Monthly Archives: February 2015

How to get things done when you’re down

Years ago there was a fashion when companies were recruiting, to put candidates through an ‘In-tray exercise’.

The basic idea was that you gave your applicant a stack of documents representing the kind of material they might receive in a typical day, then watched how they dealt with them (apparently tipping them all into the wastepaper basket and heading for the pub wasn’t the way to get the job).

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At its heart this process was all about prioritisation, about what to do first, what to do second and what (perhaps) to simply ignore.

I think it’s pretty much accepted that it’s impossible to succeed in one’s working life without being able to juggle tasks and weigh priorities.

But I wonder if we always apply the same sort of sensible thinking to our private lives?

When you face countless demands on your time, do you treat each of them as being of equal importance? Do you simply tackle them in the order in which they arrive on your doorstep?

At the end of the day, will you have ticked off tasks of lesser consequence, while the bigger issues still loom over you?

Figuring out what’s important to you can make a lot of sense in such circumstances.

In my own case, for instance, regular contact with people makes a massive difference to me, but when I’m busy I can end up spending all my time on the task in hand rather than getting in touch with others.

So if your tasks today were contained in an In-tray, which bits would be the really important ones?

And which might you safely ignore?

I love you just the way you are

I just love watching hawks.

The way they glide so effortlessly over great expanses of land. Their super sharp eyes that can spot dinner moving down below, and the focus and speed with which they dive and hunt. So beautiful. So powerful.

As I opened my eyes this morning, the thought entered my mind that in many ways, I’m like a hawk.

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Sometimes I’m very good at stepping back, gliding, and seeing the big picture around me. And sometimes I get into tunnel vision mode and can only see the very focused thing that I’m hunting. I’m so grateful to Jon for pointing this out to me recently, although it wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to hear.

It’s true though. I’ve always learned that you get what you want in life by extreme focus and relentless action until you achieve your goal. And it works too – I’ve done everything I had written down on the bucket list I made for myself in college:

  • Sell a startup, check (twice).
  • Move to California, check.
  • Have a homebirth, check.
  • Run in a marathon in Hawaii, check.
  • Save someone’s life, check (twice).
  • Eat pizza in Naples, check.
  • And so on. (Maybe it’s time for a new bucket list!)

The point is that when I’ve been focusing on these goals, I’ve lost sight a bit of the people around me. I haven’t paid enough attention. It’s something I’m definitely going to be working on now, in a gentle, accepting way. I love being a hawk, and I can learn to be a better hawk too.

I wonder if you’ve ever thought of what animal might represent you? What strengths and weaknesses does your animal have? Sometimes seeing ourselves outside ourselves like this, as an animal, can help us be more loving and understanding of both our gifts and our flaws. 

Now if only hawks were cuddly and soft too, then it would be a perfect match for me.

But whatever your animal is, be it hawk or bear or kitten or frog or mosquito, please remember today that I love you. Just the way you are.

With you always,
Alexandra

What’s the ‘something bigger’ that you’re part of?

The average ant has a tough life. She (most are female) spends her life hard at work with little reward.

The thing is though, the majority of ants live in colonies with millions of others. More often than not they’re part of something bigger. Each has its role to play and although some must necessarily be expendable (hard to avoid those pesky humans and their big old hob-nailed boots) the life of the colony depends on the labours of the many.

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We hob-nailed booted humans may consider ourselves superior to the tiny ant, but there are distinct similarities.

We may sometimes forget, however, that we’re all part of something bigger – the human race – and in fact there’s a great deal to be said for doing what we can to reinforce this sense of belonging.

When your mood is low, it’s easy to isolate yourself, to see yourself as disconnected from just about everything else.

For some, organised religion can form that bigger thing, but it could just as easily be your family, your community, your friends.

Ants don’t need to put much time into remembering what they’re part of, but as a human there’s no harm in doing so from time to time.

So what’s your equivalent of the colony?

Small achievable goals make all the difference on a gloomy day

‘Life,’ sang John Lennon in his 1980 song Beautiful Boy, ‘is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’

I reckon this works on so many levels.

It’s all too easy to forget the importance of today while you focus instead on the ifs and maybes of tomorrow. And of course, when John Lennon was a member of that popular little group The Beatles a decade or so earlier, they’d reminded us that ‘Tomorrow Never Comes’.

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Plans and goals are good. But they’re not so helpful if your mood and energy levels are significantly lower than the expectations you place on yourself.

There could indeed be days when someone wakes up with the aim of changing the world, then goes on to do so by bedtime. But it’s probably not terribly realistic to expect this to happen very often, if at all.

Perhaps when you’re feeling less than fully charged, it’s better to have just one or two tightly defined (and easy to achieve) goals for your day, and when you’ve accomplished them, call it a day.

Hopefully of course, there may be other times when you make huge leaps forward.

But please cut yourself some slack on days when the mood’s running low.

Clearing clutter to lift your mood

This time last week, I was frankly pretty ashamed of the state of my home work-space. However it’s looking very different now, and I’m amazed at how much better this has made me feel.

Let me explain.

I tend to divide my working hours between a desk in the library at Stanford University, where I do most of my writing, and another desk in the garage of our home in Redwood City, where I do the majority of my ‘making’. The Moodnudges come to you from Stanford, and our hand-made WellBee cards are produced in the garage.

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Although it’s fun and inspiring working from a garage (after all it’s where many successful start-ups were born – Hewlett-Packard, Google, and Amazon for instance), even when it doubles as an office, a garage is still a garage. And this means it tends to also get used for garage-like stuff. For example, until last weekend one corner contained a mound of empty cardboard boxes waiting to be thrown out. What’s more, we still hadn’t put away our Christmas decorations.

The generally untidy environment seemed to spread to my desk, a door supported on two IKEA trestles. One good thing about a desk like this is that it’s cheap. Another is that it’s big.

But the desk’s size is also a bad thing as it means, quite honestly, that it just gives you even more space to stack stuff that really shouldn’t be on your work surface.

Now for one reason and another, and as Alex has mentioned, my mood has been bumping along through a low patch in recent weeks. It’s been one of those times when I’ve been getting though what has to be done, but not feeling particularly great about it. Naturally I hope this is not the kind of thing you experience yourself, but if you do (and I suspect you may) you’ll know how it feels.

Quite what made me do it, I’m not sure, but last Saturday I finally decided to do something about the mess in the garage. Although it wasn’t a small or easy task by any means, I kept at it until the space was looking miraculously tidier.

I have to say, it looked so much better, but what I hadn’t really appreciated was the impact it had on my mood. Having a more ordered, less cluttered environment seemed to make my mind feel the same way.

So here’s my suggestion for today. If you’re feeling in need of a boost, why not think about tidying something around you? It could be as ambitious as a whole room, or it might be as simple as clearing the clutter from your purse, briefcase or backpack.

Even de-junking one drawer in the kitchen or the glove compartment in the car can play a part in lifting a gloomy disposition.

So why not give it a try? Perhaps tidying your environment could clear your head too.

The power of adjusting expectations

This is a trick I definitely wish I had learned when I was younger.

It’s such a simple idea, but so powerful in helping life run just a bit more smoothly.

Simply stated, have different expectations for your day depending on what’s happening in and around you.

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Here are a few examples to better illustrate the idea:

1. If you wake up with a migraine, you might not want to push yourself to do all 50 things on your task list and go to all the meetings you had planned. Gently adjusting your expectations here might mean working from home, or even just resting and healing in a dark room until you can fire on all cylinders again.

2. If your best friend (or parent, or spouse, or child) is going through a hard time emotionally, you might need to expect that they’re not going to be as available to be present and supportive for you. This is a time to dial up your self-care activities, like cooking healthy food, moving your body, and finding other ways to connect that feel safe and nourishing. Keep yourself strong and balanced so you can either help them recover, or at least be patient until they’ve come through the storm.

3. If you have pressing deadlines to meet at work, you’ll probably want to communicate that to people who either live with you or are closest to you. Adjusting expectations here could be the difference between maintaining harmonious relationships and finding yourselves on the rocks. I might say something like, “I love you tremendously, and I want you to know that the next [month] at work will be very busy. It might feel like I’m farther away for a while, but I’m always holding you tightly in my heart, and the busy time will pass. Let’s think up some ways we can stay connected during this period, and also some fun things we can look forward to doing together after it’s over.”

Having different sets of expectations like this can make it easier to be just that little bit more understanding, patient, and kind. To ourselves and others.

If we all practiced this, wouldn’t it make the world a more loving and peaceful place? In any kind of weather?

With love as always,
Alexandra

Please don’t lock yourself up

A particularly cruel punishment in prisons was/is to put people in solitary confinement, depriving them of any contact with other prisoners.

Without going into the unpleasant details, it’s pretty evident that an extended period of incarceration under these conditions generally has an extremely derogatory effect on someone’s mental state.

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I know this. So when, on occasion, my mood is low, why on earth do I perform the equivalent of placing myself in solitary confinement? Why do I cut myself off from others? Why do I avoid human contact?

Why do I do this when the very opposite behaviour would almost certainly make me feel better?

I know I’m not alone in doing so, but it’s one of the paradoxes of low mood. Human contact generally helps hugely, but something inside prevents us doing the very thing that might improve matters.

The good (the excellent) thing is, however, that the benefits of human contact can build up like pennies in a piggy bank. Every little helps.

So on a day when you don’t feel much like talking to those closest to you (it’s almost bound to happen) be sure to snatch a few words with the person at the cash register, the woman waiting alongside you to cross the road, the receptionist at the dentist’s, the postman, the man selling newspapers.

Please don’t lock yourself away. You deserve better.

Is your body trying to tell you something?

It’s the squeaky wheel that gets the oil.

I’m sure you’ve come across this maxim dozens of times, often used to suggest that life’s more noticeable problems get fixed first (and sometimes, too, to infer that equally important issues can be ignored if they’re less attention-seeking).

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But let us for one minute consider this idea at face value.

And let’s just imagine that your state of health might be just one or two degrees below par.

Maybe you’re more tired than normal? Perhaps your digestive system is misbehaving? Or you’ve a few extra aches and pains?

Is it possible that you’ve been turning a blind eye to these niggles? Have you simply been hoping they’ll just go away of their own accord?

Easy to slip into, and I know I can sometimes be guilty of this blinkered view.

The point is that when a wheel squeaks it’s generally serving a purpose, crying out for whoever’s in charge to fetch the oil can. Left alone, un-oiled squeaky wheels have a habit of seizing up or even worse dropping off.

Now you really wouldn’t want that to happen to you, would you?

So listen to your body. And be kind to it.

It’s amazing what a little extra rest, sleep, food or water can do to help.

Why is it so easy to dwell on your weaknesses?

Oh dear. Here are seven things I do really badly:

1. I’m hopeless at remembering numbers. I can’t even hold a phone number in my head if it’s written down in front of me, instead needing to tap it into my phone by looking at it one digit at a time.

2. Even if you paid me a million dollars, I couldn’t draw a portrait of you. Although I think I can draw to get my point across, I have zero talent for recording likenesses.

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3. I generally take far too long to finish jobs. I often put more into them than might be justified: I’m a bit of a perfectionist.

4. I put off dealing with important issues – healthcare stuff, for instance – somehow believing they’ll take care of themselves.

5. When I listen to music (and I love listening to music) I rarely take in the lyrics. I’m good at recognising tunes, awful at identifying a song by its words.

6. I’m a down-and-out failure at all sports, with no interest in either taking part or spectating.

7. I nearly always struggle to know if I should use ‘effect’ or ‘affect’.

Actually it would be disturbingly easy for me to write a much longer list than this, but perhaps I should stop there.

The thing is, I’m sure I’m not alone in having weaknesses and flaws. I’m guessing you could probably build a reasonable list of your own.

But although there may be value in appreciating your limitations (I can’t speak Mandarin, for example) isn’t it better by far to focus on your strengths and aptitudes? (People say I’m pretty creative.) If you and I think about it, I’m sure there’s loads of stuff we can’t do, and I’m sure it’s easier to compile lists like this if you’re feeling low than it is when you’re more upbeat.

Doesn’t it seem sensible to accept your weaknesses and limitations? Embrace them a little, even, perhaps. And doesn’t it make even more sense to recognise and celebrate your strengths?

Do this, and who knows what effect it’ll have on your day.

Yep, that’s ‘effect’ and not ‘affect’.

At least I think it is.

Be your own valentine

Valentine’s Day seems to be a very polarizing holiday. Either you’re over the moon in love and want to shout it from the rooftops, or you just want to hide away and feel sorry for yourself because no one cares.

I’ve been in both places before, so I feel you.

But a thought came to me the other day, that could at least diminish the painful part of those inevitable lonely Valentine’s Days that some of us will be having.

Why not be your own valentine?

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This works whether you have a love in your life or not, actually. Treat yourself the way you’d most want to be treated. Get yourself a flower or a chocolate, write yourself a love letter with all the wonderful things you want to hear, maybe treat yourself to a massage or a nice dinner.

It sounds silly, but it can be surprisingly effective! I remember something similar I did during a time when my world was upside down and I was needing a lot of reassurance. I actually started texting myself sweet supportive messages, like “I love you! You’re doing so great, keep going and everything will be ok! 🙂 <3”

And then I would receive the text, and feel the reassurance, and be able to keep going.

So I’ll sign off today with a note from me to you reading this right now: Happy Valentine’s Day, you beautiful heart! I love you, keep going, and remember I’m always here for you.

Love,
Alexandra