Workplace Wellness – You have time

I am just coming out of my first two days at my new job, meeting people and learning more about what I have signed up to accomplish. It is exciting and exhilarating.

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My new work space at the University

It is also like one of my colleagues described it, “like drinking water from a fire hose.” There are a lot of new concepts to absorb, and research units to understand, training to complete, and meetings to schedule.

Over the lunch hour, I attended a session from the Office of the VP for Research on Vulnerable Populations. It was a fascinating look at the fact that researchers sometimes take a paternalistic perspective to protect research participants. But we do not always consider the injustice of excluding certain types of candidates for research, and how this may actually deny treatment alternatives.

Fascinating stuff. I can tell this job is going to challenge my thinking and open me up to new perspectives. I love that.

I also know that by the end of the day, around 4:45 p.m. after two full days of meetings, and a mini-celebration dinner with friends for my birthday on Monday, I was wiped. My brain felt worked and tired.

I considered pushing through and working longer. Then I opened my journal and opted for a short reflection on the day, old-fashioned pen and paper style. It helped clarify my thoughts and questions.

On the 12 minute walk to my car to begin the commute home, I considered what might be a helpful mantra, given a slight feeling of being overwhelmed by expectations. Ultimately I decided on “you have time.”

WORKPLace wellness on wednesdays

You have time to learn the new job (and it is okay that you don’t know everything you need to know/do in the first couple days)

You have time to get to know the department.

You have time to map out a strategy and plan.

You have time to absorb the information you need. You were hired because of your expertise, experience and capabilities, not because you know everything.

You have time to enlist the support you need to be successful.

After a few minutes of deep breathing and chanting this simple mantra to myself, it started to resonate in my body. I felt that familiar relaxation response, when my mind starts to believe what I am “feeding” it via conscious thoughts, and my body lets go of anxiety.

The next time you find yourself flipping into a mental script has you feeling overwhelmed, you might tell yourself that “you have time.” See what effect it has on your body, and your feelings. You have time.

cristy@meximinnesotana.com

 

51 percent

From a young age I have been encouraged to strive for excellence. My parents did not exert much pressure, mind you. But I think the fact that they were teachers probably drove my expectations about academic achievement. I thought that “winning” was doing well in school, and since learning came fairly easily to me, I aspired to this type of achievement.

Looking back, I remember taking on a heavy course schedule, especially in middle and high school, when we could select our electives. I also participated in many school activities, band, forensics (what they called public speaking) and various other extras I was encouraged to add because I was deemed “gifted” due to test scores.

At the same time, some teachers in middle school in particular thought that I was not working up to my potential. I distinctly remember my 6th grade reading teacher explaining this to my parents at conferences. We had page number requirements for books we had to read and I remember that 1500 per quarter was considered grade A level (1200 = B, 900 = C). My reading list typically listed 4000-5000 pages for each quarter, or about 300% of A level.

I was (and am) a voracious reader, but not as excited then about writing reports or summaries of what I had read. Of course, I did not always remember a lot of what I had read (and I now know variable attention was a factor). At the speed I was going, I just wanted to cover as much ground as possible. Even today, I typically get through books quickly. But now I tend to read them more closely a second time if they have a larger impact on me. This habit worked well in college for getting through vast amounts of material, and then selecting what needed to be studied rather than simply read.

Fifty one percent

At work, it has been my habit in my career to attempt to give 110%, to go above and beyond what is needed. I realize this was a cultural norm for the company I recently worked for, which had in its mission statement the words “striving without reserve” for the greatest possible reliability and quality. While I appreciate the intent, the “without reserve” part always bothered me.

For many years, my personal “reserves” ran low constantly. By giving so much to my work so consistently, I short-changed close relationships, friendships, and even my own health at times. I received promotions and advancement, but at what cost? Since I experience variable attention, I often arrived early or stayed late so I could work while it was quiet and there were less interruptions.

Ironically enough, in my final year I realized that cutting back on work hours generally, and giving less (more like 90% rather than 110%) made me much more effective in the hours I actually worked. When I use the tools of more sleep, meditation, better mental and emotional management, and good quality food and exercise, and more time away from work to rest and play, I make better decisions.

In yoga teacher training, we are learning about the concept of non-striving, about giving 51% in our practice, the just right stimulus for growth, rather than 110%. As someone who has taken a break from the full time work world for 9 months, I likely embrace the concept more readily than many. It chafes against our cultural conditioning. And that can be a good and necessary thing.

In a world that often tells us we are “never enough” we need to re-think what is essential, and what is extraneous. Not all days or phases of our lives are identical, of course, and we may need to adjust accordingly. But sometimes giving 51% and keeping some energy for ourselves is appropriate and what gives us resilience for the longer term.

cristy@meximinnesotana.com

 

The Just Right Stimulus

I have been learning a concept in yoga teacher training that is getting me to rethink how I approach the activities in my day. It is the notion of the “just right stimulus” when it comes to doing yoga poses, or deciding how to modify them for optimal benefit.

Since yoga aims mobilize, stabilize and strengthen our bodies, we must apply certain principles to achieve those goals. The idea is that when we receive that just right stimulus, we can increase the mobility of our joints, we can stabilize and align our spine and further, strength our body and optimize our health.

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My cat Willy likes to use my therapeutic spinal strip as a cat toy. Apparently he finds it to be an irresistible stimulus and cannot seem to stay away from it when I leave it within reach.

When we overdo a stretch or push our bodies too hard, injuries develop over time. In contrast, when we under-use our bodies, neglecting the mobility of our joints, or losing the strength in our muscles and bones by not moving enough, our body can atrophy. We then become less physically capable over time.

Our minds are like this too. When we are constantly “on” – doing, thinking, absorbing, seeking input and running around, we can become over-stimulated. As someone who is neuro-diverse with variable focus, this can be all too easy to do. In contrast, becoming too passive, such as vegging out in front of the t.v. for hours at a time, or allowing our minds become listless and dull, does not serve us. It then will required more energy to focus, think and be purposeful in our actions if we develop a habit of mental passivity.

Our bodies and souls need periods of activity and rest to stay in their optimal condition. These cycles vary from hour to hour, day to day and even month to month, seasonally and in the various phases of our lives. Indeed psychiatrist Dan Siegel coined the term “window of tolerance” to describe the optimal arousal of our nervous system.

In cultivating resilience in ourselves, it is important to develop some internal sensing of when we are not too hot, not too cold, but just right (remember Goldilocks and the three bears?)  Stephen Porges, PhD called this “neuroception” in his exploration of Polyvagal Theory, which helps us understand how safe states are sensed, and how the social engagement system can help us self-regulate.

When we go about our daily life, we find that we move in and out of the optimal state and this is a normal part of living. What is important is that we find ways to get ourselves back to more balance so that we can bring our full presence and engagement into our relationships and our work.

There are many practices that can help us with this. I will be exploring some that I find particularly beneficial in the next couple of weeks as I prepare to deliver a workshop on the neuroscience of resilience for a local client. I hope they will be helpful to you as well!

cristy@meximinnesotana.com

Practicing new skills – competence model

One of the discoveries most we make when we are learning new skills is that there is a BIG difference in learning new concepts versus practicing actual skills.

This became so clear to me when I began learning to meditate. There are an abundance of books resources and guided meditations out there. Really quite wonderful, actually. Check out Insight Timer if you want to start a meditation practice. I have used it for over 2 years and I love it.

But then there is the act and the art of practice. You do not learn new skills (like yoga or meditation) by reading about them. You must invest the time to practice, preferably daily, although 5 days a week would probably make a significant impact.

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Diagram from Wikipedia entry

I like the cycle of learning as expressed in the four stages of competence model. Someone who knows nothing starts with unconscious incompetence. You do not know and you do not know WHAT you do not know.

Then you progress up through conscious incompetence. This is where I am now with teaching yoga. I KNOW what I do not know, but I must acquire the skills to act on my knowledge.

Eventually a learner passes through conscious competence, where they can practice the skill with their full and complete attention. I imagine this is where I will be by the end of my 6-month certification program. There are plenty of practice opportunities built into the curriculum, and I am happy for that!

The final stage is unconscious competence, when the learner has practiced so many times they can now execute their skill or practice with much less effort. Meditation is becoming like that for me, finally. I can drop in within a few minutes and feel fairly comfortable with it (which does not mean my mind is quiet) because I have practiced and primed my brain.

Are there new skills you are trying to learn this year? I find that this model gives me comfort, because the journey through these steps are naturally a progression that takes time. As our brain grows the neuronal connections it needs to make a practice seem “effortless” or at least smooth and well-practiced, we must stay committed along the way.

Three cheers for neuro-plasticity and our brain’s natural ability to grow, change and thrive when we give it the required nourishment along the way!

cristy@meximinnesotana.com

 

Thought cascades

I found myself with a little extra time yesterday between commitments. I took advantage of the time to meditate for a bit. It got me wondering about “thought cascades” and the way in which our minds work.

Thoughts appear during meditation, like bubbles. Jon Kabat-Zinn called them in one of his meditations “secretions of the mind.” They just float or bubble up. We don’t need to get rid of them or feel frustrated that they keep coming. We just need to notice them.

One thought leads to another…and another…and another. Really the mind can be quite tedious when we observe it.  “Why can’t it take a damn rest?” I wonder, but this is typically when I am trying to get to sleep. I am a lot more compassionate with myself during my daytime meditations, apparently.

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Photo credit link

Thought cascades tend to produce certain emotional states as well. If we find ourselves ruminating on a problem, or a stressful situation, we bring ourselves back to the breath and the sensations in our bodies. I often notice my shoulders have tightened up or my jaw is clenched. I did not used to notice that. It took pairing yoga with meditation for me to understand it. 

On Monday I had an interview for a new contract that excites me. I tried to notice my thought cascades during the interview and afterward. I realized my mind creates a trail of expectations, assumptions and details, making up stories freely as it tumbles along. At least I know from Dr. Brené Brown’s work that this is perfectly normal. In fact, our brains reward us with dopamine as soon as we “tell” an internal story, whether or not it is actually true.

This is why meditation has become such an important daily practice for me. For over two years, I have spent at least 5 minutes a day on this practice. Actually for the past year, it was much more than that, but I started small to make it do-able.

Thought cascades for someone with particular neuro-diverse conditions can be especially problematic. Most people seem to have “brakes” for ruminative thought loops. Not everyone’s neuro-chemistry supports this easy compartmentalization. What is amazing is that focus can be built and nurtured, even for people like me! Meditation is a tool for doing that.

Now the cascades are quiet and flowing. Sometimes they are turbulent and rushing. Every time I bring myself back INTO my body, feel the aliveness in my hands, my feet or my heart, thoughts slow down and the volume descends. There is no greater gift than being able to dial it all down when needed.

cristy@meximinnesotana.com

 

 

Watch the Bullets – an experiment

People have often recommended to me that I must try a bullet journal, if I truly want to keep myself organized. When I watched Ryder Carroll’s You Tube video on why and how he created the bullet journal for himself, I definitely felt that “click” in my brain that tells me someone is speaking my language. (Sometimes it’s more of a tingle in my spine rather than an actual click, but you get my point.)

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Found this cool bullet journal on Amazon, but it’s out of print now. 😦

Carroll titles his Ted Talk “How to Declutter Your Mind” and he talks about his experience with a.d.d., which he eventually outgrew. In the process, he designed a system to help him keep track of things, while also being mindful about not wanting to focus on too many different things at once.

We live in a world with so many choices, and for many of us, more freedom than ever. This is why minimalist living has become increasingly appealing to me. Decision fatigue is a real thing. And for those of us who struggle with some attention issues, de-cluttering our minds by creating a mental inventory and writing things down is important.

Once it is written down, we can ask ourselves: do these things matter? Or are they just fleeting notions that take up mental space? Once we cross off those items that do not matter, or that we truly do not need to do, the list gets smaller.

Paying attention to “small projects” that hold our curiosity and recording these, we intentionally make space in our lives to do them. Carroll breaks these into month-long chunks, because it makes them more manageable.

Over time, we make adjustments, through a periodic process of reflection. We keep the mental inventory updated each day (more videos here if you want to explore). On a monthly basis, we take a more top-oriented view, setting intentions that are longer-term in nature.

I tried the practice in January to see if it works for me, and I discovered a few things:

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January monthly log
  1. I love the idea of looking 3-6 months and putting a “future log” on paper to approximate when I want to complete certain things. Even if you don’t anticipate everything, it helps set direction.
  2. The monthly log rocks. One line per day, really got me to reflect on only 2-3 high level things I accomplished in that day. It was a nice way to look back and see what I did that month in a 1-page summary.
  3. The daily logs are a struggle for me. I am customizing the bullet process, and the migration process to my own brand of check boxes and “swivels” to bring forward the tasks I want to keep. But that is what Ryder recommended anyway. It is why bullet journals are mostly blank – YOU fill in the system that works.
  4. You must exercise compassion. I did not sit down and do my February plan until the 7th of the month!! I think I was reluctant to admit that I didn’t follow the exact program in January (and I didn’t want to beat myself up over the things I did not finish). But I am using compassion with myself to migrate the tasks that are still relevant, and cross out the ones that obviously were not.

I may write about this experiment again in a month, because I am curious about whether February’s efforts will be refined. I want to improve and customize. I should mention that I still do a “shape of the week” in parallel in which I graph out one full week and fill in the sections with my overall time chunks, and then track actual time.

For those of you who have taken the “bullet journal” path – does it work for you? What clever modifications have you added to make it even more functional? 

cristy@meximinnesotana.com