Challenge vs Skill

In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow, he describes the how the optimum flow experience can be gained if we can balance our skill level with the challenge of the activity. If we are doing something that is well below our skills and the challenge is low, we are bored. If the challenge is too great in that we don’t have the adequate skills, we can experience anxiety. There exists a sweet spot where our skills and the challenge mostly matched, with the challenge being slightly greater. This is when we are in flow.

Skills vs Challenge

There are many opportunities for us to be in flow, be it in our work or leisure. My focus currently is to ensure that I create a future career around my flow experiences. For too long my work centred around tasks that drained my energy and frustrated me. In the next few months while I recover from my stress-induced condition, I’m trying to find flow experiences that are not too taxing. I’ve been told that the brain relaxes while doing creative activities so I’ve been drawing and trying to find ways to express myself creatively.

I bought a second-hand piano a while back, and while I played as a child, I’m quite rusty. My energy levels are too low to commit to a regular lesson right now, but I’ve been downloading some sheet music. I know that my skill level is very low at the moment, but I know that I can work at it to become more skilled. As my skills grow, I can increase the challenge by trying more difficult pieces. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says in his book ‘In this growth of the self lies the key to flow activities’.

It is enthralling to know that within me lies the opportunity to play beautiful music. It’s something I’d love to share with my children. At the same time it is a little daunting but I think that is the fun of it. Nothing that is worth anything comes easily.

In the long term my work needs to centre around flow activities. I know myself well enough to know that I get bored not achieving things. That can be an impediment to my recovery so I’m occupying myself with things that can help me recover. I’m finding flow activities that may or may not be part of my long term career or leisure.

What talents from childhood or your past have you forgotten about? What have you always wanted to try? It’s important to note that passive activities like watching TV are distinctly not being in flow. How much more can we get out of our lives if we focus on flow activities that indeed make us more skilled and happier people?

How Do You Make People Feel?

I recently read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first of many books in Maya Angelou’s autobiography. What an amazing woman, with immense talent! One of her famous quotes is “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

 

Looking back on the things I’ve said I know that I can be perceived as a know-it-all. I love to research and I battle worry with knowledge. Around having my first child, I read everything I could get my hands on about routines and how to care for them. I didn’t have any experience caring for kids but I always have the policy that I’m open to learning from other people’s mistakes. And of course, I like to share that knowledge in the hope that I can help others.

My first child slept through after eight weeks and I know that many mothers out there want to scream when they read that. I thought I had it all in the bag. Along came the next one and as much as I tried all the same strategies, she did not sleep at eight weeks but closer to two years! That was a humbling lesson for me.

I’m sure I made people feel that they were not doing the right thing or that I somehow knew something magical. I don’t have all the answers. I now believe that each individual justifies special treatment and to be appreciated in their own way. What works for one family doesn’t work for another and what works for one child doesn’t necessarily work for another child. I’m a bit wiser now and less of a know-it-all, as contradictory as that might seem.

As an introvert, I often feel as though I’m not heard. If I’m interrupted, I’ll just stop, on the assumption that my views are not valued. We went to a social function recently where we were seated with people we had met but who are not close friends. They chattered amongst themselves about people we didn’t know and when I engaged one particular lady, she flat out ignored me. That left me feeling invalidated at a time when I’m pretty fragile as it is. It doesn’t take much effort or time to merely acknowledge someone and respond to them. But the difference in the way you make them feel can be enormous.

Pondering your purpose makes you think about your legacy. How do I want to be remembered when I’m gone? I’m paying attention to the way I make people feel, primarily for them to be heard and acknowledged. I’m so glad everyone in the world is not like me. Our uniqueness is one of life’s true wonders. We each carry experience, skills, views and such a variety of talents. How interesting it is to learn from others and how important that they are left feeling valued for how special they are.

Baby Steps

A year or two ago I made a blanket for my friend. It took a really long time because I couldn’t dedicate hours a day to it. It was made up of 144 squares in a pattern that was not originally planned. I chipped away at it, stitch by stitch and square by square, refining the design regularly. Eventually the blanket was finished and the gratitude I received was so worth the effort.

It’s amazing how I managed to create something with small amounts of effort on a regular basis, even when I didn’t know how the blanket would turn out when I started. Right now my health is not so great and I have been very frustrated and concerned that I’ll never be well. I just need to shift my thinking to how I approached the blanket. I don’t know what my future looks like but I’ve got to tackle it hour by hour. And as long as I just keep chipping away, I’ll get to my goal in the end, even if it needs refining along the way.

Those of us with high standards tend to berate ourselves for not getting there fast enough. We think about all the things to be achieved and we get frustrated at the pace at which we are moving. Something that is really important for people like us to remember, is how far we’ve come and to celebrate the achievements.

I joined the family business in July 2010 and although I was immensely frustrated in the past few years that my vision was not achieved, I did take the company really far. I grew the revenue over 400% and clients 250% in four and a half years. And that’s in a difficult economic climate in a business I wasn’t passionate about. This was a business with no website that I took to one having a strong brand in its industry. Yes, it was too far behind to catch up but that doesn’t mean I didn’t make a success of what I had. And I ought to celebrate that. I brought my special talents and flavour to the organisation and although I didn’t achieve what I wanted to achieve, I did move the business forward.

 

Celebrating successes, small or large, doesn’t have to be arrogant or self-serving. It helps us remember how far we’ve come and gives us hope for the future. If I think about the me of 2010, I have learned a great deal and am much more knowledgeable about running a business. I plan to keep learning until the day I die. I’m going to count the blessings of the opportunities I’ve had to learn (irrespective of how my health has been affected) and celebrate successes. I need to chip away daily at getting well, at learning what works for me and how to restore myself to full health again.

The Danger of Overthinking

Despite being right brained, I’ve always been analytical. My trade when I was younger even has ‘analyst’ in the title. While analytical thinking can be an important asset in the workplace and is often highly valued by employers, it has its dangers.

 

Being an introvert as well as being analytical lends me towards overthinking. I want to solve the puzzle, understand why it happened and put in measures to avoid it happening again. With my current state of health being really poor, I may have slipped into overthinking. I’m spending a large amount of time wondering why this happened to me and hasn’t happened to other people. I’m wondering why mothers of four kids who work seem to be still standing. And yet I’m relegated to my bed for large chunks of the day.

Research shows that overthinking actually leads to unhappiness. The intention is to gain personal insight but there comes a point where we head down a pessimistic path of thinking that can even become quite distorted. The first step is to identify that it’s happening, which can be difficult to do as observing oneself is fraught with bias. And once we’ve identified it, we need to redirect our thoughts to the positive. For those with an optimistic tendency, we can use that gift to look for the silver lining.

A tactic I use with my children is distraction. I believe it to be highly effective when a child is overwhelmed by emotion. Once I’ve comforted her and she continues to be overwhelmed, I then make use of distraction. I ask her about something fun that happened at school or something she’s looking forward to. Sometimes I ask a question I know she’ll be interested in, that she probably hasn’t considered. Something like whether our cat likes to chase lizards. Don’t get me wrong, although I’m not a fan of drama, I have no issue with emotional expression. Sometimes they just get overwhelmed in the moment and need to find their way out. If the lizard question didn’t end the bawling, it’s more serious.

I’m going to try this tactic on myself the next time I start wondering if I’ll ever be able to live a normal life again. The silver lining of my health collapse is perhaps something about the revelation that my job was harmful for me and perseverance was not the answer. That’s fine and understood. But I can’t keep thinking that thought over and over. I need to employ the distraction tactic and to be truthful I find writing this blog to be a great help. It’s an opportunity to structure and formulate thoughts on how to adjust my life for the better. It helps me focus on a positive future and distracts me so that I don’t become overwhelmed by despair.

Best Possible Future Self

I have always been a goal-driven person and instead of New Year’s resolutions, I’ve set goals. I pulled out an old journal in which I wrote them down and had quite a bit of fun reading about myself twelve years ago.

 

In 2003 I set goals in the following categories: financial, professional, physical, relationships, spiritual, home, knowledge development. Most of the goals in the list are completed, things like ‘pay off house in five years’ and ‘gain a new skill’. But some are still so elusive ‘run 5 km in less than 25 minutes’. I also have a page where I wrote criteria for the ‘Perfect Life’. By age 34 I had accomplished all the things on this list – I had a loving husband, a healthy baby girl, professional success, overseas travel annually, strong relationships and a healthy fit body.

So I’m asking myself what went wrong between age 34 and 40 ? The past six years have seen a decline in my health so much so that I can’t work for several months. The introduction of kids into my life has some relevance for sure. Many busy mothers reading this will understand the strain that children introduce into your life. A lot of joy, which is well worth the strain, but they nevertheless contributed to my health decline – because I let it happen.

Two things that are evident by what I’ve written in this journal is that I didn’t manage to get on top of my stress and that I, even in 2003, aspired to have writing in my life. There is mention, even before kids of more time for myself. I did not make the time and space back then for me and how much was that exacerbated by the introduction of needy little people who literally suck from your body! I didn’t prioritise myself then and that was a big mistake.

In working on my goals in the past few years, I engaged a coach who is really great. She mostly works with working women and focusses on confidence and the ability to cope with the dual pressures of motherhood and career aspirations. She has a wonderful technique called a Vision Board where you literally make a collage of the things you aspire to. It can be electronic or physical and you should look at it daily. This encourages your brain to keep a look out for opportunities on the path towards these goals.

Visualisation is used by many professional sports people. They train their brains to live the visual image of success and thereby making it attainable. I remember reading about it when I was much younger and creating a mini collage of the things I wanted. The amazing thing is that I have achieved all of the things I included. I had an image of a jogger husband pushing a baby in a pram – check. I had a picture of a fit lady in the gym – check. I had a picture of a baby girl – check. I am now quite frightened by their power and am throwing away the pictures of babies as I certainly can’t handle another one in my depleted state!

The interesting thing is that I cut out those pictures and put them in a journal in my bottom drawer – and yet all of them were achieved. How interesting that the mere process of consciously choosing them and being clear about what I wanted had such an impact.

I’m still (yes, still) reading The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky. A happiness-inducing  strategy that strongly appeals to me is that of formulating the ‘Best Possible Future Self’. She proposes spending twenty minutes on writing about your best possible future self. What will you have, and be, and do in the future?

I have done this exercise and not only is it a proven happiness booster but how empowering! It helps us clearly articulate what we really want and makes us think about what we need to do now in order to be that future self.

If this appeals to you, I’d highly recommend the activity. Have you articulated, in text or images, what you really want? How can God or the Universe or whatever you believe in, respond, if you don’t ask? Put it out there. What’s the worst that could happen?

Self-Care Roster

In my last post I was a misery and I won’t apologise for it because that’s reality. I’m done trying to please everyone and be something everyone expects me to be. Yes, I get down, and it will happen again.

The way I usually approach something that needs to be fixed, like my health, is to have a plan. I feel empowered when I take action so I’ve come up with a Self-Care Roster. Starting yesterday, I decided to do a few things daily and some things weekly or monthly etc. I know it doesn’t sound earth shattering but I have to DO something.

I’ve set myself a limit of five outings a week, excluding the school run. This ensures that I don’t overdo things and is worked into the roster. My self-care roster has four categories:

  • Grooming:  Haircuts, manicures etc. This helps reinforce in my mind the importance of looking after myself.
  • Responsibility: Medical check-ups for myself and my kids such as dentist, mammogram etc.
  • Healing: Much needed care in my current state, including things like reflexology, Body Stress Release etc.
  • Growth & Fun: Reading, writing, savouring, gratitude and knitting.

Reading is a way for me to grow myself and also helps me feel that I’m moving forward. I need to consume a lot of books as my list is really long. The more I read, the more material I have for a future book and my blog. I see it as research and it is not taxing.
Writing my blog helps me express myself. As an introvert and a people-pleaser I often bite my tongue on things I’m thinking. I don’t freely express my opinion for fear of retribution, appearing foolish or stimulating a debate I don’t want to have. So this is a way for me to express myself regularly and practise writing, thereby improving myself.

Some happiness experts recommend thinking about our happiest moments and days, be it remembering the day our child was born, our wedding day, being accepted into university or just a great day with family. This is the savouring activity which I plan to do daily for a week. I’m planning to look through my wedding album and the many photos we took of our children as babies.

Gratitude is a well-known happiness-enhancer. David Steindl-Rast, in his wonderful TED talk, talks about how gratitude can change the way we behave. If we are grateful, we don’t hate or envy others, we don’t abuse or hurt people.  In order to make the most of opportunities that come our way, we need to stop and listen and then grab them when they come along.

I think I’m naturally a grateful person and I often count my blessings. Something we do each night is to look at our sleeping girls and marvel at the miracle of them. No matter what kind of crazy they unleash in the day, they look so peaceful and angelic while sleeping. This is probably also savouring but also includes a degree of gratitude.

The knitting is a way for me to create something and I’m helping people at the same time. Our school has a project where the teddy bears are given to children on the night they are removed from their abusive families. It is the first thing of their new life. I’m knitting because I find it relaxing and I’m helping someone, which is aligned to my personal values.  Tony Robbins and many other influencers of personal growth, cite Contribution as a meaningful endeavour to enrich your life.

 

I have quite a few ideas around the healing activities that I’d like to explore but that’s perhaps for another blog post. Included in this is Nia as a contributor to wellness but I’m not up to it physically right now. The weekend illness taught me that. So I do what I can and I battle the despair with goal-setting.

Wallowing and Wondering

For someone with a naturally optimistic tendency and writing a blog about optimising happiness at work and in your life, I’m off track today. I’m wallowing in misery. As mentioned on the weekend I have a bad cold and am feeling awful. Feeling physically awful also tends to make you feel sorry for yourself. It started me thinking about just how often I catch a cold. During winter it’s about two per month. That means that I’m losing half of every month. With such a weak immune system, I’m likely to pick up every dangerous bug that lurks in the mucous of small children. And it hits me hard.

When kids get sick, their mother has to look after them no matter how near death I feel. I put my self-care on hold (as usual), and scurry around making them juice, giving medication and making them feel loved and comforted. How much I yearn for some matriarch to emerge from a mystical mountain, bossing around my family and telling them I’m not to get out of bed under any circumstances. I’ll call her Panacea, the goddess of Universal remedy in Greek mythology. Panacea, I’m open to anything – just bring it. If the silver bullet is that four letter word ‘Rest’, then just use the bullet for its intended purpose and put me out of my misery.

 

I have a feeling some people think I’m just putting it on,or it’s in my head. I’m no stranger to mind over matter. You can’t run almost 90 km in one day and not have a strong mind. The trouble is I have been suppressing what my body has been telling me for so long that I’ve lost touch. I can’t tell when I’m overdoing it or about to overdo it. I thought I was getting better at that but I don’t trust myself anymore. How can I make any plans? I want to experience things in order to write about them. I want to set up meetings and appointments every day so that I’m stimulated, growing and finding my flow. I’ve understood that I shouldn’t have persevered so long in a job I dislike. I get it. I’ve understood that I need to find something I love to do, and I’ve understood that I need a respite during my day. What more do I have to learn? And for how much longer must I recover?

I’m trying to have some fun in my days and evenings but it may even compromise recovery. I’m not sure I can just focus on healing and recovering. Elizabeth Gilbert talks about owning a creative mind being like having a Border Collie for a pet. You need to give it work or it will find its own work and you might not like what it does. How can I be expected to hang around the house, waiting and RESTING. I feel trapped and stuck. I’m unable to hope for and plan for a future when leaving the house is hard.

Yes, I know, it’s temporary and I’ll feel better soon. But some days are just like that and I’m not going to pretend it’s easy. I want to move forward. I want to make progress. I’m reading about gratitude and enjoying the moment, finding flow activities. But how can I do that if I’m feeling so awful? Without your health, life is very difficult. We don’t value it nearly enough until it’s compromised.

I often don’t want to publish anything when I’m feeling down. I have a tendency to wait until I’m feeling better again, edit and publish, of course with a positive ending. But that’s not so honest. We all have days where we just feel stuck. I’m impatient,  I want to get on with my life. When will I be able to go out and see clients all day and have enough energy to play with my kids? Is that so unrealistic?

External sources of Happiness

Many people focus on external elements when it comes to finding happiness. Some people think that if they only had that house, that boyfriend, that job, they would be happy. It’s not true. Happiness does not come from outside, it is found within.

According to the research done by Sonja Lyubomirsky in her book The How of Happiness, we all have a set point of happiness, a default state if you wish. External circumstances and life events cause this state to increase or decrease but it is only temporary. We seem to settle back to our former happiness level. I have encountered, and I’m sure you have too, those people who seem to dampen everything. There are also those optimists who seem to bounce back from difficult life circumstances so quickly and effortlessly. I’m most definitely an optimist and closer to the second type. I tend to think that every situation, good or bad, has a lesson if you look hard enough.

I have found in the last few years, as my health declined, that my mood was less optimistic and happy. I thought it was being the mother of small children and only recently did I realise that might not be the case. Some of the symptoms of Graves’ disease are anxiety and depression. As a child I was referred to as ‘highly strung’, a term which I haven’t heard used in a while but I’ve always been quite anxious. So I just thought I was stressed. The good news is that once I’m well, I can return to my previous state of optimisim.

My youngest has been sleeping well for a while, aside from the odd nightmare or not being well. I realised when I saw other mothers with three children (I only have two) seeming to cope well. Perhaps they were faking it but I couldn’t help wonder that I didn’t seem to be coping as well. Only recently, have I realised that it is a combination of things that has caused my health decline.  The primary reason was that I was doing work I didn’t enjoy for a really long time, swimming against the current. I also had no opportunity to replenish lost energy during the day. Being a mother to small children leaves little opportunity to care for yourself.

I’ve learned that I have to put aside time for recovery in the day, even once I’m well. Sometimes I even have to fight for it, which is not so easy in my current condition and being a conflict-avoider and a people-pleaser. If I don’t stand my ground, however, I’ll be this sick forever and possibly worse.

 

This week I completely overdid it – too many meetings and appointments. Some of them were important as they were for handing over my work to others so that I can recover properly. Now I’m facing the consequences of pushing too hard in that I have a bad cold. My immune system is really weak and I am highly susceptible to the slightest virus. It is a very delicate balancing act at the moment. This week I
also started exercising again – just three walks. I think that, in combination with the meetings, has set me back.

I find it enormously frustrating not being able to do what other people can do. I have to budget my energy. I plan ahead to make sure I only have one or two outings a day and I save my energy for that. But that makes it difficult for people to understand how much I’m struggling. They see the few strong hours of my day. My family sees me sleeping on my bed in recovery for hours afterwards.

I’m aware that happiness is not found outside me. I know that I have to work hard to create a life that I want. My family is happy and wonderful, I love my home and my friends. I need to single-mindedly focus on getting well and attack it like a project so that I can apply energy to my new career path and gain the fulfilment that lies ahead.

Alignment of work and values

In doing the values exercise last year while reading Tony Robbin’s Awaken the Giant Within, I kept asking myself “What would life be like without x?”, replacing x with family, my health, running, work, achievement, money etc. That question helped me discover my top three values:

  1. Love (Family and Friends)
  2. Health & Vitality
  3. Helping People

My health has not been so great for a few years, and in the last six months it has really deteriorated to the point where I can’t function properly. I can’t do a full work day and I tire very easily. This is troublesome for me as I like to accomplish a lot. Achievement was a close fourth place but pure achievement without meaning or without my health or my loved ones is not worthwhile, however. Values do change over the course of your life and I’m certain that love and family were not top when I was in my 20s! It is useful to do the values exercise at various points of your life.

Actively ensuring that my values are well-supported by my lifestyle and my job means making some changes. My future career needs to ensure that I have enough flexibility to fetch kids and do homework in the afternoons, even if for an hour. In the past, I can’t recall any project or deliverable that is of any significance in relation to the joy I’ve received from my kids. Projecting that forward, helping my kids learn to read is of great significance and I don’t want to miss it.

For married people, I highly recommend Gary Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages. It helped me to understand my husband’s love language and to communicate mine, helping us to keep both love tanks full. Friendships also need work and there are some in my life that I have not nurtured properly but at least I’m now aware and can work on them. I keep reminding myself that relationships are a great source of happiness and they endure much more than deliverables or projects at work. Value number one work-in-progress.

My focus in the next few months is to get well and be able to function properly. This means that I’ve had to retreat to home to recover and I’m actively taking steps to farm out my work responsibilities. This has a dual purpose. Not only will I stop doing the work that drains me and breaks my spirit, but I will be able to fully rest in order to recover. Once I’m well, my ideal day would include running, friends, work and writing. I need some time on my own and some time with people. I need flexibility to fit in running, homework and caring for myself. I will not embark on any endeavour that I don’t love or that only pleases someone else. Value number two, work-in-progress.

I love helping people. As much as I need recovery now and I’m trying not to have any meetings, I took a solution to a client today that really helps her. We automated something she spends hours on and we reduced the risk of errors. Hearing her say ‘thank you’ was well worth the strain I underwent to deliver to her. I am certain that my future career needs to help people, be it consulting to solve a problem or automate something manual, or to inspire people to change their lives for the better. Value number three, work-in-progress.

 

I strongly believe that any work that is not aligned to your values is not sustainable. I didn’t listen to my body’s warnings that my job was causing me harm. But now I’m listening and I’m making the changes I’m able to make at this time. Have you identified your top three values and whether or not your work is aligned?

What makes you mad?

A few of the articles and blog posts I’ve read recommend that you notice when you’re getting mad. What accomplishments, jobs or activities of other people get you riled up? The emotion might also be envy. I gave it a lot of thought and I discovered I had experienced these emotions in two areas.

Firstly, those yoga moms who saunter out of their Porsche Cayenne, dripping with jewellery and looking awfully smug. I remember when I was on leave, getting very irritated when I did yoga at 9:30 am and seeing a mom from school in the class. It’s not that I wish I were not working, because I know that I have to work to remain sane. It’s more that they have freedom to look after themselves and there is still enough money to support a family. I’ve sacrificed a great deal of earnings over the past five years in order to run the business. Not only did I spend all day doing what I didn’t enjoy, but I had no time for myself. Being unhappy with my routine of getting kids to school and feeling that I had to be at the office ‘just in case’, caused me to resent the people who have the flexibility for a mid-morning yoga class.

In the past few months, I have had the personal insight that I’d prefer to have flexible time and not be desk-bound all day. I’d gladly take a pay cut to enjoy more flexible hours and be able to spend some time looking after myself and helping my kids. I now have a healthy respect for those who have organised their schedules in such a way to bring in money but also enjoy life. There are those who work a four day week or those who work for a few hours in the morning and spend time with their kids in the afternoons. How have you arranged your working life around your needs?

 

The second thing that stirred up emotion for me was those who have written books. One that comes to mind is a friend who published a book in 2013. I most definitely was not mad because he’s truly a valuable person with much insight to offer. I wish him all the success with the book, the proceeds of which he even gives to charity. Not to mention the fact that we were featured in the book for our financial savvy! But I did feel envious when the book got published and remember wishing that I could publish a book.

I went to a seminar about six months ago and the very flashy presenter with tight pants and a shimmering smile spoke of ‘writing’ his book. He quite openly admitted that it was too much trouble to actually write the book and he had outsourced it.  At that moment, my dream diminished substantially. Nevertheless, I have not let go of that dream to write a book myself, with my own special flavour and style, that at least my friends will read.

I have spoken about the process of finding your passion and not to worry too much about monetising it initially. At first I wondered why you would write and publish something for someone else. It’s as hard as being a surrogate mother. But I suppose it’s not that strange that people are ghost writers since it’s a method of turning writing into revenue, which you cannot fault anyone for doing.

I previously did consulting work and do still enjoy putting together the documentation. For some, it is torture and they’d outsource it gladly. For me, it is the real joy of structuring solutions and making recommendations from a broad range of inputs. Another insight is that I’d like to include writing in my future career. Writing a book may end up being a personal goal or a hobby if you wish, but that’s fine too. The process of writing brings flow to my day and that’s what I need.