Establishing Boundaries and Priorities

glenn-carstens-peters-190592By Karen Starns 

Starns is a seasoned global brand and marketing leader who is poised to begin her next chapter. She has held senior positions at Pearson, Amazon and Microsoft and is a friend of Simple Intentions.  

The first time I read Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown was the Spring of 2014. At the time, I wasn’t ready for how it would eventually transform my outlook on priorities and contributions. The premise of being disciplined about where to invest energies and where to step away resonated, but I’d allowed my time to be swallowed up by other people’s needs and agendas for years. As a leader, family member and friend driven by accomplishment, I felt the need to do it all. This modus operandi had become so ingrained and rewarded, the reason for change wasn’t obvious enough. 

Several months later, I took on a new global job that required 50% travel – a good portion of it spent in London. This professional change spurred a complete reset of how I spent my time. The juggling that had been challenging became infeasible and I realized that if my in-person relationships with my husband and kids had to get packed into weekends and every other week, I was going to need a system to support me. Having less time at home was catalytic in helping me take that first critical step toward committing to the things that were most important to me and becoming aware that embracing other people’s expectations and drowning in to-do lists was taking me off track.  

With the premises of Essentialism as underpinning, developing a system that works for me has been a 2 ½ year process of discovery and fine-tuning. While having very little time flexibility, I’ve found more balance and internal peace than ever before by investing in the fewest number of important things. As I prepare for another career transition, I’m delighted to celebrate how full my life is. These are the steps I took: 

I first clarified my “non-negotiables.” This included creating a clear distinction between those things in life that were most important to me and separating those from everything else. My list was intentionally short: family and work. Deep relationships with my husband and kids, coupled with rewarding work that I love is where I make the highest contribution. Energy and time devoted to my non-negotiables come first. 

 I then examined “everything else.” This is a huge bucket and it probably goes without saying that all things in this category are not created equal. I’ve further segmented this into “to-dos,” “opportunities,” and “personal priorities.” 

There are a lot of “to-dos” in life and if we’re not careful, the tasks and errands on our lists can run us ragged and leave little time for anything else. I’m a list maker and have spent years measuring progress via scraps of paper and piles of note cards. Today, I embrace the realization that while there are must-do tasks, crossing things off a list every day does not move me toward my highest contribution. 

There are also “opportunities,” invitations, and possibilities. These are optional. They are not obligations and it important to remind yourself that you have a choice. Not wanting to disappoint someone else is not a good reason to say yes. If they are aligned with your priorities, make them priorities. If they are not, let them go – even if they are good opportunities. While I devote just a couple of sentences toward this topic, it is huge. Greg McKeown has a lot of provocative and useful commentary on this if you struggle with this like I do. 

The third category I created to sort through everything else has provided the most upside for me: “personal priorities.” The label itself has been incredibly empowering and the things I’ve put here have enriched my life. This category and what I’ve done with it has been the difference maker. 

Personal priorities are a mix of the aspirational “someday” things that rarely get attention and some really important things that are easy to let slip. Here’s my current list: 

  1. Side Project (I have some business ideas to cultivate) 
  2. Write (like this article, I want to write/publish more frequently) 
  3. Read (for pleasure, for knowledge, and to escape) 
  4. Board/Advisory Work (I’m on a non-profit board and mentor a woman leader who runs a social enterprise and a non-profit) 
  5. Learn Spanish (my mentee’s organization is based in Mexico and I’m using Duolingo every day to learn Spanish) 
  6. Marathon Training (I’m in the midst of a 20-week program training for the NY Marathon, this is a big mental and time commitment) 
  7. Career Planning (meetings, correspondence, and network engagement) 
  8. Time with Friends (an important thing that I’ve let slip) 

While eight personal priorities may seem like a lot, I am actively working on all of these. I’m using a reminder app that allows me to establish a prompt and track momentum for each priority. For example, I want to do 15 minutes of Duolingo every day and write 3 times a month. 

There are other things that I’m not doing because I have my two non-negotiables and I’ve also declared my eight personal priorities. This is not just ok. It is great! Having this level of clarity has been tremendously freeing. As Greg McKeown says in Essentialism, “Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life. Instead of asking, “What do I have to give up?” they ask, “What do I want to go big on?” 

Being unapologetic about establishing non-negotiables and personal priorities has been a game changer. Now more than ever, I am confident in my ability handle curveballs that come my way and embrace new opportunities in life that are aligned with what’s most essential to me.  

 

 

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Abundance

robert-wiedemann-273670By Lara Gates, Managing Editor, Simple Intentions  

The town where I live has a loud fountain and beautiful landscaping at the freeway exit. There is a prominent sign that says “Life in Abundance” greeting guests and neighbors as they cross the threshold into suburban living. Ever since the sign was erected I’ve been uncomfortable with this term “abundance.” How is life here abundant if there are families who still need the food bank or can’t pay their mortgage this month? Some days the word “abundance” feels presumptuous because even in a country as rich as the U.S., there are still people in need. So many people. In so much need. Shouldn’t we be satisfied with just enough? Is it just me?  

Lately I am coming across this word “abundance” more and more often. And I continue to wrestle with the meaning. The lesson here is not to focus on the lack (of time, of money, of support) but rather to see that there is enough. We need to really notice, welcome and even expect our needs to be abundantly met. It’s a difficult shift for some (read me) who were raised to focus on hard work with an emphasis on hard. When we expect a job to be stressful and difficult, guess what? It is. But the shift in perspective is possible with some practice. 

By flipping my inner dialog to focus first on the positive, and the “haves” over the “have nots” I am noticing the abundance more and more. There is a print that hangs over my desk from Brian Andreas that says “Everything changed the day he figured out there was exactly enough time for the important things in his life.” I bought this almost 20 years ago but I think only recently began to truly believe it. There is enough time. I do have an abundance of support from friends and family. And my team at work will always have my back when I reach out and ask for help.  

Here is a light bulb moment. Having abundance means I can share. I have more than enough to meet the needs of my family. I can use the surplus to seek out ways to help people who are struggling. The collective community has an abundance of what we need. I just need to focus on the “we.” When I come across a client or neighbor with unmet needs, it’s easy to lend an ear, a hand or an idea when I have already recognized my own abundance. We are not meant to simply survive. We are meant to thrive. And when we get to that place of thriving – that place of realizing true abundance – it is incumbent on us to reach out and share. Share the knowledge, share the inspiration, share the wealth and the many opportunities.  

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How to Manage Energy at Work

090717_EnergyCommon themes in the workplace that zap energy from a person or a team.

By Jae Ellard, Founder, Simple Intentions

What gives you energy at work? Odds are strong an answer quickly sprang to mind. Now consider what drains your energy? Likely a feeling came to mind before the root cause of that feeling did. For many people gaining clarity around what drains their energy and how to redirect it can be a tricky. Having worked with thousands of people in over 50 countries teaching the skill of awareness, I’ve noticed five common themes in the workplace that transcend geography, gender and job type when it comes to zapping energy from a person or a team.

Drama. You might be attracted to it or you might create it – either way the purpose is to use it as a distraction to avoid unpleasant issues. As a way of dealing with fear or uncertainty (or procrastinating dealing with it), it’s common for people to invent “stories” to fill in missing details in an attempt to create certainty. It’s ok we’ve all done it. Next time you see it happening, make an attempt to “see the story” and go back to the facts. Ask yourself or the people involved “is this true?” Asking this question can interrupt the downward drama spiral that can kill productivity and morale.

Perfection. This is the belief that there is no room for mistakes. When people feel they are working in an environment where their best is not good enough, it can not only be demoralizing to each individual but impair innovation as people will avoid taking risks if they believe there is no room for mistakes. The way to redirect this energy drain is to know what you know and own it as equally as you know what you DON’T know. Letting go of the idea of perfection and being open to failure is how we learn.

Control. This shows up as a compulsive desire to know everything and control outcomes. (Also known as micro-managing.) When we employ controlling behaviors likely it’s coming from a place of fear – either of the outcome not going our way or fear of being “exposed” as not good enough – both of which can deplete energy by focusing on incomplete or false data (aka drama). The way to get the energy flowing is to allow the natural flow of action to occur, take a step back and reflect when something feels forced. Releasing control doesn’t mean you stop caring, it means being able to see things from many points of view and assuming positive intent from all involved.

Boundarylessness. This use of energy creates a state of confusion in knowing what is and what is not acceptable, comfortable and tolerable. When we don’t know the limits we don’t know where we are in relation to them. Setting and communicating boundaries, individual as well as team, helps redirect energy by creating clarity for all parties involved about what is and what is not expected and allowed.

What’s not working. The habit of focusing on what is wrong, flawed or not working is downright exhausting. More than that, if a person stays in that space too long it can lead to a state called hyper vigilance, which creates feelings of helplessness and deep anxiety. Recognize and celebrate what is working, start each day by reflecting the “wins.” This doesn’t mean avoid or ignore the issues and challenges that need to be addressed, rather start with what’s going well first.

There is no right or wrong way to shift the energy of a person or a team – what matters most is the willingness to see when energy is low and the courage to redirect it.

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Balance in Service

083117_tightropeBy Chelsea Elkins, Peace Corps Volunteer and Friend of Simple Intentions

My time working at Simple Intentions began almost 2 years ago and the bittersweet feeling that comes with a last day of work was just a few weeks ago. The significance of working for a company committed to disrupting workplace patterns of imbalance and burnout was not lost on me – as my own experience with burnout in the nonprofit sector still lingered when I started.

I was fresh out of college when I got my first job in the public health field, working as a Housing Specialist at a HIV/AIDS Center in Los Angeles. There were some issues with the role that are common with a career in non-profits: high workload, lack of resources, understaffing issues, a pay that was not quite comparable to my peers, and the mildly chaotic feeling that comes when an org with positive intentions simply can’t offer the funding and support needed to its employees. Those are all challenges that can be tricky to navigate but, with the right tools, are manageable.

After all, the reason why I took that job was I cared. I cared about the issue and about the population I was serving. I thought because I cared, because I was passionate, I’d be able to jump over any professional hurdles with ease. However, I soon learned that something as positive as passion can also be a driver of imbalance if you don’t set boundaries.

And that was my real issue: boundaries. Boundaries with my co-workers, with my clients, but mostly with myself. I fully admit to having a tumultuous relationship with ‘No’ and I was filled with remorse each time I used the word with a client seeking housing assistance.

“No, there’s nothing available.”

“No, your rental application was denied.”

“No, I’m sorry but I can’t help you.”

Though I wasn’t allowed to work overtime, I clocked in extra mental hours each night preoccupied with my clients sleeping on the streets and wondering who I wouldn’t be able to help the following day. As one might imagine, I began to develop a very unhealthy relationship with work.

I would dread Monday morning almost as soon as I’d step out the door Friday evening. I started to eat lunch anywhere besides the office, seeking temporary refuge at coffee shops or parking garages – until one co-worker pointed out while walking by one day, “Your car is not a lunchroom.” I had become Cady Heron on the first day of school, eating lunch in a bathroom stall.

My lunch habits did evolve and I eventually stopped taking lunch breaks altogether, instead scarfing down food in front of my computer in an attempt to manage my growing caseload. I was constantly anxious, adrenalin and stress hormones flooding – and I lacked the awareness to realize that I was spiraling out of control.

The road bumps that come with working at a non-profit suddenly seemed impossible feats as I had never been taught, never been equipped with the tools to protect myself from burnout. It wasn’t until a client stopped in the middle of yelling at me to ask if I was alright (my eyes had done the unthinkable and were shedding tears against my will), did I realize I had pushed myself too far. I had reached my

limit, a form of emotional exhaustion that years later would be described to me as a brutal climax of “compassion fatigue.” I gave my notice a few weeks later.

I learned a lot from that experience, although it remains one of my most painful failures. That was never the perfect job for me – and part of me knew that going into the role. But if I had some of the perspective I have now, I could have walked away with a better experience and less strain on my mental health. My story is not unique – a continual fight against stress and burnout can often feel like the norm in the nonprofit sector, or in any service oriented role regardless of field or title.

I find myself now with an incredible new challenge in front of me as I prepare to depart as a Peace Corps Volunteer to promote health and HIV Prevention in vulnerable youth in Lesotho. I know I will face many of the same challenges I came up against as a Housing Specialist. One of the differences this time is that I have the awareness to recognize when I start to spiral – and some knowhow to get my balance back before the spinning begins. A peer who works at United Way beautifully compared working in service to walking a tightrope. Below the rope is the knowledge that this work will always be needed. Most problems in our world will not be completely solved in our lifetimes. You can look down on this from two angles. From one angle, this knowledge can overwhelm you, depress you, discourage you. It can be debilitating and infuse a sense of futility in your work. You might be tempted to walk backwards off the tightrope.

But from the other angle? It can empower you. It’s a constant reminder that this work (whatever it is) will always matter – and it will always be important. You are empowered to continue your journey, whatever may come on the other side.

I looked from one side a few years ago and I think I’ll choose to look from the other side during this next chapter. My favorite thing I learned at Simple Intentions is that we always can choose and re-choose whenever we wish.

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Creating Space

083117_CreateSpaceByLeAnn Elkins, Mindful Living Coach at Being is Doing and Friend of Simple Intentions 

We live in a world where a very common response to being asked, “How are things?” is “Oh, good, but I have been so busy!” Our lives are often FILLED from the moment we rise until we put our head on the pillow in the evening. In the business environment, we are rewarded for being busy and in fact, the busier the better as busy equals success (or so goes the story!). Our personal lives are also scheduled to the brim with activities and chores, making “busy” a common denominator in all aspects of life. 

Our busy lives contribute to how many of us often run on adrenalin, using it as the fuel that gets us through the day until the time comes when we actually crave the feeling that adrenalin causes. So, we find more and more ways to constantly get that “fix.” Some get their fix by filling up every moment of their day, while others may use intense cardio-filled exercise to get it, even a cup of coffee can provide the fix many of us feel we need to keep going. Because society respects “busy,” the media encourages “busy,” and the popularity of the “no pain/no gain philosophy,” we have learned to value “busy” ourselves. Many of us are living in a constant state of stress. Yes, adrenalin = stress!  

For some, this may be a new concept. Being constantly busy and filling up all of our time is actually causing our bodies to be flooded with stress hormones and operate in adrenalin mode, which can lead to physical, mental, emotional and spiritual exhaustion.  

The good news is we all have a choice and we can choose to move from this state of adrenalin to a place of “space.” When we create space, we move towards a place where endorphins flood our systems and we experience ease, balance and vibrancy. What does creating space look like? It happens when we find ways to truly be more present as we approach the month, the week, the day and the moment. Creating space, while different for each and every one of us, can be as simple as: 

  • Taking a lunch break as well as mini-breaks throughout the day (close your eyes for a few moments and focus on your breath) 
  • Having a weekend with no or very few plans (and being okay with that) 
  • Eliminating or reducing caffeine 
  • Taking a mindful walk or a restorative yoga class (vs. an intense cardio activity) 
  • Doing nothing and not looking for ways to fill each moment 
  • Introducing rituals that support your well-being – whatever that means to you (baths, meditation, reading/writing, etc.) 
  • Being selective in accepting or hosting social engagements 
  • Slowly easing into sleep through a 30 minute “wind down”  
  • Walking/talking/BEING with family and friends 
  • Creating a no electronics policy at certain times during the day: 
    • Early morning 
    • Meals
    • Evenings after a certain hour 
  • Just slowing down (whatever that means to you) 

As Marianne Williamson mentions in Aging Miraculously, we need to go slower in order to go deeper. In slowing down and creating space we are not doing less – we are actually doing more as we allow ourselves the time and space to think and feel more deeply. 

When we create space, we give ourselves the gift of moving from a life of adrenalin to one of ease. What different choices will you make?

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Motivation

Lara Gates, Managing Editor, Simple Intentions081717_Motivation

I’m the type of girl who has on occasion actually added a job I just completed to my to do list – just to check it off. This is because I’m motivated by accomplishment. I don’t have to get recognition for doing the thing, although sometimes that’s nice. The satisfaction of completing an assignment is extremely gratifying for me. On the flip side, having unfinished items on my plate at work for days or weeks can zap my energy and motivation. Turning a sense of accomplishment into a motivator doesn’t always translate.

Some people are motivated by fear, some by pain (or the aversion to it), some by money. But those motivations don’t always live within our conscious mind. More likely they are background noise, causing us to take action without awareness. I’ve been turning over this idea recently of listening as a motivational tool. It goes like this: I can better motivate my workmates and myself if I first listen to their feedback, their objections and their needs.

This active listening falls into two categories. First, the actual data is valuable. Think like a reporter and fact-gather. Secondly, try to actually hear the words themselves, coupled with body language and tone to really understand what is being communicated. If a committee member says “challenge” or “issue” or “problem” in their report, they’re giving us a peek into their judgment of the situation. Listen to understand and then pause before giving motivation.

I worked with a magazine publisher a few years ago who was extremely gifted at making people feel heard. It was beautiful to watch her conduct an interview because the subject would open up in authentic and surprising ways – making for compelling storytelling. This tool of listening also served her incredibly well when it came to motivating a team of writers and designers. And it gave her a unique talent at selling ad space. By listening to clients and potential clients she was able to deliver exactly what would meet their needs in a way that hardly felt like sales at all. The key to her management style was listening, and it was incredibly motivating to each person in her circle of influence.

The same method can be used when being self-reflective. Listen to the inner dialogue when the “to do” item rises to the top of the heap. Is this a have-to-do or a want-to-do? And am I resisting the work? Am I looking forward to it? And perhaps most importantly, why? By first listening to the inner dialogue, I am able to motivate myself in the most effective way.

Here’s a real-life example. Breaking bad news is always a chore and can easily be bumped lower and lower on the to do list in procrastination. But when I pause and think about why I’m dreading it, I can best prepare to move ahead. Am I avoiding conflict with the receiver? Am I afraid the relationship will be changed or severed? Am I personally disappointed and I need time to process that first before sharing the news? Whatever the answers, by giving my inner voice a beat to process the situation, I can then muster the motivation I need to push ahead.

My favorite motivators are passion and reward. One passionate team member can have a contagious effect on the group — with big results. But if we are not listening to the tone or the word choice, we could miss out on a person’s passion, and consequently miss a key opportunity to motivate.

 

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Quiz: Do You Feel Empowered at Work?

081017_QuizDo you operate from a mindset of empowerment or disempowerment? Take your work pulse with these seven true or false questions. 

By Jae Ellard, Founder, Simple Intentions  

1) True or False: “I have a feeling of clear direction and connectedness to the goings-on around me and understand how my work connects to the mission/purpose of my organization.” 

If you answered True: You are likely on the path to feeling a sense of overall empowerment. 

If you answered False: It might be time to reexamine the mission/purpose of your organization and explore more deeply where you feel connected or disconnected and begin to seek where there are paths for alignment. If you answered False, it doesn’t mean you have to quit your job, rather, pause and be willing to see it with new eyes. 

2) True or False: “I tend to feel as if time, resources, and support are scarce to do what I’m asked to do.” 

If you answered False: You likely feel that you have what you need to reach your desired outcomes. 

If you answered True: See it as an opportunity to be creative and explore out-of-the-box ideas to complete your goals, play with what if scenarios, brainstorm, even daydream—sometimes a small shift in thinking can create a new resource or avenue of support not previously considered. 

3) True or False: “I feel as if I have more to gain professionally through my work than I feel at risk of losing something.” 

If you answered True: You likely understand that taking risks is part of being a professional and have developed the confidence to know that a single meeting or project does not define your career. 

If you answered False: See it as an opportunity to explore what’s working, what’s going well, and what you’ve achieved, so when you do face risk, you are clear of all the past gains as well future ones to come. 

4) True or False: “The people I work with are open and collaborative—they want to share ideas and receive feedback.” 

If you answered True: You’re likely on a team where others feel empowered and where there is an elevated level of psychological safety, a cornerstone of a high functioning team, according to a study conducted at Google. 

If you answered False: See it as an opportunity to explore what your teammates are really thinking and feeling, ask questions, and be curious: conversation is the gateway to building an empowered team. 

5) True or False: “I feel energized and absorbed in what I’m doing and feel the value of achieving what I’m committed to more often than not.”  

If you answered True: You’re likely clear on your purpose and your actions are in solid alignment, and you might also be working for a leader/manager who recognizes your contributions. 

If you answered False: Begin to create awareness around what gives you energy and where you feel your contributions are valued. From there, see where this work is in or out of alignment with your values and goals and with that data, small shifts in behavior may naturally occur. 

6) True or False: “My work life feels like a house of cards—if one card falls, the house will crumble.” 

If you answered True: You likely experiencing a time of disempowerment, it might be time to create awareness around which card is most vulnerable and begin exploring options for support there. 

If you answered False: You’re likely in a time of empowerment. 

7) True or False: “I feel like my team has open, authentic conversations as needed about projects and the goings on of our work culture.” 

If you answered True: You’re likely steeped in a work culture where empowerment is a shared value. 

If you answered False: Perhaps your team is facing change, uncertainly, or the goals are not clear. Despite the turmoil, this period can also present opportunities to discuss what’s working and what’s not, allowing a chance for the team connect to some empowered moments, actions, and projects. 

[Note: This post originally appeared in Mindful Magazine] 

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