The Road to Resilience: 4 Ways to Bounce Back From Setbacks


We all know fear, disappointment, and heartache. And we all experience joy, optimism, and happiness. As stress becomes increasingly prevalent in our lives, we look for ways to shore up our ability to cope. While we can’t necessarily change our environment, we have the power to shift our response to that environment by building resilience. Resilience isn’t a single skill; it’s a variety of skills and coping mechanisms to help us build a more optimistic outlook as a buffer when times get tough. There are four questions we can ask ourselves to start building our resilience muscle.

Am I operating from the inside out?

Gratitude can change your life for the better. A 2012 University of Kentucky study showed that intentionally noticing the good things in life and being grateful for them builds neural pathways to optimism, enhances empathy, and reduces aggression. Multiple studies have revealed a strong link between gratitude and well-being. An attitude of gratitude improves psychological health, increasing happiness and reducing depression. By focusing on the good things in life, we can reduce toxic emotions like envy, resentment, frustration, and regret.

Focusing on the positive each day shifts our perspective. Writing down the things we are grateful for helps us keep them in mind. Reflecting on those moments of gratitude builds neural pathways to optimism, regardless of whether we naturally see the glass as half full or half empty.

Operating from the inside out is about focusing on others rather than ourselves. Random acts of kindness can dramatically improve our happiness. Stanford students who were asked to perform five random acts of kindness over a week reported much higher happiness levels than those of a control group. The acts of kindness were appreciated by the recipients, and those who were giving felt good about themselves. In his book, Flourish, Martin Seligman writes, “Doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.”

Am I willing to embrace failure?

To be human is to know failure. It’s an inevitable part of life. One of the frailties of the human psyche is our fear of failure. Yet without overcoming fear, we can’t innovate, create, or push forward as we are paralyzed by it. A mindset that is open to mistakes—and allows space to reflect on those mistakes and learn from them—creates a mental value system around learning. Opening our minds up to the possibilities of change exposes us to a world full of new skills, new opportunities, and new achievements. It takes courage to persevere in spite of setbacks. As Mark Twain put it, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”

Not succeeding is not the same as failing. We all experience successes and failures. But the only real failure is when we are incapable of recovering from setbacks. Thomas Edison said, “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” When you stumble, ask yourself whether you are focused on your mistake, or embracing the opportunity to learn from it.

Am I comfortable with my committee?

We all have experiences that color how we approach every aspect of our lives. Each of us brings our own filter into every interaction. It is this filter that creates stories, myths, and legends to resolve confusion and provide direction for each of us as we search for meaning. Many times, these stories come from authority figures – often family members, teachers, or others whose opinion means a great deal to us. And often, the stories are not kind.

There is a saying that a committee is a life form with several mouths, but no brain. Each of us has an inner know-it-all in our heads telling us we’re not good enough. We carry these voices with us throughout our lives, and they can hold us back when we need to move forward. Overcoming them means facing them head on and challenging the validity of the stories they are telling. Making peace with the inner critic means looking at our stories without judgement. Ask a trusted friend or colleague to help test the statements that your committee is making. Calling on past successes also serves as hard data that can help us challenge the negative assumption, move forward, and prove the committee wrong.

Am I choosing wonder over worry?

Research by psychologists at Stanford University and the University of Minnesota shows that experiencing awe increases well-being, giving us the sense that we have more time available. When experiencing awe, we are completely present, and time seems to stand still. We’re off autopilot and 100 percent engaged with the experience. We’re unlikely to be looking at our phones if we’re taking in the majesty of the Grand Canyon for the first time.

The negative emotions that drive our fight-flight-freeze response cause inflammation throughout the body as they increase cortisol and adrenaline production. Studies have shown that individuals who recall more experiences of awe in a month-long period have lower levels of cytokines (the proteins that cause all that inflammation) than those who did not harness awe. Awe is in the smile of a loved one, the kindness of people, the laughter shared with a colleague, the feel of a gentle breeze on your skin, the rise of the moon on a clear and starry night, or music that makes your heart soar. If we can harness wonder, we can start to see the world around us through a lens of positivity that builds optimism and reduces fear. Moments of wonder are all around us, every day. We only have to look up to see them.

Putting it all together

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.” It’s easy to be optimistic, upbeat, and positive when things are going well. When we’re having a tough day, however, resilience can be more challenging. Consciously shifting our perspective to create optimistic neural pathways takes repetition, practice, and persistence.

By shifting our focus to the positive, we can change our perspective to take a longer view of any situation. In spite of the myriad demands of work and life, building resilience over time helps us to pick ourselves up and carry on in the face of adversity. Neurons that fire together wire together—the more we practice resilience and nurture our recovery from stress, the more natural it becomes to have an optimistic, forward-thinking outlook, and the more capable we are of overcoming stress and moving forward in spite of it.

Excerpts of this article are from Taming the Sabertooth: Resilient Leadership in a Stressful World


The Myth of Multitasking: How doing more is dumbing us down

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Envision the always-on millennial, iPhone in one hand, switching effortlessly between emails and business reports on a laptop in the other. A vision of productivity in this wondrous age of digital technology, right? Wrong. They are seriously dumbing themselves down. Have you ever felt the triumph of control that comes with doing several things at once? Don’t be fooled by that euphoric feeling—it’s all a trick. Multitasking is a myth.

Think you’re good at doing several tasks at the same time? Reading and listening to music? Doing email in meetings? Driving while talking on the phone (hands free of course)? Neuroscience research shows that the brain is physically incapable of multitasking. Instead, we are switching tasks quickly—a start/stop process is going on in our brain. And as we switch, withdrawing our attention from one task to another, this creates a split-second in which the brain is in no-man’s land. It’s called a post-refractory pause. Think of it like a train switching tracks: as it leaves one track when the switch is thrown, for a second it is between tracks before lurching onto the other track. This start/ stop/start process is rough on us; rather than saving time, it costs time (even very small micro seconds). It can feel as though we are losing control. It’s also less efficient. Tasks become harder, and we make more mistakes. Multitasking is the science of screwing several things up at once. And over time it can be energy-sapping.

A crisis of energy

Tony Schwartz, president and CEO of The Energy Project, calls this a personal energy crisis. As the demands of technology increase, we expect our capacity to deal with it to increase. But the pace is unsustainable. The greater the performance demand, the greater the need to nurture recovery—to rest, reset, and recharge. “Human beings aren’t designed to run like computers: at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time. By mimicking them, they’re ending up running us,” he writes. The reality is we simply can’t talk on the phone, read email, send an instant message, and watch YouTube videos all at the same time. Instead of cruising down the information superhighway, we’re stepping on the gas and then hitting the brakes, over and over. The stop/start process reduces our IQ by as much as 10 points, causes mental blanks, and reduces our productivity by 40 percent, according to Dr. Julia Irwin, senior lecturer in psychology at Sydney, Australia’s Macquarie University. Multitasking makes us stupid.

Don’t believe me? Take a small test that I ask the attendees in my high-performance workshops to try:

Draw two horizontal lines on a piece of paper. Now, have someone time you as you carry out the two tasks that follow:

On the first line, write:

I am a great multitasker

On the second line: write out the numbers 1-20 sequentially, like this:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

How much time did it take to do the two tasks? Usually it’s about twenty seconds.

Now, let’s get multitasking. Draw two more horizontal lines. This time, again having someone time you, you’re going to write the same two lines, but you’ll do it a bit differently. Write the first letter on one line, and then the first number on the line below, then the next letter in the sentence on the upper line, and then the next number in the sequence, switching from line to line.

So, you write the letter “I” on the top line, and then the number “1” on the bottom line. Then switch back to the top line and write the letter “a” and then the number “2” on the bottom line and so on, until you complete both lines. I am… 1 2 3…

How did it go that time? On average, my workshop attendees’ time is double or more what it was on the first round. You possibly also made some errors, and you were probably frustrated since you had to “rethink” what the next letter would be, and then the next number. This same exercise works on something as simple as reciting the alphabet and counting from 1 to 26. It doesn’t matter how simple the task is, or how much muscle memory we have in performing it. Switch-tasking on something very simple or something often more complex at the same time makes any task more difficult, it takes longer, and it confounds our brains.

A summary of research examining multitasking on the American Psychological Association’s website describes how so-called multitasking is neither effective nor efficient. The findings demonstrate that when we shift focus from one task to another, that transition is neither fast nor smooth. Instead, there is a lag time during which our brain must wrench itself from the initial task and then grab onto the new task. Remember the train switching tracks? This shift takes time (up to 40 percent more time than single/mono-tasking). The results are consistent for children doing their homework while watching TV to employees who show greater productivity when they don’t check their email frequently.

Choose your distractions

If we subscribe to the single-tasking approach, then we must choose our distractions carefully. Distractions come in all shapes and sizes, and often without warning. Some of the usual culprits that distract us no matter what time of day it is are email and social media. Of course, that inbox isn’t going to clear itself out, so we have to consciously decide when to tackle it. Instead of reacting to emails as they come into our inbox, turning off the email notification alert and scheduling a few times during the day when we are not at our most productive or energetic is a perfect time for this kind of work. Checking in on social-media feeds once in a while as opposed to throughout the day will also free up significant periods of time that can be used more productively.

Time of day also has an impact on our productivity. Some of us are more productive first thing in the morning, whereas others may like to ease into high-energy tasks later in the day. Creating a routine and following it consistently creates physiological energy spikes that can fuel us to power through a task. The repetition of the routine focuses the mind and trains our brains to reproduce that focus and keep us operating at our peak. Peak times are different for each of us. The key is finding yours and using it to get to your flow state. As Somerset Maugham says, “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

If we are immersed in a task that demands a great deal of cognitive energy, it can take up to fifteen minutes to get back to the same level of immersion in that task after being distracted. When we are in a state where our work is flowing seamlessly, and we feel both challenged and capable, we’re far more likely to deliver an outstanding result. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow, flow is “the optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” The passage of time is unnoticed as we are completely immersed and present in what we are doing. It is this state that enables the most progress on any task and delivers satisfaction for a job well done. But this only happens if we can resist the urge to check things like email, social media, text messages, etc

Give yourself the gift of presence

We all deal with distractions. In an increasingly connected world, it’s difficult to put down the device and focus on only one conversation, one interaction, or one task. Next time you’re tempted, I invite you to give yourself the gift of single-tasking for a limited time instead, perhaps fifteen minutes, and see if you can complete the task better and faster, with energy left to spare. Being truly present is about mindfulness and it is in that moment that we can harness our productivity and creativity. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, “With mindfulness, you can establish yourself in the present in order to touch the wonders of life that are available in that moment.” If we’re not paying attention, we may miss what really matters.
This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Running on empty: How to kick your get-up-and-go into high gear

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Ah a new year, filled with promise, opportunity and resolutions. For many of us, the reality is that another year brings yet another cycle of feeling low on energy as we contemplate looming deadlines, responsibilities and obligations. The ebb in energy often comes from a festive season filled with indulgences that have left us feeling unhealthy, combined with the new year blues that afflict many of us in the coldest and darkest months of the year. We are in a vicious cycle of makes us crabby and fatigued, with no desire to eat well or exercise. We can be left feeling like a sailboat without a breath of wind to push us forward. It’s happened to most of us, but we can do something about it. It just takes a focus on three building blocks of energy: sleeping well, moving well, and eating well.

Sleep well

Sleep is more than beauty rest. It’s also brain rest and is one of the most important aspects of well-being. A good night’s sleep keeps our heart healthy, reduces stress, makes us more alert, reduces chronic inflammation, improves our memory, can help us lose weight, and may even prevent cancer. Our minds are surprisingly busy while we’re snoozing. In a process called consolidation, we strengthen memories or practice skills we learned while awake. Sleep also helps restore the brain by flushing out toxins that build up during waking hours, reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s. One of the waste products removed from the brain during sleep is beta amyloid, the substance that forms sticky plaques associated with the disease. As we sleep, the flow of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain increases, washing away the toxic waste proteins that build up between brain cells during the day. Our brain needs this sleep cleaning cycle. It is not possible for it to clean itself and keep us sharp and functioning well during the hours that we’re awake. Without the cleaning cycle, we feel groggy and struggle to think clearly after a sleepless night.

Clear the clutter. Eliminate books, magazines, empty water glasses, and other clutter from nightstands. Mess sends wakefulness-oriented alerts to our brains—it screams “look at me, read me, check your email!” To give your brain a rest, make your bedroom an oasis of calm and relaxation.

Go dark. Our ancestors used to sleep in caves without artificial light, and our bodies still rely on the complete absence of light to cue us to sleep. Getting blackout blinds and losing the night light can help. If you have an alarm clock, turn the illuminated face away from you as even that small amount of light can trigger you to lie awake. Technology’s favorite color also isn’t doing us any favors. Blue light from screens and LED lights affect our sleep rhythms by inhibiting the production of melatonin, our sleep hormone. Banish blue light from your bedroom. That means no phone, backlit device, or television for at least an hour before bedtime. Let’s not panic. We can do this.

Stay cool. Experts suggest that we sleep best in a room between sixty-five and seventy degrees Fahrenheit with adequate ventilation. When we go to sleep, our set point for body temperature goes down. In a room that is too cold, the body struggles to achieve this set point. If the room is too hot, we’re more likely to wake up in a tangle of bedsheets. The comfort level of our bedroom temperature also affects the quality of REM sleep, the stage in which we dream. Find the sweet spot that works for you.

Stick to a schedule. Turning in and getting up around the same time every day sets our internal sleep/wake clock. Erratic sleep patterns leave us feeling groggy and irritable, as brains love routine and our circadian rhythm needs a regular schedule to operate at its best. Changing a sleep schedule overnight is not possible, however. Making small changes slowly, in fifteen-minute increments over several days can help you adjust your sleep schedule. By picking a bedtime and wake-up time and sticking to them as much as possible, we enable our body’s internal clock to get accustomed to the schedule. Insufficient sleep also decreases levels of the satiety-signaling hormone leptin and increases levels of the hunger-instigating hormone ghrelin. We lose our hunger control and eat more. Ideally, try to be in bed by ten o’clock in the evening. Any later, and you could consume up to 549 more calories per day.

Move well

The typical US adult is sedentary for 60 percent of their waking hours and sits an average of six to eight hours per day. Too much sitting decreases the activity of an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase (LPL), which burns fat. As a result, we are at greater risk of becoming obese. Sitting for extended periods also decreases bone-mineral density without increasing bone formation, increasing the risk of fracture. It increases blood pressure and decreases the diameter of our arteries—all of which lead to increased risk of heart disease. Sitting is the new smoking.

Get on your feet. Replacing two hours of sitting with two hours of standing every day lowers blood sugar and cholesterol (and burns calories!). Research shows that walking also enhances creative thinking, so walking while on the phone or when brainstorming can help us generate ideas. Working at a standing desk or taking a two-minute walk every hour can help offset the negative health effects from prolonged sitting. Combined with regular exercise in the form of strength training and cardio several times per week, getting on your feet can decrease your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and premature death.

Watch your posture. Posture and health are closely related, as posture affects every physiologic function, from breathing to blood pressure. Posture and motion don’t only affect how long we live, but also how well we live. People with strong posture recover faster from injuries, exercise more effectively, have less pain, and even look more youthful. Posture even affects our mood, with good posture generating a more positive outlook. Whether we’re standing or sitting, paying attention to our spine and keeping our back straight is good for both body and mind. Channel your mother telling you to stop slouching, and you’ll feel better for it.

Eat well

Amp up the healthy fats. Omega-3s help increase the levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with our reward response, and serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with our ability to access feelings of well-being. The typical Western diet has an overabundance of omega-6 (found in typical vegetable oils), which has been linked to inflammation on the brain associated with depression. The power of omega-3s—helping to protect our cardiovascular systems, normalizing and regulating triglyceride levels in the blood, reducing LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and elevating HDL levels (the good kind)—cannot be overstated. They discourage and reduce inflammation in the body, and play a preventive role against diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and even cancer. They support healthy brain-cell structure and contribute to the overall flexibility and fluidity of brain-cell membranes. And—as if that weren’t enough— they regulate the flow of proteins and neurotransmitters, which act as chemical messengers and are associated with fluctuations in mood. Eating two or more servings of seafood like wild salmon, mackerel, or sardines per week will increase omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. For those who prefer not to eat fish—seaweed, leafy greens, avocados, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts are abundant in omega-3s. Throw in some omega-3 powerhouses like walnuts and brazil nuts, and you’ll feel more energized and focused.

Start the day with produce. Fruit is anywhere from 60–95 percent water in composition, depending on which fruit we choose. This means we’re re-hydrating after a night of dehydration. Starting off the day with fruit can help us avoid the mid-morning slump because they are easy to digest and can help flush toxins from our systems. Having the first meal of the day be produce eases our digestion into gear rather than overloading it first thing. Fruit also fills the energy tank with glucose, the vital fuel every cell in our bodies needs to function.

Hydrate all day. We lose fluids continuously, from skin evaporation, breathing, and waste elimination. Our cellular membranes are hydrophilic (water-loving), so it stands to reason that hydration is crucial for us to function. Water makes up 60 percent of our bodily fluids responsible for functions like digestion, circulation, transportation of nutrients, and regulation of body temperature. Unfortunately, when we don’t drink enough water, our body can send mixed signals on hunger along with sapping our energy. Dehydration causes us to believe we need to eat when we really need to take in liquid. Cue the repeated visits to the refrigerator for snacks. Drinking water or unsweetened herbal tea consistently throughout the day can help us avoid mindless snacking due to thirst, and increase energy levels.

Over time, a consistent focus on quality sleep, re-examining your food choices, and including more movement in your day will help you to shake off the apathy that comes from inactivity, mobilize your immune system, and re-energize your mind. You’ll have the wind in your sails in no time.

Excerpts of this article are from Taming the Sabertooth: Resilient Leadership in a Stressful World, available in March 2019.

This article first appeared in LinkedIn.

What a stupid rat teaches us about assumptions

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In interactions with others we often limit ourselves to restricted perceptions based on our own biases and stereotypes. Cognitive rigidity is when we are unable to consider alternatives to the current situation, different viewpoints or innovative solutions to a problem. And we all suffer from it occasionally, particularly in emotionally charged situations.

Experienced leaders have an uncanny ability to detect strong performers versus poor ones and can often predict strong performance with amazing accuracy and speed. The downside to this ability is that those same leaders often fall victim to stereotyping poor performers as incapable of any improvement. Whether we realize it or not, we all make these quick judgments about an someone else’s ability or potential. Good or bad, these expectations affect how we interact with every member of our teams and, therefore, have a major impact on our effectiveness.

Consider your inner dialogue when working with an employee who seems to lack the capacity to execute a specific task. Compare that to when you have an employee that you perceive as naturally skilled and remarkably ‘coachable.’ How does your attitude toward them change? Our ability to impact an employee’s performance shifts based on our preconceived expectations about their skill level and capacity to learn. When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur, in an ironically self-fulfilling prophecy kind of way.

In 1968, Harvard researcher and psychologist, Bob Rosenthal, conducted a study in which he challenged test subjects to coach a rat through a maze. Some subjects had the easy task — half of the group were told they received extremely intelligent rats bred and trained specifically to develop superior maze-solving skills. The other half were not so fortunate. They were informed that the rats they would be coaching through the maze were, to put it bluntly, “stupid.”

In reality, they all got plain old lab rats with no discernible differences in any of them — they were, in fact, genetically engineered to be identical, down to the last chromosome. The “smart” rats were no more skilled at maze-solving than those receiving the dubious distinction of “stupid”. But the results of the experiment demonstrated the strong effect of a self-fulfilling prophecy resulting from the expectations of the coaches. The “smart” rats outperformed the “stupid” maze runners by a wide margin. It turns out the way the rats were expected to perform was exactly the way they were coached to do so, and as a result, their performance met those expectations.

Rosenthal went on to expand his experiment to the classroom, where he found similar results in school children and their teachers. At the beginning of the school year, teachers were given the names of a few students who had been identified as “gifted” and likely to bloom in the upcoming semester. As predicted by the rat experiment, the students who were labelled as gifted, despite being chosen at random, ended up with higher grades and developed into more successful students with the coaching and attention given to them by the teachers. Rosenthal called this the Expectancy or Pygmalion Effect. Teachers ended up interacting with students they believed to be gifted in a way that was much more likely to lead to richer development. Their expectation delivered the results they anticipated. Imagine if every child was given this opportunity to shine.

Watch those assumptions. We all make up stories about the people in our lives. For leaders, being aware of those biases becomes even more crucial. If you find yourself making up a story about someone’s ability, ask yourself whether it’s true. Assumptions can be devastating, as people will perform up or down to our expectations.

Wrong filter, faulty conclusion. Our attitude to others is influenced by our assumptions about them. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll ask whether the stories we’re telling ourselves about them are accurate or whether we’re inserting our own filters or stereotypes into the interaction. Be on the lookout for this when you are about to meet with someone of whom you may already have formed an opinion.

Performance is fragile. Leaders who unwittingly assign labels can negatively impact the performance of highly capable people. Being aware of how we perceive and are perceived by others may help us avoid the trap of the Pygmalion Effect and more effectively nurture the talent around us. Look for signs that you are labeling someone as a warning that you may be falling into the trap.

As Robin Sharma said: “Remember, we see the world not as it is, but as we are. Most of us see through the eyes of our fears and our limiting beliefs and our false assumptions.” If we can admit that our assumptions and preconceived notions are sometimes (often) wrong, we have the power to re-evaluate our interpretation of events, and make a conscious choice to consider alternate possibilities.

Finding the Silver Lining in Spite of Fear

To be human is to know failure. It’s an inevitable part of life. One of the frailties of the human psyche is our fear of failure. Yet without overcoming this fear, we can’t innovate, create, or push forward as we are paralyzed by it. As I wrote in Taming the Saber Tooth Tiger – Three Ways to Cope with Stress at Work, fear is an inevitable emotion. We encounter it in all aspects of our lives, at work, at school, and at home. The key to success is in how we manage it.

For leaders, consistently overcoming fear is essential. Being tenacious in tough times takes the courage of conviction and a strong belief in your choices. Leaders are expected to bring others along with them, sharing the vision and translating it into a methodical plan for execution. A leader who is paralyzed by fear cannot fight for his cause and cannot fight for the team. Holding steadfast to a decision during the tough times also lets others know that the leader will fight for what she believes, despite the odds.

We all know resilient leaders who always bounce back despite setbacks and seem fearless. These leaders demonstrate several key attributes:

They tap into commitment.

Motivation is not enough. Sheer willpower will not keep leaders motivated to stay the course. Effective leaders know that being motivated will get them started but won’t get them through the rough days that lie ahead. Real dedication is the only thing that can empower this journey. And to find this, each leader has to ask themselves just how resolute they really are. By understanding their level of commitment these leaders tap into this internal resource when times get tough. Finding your “why” helps you power through fear.

They identify challenges.

Visionary leaders anticipate setbacks. They are realistic about obstacles getting in the way of their goals, and they are ready to meet these challenges head-on. Some challenges are unavoidable, others are within our control. Leaders who recognize the difference put plans in place to overcome those that are in their control and  minimize or accept those that are unavoidable. Assume bumps in the road to be as prepared as possible to deal with them.

They practice positivity.

A positive attitude buffers fear. Accomplished leaders know that a single negative event is not part of a never-ending pattern of defeat. If they screw up, they learn from it and move on. Shifting their focus to a positive perspective breaks the cycle of fearful rumination that can paralyze and galvanizes them back to action.

They detach from the outcome.

Jack Canfield wrote: “If you want to remain calm and peaceful as you go through life you have to have high intention and low attachment.” Effective leaders know that not always getting what they want or having things go their way is just a part of life. They are skilled at letting it go, while still moving forward in the direction of the goal. By detaching from a particular outcome, they remain agile and stay open to experiences and opportunities that they otherwise may not have seen.

There is a saying in prizefighting: “You’re going to get hit. The getting up is up to you.” What a gift we give ourselves, our colleagues, our teams and our communities if we can push through the fear and see the world of possibility that exists in every interaction, every relationship, and every experience of our lives.

Taming the Saber-tooth: Three Ways to Cope with Stress at Work

Stress and anxiety are increasingly becoming issues in the workplace. A study by the International Labour Organization revealed that increased competition, longer working hours and higher performance expectations are all contributing to an increasingly stressful work environment. Digitization and always-on technology have blurred the boundaries between work and personal life, removing the natural buffer between them and costing us our health.

When humans lived in the untamed wilderness, we had to deal with threats in our environment. If a hungry sabertooth tiger targeted you as a tasty treat, you needed to quickly decide whether to put up a fight, run flat out in the opposite direction or do your best to look like a rock.

This automatic fight, flight or freeze response is no different today. Our minds and bodies still respond in the same way to everyday stressors. If we’re dealing with a crazed knife-wielding lunatic, this response makes complete sense. But most of the threats we encounter are purely psychological. The sabertooth has evolved. Our brains haven’t.

The tricky thing about stress is that it’s a necessary emotion. Studies by the University of Berkeley have found that stress entices the brain into growing new cells that improve memory. If the stress isn’t prolonged, it’s harmless and can even be beneficial as new nerve cells keep the brain more alert and improve performance. The irony is that as soon as stress continues beyond a few moments into a prolonged state, it suppresses the brain’s ability to develop those cells. That’s when our hardwiring works against us. Chronic stress exhausts us, mental performance suffers and our health deteriorates.

What to do about it? We cannot necessarily change our environment, but we have the power to shift our response to that environment by building resilience.

Shut down the committee.

The voices in our heads are great at pointing out our failures. They use words like “worst,” “always,” “never” and “should” to make any event seem catastrophic. Becoming aware and detaching from these thoughts can be challenging. It’s easier to play the victim than it is to take responsibility for changing the situation. Think you’ll never get that project so you shouldn’t even ask? Check in with a trusted friend or colleague and ask for their insight and advice. Using your support system shuts down the cycle of negative thoughts. Dealing with real data instead can help you reframe a situation, find a solution you may not have considered and take action. And if you do fail at something, it doesn’t mean you are a complete failure. You’ve experienced a setback, but you also have an opportunity to approach the next challenge in a different way.

Stay positive when the going gets tough.

When all is going well, it’s easy to stay positive and upbeat. When you’re having a really tough day, it becomes more challenging. When you find you can’t stop thinking about that snarky email, consciously shift your thoughts to something positive. Write down three amazing things that happened to you recently. The key is that these amazing things don’t have to be life-changing. They can be tiny, simple things that you would usually take for granted — simple pleasures in life that make you feel peaceful, joyful or grateful. The act of writing them down takes cognitive effort that shifts your perspective to a more positive one and breaks the cycle of rumination. Extra points for reviewing the list the next morning to keep things in perspective.

Find courage in the face of fear.

Fear is an inevitable emotion you’ll encounter at work. Fear of failure, rejection or humiliation can be paralyzing. Maybe you’re afraid to ask your boss for that raise, or you’re afraid to challenge a colleague or client. Facing your anxiety can be easier if you recognize that discomfort in these situations is to be expected and focus instead on the end result you’re striving for. This is high intention with low attachment. Shifting your focus to intention changes your perspective — high intention. Taking the long view helps you pick yourself up and try again, even if you are rejected this time around — low attachment. It takes a lot of effort to embrace the discomfort of fear and stay the course. Acknowledging that gut-wrenching fear is a natural part of the process helps you come out on the other side both wiser and braver.

Shifting your perspective is a powerful tool when dealing with stress. Changing the way you perceive day-to-day pressures gives you an opportunity to take back control and become more confident in stressful situations. Building resilience is not a series of isolated activities — it’s a practice that can help you turn your sabertooth tiger into a kitten.

Capturing Small Moments of Wonder

I had a breathtaking experience recently. While I was watering my garden, a hummingbird decided to take a bath in the hose stream. Clearly finding the cool crisp running water of the hose preferable to the birdbath, this tiny bright green and blue speck followed the stream all the way up to my hand, where he proceeded to dip his feet and tail in the water in an astonishingly similar movement to humans paddling around in a pool. I stood transfixed, not daring to move or even breathe, as we regarded each other, eye to eye for what felt to me like an eternity but must have only been moments. In a world that seems to move ever more quickly, this encounter left me with a sense of wonder at the incredible gift this magical little creature had just given me.

There is so much that is beautiful in this world, and so much that we don’t notice as we go about our hectic lives. Sometimes I wonder if anyone even looks up at the sky anymore, so busy are we with email, texts, social media, and the double edged sword of technology that keeps us constantly connected, yet in other ways, disconnects us from taking the time to appreciate the spectacular world we live in. Recognition of those little, often mundane events in our lives gives us an opportunity to press the pause button, just for a moment, and experience the incredible beauty all around us.

There is a saying that it’s not the breaths you take, but the moments that take your breath away that count. This was one of those moments. It was a moment that gave me time to appreciate the beauty of nature. A moment that let me connect, however briefly, with another living creature and for just a fleeting moment, perhaps even see the world through its eyes. It was a small moment, but it was a moment that I will never forget.

It’s in the smile of a stranger, the helpful person at the grocery store, the laughter shared with a friend or loved one, that song that you can’t help but sing along to, the feel of a gentle breeze on your skin, or the rise of the moon on a clear and starry night. Moments of wonder are all around us, every day. We only have to look up to see them.

Feel the fear and do it anyway

We all deal with fear.  It is a natural part of life, and in some cases, it is what galvanizes us to action.  Starting a new project, a new venture, a new relationship, or even learning a new skill all come with some form of fear built in. The trick of course is taking the fear and using it to move forward rather than letting it paralyze us.  Fear is something to be acknowledged and experienced, and it will always be there, no matter how good we get at something. Sometimes the fear we feel is not what we think it is, and it is masking something positive.  A client once shared a recurring dream she had of a mysterious warrior appearing in her doorway, an image that brought up feelings of fear for her.  When we explored this image it became clear that it was not something to be feared, but was instead an image of her own internal warrior, one that came to her when she needed to find her courage or strength to deal with a situation in her life. Once she saw the warrior as her ally instead of a threat, she was able to use this image to help shore up her resources and move forward.

You have to be willing to feel the fear and do it anyway.  None of us are comfortable with the feeling, and it takes a lot of effort to embrace the discomfort of the fear and stay the course. I am realizing that the gut-wrench of fear is a natural part of the process I have to go through in order to come out of the other side both wiser and braver. And I am working on letting go of the need to be right.  Jack Cranfield wrote that if you want to remain calm and peaceful as you go through life you have to have high intention and low attachment.  Not always getting what we want or having things go our way is just a part of life. Let it go. The secret is to keep moving forward in the direction of your goal until you get there, and not to give up because it didn’t work the first time, or you didn’t get the result you wanted in the time you expected. Making a mistake is human, forgiving yourself that mistake is what takes us one step closer to the divine.  Detaching from an outcome and also opens us up to experiences and opportunities that we otherwise may not have seen. If something goes wrong, how many of us are able to look at setbacks as a potential opportunity for something even better?  What a gift we give ourselves if we can see the world of possibility that exists in every interaction, every relationship, and every moment of our lives.

A man dreamed every night that he was being chased by an enormous lion.  Every night this man tossed and turned and woke up in a terrified state.  Eventually, one night the man stopped running, and turned and confronted the lion saying: “Who are you and why are you chasing me?”. The lion stopped in front of the man and replied: “I am your courage. Why are you running from me?”

Facing fear takes courage, and courage takes vulnerability. Some days will be more difficult than others. But always remember, that it is in the persevering that we grow. If we have the courage to show up when we can’t control or predict the outcome, we can face our fear and overcome it.

Today is the first day of the rest of your life

Considering motivation…

Motivation is a funny thing. People routinely seem to underestimate how tricky it can be to achieve a personal goal. It’s all well and good to wake up one day and decide to lose those pesky 10 pounds, or start a workout routine, or stop eating junk, but it’s quite another to stick with this plan all the way to the goal. Over the years I have realized through my own experience and working with clients that sheer willpower will not do the trick. The key to motivation is to tap into commitment. Motivation gets you started (although it is often externally driven such as when a doctor tells you to quit smoking or lose weight for example), but it won’t get you through the rough days that lie ahead. Real dedication is the only thing that will empower your journey. And to find this dedication, you have to ask yourself just how resolute you really are, and understand that your level of commitment will vary throughout the experience.

Commitment takes place over time, through a repeated act of constraint and self-discipline, not a single action or decision. Inevitably your level of commitment is challenged by the pain and discomfort of exercising to get into good shape, or the overwhelming desire to eat that piece of cake or the cookies staring at you from the cookie jar. These challenges or costs to our commitment are to be expected, but they often leave us discouraged (if we give in to them), exhausted (if we push ourselves too hard too soon) and ready to give in (the old “I’ve fallen off the wagon so I may as well give the whole thing up” syndrome). Having strategies to overcome these challenges is crucial if we are to succeed. Positive rewards and benefits of the commitment can help you balance out the challenges. These rewards can be innate, such as a sense of accomplishment when you have worked out for several days in a row, or extrinsic, such as getting that new job you were going after, or being able to buy that little black dress you had your eye on and can now fit into more easily. Find ways to reward yourself, and explicitly associate those rewards with your commitment (not with the final goal), and hang onto them for dear life when the troubles come your way.

Internal conflict about your commitment also presents a challenge to your motivation. As soon as we are presented with choices, alternatives become increasingly attractive (particularly when dealing with some form of sacrifice such as eating less junk food, cutting out sugar etc). For many clients, this is the moment of truth, and it is the moment when they have to ask, “What am I really committed to?” and then think about possible alternatives that create new commitments that help them to make better choices. Having a commitment that is realistic, that you can stick to and feel progress against, is often the difference between success and giving up.

Define your commitment – specifics count here – don’t say you want to lose weight, instead be specific about the actions you will take – work out at the gym at least 3 days per week (even specifying the days can help, along with what kind of workout you intend to do). Small goals can help too and will give you opportunities to make progress and celebrate successes along the way

Reflect on rewards – write down the positive experiences that will make attaining your goal fun and enjoyable – tangible rewards such as a more positive self image, looking good in that little black number, more energy, being able to climb a flight of stairs easily, enjoying new and healthy recipes

Increase rewards – put target dates on the specific goals you want to achieve – say working out 3 days a week by the end of the month, or look into new exercise possibilities like a yoga class by September 1. These actions focused around benefits not only get you moving in the right direction, but are create attainable small goals you can check off your list with glee

Identify challenges – write down the setbacks you anticipate – be realistic about life getting in the way of your goals sometimes, so that you can be ready to meet the challenge head on. Some challenges are unavoidable (cost of attending the gym, or having to schedule workouts around carpool schedules for example). Others are flexible (not liking green veggies but being willing to try new ways of preparing them to make them fun and interesting, setting two alarm clocks to get you out of bed early to workout if you struggle to get up, or telling friends who routinely invite you to the local bar on your workout day that you won’t be available in advance so you won’t have to make a choice in the moment)

Decrease challenges – think about how you can overcome the flexible challenges and minimize the unavoidable ones – working with a coach to brainstorm creative ideas can be very helpful, along with having an accountability partner to share encouragement when the inevitable challenges arise

Don’t take your resolution lightly. Your life satisfaction and wellbeing may depend on keeping your commitment. If you can align your values with your commitment, you are likely to stay motivated well beyond the original goal. By deciding what options are manageable and incorporating the best ones into your lifestyle, you are setting yourself up for success. Motivation kicks you into gear, but commitment is what keeps you going. And remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. All good things take time.

Keep your gratitude higher than your expectations

There is an art to the practice of gratitude. Gratitude is about having an abundance mindset. When you think abundantly, your perception of everything and everyone around you shifts in a positive way. It is no wonder that gratitude is called the “mother of all virtues”. Of course there are those everyday stressors out there that we all have to deal with, and there are life events that leave us feeling that we’ll never be whole again. Some days, it’s difficult to feel gratitude amidst the barrage of negativity and noise out there. But cultivating an attitude of gratitude gives us a coping process that helps us to deal with circumstances that are often beyond our control. And this doesn’t mean going through life with rose colored glasses. The gratitude attitude is one that allows us to experience the authenticity of our emotions, good or bad, without judgment. It also helps us to move through those emotions and come out on the other side relatively intact, rather than crumbling into a small heap and hiding from the world. So how to cultivate this attitude? It’s all in your mind:

  • Pick yourself up – if you fail at something, it doesn’t mean you are a complete failure. You’ve experienced a setback, but you also have an opportunity to approach the challenge in a different way.
  • Isolate the issue – a single negative event is not part of a never-ending pattern of defeat – just because something happened doesn’t mean that nothing good ever happens or will ever happen again in your life. Make a concerted effort at the end of each day to write down 3 good things from your day and review the list the next morning to put things back in perspective.
  • Shift your focus – try not to dwell constantly on the negative details of the event – find something good to focus on to give your mind a break – talk to a friend, or take a walk in a lovely park to take your mind somewhere else for a while.
  • Validate your assumptions – just because someone hasn’t called you back doesn’t mean they are angry at you or you have  done something wrong. Don’t assume – if you want to know why, ask.
  • Anticipate good things – don’t anticipate the worst in situations. Be prudent and prepared for the unexpected of course, but still hope for the best.
  • Appreciate the simple pleasures in life – take a moment each day to look around you and take a breath, focusing on the simple moments that make you smile, and you’ll start to see the beauty all around you.
  • Express appreciation of others – express your appreciation to your friends and loved ones (and even strangers) whenever you can. You’ll feel good because they feel good.
  • Remember everyone is carrying a burden that no-one else knows about. Be kind.

The truth is, when you are happy to wake up and are grateful for the day, your life does change. I am grateful each day just to see the sun rise once again and have a new day ahead of me. I am thankful for the time I have been given, and for the experiences I have had, both good and bad, because those experiences have shaped me. I know that I will face difficulties and obstacles, but I will also feel moments of joy and love and peace. And for this, I am grateful.