Four Rules for a Vacation That Helps Your Business or Career

Now that Fall is really here and summer vacations are over, it’s time to start thinking about your next vacation. Really. You need to take breaks from work in order to do your best. A good vacation will send you back to the office refreshed, energized, and more creative. Go without a decent vacation too long and you actually put your job or business in jeopardy. You can lose your focus, start making obvious mistakes, miss great opportunities, and risk getting into fights with co-workers, your boss, or your clients.

Now, if you are going to go to the trouble and expense to take time off from work, do it right so you get the most benefit from the break. Here is an excerpt from my as yet unpublished book (working title: Living Better Than a Lottery Winner) which sets out four simple rules to actually get the benefits you need out of your vacation. I know, I know, these rules are easy to say but can be hard to do. If you’re thinking that, consider this: if you don’t do what you need to in order to get an adequate break from work, part of you is probably already working against yourself and on track for getting fired or sabotaging your business anyway, just to get the break you need, so you might as well do what I recommend here instead.

Vacation!

THE RULES OF A GOOD VACATION

Rule Number One: Do not spend time with family or friends on your vacation.

I don’t care how close you are to your parents, how much you love your cousins, or what a great time you had with your friends five years ago. Just don’t do it.

I don’t mean you have to leave your husband at home or the kids with their grandparents, although some people do need that much of a break from time to time. I mean don’t go stay with your parents for a week and call it a vacation. Don’t even make plans to stop by your aunt’s and uncle’s house on the Big Island in the middle of your time off. Think of your vacation as time away from all obligations, including familial ones. If you don’t, your break will end up feeling like one more chore and you will end up feeling like an overwound watch at the end of the trip rather than the limp, relaxed dishrag you are aiming for.

When I was in the process of burning myself out therapizing non-stop, I still spent holidays with family. I called them vacations. I lied. I came back from such “vacations” as tense and tired as when I left.

Don’t get me wrong. I have a great family, including my in-laws, and I love them all dearly. It is always important, fun and enriching to spend time with them. But it is not, I repeat NOT, a vacation. When you spend time with your family, or even your friends, you are “on” all the time to a certain extent. You are watching your Ps and Qs, and inevitably missing a P here or a Q there and feeling like a failure for fighting with your father over politics again or for not helping your sister with the dishes or for thinking of ways to avoid explaining why you’re not married yet or . . . . You get the idea. A break is where you get away from most of the expectations on yourself, not where you exchange one set of expectations for another.

So, no family or friends on your vacation.

Rule Number Two: Schedule a two-week vacation.

I know—you can’t possibly take two whole weeks away from work. Your To Do list is just too long, and no one else can do any of the tasks on it right. If you’re gone that long your boss will think you aren’t really committed to the job and your performance reviews will slip. That amount of time will allow your coworkers to snap up all the good, visible projects that could advance your career. I’ve heard all the excuses for not taking a two-week vacation. Now it’s time you heard the reasons you have to have one.

First, at some point I read about some research done somewhere showing that people do not relax for the first week of the vacation. They are still thinking about what they did or didn’t do before they left, and can Roger handle that presentation on his own, and what if I don’t get the numbers from Gigi right away when I get back, and what did my boss really mean when he said not to worry about the project—is he planning to fire me? Apparently, we all need that first week of vacation just to decompress in body and mind. The second week of vacation is where the real regeneration happens.

Second, you need all the regenerating that happens in that second week. Only then can you go back to work with energy, enthusiasm, and new ideas so that you don’t just do your job, you excel at it, get handed the stretch project that gets you noticed, strut your stuff and finally move into the corner office.

Finally, the alternative to taking the time you need is that you continue plodding down the path you are already on. At best, you’ll stay stuck where you are. More likely, you will get more and more tired, make more mistakes, and have less ability to deal diplomatically with boss, coworkers, and clients, not to mention what will happen to your home and social life. If it’s bad enough, you may even unintentionally screw up enough to get yourself fired just to give yourself the rest you need. I’ve seen it happen with more clients than I believed possible.

So plan for two weeks away from work. Then do it.

Rule Number Three: Rule Number Two means you need to take two weeks away from work, and what that means is no contact with work.

I mean it. Leave the laptop, Blackberry, and phones turned off. Better yet, leave them at home. Don’t let the office know what hotel you are staying at. Leave no contact information whatsoever in the wrong hands—by which I mean with anybody at work.

This means you will probably have to do some groundwork at the office before you leave. If in the past it was expected that you would take “working vacations,” it’s time to disabuse coworkers and bosses alike of the notion. A working vacation is not a vacation; it’s just work. You won’t get any of the benefits you really need from your time off. Be gentle, be firm, be strident if you must, but let people know that you will be out of touch from the time you walk out the door pulling out your hair until the time you walk back in with a tan and a smile.

I’ve known people who had so much trouble with this rule that they had to go somewhere where they literally could not be reached. Some options might be staying in yurts while trekking through Nepal, floating down the Amazon by raft, or snowshoeing to the South Pole. If this isn’t in your budget, you will have to learn to be firm and make yourself electronically unavailable to the office. Or drop your cell phone in the lake on your first day out.

Rule Number Four: Go away.

Don’t think that staying home and remodeling the bathroom will give you the R & R you need. It won’t. You’re just exchanging one To Do list for another. This does not give your body and mind the space they need to do the healing you need.

You also will not get the right kind of break if you plan to stay home and not do any of the chores on your list. It sounds good. I’ve tried it before. I told myself “Hey, I’ll just act like a tourist in my own hometown for a couple of weeks. I won’t have to do any planning. I’ll save tons of money. I’ll get to see all the places I keep meaning to get to.” But it didn’t work out that way. I ended up hanging around the house feeling guilty that I wasn’t being more productive. Plus, staying in the same old surroundings kept reminding my brain of the same old daily thoughts, which simply were not that restful or stimulating.

I’m not asking you to spend a lot of money traveling to Thailand or other exotic parts. If the most you can afford is a trip to a friend’s lake cabin in the middle of February when he’s not using it, then do it. If you swear up and down you cannot afford a vacation of any kind, I’ll even take the stay-at-home vacation as long as you promise to go somewhere you’ve never been and do something new each and every day. (It’s better than nothing.) All I’m pointing out is that you need to get away from your everyday routine to get any benefit from your vacation.

By the way, if you only get two weeks vacation per year from your employer, it’s time to do a serious evaluation of your job. Okay, if you are just starting out and you have to wait a year or two before you get more vacation time you’ll probably just have to tough it out. However, if you’ve already been in the same job for seven years and this is all you get and all you will ever get, ask yourself if the job is really filling your soul. It certainly isn’t giving you much time to pursue other interests, so if the job itself doesn’t fulfill you, then look for another one that either does or that gives you enough time for a life outside of it.

This is just my personal opinion here, but I believe staying put simply because your job pays you enough to have a nice comfy retirement isn’t a good excuse for keeping a job that doesn’t give you time for a life now. What kind of life will you have left when you turn sixty-five, anyway? If your job is that wearing it is probably affecting your health, so how much time will you really have left even if you make it to retirement age? In addition, your mood and imagination are getting ground down daily. How long do you think it will take to get them back once you retire?

Nancy Linnerooth

So there you have it. If you want to reap the benefits at work of a good vacation, start planning that mid-winter break trip now. And don’t forget to follow the rules!

Don’t Wait Until You’re Perfectly Ready—Leap Before You Look!

Last week I described why demanding perfection from yourself can sabotage your work or business. You can waste enormous amounts of time and energy feeling bad that you don’t do your job exactly the way you think you should, or perform better than everybody else, or get more done. You may put off taking action—speaking up at a meeting, taking on a new project at work, or telling others about your business—and so miss out on opportunities that could come your way. So while working to improve your skills is an important part of growth and development, perfectionism is a major block to anyone hoping to advance in their career or grow their business.

If you recognize yourself as a perfectionist who is blocking your own success, then the technique I detailed last week of changing your internal message from “I’m not good enough” to “I am good enough” is a valuable approach to changing your perfectionist mindset. By all means, use it. But don’t stop there. To get even more powerful results, and get them quicker, try the opposite extreme for while. Start taking immediate action. Do things before you feel completely ready to act, before your plan is perfectly formed.

Leap First, Ask Questions Later

In bungee jumping, it's all about taking the leapWhen you see an opportunity, step up and take it. If your boss says she needs someone to take on a new project, open your mouth and say “I’ll do it” before you have time to think of all the reasons you’re not the best qualified. If someone at the next table at lunch is talking about having a problem that your business handles, lean over, apologize for interrupting, and hand them your card instead of thinking of the other people out there who must know more than you do. Go ask your boss for something new to work on. In other words, leap before you look.

For the next month, try this as an experiment. Do not analyze all the pros and cons of doing things before doing them. You’ve already been doing that and it hasn’t worked for you —you fell into the perfectionist trap. So it’s time to try a new approach. Instead, act first then figure out how to do the best you reasonably can with the opportunity you now have.

If you are a true perfectionist, you are probably going into conniptions right about now, thinking “I can’t do that, what if I get it wrong? What if I don’t do it as well as the other guy? I’m just not ready. There’s not enough time.” Do it anyway. It is a fast way to get out of your old rut. The more you do it, the more successes you will have and the more you will realize that your old way of thinking (that you aren’t good enough at what you do and need to do everything better to be valuable) is wrong.

How to Leap First, In Two Easy Steps

If you follow a couple of steps, it will be easier to do this experiment.

First, talk and think about your goals for everything you do in a different way. Whatever your project is, whether it is fixing a process in your department that is too slow, editing an internal manual, or training your client’s employees in the use of new software, your job is to improve the situation and make it better than it was—not to make everything perfect. Remind yourself of this at every chance you get. When you realize that your goal is to improve things for your company or your client, then you will realize that every improvement you make gives value. In this way, every improvement you make is a success. Remember, perfection isn’t achievable. Improvement is.

Second, plan from the start to make changes to your project, whatever it is, as you go along. This is actually a deliberate approach taken by many companies because it often gets them better results than waiting to start work on a project until it is all planned out. That way they, and you, can make changes as they go along to meet the needs that become apparent only after they’ve been working on it for a time.

Case in Point: How Cal Built Momentum

For example, take a client of mine who realized he should be out networking for a new job but was having trouble getting moving. “Cal” had all sorts of excuses. He hadn’t updated his old resume. He needed to optimize it for the type of job he wanted to get. He needed to create a plan for who to contact in what order to get the type of job he wanted to get. Heck, he needed to figure out what kind of job he wanted to get! Every way he looked, he saw ways he could do it wrong, and that had him stymied.

To cut the Gordian Knot, he emailed an acquaintance, asking for coffee and the opportunity to talk about what kinds of jobs were out there. No, he hadn’t perfected his resume, his plan of attack or even his goal. But he was moving, and things started to fall into place. The acquaintance had heard of a couple of jobs that might do. They didn’t, but they got Cal thinking of some other places to look for job postings. Another friend offered to make suggestions for his resume and came up with changes that were far better than Cal would have made on his own. Soon he was clarifying what he wanted in his next job as well as getting a better idea of what was available. He was also sending out better and better resumes. None of these things would have happened if he waited until he had everything perfectly ready to go.

Your Assignment: Do This for 30 Days

If you are a perfectionist, here is your assignment. For the next month, whenever you get that familiar, uncomfortable feeling that you’re not ready, or not good enough, to take on a project, whether big or small, step forward and do it. (Okay, start with just a small project first if you need to, but as soon as it is complete do another.) Next, set a limited goal only to improve the situation you are working on, whatever it is, not to make it perfect. Finally, get started on it, knowing that you can and will adjust what you are doing as new information comes in.

(By the way, if you know that this is what you need to do to get out of your own perfectionist trap but you just can’t bring yourself to start the experiment, a coach might be able to help you dismantle the trap so you can move forward.)

Some part of all perfectionists knows that they can do more than they are allowing themselves to do. If that’s you, try this experiment and see how quickly you can strengthen that part of you and really start succeeding the way you know you can.

Make Fewer Choices, Get More Results

I love helping clients uncover and get rid of those internal blocks to their success that go very deep. It isn’t always easy, but it can be pure joy to start with, say, what they have been doing to sabotage themselves, follow it back all the way to its source and get rid of it. However, not all blocks are complicated issues that need serious detective work with a coach to untangle. Some blocks to doing what we need to in our career or business are simply “reflex reactions” built into all of us that can be avoided with some easy techniques—when you know the techniques.

In the past two weeks I’ve described two ways to get around those kinds of blocks, first, by making it a little bit harder to procrastinate and second, by making it that much easier to start the activity you want to be doing. Today’s tip is another way to get yourself going on something that you just haven’t been getting around to in spite of all your good intentions. (All three of these techniques and the research behind them are explained in detail in The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. I highly recommend reading or listening to it on your commute.)

The Labyrinth

Making choices can be exhausting

Science tells us that making choices lowers our physical stamina, our persistence, and our overall focus, and it lowers them a lot. (Each choice also lowers our ability to do math problems, if that is relevant to you). Each choice doesn’t have to be complicated or have enormous consequences resting on it to have those effects, either. As Shawn Achor puts it, it can be as simple as “chocolate or vanilla.” When we’ve used up our “choice energy,” we start making the easiest choices that take the least amount of effort, whether or not they lead to the results we want. Then it just takes time and rest to replenish our choice energy.

I recently read about a study that showed this choice energy being used up. The study looked at the parole system in an Israeli prison and found that the earlier in the day a prisoner’s parole hearing came up, the more likely he was to get released. The researchers concluded that because it was easier and safer for the members of the parole board to deny parole than to grant it, they were more likely to make the hard choice—to grant parole—early in the day before they had made many choices, and more likely to make the easy choice—denying parole—later on after they had already made a number of choices. The only exception was for the hearings that happened right after the board’s lunch, when there was an increase in paroles granted. Apparently eating can replenish your “choice reserves” somewhat, too.

Just this week a client gave me another example of what happens when you use up your choice energy. A few years ago she took a standardized test to get into professional school and didn’t do very well. The test takes over five hours to complete, with five multiple choice sections. The questions are tricky, designed to weed out those who don’t think the way that is required in school. By the time my client got to the fifth section, she was exhausted. She couldn’t keep her focus on the questions long enough to reason them through, so she just started filling in the bubbles randomly. Her stamina, focus and persistence were gone because of all the choices she had already made in the previous sections.

Granted, one of the reasons she got to this exhausted stage was a deep-seated fear of taking tests, which dragged her down and made the first four sections of the test that much harder for her than for others taking it. But even after we finish rooting out her test anxiety, when she re-takes the exam she will still have to contend with using up her choice energy. So we’ve made a plan. To make sure she has as much “choice energy” as possible going into the test, which is on a Saturday, she is going to limit the choices that she has to make for at least twenty-four hours prior to that. She’ll do things like lay out her clothes for Friday and Saturday on Thursday night. She has already picked out what she will order at lunch with her co-workers on Friday. She will ask her partner to choose Friday’s dinner without her input. He will drive her to the test site. Any choice she can make before that twenty-four hours, or give to someone else, she will.

Save choice energy by getting rid of choices—prepare in advance and make rules

You can use a similar strategy for any project that you haven’t been able to get going on. Let’s say you’ve been meaning to make some cold calls but never get around to actually doing them. Instead of just saying to yourself, “I’m going to make some calls tomorrow, without fail” and relying on your willpower to make it happen, make all the decisions you can the night before. Write them down and leave the plan on your desk. How many calls will you make? When will you make the first call? Who will you call, and in what order? Don’t leave anything to decide on the day you make the calls that you could decide the night before. Then, when you arrive in your office the next day, there is your plan sitting right in front of you. The decisions are already made. You just have to implement them.

Another way to get around draining your choice energy—and therefore your stamina, focus and persistence—is to make rules for yourself. When you’ve made a rule, you’ve already made your choice in advance so you aren’t drawing on your choice energy when it is time to act.

Example: Jessie’s big slump at work

A good illustration of these techniques was the situation faced by my client, “Jessie,” who wanted to get more productive at work. She liked her job and her boss, but she found she was doing less and less each day, coasting on her reputation from past successes. She knew she couldn’t keep going this way much longer.

Jessie recognized that a big obstacle to her getting anything done these days was her conversations with her co-workers over coffee when she first got to work. They had turned into b- . . . er, kvetch sessions about all that was wrong with the co-workers’ managers and their jobs. By the time she got to her desk, she was unmotivated and looking for the easiest thing she could do to make it seem like she was working. The problem was compounded at lunchtime when she would join these same friends for another complaint-filled conversation that would sap her energy for the afternoon. Making herself choose anything challenging from her To Do list under those circumstances was just too much.

The answer Jessie and I came up with was to implement three rules. The first was not to have coffee with her co-workers until after 10:30 am. That way, she had at least two hours to get some work done at the beginning of the day. The second was to do first the one thing on her To Do list that she least wanted to do that day. (Of course, she picked that item out the night before.) The third rule was to turn the conversation to something more positive whenever a co-worker started in on a complaint, like what they could do next to find a better job, or where each was going to go on vacation. (Again, she picked out what the topic would be the night before.)

Two weeks after she implemented these three rules, the change was dramatic. Jessie reported that she was getting a lot more done throughout her workday, not just those first couple of hours. She had already finished two of the projects she had been dreading and avoiding. And her co-workers were also enjoying the change in their conversations. Apparently they were tired of the never-ending complaints, too.

Pick out a project and try it!

You can use this technique on anything you have been avoiding. The day before you plan to work on it, write out your plan—what you are going to work on, when, in what order, anything that you will have to decide. Put your plan front and center on your desk so that the next day you can just do it. If your problem is long-standing, or, like Jessie’s, it seems to cover a lot of activities, then come up with a rule today that you can follow tomorrow, and the next day and the next. That way the decision is already made and you won’t have to whittle away at your stamina, focus and persistence by making choices each day before starting on your project or projects.

Next week, I’ll put this technique together with the two previous techniques to show you how to implement a new, more productive habit. Until then, enjoy the extra stamina, focus and persistence you’ve recovered!

Relax Your Body To Access Your Brain Under Stress: 3 Techniques

In last week’s tip I explained how we go into a fight or flight reaction when we perceive a threat and our brains’ higher functioning begins to shut down, whether that threat is an attacking grizzly bear, an angry boss, or even the economic news. The longer we perceive the threat, the less of our brain we can access.

Last week I focused on the importance of limiting your intake of media, especially the news, to lower the amount of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline in your body throughout the day. The more we hear about dangers from accidents, war, crimes and even financial distress, even when these things happen to complete strangers in another part of the world, the more our body pumps out those stress hormones. For that reason, just cutting back on your consumption of the news can drop the level of those hormones in your body, allowing you better access to the parts of your brain responsible for decision-making, creativity, language, and other areas critical for success in business (not to mention life).

But even when you’ve limited the amount of media in your life, you will still find yourself in situations in which you are facing a perceived threat. Let’s say your biggest client calls you up and tells you they are going to pull their account. This is a big threat, but not one that your flight or fight response can help you with. Indeed, that response will actually prevent you from reacting to the client’s threat in the best way you could. The stress hormones that start coursing through your body will block access to the very parts of your brain you most need in the moment—like critical thinking, impulse control, problem solving, maintaining relationships, and simply being able to find the right words!

Relaxing Your Body Stops the Flow of Stress Hormones

Relaxing the body, relaxing the mind
This post isn’t actually about yoga or anything like that, but the fellow in this photo is doing a fantastic job of relaxing, don’t you think?

It turns out that the way to get access to your brain in situations like this is really quite simple: you just need to relax your body. Once your body relaxes, your brain Continue reading “Relax Your Body To Access Your Brain Under Stress: 3 Techniques”

Too Much News Makes You Stupid: Turn It Off!

Last week I went to a two-day training for therapists (I’m both a therapist and a coach) about how to treat trauma and PTSD. I was pleased to discover some useful information that also works for people who are not dealing with major trauma in their lives. Today’s tip is the first of two important take-aways for my readers from that training.

Perceiving a Threat Ramps Up Your Body and Shuts Down Your Brain

Too much news
Thanks to the news media, we now share everyone’s worst threats—and we carry a heavy load of threat response baggage as a consequence

When you perceive a threat, even a threat of the non-lethal type like those you might experience at the office, your body releases a number of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that prepare you to either fight or flee. Physically, your heart and breathing rates go up, your muscles tense up, and you get a lot of energy. This means you can potentially do big things, like the story of the mother who lifts a car off her child. But you can’t do them for very long as you quickly Continue reading “Too Much News Makes You Stupid: Turn It Off!”

The Best Way to Prepare for a High-Pressure Event

One of my clients, “Angie,” is making an important presentation this week. It’s high profile, and she would like to impress a number of higher-ups in her company who are attending. This is a great opportunity, and it comes with a lot of stress. Now I know Angie. She will come through this experience with flying colors, presenting her information in a clear way, fielding all the questions with ease, displaying her knowledge and ability beautifully. She thrives in high-stakes situations.

Compare her experience with that of another client I spoke to this week. “Barbara” told me about a high-pressure opportunity she had two years ago to show what she could do. She took the LSAT, the test would-be lawyers take before applying to law schools. She’s smart, motivated and really will be a good lawyer in time. But when she took that test she was too stressed to demonstrate any of that well, and her score showed it.

Do you stress-out preparing for important events? Don’t. Do the opposite.

What do you do right before an important “performance?”

Do you pore over all your notes just before stepping up to the podium? In the car on the way to the sales presentation do you rehash all the possible objections your potential customer may have and how you can respond to them? Do you reread the interviewer’s LinkedIn bio for the twentieth time while waiting for the receptionist to take your name? If so, you may be shooting yourself in the foot.

If you want to do your best in a high-stakes situation, the worst thing you can do is get yourself stressed. Don’t get me wrong, you have to do your prep work. Practice your powerpoint presentation. Learn the answers to customers’ objections. Research the company you are interviewing with. But do those things before the day of the event. When you cram the day of you increase your stress level. As I’ve mentioned once or twice before, the more stressed you are the less of your brain you can access. So cramming right before an important event, whatever that event is, will actually lower your performance.

https://unsplash.com/photos/98Elr-LIvD8

So how do you get yourself in the right mindset to succeed? Just follow the immortal advice of Bobby McFerrin: Don’t worry, be happy. I mean it. If you aren’t happy already, get yourself there. When you are happy, you actually have access to more of your brain so you can think faster, be more creative, keep focused — everything you want and need in a high-pressure situation. So when going into such a situation, it’s in your own best interest to be happy.

How do you do this? Coming right up—but I couldn’t resist linking to the video, first.

How can you “get happy” when you want to?

It doesn’t have to be hard to do this. There are a lot of different ways that can work. One simple way to get happy is to think about one of the best moments of your life. Really try to relive it. Think about what it looked like — the colors, the light, the expressions on everyone’s face. Remember the sounds and how it felt physically. Go through all the senses, bringing up as much detail as you can. Take your time. The more detail you call up, the more you will be able to really feel the happiness you felt at the time.

Music is also a great way to bring up certain emotions. So listen to music that makes you want to dance. Heck, actually dance if that makes you happy. (Okay, don’t do either of those things in your office if they will get you fired.) I know people who swear that meditating raises their mood. For others, it’s looking at a baby picture of their kid. Still others go for a walk in the park. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as whatever you do gets you feeling good.

Let me be a bit clearer. When I say do whatever works to feel happier this is not license to take drugs or alcohol. Remember, your goal is to access more of your brain. Drugs and alcohol have the opposite effect. Instead, I’m encouraging you to use natural ways to improve your mood. Think of what usually puts a smile on your face. Maybe it’s remembering swimming with your best friend in fifth grade, or planning a dream vacation, or watching old clips of the Marx Brothers. Give yourself some time to really think about this. Then pick one that you know really works for you.

You will need to schedule time right before the event to do whatever it is you’ve chosen to feel happier. The activity doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Thinking of the happiest day of your life could take less than a minute. Just be sure you don’t get yourself stressed out trying to take a ten-minute walk in the park if you only have three minutes. That would undo all the good you are trying to achieve.

Can’t get happy? You might have some unlearning to do.

I realize that some issues can’t be fixed with this quick tip. For example, problems like fear of public speaking will need more work to root them out. Barbara believed that she couldn’t take tests well. I know she can—once we break the old connection she has in her mind between taking tests and stressing out. So we’ve scheduled some time to “unlearn” that belief and get rid of the stress she feels around retaking the LSAT. Then she’ll be ready to take that exam again. And this time, she’ll get happy before walking into the testing center so she can really show them what she’s got.

Of course, if you’re like Barbara and have something big holding you back, you’ll want to work on it to level your own playing field. But for every other high-pressure event you have, just remember to get happy. Your performance will peak, and maybe you’ll get that promotion, or sale, or recognition that you’re ready for.

Your Negative Self-Talk Is Slowing You Down—Change It!

While you are going through your workday, how do you think about yourself? Do you think things like “Yes! I am so good at this. I’ve really got what it takes to succeed here!” Or is it more like “Who am I kidding? How did I ever think I could pull this off?!” Let’s really test this. Think of the last time you made a mistake. What did you think then: “Loser?” “Idiot?” “I always screw things up?” “I’m just not good enough?”

Facepalm by Joe Loong (flickr user JoeLogon)
Facepalm by Joe Loong (Flickr user JoeLogon)

Most of us seem to have some of those kinds of negative thoughts about ourselves come up, especially when things aren’t going our way or we’ve made a mistake. When I talk to clients about their negative self-talk, they usually think that it’s a good motivator, pushing them to work harder, fix what they’ve been doing wrong, or just get it right the next time. At the very least, they think the negative messages they give themselves are harmless. They are wrong.

The truth is these kinds of messages are damaging. They will slow you down, demotivate you and limit your creativity. I’ve seen them be completely debilitating, leading clients to essentially give up. It’s as if they’ve mentally thrown up their hands and said “Why bother. If I’m such a loser, I might as well not try.”

What can you do if you have one of these negative messages blocking you? I use two different techniques. The first works quite fast but you would need to learn to use a strange-looking technique. The second will take a commitment on your part to follow through with it, but you can start it right now with just paper and pen.

1. Using EFT (“tapping”) to eliminate negative self talk

When a client comes to me with a prominent and persistent negative statement, it tells me that they’ve learned over time to believe something unhelpful about themselves and it’s become a significant block for them. In these situations I will often use a strange looking but surprisingly effective interactive relaxation and refocusing technique called EFT which helps them “unlearn” negative beliefs. I use this technique because I’ve found that it is the fastest way for my clients to let go of those negative statements. When my clients stop using their negative statements all the time, those statements stop doing damage to their motivation, focus, and ambition. They can think about their present situation and options, and even mistakes they make, in a much more objective way.

It works like this: I lead my clients in a guided conversation in which we review the evidence they have for their negative emotional beliefs, while—and this is the strange looking part—they tap with two fingers on a series of acupressure points on their own hands, head and torso. I tap on myself at the same time while guiding the conversations about their beliefs. If you want to see what EFT looks like in practice, you can check out my article about “tapping down” stress.

Let me break out this technique for you with a little more detail. First I ask my client to repeat out loud the negative statement they’ve been thinking about themselves. Then I ask them to tell me, on a scale of 0 to 100%, how true their statement feels (not how true they think the statement is, but how true it feels). Next we begin a few short rounds of tapping—I show them where to tap, but they do their own tapping—while talking about an event that led to their negative emotional belief. When this process is complete I ask them to tell me again, on a scale of 0 to 100%, how true their statement still feels. Very often, after we have tapped and talked about the first event they offered as evidence for their emotional belief, their negative statement comes down from feeling 70% true, or higher, to zero. We’ve relaxed and refocused that negative belief right out of existence just with a little tapping and talking. And we can get back to business.

However, if after some tapping and talking we find that the self-defeating emotional belief is still at work, at least in part, this may mean there are more events underpinning that belief that we can talk and tap about. Often another event, or a different negative statement, occurs to the client after the first one has been minimized. In either case we do another round of tapping and talking, which takes care of the new statement or event the same way. So you can see that this works faster for some folks than for others, but it brings improvement for just about everyone relatively quickly.

You can use EFT all by yourself to eliminate your own negative statements—I teach clients how to do this, as a matter of fact—but the guided conversation part takes a bit of training and practice so you may want to get help with it. Even EFT practitioners such as myself will often turn to another practitioner to help them get rid of an emotional belief. It can be difficult to see something that you’ve lived with for a long time in a new way that allows you to get rid of it.

2. Using your own evidence to eliminate negative self talk

Of course, I know that learning do-it-yourself EFT is not on most people’s To Do lists. If that’s you, there is an alternative way to get rid of your negative self-talk. It will take longer, but all you’ll need is paper and pen.

Draw a line down the center of a piece of paper. On the left-hand side of the paper near the top, write down the negative statement you use most often. Next, in the right-hand column write down all the evidence that your negative statement is not true. Evidence can come from any time in your life. Individual pieces of evidence can be minor by themselves. The point is that each thing you write down puts the lie to that negative statement you’ve been telling yourself.

Let’s say you wrote down the negative statement “I’m such an idiot.” You would write down everything that’s ever happened that proves that you are not an idiot. You might start with things from your youth like: “I got a lot of Bs and some As in junior high and high school;” “My art teacher told me I had a good grasp of perspective;” or “I memorized the entire opening to He-Man!” Don’t stop with school. Try things from work: “My first boss said I was a quick study when we put everything into an online format;” “I’ve been hired for four different positions that took a fair amount of brainpower;” or “I was picked to create a new process in my last job that led to our department using one-third less time to get the data out.” Don’t forget other areas of your life: “I was asked to lead the fundraising auction for the kids’ school;” “My brother always wants me to look over his taxes;” and “I was able to explain the basic idea of String Theory to my friends over dinner last month.” Don’t stop at three. You should put down at least ten things on the right side of the paper. The more the merrier—or more powerful

Once you have a fair amount of evidence on the right hand side of the page, it’s time to change the negative statement. On the left hand side of the page, near the bottom, write down a positive statement that you can use instead of the negative statement. By positive, I don’t mean Pollyanna, like “Everything always works out perfectly for me.” What you want is something that is stated in positive terms. So instead of writing “I’m not an idiot,” you might write something like “I’m smart enough to figure things out.”

Make sure your positive statement is supported by the evidence. That way, if you catch yourself rolling your eyes when you say the new positive statement, you can pull out the piece of paper, read the evidence (yes, all of it), go back and say the new statement knowing that it is true. So don’t use “I’m the next Einstein” unless you really are.

There will undoubtedly be a number of positive statements that could fit your evidence. You might want to write down several, then pick the one that seems the most powerful to you. Circle that one. That’s the new statement you are going to replace the old negative one with.

Here’s where the real work comes in. From now on, every time you say that old negative statement to yourself (“I’m an idiot”), you need to stop yourself and say instead the new positive statement (“I’m smart enough to figure things out”). Yes, every time. What you are trying to do is change an ingrained habit. To do that you need to replace the old habit with a new one. If you occasionally let the old habit slip by, you are reinforcing it and the whole process will take longer.

How long does this take? Well, research says that changing an old habit takes around two to three months of actually doing the new activity (here, that means saying the positive statement instead of the negative one). I know, I know. That sounds like a very long time. But think about it. You’ve been saying the negative statement to yourself for how long now? Years, maybe? A few months is small sacrifice to reap the benefits of getting it out of your head.

Plus, you will start to notice improvements much sooner than two months if you put this plan into place. The old statement will come up less and less. You will have more energy for what you need to do since that old statement won’t be bringing you down. You’ll be able to think more clearly, get more creative. After a while (say, two to three months) you will notice that you haven’t said that negative statement in over a week. Soon after that you will stop thinking about it at all. In a year or two you’ll find that old piece of paper when cleaning out your desk drawer and realize that you just don’t think that negative thought anymore. Congratulations! You’re done with it, and can throw out the paper.

You will want to change all the negative thoughts you have for the reasons I’ve mentioned above. Here’s one more word of advice about that: don’t try to do them all at once. For one thing, actually writing down a lot of negative statements about yourself is likely to bring you down. In addition, it can be overwhelming trying to change everything at once—so much so that you might give up before you make any headway. That would be a shame since you will get a great benefit from changing even one negative statement.

So work on one, get rid of it completely, then pick the next one. Each negative statement you work on should be easier to change than the last one. And you’ll be amazed at what a difference that makes in your work.

Lower your stress, with just two fingers

I want to share a technique that I use with many of my clients to get rid of all sorts of blocks to their success. The technique is called EFT, or simply “tapping”, and it’s growing in popularity, is being used around the world, and the number of studies documenting its effectiveness is mounting. Really, the only drawback to it is that it looks weird. Ah well, can’t have everything.

I’m going to teach you a simple version of tapping to use when you are feeling stressed. Stress can lower your ability to think and be creative, so it’s important to limit stress when you can. Before we start, though, go drink some water. No really, go. This won’t work if you are at all dehydrated. I’ll wait.

Welcome back. Okay, the first step is to write down the feeling you are working on. I’ll be using the word “stress,” but if “overwhelmed,” “underwater,” “scared” or some other word captures what you’re feeling better, please use that. Next, on a scale of 0 through 10 (0 is not at all, 10 is as bad as you can imagine), write down how stressed you are feeling right now.

It’s time to do the actual tapping.

Tapping on the Karate Chop point1. Karate Chop. Take two fingers of one hand and tap on the karate chop point on your other hand. That’s the fleshy part on the side of your hand under your little finger. You’re tapping about as hard as if you had a push-button phone with a sticky button. So, you’re not whiffing it and you’re not leaving a bruise, but it’s solid. Now, while tapping on that point, we’re going to say something three times. Repeat after me: “Even though I’m feeling really stressed, I deeply and completely accept myself . . . Even though I’m feeling really stressed, I deeply and completely accept myself . . .  Even though I’m feeling really stressed, I deeply and completely accept myself.”

Tapping on the Eyebrow point2. Eyebrow. Now tap right where one of your eyebrows starts and say “This stress.”

Tapping on the Side of the Eye point3. Side of Eye. Tap on the ridge of bone on the side of your eye. “I am stressed.”

Tapping on the Under Eye point

4. Under the Eye. Tap about and inch below your pupil under your eye. “I’ve got too much going on.”

Tapping on the Under Nose point5. Under Nose. Tap under your nose. “And it’s real.”

Tapping on the Chin point

6. Chin. Tap on the line on your chin. “I’ve got good reasons to feel stressed.”

We could use two fingers for the next spots, but it will take too long to find them, so let’s do this the easy way.

Tapping on the Collarbone point7. Collarbone. Make a fist and, with the flat part of your knuckles, tap on your collarbone where a man would knot his tie. “I’m really stressed.”

Tapping on the Under Arm point8. Under Arm. Take all four fingers and tap under your arm, about four inches down from your armpit. “All this stress.”
Tapping on the Top of the Head point9. Top of the Head. Finally, tap with all five fingers on the top of your head and say: “I’m so stressed.”

Okay, stop tapping and take a deep breath. Great. That was a single round of tapping. (By the way, all you really need to say as you are tapping around the points is “this stress,” but I like to keep it interesting.) Check in with your stress level. Is it still the same number you started with, did it go up, or down? Write down the new number. Usually the numbers go down, but sometimes they go up. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just means you are accessing something you’ve been pushing away and now you’ll be able to tap it down.

Time for a second round of tapping:

Karate Chop: “Even though I have this remaining stress, I deeply and completely accept myself.” (Say that two more times.)

Eyebrow: “This remaining stress.”

Side of Eye: “There’s a lot on my plate.”

Under Eye: “I’m not sure how I’ll get it all done.”

Under Nose: “So of course I’m stressed.”

Chin: “Anyone would be.”

Collarbone: “Still, the stress isn’t helping. It’s actually making it worse.”

Under Arm: “Maybe I can let go of some of it.”

Top of Head: “I’m letting go of some of that stress now.”

Stop. Breathe deeply. Check your stress number now. You can keep doing rounds of tapping until you get that number down to zero or until you have to do something else. Usually just a few rounds is enough to get the stress way down from where you started so you can think better and get more done.

There’s lots more you can do with tapping, but sometimes all you need is a quick boost. I hope that was helpful.

Guilt Doesn’t Work

One way to recognize that you have a block is to notice when you do the same thing that gets you in trouble over and over again. Such a repeating pattern can take many forms. One person starts off projects with great enthusiasm, then loses momentum and ends up turning in work that is less than they are capable of. Another always gets into a fight with their boss or client after a “honeymoon period,” then needs to find a new job or client. A third might procrastinate whenever there is a deadline, only getting serious when it gets down to the wire. The pattern repeats no matter how mad the person gets at themselves for “doing it again” and how strongly they vow to change their ways.

Socrates was perhaps the earliest akrasia theorist
Socrates was perhaps the earliest akrasia theorist (photo credit: Eric Gaba/Wikimedia Commons User “Sting”)

There is even a philosophical term for this kind of behavior that goes back to Socrates: akrasia, or acting against what you know to be your own best interests. It seems so illogical that Socrates apparently claimed that it didn’t happen, since “No one goes willingly toward the bad.” According to Socrates, anyone who does this must simply be ignorant of facts or knowledge. Later philosophers, who recognized that people do in fact act against their better judgment, equated it with a weakness of will. Edmund Spenser even included a temptress in The Faerie Queene, Acrasia, who was the embodiment of “intemperance.” So all these great thinkers have deemed anyone who doesn’t do what he knows would be best for them either stupid or morally wrong.

That kind of thinking shows up all the time to this day. It seems like we in the US blame people especially harshly for not following through on their better judgment. Just call to mind what you’ve heard, or thought, about someone with lung cancer who still smokes. “Weak-willed” is probably the least harsh of the descriptions we use. We find it very difficult to understand such a problem as anything other than some sort of moral failing.

The harshest critic of such a “failing” in us is usually Continue reading “Guilt Doesn’t Work”

3 Steps to Take When You’re Overwhelmed

An Overflowing Desk - Too Much To Do!Two weeks ago a client came to me with an all-too-familiar problem: she was completely overwhelmed with all she had to do and couldn’t find a way to change what was going on. “Maria” and her partner were building a startup and were giving it their all. They worked from early in the morning until bedtime. Meals were eaten standing up while filling orders. Weekends were down to half a day. There was no time for friends, and phone calls with family were limited to ten minutes each week. And still she had projects on her To Do list that she simply couldn’t get to.

I started with the obvious: Continue reading “3 Steps to Take When You’re Overwhelmed”