Doing What Matters

Years ago, while doing a short stint in Human Resources, I had the opportunity to work with Paul Sherman in Learning and Development. L&D was a funny choice for me because I’m the type of person that lives on auto-pilot, not someone that uses intention to create opportunities. During that time, our team did some amazing work but perhaps the greatest takeaways for me were the professional and personal relationships we developed.

Two weeks ago, Paul and his partner David invited a group of folks to their home for the very first What Matters?! Workshop. This is a program that they developed based not just on personal experience, but on tried and true tools that, if used on a regular basis, can help keep you living your own personal values. And while in the real world – where dinner has to be on the table and that report isn’t going to finish itself and the laundry has to be done and the bills have to be paid – it’s often the thing that falls by the wayside, but it doesn’t make it any less important than those other tangible things we say we “have to do”.

The What Matters?! Model is deceptively simple. Stop & Ask yourself what matters to you. Seems easy enough, doesn’t it? I found the first few answers came easily: family, work, friends, art. I had one more slice in my wheel of life and I racked my brain trying to figure out what to put there. Eventually I settled on health because I realized that if I’m not well, no one else around me is either.

Another piece of the process is Reaching In. As an extrovert that thinks out loud, reaching in is something I’ve always struggled with. I don’t do well in my own head. I get stuck. It can be tempting to ignore the hard truths. Knowing that this was going to be one of the hardest things to do, I asked a friend that was there to work through the exercise with me. My thought that I wanted to work on was “I’m not good enough.” Big, scary stuff here, right?

How do you undo the thoughts that are holding you back? I can’t say that this one is completely undone but it’s well on its way. Part of the exercise asked us to think of turnaround thoughts. For me, the main one was simply “I am good enough.” But what does that really look like? When my brain starts reminding me that I’m not and I can’t get that thought out of my head, what ammunition do I REALLY have? Well, I’ve been supporting myself since I was 16. I put myself through college. I am successful in my career. Another turnaround thought was “I don’t have to be perfect.” And when my brain tries convincing me that I’m not good enough because I’m not perfect, I can now remind it that I don’t have to be SuperMom to be a good Mom or June Cleaver to be a good partner. It’s a new frame of reference. The thoughts aren’t eliminated, but I realized that I don’t have to just sit back and let my brain and negative thoughts wreak havoc on me.

Because I’m an extrovert (no really, I am!), Reaching Out is something that comes naturally to me. I do sometimes worry that I’m bothering people if I call to talk to them about something, but for the most part, I have some very supportive friends in my circle. I’m a lucky girl. We created a toolkit, a physical reminder of the people that lift us up and support us and one of our assignments was to call people in that toolkit and reach out. Being in Provincetown for the weekend meant I had no service, so I held off on that until I was home.

One of the people I called is someone that’s very important to me and has always been of my cheerleaders, but with family and kids and work responsibilities and living two states away, it seems we never have the time to catch up. I tell myself that this person doesn’t have time for me because of how busy I know she is. I tell myself that I’ll call later, when I have time to have a lengthy discussion. But this workshop showed me that the time to call is whenever you want or need to. If you or they don’t have time for a long chat, put a time limit on it. Set your expectation. Just reaching out and leaving a voicemail saying you’re thinking about the person is – I have since found – touching in its own right and reminds people that they’re important to you. Try it. Call one person you don’t talk to that often and if they don’t pick up, leave a voicemail and see what happens. I’ve since done this four times and every single person I reconnect with seems genuinely happy to hear from me and immediately goes into a list of apologies for why they haven’t called. “I understand,” I say. “I haven’t called either. How are you?” And we move past it and reconnect. Boom!

The next two pieces of the model: Plan and Act are the ones that I have consistently had trouble with. I don’t hold myself to deadlines for personal projects. Yes, I keep a crazy task list at the office and get much satisfaction from ticking the boxes next to them but I don’t plan my personal life. I don’t set boundaries well. And I certainly don’t make myself a priority, even for five minutes a day. I feel like it’s a trap that many of us find ourselves in.

Planning and Acting aren’t about setting yourself up for failure. They’re not about those BHAGs, but they can be if that’s what you want them to be. In fact, what’s great about this process is that it’s about What Matters!? to YOU – not to your spouse or your friends or your boss. Y-O-U. Freeing and frightening at the same time, isn’t it?

Now that my novel is done, one of the things I’ve been grappling with is how to get it published. Part of me wants to be the next J.K. Rowling and what writer doesn’t honestly want to sell books? But in working with one of the other participants, I realized that when I sat down and started The Place We Went to Yesterday, it wasn’t about that. It became that when I started getting excellent reviews of it. It started from a place where I wanted to tell a story that was important to me. I realized through this process that What Matters?! is not HOW the book gets published (traditional vs. self-publication), but that it DOES. That someday I am holding a physical copy of the book that I wrote. That’s it.

With this in mind, I created a plan and listed out my action items. But action items mean nothing if you don’t hold yourself accountable. So, I put some very loose dates around things and went on my merry way. Until … we were handed a piece of paper and asked to write ourselves a letter talking about what we envision our life will look like in six months.

Suddenly it became very real.

In six months, a letter that I wrote to myself is going to arrive in my mailbox and it’s either going to make me really proud of how far I’ve come or it’s going to make me realize that I have gone back to living an unbalanced life that leaves me feeling numb and unfulfilled. Knowing I don’t want to feel that way again, I am trying to incorporate these practices into my daily life in small ways.

I use my long commute home to reach out and reconnect with old friends.

In the time it takes me to drink my coffee, I think about one personal thing I’d like to complete that day. Maybe it’s sitting down to journal or working on my website or researching agents or going for a walk. I promise myself I will give myself 20 minutes to do it. That’s less than missing one TV show and in the last two weeks, I’ve discovered how important that time really is to me.

Each day, I try to smoke one less cigarette than the day before. Where I was smoking a pack a day (for shame!), I am now smoking three less. I know I’m not ready to fully give it up, but I’m choosing to celebrate the small successes.

It could be choosing a salad over that cheeseburger. Or drinking a glass of water over choosing yet another Red Bull.

Let’s face it, being an adult probably isn’t what we all expected it to be but the beauty is that we get to create the life that we want. That’s a scary proposition because it means taking responsibility for our choices and for how we feel. It’s hard work. It’s not easy to stay positive. It’s not easy to stay on the path we set for ourselves. It’s not easy to not be drawn into other people’s bad behaviors and negativity. It’s not easy to make fun a priority when there are real-world things we have to grapple with like how to pay the bills and raise our kids.

But if you challenge yourself to just give yourself 5-10 minutes a day for YOU, I swear it will make all the difference in the world. To be cliché, we can only change ourselves so if not now, when?

For the tools I mentioned above – any MANY more – check out the What Matters?! website.  I’ll be posting updates about my own journey, but why not take that five minutes for yourself and start your own as well?