Just Say “I don’t”

Karen is at her wit’s end.  She feels worn out, stressed out and fed up.

She can’t say no.
Friends, family and colleagues ask her to help and she always says Yes.

She doesn’t want to disappoint.  She wants to help. Connections are important to her.

Plus, she believes the old saying that if you want something done, give it to a busy person.  So, she tells herself that taking on these extra tasks is actually helping her to get through her own long To Do list.

Karen feels busy, too busy to get to the things that really matter.  Her busyness is diluting the attention she can give to her priorities.

Every time she says Yes to something new, she is saying No to something else.  (It could be that important-but-not-urgent project, sleep, time alone, or spending time with friends and family.)

A solution to this kind of dilemma is to set limits and then employ a strategy to support the resolution.

Last month I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about personal policies and have been sharing about it ever since.  “Personal policies are an established set of simple rules that guide your decisions and action,” said the article written by Jennifer Breheny Wallace.

“I don’t eat dessert,” is a stake in the ground and aligns with losing weight.  A personal policy matters to the individual because it is honoring a personal value.

The article also notes that language makes a difference.  Saying “I can’t” doesn’t have nearly the weight as “I don’t.”

An experiment with a group of young women on a wellness challenge of exercising more and eating better showed a dramatic difference between the strategy of saying, “I don’t” vs. “I can’t.”

While our emphasis so far has been on saying No to lighten the load, a personal policy can also support our intentions to say Yes, and especially when our resolve might be challenged.  For example, “I don’t say No to  . . .”  requests for help from close friends and family.

It’s only the end of January with 90% of the year still to come. If you have already abandoned your 2016 goals or even if you never made any in the first place, it’s not too late to start your year over.

I have created a personal policy for myself – just one. I don’t work on Saturdays.  This is new and, honestly, it’s a little uncomfortable to let go.

Given that this involves letting go of a habitual way of being, it’s not surprising that there may be some discomfort.  I look to the underlying value that led to the personal policy in the first place.

As a solopreneur, it is a slippery slope to just check my email land allow the gravity of my inbox to pull me in.  It leads to working seven days a week and that schedule doesn’t have space for recharging.

I believe really not working one day a week can enhance my sense of well being.  It will make me available for new things.

With the desire for a break and the belief that breaks are actually refreshing and lead to greater productivity, I am looking forward to more movies, matinees, socializing, golf and tennis this year.

My personal policy expressed as “I don’t” is a gracious and empowering way of making my life more enjoyable and a bit simpler.
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From the Water Cooler . . .
I was so mad that I wasn’t getting 
 what I wasn’t asking for.
get the success you deserve.

Trust and Be Free

I have an ongoing fascination with resilience. I see it as a core competency for thriving in today’s world.  

It means being open to new ideas, being flexible and adaptable. It also means being self aware, having a strong sense of self and a purpose.

My mother died on September 2 and was a great example of resilience – she overcame adversity with determination, grace, acceptance.

I am including below an edited version of the eulogy I delivered at her memorial service.

Betty Vilas Hedblom

Eulogy – September 2015

Our mother was resilient.

She didn’t just make it to 97, she was in remarkable shape and mentally with it right up to the end.  She was high-fiving her great grandchild Crawford from her hospital bed – while in hospice care, at home – only a week before she left us.

Thirty years ago she said she wanted to grow old gracefully and it’s fair to say she accomplished that.

She survived and even thrived in the face of a long life – full of both joy and significant adversities.

She had strength, determination, plus a quiet and unwavering sense of purpose.  She was nourished by her relationships and deeply rooted in her spirituality.

She was born in January 1918.  WWI still had 10 months to go.  Like many of her generation, the impact of the Great Depression lasted her whole life.

She remembered the stock market crash and she often recalled how challenging those years were.  She told us how her dog’s water bowl froze overnight in her bedroom.  That people were willing to do anything – anything at all – to earn a buck.

Tree in rock

It was around this time that she first showed her strong sense of caring for people in need. During those Depression years she befriended some people on the street (something she continued to do for decades).

She was secretly bringing them food from home.  This went undetected until she gave away several of her father’s shirts and he noticed his closet was getting thin.

She was frugal her whole life and lived by the motto: Use it up, Wear it out, Make it do.  After she was married, a friend joked, referencing my father, “Betty’s loosening up.  She’s letting Carl take the toll road.”

Her early years weren’t all innocence.  She proudly told me that she smoked cigarettes, and gambled away her allowance to her older cousins. But ultimately, she found redemption – when she was 11!

Growing up, she had a strained relationship with her mother. Taking a resilient tact, she found a substitute and formed a very close relationship with an aunt.

She adored her father, who she thought would have preferred a son.  Being adaptable, she was something of a tomboy and learned to shoot a gun and drive a car by the time she was 12.

Later, as a college student, when her mother wanted her to have a coming out party, she was a rebel, sticking with what she believed in and chose a path of service and social work over being a deb and dilettante.

As the mother of three, she could set her own limits. Before I was born, my father said if I was a boy, he liked the name Mark.  He also was interested in getting a German Shepard.  So, my mother’s response was to get a Black Labrador and name the dog Mark.

Years later, on our drives to Michigan, she insisted that there be no talking – not a word – for the first hour.  And a minute later, sibling fights would start.

When she was on a search committee for a rector and there was a short list of three – two married with children and one never married – she said the best choice would be someone who had been traumatized by teenagers.

After my father died, she had to find a new purpose. This was not retiring, meek widow.

She had a quiet discipline and created good habits.  That included quiet time in the morning and daily afternoon walks – no matter even if it was windy, wet and frigid!

One of the great lessons my mother taught me was that life is essentially about our relationships.  Not material belongings, status or ego.

Instead, she emphasized the comfort and joy of connecting.  She loved to have friends who you can pick up where you left off.  And, she had many friendships that lasted decades.

She proved to be resilient in the wake of the untimely deaths of her father, mother and her daughter (and my sister).

I believe it was her strong spiritual connection that helped carry her through.  She struggled for years with the enervating effects of illness.  The remarkable thing is that she ultimately emerged stronger, healthier and lighter – and this was when she was in her 70s.

Resilience - ball bounceHer poetry was another example of her resilience.  She started writing poetry as an outlet to cope with caring for our father who had a decade-long bout with dementia.

She found writing to be a challenge. Even so, she started writing poetry as a coping mechanism. The writing was cathartic and she discovered her inner poet.

She continued to write and it served as a way for her to communicate and connect with so many people.

She was a rebel and spiritually a radical, too.  She believed it’s all about energy, and Godde was in everybody and every thing.

It wasn’t all earnest.  My wife remembers a hair-raising golf cart ride down our driveway. My mother made the sharp turn at the bottom never once so much as even tapping the brakes.  She liked to go fast – pure joy!

She was ahead of her time in many ways.  I was a teenager in the 70s and when feminists came on the scene, I remember thinking, “What’s the fuss about?”  I thought equality was the way the world already was and should be with my mother as a role model.  She was also naturally inclusive of the LGBT community decades ago.

My mother was a big fan of St Francis and, without overstating it, I think she evolved to become an embodiment of his well known prayer – seeking to understand than to be understood, emphasizing giving over receiving.

She had a calm presence, was open to new ideas, and had a positive attitude.  She connected with warmth and affection. I think she sometimes brought out the best in us.

We are a little better for having spent time with her.



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•   Promise of Possibilities

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The Next Step is . . . Sitting Still

My friend Chris Ogden, who I mentioned in yesterday’s blog post, wrote to share his perspective on meditation.  He also included instructions on how to meditate.  They are simple and elegant at the same time.

I think part of the challenge in getting people to try meditation is that we westerners focus on the ‘goal’ rather than the practice.  The error in most thinking that I’ve encountered is that if one can’t get their mind to be still they can’t meditate.  This I believe is a misunderstanding. 

I believe that the most important part, instant, aspect of meditation is the moment when we realize our mind has strayed from the breath, jumped on the train of thought coming through the station of our consciousness and decided to ride rather than face the boredom of watching the breath. 

So, it isn’t about trying to keep the mind silent or focused on the breath.  It WILL stray.  The value of meditation comes from that moment when we become aware that our mind has strayed and we gently choose to let go of the thinking and go back to watching the breath. 

It is that moment, that decision, experienced over and over, thousands of times that lets us begin to become the master of our thoughts and our minds rather than its servant. 

I think the student whose mind wanders ceaselessly and who makes the choice to return it to the breath, if only for a few breaths, over and over many times during the period of meditation actually gains more than the experienced yogi who can sit with a still mind indefinitely.  

I now give those interested the following simple instruction.  Sit with your back fairly straight in an attentive awake attitude on the floor, on a pillow or on a chair.  Close your eyes.  Focus on the feeling of the air as it passes in and out at the end of your nose. 

You’ll notice cool on the in breath and warm on the out.  Focus your inner vision, your attention on that sensation.  Your mind will do this for only a brief time and then it will stray.  You’ll think about your day, or balancing your check book or whatever.  It is OK. 

When you notice you are no longer focused on the sensation at the end of your nose but instead have been ‘lost in thought’ simply and gently let go of the thought and go back to focusing attention on the sensation of the breath.  The value is in making the choice.

How to Sharpen Your Saw – No Ohms Required

I stop doing it just when I need it the most.

When I’m feeling hurried, pressured, with too many things to do, I let it go.  I’m rushing, having difficulty staying focused, not following through.  Monkey mind takes over — swinging every which way.

It’s then that I skip the practice that supports me, keeps me balanced, helps me focus for better productivity, and generates inner peace.

My friend Chris said to me years ago it was like finding a $100 bill and, despite that perspective, he didn’t do it every day.  Even though he could and there was nothing stopping him.  He is not alone in bypassing a simple and personally fulfilling exercise.

The IT here is meditation.

It can be just a simple period of sitting quietly, focusing on breathing, and allowing the mind to quiet down.

It doesn’t have to be complicated or take a lot of time. I don’t need to go anywhere special, or pay anything.  No “Ohms” required.

When I make time to give myself a good start to the day, I take 10 to 20 minutes in the morning to sit in a comfortable chair, close my eyes and focus on my breathing.  Afterward, I am calmer, clearer, more grounded and my grasp on the day is a little looser.

Meditation is under the umbrella of mindfulness, which has rightly received a great deal of positive press of late – from a TIME cover story to a segment on 60 Minutes.

It’s an ancient practice that has survived through the centuries for good reason.  Physically, it reduces high blood pressure, decreases tension-related pain, improves immune system and increases our energy.  Mentally, it decreases anxiety, improves emotional stability and increases creativity and happiness.

The experience of meditation is both personal to the individuality of the meditator and also evolves over time through the practice itself.

Despite all these glowing recommendations, when I have a full schedule I can feel compelled to jump in and start doing right now (and so skip that day’s meditation). It’s then that I am reminded of Steven Covey’s sharpening the saw story in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

It goes like this:

Suppose you come across a woodsman who is working feverishly to saw down a tree.

He complains, “I’m beat! This hard work!”

“Why don’t you take a break and sharpen your saw?” you ask.

To which he replies, “I don’t have time to sharpen the saw. I’m too busy sawing!

So it goes with taking a few minutes for the benefits of personal quiet time.  The benefits are immediately apparent, consistently positive, and cumulative over time.

While no formal training is necessary, there are a few books that I especially like. The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh and A Gradual Awakening by Stephen Levine.  Another, a classic, is Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zin. Surely, there are many others.

The point is that there is no right way here.  The value for each of us is just being on the path at all.  It is in the seeking that we find.

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From the Water Cooler . . .

What you believe is what you get.

Success can be yours today.

What’s All That Stress About, Anyway?  

In a world where . . .

the toe-tapping demands for your attention are non-stop and getting more insistent . . .just keeping up-to-date sometimes feels like you’re trying to get a drink but it’s from a whooshing fire hose.   In a world like this, survival is the order of the day.

In this world, changes pile up on one another and the pace keeps accelerating.

All this change generates stress.

Measuring the impact of stressful events, the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale is a list of 43 life events of varying magnitude–starting with Death of a Spouse (100 life change units), Divorce (73), and ending with Christmas (12) and a Minor Violation of the Law (11).  Nearly all of them hinge on change.  To get a sense of impact, review the events in your life in the last year; a cumulative score above 300 indicates risk of illness.

So what exactly about change is stressful?

The answer is likely complex, unique to you and situational.  In general, though, I think it is about a loss of control.

Double-clicking on that, stress manifests due to the fears of losing what we have and not getting what we want.  And, the worst fear of all: needing to let go of what we have to be available for something new, not getting it, and ending up with nothing.

 Imagine an iceberg:  the small part above water is the stressors we notice such as when we’re running late, stuck in rush hour traffic and then a truck blares its horn, starting a chain reaction of honking cars, kids fighting in the backseat and spilled coffee.

The much larger part of the iceberg below water is what really gets to us.  That would be the anxiety of the imagined consequences of . . . being late and not getting a critical report finished by tomorrow’s noon deadline; or, failing to persuade in next week’s presentation to senior management at your biggest client.

Drilling down, it’s always about fear.  Sometimes, just fear about fear.

The answer is to start with awareness.  Increasing our awareness of what the triggers are. This means that we can start by recognizing these stressors and be alert to their impact.  Forewarned is forearmed.  It also means we can take pre-emptive steps to cut out some of these stressors.

Accepting that some stress is inevitable, if we take an observant perspective, we can keep some remove from the fears and not get so pulled in.

Next month, we’ll look more in depth at motivations for coping with stress for increased wellness.

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Recent blog posts.

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From the Water Cooler . . .

Every time I say Yes to something new,

 I am saying No to something else.

Success, enlightenment.