This summer, one of my dearest friends (let’s call her Jennifer) fulfilled her dream of moving from Paris to Annecy, where she can ski to her heart’s content for almost half the year. Ex-pats get used to having friends come and go – it is part of the job description. I have many overseas friends with whom I am just as close now as when they were in Paris. With others, contact is patchier but pleasing, and with some, we have mutually accepted that our friendship was specific to a certain time. Jennifer is in another category altogether, though. She’s one of those friends who makes you feel like you’re truly travelling through life together. She calls so I can sympathise the first time her optometrist suggests bifocals. I ring her to share something hilarious my four-year-old said at supper. She’s spent Christmases with my family. My kids call her Auntie. Yes, she’s that friend. So, while I still have other great friends here and I know we’ll still speak frequently, her departure is a real loss.
Shortly after Jennifer left, I went on holiday with my family, so it’s actually only now that I’m really feeling her absence. We’ll be moving into the autumn soon and, as I anticipate the leaves falling from the trees, I can’t help but feel the last decade has been somewhat autumnal in tone in general. It has been a time when several ex-pat friends have returned to their native lands, native pals have married and moved to other bits of France, and still others have had babies and retreated into a little family bubble for the cocooning years. That this exodus coincided with me leaving a salaried job to set up my own business, moving to the suburbs, and having two children myself only exacerbated my “end of an era” feeling. Hence why I have been heard to compare my situation with that of a tree in autumn, losing its trusty, long-loved blanket of foliage to reveal slightly sad and wintry boughs.
It sounds slightly morose, I know, but in truth I rather love the autumn, and I also love the metaphor it offers for perpetual change and the hope of renewal. Because the reason trees lose their leaves is so that they can concentrate their stores of energy to survive the cold months and burst forth in springtime, greener and stronger than ever. Nature cannot create newness before first stripping back what was. And so it is with our human experience. When we go through major change, between the life we used to lead and the building of a new life, there must be a void. Just as between autumn and spring, there must be winter. When one chapter of life ends, there must be a time of emptiness before we can write a new chapter, allowing new connections, hobbies, traditions, friends, projects and job opportunities to emerge.
And they will emerge. Nature abhors a vacuum, as they say. I – indeed, we all – know that deep down, but it’s slightly cold comfort when it’s the bleak midwinter and there’s not a snowdrop in sight. So what does help? Well, transition rituals are definitely a good idea. Taking the time to say goodbye is healthy. Despite the fact that Jennifer and I will still talk several times a week, I gave her a leaving gift and we had a “last” fun Parisian night out to mark the change. I think it also helps to realise that external and internal change don’t necessarily happen at the same time. In his 1980 book Transitions, William Bridges explains how the mental and emotional transitions we feel when we experience major external change – whether good or bad – can happen weeks, months or years after the fact. The knowledge that feelings of loss and bewilderment (for a job we left, a house we sold, a friend who moved away, a lifestyle that ended) can hit much later, when we think we’ve moved on, will not lessen the sadness but will make us better prepared to welcome our feelings and take care of ourselves.
In the workplace, acknowledging that even happy transitions can be challenging is crucial. That might mean providing better support for staff who are promoted or who change jobs. It is important to mark the transition (celebrate a promotion, properly announce a shift in job remit) and ensure there is a clear moment when they change role. So often, internal position changes come with an inevitable period during which the employee manages both old and new role at the same time. The more companies can create a clear demarcation, the easier it is for people to say goodbye, close a chapter, and embrace a new one.
What to do in winter?
I also think that simply accepting the void before the rebirth – making peace with that limbo land between the end of an era and the beginning of a new one – can save us pain an energy. This is counter-intuitive for me, as I’m someone who wants to roll up her sleeves and “fix” things, but it’s a waste of energy. Some feelings just have to be felt and waited out – like when your husband convinces you to try Space Mountain despite the fact that you hate rollercoasters and you realise after a few seconds that a) it’s just as horrific as you had imagined, and b) you cannot get off and this must be what people mean when they say, “the only way out is through”. Sometimes, you just have to ride the rollercoaster, all the while staying curious about your experience, emotions and processes.
If you are a manager, supporting your team during a rocky period at work, for example during a restructure, can feel disempowering. You may not have any power over seismic changes taking place in the company, but you can help your staff by acknowledging that times are tough and encouraging open discussion of both what’s going on and how they are feeling during team meetings. You might begin by admitting that you are not enjoying the rollercoaster much yourself. You may not be able to fix the problem but you can make sure your team feels seen and heard to help them feel less alone during a professional winter of discontent, perhaps.
Celebrating the spring
When you’re waiting for the spring – whether you’re prospecting for a new business and hoping for your first client, keeping an eye out for social opportunities after moving to a new town, or biding your time until a new normal emerges after the arrival of a baby – I have found the key is to find ease. Metaphors about not being a salmon swimming against the current, and Buddhism-inspired notions of non-attachment to specific outcomes immediately spring to mind.
When one chapter of your life ends, it is easy to start viewing it through rose-tinted glasses but, while memories are precious, it’s important not to forget that the new chapter about to be written will bring its own joy. I’m still talking to Jennifer (and many of my other far-flung friends) regularly, and I’m already planning a trip to see her the weekend of Annecy’s annual apple and honey festival (It’s straight out of Gilmore Girls, right? Talk about a silver lining to her move!). But I’m also staying open to the new connections I have begun making – through suburban life, the children’s school, my growing business. Because the old adage is right – change really is the only constant. And the more you can behave like that tree – allowing its leaves to fall, safe in the knowledge that it has enough inner resources to wait out the winter and sure that the spring will bring new life – the more gracefully, easefully, and happily you will face the ever-changing seasons of your life.
Are you struggling with a tough transition? Do you want to make life changes but fear the unknown? You needn’t go through it alone. Working with an understanding, supportive and experienced coach can help you embrace change as you take one step at a time towards a life and career built with purpose and on purpose. Contact me to find out how we can work together.
5 books in the personal development genre to feed your mind and soul this summer
Four Thousand Weeks
Oliver Burkeman is my find of the year. I gobbled up his latest offering, Four Thousand Weeks – Time Management for Mortals, then proceeded to read through his entire oeuvre. The title refers to the fact that the average human lives for 4,000 weeks and that no matter what we do to lengthen it, pack more in, and be more efficient, in the end we get the time we get.
This book is the antidote to time management, productivity and organisation advice, seeking rather to realign our relationship with time. Interestingly, Burkeman spent years writing “This Column will Change Your Life” for The Guardian, testing all the concepts he is now rather debunking. He has a chatty and often humorous style that makes it an easy read while imparting great wisdom that – I found – changed my relationship to my to-do list instantly.
Social worker and shame researcher Brené Brown is the personal development expert to read or watch at the moment. She is everywhere, with TED Talks, a one-off show on Netflix, and a recent new book release. While I haven’t read her latest yet, this year I did read her classic Daring Greatly, which explores how the courage to be vulnerable can transform our lives. The title is inspired by a speech made by Theodore Roosevelt in which he said:
“It is not the critic who counts ; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles… The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
While the quotation alone is worth reading in full, the book is full of the warmth and wisdom for which Brené is known and loved.
The Paradox of Choice – Why More Is Less
Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice was first published in 2004, but I only heard of it this year. It’s a brilliant exploration of the ways in which having too many options, possibilities and choices can create anxiety, stress, disappointment and – in some cases – depression.
While it takes the example of shopping as its jumping off point, Schwartz extends his argument to examine the entire gamut of decisions we make every day – from internet provider to romantic partner and career. But luckily, he doesn’t stop there, the book ends with a whole chapter on how to counter the negative effects of having too much choice in life with some practical advice that can be applied straight away. Full of examples that bring his arguments to life plus a healthy dose of humour, this is a thought-provoking page-turner that will definitely get you thinking next time you’re in the supermarket.
Following up on The Little Book of Hygge (also a fun read), Meik Wiking – founder of Copenhagen’s Happiness Research Institute – published Happy Moments: How to Create Experiences You’ll Remember for a Lifetime in 2019. The book delves into research about both what makes us happy and how memory works to offer insights into how to fill our lives with happy moments and also how to commit those moments to our long-term memories. Wiking has an informal, chatty style that makes the book a pleasure to read and belies the thoroughly research-based information he is sharing. I enjoyed the theoretical parts of the book, but got even more out of the very practical tips Wiking offers for making specific moments more memorable and have been able to implement some of his suggestions – to great effect!
My last recommendation is a real heavy-hitter. The Choice is Hungarian Jewish psychologist Dr Edith Eger’s account of her experience of the Holocaust, from the time leading up to her deportation to Auschwitz right through to her return to Germany years later to give a talk at Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s former retreat in Bavaria. The book is part autobiography, part self-analysis, part advice and insight, and it is incredibly powerful. While it obviously contains distressing passages, Eger’s vibrant and unbreakable spirit elevates the writing beyond history or memoir. Its ultimate message is one of hope and healing, with kindness and wisdom in every sentence. Drawing on her work as a psychologist, Eger uses her experience and expertise to offer the reader insights that are applicable to us all about how to endure, develop resilience and choose hope, even at the darkest of times.
What does your to-do list look like today? Is it long, short, detailed, written down, in your head? I generally have two going at any one time – one for personal tasks (on a post-it), the other for work-related items (currently experimenting with Trello). I love lists in general, as I find they give me a sense of order and control. To-do lists, in particular, are helpful when I feel overwhelmed. I find making a structured list of the apparently million things I have to do makes me feel less dispersed, disorganised and fearful of forgetting things.
However, the list also has a dark side. Like with smartphones and social media, it can be very easy to let the tool we have created to help order our life start to order us about. To-do lists, for many people, can become a source of anxiety, guilt, frustration and overwhelm. This is often the case when the list gets too long, or when we get too attached to finishing the list, or when we feel the list is not of our own making but filled with tasks dictated by our friends, family, the boss, society, or indeed our own inner perfectionist.
Keeping the list in its rightful place – a useful tool, not a stick to beat yourself with – can be achieved, however, with a few mental adjustments and some simple re-organisation techniques. Here are some ideas for ensuring the list serves you and not the other way round!
Any re-thinking of your relationship with the to-do list must start with relinquishing the idea that the to-do list will ever be empty. One of my personal gurus, Richard Carlson, reminds readers in his bestselling Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, “that when you die, your “in basket” won’t be empty” and that this is, in fact, a good thing. Having stuff on your to-do list means you’re alive and active, that you have projects on the go, that people rely on you. Once you accept that the to-do list will never be blank, you can release the idea of having a perfect day when you finally get it all done and clear the decks. That is simply not possible, nor is it what life should be about.
Once you’ve got your head round that, there are numerous ways to restructure or reorganise your to-do list to make it feel more manageable.
Turn your to-do list into a plan
There is an old saying that coaches love which states that a goal without a plan is just a wish. The same idea can work for The List. The idea is that, wherever possible, instead of adding items to your to-do list, you open your diary and schedule in a slot for doing the task. So, for example, if you have to prepare a PowerPoint for a meeting in two weeks’ time, don’t just write it on the list. Instead, block three hour-long slots in your Outlook planner. You can now mentally take it off the to-do list as the task has been allotted time and scheduled. I do this with a page-a-day diary that serves as my to-do list notebook (yes, I’m completely analogue with these things). This avoids me having one massive to-do list that I have to prioritise every day and gives me short, daily lists so each morning I just look at what I’ve planned for myself and get on with it. When I don’t get everything done, I simply move remaining tasks to another list, depending on when I have time in my schedule. Not every task on the to-do list can be planned in this way, but by working like this for as many as I can, I find that my floating “get that done at some point” list stays very short. Some days – whisper it – I even eliminate it altogether!
Change the title
When I was interviewing for university, a literature fellow had me analyse a poem then asked the slightly sadistic question, “How would this poem be different if it were called Ten Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead?” Given that it was a love poem about Anne Boleyn by 16th-century writer Thomas Wyatt, even my jaw-achingly nervous 17-year old self was able to recognise and articulate that the title change would make a world of difference to the reader’s expectations of the text and its meaning.
Changing the title of your to-do list can have a similarly huge impact on how you relate to it. What happens when you change “To do” into “Could do”, or “Might do”? How does that alter the way you look at the list? Clients who put this into practice tell me that, even though the importance or necessity of the tasks on the list has not changed, this new title makes them feel lighter and less beholden to the tyranny of the list. The linguistic shift turns obligation into possibility.
This is a particularly powerful tool if you have a “should do” list that you run in parallel to your to-do list. That one’s particularly pernicious. A client taking a sabbatical year to retrain while her wife continues working told me recently, “I feel like I should be making dinner every night”. When she reframed that to “I could now make dinner every night”, what felt like a guilt-provoking obligation became simple one of many options. She also remembered that she actually enjoys making supper, but by “shoulding” on herself about it, she had turned it into a chore. So, another alternative is to re-name your list the “I want to” list, or the “I get to” list. This takes it a step further and turns obligation into a pleasure. This works for me when it comes to particularly tedious tasks. “Book my daughter a dentist appointment” becomes “I want to take care of my daughter’s teeth and am lucky to be able to do so”. “I have to do my tax declaration” becomes “I get to declare taxes for money made doing work I love”. It sounds slightly Pollyanna-ish, perhaps, but much of the time, it truly does help re-frame the list and my relationship to it.
Create more lists
In parallel to the to-do list, it can be helpful to create a couple of extra lists that take the load off. How would it feel to make a “Things I am going to delegate” list? Being able to delegate to your team or even your colleagues is an important skill. There is no glory in doing everything yourself, in fact it can often give staff the feeling you do not trust them, and having an overflowing inbox makes you look disorganised and incompetent. Knowing how and when to delegate crosses items off the to-do list and puts you in a position of overseeing projects and tasks. In your personal life, it is important – especially for women, I find – to let go of control, and with it responsibility, and allow other family members do their bit. Other lists might be “Tasks I need help with”, or “Tasks that will take under five minutes” (once you’ve written that, enjoy taking an hour or two to blast through them all).
In the end, how you deal with your to-do list matters much less than your relationship to it. However you choose to keep, manage and complete the to-do list, just make sure it is serving you – helping you to ensure your life runs according to your wishes – rather than the other way round.
Managing your time and tasks better starts with some deep, inner work around letting go, relinquishing control, and prioritising your real goals and deepest values. Working with a dynamic and experienced coach to rethink how you structure your personal and professional activities can help you find greater purpose and free up time to create a life and career built with purpose and on purpose. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session.
“This above all: to thine own self be true
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
So concludes Polonius’ famous soundbite-filled monologue to his son Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In other words: know yourself and follow your own counsel. This is sage advice indeed but, like many of the character’s platitudes (such as “neither a borrower nor a lender be”), much easier said than done!
The first step towards staying true to yourself – and the one that Polonius spectacularly fails to acknowledge – is, of course, knowing yourself. Self-knowledge takes myriad forms: it’s about knowing where you come from, where you are going, what you want from life, and – crucially – the values by which you choose to live. We all value different things, and we all differ in awareness of the things we cherish and respect. Becoming more aware of our own values is the vital first step towards ensuring we honour those values on a daily basis and thus stay true to ourselves and the things in which we believe.
What are values?
Values – simply put – are the things to which we attach value. The things we would fight for, the things we pursue and celebrate. Examples of commonly held values are friendship, generosity, family, education, citizenship, honesty, self-improvement, perseverance, security. However, these values mean different things to each of us and are often best expressed in word groupings. To one person, the meaning of “citizenship” might be voting / political activism / social justice / seeking change; while another person might think of it as participating in community projects / volunteering / neighbourliness / supporting local facilities. And there’s no right answer. Your value is your value, and it means exactly what you choose it mean. The only person who really needs to know and understand it for it to have power is you.
Because awareness of our values does empower us. Knowing what you stand for can make everyday decisions easier and turn dilemmas into no-brainers. It can also increase your sense of agency in life, since – unlike inherent strengths or talents – values are something you can actively choose to espouse or eschew. It can also help you stick to your guns when your choices are questioned since you are more conscious of the foundations on which you have based your decisions.
Identifying your values
So how do we identify our values? Here’s the stuff that Polonius left out of his little father-son chat. Values can often be teased out of our strongest memories, both positive and negative. So, think of a time in your life when you felt on fire, like you were functioning at 100% and exactly where you needed to be. What are you doing, who is involved, what impact is being made? Alternatively, think of a time when you were angrier than you ever thought possible. Often, anger is a result of a strongly held value being violated in some way. For each memory, consider what’s at stake and what makes it so vivid. What is being cherished or promoted? Maybe you’re thinking of the day you got a big promotion (so perhaps you value hard work, justice or financial security?); or a time when you stood up for a kid getting bullied at school (courage, solidarity, kindness, fairness, decency, dignity?).
How values can work for you in the workplace
When you know and own your values, you gain a solid foundation on which to base your decisions. This is the kind of sense of identity that businesses often seek to create with their mission statement and lists of company core values like “excellence”, “teamwork” and “innovation”. While companies may run the risk of straying towards meaningless buzzwords and empty promises, when used well and applied properly, values offer staff and other stakeholders important guidance about what a company stands for and – wordplay alert! – the kind of value it aims to create.
Values work in much the same way on an individual level. A manager who knows what they value is more likely to be able to identify and attract like-minded team members and will more easily create a sense of team spirit. This is especially helpful when managing multicultural teams within which working methods and communication styles differ significantly. By using coaching exercises that bring staff members together around common values that they explore and develop as a group, creating a kind of team charter, I have supported managers to ease tension and promote collaboration within previously under-performing and “hard-to-handle” teams. And on an individual level – whether you are in an entry-level or C-Suite position – knowing and honouring your values in the workplace can help you set boundaries, handle conflict better, make tough choices, and create healthier relationships with colleagues.
The value of values
Whether you are seeking to be true to thine own self at home, within your family, or amongst colleagues in the workplace, knowing who you are is the unavoidable first step towards owning who you are. By taking some time to identify your values and look at how you honour them, along with how you can reinforce their presence in your life and let them serve you, you offer yourself a significant decision-making tool. You strengthen the foundation of your behaviour in every aspect of your life – as a parent, manager, friend, partner, worker and leader – and, it must follow, as the night the day, that you can indeed more easily stay true to yourself and be false to no man.
Would you like to increase your sense of self, make better choices, and boost your satisfaction, both personally and professionally? Working with a dynamic and experienced coach to explore who you are and what you stand for can help you – and your teams – find greater purpose, determination and drive – for a life and career built with purpose and on purpose. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session.
Do you ever feel like your life consists of simply keeping all the plates spinning? I know I do.
On good days, I look at all the crockery I’ve got under full rotary control and smile smugly. On other days, it can feel like I’m just barely keeping the plates from crashing down like a porcelain house of cards. Like recently, when my son’s teacher emailed one Wednesday evening to inform us she would be off sick until the end of the week. I found myself cancelling three appointments for the next day then looking after my three-year-old while completing writing assignments with unmoveable deadlines by working in a tag-team shift system with my husband, and schlepping my little boy into central Paris when I went for a medical check-up I’d booked months before and was not about to push back.
I was having a moan discussion with my husband about this feeling of chasing my tail when it occurred to me that my feelings of overwhelm were in part due to the metaphor I was using and, as a result, the story I was telling myself about my life. What if I wasn’t spinning plates, in fact? What if my narrative were different?
The stuff of life
The other realisation I came to while whining talking to my husband was that harking back to simpler days when I all I had to manage was school, friends and a few hobbies was pointless. Life is no longer easy; perhaps it never was. So many of us yearn for a simpler life, by which we mean one that is pared down and stripped back to the essential. A million wellbeing magazines and articles tell us that slowing down, doing less and BEING more are the answers to all our ailments. And it’s true that during the recent lockdowns the lack of places to go and people to see was actually something of a relief to many of us. However, while I definitely felt the pressure to DO and SEE and GO ease off under lockdown, I wouldn’t want to live that way all the time. Because isn’t some degree of plate-spinning in fact the very stuff of life? I don’t mean breathless rushing, double-booking and overworked stress, but the juggling we do to ensure the kids get to school, do homework, eat well, see friends and take part in hobbies; to plan holidays, weekends away, day trips and evenings out; to engage with our work fully and carve out fulfilling careers; to see friends, take care of our health and stimulate our minds. While it often feels like all these to-do items are weighing me down, keeping me busy, and causing brain-ache, they are all activities I have chosen for myself at some point. And they are not going away (nor would I want them to), so why bemoan the spinning plates? Why not simply bin them and find a new metaphor?
The story I’m telling myself is…
In her filmed talk “The Call to Courage”, the higher being that is Brené Brown shared how she uses the phrase “The story I’m telling myself is…” to defuse arguments with her husband. She offers it up as a way of expressing one’s own interpretation of behaviour or events that might not be accurate or real but which is “the story I’m telling myself”. It occurs to me that we are constantly telling ourselves stories about our lives. And the literary devices we use – like metaphors and similes, to which I am particularly partial – are not just descriptive but prescriptive. They don’t just express what we feel, they can create it. So, each time I picture myself in a circus ring with a big red nose on frantically spinning plates, my mental image stresses me out. So what if I changed the story I’m telling myself? What if I imagine myself as a strong and sturdy oak tree holding its branches high and supporting its lush foliage with grace and ease? My chest releases and I can breathe a little easier. The tree bends in the storm, but is flexible enough not to be broken. Sometimes it drops a few leaves, but nothing catastrophic occurs, and new ones grow. Occasionally a bird lands on a bough, adding a little extra weight, but the tree knows it’s just temporary and that it can survive. If we push my metaphor to the extreme (and why wouldn’t we?), the tree also knows when it’s able to carry more leaves and when it’s the right moment to shed a few and take a break.
What a difference that image makes! Suddenly the story I’m telling myself is one of capability, strength and stability as opposed to panicking, rushing and flirting with failure. It’s about me making a choice which leaves I allow to grow on my branches, as opposed to dancing to the tune of some sadistic ringmaster. One story empowers and calms me, the other robs me of agency – and sleep. In the end, I still have the same to-do list, and I haven’t used any self-help hacks to boost my productivity, prioritise and prune my relationships, or learn to delegate. I’ve simply changed the story I’m telling myself, throwing all those plates to the ground like I’m in a touristy Green restaurant and choosing a new metaphor that works for my peace of mind, not against it.
So, what would happen if you went all “choose your own adventure” on some of the stories you’re telling yourself? How might changing the way you imagine and describe yourself and your life offer you greater control, strength, flexibility, self-respect, peace, joy and energy? What new story will you choose to tell yourself today?
If some of the stories you’re telling yourself are keeping you stuck or no longer serving you, why not take some time to work out a new narrative with an experienced and empathetic coach who can help you build a life lived with purpose and on purpose. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session.