Asking yourself (and taking the time to answer!) these six powerful questions can help you emerge from lockdown with renewed purpose and a stronger sense of self.
One thing has dominated our lives for the last 18 months and, sadly, it has not been Bridgerton or Call My Agent! (although both definitely dominated quite a few of my evenings). The list of adjectives to describe the last year and a half is long – challenging and dismal for many, liberating and enlightening for some. I have read countless articles about how people are making the most of lockdown (this often involves sourdough bread-making and growing out hair dye), dozens on the impact it is having on our minds and bodies (we are calmer, less productive, happier, lonelier, fatter, fitter…), and loads about how the world will either be forever changed or will swiftly go back to how it was before.
How was it for you?
I myself have been – perhaps conspicuously – silent on the subject of COVID and lockdown in this blog and my newsletter. Mainly because I have felt so much was already being said and also because I – like many – have been zealous in limiting my engagement with the news, statistics and speculation in order to preserve my mental health and happiness. I am also acutely aware of how easy I have had it compared to many. My family is in good health, my husband and I can both work from home in our reasonably spacious house with all the tech we need, and we have suffered no bereavement due to the virus. The main emotion I have felt relating to COVID has been anxiety. Not really about actually getting ill, more about the loss of liberty, the need to fill the children’s days, and the general sense of uncertainty about the future. I am not alone, I know. So, while I feel I weathered the lockdown storm relatively well (the first one with two small children at home 24/7!), catching up on photo albums, writing, and keeping busy with house projects, I would have felt utterly unqualified to advise anyone as to how to find the silver linings in the situation. However, as we emerge from the latest of three fairly comprehensive and long lockdowns here in France, I now find myself tempted to weigh in.
Time to think
Apart from doing massive amounts of gardening and spending hours on crafts with the kids, my main lockdown activity was – unsurprisingly, given my profession – introspection and self-work. Stripped of all my usual diversions, I had the time to take a long look at my life and ask some questions about where I am and where I want to be. Ironically, “time for yourself to step out of your life and take a look at where you are and where you want to be” is generally how I describe the utility of a coaching session to clients. So in lockdown, I found myself face to face with the proverb of “physician, heal thyself”, or in this case, “coach, coach thyself”. Now, as we step out of confinement, as the French call it, it’s time to put all that introspection to good use in (re)constructing our lives and incorporating some changes, tweaks and enhancements based on insights gained while weeding, sewing and eating sourdough bread.
Questions to exit lockdown mindfully
These are the questions I am asking myself now, as I reclaim all the buildings blocks that make up a full life, so many of which were put on hold for so long – things like time with friends, travel, entertainment, hobbies, family time, learning, career development… I hope they will inspire you too.
- What is my relationship to uncertainty?
Some people are happy winging it and going with the flow. I know many and like them immensely, but I am not, nor will I ever be, one of them. I am one of life’s planners, organisers and charge-takers. The uncertainty about the future generated by the health crisis has been, in some ways, a positive influence on me in this respect. It has forced me to become more adaptable and allow for the unexpected. As lockdown lifts, I know life is not going to suddenly become predictable again – we may still face more lockdowns, for example. But instead of fearing the unknown, I am asking myself: How do I want to deal with the current lack of certainty? What tools do I have to help me through it? What pleasure can I find in not knowing what’s around the corner?
- Which people did I really miss?
Think about the people you really yearned for during lockdown. Now think about who you spent most of your time with in the days before COVID. If the two answers aren’t the same (for example, maybe you were having drinks with colleagues a lot but could only find one evening every three months to chat with a close friend who moved abroad), think about how you can find more time for the really important people. Maybe you need to weed out a few uninspiring or unfulfilling commitments and people from your planner to make time for the things that matter. Or perhaps you can structure calls and meet-ups into your calendar more regularly?
- How do I want to spend my time?
For a while there, our choices about how we spend our free time were severely restricted. Now that our options are multiplying, it’s our chance to break old habits and make more mindful choices about what we do and who we do it with. Pre-lockdown, I spent a lot of my social time “having drinks”, and yet actually during lockdown what I really missed was the theatre. I have therefore resolved to scale back on the Chablis and aim for a monthly theatre outing once everything’s up and running.
- What’s my busy-ness limit?
One of the most-cited “gifts” of lockdown was the permission it gave many of us to slow down. (I‘m excluding certain groups with this statement, of course, people such as healthcare professionals, for example – but to them I wouldn’t dream of giving any advice, the only thing they should be told is “Thank you, here’s a raise, some time off, and lot more funding”. But I digress.) It really took off the pressure to take in exhibitions, keep up with film releases, make dinner reservations, fit in the gym, organise play dates, and plan outings. It simply allowed us to stop running. As invitations and possibilities start to present themselves again, we have the opportunity to ask: How often am I comfortable going out? How much time do I like to have between appointments? How many commitments can I really enjoy in a single weekend?
- What habits do I want to maintain?
Many of us formed new habits during lockdown that it would be a shame to let slip now that life is becoming slightly more normal. Some people took up a sport, or started morning meditation. All jokes aside, some people discovered the pleasure of baking their own bread. My husband and I used to (and still do) sit on our front step after putting the kids to bed for a brief moment of quiet time to check in with each other and debrief about the day. Now that other activities are competing for our attention, it’s the right time to think about the things you started doing (often out of necessity or simply to help you cope) that you don’t want to give up.
- What didn’t I miss?
We might think a lot about the people and things we missed during lockdown, but I’m sure we also all had things we were happy to let go. Commuting. Wearing a suit. Eating at your desk. Running for the train after work to ensure you pick up the kids on time. It would be so easy to fall back into our old ways of doing things, so take this opportunity to go “back to normal” on purpose and with purpose. For some that might actually mean not going back, that is to say making a total change in job and lifestyle. For others, it might mean smaller adjustments like doing weekend batch-cooking so you can take a home-made lunch to work instead of buying a sandwich. Or perhaps having a firm “no meetings after 4pm” policy so you can leave work on time and your evening is less rushed.
Major life transitions – whether positive or negative – can be incredibly stressful. And just because we’re happy to emerge from lockdown doesn’t make it any less a source of stress than going into it. But transitions are also a prime opportunity for us to make changes – both to our outward-facing lives and our inner selves. Asking yourself a few powerful questions right now can help make the difference between whether you look back and view the last 18 months as a zoom, home yoga and online scrabble marathon or a time when you seized the chance to press “reset” and move a little closer to the life you truly desire.
If you’re looking to make some changes as you emerge from lockdown and reconstruct your life, expert coaching that focuses on fulfilment and personal satisfaction can help you figure out how you want your life to look and how you can make the vision a reality. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session to find out how working together can help you build a life lived with purpose and on purpose.
Saying goodbye to friends is never easy, but the end of an era can be the perfect reminder to live in the moment.
Living abroad is an immensely rewarding experience: the constant sense of adventure; opportunities for language learning; a greater respect and tolerance for difference. However, as an ex-pat, one inevitably makes a lot of ex-pat friends. It’s only natural – you’re taking language lessons together, perhaps working in international companies, people helpfully introduce you at parties (“Jo – meet Svetlana – she’s Russian so, well, foreign, just like you! You must have lots to discuss…”). And, in my opinion, having ex-pat friends is no bad thing, it’s certainly not a worry.
Until your ex-pat friends come over all patriotic and leave.
My refined and notoriously indecisive Bostonian friend (it’s all very “Where do you summer?” à la Katherine Hepburn), whom I have in past musings referred to as Peggy-Sue, is returning to her native land, where a new job and her wonderful man await. Despite being thrilled for her, this imminent departure makes me unutterably sad. Peggy was a bridesmaid at my wedding; she’s spent Christmas with my family; I call her when I need to work out the Big Issues of life and when I have nothing other to report than what I ate for dinner. Her not being in the same country or even in the same time zone any more will leave a chasm in my life.
All good things
Quite a few friends have left Paris recently – sabbatical years, travelling, job opportunities – but they all plan to come back. Not Peggy-Sue. She’s leaving on a jet plane and not coming back again. Since I found out, I’ve been heavy-hearted, with an unshakeable end-of-an-era feeling. The fact that Peg’s departure coincides with my getting married and a number of friends either doing likewise or having babies only adds to my fin-de-siècle malaise. Like many thirty-somethings, we’re closing the Roaring Twenties chapter of our lives and starting a new one; and while, in its own way, it’s equally as thrilling, I can’t help but mourn the end of a glorious period of much spontaneity and few responsibilities.
Profit and loss
The French have a wonderful verb for which I’ve never found a satisfying English translation: profiter. It means “to make the most of” or to “fully take advantage of”, though neither seem to really capture the notion of living fully, enjoying, savouring. It’s a word I’ve often had in mind of late. Have I lived this era of my life to the full? Have I made the most of my twenties and of Peggy Sue, enjoyed time spent together, gone places and done things we wanted? I’m still trying to answer myself, and I’m guessing the reply is somewhere in the grey area of “yes, but could have done more”.
Making your mind up
So that’s what I’m trying to focus on in the run-up to Peggy’s leaving. Living deeply and fully. Enjoying every moment. Savouring the people in my world. I can’t redo the chapter of my life that’s slowly coming to a close, but I can learn from it and resolve to make the next one even more of a page-turner. I can make the trip to visit Peggy Sue (and not simply talk about it); schedule skype dates over a glass of wine (and not just collapse in front of the television); make more time for friends who are still in Paris (and elsewhere); book tickets for that stand-up comic/play/band (instead of simply looking at the posters)… I’m sad to see my friend move so far away, but I have control over how our friendship evolves and the time I choose to invest in it from a distance. I can choose to wallow and focus on all the things we’ll no longer do together (silly films, Friday night drinks), or I can choose to be here now and make the most of what is. One path leads to misery and statis, the other promises growth, joy and gratitude.
Even Peggy-Sue would see that’s no dilemma!
The long nights and chilly air this time of the year can make us all want to take a duvet day or indeed a duvet month, but when it comes to fighting fatigue, attitude is half the battle.
Maybe it’s because of the winter weather, maybe it’s the general economic slump, maybe it’s an age thing, but I have noticed a tedious new phenomenon in discussions among colleagues and friends. I call it Fatigue Fighting. Sample dialogue:
Me: Morning James, how are you? Have a good weekend?
Sébastien: Yeah, great. I did nothing but sleep. Took a long nap Saturday afternoon.
Me: What a luxury!
Sébastien: Yeah, I’m just so tired! How are you?
OK, not too bad – James’ weekend was quiet and he’s revelling in that. Good for him. But look what happens when Marie joins us at the water cooler:
Me: Hey, Marie – how are you?
Marie: Oh, exhausted! I had about 6 hours sleep last night. And I’ve got meetings all day.
Sébastien: God, I know. I was still awake at 4am. I must have slept all of 5 hours.
Marie: And the problem is the night before that I was up at 4am for an early flight, so that makes two nights where I’ve got no sleep. I’m a zombie today!
Sébastien: Tell me about it. I’m already on my fourth coffee and it’s only 11am! It’s going to be a long day.
The city that doesn’t sleep?
Blah, blah, blah, winge, whine, complain. Is it a Paris thing, or are city dwellers like this the world over? I say city dwellers because it does feel like metropolis madness. It goes hand in hand with the complaint that in the big bad city life moves too fast, people walk too quickly, we don’t know our neighbours, we’re always running around… All of which are ills we can combat daily and can choose to partake in – or not. I happen to take my time whenever possible, I don’t make back-to-back appointments with friends or co-workers, and the Beloved and I have had drinks with our neighbours on several occasions. Life in a city can be whatever you want it to be – that’s one of the biggest advantages of living in a sprawling urban centre.
Now, to get back to the tiredness tantrums. Let’s not underestimate the importance of sleep. Whatever you may need – be it eight or three hours a night – it really is a need, and one that you should definitely fulfill for yourself. If you’re suffering from long-term sleep issues, you should clearly see a doctor. And if your lifestyle is such that you regularly get too little sleep, need to stay in bed until 2pm every Saturday and Sunday, and feel perpetually one degree under, you absolutely need to make some major changes to your routine! The easiest way to get more sleep is simply to sleep more. Excluding anyone who has children from what I’m about to write, the biggest obstacle to most people feeling less tired is just to go to bed a little earlier.
Without having to make fundamental changes to your lifestyle, there are a few adjustments you can make to feel a general energy boost. What about taking a short walk in the fresh air after lunch? Instead of phoning through to a colleague with a question, get up from your desk and take a walk over there. Make sure you take regular breaks from the computer – look out the window, fill your water glass, stand up and stretch your arms. And what about your diet? What you put into your body is as important for tiredness levels as how much you rest it. Are you really getting your five daily portions? Could you add a mid-morning banana or orange? And how much water do you actually manage? Filling a litre bottle each morning and making sure you get through it by home time is a good way to stay on track. Coffee is sometimes a quick fix, but causes you to feel even worse when the caffeine wears off. Since I gave it up completely, my energy levels have gone through the roof!
You feel your focus
While you’re making some adjustments that in time will boost your energy and help you feel less lethargic, you can also implement the biggest and most immediate change. You can stop thinking, talking and worrying about how tired you are. Let’s look at my sample dialogue. Did it help James and Marie to share their tales of insomnia and much-needed naps? Did they feel any better afterwards? Probably not. In fact, chances are they just made themselves even more aware of how much they needed sleep and more convinced of how hard getting through the day was going to be. What if that conversation had gone more like this?
Marie: Morning James, how are you? Have a good weekend?
Sébastien: Yeah, great. Very relaxing – really indulgent and luxurious. How are you?
Marie: Super, thanks. Pretty busy, and I spent lots of time with the kids. Getting back to work is going to be restful!
Sébastien: Wasn’t it Louis’ birthday party on Saturday? How did that go?
Nothing has changed for either of these tired people but their focus. But that’s the first thing that needs to change for you to feel just a bit more energetic. It’s simple: if you focus on fatigue, you’ll feel the bone-crushing tiredness and rush to the coffee machine. But if you look elsewhere, you might just find you forget that you didn’t get your full eight hours and find that, before you know it, you’re whizzing through the day, talking about more interesting things with colleagues and friends, and – well, what do you know? – it’s bedtime already.