Lessons from trees

Wangari Maathai was working on women’s empowerment and preparing for a UN conference about women and the issues they faced globally at the time. Listening to rural women talk about the problems they wanted to solve, she heard them talk about water, food, energy, and a means to earning an income themselves.

As a child, Maathai remembered her mother teaching her not to chop down the fig trees, as these were sacred in their traditional worldview – something that imperialism and missionary work hadn’t quite fully unrooted (yet).

Fastforward several decades, and Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work founding the Greenbelt Movement responsible for planting millions of trees across Africa and beyond. She realised that trees could solve the root issue (no pun intended) behind many of the problems women expressed around livelihoods and quality of life, as well as helping ensure security and reduce likelihoods of human conflict over limited resources, by increasing those resources.

She also learned that those sacred fig trees that were ripped from the ground after living there for hundreds of years had actually been holding the ground together with their deep and widespread root systems. She deduced that if ripping them from the ground led to increases in landslides and flooding, planting them back and protecting them might reverse the trend. And she was right. There was wisdom in the traditional beliefs, regardless of whether we explain this as god or ecology.

So why do I share this? Aside from inspiring us all to plant and protect trees as quickly as we might try to save a more apparently sentient being, this story holds a key lesson: an elegant root solution can be more powerful and practical than numerous patches. Continue reading “Lessons from trees”

This, too: or taking the good with the bad

I recently checked out from the library Rich Hanson’s book Hardwiring Happiness, which is all about experiencing positive experiences in a way that impacts neural activity longer term. This helps us overcome our in-built negativity bias which, while helpful at tunes in our brain’s evolution, can be less helpful in the modern world.

One idea that is so simple, yet so transformative, is the fact that just as some good fact doesn’t cancel out the bad things in your life, the bad stuff doesn’t cancel out the good.

And taking in the good adds up. Continue reading “This, too: or taking the good with the bad”

A lesson about scarcity

I don’t know anyone who feels like they have enough: enough time, enough energy, enough money. Enough life.

It can feel like all of us live in a world of scarcity, despite knowing rationally that we have more than most humans have ever known.

We have so much, in fact, that we can too easily consume calories and exceed our body’s requirements. We have more spare time, more annual leave, and time to spend as we please thanks to time-saving gadgets like electric washing machines, tumble dryers, microwaves, and electric kettles. We even have more years of life than previous generations (from 71.13 in 1960 to 80.96 as of 2016).

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Perceived scarcity in a land of plenty

But as much as we can tell ourselves it matters how much we have, what really matters is how much we think we have. Continue reading “A lesson about scarcity”

Whole living

I was rereading a perennial favourite book (Rose in Bloom, by Louisa May Alcott) and the following quote jumped out at me:

Of course this could not last, and disappointment was inevitable, because young eyes look for a Paradise and weep when they find a workaday world which seems full of care and trouble till one learns to gladden and glorify it with high thoughts and holy living.

This resonates (despite a slight bristle at the religious word “holy”, preferring to think of its etymological roots of “whole” or “health”) because I live very much in a workaday world full of care and trouble. And yet, I do think it is possible to “gladden and glorify” it. That is a large part of what Happy Parent UK is about – defining the ‘high thoughts and holy living’ that make life happier.

In the book, our heroine finds her high thoughts and holy living in wise words, charitable works, ongoing self betterment, and the love and friendship of those dear to her. And in fact, this is very much the same recipe I find in my life — Continue reading “Whole living”

The Overwhelm

We’ve all been there. Or at least I hope we’ve all been there so it isn’t just me.

You’ve got deadlines piling up at work faster than you can finish them regardless of the effort and hours you’re putting in…

There’s a seemingly never ending list of admin things to do at home that you never seem able to find time to do…

Despite your best efforts at timekeeping you find it’s the kids’ bedtimes what feels like five minutes after you get home (“where did the evening go?” you ask yourself as you’re trying to gently but firmly get your kid out of the bath, teeth brushed, and bedtime stories read so he isn’t too late along asleep)…

The Overwhelm.

I had a serious case of it last week. But I’m pleased to say that I think I broke the back of it, and this week is going much more smoothly – even with a couple of illnesses in the family scuppering plans for the week.

Here are some of the things that I’ve learned along the way that really helped me last week, and I hope will help you next time you’re feeling overwhelmed by it all.

Identify the main triggers

Whilst by its nature overwhelm is often the feeling of lots of things adding up, sometimes there are a few big triggers for feeling this way (as opposed to your run-of-the-mill busy-and-slightly-stressed feelings).

For me last week, I realised it was work, money, and home routines. Sure, other things contributed, but as I reflected on this (on my commute – no fancy break to reflect on this all so do it when you can!), I was sure that if I felt more in control of my spiralling workload and my money, and if I could ease the pre- and post-work hours at home, I’d feel everything else was much more manageable.

Which leads me to my next helper…

Identify the simple steps

A simple step is something really straightforward that doesn’t take a huge amount of time and you have and know everything you need to be able to do it.

So instead of, “finish X piece of work” for my work stress, it might be, “send this email to this person.” Simple, simple, simple.

I set myself five simple steps. Really simple steps.

One, for example, was to put my out of office on my emails so I could get my head down and do a key piece of work that needed focus and time. That was it – put out of office on – but it meant I knew exactly what to do immediately upon sitting down at my desk that morning.

The simplest steps (putting out of office on, diarising time to do certain pieces of work) made way for the bigger things (shortlist the 60-odd applications for a vacancy in my team at work, finish budget planning and forecasting).

The result? I actually got everything done that I really needed to do. Which ended up being a godsend this week when I had to take a day of sick leave myself and another day of leave to look after my toddler, who is home from nursery for two days following a tummy bug.

Celebrate successes

It’s easy to skip this, but I found it hugely helpful to take a minute on the train to celebrate what’s gone well, and particularly what I have done well.

Why does it matter?

Well, for starters, it chips away rather significantly at that feeling of overwhelm. Overwhelm shrinks away from the bright light of Accomplishment, so taking a minute to feel those accomplishments and let that light shine helped me feel I could handle everything still left to do.

Secondly, I was able to identify the things I did that worked well, to repeat with the next day’s battle with the to do list. So for example, realising how well it worked for me to turn off email and knock out big chunks of work, I can decide to do this again (judiciously) in the future.

Thirdly, celebrating success helps combat the dreaded imposter syndrome, which in turn reduces the unreasonable expectations we set for ourselves.

Think about it – quite often we set really high expectations for ourselves as a way to overcome the ways we feel not good enough.

So if I feel like not a good enough manager, I respond by trying to get Herculean amounts of work done to a high standard; then no one can know what a fraud I am.

Or if I’m not a “good enough” mother, I can fool others from realising this by signing my kid up for all kinds of activities and making sure he’s immaculately dressed for school with award-worthy homework completed every night.

But when I can see that I am good enough, just as I am, I can be far more compassionate to myself and reasonable in my expectations.

This week, that has meant telling a colleague quite honestly that I wouldn’t be able to look at something until next week. It meant postponing some work that I wanted to do sooner, but which actually could wait a week or two. The urge to overperform is still there, but I haven’t felt like I absolutely had to do everything immediately, as my performance is less linked to my worth.

Ride it out

The last thing I’d like to leave you with is this: ride it out.

The wave of overwhelm can make you feel like you’re drowning, so it can help to remember that you aren’t drowning. You’ll be fine. This page in your life will eventually turn to the next page. There will be busy and overwhelming times again but there will also be calmer times. How you’re feeling right now is not permanent.

Identifying the triggers so you can take simple steps to address the root causes of your overwhelm, and then celebrating your successes and realising you don’t have anything to prove – you are enough, just as you are – will help you regain a little more sense of control, so you can ride out the storm until the sun starts to break through the cloud again.

Which it will.

Returning to workforce

As I write this, I have just wrapped up my first week back at work after a year’s maternity leave with my second (and last) baby.

And it’s been great.

It’s been great seeing my colleagues and getting myself reacquainted with all the work that’s happening. It’s been great being myself again, and actually having time by myself on the train or on my lunch break. Even having some time to focus on work without also keeping an eye on the kids so the baby doesn’t eat a book (a real possibility) has felt like a luxury.

It’s also been great seeing my 5-year-old excited about going to the childminder’s after school and playing with other children, eating new foods, and then buzzing about his day as we walk home together. It’s been great seeing my one-year-old bonding with other babies and the staff at his nursery, and then coming to pick him up and give him loads of kisses and cuddles, all the sweeter for the time we spent apart.

And I’ve thought, “This is how a return to work should be.”

But it is a million miles away from my first return to work, which was a disaster that marked the beginning of one of my unhappiest periods of work life.

So what’s made the difference? There’s some luck involved, but there’s also a few things I can’t help but think have made the difference between miserably job hunting after work and looking forward to Monday. Continue reading “Returning to workforce”

What’s stopping me? Oh, it’s me.

Dreams. Ambitions. Desires. Self care. Identity.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these things lately.

This focus has been prompted by my imminent return to work, which I’ve been writing about fairly frequently the past few weeks. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about time, routines, and practical ways I can make sure I have time, even if only little pockets of time here and there, but regular time every week, to move forward on my various goals.

There are goals for my writing, both this blog but other projects not ready yet to talk about. There are goals for my coaching practice. Goals for self care habits like regular exercise, eating whole and natural foods, and daily meditation.

I’ve been working with a coach, and as often happens with coaching I had an eye opening experience during my session this week. I was talking about the things I want to do but which I feel guilty about doing, or feel I have to justify taking the time to myself to do them. As I talked, themes came up that as I heard my voice saying these words I wondered, “Is that really me saying that?” Continue reading “What’s stopping me? Oh, it’s me.”