Willing and Prepared

What is your first thought as you read these statements? Family comes first, count your blessings, make time for self-care, eating for fuel, move your body, the list goes on and on. To me these are all pretty annoying, though I do use at least one of them every day I’m sure. They are all phrases that make really cute hashtags to add to the end of social posts or to use as justification when you do something out of the norm and want to make clear that you’re not feeling guilty about it. For example, there is a lot on your plate at work but your kid has a big game this afternoon, so you put in about 8 and a half hours of feverish prioritization pumping out as much production as possible and then apologize for leaving “early” but note, family comes first, as you head out to get to the match with not a moment to spare. Or perhaps you have way too many irons in the fire and you’re at your breaking point, feeling overwhelmed, snapping at everyone, so you lock yourself in a room with Netflix and your guilty treat of choice while you tell yourself you’re making time for self-care.

Work from home means days start early. Family comes first means I sometimes have a cute assistant.

The problem with these, and every other example of when people use these little phrases, is that we wait until we’re at the end of our rope to invoke the one trick, the one skill, the one resource we have. If you’re needing to declare family comes first while dashing off, heart either racing or sinking, trying to think if there was anything you forgot to do, then you’re not really living out that family truly does come first. You’re not setting yourself up to support the fact that your priority really is family, above all else. Likewise, if you’re locking yourself in your bedroom demanding not to be disturbed or crawling into a hastily made bath on the verge of tears, you don’t make time for self-care. You are waiting until the last possible second, or maybe the moments after what should have been the last possible second, to deploy the one resource you can think of in your frazzled state. I can’t help but think it would be the same as if Mario, without so much as a red topped mushroom, went rushing into Bowzer’s lair calling out, “It’sa me, Mario!” Just like all the other catch phrases, it’s technically correct but at the same time couldn’t be farther from the truth.

We, myself absolutely included, are wasting everything available to us up until our breaking point and relying on our own strength when we have nothing left. So how do we change that? How do we go from using those phrases as statements we’re trying to convince ourselves of to true mantras we live our lives by? I like to think of this like the old Super Mario Brothers games, yes I’m sticking with this reference, go with me for a minute. There was always some bad guy at the end of each world that needed to be defeated. If Mario went in blind and without any power up’s you could make it, in theory, but man, you had to be on your A-game and the deck was stacked against you. BUT if you picked up a feather, or super star, or jumped on a Kupa shell and sent it careening toward your enemy, you were in much better shape. You had to be aware of what skills you might need and pick them up along the way. You had to look for resources in the situation you were in and make the best use of them that you could. Prepared or not, Mario was marching forth toward the goal (save the princess) under threat of death. Death was just a whole lot more likely if he was unprepared going into battle.

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For those raising an eyebrow at my Mario example and looking for something a bit more classical, I give you Nehemiah. (Yes this is likely the only blog that uses classic video games and books of the Bible as parallel story lines.) Nehemiah had an end goal in mind that was pretty simple, build a wall. He could have just run off tools in hand but it likely never would have gotten finished. He started by praying (started there, not as a last resort), then he sought support of the king, he enlisted help, and he recognized the immediate and future opposition and organized people to work against it. Nehemiah never gave in to the nay-sayers even when he felt his life depended on it.

So I ask you, what are you chasing after? Be it princess or the rebuilding of a wall or anything in between, are you both willing and prepared to chase after it? Take a moment, or a few of them, to understand what you’ll need in what you’re going up against. What skills do you need to sharpen? What are your resources do you need to organize or find? What is literally laying around (stones and rubble or an old Kupa shell perhaps) that is just waiting to get discovered? Finally, are you seeing it all the way through. Like all the way. Mario just ran left to right straight head on into whatever came next, picking up all he could along the way until or unless he literally died (little extreme but a nice illustration none the less). Nehemiah didn’t come down for anything. When he was enticed he said no, what I’m doing is more important. When he was in pain, he asked God to strengthen his hands.

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At the end of the day, could you make it through most of your situations surviving on determination and adding a fun hashtag afterward? Most of them, sure in theory, and the deck will be stacked against you. If you take a note from Mario and Nehemiah however, and prioritize what is truly important to you and set yourself up for success by relying on the skills and resources throughout, you’ll be much better prepared to take on what comes at you in the end. You’ll accomplish your goal without compromising your priorities and be ready for whatever lies ahead.

Why You Take the Picture

I went through a phase growing up, a long one like maybe age 10-16, where I never wanted my picture taken. I would hide, whine, fight and then pout in the picture. Super cute. I was totally against them. After that though I was happy to take them if other’s wanted but I was not going to suggest it. When I got to college it seemed like every girl I saw had a phone at the ready to take a picture of food, friends, the events we were at, how we looked at any given event, and then would chronical our whole lives through their lenses. All the while I was thinking, can’t we just do the thing? Can’t we just enjoy the dinner, hockey game, or night out instead of documenting who sat next to whom and what they wore? I wanted to enjoy the time with friends and family not capture it for the future. Then I got married. For our wedding I wanted to be sure there were impromptu pictures, yes you need to take the grandparent pictures and the poses with the combined families but I went with the least expensive photographer I could find and took her smallest package. My biggest concern was if she would take day after photos of us playing in the woods with our wedding clothes on, she did and those were perfect. I have all of them on a flash drive somewhere but I think I printed 10 total pictures and some of those were wallet sized.

These are the pictures I’ve made a habit of saving. Nothing perfect about this one. Just two crazy kids who drove their truck in the reception hall.

All of that made me enough of an oddball when it came to photos but nothing compared to when I became a mom. Did I take pictures of my Wallace Shawn looking newborns and text them to friends and family describing how perfect they were? Yes. Did I do it half as much as other mom’s? Not even close. I just didn’t want to watch my children through my phone or camera lens. I wanted to actually be in that moment with them. I didn’t want to be the one at the family gatherings constantly running around going, “get together” “ok, look at me” “just act like you’re having a conversation”. (We all were together and having a real conversation until you came along wanting to take candid looking posed shots.) I didn’t really have time for the intentional, professional ones either. In the ten years my little family has been in existence I had wedding pictures, a set of church directory pictures, and a few from a gift we gave to my parents a couple years ago.

Photo credit to Nikki Oelke Photography

Then, my little men discovered slideshow mode on my iPad. I started to realize the pictures weren’t just for me. All of those moments that were messy and silly and funny, make them roll on the floor laughing. All of the posed pictures of us together make them recount how much they enjoyed that event or holiday. All of the family members that, to my utter shock and dismay, did not defy the odds and live forever come alive again through the pictures I can share with those little dudes. I have the pictures of a great grandmother holding her newborn grandson. All of the generations huddled around grandpa at a holiday. I can see the light in their eyes as a toddler wraps his arms around an auntie or uncle’s neck and the love and connection they share.

You know what else I realized? All of the pictures that I was taking, I was typically not in. Mom wasn’t the one playing catch, building the fort, making the cookies or anything else as far as the pictures were concerned. I was always the one behind the camera. To be honest, I wasn’t capturing my husband in too many of them either because I was focused on the kids or the people we don’t see often enough being with the kids. Having a good photographer who is able to capture it all, is essential. Someone who can pull out those messy, silly, and funny moments and capture them while you’re all there, all together, (while the big guys have combed hair and the baby is wearing pants) is such a blessing.

Photo credit to Nikki Oelke Photography

Truly what I’m saying (to myself as much as you) is take the pictures, ask people to take your picture, find your local photographer and take the pictures. I still want to be in the moment with my family and friends. I want to be invested in what we’re doing and not watching it from behind a lens. I am also to the point that I appreciate having them for all of the memories they provide, and for the new memories made while we enjoy them and reminisce together.

Taking Care of #1

I used to wear my feverish work pinned on my shirt like a medal of honor. I told everyone about how blissfully busy I was and recounted all of the things that made me that way, some of which were a bit of a fish story if I’m honest. To clarify, I wasn’t actually burnt out, I was zealous. I wasn’t the type of person who used how busy I was or how exhausted I was as an excuse or a complaint. To the contrary, I was so proud of who I was and the work I did in all facets of my life. I was excited and feeding off of the state of chaos I was living in. One day I was asked what I did to turn it off, which was a completely foreign concept to me. I didn’t want to turn a thing off just crank it up! How could I brainstorm while I was cooking dinner? Could I strategize while on snowmobiling in the winter or out by the lake in the summer? Could I develop the constructs and values that would propel me forward in my career in all of the places that inspire me so that I could spend work time doing the “real” work? (Now I know I’m a recovering workaholic because even as I’m writing this I can feel my heart rate elevate and my mind start to rationalize why all of that is still a great idea.)

I was hungry for the challenge and I was doing a good job. I was meeting deadlines, accomplishing progress, managing change, empowering those around me, making some mistakes and improving everyday. I was also, gaining weight, praying less, losing time with my husband, losing time with my kids, and when I was with everyone my mind was constantly multitasking back to what was easy for me to become enveloped in, work. I was relying all but exclusively on my own abilities and getting praised for it so the rest I just figured would work itself out. Then, in an abrupt about face, I was not praised for the work I was doing, I was questioned on the validity. I wasn’t encouraged to expand, I was told to stay in my lane. I wasn’t allowed to share my plan and vision (all the strategy and constructs I had conceptualized), I was told vision would follow the chain of command. I tried to put in more time and effort but was maxed out. Further, I was no longer getting that fuel from crushing it at work but didn’t know how to be fueled by the other aspects of life. Effort running on empty is then, burnout.

Actual footage of how I looked to my team…. not exactly the lady you’re raising your hand to get behind.

As I typically do, I started to think about what got me where I was. After blaming everyone else didn’t really yield results, I started to understand it was because all of my eggs were in that one basket. I wasn’t fueling myself in any other ways. Getting praise for good work is, well good, but putting sole stock in a few key roles, key people, assigning your value is unhealthy and a recipe for disaster.

Once I realized the problem was me and where I was looking for my worth, I could take the next step to determine where that worth would come from in a perfect scenario. Instead of looking out at everyone else to tell me about my value, I went back to basics and looked up and within. It was like an epiphany, when I realized there was no reason to care what everyone else thought. I mean I know we all know that and I certainly did too but to know it and to understand and embrace it were two different things. Do the job I’m asked to do and if the skills and talents that I know I posses aren’t useful or requested in that scenario, this is not my problem. It does not make those skills less important or less useful. Because those are the things that fueled me and had propelled me forward for so long, I didn’t want to lose them. I didn’t want to let that muscle lay dormant without the ability to work, make mistakes, improve, and grow. So I found other avenues to flex in. I joined clubs, I volunteered, I found areas of the business where I could still grow and connect while staying in my lane and following chain of command. I learned to “turn it off” too. I learned that laptops actually close for a reason. I learned no one dies, or even gets maimed, if you don’t respond to an email or set up a meeting at 9 pm. I learned that some of the mistakes we were all trying so desperately to avoid might happen and we would all laugh about them in about a week and made no difference to anything in about a month, sometimes it took longer and the scar was more pronounced, but often not.

I got to the point that resting up to achieve someone else’s dream just wasn’t cutting it anymore.

Now I had a better handle on the the thing that was easiest for me to control, work, so I started looking at other areas of life too. I mean, I had all of this time on my hands after closing the laptop, I might as well. I started eating to actually fuel myself (rather than stress eating peanut butter and salami everyday). I started setting goals outside of work like places I’d like to take the family and I bet I could master side crow (not yet but some day). I discovered I like reading (something not a single person I know, including me, saw coming). I created a morning routine because I am incredibly introverted and I need some time alone (sure it started as 5 minutes, but it grew to 90). I started a practice of thanking God for my husband (it is really hard to be mad at your spouse for anything that happened the night before if you start your day recounting 3 ways he was a blessing to you). I added strategic times of prayer throughout the day (That sounds fancy but it was like a minute or two on the way to work, at about 2, and on the way home. It obviously added a little prayer back in my day but also forced me to stop, slow down my mind, and refocus on what was important.).

The look of my morning routine.

That is my story of how I started taking care of me. How I started putting myself first. Reading it all in one sitting with your coffee or lunch might feel like it was a quick change, I mean I used the word epiphany. It was not. This took literal months probably more like a year or more and came about in iterations with two steps forward and one step back. It was a lot of hard work and to be honest would have been easier to not do it. I could have just blamed everyone else, quit what I was doing, found something else, and chalked it up to bad things happen sometimes going on to relive the cycle with different scenery. That would have been hard too but easier than doing all of the work on myself. It just wouldn’t have yielded the results. I’m a healthier, wiser, more effective version of myself than I was. I’m better not only in the areas that I had previously neglected, but in the one area I was so focused on in the first place!

So if you’re feeling stuck ask yourself, how am I contributing to this? Where am I getting my worth from? What is one thing I can do to improve the situation? Keep asking this last one and implementing until you get where you want to be.

From Worried to Wonderful

I had someone ask me recently how she could know where she was going. Because I like alliterations we’ll call her Worried Wanda. Wanda was just told by her manager that her role was changing (albeit slightly, it felt like a huge change to her) and she wanted to know what that meant for the trajectory of her career. She was worried she was getting boxed in, type casted, and limited based on what the new definition of the role meant. Now, Wanda does some good work for the company, as in, she is someone behind the scenes that is completing all of the hard things that no one else wanted to touch. She is the one that everyone forgets to thank and give accolades to because she is working on things that are foundational. These are things that hold the whole place together and she keeps them running. Wanda is also one who never talks about her hopes and dreams. You wouldn’t even know she gave a second thought to being boxed in, type casted, or limited. You would have thought she was perfectly content doing her thing until the end of her days with the company. When she asked me “What path do you think this change will allow me?” I honestly think my first thought, in the best and most respectful way possible, was do you really even want a path to go anywhere?

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That sounds a little rude right? Thankfully, I didn’t respond quite like that. Also it’s a useless question because as surprised as I was, the answer was clearly yes. If not, Wanda wouldn’t have sought out my opinion and spent the past 20 minutes telling me about how concerned she was. Instead I asked her more questions. I asked where she wanted to be, what she wanted to do, and how she wanted to feel when she was there. She said she wasn’t sure because this whole change would affect it. I am a firm believer in opportunities and knowing they will show up regardless of what your job title, experience, or bank account has to say about them. The question is more so, where do you want to be and are you willing to accept the opportunities when they come? So, I asked her to fill me in on what she wanted prior to her role changing. Let me tell you, Wanda lit right up! She had so many aspirations and with a little more coaxing she was able to explain the ‘what’ and her ‘why’ in crystal clear detail. It was so interesting because even though I’d known her for years I had no idea this was her goal though she was clearly very passionate about it.

Next I asked Wanda if she knew, prior to the job change, ‘how’ to get there? She had a vague idea of what skills in her current job equipped her for what she saw as the next step. Then she was pretty much at a loss. Wanda’s map took her from her one step to the next but that second one was standing on the edge of a cliff with her dream on the other side. She spiraled a little at that point explaining how she only knew the one step and if her role changed she didn’t even know that anymore! I smiled on the other end of the phone knowing she was so much closer than she even realized. I asked her to go back to the end goal for a little bit. To feel that excitement again. Imagine what that person, Wildly Wonderful Wanda, does on a daily basis. What tasks is she doing and how does it feel? What does she know and who does she work with? Think through all of it. Now, forget about what they call you or if there is a new or removed task from your desk. What can you do to do more of what she does, feel more like she feels, know what she knows and who she knows?

I could all but see Wanda’s wheels turning. She had ideas now and could put them in motion and it was all because she thought more clearly about who she wanted to be, and really understood who that Wonderful version was. For those who read this as a nice story featuring a woman with a fun name, let’s break down the steps.

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Know what you want. By that I mean the culmination. Does that have to be a specific role or title, no. It can be a type of work, a feeling, a balance with life, etc. It isn’t so much about knowing where your first step is from where you’re at but knowing the destination. Once you know that, you can figure out what is on the map to get you from where you are to where you want to be. There is a lot of gray in the unknown so trying to start to granular, like turn right on Maple and left on Main street, can get overwhelming because, like Wanda, you may not know what the third turn is or how far down Main it comes. I mean, how could you if you didn’t know the final destination? Each step is pretty dependent on if you’re going to Orlando or Portland. If you know where you’re going you can piece together the rest. If you’re unclear answer the same questions Wanda did. Imagine where you want to be, the type of work you want to be doing, and the way you want to feel.

Say it out loud, to yourself and to people. It is really difficult to get what you want or even work toward it if you never say it. Likewise, it is impossible for others who want to see you succeed to do anything to help if they don’t know what you want. To compound that they may even be inadvertently working against you because they think they know what you want and are working to help you attain that. For the most part people want to support you. They want to build you up and push you in the right direction. So give them a hand by letting them know what direction you’re hoping to go. There was so much power unleashed when Wanda said her goal out loud.

Align yourself with allies. These could be someone who directly controls what you want. For example your boss, if you’re looking for a promotion. A friend or former colleague if you’re looking to switch companies, swap kid watching duties, or plan a girls night in. It could be your spouse, if you’re looking to take a vacation, get some major projects done, or swap kid watching duties. These could also be people who are connected, like a mentor, pastor, or coach, and help point you toward the things you want. Finally they could just be a support and accountability group that will help you stay on task for what you want. These are all allies that will be invaluable to you as you grow. Also hint, when I say that you have to say what you want out loud, you’ll need to be brave enough to say it to the allies so they can work their magic. It sounds obvious but these allies are typically the people we’re the most worried about their opinions and we seem to think their mind readers, they aren’t.

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Understand the tools you have and the ones you’ll need. We all have tools and skills at our disposal, all of us. You’ll need to get crystal clear on what those are. Then you need to be pretty clear on what the tools and skills are for what you want in the end so you can start building on them. If you’re a great organizer, communicator, and confidant today that’s great! Own that. If for the end result you’ll need to be an even better organizer, a strategist, and be able to mingle at social gatherings, well, I guess we know where we build on what we have and where need to stretch ourselves. You will undoubtedly find out as you move toward the end goal that there are other skills you didn’t know you needed to develop like budgets or ability to make pretty graphs. No problem, we’ll just add those in as they come. These are your personal continuous improvement. The point is you’ll be more prepared because you’ll be aware and more confident in the skills you already have and you’ll have a plan of attack for the rest.

Do the work to bridge the gap. There is no way around it, you have to actually do the work. You have to build the skills. You have to promote yourself in the areas that will get you closer to where you want to be. You have to apply for something that will get you one step closer. You have to be brave enough to leave your comfort zone and do something different. I myself am really good at talking it up, making the plan, hinting at doing it, and then falling flat. Its not out of lack of ability but out of fear and I’m not alone. Nothing will change, for me or for Wanda or for you, unless we change it. So after the dreaming and scheming and planning is over, go do the work because hard work pays off.

The Juggling Act

I am constantly working on multiple different aspects of the business. It’s not about multitasking or single-tasking but simply the amount and diversity of work that needs to be done. From the time I start my computer or walk in the front door of the building until the time that I finally shut everything down for the night I am pulled in a plethora of different directions. I spend time building up the team and developing their skills, managing project work, facilitating the management of other’s project work, answering questions and problem solving, balancing coaching and empowering, responding to emails, answering phone calls, and a whole host of other tasks. While some of those words might not be words you’d use to describe your day (heck a couple of them you may not even be 100% sure what they mean), I assure you much of what you and I are doing are very similar. At least that is what I always think while I’m working. This is not specific to me, everyone has to balance this, we’re all in this together, and I am not being singled out with all of this work there is just much to be done and I’m fortunate to be able to contribute to it.

Recently someone pointed out all of the things I’m juggling and how I never seem to drop a ball. My first instinct was to insist that that is absolutely untrue I do drop balls, more than I’d like to admit. We moved on the in the conversation but my brain could not let go of that image. Am I truly juggling more than others and doing it better? That just doesn’t seem likely to me, there is nothing special about me and what I do that would set me apart so there must be some other explanation. Still the image of the juggler hadn’t left my mind. It made me think back to a friend I had in high school who was something of a renaissance man. He had talent in literally everything he touched and juggling was no different. He could juggle a whole bunch of different objects and throw one or two behind his back and catch them again. He could incorporate new things as people tossed them in and toss or kick some of them to people watching. And he did it all with a smile that could keep 16 year old kids who would typically rather be testing out their new driving freedom or texting, engaged while watching juggling.

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I started to think of my own juggling act the same way. I’m doing the same thing as he was just with different balls. Some of mine are crystal, some are clay, and some are rubber. Obviously I need to keep the balls of crystal in the air. If one of those drops I, and anyone in the vicinity of me, are in big trouble because there will be shrapnel and there is just no putting it back in rotation. The clay balls might fall to the ground. Not ideal because they will surely be misshapen when they are picked up but they can also be smoothed out and put back together in the same, or nearly the same, shape they were in when we began. The rubber balls are the fun ones. Those are the balls that can drop to the ground and pop right back up into rotation. They might even bounce higher adding to the effect and engagement of those around you. Also important to think about here, these aren’t all my balls. Sure people might be throwing some in from the sides and sometimes I need to catch those and other times I’ll just smile and let them fly on past. Other times I need to toss a ball out, let it bounce to someone else, or let one of those clay buggers lay on the ground until someone else decides to pick it up and reshape it.

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Something about thinking back to watching him juggle made me realize that I was right all along. There wasn’t anything particularly special about me just as their wasn’t anything particularly special about him. We both took something that we had the basic skills for, had a strategy, prioritized, and considered the consequences. You’re doing the same thing. Your balls of crystal might be critical work functions, feeding your kids a healthy meal, or drinking your water. It is whatever you deem to be the top priority and something to be treated as a non-negotiable part of life. Your rubber balls might be group project at work, the laundry, or reading books with the kids at night. These things can take a beat (or a bounce) before you jump back in or maybe they even bounce over to someone else’s plate. Your clay balls could be a passion project at work, spring cleaning your kitchen, upgrading your workout equipment. The clay is something that can fall and just sit, but only for a time, before you (or someone else) pick them back up, dust them off, and reprioritize them into the flow of the act.

At the end of the day, you have to have a good technique and skilled hands. You have to know how high to throw the balls and when to take your eye off one. You have to know which ones are yours to juggle and which ones to pass off. How to catch one being thrown in from the side and when to allow it to just pass you right by. The skill comes in prioritizing them and treating them with the care each requires that allows you to have the best act. Will there be times that a crystal ball drops, yes. It will be messy and troublesome and we’ll all survive and keep moving forward. Will there be a time that you forget the rubber ball is in fact rubber and treat it as though life itself would end should it fall, sure. You’ll learn from it to help you improve your prioritization next time. The magic comes not in a person being so special they’re able to juggle but in putting in the time, the willingness to drop a few, and the continued practice for a great performance.

The Beauty of Rest

My entire life I’ve heard messages of go, go, go. Get this thing done and start that. Maybe even while you’re finishing that one up get a jump start on the next. I remember even as a kid being taught to clean bathrooms in a certain order that would allow maximum efficiency and no wasted time. I was in high school when I was told to listen to book recordings while I slept because my mind didn’t know the difference and I could learn all night. As an adult I have found so many ways to hack this. I listen to parenting podcasts while doing the dishes. I get up early to start laundry, coffee, and time for myself so when the kids get up I can multi task different things, things that they can be part of like racing to see who can dress first and who can finish breakfast and get to the bathroom to pick out the toothpaste first. At work is the worst of it. We try to squeeze every ounce of time and productivity out of our people and ourselves. We track hours and sometimes even minutes of the day with more precision and rigor than we track actual output and productivity.

I have seen companies create elaborate tracking systems that account for every minute of every day. Forcing employees tally tasks and time themselves with an online stop watch. It might be an accurate way to determine what people are spending their time on but imagine the message it sends? People feel distrusted, like they are being called lazy, they feel that you’re adding things (clicking the timer and tallying the task) to an already overly busy schedule. If you’re a leader (at work or in any other capacity) and thinking, well I would never do that to my people, think of the more subtle ways you’re pushing the go, go, go agenda? Do you expect your people to be “on” consistently before and after their shifts? Do you structure every minute of time for your kids with sports, clubs, or even educational play? Do you come to your spouse daily with what the agenda will look like for the family that night?

Coffee, notepad, laptop, phone calculator, I had it all going and still couldn’t seem to get more done. I think I even had laundry to be folded somewhere in the background.

Maybe you’re reading this feeling smug thinking, That isn’t me. Oh I know Suzie Q is soooo like this. I should share this with Suzie Q, but that isn’t me. I don’t push people like that. OK. So maybe it isn’t that pronounced. Are you the one preaching to everyone that they should take time to unwind, meanwhile you’re sending them emails at 8-9 o’clock at night? Are you encouraging your kids to play while you feverishly wash the dishes and pick up the toys left in their wake? Are you sitting on the couch, chatting with a friend, catching up with a colleague only to loudly announce that you have to get something done now, as if every moment leading up to the proclamation was wasted time?

What are we chasing? Is there some illusive finish line I’m not aware of where there is a busiest award? Is someone planning to include that in a eulogy at some point? I hope and pray no one stands at the celebration of my life and says, “What can I say about Kelly? She kept everyone on task and always pushed so hard to check things off the list.” Gross. There is no prize on this one guys. There is no trophy for creating the longest list and checking all or most of them off. Likewise, there isn’t a punishment for having a shorter list either. Do you need to be productive and contribute to the team raising the bar and exceeding expectations? Whole heartedly and unequivocally yes. But does that mean mean you need to have your foot on the gas in every aspect of life all the time? Not even close.

Photo by Gabriel Santos Fotografia on Pexels.com

I believe strongly that there is a time or a season for everything in life. I like to think of this in terms of music (Also I think in terms of farming, but I do a lot of rural life references so we’ll go with an orchestra this time.) If you imagine an orchestra with all of the different instruments and the conductor at the head, they never play an entire piece with everyone playing as loudly as they can. That would be too much. Too much for the members of the orchestra and too much for the audience. There is no beauty in that. There is no room for anything else. Not to mention the forte of a tuba and the forte of a violin are very different so the heavy quarter notes will overpower the playfulness of the strings every time. So they don’t all go hard all of the time. The conductor gently quiets and intensifies different sections as appropriate. There are times where that tuba is going to give it all he’s got. There are times when a saxophone will take the lead with some jazzy little interlude. There are times that violins will go back and forth with a playful melody and counter melody. It doesn’t all happen at the same time and it doesn’t happen for the duration. There are times when the bass just plays low slow quarter notes to keep time. There are times when the flouts will all just be set down because they have a 10 bar rest. Rest. They all will, at some point, and with varying lengths, rest.

No one calls the tuba player lazy because he isn’t playing louder. No one rolls their eyes at the flutist for resting a beat. We focus our eyes and our ears on another area of the orchestra. It gives us a chance to miss the high pitch staccato notes to hear the solo of another instrument. We understand that that is what makes the piece dynamic and interesting and fun to listen to. We enjoy it more for the ebbs and flows of intensity and rest. Why can’t we recognize that in life? Why can’t we enjoy our lives for the ebbs and flows of intensity and rest? There are times for us to be at forte or to be playing our solos. There are times to harmonize in the background. There are whole seasons where we just set our instruments in our laps because, its our time to rest.

Work, home, family, kids, finances, hobbies, faith, love, this is the orchestra of life. The balance of it all is understanding which of our instruments to play, at what volume, at what tempo, and whether we are melody or harmony. There is a time for you, and for all of those around you, to belt out that solo, there is a time to support the other players, and a time to set down the instrument and simply immerse yourself in the beauty of the music around you.

Serene Routine, Chaos Without

Picture it, the Hirn household after 5 days of winter break, painful. One child is jumping off of a couch asking for candy. Another is screaming in a timeout because he threw his brother’s new toy and when sternly told to go get it and give it back he responded with a, “Why don’t you get it?!” Another is begging for playdough while you can see the stream of toys strewn behind him that he essentially just pulled out only to move on to another thing. I can truly stand in the middle of all of that and think to myself, I did this, this is my fault.

Every year I tell them to live it up on break. Watch all the movies, sleep in and stay up late, play outside for 10 minutes then come in only to go back out for another 10. We eat a big breakfast or a late lunch or something else that throws off meal time so I let them have granola bars and string cheese for dinner, go nuts! Then literally, they go nuts. They don’t know why they can’t control themselves a week in. They just know that all of a sudden Mom is angry more often and they feel tired and wired at the same time.

Put the snow suit on, take the snow suit off, put the snow suit on, take the snow suit off…

Their habits are important. Kids need those structures and rituals, basic as they may be, to support them. It is easier for them to do what they are supposed to, like politely ask for a small piece of candy, play together with their siblings, speak respectfully to other people, and pick up a toy or two before asking for another. They can do those things, I’ve seen them with my own eyes. It isn’t just a fluke or a stroke of good fortune that does it though. It comes from knowing what to expect, it comes from full bellies, and sleep my goodness does it come from sleep. They are different animals when their sleep patterns are off. Most people with kids already know this right. I mean, we all fail at it to certain degrees, see above, where we think this will be good, lets have some freedom, then it all unravels in front of your eyes and you do the movie quality slow motion ohhhh nooooo as they start taking off their clothes at Grandma’s house.

Do you ever consider the power of your habits though? I mean sure, you probably know not to jump on the couch and keep your shirt on at family gatherings but maybe when your habits are falling by the way side you lose your shirt in other ways. I, for example, go to bed at the same time every day and wake up at the same time every morning. I do the same routine Monday through Friday with a ever so slight variation on the weekend. I feel accomplished and centered and focused on my key priorities when I do that. Then during break week I stay up later to pick up the house and do a load of laundry. It is harder for me to get up on time. I don’t get everything done in the morning to the same quality that I normally would. When that happens even one day, just one, I can feel that I am off. I am a little shorter with my temper and a little more distracted during the day as I try to multitask what I didn’t get done.

This was more of the break routine. “Mommy you snuggle me?” You bet.

As I write this, just yesterday my little dude had to say “Mommy will you play with me?” at least 5 times while I said in just a minute because I was trying to make up for lost time. On the last time (when it finally got through and I stopped messing with the vacuum) he said, “Mommy? Will you pweeese play with me, now?” How heart breaking does that sound? I promise you it is worse in person. Thankfully the drawn out please with the missing L did shake me out of my multitasking state. But sure enough I fell right into my other side effect of lack of habits as soon as the big guys came in from outside for dinner. They were all excited to tell me about their day and marched in with their snow gear still on. On a normal day I would have said something like, boots off first then I’d love to hear! but not yesterday. Nope, I greeted them by shouting that they get their stuff off and wash up for dinner.

So in my defense they had been fishing all day and really were pretty dirty.

Without the support of our routines and our positive habits we’re on unsteady ground. We use those very basic blocks as corner stones to keep our day on grounded. It could be as elaborate as reviewing your daily calendar, working out, getting in the Word, and setting an intention for the day or it might be that you brush your teeth at a certain time each morning. However simple or intense, it sets you up for success. This is why in It’s the Most Craziest Time of the Year, I make a big point of saying to stick to them. Now, clearly I know that it isn’t possible 100% of the time. In those instances, I would just encourage you to reflect and understand how missing them is impacting you, and those around you. When I yelled at my kids for coming in with their dirty, wet snow clothes on it would have been easy for me to entirely blame them for the situation but they aren’t responsible for my reaction. Having the routines, knowing they were jacked, and understanding how that effects me enabled me to redirect the course (including an apology) rather quickly.

A Year In Review

This week is magical, the week between Christmas and New Year’s. You’re fresh off the high of seeing the wonder, the twinkle, the joy, and the appreciation of Christmas on the faces of everyone you come in contact with. Whether it is face-to-face, over a family Zoom call, or, best of all, on the faces of little children. You can’t help but feel a little lighter and a little warmer during Christmas and just after. I have come to find there are two camps of people during this week. The first camp takes this week as an extension of the holidays. They lounge, watch movies, play with, or otherwise enjoy, the gifts they had gotten and use the time to recharge. Some people do this at work too. They don’t take vacation days but they do treat it as a little work vacation where they spend more time socializing than completing actual work. There is an entirely separate camp who uses this week as a jump start, a launch pad for all of their resolutions. They make all the lists and set the intentions and search out a new and exciting goal setting method that they’ll try out on January 1st.

I will admit I have been in both camps. I have spent days at work sharing coffee breaks with teammates that lasted an hour or more. I’ve sat in meetings where the actual topic took 10 of the scheduled 90 minutes. I have also gotten so much done during this week. I have researched healthy meal plans, organized closets and kitchens, and completed whole projects at work when there were no distractions. I enjoyed both options and never regretted either, and yet, I would suggest there is a third choice that combines the two in a healthy way, allowing you to recharge and accomplish something worthy while also leaving margin enough to fit some of your preferred style.

So, before we race toward the new year, the celebrations and the goal setting, I implore you to reflect. Take some time to intentionally consider the year behind you and ready yourself for what is to come in the year ahead. The way I am going to recommend you do this is through a process I use on a weekly basis at work, but with one added step for the year. We call this OLSA.

Where were you this time last year? Right off the bat you get the extra step. Obviously if you’re doing this exercise regularly you don’t need to remind yourself where you were last Monday, but at the close of a year, I think we need a reminder. Where were you, physically and mentally? It helps to start with physically and if you can’t really remember, try using your camera roll as a prompt. Did you have an addition to the family? Were you gleefully making plans for what the year would bring? Were you frustrated with a stage in your marriage? Was work in a slump and you were looking for a way out? Or maybe you were killing it at the office. You could have been wedding planning for months at that point. Were you hoping to have a baby of your very own? What activities were you doing and how were you reacting to it?

Once you have that clearly in your mind, we’ll walk through the full year. We won’t walk through it chronologically but by using OLSA as our guide. What is OLSA you may ask (besides a very fun word to call out with a Spanish flare) it stands for obstacles, lessons, suggestions, and achievements.

What obstacles did you encounter? Now, I know this question seems obvious, especially this year. What obstacles didn’t we encounter? Truly think about it though, be specific. What challenges did you face? Was there illness for you or your family? Job loss? Loss of loved ones? Did you face obstacles in your relationships? With your mental health? What were they? What caused them?

Yes building is an amazing opportunity but its an obstacle too. It takes time, money, and energy away from us both and is stressful on the little men.

What lessons did you learn? Sometimes these are concrete areas where you received education, I obtained my associates degree, but much more often they are tied to the obstacles. For example, maybe you learned not to take time with your grandparents for granted after losing one that was so special to you. Maybe you learned that you can save a lot of money by never getting your hair cut and dyed or that you’re a stress snacker which this year caused significant weight gain (This section isn’t called fixed it mind you, just recognition of the lesson learned). What sort of things did you learn about yourself, those around you, your house, your work, your team, anything?

What suggestions would you give yourself? Now that you’ve thought through all that you’ve faced and everything you’ve learned, would you give yourself any advice? Maybe you would go back and tell yourself that lunch with a friend matters so say yes more often and don’t squander it. Maybe you would suggest some grace and remind yourself that you’re doing well and your priorities are solid so be gentle, you will weather any storm. Maybe you’d tell last years’ January version of you that those last 15lbs don’t matter, buy the bathing suit and take the trip now, enjoy.

What did you accomplish? This is always the one to end with. It reminds you you are strong and you’re running your race passing mile markers all along the way. Maybe you taught your children, something you would have previously said you weren’t capable of. Maybe your marriage is stronger than ever or maybe you were finally shown just how toxic it was and made a decision to turn a new page. Maybe you’ve grown in your work and persevered through all of the obstacles. Maybe you made other’s feel loved and that they mattered. Maybe you just continued living, and in the face of everything, that is pretty dang good.

I accomplished so much but one of my favorites on the list was learning how to be a better mom to teach and lead these crazies.

My recommendation in this is to take each of these one day at a time. Reflection is best done slowly and with margin. If you rush it you’re likely not getting the full benefit. Leaving your mind open all day long to the page allows for so many more opportunities to add to it. Now, I am a big proponent of you doing you and it’s not nice to should on people so I won’t. If you want take an hour a day and journal it all out, amazing, do that. If you want to muse about all 5 on your 20 minute commute, great, do that. Some reflection is better than no reflection. Even if you are really on board and want to take every evening to consider, journal, meditate on, pray about, and discuss in a small group setting, there is still margin of the other two days in the week to find your meal plans, organize your closet, watch your movies, and eat all the left over Christmas cookies. So enjoy, add your own flare, and consider how far you’ve come!

It’s the Most Craziest Time of the Year

I may have shared before how much I hate Fridays. People always seem to need things by the end of the week and if that comes up on Monday cool beans, but when it comes up on Friday that’s just a gentler way of saying, make my need your top priority and get it done now. I am very conscious of owning my schedule and making sure it has the margin and organization I need so I can typically account for these demands but it frustrates me. There is a much bigger version of this that happens at year end. We (individually and collectively) cast a vision for where the year will take us, create numerous goals that support that vision, spend months working toward it with many other priorities being cast on us along the way, and then around November and December everyone consults their goal list again and starts firing off demands and plans to accomplish a mountain of work by year end. Again, all of the important things seem to get done but seriously, frustrating.

This is already one of the busiest times of the year on a personal level with holiday traditions, time spent with family and friends, and all of the preparations that come along with it. For some reason it is also made to be the busiest time of year with work. Why companies don’t offset their calendars for things like annual trainings, performance reviews, goal setting for the year to come, and more, I will never know. (I don’t see why that ‘year’ couldn’t run from April to March every year but I guess no one really asked me.) Couple that with your personally professional goals, the aforementioned goals and plans of other people, and you have a solid two – three months of running yourself completely ragged, oh and don’t forget to be merry and bright. Give your kids a magical season and make sure that they are interested and well behaved for the family Zoom call with Aunt Betty.

I didn’t count how many times I said it but seconds before this shot I got to Mom Volume 10 with, “JUST PUT THE ORNAMENT ON THE TREE NICELY SO I CAN TAKE A PICTURE!”

There is just too much. I cannot hold it all. It is almost like this time of year is a hundred pound Jell-O mold on your Great Grandmother’s crystal serving platter that you promised to bring to your Mom’s, a friend’s, the office party, and your own family. Bring Jell-O sounded easy enough when you committed but now you’re trying to lug around this giant gelatinous glob on a priceless heirloom, without making a mess of yourself, and smile into the party. Oh and even if you manage to make it work the first time you have two more entirely different groups to impress with your strength, balance skills, and charm, so get ready. My arms are tired, my back hurts, I hate Jell-O, and all I can think is, please don’t trip! I don’t know that I’ve entirely dropped it yet but I can tell you that, many years (this one likely included) I’ve gotten to the second or third party with more lime on my shirt than on the plate.

I want to do well. I want to achieve more, raise the bar, provide a fun and challenging environment for my team, co-workers, and family quite honestly. I can’t do it all right now. Below are some things I remind myself of in times like this, hoping they’ll be a help to you too.

Take some perspective

The stress and demands of the season may feel big, and like you cannot handle them but I promise you, you’ve been here before. Last year had it’s own challenges and you handled them, relatively unscathed. You were still crushing it at work. Your kids lookback on it fondly. If you happened to drop the dang Jell-O everyone has either forgotten or knows they’ve totally dropped it a few years before too. You got this. Take a deep breath, remember that you don’t have to control everything because its already under control, and lets go.

Keep your routine

This doesn’t say create a routine. This is not an add. This is, if you normally go to bed at 10, don’t start staying up until mid-night. If you typically drink a 1/2 pot of coffee in the morning, don’t suddenly increase to a full pot or, conversely, decide that you’re doing away with all stimulants and you now only drink herbal tea. If you work out daily and drink all the water, don’t skip it to make Jell-O while downing Mt Dew to make you more productive. Now is neither the time to throw your body out of whack or throw your good habits out the window. In times of stress you need stability and normalcy, keep what you got. You could drink and extra glass of water now and then or think of a few things you’re grateful for but don’t get crazy, stick to what you know for now. If you have some cool new plan to raise the bar, awesome, let’s revisit in a month or two.

Prioritize

You cannot do everything well so the first step is to decide what is important. If there are 50 things on your work list and another 50 on your home list, somethings likely aren’t getting done and others are going to be checked off the list. Accept that it is going to happen (reread take some perspective) and identify what items in both lists you can’t risk phoning it in on. Maybe your asks from other people are piling up. Organize and categorize them to find what is most critical. It might be the requests from your boss, the first to have come in, the smallest effort ones so you can cross the most off. Maybe you and your kids have had a crazy whirlwind of a last few months (ahem it’s 2020 who is this not true for?) and you need some down time without phones, iPads, or yelling at each other back and forth about what homework needs to be done. Identify what is important, what will have the greatest impact for you and those around you, and focus your time, effort, and intentions there.

Set boundaries

You are responsible for you, not you and everyone you come in contact with. If there are things that are falling onto your plate inappropriately, push. them. off. Respectfully and professionally of course. You have your own 15 or 50 or 100 things to do today and you can’t take on the next gals list of 50 too. If it is sucking your time (and the life out of you) to work on a low priority project with someone, tell them you don’t have any more time to devote to it until after the holidays. If this person happens to be your boss or relative or some other non negotiable person, you can still do this, just a little more diplomatically, ‘I have ABCDEFG to complete in the next week, XYZ (which conveniently doesn’t include their topic) are critical, I think we should continue this work (conversation, time etc) after the holidays when there is more capacity.’ If they disagree they can help come up with ideas on how to reprioritize.

Share the burden

Most of the people around you that are demanding every ounce of everything you have, are good people with good intentions and don’t realize what they are asking of you. They are willing to help if they know what you need and here is a key, they don’t have to help with the things on your list. For example, if you are overwhelmed at home needing to plan a menu, go shopping, wrap the presents, buy a few more presents and then wrap those, you might be thinking no one else can do that. You know what they can do, clear dinner and do the dishes every night this week so that you can focus on what’s on the list. Or perhaps its at work that you need to lead the training, write the performance reviews, write your own self review, and review next year’s strategy. You certainly can’t give those things to the team but you can encourage them to ask questions of each other, let your boss know where your focus is so she won’t bombard you with more asks (and if she does she’ll know why you’re not responding), and decline a meeting or two where there are plenty of smart people around that don’t need your direction. This is called empowering those around you and creating leaders, you’re strengthening the whole of the group even in this crazy season, ata girl.

Make sure there is margin for the important things. Like impromptu snow angels on a frozen pond.

This is not the sort of list you can skip to the bottom on. You need gain perspective before you can appreciate your routine. You need to understand your routine to know how what time you’ll have available to devote to your priorities. You won’t know where to set boundaries or how to share the burden if you don’t have your list prioritized. I know this time of year is a lot. I know this year in particular is a lot. Through all of this though you are not alone, now and always I would encourage you to share your burden with the one who is strong but their burden is light.

Under Construction

If you ever have the opportunity to build your own home I highly encourage it. I am currently in the process of building our third, and final, home (fourth actually if you include that my parents built ours when I was kid). It is an amazing process to start from nothing but a plot of ground and in a few months (we’ll use that loosely) time you could be moving into a fully erected home that is completely designed and wholly loved by you. In case you have never had the opportunity, let me describe it for you from my uniquely experienced perspective.

The blank slate that would become our home.

When you decide to build a house there is this, almost honeymoon phase where you are just dreaming of what it could be. You often don’t start with real specifics but more so what you want to do or feel when you’re in it. For example, I want to be able to see my kids playing when I do the dishes. I want to watch the snow fall while I read a book. I want my bedroom window to face the north so I don’t see the traffic first thing when I wake up in the morning. I want light switches I can reach from my bed so I don’t have to get back out to turn them off at night. I want everything I need on the main floor so I can stay in this home as long as possible. I would even suggest you take it to the individual room. When I’m in the bathroom I want to feel relaxed and like I’m entering a mini spa at home. Or, I want tons of light to do meticulous make-up. Or, I need enough room to get all the kids’ teeth brushed and have a big enough sink to set a tiny butt up there when I need to wash out a skinned knee. While none of these actually dictate the budget, they do point you in the direction of your priorities. Once you understand what the key areas are you can start designing the house around them. There are a million designs online you can use for inspiration, draw out your ideas yourself, or work with a professional to meld the dream with reality.

Then you come fully into reality. You work with a builder and maybe even directly with a couple of subcontractors who let you know what will and won’t work from the perspectives of time, money, and functionality (you can’t have both all the cabinets and all the windows, you have to pick). Finally the home starts to take shape, on paper of course. In the midst of figuring out financing and signing contracts you start to add in the details, big and small. Do we want oak cabinets or hickory? Or maybe painted with glass doors? What style of faucets should we have in the bathrooms? And the kitchen? And the mud room? Do we get window coverings? Blinds or curtains? What color should this wall be? Should that room be a different color or the same? Should this room have carpeting or wood? Laminate or tile? Door hardware? Cabinet hardware? This is where I think so many people get into trouble building. There are so many decisions and you have to make all of them off of blueprints, tiny samples, and memory of what you already chose. They have a huge impact on the comfort, style, and cost of the home. This is where you need to use all of your organization and research tactics, rely on your experts, and use your original dream for how this home would feel, and your budget, as your guides. If you have no idea what sort of tile to put in your bathroom, remember what you wanted to feel while there, consult your flooring budget, take a look at Pinterest or HGTV for some inspiration, and work with those who know it best to make a final decision.

At the top of the stairs with the view of where the Christmas tree will be.

While the house is physically taking shape you can go often to experience the progress and see what you were dreaming about come to life. I literally stand in my bedroom with stud walls up only thinking, this is where I’ll wake up every morning. I stand in the kitchen where the stove will be imagining my kids running through the dining room and into the living room while I’m making dinner. I stand where the couch will sit imagining being all curled up with my husband and a hot cup of tea watching the lights on the Christmas tree next year. As much as I’m able, I experience the feelings I want the home to give me (and encourage all my dudes to do the same) all through the process. I want this place to feel like ours from the moment we carry the first box in. Each house that we’ve built has felt like home and like my heart is connected to each and every stud and electrical box and piece of drywall in the place. There have been a variety of budgets and differences in the intricacies of the homes but I can tell you that I was as invested in and loved the least expensive and simplest of them every bit as much as the more expensive and and intricate.

This is likely where some of you who have built are rolling your eyes at me. Yes there are mistakes, stray lights that you never asked for, gaps in the tile where the amount of grout looks weird, and wall colors that come out nothing like you planned. There are fights too (with all of the choices how could there not be) there are disagreements about all of the details where you fight nearly to the death about the shade of counter top and then the really bad ones where you never talked about it at all, assuming you were on the same page, and the foundation is poured with the house facing a different direction than you intended. You have to see past all of that. You have to see the end result and what you’re working toward. Those specifics are important but they’re really just part of building that feeling. Regardless of all of the rough spots, it is one of the most rewarding experiences because I’m using the detail to support the ideals.

Same view as the first picture. We’re getting there.

This is the same way I feel about building anything in life, but for this example, my career.

Start with the dream

I don’t limit myself to the next step or where I see myself next year. I start with the dream of where I want to be, supported by how I want to feel when I’m there. What is the lifestyle I want to lead? Do I want more time with my family? A bigger paycheck? What is the impact I want to have? Can I picture myself sitting in that office? Do I want to be running the floor with those people? Am I happy and fulfilled? Am I supporting the happiness and fulfillment of others around me? Then as the end goal starts to take shape I’m able to ask the more concrete questions.

Use your resources

What does this ideal picture look like functionally and logistically? When your dream is big and abstract (whether its a home or a career or anything else) it can be difficult to bring it back down into a manageable arena. This is where I’ll say again, you need to use all of your organization and research tactics, rely on your experts, and use your original dream for how you would feel, and your budget, as your guides. Search the web, not for openings, but for positions that sound like what you’re looking for. This can be totally out of your comfort zone because remember, its the end goal, not your next move. The budget sounds silly in this example but still rings true. I don’t know how often I’ve heard people say I want limited hours and a job I can leave at work so it doesn’t interfere with the family but they are living on an executive budget. (Low stress, limited hours jobs that pay six figures are hard to come by my friend.) The research will not only help you determine what but how to get there as well. If you’ve done the research and aren’t sure of the next step, consult an expert. Talk to a mentor, hire a coach, or come at it from a different angle like asking someone who seems to be living the life you’re after what they do and how they got there (aka finding a mentor).

Experience it while its under construction

Do everything you can to experience the end goal, the feelings you wanted to feel, while you’re working toward it. You wanted to travel more? Let yourself feel that excitement and anticipation while you’re taking a trip now, even if it’s just camping 30 minutes away. You wanted to have a greater impact on more people, add that value while you’re working with your small sphere now. Do everything you can do to lean into and enjoy all of the reasons you started this journey in the first place.

Keep your eye on the prize

Things will come up that will derail you. It could be not moving through your journey as fast as you’d like. It could be needing to take a sidestep or a step back to focus on family or to prepare yourself for the next role. It could be even bigger, those decisions that were never considered and outside of your control. Keep that end goal in mind and you’ll find that you’re truly living the dream while you work toward it regardless of where you are.