If I read the phrase “these uncertain times” one more time, I will not be held accountable for my actions. It’s flat, hackneyed, over-used – and I’m sure I’m guilty of having written it myself. That said, it is a fairly accurate description of our current situation. While I don’t believe we live in a more dangerous, difficult or indeed uncertain age than any other, I think we have of late been suffering from a very specific kind of confusion, ambiguity and unpredictability. Can we travel? Mask or no mask? Will school be open today? Will events go ahead? Can I leave the house?
Unsurprisingly for a coach, I am usually in full resolutions mode at this time of year. I’m setting goals, defining objectives, listing behaviours to change or adopt – both for me and with my clients. However, given the aforementioned uncertainty of our times, I am finding it rather hard to get excited about planning my year. It seems futile to set too many objectives when the goalposts are changing so often, but starting a new year without any kind of momentum is anathema to me.
So, what can you do if you want to get 2022 off to a mindful start and a positive direction, but you can’t quite find it in you to set SMART goals and make a chart with shiny gold stars? For me, this year’s resolutions are going to give achievement a rest and focus instead on intention. In other words, not so much of the what (or where and when) but a bit more of the how and why.
It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it
So, what’s the difference between an objective and an intention? Well, when I take my children to school, for example, my objective is very simple: I want to get them both to the school gates on time, fully dressed and shod, and carrying all the things they need. Now I’ll just wait while all the parents reading this pick themselves up off the floor from laughing at my calling that objective simple – it is indeed anything but! But you get my point. My intention for our journey to school is more complex. As we walk, I want to enjoy a moment with the children when my attention cannot be elsewhere. I want to take the opportunity to chat with them, maybe play games like I Spy, and generally set a positive tone for our day. All too often, the achievement of my objective seems at odds with my ability to stick to my intention. But when I am on my fifth “Please go round the muddy puddles!” (curse Peppa Pig) and their hundredth “I’ve got a stone in my shoe”, holding my intention in mind helps me keep calm, retain perspective, and remember that, to me, how we get to school is almost as important as getting there at all.
Resolving with intent
Let’s apply this to topics that are often the basis for resolutions. Getting healthy, for example. The objective might be to lose a few kilos and gain some muscle. The way in which you go about doing that and the activities you put in place will differ greatly depending on your intention, which might be anything from “self-care” to “setting an example to the kids” or “moving with joy”. Your objective defines your destination, but your intention sets the tone for the trip there.
You don’t even need to associate an intention to an objective to experience the benefits of this psychological hack. What would it feel like to enter 2022 without goals and objectives but with the simple intention of, say, prioritising kindness towards yourself and other people? Your intention might be a single word: strength, joy, patience, Namaste. Or a colour. Or maybe it takes the form of an image: a tree in gusty winds that is flexible enough to bend and so is never broken, for example. Or perhaps it’s even a little abstract – like a brilliant UK advert I remember from years ago encouraging people to be more playful and enthusiastic with the slogan “Be more dog”. Just think about the flavour, tone and colour you want to experience this year and see what comes to you.
Let your intention guide you
However you express your intention, simply by setting it and holding it in your mind, you will find you have a guide to help you with choices all year long. I know Christians who ask themselves “What would Jesus do?” when facing difficult decisions. If that’s not your thing, try asking what your intention would do. Your to-do list in overloaded, a friend calls to ask for help with a work issue, and you need to pick up the kids in 30 minutes. What would “self-care” do? What would “focus” do? What would “energetic” do? Even if you don’t call on your intention for active guidance, just setting it and then letting it drift to your subconscious mind will affect your mood and choices more than you may realise.
In setting an intention for your year, you take your mind off your destination for a while and focus on how you are journeying through life. I am convinced that, given today’s circumstances, setting an intention for 2022 will go a lot further towards boosting wellbeing, happiness and fulfilment than best-laid plans and SMART goals.
Whether you want more fulfilment in your personal life, career, family, relationships or friendships, holistic support from an experienced coach can help you take effective action backed by the right intentions to keep you on track. 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.
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.
Of late, my family has been enjoying our first small but successful crop of tulips, grape hyacinths and narcissi. They have provided a joyful burst of colour in some slightly bare patches of the garden and offered a much-needed springtime boost while the rest of our plants take their time unfurling and emerging. Whilst we were taking our morning tea outside recently (yes, I binged on Bridgerton during the latest lockdown and have decided that I no longer drink but “take” my tea), my husband commented that he had no recollection of me planting those bulbs. “Of course not,” I answered, “I did it way back in October just after we pruned everything else back”.
Planting bulbs is a funny thing to do, isn’t it? Just as the rest of the garden is shedding leaves and retreating for the winter, it’s time to plant bulbs that will sit in the frozen ground for months before pushing their way up to the light almost half a year later. It’s actually an incredible metaphor for hope. We put these vulnerable little plants in the ground as the weather – and sometimes our mood – begins to feel bleak, in the hope that, come spring, they will flourish – daffodils trumpeting triumphant over the dark days; the crocus bursting forth to celebrate renewal and rebirth.
All about the now
Our enjoyment of the long-awaited patches of colour provided by spring flowers is particularly relevant today, in a society where instant gratification has become the norm. I recently ordered a coat stand for our entranceway and was shocked – outraged! – appalled! to discover we would have to wait four whole weeks for delivery. Meanwhile, the foot rest I bought for my desk arrived in just 48 hours. Now, that’s more like it, I thought to myself. But that kind of quick fix, no-sooner-thought-than-bought, make the call – get it done result is so rarely how life works. In my experience, more often than not, the real rewards we reap in our lives come from the tiny seeds we planted months, maybe years ago, in the hope that one day they would bear fruit.
Playing the long game
Online shopping notwithstanding, very few of the actions we implement in our lives are immediately rewarding. Not only do most of them require some degree of patience, but many also depend on repetition and consistency. My choice of a salad over a burger this evening will not register on the scales tomorrow morning. But making that choice consistently, day after day, will result in weight loss over time. The same can be said for the efforts of parenting. Taking the time to foster a love of reading in your child, teach them about different religions, or let them help with household chores (even when it actually slows you down) can often feel like a drop in the ocean and you sometimes wonder how much is really going in. But wait a while, and you’ll see that all those choices have planted seeds that will grow into trees of literacy, tolerance, and a sense of responsibility.
Four years ago I spoke at a conference on self-care and wellbeing. I came home and told my husband, “Well, that was fun, but I don’t know if anything with come of it”. Nothing much did, really, until a month ago when a man I met that day contacted me to start coaching sessions as he finally felt ready to start working towards a more fulfilling life. Now, that’s a real example of playing the long game!
You gotta have faith
I have to admit that I had to – as the French characteristically dramatically put it – me faire violence (do violence to myself) when I decided to plant those bulbs last autumn. I really had to force myself. It was cold, I was lockdown-weary, and I wasn’t convinced the on-sale bulbs I’d bought looked that healthy and would actually sprout at all. But now, as I sit in the garden surrounded by flaming red tulips and nodding narcissi, I am so pleased I found some motivation that day, even when I felt the result was uncertain. Looking at them reminds me that often in life, we have to take action and just have faith that – maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow (and maybe not even soon or for the rest of our lives) – but that at some point what we do will pay off. Because the explanation for a successful, fulfilling life is the same as for a colourful, flower-filled garden: it’s blooming because I planted the seeds necessary to make it that way.`
If you’re looking to re-landscape your life, plant the seeds of some life changes, or maybe pull out a few old weeds that are holding you back, coaching can help you target your actions and accelerate change. 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.
I have long been intrigued by French words for which no satisfactory translation can be found in English. For example, profiter: enjoy, make the most of it, take advantage – none of them really conveys the full meaning of the verb for me. Gourmand: someone who likes food and eating – somewhat reductive, n’est-ce pas?
My favourite has to be La Rentrée: The Return. In the UK, we simply refer to “when the schools go back”; in France they make it sound like a long-awaited feature film, probably involving Matt Damon or Brad Pitt, definitely requiring capitalisation. Because here in France it is indeed a big deal. While it originates in the notion of la rentrée des classes – the children returning to school after the summer holidays – la rentrée touches on every part of society simply because that long summer vacation is still a reality for a large proportion of the country.
As someone whose favourite things include learning, the autumn and all things papeterie, embracing the concept of the rentrée is a no-brainer for me. It’s a great excuse to sign up for a class, wear autumnal-coloured scarves, and buy new notebooks. As a coach, I love the rentrée because it is a great time to hit “reset”, take stock, and embark upon new ventures.
A new beginning
Traditionally, we make resolutions in January – in the middle of winter when the days are short and we’re exhausted from the Christmas madness. Choosing to make September the start of your personal development year makes sense: we are usually rested after some kind of break (even if it’s just a calmer period at work), and we’ve been eating more fruit and vegetables over the summer and getting more fresh air and sunshine, so we’re physically on better form. There’s a natural energy to the start of the new school year, even for those who don’t have children, and a number of fun holidays throughout the autumn help keep spirits up as the nights grow longer, all of which makes it more likely we’ll stick to our decisions.
So, as you sharpen pencils, shine shoes, shop for cartables and sew name tags into vests, why not take a moment to think about what you want out of the coming “year”? Here are four ways to step into the rentrée consciously, putting your best foot forward.
Set an intention
Setting an intention for the coming year is a great way to have a blanket impact on your life. Take a moment to visualise a day in your life as the school year starts: picture school, work, childcare, hobbies, sports, family time, friends, home projects… Now ask yourself what feeling you wish to create as you move through that day. Don’t think about what you want to do, but about how you want to be, what you want to feel. It could be a word (light, spontaneous, peace, enjoy, curious) or an image (I want to be like the tree in the wind that bends so that it never breaks). You could use a smell, a song or a taste – so long as you can summon it to mind (or nose, or ear, or mouth), it will be a useful tool to being you back to your intention whenever you need to re-focus.
Set a goal
In contrast to an intention, setting a goal is usually something you want to do. We set objectives all the time, but often forget Doran’s famous SMART rules of goalsetting, so crucial to success.
S: keep the goal Specific. “I will lose 4 kilos” is better than “I’ll get my weight down a bit”.
M: make sure it’s Measurable. “I will work on two pages of my French grammar book every Monday” is better than “I’ll do a bit every evening”.
A: the job should be Assignable. Very useful if you’re doing family goals: a chart of who will tackle which bit of the garden is better than a vague “We’ll all pitch in”.
R: it needs to be Realistic. I know I can’t jog every morning, but I could manage once a week. Better a less ambitious goal that you actually achieve than a wildly over-estimated one you abandon after a week.
T: goals should be Time-related. Say when you’ll see results. I like to use Christmas as a deadline when setting goals in September as there’s a natural cycle to it and it means I can then set my next objectives in January with Easter/spring as my deadline.
Set a rule
A friend of mine has a plaque in her kitchen that reads “Thou shalt not whine”. It’s like her rule of thumb for life. In any situation, when unsure of her behaviour, words, or reactions, she can check in with herself and ask “Am I being whiney in any way here?”, and if she is, she knows she’s breaking her own rule. Setting a rule for yourself (for life, for this month, for just today) is a slightly bossier way of setting an intention. It gives you a touchstone when struggling to be your best self. This strategy really speaks to most clients. Great examples I’ve seen work include: “don’t be that guy”; “always delay any purchase by 24 hours”; “say yes to all new experiences” and “pull your weight”.
Set a mantra
A personal mantra can be anything from a quotation, to a piece of poetry, scripture, a song lyric or simply some wise words from a trusted friend. Its purpose is to re-centre you on what’s important on the day when work has never been busier, the childminder’s sick, your partner’s away on business, two out of three children have the dreaded gastro, and you get that sinking feeling in your stomach that says you will soon have it too. This too shall pass. The only way out is through. It doesn’t have to be pretty or even deep, but it has to be something that chimes with you.
If you’re reading Message magazine, the chances are that you, like me, are a courageous ex-pat bringing up children in a foreign land, maybe with a foreign partner, almost certainly negotiating a foreign language, so I offer you one of my own favourite mantras. It comes at the end of the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken” and always perks me up when I’m questioning my choices:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Originally published in Message Paris magazine.