Avoiding overwhelm over the holidays

Avoiding overwhelm over the holidays

  1. Lower your expectations

Too often we put so much pressure on ourselves to have (and ensure others have) the perfect Christmas or New Year’s Eve that we end up stressed, frazzled and disappointed. What would it be like actively to set a lower expectation for your family this year? What if you were define a “good Christmas” as simply sharing a meal with your family (whether it’s a Nigellaesque feast, an overcooked turkey, or emergency take-away); enjoying some time off work to play with your kids (even if they squabble a bit); and finding a few hours to read a book (even if you have to get up a bit early to get that quiet time).

  1. Know where your responsibility stops

You are not responsible for ensuring your family has a good time. Read that again. Sure, you might be in charge of food, or you might be the one who deals with the kids’ presents, and those are definitely responsibilities with a capital R but, in the end, whether or not people enjoy the effort you make is up to them. You can lead a horse to the eggnog but you cannot make it drink…

  1. Get a little grateful

It’s so easy to let the season go by in a rush of wrapping up work, getting things done, paying visits, shopping, and attending events without stopping to appreciate all the gifts it offers. Over the holidays, take a moment at the end of every day to feel gratitude for all you have, even if – in fact, especially if – you currently feel like moving to a desert island at the earliest opportunity. Take a moment to, if possible, step outside, look up at the stars and genuinely count your blessings. When you go back inside, you’ll be able to see the noisy kids, grumpy father-in-law, slightly wonky tree, and rather cramped sitting room through very different eyes.

Give the gift of listening this Christmas

Give the gift of listening this Christmas

It’s that time again, folks: ‘tis the season to be jolly, deck the halls, and sing the 12 days. And while it has become fashionable of late to deride the cheesiness of many Christmas traditions and bemoan its commercialisation, I have to say I love this time of year. Whether you choose to celebrate Christmas, Hanukah or the winter solstice, I have always found this to be the perfect time to wonder, reflect, and get in touch with my values. One of the things I enjoy most is the opportunity to honour the value of gift-giving.

I actually gift shop all year round. I am always on the lookout for special items that are exactly what a friend once said they really wanted or needed, or spot-on gifts that hit all the right buttons for my kids – like the glittery (tick) unicorn (tick) sewing kit (tick) Santa will be bringing my daughter this year. I do this because when I give a gift, I want it to be wanted, or needed, preferably both. I loathe the idea of buying “stocking stuffers” to make up present quantities or getting something just for the sake of it. It’s a waste of time, money and the planet’s resources!

So, in the spirit of offering necessary and appreciated gifts, I’d like to offer a suggestion for a Christmas gift we can all give our loved ones this year. The gift of listening. No, I’m not suggesting anyone gift-wrap their ears, and I’m fully aware that this one will fall flat with anyone who still believes in Father Christmas, but think what a difference it could make to our lives if we all became just 5% better at listening to each other. What a gift that would be!

Learning to listen was, quite literally, item number one on the programme for my first day of coaching training. We were taught that, as coaches, our first job was simply to listen to clients, let them be heard, and give them space to express themselves, and that even if that was all we did for the entire session, we had almost certainly always made a difference. Because how often do we get to sit and talk to someone who is just there to listen to us, without judgement, agenda or expectations of reciprocity, and without jumping in to offer advice or a comparable anecdote?

If you would like to give yourself and those around you the gift of becoming a better listener, here are a few ideas to help you make that Christmas wish come true.

  1. Set your intention

Active listening – the coachingese term for making a concerted effort to listen to someone – is simple in theory but surprisingly tough to do. The first step is to go into the conversation with the firm intention of listening. Simply by becoming aware that your goal is just to listen will enhance your ability to listen closely and concentrate on the other person. When you enter a conversation, make sure you’re comfortable and not likely to fidget. You cannot focus on someone’s words when you are cold, need the loo, or have a clothing label scratching your neck. Sort those things out before getting into it with your friend and you will be able to give her your undivided attention. And remember to make regular eye contact and offer listening signals such as head nodding and the occasional “uhuh” or “mmm”.

  1. Listen to understand, not to reply

I have a number of friends – mainly those who live far from me – with whom I have developed the habit of leaving each other long, newsy Whatsapp voice notes. This function of the app is a great way to keep up with pals who live in different time zones or who have different schedules and with whom an actual phone chat is often hard to arrange. My mate Kate, a woman of great wisdom, recently commented that she enjoys how relaxing our habit of leaving messages is: “Since it’s a message not a conversation, you can really listen, without having to think about what to say next”. How often do we listen without mentally drafting our reply or thinking about a similar thing that happened to us that we’d like to share? What would it be like simply to hear someone’s story without feeling the need to share in return? Obviously, there is a time and place for reciprocity in conversation, but the next time a friend starts to share some concern or news, why not try imagining you are listening to a message? Your only job is to hear it. If there are silent pauses, let them be; resist the urge to jump in with “Oh my God, the same thing happened to me!” or “I feel the same – when that happens to me, I always…”

  1. Stay curious

A coach’s second most important job is asking questions. In training we learn how to ask big “powerful” questions that can turn a client’s limiting belief on its head or make him see a situation from a new perspective. However, some of the most helpful questions (or prompts) a person can hear are often the simplest. Try Tell me more, or What else? Ask for details: What happened next? How did that make you feel? What was the impact of that? Keep your focus on the other person, rather than bringing the conversation back to your stuff, your experiences. An alternative to asking questions is offering thought-provoking observations, for example, Wow, that sounds disappointing! or I can hear so much anger in what you’re saying. By voicing what you hear and inviting a person to express more, you’re showing you are interested, that you value them, and that what they are saying is important to you in itself – not just as a springboard for your own sharing.

  1. Interrupt judiciously

I initially called this paragraph “never interrupt” but changed that for the sake of precision. I doubt I even have to say that the quickest way to frustrate someone who needs to talk is to interrupt them. Interruption most often takes the form of jumping in with own our story, but equally irritating variants include but are not limited to: interrupting to correct, contradict, offer information that turns into a digression, and the classic “Ah! That reminds me…!” change of subject. The bottom line is no one likes it, so don’t do it. The exceptions to this rule are things like interrupting to ensure understanding and ask for clarification.

Being a good listener is one of life’s hardest skills to learn, but the benefits are multiple. By giving the gift of your listening and attention, you show someone how highly you value them and give them a space to explore whatever situation or predicament they need to share. Plus, this is one of those gifts with a kickback. By improving your listening, you will improve the quality of your relationships as your loved ones (consciously or otherwise) respond to and appreciate your presence and openness and your connections deepen.

And, if you listen well enough and often enough, you’re sure to hear something that sparks a great idea for next year’s gift. That’s an extra win!


If you’d like to offer yourself the gift of active listening with a professional coach to work on issues holding you back, areas of life in which you are stuck, or projects that you would like to accelerate, contact me for your free introductory coaching session to start building a life lived with purpose and on purpose.

Finding time

Finding time

We all get just 24 hours in our day, so how come some people seem to manage to find time for everything and others are permanently rushing? When it comes to time management, some are definitely more equal than others.

The most common complaint I hear from friends, colleagues and coaching clients is some variant of “I would like to, but I don’t have time”. I don’t have time to exercise, take up a hobby, read more, write my novel, go to the theatre… We live in an age of endless time-saving devices; we have more holiday allowance than ever before; and the Internet makes accessing information from around the globe the work of seconds. Yet some of us still struggle to fit everything into the same 24 hours that everyone else is getting. Here are a few simple strategies to reclaim the clock and slow down the race.

1. Saying yes means saying no

And saying no means saying yes. When you say yes to dinner with friends, you are saying no to an evening on the sofa watching reruns of How I Met Your Mother. And when you say no to drinks with a colleague after work, perhaps you’re saying yes to a bath, a book and early to bed. When you are conscious of what you’re accepting and what you’re rejecting, you can start to make more conscious choices based on what your body, mind and soul need right now. And that’s a first step to using time on purpose.

2. You can achieve a lot in 5 minutes

You can make the bed, do a short breathing exercise, send a text to reach out to a friend, or write a list of prospects to contact for your business. Every minute is useful for something. Don’t get sucked into to thinking that if you don’t have a whole hour to spend on a project there’s no way you can make any progress today.

3. Christmas is on 25th December, every single year

And this year will be no exception. So why do so many people find themselves queuing up to buy a soap selection basket in The Body Shop at 4pm on Christmas Eve? Why not buy gifts throughout the year (when you happen upon the perfect present or the sales are in full swing) and put them away until Christmas? Why not set aside a weekend at the end of October for some internet purchases and another mid November to head to the shops? It’s all about planning. The same is true of birthdays, anniversaries and tax returns. Don’t let events that you can so easily anticipate sneak up on you!

4. Remember who’s the slave and who’s the master

Is Facebook a fun way of keeping up with distant friends or a time suck that distracts you from writing your thesis? Does Twitter help you keep up with the latest news while you’re in between meetings, or do you find yourself emerging from a session of tweet-surfing to find that an hour has passed and your friend’s surprise birthday party hasn’t planned itself? Social media and the Internet can be forces for organisation and time-efficiency when used well. Make sure you’re staying in control.

We all get the same 24 hours every day. And what you choose to do with them is your business. Just make sure you’re doing just that: choosing.

Originally published on Running in Heels.

Choosing Christmas Cheer

Choosing Christmas Cheer

The season is upon us – it’s an annual inevitability. But how will you choose to embrace the festive season this year? Will you be Scrooge? The Grinch? Or a zen Christmas fairy? Believe it or not, the choice is yours.

Christmas comes but once a year, but boy, each time it comes, don’t we know it! As soon as we hit December, it’s all systems go with decorations going up; the shops filling with goodies; and workplaces, schools, friends and family organising dinners and parties and drinks get-togethers. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, surely, but it’s also one of the most exhausting for a lot of people.

Stealing Christmas

Now, when you hear people complain about Christmas, as a few inevitably do, criticism is usually levelled at the consumerism of the whole affair, the indecent over-indulgence, the horrors of having one’s entire family in one place at one time with all the fighting and anxiety that causes; the stress of gift-shopping and the high street hoards… What you’re about to read will not join in with that kind of Christmas-bashing. I happen to love the festive season, and I can’t see that any of the things people hate about Yule are really linked to the celebration itself.

Christmas is a religious festival, certainly. For Christians, it’s about the birth of a saviour and the miracle of God made man, come to atone for our sins. Easy to see why that should be celebrated. And even for non-believers, it’s a magical, hopeful time of year. A time when we are encouraged to stop and remember to be a little kinder to each other, to spend time with the people that matter to us, to connect with fellow human beings, and to revel in the wonder in a child’s eyes as they sit on Father Christmas’ lap or decorate a tree. What’s indecent, stressful, indulgent and consumerist about that?

No, when Christmas turns sour, it is always a result of choices we make in how we engage with the season. And that’s something a lot of us forget as we open each window in the Advent calendar. Even at Christmas, we have choices and the power to say yes, or no, to traditions, invitations and customs. We can choose to get drunk at the office party, feel like hell the next day, and spend January kicking ourselves. Or not. We can choose to be on Oxford Street at 5pm on Christmas Eve. Or not. We can choose to buy a massive turkey and get up at 4am to start cooking it. Or not. Just like the other 365 days of the year, we have choices.

What makes your Christmas?

So many of the diatribes against Christmas that will inevitably be written by witty and arch columnists this year will play into people’s feelings of pressure and a perceived lack of choice around the holidays. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I for one do almost no Christmas shopping in December. All year long, when I see a bargain or a one-off item at a craft fair or on holiday that would make a great gift for a friend, I buy and stock. Sometimes I even – gasp! – make presents. I turn the radio off when they play Slade for the 100th time. I refuse to buy or eat Brussels sprouts even if, as I have been told, “it’s not a Christmas dinner without sprouts” (the devil of foodstuffs, if you ask me). I have agreed a gift spending cap with certain friends and family. I no longer give a Christmas card to people I am going to see and wish a Merry Christmas in person – this has limited the list to only those who don’t live near me and has seriously diminished my chances of getting repetitive strain injury once a year.

Reclaiming the festive season

I choose what Christmas means to me. And Christmas to me is making the pudding with my mum while listening to the same tape (yes, tape) of Christmas songs we’ve had since I was a kid; it’s giving friends gifts without expecting anything from them; it’s attending a carol concert and bellowing the descant to O Come All Ye Faithful; it’s watching Love Actually and giving silent thanks for my own Beloved and all the love I have in my life. Christmas (and Hanukkah, Eid, New Year’s Eve, Easter and Thanksgiving, for that matter) and is what we make it so if you find yourself Scrooging and Grinching as you shove round the shops and weep at your bank balance, don’t blame Christmas. Remind yourself instead that every day, you’ve made choices. Think about how those choices are working out for you.

Originally published on Running in Heels.

Tales of the unexpected

If life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans, it’s wise to keep a few gaps in your diary…

I am definitely one of life’s planners. I like making a list, checking it twice, then typing it up and keeping it on file. I enjoy feeling organised and like things are under control, or at least as if I’m doing everything I can to make life run smoothly. In general, I think this a quality that usually serves me well. It means I show up on time, rarely forget appointments, keep on top of paperwork, and don’t often run around like a headless chicken. Organisation and planning – within reason – are undeniably Good Things.

‘Tis the season to be organised!

In the run up to Christmas (and the beloved’s birthday, which occurs the week before), my list-making takes on gargantuan proportions. Lists of things to get, things to do before I leave for wherever I’m going, people to contact, Christmas cards to write, appointments to make for the new year… I like to have it all written down so that I’m not permanently worrying I’ve forgotten something. Writing a to-do list frees the brain for higher activities – like watching Gremlins for the tenth time and working out the exact right recipe for mulled wine.

The best laid plans of mice and men

Funnily enough though, in recent years, Christmas has also served as a reminder to me that sometimes the best things in life are the things we don’t plan. A couple of years back, I was going home to England for Christmas, travelling with an American friend who was staying with me over the holidays. (When told that she was featuring in my latest column, the aforementioned friend wanted to choose her own pseudonym. At her own request, she shall henceforth be referred to as Peggy Sue.) A few days before we were due to leave Paris, the Eurostar stopped working. It just stopped. Apparently the winter was so cold that the trains were experiencing a thermal shock as they entered the tunnel, and the engines were seizing up. At first I didn’t actually believe that we wouldn’t be able to get on a train. I kept telling an increasingly worried Peggy Sue that the Eurostar was sure to be fixed somehow and that all would go according to plan. I guess everyone can see what’s coming.

A long coach journey into night

The date of our programmed departure came and went, and we couldn’t get a seat on a train, so we ended up catching an overnight coach from Paris to London. What ensued was one of the most memorable journeys I’ve ever taken. We had a leaky roof on our coach; a woman point blank refused to swap seats to let us sit together (her prerogative, of course, but who actually refuses that sort of request?); the man next to Peggy chatted to himself the entire journey; another chap was almost left behind every time we had to get off the coach and go through customs; one passenger was actually detained… It made the Odyssey look like a trip to the seaside. All this from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. in freezing and icy conditions. Now, I’m not going to suggest that Peg and I preferred this to whizzing under the Channel on the cosy Eurostar, but neither would I say I regret the trip. We had fits of giggles, took turns sleeping on the ferry, made up silly stories about our coach-mates. We were already friends when we left, but when we arrived, that epic night had made our bond even tighter.

Seizing the surprise

Thinking back, some of the best things that have occurred in my life indeed happened while I was busy making other plans. Like the time I intended to go to the cinema, take a walk then have an early night. Luckily I abandoned my plan when a charming chap I met while waiting for the film to start asked me to go for coffee with him. He turned out to be the love of my life. Or the time I received a letter meant for a different Joanne Archibald offering a part in a play at university. I had made the decision not to audition for anything that term, but I phoned the director to tell her she’d got the wrong woman and ended up auditioning for and getting the lead (the other Joanne had already declined). Thanks to that role, I made friends I still cherish to this day, was given a part in another play after that one, and ended up directing something myself. Or the time I got lost in Paris, stumbled upon a volunteer bureau and ended up doing some great charity work.

Relishing the random

Planning is, for me, one of the keys to a calm, organised life; but the unexpected is always the source of the best fun. I won’t stop making lists (I suspect it’s actually an addiction, but I think it’s a pretty harmless one), but every Christmas I am now reminded to revel in whatever gets thrown at me. It’s the bumps and twists in the road that make the journey interesting. It’s the random encounters and chance events that make your life full of life rather than simply a slavish playing out of your day planner. Sometimes, as I discovered on a cold and leaky coach in Calais, it’s actually life’s hassles that prove to be the most entertaining, enriching and memorable experiences we share.

Originally published on Running in Heels.