The Power of Rituals

rituals

On a recent rip to Colorado I was introduced to a number of American Indian rituals, some of which profoundly impacted me.

On the flight home I had time to reflect on why that was – and one of the things I realised was that the simple formality and specificity of rituals is immensely powerful.  I also realised that rituals are powerful because they require us to press the pause button on the rest of our life, even if only for a few moments.

Running two companies based on opposite sides of the planet has been an exciting challenge for the past year. And while global travel is so much easier and safer than it was even a decade ago, it is still time and energy draining, and it adds many items to the already long list of ‘stuff to get done’.  I was often operating from a mindset of limited time and thinking that my work responsibilities were limitless. And when that happens we typically start to (consciously and subconsciously) let go of tasks that don’t immediately meet a need or solve a problem.  I’ve also found with many of my coaching clients that the things we let go of first are often the things that are beneficial for us.

When I think of ritual, I often recall a movie scene where someone in traditional Japanese garb is making tea. I love the attention they pay, the care they take, the way the seem to be consumed by the very act and ceremony of making a pot of tea. Such a simple yet powerful act and state to sit in.

I usually have a coffee as part of my morning routine. I now realise that – particularly in the last year or so – making that coffee has become a question of ‘how quickly can I get this done?’  And it’s the same when I’m making myself or Danette a cup of tea; it’s all a blur of semi-conscious activity so I can go back to whatever I was doing & thinking about beforehand.  Our pantry holds a dozen boxes of different flavoured tea bags, not because they taste better, but because making tea with tea bags is faster.

So, I’ve decided I will no longer buy tea bags. And if I decide to go back to drinking coffee (I’m in the ‘no caffeine’ stage of the WildFit program at the moment), I commit to dropping everything else and immersing myself in the experience. What might I learn if I spend 5 minutes every morning focused entirely on the act of making coffee?

Maybe nothing….. or maybe something profound. I won’t ever know unless I try it.

What are your rituals? Which one leaves you feeling most at peace, centred? I’d love to hear from you.

Start From Your Heart

Two weeks ago, in a moment of something approaching genuine gratitude, I wrote a letter to a friend.  To be honest (and I feel I must), through no fault of his own he was in danger of becoming more acquaintance than friend.

The letter was handwritten – something of a rarity these days – and thrust into the local postbox, heedless of the recent 30-cent hike in postage.  I drove away a little concerned that my friend would fail to appreciate the sincerity of my penmanship, when preceded by a demand from Australia Post that he cough-up for the extra postage.

Fortunately, our national carrier of all things paper was in a generous mood and the letter arrived sans demand.  At my friend’s birthday party a few days later (the timing of my letter was pure coincidence… if you believe in coincidence) he confided that the letter had almost reduced him to tears.

I didn’t think I’d written anything special and I know my handwriting could have been neater, within the lines. And while I cling to the absurd notion that correct spelling continues to be important in written communication, writing with my favourite fountain pen while resting the notepad on my leg only ensured my ‘scribble’ would be more hieroglyphic than Helvetica.

What made this letter ‘special’ – for me and for my friend – was where the words originated. For a change, I wrote from my heart – not just my head.

When we connect the two, brain and heart, we connect with something far older and more aware.  When someone communicates with us ‘from the heart’, our own heart recognises that energy and intent light-years head of our brain (if you’re interested in the science behind that statement, please let me know and I’ll happily share what’s been discovered in recent years).

So my letter contained words that – in another context – may have ‘felt’ ordinary or unimportant to the reader.  If you undertook a pure textual analysis of the letter, you’d find little to remark upon: simple language, no attention to rhyme, rhythm or structure.

Yet it had impact – because of where it was written from.

And I now understand that the medium is irrelevant: handwritten note, email, blog, snapchat, tweet, facebook post… you get the idea.

What really matters is where you start.

So the next time you communicate with anyone – about anything – make the 12-inch journey and connect your brain with your heart before you start…

Love what you do

Love What You DoI read a quote once (attributed to Confucius) which reads: ‘Choose a job you love and you will never have to “work” a day in your life.’

This has always resonated with me; intrinsically it makes sense and is something I have set as a goal for a long time now – having spent decades working in jobs I loathed for all the wrong reasons.  We’ve talked to our kids throughout their lives about the need to articulate and chase their dreams and the importance of being in a ‘happy headspace’ more of the time – the ripple effect on others alone is worth the investment.

We’ve also urged clients, students, acquaintances and anyone else who’d listen to find the job they love and do nothing else. I can even recall offering this well-intentioned but ineffective advice to a student who was suffering burnout from a job that was sucking the life from them: ‘Quit. Just walk out the door and find something you actually enjoy doing.’

It’s rarely that simple – and it’s almost never easy to follow that advice(?).  Family,  colleagues, mortgages, kids….. the list of responsibilities that tie us to work we don’t love is often long and heavy.  So we suck it up, put our heads down and plough on, because that’s what we have to do.  ‘Sure, I’d be thrilled if I could find that one job that would bring a silly grin to my face every morning when I woke and realised what I’d be doing that day – but I have to live in this reality.’

lovewhatyoudo_2Lately, I’ve come to understand that I only had part of the equation, that there is more to the puzzle than simply finding your perfect vocation – whatever that may be.

If (when) you find a job you absolutely love, one that energises and motivates you, go for it with everything you have. You’ll be good at it – over time you’ll become great at it – and you will leave this world in a better state.

But what do you do until then?  What about today?  What about the job you’re heading off to in the morning – the one that pays the bills but rarely makes you feel passionate about the impact you’re having?

The missing piece to the puzzle is to find a way of loving what you currently do – until you find your ‘perfect calling’.

Robin Sharma evangelises the attitude of being a leader in our work, regardless of what we do.  Accountant, school teacher, garbage collector, hotel maid, shop assistant, public servant, builder’s labourer, lawyer…  you get the idea.

What if we changed our attitude about the work we currently do? What if we decided to start thinking about our jobs as an opportunity to be the absolute best in the world at what we do?  How would that affect the way we feel about that job?  Would we be more positive as a result? More willing to try harder to be great at the work and to be a role model for our colleagues and clients and customers – even for people who observe what we do without interacting?

Would we be more inspired (internal), rather than merely motivated (external)?

For me, the answer to these somewhat rhetorical questions is a resounding YES.

Changing the way you think about your job absolutely changes the way you feel about it and changes the way you do the work – all in a positive manner.

So if you find your work is a drag;  if you struggle to get to your workplace every day and do so with a heavy heart. If you find you have little energy for doing the work and even less motivation to do it brilliantly,  change the story in your head.  Make it a challenge, to do great work that inspires those around you, every day – no matter what you are doing.

Think about how you could become the best in the world at what you do – then do it.

And when that voice in your head complains that ‘it’s not that easy…’ ask it politely to be quiet.

But never give up on your dreams…  never.

Start Your Day Happy

magical911I drove Danette into the city this morning as she’s running a workshop for one of our clients. It’s a relatively easy 8km trip, although we were caught-up in what passes for ‘peak hour’ in Canberra, so the last 2km of the drive took 15 minutes.

I am very grateful that we don’t have to do this often – however I was once again struck by the sense of ‘hasty panic’ from so many drivers around us.

I was a poor driver for too many years: aggressive, angry, stressed etc. I’ve made dumb choices behind the wheel and created stress for others – and I’ve been guilty of ‘road rage’. But I am replacing my old, negative habits with new, positive ones 🙂

It’s such a cliché to say the world is speeding up; everything and everyone is moving faster and we all expect things to get done in less time. I learned a new acronym last month courtesy of Seth Godin: TLDR (too long, didn’t read). Apparently, a growing number of people online are switching sites or closing pages if the text is ‘too long’ – whatever that means. There’s an excellent chance someone will invoke the Rule of TLDR partway through this post – or they’ll simply note the number of paragraphs and decide not to read it at all. Which is of course their choice, but what does it suggest about where we’re heading in how we communicate?

traffic

Which brings me back (somewhat circuitously) to my original point about haste. The ‘mad dash’ to work in our cars every morning creates a cloud of anxiety and negative energy that sets us up in the worst possible way for a day of human interaction. We rush around in the morning to get kids ready for school, we rush to get ready for work, we rush to the car, we rush to beat the traffic, we rush a little more to stop another driver cutting-in in front of us, we rush to the carpark, we rush to the office – then we collapse into our chairs and spend minutes trying to reboot our brains so we can focus on what we’re meant to be doing.

During a workshop break yesterday, I listened to two participants describe their interactions with motorists earlier that morning. The man had been yelled at by a random passing motorist for having the audacity to be carrying a take-away coffee on a hot Summer day; the woman was honked at (is that a thing?) for using a pedestrian crossing without waiting for the Walk sign (having pressed the button, she decided she couldn’t wait the 20-odd seconds it would take for the lights to change).

That latter act also speaks volumes about our unwillingness to simply pause, take a breath and wait. She crossed the road against the lights, the motorist got angry because he had to brake hard because he was rushing to get through the intersection before the lights changed, and both almost certainly impacted others negatively afterwards.

Anyway, back to the driving to work thing (sorry). If you find getting to work in the morning is stressful and that everyone around you is a lunatic who should have their license revoked; if you find you spend more time cursing your fellow commuters and cranking the volume up to that song you almost like, simply to take your mind off that idiot who just cut-in to the half space in front of you and is now blocking two lanes of traffic; if you notice that more and more you feel exhausted before you reach your workspace, here are a few tips that I hope will help:

  1. Don’t have opinions about others. This is hard to do at first but, like any muscle, the more you exercise it the stronger it becomes. Getting ‘fired-up’ about others drains our energy and absolutely affects our ability to function. It also makes us a less-nice person to be around. When you notice yourself having an opinion about someone else because of what they just did or said, acknowledge the opinion and then let it go.
  2. Just breathe. When you get into your car for the drive to work, take five deep, slow breaths. Smile at yourself in the rear vision mirror and then start the car. If you have kids or others in the car, ask them to help you by doing likewise (yes, it sounds silly and you know you will feel foolish – do it anyway).
  3. Create space. Leave 2 car lengths between you and the car in front – all the way to work. If someone cuts-in to that space, slow down for a second and re-create it. If the drive to work usually takes you 20 minutes, this may add almost a full minute to your drive time. One minute. Sixty seconds….. that’s it. But you’ll feel calmer when you arrive.
  4. Cultivate silence. Turn the radio/stereo off – particularly if you’re in the habit of listening to the news. Try a silent commute for a week. Just one week. Of course, if you listen to music that you love, that energises you and makes you feel good, then keep doing that. But try to stay away from news, current affairs, talkback shows; they invariably blanket us in negativity that drains our positive energy, our happiness.
  5. You can’t control others, you can control how you drive. Be a role model for everyone around you. Dr James Rouse said recently that the world doesn’t need to hear any more sermons (from anyone), it needs to see them. So rather than abuse (however quietly) someone else for driving erratically or making a poor decision, simply make good decisions.
  6. Be kind to you.  As a parent, child, sibling, colleague, classmate, friend, spouse – as a human being, you need to nurture yourself before you can nurture others. We’ve managed to create a society that often frowns on self-care as being selfish; it’s not. Look after you first; then do what you can to help others.

Love Yourself FirstIf, on the other hand, you find the drive/commute to work every day is a joy; that you arrive full of energy with a smile on your face and laughter in your heart, that is fantastic.

I would love to know how you do it – it would be great to share your tips with others.

Do what you must, to create a joyful day for yourself and those around you  🙂

 

Developing Resilient Children

French River, Canada

How do we help our children learn resilience, so they can deal with life’s twists and turns in a (relatively) calm, constructive and focused manner?

Resilience has been described variously as the ability to:

  • ‘bounce back’ from difficult times, setbacks and other significant challenges
  • deal effectively with pressure and to get through tough times with good outcomes
  • view the world in an optimistic and hopeful manner.

There’s been ongoing discussion in education circles about the lack of meaningful content and dialogue in school curricula about resilience. That situation is changing, but – at least in Australia – it appears to be a piecemeal approach by individual schools, rather than a focused, coordinated revamp of school curricula across the country (wouldn’t it be amazing if every school on the planet had building resilience as a core learning outcome for every student?)

Home

One risk of focusing our attention on the lack of quality programs in schools is it may encourage us to miss a crucial opportunity; for schools and parents to work together to help children understand what resilience means – how it feels inside, what it looks like in someone else and how they can build and maintain it throughout their lives.

Imagine if our kids learned early on how to deal with setbacks, how to maintain self esteem, balance and positivity? What impact might that have on bullying, substance abuse, crime, depression….?

I watched a video last year titled Did You Know; it included a raft of statistics and ‘facts’ about how our world is evolving, the impact of technology on almost everything – and it noted that we are trying to educate young children today to prepare them for jobs that haven’t yet been identified. The world is changing so rapidly, we don’t know what skills will be needed in the workplace in five years’ time – so how do we create and maintain a learning environment for our kids, when we don’t know what we need to teach them?

I don’t have an answer for that, but I do believe we’re misleading ourselves, as guardians of and mentors for future generations. Despite the rapid change and seemingly incredible advances in technology and science in the past decade, we remain human beings.  As psychologist Matthew Lieberman noted in his wonderful book Social, we still need to interact socially with other human beings.  The environments we create for those interactions have certainly changed and for today’s younger generations they seem to happen predominantly online – but the need remains.

Regardless of the workplace environment in five, ten or 20 years’ time, we still need to belong with others and we need to know how to interact in a respectful (both sides), safe, exploratory and effective manner. At a fundamental level, we need to know how to ‘get along’ with others.

When that doesn’t happen; when we clash with someone else for whatever reason – and unless you live in a bubble that’s almost a certainty at some point in your life – we need to know how to deal with the intellectual, emotional and physiological challenges that situation presents.

We need to know how to cope, how to react and respond, how to move on. We need to know how to bring ourselves back to a place of love, happiness, respect and kindness.

Doesn’t that sound and look like something we should be teaching our children now?

What do you think?

Balancing Life… and work

DSC_0412Most of us today can probably identify with the stereotypical ‘workaholic’, who takes their work home at the end of each day.  Some do this literally, although for many of us what we carry home is not folders and files, but thoughts and emotions.

We can also do the reverse and arrive at work with our minds still clogged with replays of things that happened at home that morning.

The borderline between home and work has blurred in recent times and for some of us it seems to have just vanished. It’s tough when the pace of things continues to increase – and it’s tougher still when public leaders (eg. senior execs, politicians) are telling us we need to work harder. Most of us don’t want to let our colleagues down; we want to do a good job and feel that we’re capable, so we sometimes take on more than we can handle.  For some people, the unarticulated threat of dismissal is also used as leverage to squeeze more and more from them every day – they end up working crazy hours, working weekends and surrendering more and more of their personal life to their job.

So how do we manage this?

Stephen Covey had a habit of stopping on the way home from work every day to consciously let go of everything that had happened in the office, so he could focus on how he wanted to appear and what he wanted to think and feel when he arrived home.

Similarly, Richard Carlson (Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff) wrote of his ritual of mentally ‘reprogramming’ himself every day on the drive home from his office. He’d stop his car at the same spot about 5 minutes from his home, then spend a few moments releasing everything that had happened in the office and focusing on how he wanted to feel and act when he walked through his front door.

Anthony Robbins also used a similar technique with some of his clients that I refer to as the ‘On/Off Switch’. Robbins encouraged his clients to pick a landmark that they passed each day on their way to and from work. As they passed the landmark on their way to work each morning, they let go of whatever may have happened that morning and concentrated on how they wanted to think, feel and act when they arrived at work. They then reversed that process on the way home when they passed that landmark.

In his book The Third Space, Australian researcher Dr Adam Fraser discusses his three-step approach to helping people make a better transition from work to home:  Reflect, Rest, and Reset.

It all sounds simplistic, I know, but the best methods for resolving issues are often the most straightforward ones.

So if you find yourself struggling to leave work at work, or you realise that you’ve lost half the morning at work because you’re still struggling to deal with what happened at home, try using one of these techniques.

As with a lot of personal development rituals, be patient and be kind to yourself if it doesn’t work the first time you try it. Habits take 30-40 days to fully embed themselves into your world, so keep at it.

And if you know of friends or colleagues who are also sometimes off-balance, please share these suggestions with them. It often helps to partner with someone you trust at work, to encourage each other in creating new habits and supporting oe another when things don’t seem to be working out.

I’d love to hear about your techniques for staying balanced between life and work – please leave your comments below 🙂

Paying Attention

mobile-textingHave you ever tried having a conversation with someone and become frustrated at their inability to ignore their phone?

As a father of five, it has been an ongoing source of angst for me – to the point where I have ‘demanded’ that family get-togethers are technology free; when we sit down to eat, everyone turns their phones off.

I admit this hasn’t always worked, but when it does it helps us reconnect more honestly  🙂

There’s no surprise behind a person’s inability to concentrate on both a conversation and their mobile device.  And this condition is not generational – it is as true for a 20 year-old as it is for a 40 year-old, or someone who just turned 97.

We’ve known for decades that our conscious brain can only hold a limited number (some say seven, maximum) of pieces of information. However the number of things we can pay attention to is even more restricted.

The ‘truth’ about multi-tasking, for decades regarded as an innate gift for the feminine gender and an unachievable fantasy for males, has been somewhat tarnished in recent years. Science has proven that when we try to do many things at once, we do all of the poorly.

So yes, we can still multi-task; we just can’t do each task well – certainly nowhere near as well as we could if we focussed all of our attention on a single task.

We all know someone who has used their mobile phone while driving – either to make or answer a call or, worse still, to text someone.  A growing number of countries (incl. Australia, China, Germany, Japan, NZ, UK) have made these practices illegal, although some – including most US states – still have not legislated against the use of hand-held phones while driving.

The use of mobile phones in the car has become a major issue in many countries simply because the technology is readily available, increasingly efficient and more affordable. Younger generations have ‘grown up’ with devices at their fingertips; online social media has helped create a communications protocol for millions around the globe that looks to technology as the primary – and often secondary – communications tool, rather than the human interaction relied upon by previous generations who didn’t have access to such technology.

It’s easy to find a long list of articles online about people who’ve had car accidents (many in Australia) because they were distracted by using their phone while driving. Texting seems to be the main culprit, which is not surprising because it requires far more visual focus.  If you’re concentrating on your phone screen you cannot also be concentrating on what’s ahead of the car you’re driving; it’s not possible.

It’s also not possible to concentrate fully on the traffic and everything else happening around you as you cross a road; pedestrian accidents are also on the rise as more of us fail to recognise when our immediate environment is about to change from minor risk – another pedestrian bumping into us as we don’t watch where we’re walking, to potential catastrophe – we step off the curb into the path of a bus that cannot possibly stop in time.

Science has proven that it is possible to increase your ability to concentrate. In an earlier blog I wrote about neuroplasticity and how you can literally rewire your brain to make it bigger, stronger, faster – capable of solving massive, multi-faceted quantum physics conundrums with a single thought (well, maybe not quantum physics – but you get the idea).  So I believe that we can teach our brains to focus better and to be more consciously aware of more than one thing at a time.

But I believe this ability can only be developed; we’re not born with it, no matter how smart our parents are and how many pieces of technology we’ve used by our tenth birthday and how many hours of Grand Theft Auto or Second Life we’ve played in the last year. We have to learn how to develop it and then we have to practice until it becomes a more natural part of us – neuroscientists might describe this process as firing neurons (creating new connections in the brain) until they become hardwired.

I believe we can improve so many aspects of our lives; family, relationships, education, work, social – by understanding more clearly how we think and then act or react.

This seems like a good place to start….

Growing your Brain

I watched a compelling show on ABC1 last night called Redesign My Brain, in which an Australian man undertook a range of mental and physical activities designed specifically to improve his brain’s capacity and functions.

For a long, long time, scientists believed that our brain’s development was predominantly fixed; mind and body functions had been mapped to discrete areas of the brain and that was how it all worked. If you suffered damage to one area of the brain, you lost the functions that area controlled – forever.download film Sleepless 2017 now

However, recent research is proving that belief wrong.  ‘Neuroplasticity’ is now the flavour of the month among neuroscientists, as they begin to understand more about how we can – literally – change our brain;  its size, function mapping, capacity, processing speed… the possibilities are endless and very, very exciting.

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young was born with ‘severe learning disabilities’. teachers labelled her slow,  stubborn and worse.  Her stubbornness and an excellent memory saved her though, as she struggled through to graduate school and found (there are no coincidences in this world) research that suggested she could change her situation. Arrowsmith-Young spent years designing and practising a range of cognitive exercises that literally rewired her brain.

She subsequently completed a B.A.Sc. in Child Studies, a Masters in School Psychology and developed the Arrowsmith Program, a series of cognitive exercises designed to help students strengthen cognitive weaknesses that underline learning difficulties.

In his 2008 book The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge writes of a growing body of research that proves our brains can be rewired. Doidge cites the case of a stroke victim who had suffered major damage to 97% of the nerves between their cerebral cortex and spine. Although that damage could not be repaired, the person ‘re-learned’ how to walk by creating new neural connections in other areas of their brain.

I’m excited about this research and its implications for so many reasons – not least because it supports our push for ‘lifelong learning’ as something we should all see as critical to maintaining a genuine quality of life well into our 80s… and beyond.

Imagine having better brain function at age 70 than you do now (if you’re already past 70, imagine it at 80 or 90). Imagine having clear memory recall, feeling confident at every task you attempt, being able to see clearly around you as you navigate through traffic.

The possibilities really are endless  🙂

One for the Parents

I’m a very blessed father of five children; each of them unique, each with their own special gifts, each with a very different personality and character traits. Yet all of them have had one thing in common: a tendency to make poor decisions at certain times in their life – predominantly during their teenage years.

Of course, this is not a generational thing; I can still recall with a mix of amazement, embarrassment and pure horror, some of the bizarre choices I made as a teen – one of which left me extremely fortunate to be writing this today!

But now I understand more about why we are seemingly incapable of making good choices during our pre-adult years.

I attended a workshop recently, facilitated by Dr Connie Henson from Learning Quest, based on building stronger coaching skills through neuroscience.  Connie discussed some of the latest findings from brain research around the globe, which have given us a clearer understanding of how our brains develop as we grow.

One of the more interesting findings relates to our prefrontal cortex (PFC), the part of the brain that controls abstract thinking and thought analysis.  The PFC is responsible for regulating behavior, dealing with conflicting thoughts, making decisions (eg. choosing between right and wrong) and predicting outcomes of actions.  It also manages emotional and sexual urges – and inhibitions.

Prefrontal Cortex

Research has now shown that our PFC does not fully develop until around 20 years of age; up till then it’s a mass (mess?) of confusing and conflicting neural connections that change constantly and make it extremely difficult for us to make what parents (and often society) would consider ‘good’ choices.

If you’ve ever scratched your head in wonder/frustration at something your teenager has just done and asked yourself “What were they thinking?”…. now you know. It’s highly likely they were not in a fully functional brain state and this directly influenced the decision(s) they made.

It’s also clear that stress further inhibits the PFC’s functions, so seemingly innocuous events like class exams or social functions can cause our teens to act out and make choices that just do not make sense, based on what we know of them as human beings and as our children.

The good news is it’s a temporary condition that will diminish/disappear as the PFC continues to develop. The less-good news is you may be in for a few more challenging years until that happens  🙂

For me, one of the responsibilities of being a parent is to try and maintain a ‘safe’ environment, within which our children can learn and grow. That can be easier said than done, but I think it’s a worthwhile objective.

And perhaps understanding that while some of their decisions/choices may seem ‘poor’, they are driven by lack of mental development rather than a desire to torture us as parents, will help all of us cope more positively?