This post was originally published on September 29, 2011.
I want to share an emerging learning. That which we seek to control, is that of which we must let go. In a way, this is similar to the quote by Richard Bach (and more recently a song lyric by Sting), “if you love someone, set them free.” What I’m talking about here is a bit different though, as it has not to do with people, so much as it has to do with situations or events.
For example, I have wasted an unquantifiable amount of time and energy worrying about schedules for a construction project taking place at our home. I don’t know how many times I attempted to emphasize to our contractor my interest in knowing what would be happening before it happened, only to find myself surprised by changes for which I hadn’t felt adequately prepared.
Another example rests with a friend who recently learned she was passed over for promotion by someone who didn’t meet the company’s stated requirement of time in current position. She was very upset and wanted to take action as a result of her perceived injustice of the situation. I should note that this situation of being passed over had happened many other times in the past with my friend, so it wasn’t just a one-time thing. This time seemed to be a tipping point, however, as I could sense an elevation in her anger. She desperately needed to make sense, and try to take control, of her situation. Considering how often this issue has arisen in her current work environment, I couldn’t help but think that her efforts would be for naught.
It seems when things feel as though they are spinning out of our reach, we try even harder to control it. We see this all the time in high profile situations, from government officials and movie stars. Usually this reaction leads to less than stellar results. I wonder if this reaction is because we sense a change with which we are not particularly comfortable, or because we have been living in a bubble and don’t want to face the “reality” of a given situation.
In my contractor/schedule update example, I noticed how focused I had become on the schedules, and how tense and stressed I was as a result. While it would have been nice to have an idea of work that would be completed, I was making it into a much larger, and more personal, issue than it needed to be. I was experiencing headaches, achy muscles, restless sleep. All because of a silly schedule!
I finally realized that this wasn’t about the schedules at all, but was, rather, about my feeling the need to have some predictability at a time when there hadn’t been much; not just with regards to the construction project, but also in other aspects of my life. My attempt to know the schedules, was in actuality, my attempt to know the future. By knowing the future, I could be comfortable to trust that things would be alright.
With respect to my friend and her job search issue, I would say the same thing applies. She really wants a better paying job with increased responsibility. When she is continually passed over for these opportunities by her current, as well as prospective, employers, she becomes upset and takes it personally, because she doubts that things will be alright for her in the future.
Time and again I’ve heard people talk about the benefits of living in the present, and that it is in the past and future where we often run into trouble; fears created by past experiences that then create fears about, and often hinder, our ability to succeed in the future. When we live in the present, in the here and now, without regard to what has happened yesterday, last week, or last year, and without trying to predict or worry about what will happen in the next hour, day or decade, we can focus on what feels right for us now.
My concern with schedules was based on past experiences that weren’t particularly good, and led to fears of the same experiences in the future. In the here and now, what I experience is positive progress towards a more stable, and comfortable, living environment. A much better feeling than I had when in control-mode.
I suspect my friend’s concerns about being passed over have to do with a lack of results in what has been a very long job search. Her trauma of applying for hundreds of positions without a job offer led to anger, hurt and fear that she will be stuck in her current situation. When she has been able to pull herself out of the past and future, and into the here and now, she has tended to be thankful that she has a job, and appreciative that her work environment has gradually become more pleasant than it had ever been before. While this doesn’t change the fact that she’s working in a position that is neither challenging nor rewarding, it does give her peace of mind and a sense of stability that dwelling on past trauma and the potential for future injustices does not.
As leaders, it’s very easy to worry about the past (that idea didn’t work before, so it won’t work now or the last family gathering was horrible, I’m never doing that again). It’s also easy to worry about the future; (meeting sales goals, staying within budget, meeting deadlines, having a difficult conversation, etc.). Conversely, it’s also easy to reminisce about things we miss from the past (those were the days, I wish work were still like that, or I used to be so skinny!). Dreaming about the future can also be a favorite pastime; (this idea could really take off! I could be on the Forbes Richest People list in no time! or visions of basking on the beach in Bali).
I find that when I live in the past or the future, I tend to be less productive in the here and now. My best ideas come to me when I stop time traveling, and just be. When I’m present, time passes at a comfortable pace, I am engaged and enjoying myself, and life tends to take on a sense of joyful simplicity that I don’t feel when time-traveling. I have also found that being present is not a particularly easy thing to do.
Feeling the same way? Here are some tips I have found helpful in bringing myself back to the here and now:
Meditate I have experienced, and have heard from many people about the benefits of meditation. Even if you can take 5 minute breaks every couple of hours, it can be very helpful in staying in the moment. It might take some practice to let thoughts pass through you, instead of sticking and beckoning you to a past or future moment, but keep with it. It’s worth it.
Take a Breather This is a variation of the 5-minute meditation mentioned above. Schedule time in your day where you just sit and concentrate on breathing. So often we forget to breath deeply, and are particularly prone to shallow breathing when under stress. Air wakes you up, clears your head, and keeps you in the here and now. Just ask any athlete.
Take a Walk Yes, again with the air thing. The important thing besides breathing fresh air (if you’re able to get outside), is to walk with an intention of curiosity rather than focusing on a problem or issue. Having a curious approach to your walk will open you up to your present surroundings, and you will likely see things in a different way. Besides keeping you present, this also helps spark your creativity; helpful in any situation.
Give Yourself a “Present” Make little notes encouraging you to focus on you, here and now (example: a note that says “You’re fabulous. Give yourself a moment to revel in that”). Leave them in your lunch bag, on the side of your coffee mug, on your mirror, in a folder on your desk, in your laptop. Honor and show gratitude for the present by acting upon it.
Have Impromptu Musical Interludes or Dance Breaks This one was inspired by an old episode of 30 Rock , where as a means of shaking up the creativity, they would take a 1 minute dance break. For those of you who aren’t inclined to get up and dance, or don’t want to scare your coworkers by doing this in your cube, you could switch this to a musical interlude. Listen to your favorite song, staying with it (not daydreaming of yourself as JayZee or Adele), for the duration of the song. Singing is optional.
Challenge Yourself to Stay Awake While Driving Sure, most of us think we’re awake while driving, but are we really “there” or floating off in a rant or starring in an episode of Fantasy Island? Make a conscious effort to be with yourself and your car on your drive. Turn off the radio, turn off your GPS, turn off your Mobile, and just be with your drive. Trust me, the force will be with you!