Do something for your Future Self

One of my favourite podcasts is Happier with Gretchen Rubin. In one of her recent episodes she and her sister (the co-host of the show) talked about “Doing something for your Future Self” and I have been thinking about this a lot recently. While I am a big fan of actually living a fully engaged life in the here and now (which can be quite a challenge), spending some time today on my Tomorrow Self is a very appealing thought. Especially when the day to day is a bit boring and dull, investing into your future can be a great boost. Because even if you are in a position where you can put money away into a savings account or a private pension fund (doing big grown up future stuff), thinking about The Future and all its uncertainties can be daunting and scary because we tend to think in bigger proportions and feel that small steps won’t make a difference. But that’s not quite right. Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring – which is probably a good thing – so breaking the future down into comprehensible and accessible chunks takes some of the scariness away and actually adds some fun.

Investing into your future can already start by taking a shower in the evening so that Tomorrow You can stay in bed 20 minutes longer, getting a bit more rest. Or preparing tomorrow’s lunch and packing the work bag (and of course also the gym bag that we all take to work every day…) the night before so that your morning isn’t too frantic. These things can be mundane chores or small presents we chose to give to our Tomorrow Selves (Tomorrow’s Elves?!). Or when you know you have a friend coming around for dinner on the weekend. Spending just 20 minutes each day during the week to clean the flat, to prepare a playlist, take some time to buy a really nice bottle of wine, to finally get those deco things you’ve been meaning to get out from the storage box underneath your bed or to generally think of ways to make that evening even more special can be a wonderful way to 1) get the most out of your overall positive anticipation vibes and release some fine Dopamin (result = less chocolate needed) 2) really make the evening very special. Your Future Self will love you for that!

I find the idea of my Future Self also helpful when I am about to take a decision that I am not fully convinced about, that I know is less than ideal or even as a form of external accountability. How will Tomorrow’s Fabienne think or feel about that? And yes, I have gone for that evening run that I couldn’t initially muster up the energy for because I wanted Tomorrow’s Fabienne to wake up with that nice pull on her muscles and a smug smile on her face, knowing she went for that run the night before. And yes I have also had that forth glass of wine, deciding that Tomorrow’s Fabienne will just somehow have to deal with it!

So, what can you do today for your Tomorrow Self? (or Weekend Self…or A Month From Now Self…?)

Picture credit: Kaboompics via pexels.com

More than exhaustion - the development of a burnout

The higher you climb, the further you can fall. A burnout doesn’t happen over night or within a couple of weeks. Why a burnout often starts with something „really great“ and why not every exhaustion equals a burnout.

Go here, if you want to read this article in German.

What does burnout mean?

I am about to have a burnout“ – who hasn’t said or heard this before? Even though, or probably because, there is still no clear official definition of what constitutes a burnout and if and how it differs from other diagnosis (first and foremost depression), I strongly believe that people use the term „burnout“ far too often and often in the wrong way. It’s important to understand its differentiation from normal exhaustion. Even though everybody talks about burnout, and you’d think the last thing this world needs is yet another article about it, there are many misconceptions which can lead to people not getting help in time.

The burnout syndrome describes the state of total psychological and physical exhaustion at the end of a long journey. It’s not necessarily the result of too much work and merely the exhaustion of one’s resources. Burnout starts much sooner – and paradoxically often with high levels of motivation and expectation.

Phase 0 – Anticipation

A new job, a new marriage, a baby, a new city. The start of a new life chapter often comes with a lot of energy, hope and zest for action. Even before the new chapter starts, you create images in our mind that describe an ideal scenario. And those images make you feel good which is why you are really looking forward to what’s to come.

Phase 1 – The Spring

The new chapter officially starts. The first days and weeks are usually fine, but it’s very easy to underestimate the energy required and spent. Adapting to a new situation is a heavy pull on our resources. And even if everything is truly great, there is usually a Low after some weeks.

Excursion Nr. 1 (especially to all employers out there):

Cyclical performance curves of 8-12 weeks are totally normal. Even in „regular mode“ we go through phases where we are more attentive and productive, and there are phases when that just isn’t the case. To reach the same level of performance during those times, we need to dig deeper into our energy reserves. In the short term, that’s ok, in the longterm it’s not. Because while in theory we need more and more to refill those reserves, in practice we never actually do it! Again: Bringing constant levels of performance is resource-heavy. Phases for regeneration during which we don’t reach those levels are perfectly normal and extremely important to recharge the batteries.

Phase 2 – Reality Check

After that first low you never really reach that High from the beginning again. That’s the same at work and with love. Reality kicks in and all of a sudden you notice things that are at odds with those ideal scenario images in your mind. That’s the beginning of the conflict between your own (intrinsic) needs and the outer (extrinsic) world.

Excursion Nr. 2: 

The best definition for stress I have come across so far is this: „Stress is the subjective assessment, that ones resources are not sufficient to master a certain situation“. That means: not every situation is stressful for everybody. It’s about the negotiation between „the inside“ and „the outside“, not about the amount of work as such. And: something is missing, otherwise that negotiation would not be a problem.

So, stress has started to emerge, caused by a conflict between our intrinsic needs and the extrinsic demands. And what we need is actually pretty simple:

Excursion Nr. 3: 

Watching small children can be super cute and also very interesting as we can learn a lot about human needs. Aside from sleep and food, kids need:

  • feeling safe and snug
  • human attention and affection
  • room to explore and create, and
  • the possibility to develop and express their own individuality

Those needs don’t really change much over the course of a lifetime. Growing up and becoming „socialised“ means that they get pressed into forms that require adaptation and compromise – otherwise society wouldn’t work. But that also means that something gets suppressed.

Adult humans also need opportunities for development and creation as well as recognition and feedback for their work. That makes an environment safe. If that’s not provided, the gap between intrinsic and extrinsic widens and most people rather sacrifice their needs than the context they are in. They adapt and suppress even more those deeply rooted necessities. And often they don’t see that the context contributes a lot to that gap.

An unhealthy environment (and a burnout-booster) mostly shows the following characteristics: No room for creation and decision making, no possibilities for development, no constructive feedback. This can mean that we constantly have to surrender our own schedules and priorities to somebody else’s, that we produce results but nobody sees and values them, or worse, somebody claims them as their own. Or that we want to execute a decision but we keep being ignored. This leads to a loss of our sense of impact and our trust in our abilities and judgement. Naturally that also brings our motivation levels way down which usually take our productivity in tow with them. And to keep reaching those usual levels of high productivity, we have to dig deeper and deeper into our reserves, in order to „keep functioning“.

Especially when expectations were very high in the beginning, or when the situation doesn’t look that bad from the outside, it’s hard to admit that situation to ourselves. Doubting our own values shakes our trust in our judgement even more which can lead to the first sense of crisis.

And that’s the critical moment. If you manage to act here, you can save yourself. If positive changes can be made at this moment, you can avert a continuous negative development.

Attention employers!

This moment often happens at the end of a probation period! Hence an open discussion is so important at that time as it determines the ongoing relationship.

Adaptive difficulties in the first weeks / months are totally normal. To enter a new situation also means dealing with unknown unknowns – on both sides. Or, no matter how many books about babies you can feasibly read, no book will tell you how YOU will feel. We are far too unique for that!

Phase 3 – Denial

If you don’t act in this stressful situation, you are at risk of triggering this development: You work more and more and you go beyond your personal boundaries. Your energy reserves get emptier and you continue ignoring your needs with even more determination. Head- and backaches or lack of sleep are being ignored and „cured“ with pills. In fact these are signals from your body and cries for help! Friendships, relationships and hobbies are being undernourished. You become a robot and you keep draining the few resources you have left.

Others escape into themselves and activate the „denial mode“. Simply marking time replaces any form of constructive work. Both modes (over-doing and denial) make you distance yourself from yourself more and more and you start to neglect yourself. To fill the nagging emptiness and the emotional hunger, to quieten the nagging thoughts, many start to compensate with food, alcohol, drugs, sport, sex, or even more work. All those things (except for hard drugs) are fine within a certain limit, but not when they are being abused.

Phase 4 – Withdrawal

Your thinking gets narrower and you focus entirely on the negative. If you still have social contacts at that point, you risk loosing them too – no friendship can take excessive amounts of complaining without a scratch. Friends often walk away and you withdraw yourself even further, convinced that nobody understands you or can help you.

Empty resources, an increasingly unhealthy lifestyle, feeling of loneliness and a growing sense of indifference can often lead to suicidal thoughts.

Phase 5 – Breakdown

Not everybody feels the crash as such. Mostly those who have maintained a manic and artificially active overdrive-mode beforehand – because the difference between yesterday and today is staggering. Those who have been in denial mode before also may not even be able to leave their bed at all, but this then looks like a gradual development, and not like a loud and dramatic crash.

The result is the same: A damaged, exhausted human with no sense of purpose, who is so far detached from himself that he does not even know any more who he is and who blames himself for everything. And depending on how far the damage has proceeded, he might not even be able to ask for help. The crisis has reached its peak and professional help is required.

Learning to spot the warning signals

These are „classic burnout phases“ that usually take months or years. Of course it doesn’t always happen exactly like this and above all, it does not just happen in the context of work. Young mums, pensioners, singles in a new city – any new situation that starts with high expectations has the potential to develop into something disastrous. Aside from the described decline of your health and parts of your personality, relationships can be ruined, bank accounts can be wiped or other damages can happen that may only barely or never be able to be corrected.

A burnout is an identity crisis, that often starts when expectations are set too high. The final total exhaustion is only the socially accepted signal that something isn’t or hasn’t been right for a while. But burnout is more than exhaustion – something you can also feel if you’ve worked nonstop towards a deadline for 3 weeks or if you’ve helped 5 friends move house on consecutive weekends. Burnout starts earlier and goes deeper. If you are still able to pull the emergency break and to actively do things that are good for you, you are luckily still some steps away from a burnout.

But no matter where you are on the scale. When things happen that don’t feel good – pay attention. Sadness, loss of motivation, belly ache or sleeping problems all happen for a good reason. Thoughts like „I don’t think anybody cares“ or „If I just keep pushing through, it will be fine“ can be warning signals that something really isn’t right.

When you openly confront and question those signals, you give yourself a really good chance to act and to look for help.

 

Picture: Tyler McRobert via unsplash.com

Use Habits as your Little Helpers

I don’t take the first weeks of a new year too serious. I think mid-December until mid-January is a time for winding down, reflecting, spending time with family members and other loved ones, sleeping, eating, and mentally preparing for a new year to come. For me, the beauty of that time lies in the break of usual routine and indulgence in a way that just doesn’t happen over the rest of the year.

Now it’s February and we are all back to our usual routines which to me feels like the right time to really take action about all the changes we’ve been pondering about in the last few weeks.

First step is of course finding out what the goal is. Some people believe in the power of SMART goals, but some don’t. I think it depends a lot on somebody’s personality and also on the topic at hand whether such a technique helps you or not. If anything, thinking about goals more in terms of ’sustainable life adjustments‘ (go running twice a week for 20 minutes) rather that something fixed (lose 5kg) can also decrease the fear of failure right in the beginning.

Second, and this is where the fun begins: Identify HABITS  to help you reach your goal. There is a lot of research going into this subject and I am a strong believer in the power of habits. Simply put, habits are „the things we do more often than others“ – and it’s actually a lot of fun looking at your weekly schedule in that way to understand yourself better. You might not understand why you are not sleeping well. Looking at your daily bedtime routine might really give you some clues.

The right habits make achieving a goal not only more realistic but also easier, because:

„Habits take away the hassle of decision making.“

For example: if you make Mondays and Wednesday your days for exercising after work, that’s all you need to know. These are the days you will pack your bag in the morning (or the evening before), you take that bag to work and off you go! No more thinking about „when will I go to the gym“ – having made that decision really frees you up to think about other things. It’s very resourceful in that sense.

As soon as you have made that decision, your brain can also rehearse. While packing your bag, you can already imagine how you will drive over to the gym instead of home and once you’ve „seen“ this once, it becomes like a natural thing when you then do it in real life.

Habits can also help you find any accountability support you might need. Some people are excellent at sticking to their own plans, and others need a little outside help. If you want to spend each day from 7am-8am writing your novel, you can set your alarm or ask your early riser friend to call you at 6.55 to remind you.

Habits can also help you when you have an unsteady life, for example if you travel a lot. If you have an exercise routine that you know you can easily do, even in a small hotel room, you have a wonderful resource to keep you maintain your exercise levels at least to some extend. The habit of „always choosing the healthiest lunch option that’s in front of me“ can also be a great guide wherever you are. And if the healthiest option one day is a burger, so be it.

Habits can also help you with self-control, especially when you are trying to cut something down or out. If you have a hard time cutting down on afternoon snacks but you know that a cup of green tea usually eliminates your cravings, make it a habit to have a cup every day at 3pm.

You can go even further with this. For example: In 2015 I made the decision to never buy a book on Amazon again but instead support my local independent book stores. As a „punishment“ I decided that if I slip, I will make it a habit to then buy 2 extra books in one of those stores. And this has only happened once. The second I got the confirmation email from Amazon, I rolled my eyes and off I went to the book store. It really helped me stick to my rules and to never make that mistake again!

Picture credit: kaboompics.com via www.pexels.com // CC0 license

Wrapping up 2015

As 2015 is coming to a close, what best (and perhaps more obvious) to suggest than a proper wrap-up?! As modern life so often comes with the taglines „time is flying“ or „I don’t really have time for anything“, setting some time aside to reflect on those 365 days, we might realise that last Christmas feels a long time ago and that we actually did do a few things here and there in the meantime.

I am a great fan of Have Done Lists, the little sister of the better known To Do List. (Yes, choosing the female form is on purpose!) Going through notes, calendar, emails, whatever it takes, to mentally rebuild a time frame again (a day or a week) and write down everything important that has happened and, most importantly, has come to an end in that time frame, gives me a great sense of progress and, well, closure. I do surprise myself regularly with just how much stuff I get done on a given day and it occasionally even gives me something that I rarely allow myself: pride.

Another benefit of having a Have Done List, is the looking forward bit. Whether it’s during exceptionally busy or quiet times, knowing that at the end of it I will be able to add xyz to my Have Done List, gives me a great deal of motivation. Laziness isn’t something I can handle particularly well and whenever I get caught up in a lull, picturing myself writing things on my Have Done List fires up the engine again. The anticipation of the joy of achievement works much better for me than the fear of failing.

So now it’s December 2015 and while there are technically still 23 days to go, I already sat down last weekend and wrote down my „This is what happened in 2015“ list. And what a joy it was. These are the categories I listed things under and I encourage you to take some time and make such a list for yourself, with whatever categories that apply:

This is what happened in 2015

  • Trips I have taken / new places I have discovered (day trips, weekend trips, holidays)
  • Interesting books I have read
  • Films I have seen
  • Learning opportunities I took advantage of (online / offline courses, lectures, podcasts, articles etc.)
  • Friends I have spent time with
  • New friendly people in my life and moments shared with them
  • Unforeseen things (e.g. new job, sold the house, got a pet etc.)
  • Achievements (e.g. completing a degree, running that 10k race)
  • Events / celebrations (birthdays, weddings, births etc.)

The format I chose this year were clouds. I took a large piece of flipchart paper and drew several clouds with topics.

I first wrote everything that came to my mind from memory into the respective clouds. In a second step, I then consulted my various calendars and of course realised that I had totally forgotten a number of things.  The process was a lovely walk down recent memory lane and the result was a pretty full picture of things that have happened in 2015. There were some random individual items that didn’t need or justify a cloud on their own, so I just wrote them in between.

As it turns out, I had a pretty great year and visualising it like that felt really good as I would have genuinely forgotten some lovely moments. While I had not intentionally focused on only the happy things, I did not actually write down many things that were exclusively negative. Of course, there were moments of sadness in 2015, but not many of great substance or importance when taking a step back. I do not take that for granted and I feel immensely thankful for that.

To finish this process, I picked 3 things that stood out and that, if I was asked in a dinner / elevator situation, would be my 2015 highlights.

I can not recommend this highly enough. I have been doing such wrap-ups since 2011 and while some years were tougher than others, taking a moment to reflect on also the good things, the surprises, the lovely words and hugs from kind people has always helped putting things into perspective.

So, happy reflecting and a merry end to 2015!

 

Picture credit (CC0 license): Daniel Frese (via pexels.com)

Winter is Coming (so DO IT NOW)

It’s 7 weeks until Christmas. Most people’s reactions to this will be 1) Oh, leave me alone! 2) I hate November 3) Let’s start planning our summer holiday for 2016 or any combination of the above.

I love this time of year. October is obviously the more beautiful month with its spectacular colours, but November, with its frosty chill has its very own qualities and we can use the start of winter for some score keeping and reflection. What’s this year been like? What were the surprises? What were the highlights and the low points? And most importantly: Was there something I had planned to do this year but haven’t done yet? If the answer is Yes, then GET TO IT NOW.

‚Now‘ is, in most cases, the best time to do anything but especially with 8 more weeks until we reach 2016, that’s plenty of time for a final 2015 sprint. That then also allows us to start 2016 with a ‚clean(ish) slate‘.

Anything from a dentist appointment to reading that book or setting up a pension scheme or cleaning out the closet or painting the flat (that’s what I will do in 2 weeks!) or more difficult: having that conversation….. DO IT NOW! Dragging things along with us just weighs us down. Winter is tough enough as it is, so what we really don’t need on top is knowing that we have yet again failed to do that thing and because we have not managed to do it so far, we’ll just put it on our to do list for the next year. Chances are, you will just keep pushing it further into the future.

And if there is nothing on your to do list (really?!), why don’t you start Christmas present planning and buying NOW. The people you will get presents for are probably not going to change much between now and Christmas, so why not use this quiet time, before the madness starts, to think about what you would like to give to them. I think that’s much closer to the actual seasonal spirit than asking people on the 20th December what they want and then buying something they just haven’t gotten around buying for themselves. Isn’t it much nicer to give something personal, with meaning and all that. Imagine yourself as the receiving part in this situation and I think you’ll agree.

Dealing with this now will also make for a much more enjoyable and calm festive season. There is nothing more soul-crushing than shopping in December.

So, roll up your sleeves and

  1. DO THAT THING YOU MEANT TO DO IN 2015 (or 2014 even)
  2. THINK ABOUT CHRISTMAS PRESENTS & ORGANISE THEM NOW

 

Picture credit (CC0 license): startupstockphotos.com (via pexels.com)

The Art of Maintenance

I recently had to pay a lot of money for a washing machine repair.  Annoying as that was, the repair person made it very clear that this was due to bad maintenance on my part. Of course I made the resolution to look after my washing machine much better from now on and to regularly (that’s the key) take care of its maintenance.

The same thought crossed my mind again when I spent 3 hours defrosting the freezer after it had been building up ice over months and months. Knowing that it would eventually turn really bad, I had meant to defrost it in the meantime. Meant to….

Kitchen appliances aren’t the only things that require care taking. Other areas in life can also become rather costly when regular maintenance is neglected. 

„The things you do every day matter more than the things you do every now and then (or never)“, 

is a great quote I have come across and can relate to. We all know that „every little helps“ and that it’s the apple that we are supposed to eat every day that eventually keeps the doctor away. Not the odd grapefruit. We all know this – yet it’s hard to act accordingly.

Most of us want a healthy body and fewer pounds on our hips. And everybody who wants to seriously make changes to their health knows that this requires consistent behaviour. I am not talking about restrictive diets or exercise regimes, but about decisions. There are probably at least 10 occasions throughout the day when we can either make a decision FOR or AGAINST maintaining our health. Car or bike. Salad or lasagna for lunch. Water or coke. Biscuit or apple. Ongoing good decisions, or maintenance, make for a healthy body. Then it’s also ok to slip occasionally.

On the flip-side, ongoing bad decisions can cause a lot of rubbish to build up. Eating badly 6 days out of 7 can then not be undone by a single 25 minute run every two weeks. Just like with washing machines, repairing the damage can then become very costly. Not just in money terms.

Same with relationships. While perhaps not required, possible or appropriate on a daily basis, but relationships need maintenance and care too. Taking relationships for granted, just like a healthy body, is a risky strategy.

While good relationships don’t break apart even if there is a dry spell, we are at least missing out on a real feel-good-factor in the meantime. And even solid relationships can suffer from lack of maintenance. Perhaps they don’t collapse entirely, but if we miss out too much of a friend’s life over a period of time, that person might slowly drift away from us.

So, what are the areas in your life that could do with better maintenance?

What actions can you take now to make a positive change?

It’s also worthwhile looking at things that you do maintain, simply out of habit, not because you actually want these things in your life.

Is there something you do regularly that’s actually not good for you? Can you stop this now? 

Too much social media perhaps? Chewing your nails? Too much time spent ruminating? Holding onto a grudge against somebody? 

Picture credit (CC0 license): unsplash.com (via pexels.com)

The First Step

Es gibt nichts Gutes, außer man tut es“ is a famous German saying by writer Erich Kästner, which loosely translates into

„Nothing good happens unless you do it“. 

It’s practical and to the point. And it sounds so simple. Too simple almost. „I know what I want, I just need to do it“ is something you have probably thought more often than you care to admit. The hard part was the thinking bit, right? Well…

There are many reasons why a plan can fail and we are usually very good at considering them all. Bad timing, not enough resources, not enough patience for a proper plan, not enough perseverance….the possibilities are almost endless.

Of course there are also a number of reasons why a plan can succeed, turning „bad“ into „good“ and taking out the „not“ in the examples mentioned above, for instance.

But the most important part of any journey, of any adventure, is the First Step. If we don’t take the first step, we won’t be taking the second, the third…and we will never reach our goal. We don’t even give ourselves the chance to find out whether our idea was a good one, or what might have been around that corner. Could have been something exciting, who knows?! And committing to the first step doesn’t mean we can’t then change direction , but it means: we are on the way.

Some things do of course require some planning. But any good plan should always include:

  1. knowing what the First Step will be (making that phone call, getting up 20 minutes earlier to do that thing, putting my sport clothes next to my bed, throwing out that junk food in my cupboard)
  2. committing to a concrete date and time when it will be taken (sometime tomorrow or next week is no good)

Setting a goal can also be useful. But I would argue that in most cases knowing the goal is not necessary. Starting the journey is much more important than knowing where it needs to end.

Right then:

What’s the one thing you’ve wanted to achieve or change for a while? 

 

What’s the First Step you will take and when will you take it? 

 

Picture credit (CC0 license): unsplash.com (via pexels.com)