Monday, March 30, 2009

Priceless wisdom from a box of turnovers and a $60 outfit.

On Sunday, I was standing in the checkout line at Trader Joe’s when the cashier asked the guy in front of me if he had been doing something fun that day. “Yes!” the man smiled widely. As it turns out, he was a statistician who had been researching whether good mental health made us live longer or if it was the other way around. “I just proved that it’s both. Good mental health does make us live longer, but physical fitness causes good mental health as well.” Then, Cashier John started giving me party tips, confirming that the mushroom turnovers I had chosen were indeed fabulous and explaining the best way to make Caprese salad.

Lately, all I hear from the people around me is, “I don’t have the time to… I don’t have the money to…” My colleague, who owns an agency and loves body building and works out religiously, told me last week that she’s at the office longer than ever and has cut her workout time significantly. A friend who’s starting a new business is working 12-hour days and doesn’t have the time to meditate or do Qi Gong any more. Another friend cut her yoga classes out altogether. The list goes on forever. And even I find myself trying to work longer hours when I know that often longer doesn’t bring better or more results. Even though I’ve learned this lesson over and over again, I seem to constantly forget it in the midst of the desperation I feel all around me these days.

Last year, I cut my income by more than 75% to pursue my own creative projects. And for a time, I cut it by 100%. There were many fearful, overwhelming days for me, especially since I wasn’t entirely sure what projects I was going to do or where they would take me. On a very weepy day, my friend called me and asked if I would go shopping with her. Could I afford another non-productive day? I asked myself. Since my mood was so low, it was probably going to be difficult for me to stay focused on any one project anyway and I could really use some good company. So off I went to my new favorite store, Old Navy. I had given up shopping at Ann Taylor and Nordstroms the year before. I spent the day and $60 to buy a pair of pants and three tops. And enjoyed lunch with a great friend and colleague. The next day: priceless. I woke up, put on my new outfit and felt rejuvenated. I was ready to tackle my life and my projects once again.

During these mentally and financially challenging times, the “I have no time or money” attitude is probably the worst mindset we can take on. It’s as if we’ve constricted ourselves, focused only on productivity, straining for new business and job leads and forgotten about some of the basic ways to instill a sense of balanced well-being. The results of this forced cut-back mentality are depression, self-doubt and frustration. Does the money come in any faster? No. On the contrary. That’s why it’s so important, during times like these, to actively work on shifting our mindset from deprivation and desperation to patience and playful perseverance. Besides extending our life span, acting compassionately towards ourselves enables us to achieve whatever we want in the easiest, fastest way possible. It’s a learning process, but here are some ways that help cultivate this new attitude.

Tell yourself you have time. On the days I remember to tell myself I have all the time I need, the hours seem to extend on and on. The act of telling ourselves that we don’t have time automatically makes it so. It puts us in a state of fear, creating unnecessary agitation and lack of focus. Our best work does not come from here. If you can actually forget about time and let yourself relax and enjoy the process, your work will flow more easily, you’ll feel like you’ve accomplished a great deal and you may actually have time to do the other things you love.

Tell yourself that financial abundance is on its way. Acknowledge whatever opportunities are coming your way, even if they’re not generating revenue yet. New leads and interest in your work are confirmation that you’re on the right path. Expressing gratitude for these prospects increases their frequency and makes them realize more quickly.

Learn that projects and events have their own timing. No matter how much you try sometimes, there comes a point when you have to wait for the things you want to happen on their own. When a project doesn’t progress the way you expected it to, do the best you can and then let go. And trust that it will be completed in the right time. Focus on doing something else you love for a while and see what transpires. Working persistently and calmly in a new direction reduces fear, unblocks your creative energy and opens the space for desired events to evolve in their own time. There’s always a reason, a better time, a better way for those things to happen for you.

Create resentment, gratitude and credit lists regularly. I use a combination of these lists—adopted from the Kaizen-Muse coaching program—with myself and my clients to create a shift in thinking. A resentment list entails writing down everything that’s bothering you in the form of “I resent…, I resent…” Writing down the negative gets it out of your body and mind and creates space for better things to come. I personally tear and burn mine. Once you’ve released your resentments, sit down and write a list of things you’re grateful for. You can even include things that haven’t happened yet. Moving from resentment to gratitude is a powerful exercise. By the time I’m done, I feel more optimistic and motivated. You can also create lists of things you give yourself credit for so you can see how much you’re really doing in your life—including work-related and personal actions and thoughts. You can update these lists daily or weekly or whenever you feel you’ve lost the sense of forward motion. This exercise increases confidence, patience and perseverance.

Keep taking good care of yourself. Cutting back during these times is understandable and necessary for most of us. But make sure you don’t eliminate the things you really need. Making ourselves feel deprived affects our mental attitude negatively. If you need new shoes because your back starts to hurt, go get them. And if you need to talk to someone other than friends and family, explore coaching and counseling services. Many coaches and counselors offer affordable or sliding scale fees.

Make yourself feel special on a regular basis. Sometimes we think that if we’re not earning money, we don’t deserve to treat ourselves. But if you follow poet Anne Sexton’s advice to “love your self’s self wherever it lives,” you’ll begin to value and honor yourself no matter what your circumstance is. And your self requires and deserves good treatment in order to do all that you expect from it. Remember that pampering yourself doesn’t have to cost money. Do little things that make you feel good and special. Buy yourself one flower. Make yourself a cup of your favorite tea. Spend time with a good friend. And if you can afford it, get an occasional massage or pedicure.

Engage in physical, mind-body types of exercise. Physical movement helps us clear our thinking, analytical minds and moves us into our intuitive, creative sides. Because I generate so many ideas during my morning walks, I now consider them part of my workday. Eastern modalities like yoga, Qi Gong and Tai Chi use physical movement to calm the mind. And meditation, Reiki, and breathing techniques further complement these physical practices. Taking a few minutes to engage in physical and mind-body exercises regularly will help relieve stress, get you more in tune with your true self, tap into your creativity and let you work more effectively.

Play creatively and like a child. Express yourself through painting, writing, cooking or any other creative activity that calls to you. If you let yourself play without thinking, you’ll be surprised what you might see on your canvas or computer screen. Creative activities provide a great release and connect you to a deeper part of yourself. And if you let yourself engage in child’s play, coloring or hula-hooping for instance, you’ll find a sense of renewed joy you may have thought you lost in your adult life. Five to fifteen minutes at a time is all you need.

Taking care of your mental and physical well-being during these times is priceless. Whether that means working out, doing some yoga or spending a few dollars to pamper yourself, do it. Not necessarily every day, but your body and mind will tell you when you need it most. Listen to them. Put everything else aside, and do what you tell yourself. Your mental, physical and emotional selves have a lot of wisdom. And if you don’t believe them, believe the university statistician who will soon be publishing his data: good mental health and good physical health will make you live longer. So go ahead, go to Trader Joe’s, spend a couple of bucks on the mushroom turnovers, split them with a good friend. And get ready for a long life!

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