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”

Weekly planning guide

I have somehow developed a Weekly planning guide that really works for me. It’s simple, quick, and yet holistic. In short, it’s much more than a list of tasks to do, and has been a boon and a comfort to me in difficult times recently.

It evolved from a need to get a lot done, but also from a need to make sure what I was doing mattered.

Because being busy isn’t the point of life. I’m not 100% sure there is any point in life beyond the meaning we give it, and I certainly didn’t want my life’s meaning to amount to a bunch of balled up to do lists, or my kids to remember me after I’m gone as merely an efficient taskmaster.

And there’s also how I wanted to feel whilst living my life. I’m the one who has to live it, so I better make sure it feels good to me. And what feels good can vary from week to week: sometimes I crave silence, stillness, peace, and other times I want fun and joy and excitement. Continue reading “Weekly planning guide”

When a straw breaks the camel’s back

I wonder if you’ve noticed this – you’re busy, stressed, and then you start to get a good head of steam around some minor irritation. You may become pretty angry about it too. Does this ever happen to you?

I had this last week. After a string of minor illnesses that meant my 1-year-old had to stay home from nursery – and my husband and I had to miss a lot of work to look after him (like, we’ve each missed at least a day of work every week for the past four weeks) – my youngest son woke up on Monday with a slightly pink and gummy eye. It was too mild to tell if it was conjunctivitis but, expecting nothing less at this stage, we sheepishly dropped him off at the nursery and spent time at or respective offices on Monday frantically calling the GP for an appointment, then the out of hours hub once we couldn’t get anything through our GP (because OF COURSE we couldn’t get an appointment).

So Monday evening saw me rushing home, then rushing with toddler to an out-of-hours GP a couple miles away, then racing to the late-night chemist before they closed so we could get the ointment that would allow him back into nursery the following day.

But I then became really annoyed at the nursery’s policy not to administer any kinds of medicine, even if the child has a prescription, the parents complete all the forms, and the child is no longer contagious.

Could a friend or family member come to the nursery to administer the eye ointment twice a day they asked?

No, we replied, if we had that kind of support we wouldn’t be so reliant on expensive childcare. (It didn’t help that the nursery had just told me they would be raising the rates to the tune of £80 more a month.)

I was told it was to do with the insurance, but I know other childcare providers can provide this service, so I emailed the management to understand more.

Well, that did not go well.

I got a very defensive email in response that it was their choice and their right (underlining from them) to have this policy and if i didn’t like it I could take my son and leave.

This whole exchange got me thinking – what exactly was going on? What was really bothering me?

Because I’ve had this before – feeling overwhelmed, getting worked up with some provider of some service or other, communicating with them just the right side of professional, and then getting a heated response that left me oscillating between anger (how dare they!) and guilt (I caused this response by being unreasonable/ angry/ difficult…).

It is often the fallout from these kinds of interactions at these overwhelming times in my life that breaks the camel’s back. Continue reading “When a straw breaks the camel’s back”

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.

The pitfalls of the all-or-nothing mindset

I recently had one of the most relaxing, rejuvenating, fulfilling and productive weekends in a while.

What made the difference?

I challenged my all-or-nothing thinking and made do with what time I had.

Because lately I’ve noticed myself slipping into, “If I can’t do this right then I’ll wait and do it when I have enough time to do it right.”

You can probably see where that plan was doomed to fail. There never is enough time. Continue reading “The pitfalls of the all-or-nothing mindset”

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”

Enough is enough (in a good way)

I was listening to the Happier podcast episode 187 where co-host Elizabeth Craft was talking about going away for the weekend with her family. As a TV writer, she’s super busy with her new show that’s just been picked up, so she was struggling to get away early on Friday to go camping with her husband and son. Instead, they went without her to the campsite on Friday night so she could work late, and she joined them the next day and they all came back together on Sunday. She was remarking how great it was, and by the time she got there it was like she’d been with them the whole weekend. And her son Jack got to ride on the train and get some quality time with his Dad.

I’ve frequently been caught off guard by something that seemed lame or not quite good enough that ended up being perfect for my son.

Sometimes, enough is…well, enough. Continue reading “Enough is enough (in a good way)”