay the mortgage? Who would stock the fridge? How would anything important ever get done?
I get it.
Ladies and gentleman, allow me to introduce a whole new method of organizing your To Do List, my favorite coaching tool, the sublime, the practical, the versatile … The Three B’s!
4. Bag It, Barter It, Better It. The Three B’s is one of the first things I learned in coach training, I have yet to meet a client who doesn’t love it and it has personally changed by life. (Thank you Dr. Martha Beck, I am eternally grateful).
All too often, we treat our To Do lists as unquestionable, if not in actuality, then in our minds. If something is on there, it simply must get done. We either take a “suck it up” approach and do something we’d rather not, or we procrastinate, while at the same time, berating ourselves for it, or otherwise allowing the looming burden to sap our energy.
There is another way.
Take out that “self-regenerating monster” which has you feeling so aggrieved. Ponder each item. Take a moment to do this deliberately, and pay attention to how each one makes you feel. Note the physical sensations you are experiencing. If you are getting tense or tight or otherwise showing signs of stress or frustration—hunched shoulders, clenched fists, furrowed brow—if you feel anything but joy, this item will benefit from The Three B’s.
Ask yourself three simple questions: Can I bag it? Can I barter it? Can I better it?
You know that birthday dinner next week, the one you have been dreading and secretly praying would be canceled? Can you skip it? You might think you can’t, after all, everyone expects you to be there and will say horrible things about you if you’re not. Is that reason enough to go? Might a long walk at dusk be preferable? Perhaps you can just bag the whole thing. It is—as always—your choice.
If a dreaded item can’t be bagged, perhaps you can barter it. I personally despise cooking. Some people love it, but it is not my thing. I used to feel compelled to do it, however, and with outsize effort. After doing the Three B’s on the always-dreaded need to feed my family, I realized this was not something I could bag, but definitely something I could barter, at least once in a while. After all, my husband loves to cook, delicious and affordable take-out abounds and “breakfast for dinner” is always a hit!
Finally, if you come across something you can’t, or are unwilling, to bag or barter, figure out a way to better it. This is your opportunity to get creative! Last year I needed oral surgery. I could have bagged it, but I wanted to keep my tooth, so I ruled that out. I could not barter it, as it was my mouth requiring attention. How could I better it? I politely informed the doctor that I would come through the ordeal far better if I could listen to an audiobook while he hacked at my gums. Two hours later, I had not only saved my molar, but I had been thoroughly entertained in the process.
5. My Daily Gets. Before we part ways, there are just a few more daily practices I would like to share. They are mostly self-explanatory, and incorporating any one of them just might make all the difference in taking you from “hectic and crazed” to “poised and present.” Get Up Earlier. Not only does this add literal time to your day, but it will give you an opportunity to begin each day on your own terms. Whether you use the time to read, exercise, meditate, paint or do just about anything that is meaningful to you, it helps you start the day with a sense of control and provides a headstart on the madness ahead. Get Unplugged. Our always-on, constantly-connected recent ways have all of us feeling imposed upon and shackled to our obligations. We may be physically free to “work from anywhere,” but for far too many people, this has translated into working from everywhere, all the time. Instead, set some boundaries, give yourself some space, break the availability cycle and shed the impulse to check in. Declare yourself some sacred time each day and disconnect. Get Grateful. Every day, twice day, first when the alarm goes off and again before drifting off to sleep, I whisper “get grateful” to myself. Then I run through a mental list of 3 or more things for which I am thankful. I get specific, going beyond big things like “my health” or “my family” and focus on tiny details, like an unexpected compliment from a stranger. We are genetically programmed to focus on the negative, but training our brains to focus on the positive has been scientifically shown to increase happiness. Get Ancient. Practices like yoga and meditation work wonders in terms of helping with just about anything and everything. They help you befriend your breath, check your ego, heed your heart and generally feel more calm, capable and peaceful. Get Out. Being outside in nature, taking time to ponder the sky, admire a bird in flight or stop to smell those flowers helps us gain perspective. It reminds us that we are part of something larger than ourselves and has been proven to improve moods and enhance well-being.
On that note, I am going to go join my family at the lake.
I hope this was helpful. Happy Summer!