Sunday, August 30, 2009

Do you need a break?

I was at the doctor's office last week and picked up a magazine while I waited for my turn. It was the July 6th issue of Maclean's. In bold print on the front page it said: "Canadians Do It Better". Jonathon Gatehouse who scoured international opinion surveys, census statistics, think tank reports and consumer databases to research this article claims that:
"We're healthier than the Americans, live longer than the Swedes and eat better than the French. We even have more lovers than the Italians - and of course we're more caring"

The typical Canadian family is doing better than the typical family in America. We spend just 19% of our annual household budgets on shelter as opposed to Americans who spend 34% of their budget to get a roof over their heads. Canada is number two among the top industrialized countries in the world for financial net worth per household (behind the US). We have a higher level of house ownership (and more spacious houses to boot) than the USA, Japan, Sweden, Denmark, France and Germany! A recent Goldman Sachs report predicts that Canada along with Australia and Britain will the among the first countries to recover from the recession.

Canada is eighth in the world for life expectancy (81.23 years) and tied for fourth place with France, Norway and Singapore for quality of life according to the World Health Organization. We are the third highest consumers of fruits and vegetables and also ranked third for the least number of daily smokers and,... we eat less processed food than the French!

We are no slouch in the love department either. Canadians spend more time romancing their partners in the bedroom and we claim having more sexual partners than the French and Italians!

We've got a lot going for us. I am very proud to be a Canadian.

But then I got a wake up call. I flipped the page to another article written by Nancy MacDonald. Apparently Canadians need a break. We are the fourth-hardest workers in the world. We even beat out the USA, Germany, Sweden and Japan and most of the rest of Europe. Hard to believe huh?

No wonder I feel so tired. I blamed the fatigue on my advancing age but it would seem that I have been punching in more hours at work. In fact, over three decades, from the 1950's to the 1980's, the time Canadians spent working decreased progressively. However in the late 1990's this trend reversed dramatically obliterating the gains we had made in claiming back some "me time" from our work week.

Like our cousins the Australians, Canadians now work a 33 hour work week (when you account for both full time and part time workers). The length of our work week surpasses the number of hours that our neighbours in the south punch in as well as the Brits work week. European countries seem to have a better sense of balance: French work 29 hours weeks, the Norwegians, 28 and the Dutch 27. How would you like to live in France and have 7.6 weeks of paid vacation time a year? Residents of Spain enjoy 30 days of paid holidays, Germans have 27 days and the British, known for their strong work ethic, have 26 days. We, in comparison, have on average only 19 days of paid vacation time.

What happened in the late 1990's to cause such a reversal in leisure time? Do you remember? Communication technology is what happened. It started with emails. Instead of picking up the phone or dropping a note in the mailbox, we let our fingers to the talking. We don't even get up from our office chair to chat with our cubicle neighbour. We prefer typing a short "what's up" email and pressing the "send" button.

Then there was the advent of the Blackberry which in essence means that instead of leaving our computer on our desk at the end of the work day we can now carry it with us everywhere we go: at the grocery store, at the restaurant, at the gym even! And people know that you carry your B-berry with you all the time so they email you at all times, very early morning, evenings and weekends. Speedy response is expected. "Hey I sent you an email 15 minutes ago and you haven't replied yet!"

The vast majority of homes now have a computer and many have several (we have 4 computers at home not counting I-Phones and Blackberry). Internet is "de rigueur" especially if you have teenagers. How else are they going to "talk" to their friends without MSN and Facebook? Sad but true, many of us even have computers and Internet connections at the cottage!

Yes, you say, that is all well and good but other countries have access to the same techno gizmos as us Canadians. How come we are putting in so much more hours at work compared to them? Experts are saying that we see downtime as non-productive time. We have become a culture obsessed with results.

What is distressing though is that by curtailing leisure time in favor of work we risk suffering the consequences mentally and physically. Research makes a strong case for taking vacations and giving ourselves some downtime. People who take regular holidays are 25% (women) to 32% (men) less likely to die of heart attacks. Vacations also help reduce a vast array of aches and pains like persistent headaches, rashes, colds and flues. The likelihood of burnout and depression is diminished when you dedicate time to exercise, yoga and meditation to recharge our batteries on a regular basis.

Since there are no more boundaries between work time and personal time we have to create our own "no work" time zones. That takes some self-discipline. You need a plan:

  • Go back to a 9 to 5 work day: What will be your Blackberry blackout time zones? What will be your protocols for replying to emails? How fast? Will you answer emails in the evening? On weekends?
  • Dream up your next vacation: How will you use up all your vacation days this year? Will you use that time to get your house renovations done or to truly disconnect and relax?
  • Move your body: What kind of exercise gives you pleasure and satisfaction? Fitness classes? (if you sign up for classes you are more likely to get fit than just relying on the exercising bike that serves as a clothes hanger in your bedroom) Join a foursome for regular golf games? Put on that short white skirt and go play tennis?
  • Feed your body: Because you are always out of time so you often grab a quick bite to eat at the take out. Not a great way to get all your fruits and veggies and watch your calorie intake... Maybe it is time to rediscover the "joy of cooking". If you are an environmentalist there are even more reasons to go back to basic and explore the world of organic cooking and the 100 miles diet.
  • Quiet time: What helps you regain balance? Sitting on the dock at the cottage watching the clouds roll by? Escaping into another world with a good book? Deep breathing exercises sitting in the lotus position?
  • Be a model: Your kids are watching you. Your friends and colleagues are watching you. It just takes one person to start a movement. A movement for well-being. Your courage and determination will inspire others to do the same and soon enough people will have joined the movement to reclaim our leisure time. Soon there will be a Tipping Point and what is now counter-culture will become the new way - true balance between work and play.
Try this out:

I challenge you to do this little exercise.
Draw a circle on a sheet of paper.
Revisit what you did this weekend.
Determine what portions of the pie to give to downtime, office work, house work, social activities, family time, and... ME TIME.
What do you observe?
Are you happy with the results?
Do you want to change anything?

What will you do starting today to start redistributing leisure time and work time more equitably in your life?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Feel the burn

Do you remember the Jane Fonda fitness videos of the eighties (I apologize to the men who are reading this who most probably do not even know about the existence of these videos, but I am trying to make a point so bear with me)? Jane Fonda was dressed in pink leotards and a striped unitard along with a color coordinated belt(!). The most memorable part of her stylish attire was the woolly footless leggings that covered her calves (to keep them warm and flexible perhaps?). Think of the movie Flashdance (of the same era) and you've got the picture.

I would follow her moves and instructions diligently in the hopes of one day having her ageless slim body and, as I did so, I would swear under my breath as my muscles ached and shaked. Jane Fonda would say over and over, "Do it until you feel the burn." I would shout back to the TV, "I am feeling the burn all right, how come I don't look like you yet?"

Perhaps because I was inspired by Jane Fonda, I became a professional fitness instructor in the early nineties and still teach 15 years later. Funny enough, we still challenge our participants to "feel the burn" because that is the trademark of a good workout.

By the way, for those of you who are curious for the scientific explanation for this phenomena, your muscles begin to “burn” when lactic acid builds up in your muscle cells. There are differing points of view on whether or not lactic acid actually causes the burn or, coincidentally, just happens to accumulate at the same time the burning sensations start.

Why am talking about this today? I just came back from a particularly difficult weight training class and feel quite sore. The instructor invoked the phrase to motivate us to try harder because "it is only by challenging your muscles that you will develop them and become stronger." It struck me that this idea of pushing our physical muscles beyond what is comfortable could also be a great metaphor for coaching. As coaches we help people strengthen their intellectual and emotional muscles as they redefine who they want to become. Most of us seem to be pre-programmed to find the path of least resistance and settle into what is comfortable. We tend to use the same patterns of behavior over and over again because we find it is easier. Those behavior patterns may be easier but not necessarily more effective. We rely on a set of intellectual and emotional abilities that are like a well worn path. You don't need to think too hard about what to do next, the path will always get you to the same place. Stepping outside of the path to explore new landscapes is much more difficult because it means that you have to venture out of your comfort zone. Pushing beyond the comfort zone takes a lot of effort and self-discipline or sometimes it is precipitated by some kind of urgency (an illness, death of a loved one, loss of a job, etc.) The pain you feel when you try something new is not unlike the pain you feel when you push you muscle beyond its usual range of weight bearing and resistance. You "feel the burn".

When I teach temperament type theory (like Myers-Briggs Type Inventory or Personality Dimensions) I remind students that even though we may have natural abilities and preferences in the way we understand and process information, we all have the potential to develop complementary abilities in other areas. Like the muscles in our bodies, some of our intellectual abilities become weak or atrophied because of lack of use.

In his book A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink urges us to develop parts of our personalities that are under-utilized especially the abilities that are more right-brained abilities like empathy, play, and meaning. Pink believes that the future belongs to right-brainers and proposes exercises for left-brainers to build up their more creative muscles so they can also take part in this intellectual revolution. His book is like an fitness program for the brain ...

If we were to design a personalized fitness program to develop your intellectual muscles, which abilities would you like to further develop and strengthen? Ask a coach to recommend some exercises ...

Monday, August 17, 2009

Clearing Out Space for Change

Feng Shui adepts believe that there are deep and real messages about ourselves hidden inside our piles of stuff. We must ask ourselves why we feel like we need to own and hold on to so many things. In order to make changes happen in your life, you must provide an environment that invites change. You must clear out the old in order to make room for the new.

A few weeks ago I was packing away 13 years worth of files, books and resource binders. I am taking a year-long leave of absence from my job with the federal government to start my own consulting firm in organizational development. Packing is not a job that I enjoy but I must say that going through your stuff and purging what is not useful or relevant anymore has a therapeutic effect. There is often an emotional undertone to choosing what to keep or toss.
It is a lesson in letting go of what no longer serves you.

In the end, it took nine two cubic feet boxes to pack all my office stuff! As I looked at the pile of boxes I started fretting. Where am I going to put all this stuff at home? I will be sharing an "office space" with my two computer-dependant teenage daughters and my self proclaimed "geek" of a husband. I'm lucky to get half an hour of computer time a day. There are only two computers, two work surfaces and three chairs in our work room and guess what, I am usually the odd person out. There is no storage space either. Our shelves are overflowing with books (we are all avid readers in the family) and craft supplies.

The challenge of finding space for this new home-based business venture was the subject of many animated discussions between my husband and I. We would need to shift things around and re-think the set-up in the basement where we store all the stuff that, to be honest, we don't use very much but still can't bear to give away.
On the weekend we finally rolled up our sleeves and tackled the job. We enlisted the help of our daughters who reluctantly looked through the shelves upon shelves of dusty unused toys to determine which ones we could give away. It was at times a painful experience for them. I was surprised to see how attached my 17 year old was to her vast collection of Barbies, Polly Pockets and plush toys. "They are good souvenirs of my childhood" she said.

In the end, we packed up two van loads of "stuff" for a charity garage sale and the Salvation Army. I may have been the only one in the family feeling this way, but I felt such a sense of relief and satisfaction when my husband drove away with the heaps of bags and boxes of unwanted things. Since then, when I go down to the basement, I am thrilled to look at the clean uncluttered space. It feels like a fresh new beginning.

Amanda Slaz, a Feng Shui practitioner says that your space mirrors your life:

The flow of energy is a channel that literally becomes clogged. When you thoughtfully sort through your possessions and eliminate all those that are no longer useful to you, a positive void is created in your life. This, in turn, forms a powerful current for attracting all sorts of life enriching and wonderful changes!
If you want to do a bit of space clearing of your own you may want to consider these questions as you sort through your possessions:
  • Do I love this?
  • Does it fit into my current lifestyle?
  • Does it bring me joy and ease?
  • Am I saving it for someone who loves and wants it?
  • Is it of great value to me for sentimental reasons?
  • Will I use it in the next couple of years?
  • Am I keeping this because I feel obligated because it was a gift or inheritance?
  • I'm afraid that if I get rid of it that I might need it some day.
  • Is it still in my life because I can't figure out what to do with it?

Be patient with yourself as you begin to look at the baggage in your life. Our belongings, and our reasons for keeping them, give profound clues as to who we are and what issues we need to look at in life. For many of us the way we orchestrate our external environment is also a reflection of our inner world: are our work space and home environment chaotic or peaceful?

But what about your internal environment? I believe you can transpose the Feng Shui principles to non-material things as well.

What are some thoughts, beliefs and habits that no longer serve you? Maybe you have always said that you were a shy person. For years this has served you well because it was an easily understood explanation for your preference for working alone and protected you from unwanted intrusions and invitations. But today, you realize you have much to teach others and wish you felt comfortable speaking with groups. The first step to realize this personal goal might be to "throw out" the old belief that you are shy so you can try on a new more outgoing persona.

Who you are is ever-changing, shaped by the multitude of experiences and encounters in your daily life. From time to time you have to ask yourself if it is time to re-assess what you take for granted.

My friend Paul is a professional coach. One day I was lamenting that I had all these dreams and aspirations for my future but I felt stuck. Paul gave me this wonderful image. He said: "Sylvie, you are like a colorful hot air balloon that wants to rise up in the sky but you are tied down to the ground by all these ropes. You need to cut the ropes that tie you to your current frame of mind and throw overboard the bags of sands that weigh you down."

What do you need to do reconsider, and maybe throw away, so you can rise up to your full potential?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Family Ties

Yesterday I went on a road trip to the States with my mother and daughter. We don't spend much time with my mother except on holidays when the whole family gets together (10 adults and 10 kids) and we usually spend most of that time cooking, cleaning up, and unfortunately, getting into the old family dynamics ... So my mom was looking forward to this trip as a special summer adventure.

I, on the other hand, was a bit apprehensive because my teenage daughter is at a stage where anything that has to do with her mother is either a bore or shameful. I was surprised when she said yes. For the first part of the trip, my daughter plugged herself to a DVD player and watched a movie. Not a peep out of her until we reached the border.

When it came time for lunch she perked up because her grandmother promised to take her to the Ponderosa Steak House. We used to really like that restaurant when I was a kid but they have since all closed down in my hometown. All my mom had to do was mention that there was an all you can eat buffet and ice cream bar with all the toppings and she had my daughter eating out the palm of her hand (almost literally!)

Then we did a bit of shopping and I encouraged my daughter to spot products that we do not have in Canada. It was like a treasure hunt. She was running down the aisles ahead of us bringing back a box of this or a can of that to show her us her latest find. I bought her some sugary breakfast cereals (the type I don't usually allow at home) and other treats from the grocery store. She was thrilled.

I bought my daughter some back to school clothes while we were there. I watched her choose things that I disliked, but I did not comment (that took a lot of self-discipline). She was asserting herself by deciding on her own style and I was practicing the art of letting go (a key survival tactic when you are raising teenagers). She was grateful that I treated her more like an adult and that made a positive difference in how we related to each other for the rest of the day.

On the way back home, as the sun was setting, my mother and I had a great conversation. It all started with a comment that, if she were to move into an old-age home, she would bring two small urns that are reproductions of urns found at an archeological site she visited in Greece, on a university course trip. She will turn 75 next summer and she lives alone, so thoughts of her future are on her mind. I didn't even remember her going on that trip, even though I was in my early twenties at the time. Odd. She then went on to describe other memorable trips to Spain where she almost got killed in a road accident and in Martinique where my grandmother Marie-Ange got deathly ill (again, I did not remember any of this).

I got more and more curious about her story and our family's story. I asked her about my great-great-grandmother who was First Nation (Algonquin). I asked her about my great-grandfather Philias who left his pregnant wife, Olivine, to seek his fortune in the Klondike. When he came back five years later, the son he had never met had passed away from a childhood illness. All Philias had to show for his years up north panning for gold nuggets was a gold ring that my mother still wears today. I asked her to tell me how my grand mother came to be the first woman contractor in Vanier in the early 1950's (she built seven apartment buildings). Her reputation was such that she was asked to consider running as the first woman mayor of her city (but she replied that she did not think that society was ready a for woman in that kind of influential position). Wow! Great stories! I felt proud and connected.

My mother commented that the best part of her day for her was the conversation we just had. We never seem to have time to talk about those things when we get together. We talk about every day things like who's doing what, the world news, and the weather. This car trip gave us an opportunity to talk about something that really matters to both of us. Our family's story binds us to each other.

It is interesting that I started this blog by commenting on my daughter's disinterest in her mother and grandmother. It would seem that I was a disinterested teenager too. I cannot recall any of my mother's trip stories. As I was growing up, and even now as an adult, I have missed out on many opportunities to connect with my mother and understand why she is who she is and why I am who I am.

What do you know about your parent's life experiences? What is their biggest regret? What are their happiest memories? Who were their parents and their parent's parents?

They say that the past is over and that only the present moment counts. While I agree with this, I think that many of us are sitting on a treasure trove of memories that could enlighten and inform how we live today. All we have to do is ask...

When you ask someone "Tell me your story", you honor them greatly.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Found Time

This was it! I had been looking forward to this weekend for the past three months. To kick off my year long leave of absence from my government job, I organized a weekend retreat and invited friends and colleagues, Wise Wonderful Women.

It was 1:00 pm and I had run my last errand of the day. Done. Made the final check mark on the day's "To do" list of 11 items. I was feeling rushed because my guests would be arriving at the cottage in just a couple of hours and I wanted to be there ahead of time to prepare everything. I had a good hour of driving to get there.

I finished buying and packing away the food in the back of my car and closed the trunk door in a hurry to get on my way. Panic set in as I realized that I had locked the keys inside the car! Grrrr! I tried a couple of deep breaths to recenter myself and to think of options. My daughter has already left for her shift at work. The lady I approached in the parking lot asking for a lift home said she was not going that way. The nearby garage did not have a mechanic on staff to help out. Our neighbour did not answer the phone. Finally, I phoned my husband at work (a 30 minutes drive away) to come to my rescue. It would take a while. He had to wrap up a few things at the office, pick up my nephew who was staying with us for the weekend, and swing by home to pick up the spare set of keys.

So there I was, stranded in a parking lot for at least an hour. There was two ways to look at this: stress about the precious time I was losing waiting for help or change my attitude and see it as "found time" (time that I had not planned on spending that way and was just there to enjoy). The old Sylvie fell right into the "poor me" and angry routine. That was very familiar territory but for some reason (maybe I am growing up?) I made a different choice.

I looked at my surroundings with a spirit of adventure. What could I do now that would be fun? A few days ago, I had noticed that a nearby store had a summer sale. So, I walked in there, tried on a bunch of clothes and experimented with new looks. I got amazing bargains: a pair of pants for $8.95 and two tops for $6.95 each. Left the store with a smile on my face. Walked into the nearby Starbucks and ordered a coffee. Rather than racing out the store, downing my coffee while driving off somewhere as I usually do, I actually sat down to savour it. Before I knew it, the hour had passed and my knight in shining armor showed up with the spare key to get me on my way.

I actually enjoyed myself. The only difference between what could have been a frustrating experience and what ended up being a pleasant experience was simply a mindset. A change of attitude. A choice.

Can you think of a time where something similar happened to you? What would you do with "Found Time" next time around? What would you do the next time your friends cancel out on a dinner date at the last minute or the instructor doesn't show up for your class or your flight is delayed?

How could you think yourself into a more positive state of mind and make the most of an inconvenient situation?

You may have come across this on the Internet once upon a time. The author is unknown but the message is powerful.

Imagine you were a member of a very unique bank which:
  • Credits your account each morning with $86,400
  • Carries over no balance from day to day
  • Allows you to keep no cash balance whatsoever
  • Every evening cancels whatever part of the amount you had failed to use during the day
Under those guidelines, I imagine you’d draw out every cent every day, wouldn’t you?
Well, believe it or not, every one of us has just such a bank. The name over the door reads TIME.
  • Every morning, it credits you with 86,400 seconds!
  • Every night it writes off, as a loss, whatever of the amount you have failed to invest in a productive purpose.
  • It carries over no balance.
  • It allows no overdraft.
  • Every day it opens a new account for you.
  • Every night it burns the records of the day.
  • If you fail to use the day’s deposits, the loss is yours.
  • There is no going back. There is no drawing against “tomorrow.”
You must live in the present on today’s deposits. Invest it so as to get from it the utmost in health, happiness, and success!

The clock is running. Make the most of today.
Carpe Diem! Seize the day!