Nervous Newbie in the Room

The tag on my tea bag reads “When fear is forcing you to give up, call upon your heart’s courage to continue.” (photo effects from Nexmuse.com)

Recently I signed up for a two-week trial period at a local fitness club that offers yoga and cycle classes. I already love yoga, but I had never taken an indoor cycling (“spin”) class. The whole idea intimidated me, which was part of the appeal.

You see, for the past five years I’ve been pushing myself to try new things—not just the activities I’ve been dreaming of doing, but the ones that take me beyond my comfort zone as well.

I’m not a huge fan of riding regular bikes. As a matter of fact, last summer I dragged my unused bike out of the basement, dusted it off, and sold it on Facebook Marketplace. And I’m familiar with the stereotype of the screaming, over-caffeinated cycle instructor. So, I was really curious to see how I would take to this new form of exercise.

As I walked through the studio door to take an introductory cycle class, I felt as if the fear was written on my face, as if my every step announced that I was out of my element.

At the intro class, we were all beginners. The instructor went over terminology, how to set up our bikes, and how to position ourselves. The actual cycling was minimal—no need to worry at all!

The big challenge came a week later when I took my first regular class with experienced riders. As I struggled to adjust my seat and handlebars and get my heart rate monitor working, I was sure it was painfully obvious I didn’t know what I was doing. Ugh, I just wanted to be invisible.

How many times had I let this kind of unease with being viewed as an incompetent, clueless newbie stop me from trying something?

Later that day, I started thinking about how being seen and not seen are two sides of the same coin.

For the past year I’ve been writing a full-length memoir, and lots of memories have surfaced. As a kid, I felt like I was often ignored due to my small size and shyness. Sometimes it seemed as if the only thing worse than being disregarded was being sized up by judgmental eyes.

I think even the most introverted human wants to be noticed on occasion, with kindness if at all possible. We all want to know that we matter, that we deserve to be accepted and understood. But we can’t control how others interpret us.  

I’ve heard that you shouldn’t assume that others are gawking at you and tallying up your faults—that strangers truly don’t care that much about you. They are likely too busy thinking about themselves and their own stuff.

Still, when you are getting ready to do something scary and different, it’s like a spotlight settles upon you as each movement is magnified and time practically stands still.

I don’t have a magic solution for this predicament. The first thing to remember is that you are not alone. In my first full cycle class, the instructor could not get her music to come out of the studio speakers. Her struggle reminded me that we all have moments when things don’t go smoothly.

Even when you feel like the biggest sore thumb in the room, this too, shall pass. In several weeks or months, you will look back and grin at your frightened, novice self. With your awkward phase so fresh in your mind, you can now serve as the perfect guide for other beginners. You can tell them how pushing through those first awful moments will be so worth it in the end.

I haven’t always liked the new things that I’ve tried, but I have committed to always giving myself the chance to find out.

Let’s Talk About Talking to Ourselves

A while back, a friend of mine told me he was going to try to stop talking to himself. I was horrified—why would anyone want to do such a thing?!

I have been chatting with myself since I was a kid. As an only child, I spent a lot of time alone in my room talking to my dolls and acting out scenes. I also had pretend friends with whom I carried on lengthy conversations inside my head.

Decades later, I still speak to myself out loud when no one is around. I do this pretty much every time I am driving by myself in the car and often in the kitchen.

If you’re anything like me, you talk to yourself in order to rehearse a presentation for work or to practice your answers for an upcoming job interview.

In addition to these scenarios, I tell myself stories from my life. Some of these stories are unpleasant, like the events leading up to my friend’s early death. Reliving such memories is like being voluntarily stuck in a nightmare, but at least I know the outcome.

Not all the stories are negative. After I quit drinking, I used to pretend that I was being interviewed on a podcast, and I would go over the steps that led up to my decision and the challenges I faced. I did this over and over, kind of like playing a favorite song.

Clearly I was in need of new material. Brain space is precious, and I was wasting my creativity by repeating the same old stories.

I decided that I would make an effort to explore new ground whenever I talked to myself. At first, I resisted and pouted. But it got easier and more natural in no time, thanks to these three templates:

Kid therapist: I pick something that has been bothering me, and I try to get to the root of the issue. Basically, I act like a little kid and keep asking “but why?” after each answer. The theory is that you should be able to ask yourself at least four or five whys before you get to the good stuff—the real reason why you can’t stop stewing over something. I did one recently that went on for nine whys!

Burner shift: I pick an idea that has been sitting on the back burner of my mind and talk through what would be required to move forward. What could be shifted from the front burners to make room for this project? I try to envision the potential obstacles along the way and how I might work around them. And I envision the potential rewards that I would experience, not just at completion but during the process as well.

Writing detective: Let’s say I’ve come up with a topic for a blog post, but I haven’t stared writing it yet because I’m not sure where it’s going. I play the role of a dogged detective who is questioning me to solve the mystery of what this piece is about. This process almost always helps me locate the main points of the piece, and I usually come up with some good turns of phrase as well.

Recently I was driving, and I caught myself starting to narrate one of my old stories. I was delighted to realize that it had been a while since I had hit replay on one of my top hits.

I will probably keep talking to myself until the day I die. Here’s hoping I manage to keep it fresh!

The Accidental Thumb Experiment

Yup, that’s my hand. I used Nexmuse to make the X-ray look even cooler.

Six years ago, I injured myself in a gardening-shears incident. No, I didn’t nearly cut a finger off or anything that dramatic. I just clipped with such vigorous force that the tendon in my left thumb became inflamed.

In the following weeks, I put additional pressure on the sore spot by going kayaking. Eventually, my thumb became locked in a straight position, something known as trigger finger. Forcing it to bend created a popping sensation inside that made me shudder.

You might already know this, but our “opposable” thumbs are really important. You appreciate this once your thumb becomes nonfunctional, even if it’s the one on your non-dominant hand. You can’t turn doorknobs with that hand, open jars, or do anything that requires a firm yet flexible grip.

My doctor referred me to a specialist, who gave me three shots of corticosteroids in my thumb over the course of 16 months. The shots failed to work, leaving surgery as the last option. By the time I completed post-op physical therapy, my thumb had been messed up for at least two and a half years.

During this time, I happened upon a podcast interview with Dr. Neha Sangwan, the author of a book called Talk Rx: Five Steps to Honest Conversation that Create Connections, Health and Happiness. Dr. Sangwan explained that before her patients are discharged from the hospital, she asks them five questions designed to help them avoid returning to the hospital with the same ailment. The questions include: Why this? Why now? What else in your life needs to be healed?

I asked myself these questions, and they led me to conclude that I was working so hard on our yard, all the while ignoring the pain that was developing in my thumb, because I was still feeling out of place in our new home and neighborhood. I didn’t think I was worthy of living in a house that was so nice compared to my previous residences, and I thought I needed to prove to my neighbors that I belonged.

Problem solved, right?

Fast forward to last fall, when I injured my right thumb. I was using kitchen shears in a similarly obsessive fashion, trimming fat from meat. Again, I followed this up by paddle-boarding a couple days later, further irritating the same area.

The soreness started to transition into stiffness, and I could tell that the popping was coming soon. The same doctor administered a shot, and this time it worked. I was so relieved!

I asked myself Dr. Sangwan’s questions again. Perhaps I was preoccupied with how much fat was in my food because I am fearful of gaining weight—an issue that has troubled me since adolescence. Plus, my perfectionistic tendencies make it hard for me to know when to quit.

This past month, some friends were coming over one Saturday. With both thumbs in working order, I indulged my itch and did a little trimming in the yard, promising myself that the minute I felt any discomfort I would stop. Well, I went a hair or two beyond that threshold. And then, a couple days later I aggressively used the kitchen shears.

So, here I am, my thumb is sore and getting worse, and I have an appointment with the doctor later this week.

What was I thinking?! Well, clearly I am still insecure about my home and my weight (among many other things).

Addressing my self-doubt is a lifelong process, but in the meantime, there are things I can do to minimize the damage I cause to myself.

I am now well aware what actions I need to steer clear of—I know that once I get a pair of hedge clippers or shears in my hands, I will go overboard. And once I hurt myself, I don’t let up on other activities that I know will make the issue worse.

This situation reminds me of my drinking. I had to finally admit that my dreams of being a take-it-or-leave-it drinker were just that—dreams. Some nights I could stop after two glasses of wine. But other nights, there was no off switch.  

Thus, I chose to say good-bye to alcohol. I could have kept trying to make moderation a reality, all the while hurting myself and wasting precious time. Or, I could quit and start reclaiming all that time, health, and peace of mind.

Some (maybe all) of us have behaviors and impulses that we struggle to regulate. We might fear that ditching them entirely says something unsavory about us—that we are weak, that we didn’t try hard enough to find the right balance, that the object of our preoccupation is running the show. I don’t think that anymore.

In an interview with Kathy Caprino, Dr. Sangwan says: “Your body is talking. Are you listening?”

I’ve decided to listen to my body and to reject those actions that produce negative results. I have more than enough data from this six-year experiment with my thumbs, and I’m going to use it to set healthy new boundaries for myself.

An Intentional Life: Step 5, Evolution

My hand-drawn version of the color intensity scales I use instead of numeric scales

Other steps: Step 1 | Step 2 | Steps 3-4

Here we are, at the final step in my life-balance course. Have you been working on your activities in The Four Ps? If you’ve reached the end of your measurement period, then it’s time to revisit the categories and document any changes.

Get out the list of goals you developed for each category. Check off the items where your actions evolved, even if the end result didn’t reach your original target. Feel free to add notes about any surprising discoveries, struggles, or accomplishments.

Now, take a look at the scales you created and the movement you hoped to generate. Let’s say you wanted to move from a 3 to a 5 in Progress. You didn’t check off all your goals, but you did start taking guitar lessons, so you decide to give yourself a 4 instead of a 5. Do this for each category. And remember, these measurements are entirely up to you. No one is judging you, and no one is benefitting from this process but you, so be honest.

How do you feel about the balance of activities in your life now? Less stressed? More stressed? More active? More fulfilled? Kinda frustrated?

Where can you adjust your goals to assist with your continuing evolution? Scale your goals up or down as you wish. If you are excited by your development, you can always increase your goals (but be sure to respect your limits—we all have them). Or, maybe you bit off more than you could chew and got overwhelmed. There is no shame in tweaking your goals and giving it another try.

It’s important not to get down on yourself if you didn’t make much (or any) movement. For many of us, balancing our time and activities is hard, otherwise we would already be crushing it. Ask yourself what is standing in your way and what it will take to remove those obstacles. In the places where you did see movement, celebrate your progress, and look for clues to your success.

Even if you started and stopped the process or if you’re only reading through the steps right now, you should be proud that you’re open to thinking differently about how you spend your time.  

If you did complete the course, don’t forget that balancing your life is an ongoing process. That’s right—this is not the end!

Change your Four Ps depending on the season, the weather, family needs, new opportunities, whatever. This is all about finding a balance of activities that best suits your unfolding life.

Feel free to repeat these exercises and reset your goals as many times and as frequently as you wish. You can back up and restart at whichever step makes the most sense for you. Step 1 or Step 3 are good places to restart.

Here are some tips and words of encouragement for the road:

It’s ok to be right where you are.

It’s also ok to want to grow, stretch, and evolve.

It’s ok to invest in yourself through self-reflection.

It’s ok to move at your own pace.

It’s ok to respect your own energy levels.

It’s ok to respect your own capacity for performing under pressure.

Don’t worry about reaching your goals: Just keep making progress, no matter the amount.

Ask: What can I learn from this?

There will be times when you won’t be able to work toward your goals due to personal commitments, economic demands, and societal conventions; but do try make intentional choices during the time when you are in control.

I believe in you! I believe in us!

Get started or start over: Step 1 | Step 2 | Steps 3-4

When Plans Change

Driving home from the grocery store, my eyes well up. They aren’t so much tears of sadness as a release of frustration. My upper lip trembles a bit, but no gasps or sobs emerge. “Worlds Away” by The Go-Go’s is playing, and it turns out to be the perfect song for a gentle, wistful cry.

My highly anticipated trip to Florida, which is two weeks away, is about to be deferred for the third freaking time.

I first booked this trip back in February of 2020, right before the pandemic got serious in the United States. One of my best friends had just died suddenly, and I was going to visit our mutual friends so that we could share memories and mark her passing.

But I was sick with giardia, and it was taking its sweet time going away despite the antibiotics. I did not want to get on a plane while this intestinal infection was lingering. So, I moved my flight to April, hoping that the coronavirus would blow over quickly.

You know what happened next. Businesses in our state started to close, and it was clear that a stay-home order was coming soon. In late March, I canceled my flight and accepted an open voucher from the airlines.

About a year later, I finally got vaccinated and started re-planning my visit. We settled on the end of July and booked a place on the beach for a long weekend.

Once again, nature stepped in. This time it’s something called red tide—a toxic algae bloom that is hitting the Tampa Bay area hard. Trucks are removing tons (literally, tons) of dead fish that have been washing up on shore. One of my friends, who lives in St. Petersburg, says it smells terrible. She is experiencing awful headaches and breathing deeply is a challenge.

So, this morning we decided to put the trip on hold. For the record: This gathering has been obstructed by a parasite in my intestines, a worldwide pandemic, and a “fish kill” in Florida. Ok, ok, I get the message!

As I hop in my car later, I decide to explore what caused my tears this morning. Yes, I am sad that another couple months or possibly a year will go by without seeing my dear friends. But I will eventually see them—I’m not worried about that.

And, if anything, I’m a little relieved that I don’t have to fly while the latest COVID variant is spreading and people are acting out on planes.

Before I reach my destination, I settle on two main causes for my irritation:

Control. Many grievances come down to control with me. I really don’t like it when things don’t turn out as planned. It reminds me that I do not have complete control over my life, and this scares me. I talk through this fear as I drive, and I remind myself that I have a pretty decent level of control over my life right now—perhaps more than I’ve ever had. I encourage myself to be grateful for the control and the abilities that I do have, like how easy it was to jump online and cancel my flight with the click of a button.

Stories. Of the many stories I have running in my head, one of the oldest is: I have the worst luck. I’ve repeated variations on this theme countless times. For so long, I was convinced that bad things always happened to me. Because I was stuck in this story, I couldn’t see how the good in my life clearly outweighed the bad. The result of this story was that I had a built-in excuse to give up, because why bother anyway? Ironically, I claim I want more control over my life (see previous paragraph), and yet I’ve used the power of this sad-sack story to relieve myself from taking control.

I’m still mad that this trip has been delayed three times, and I hope that I won’t have to wait too long to see my friends. But today I chose to explore my tendency to wallow in disappointment. As it often does, this kind of self-reflection got me out of the doldrums and onto my laptop to document these insights. The more consistently I do this, the less I get caught up in this kind of self-pity in the first place.  

Social Media and Me: It’s Complicated

Embrace the Lake is just one of my Instagram accounts!

Last week a friend announced on Facebook that they would be scaling back their level of engagement on the platform. Declarations of temporary breaks or permanent departures from social media have become increasingly common. I’ve done this myself several times over the past five years, typically returning with a fresh perspective on the benefits these networks offer and the pitfalls they present.

Three years ago, I posted an article on LinkedIn identifying the Five Ways Social Media Can Lift Our Lives. This morning I went back and re-read that piece, and I still agree with every word of it. In fact, the former supervisor mentioned in the opening of that article sent me a friendly text message just the other night. Once again, I was reminded that social media has helped our friendship thrive beyond the handful of years that we worked together.

When I joined Facebook and Twitter back in 2008, it was primarily for my job. I couldn’t imagine how I would use social media personally. I remember thinking how ridiculous it would be to post that I had just done some yardwork or gone grocery shopping. And yet, in the time since then, it has become perfectly acceptable for users to regularly update their friends and followers on the most mundane aspects of their lives.

To test this out, I opened Facebook, and within seconds I was able to learn what someone had for dinner last night, how much exercise another person has been doing for the past month, and the kind of behavior a third person considers cringey on Zoom calls.

To be clear, I am not here to complain about over-sharing. If you are someone who posts multiple times a day, I salute you! I enjoy seeing what everyone is up to, honest.

I love to talk about my life and my thoughts as much, if not more, than the next person. For years I have welcomed the green light to post endless photos of my cats, my political viewpoints, and pics of my meals.

But somewhere along the way the novelty and utility morphed into something closer to an addiction. The expectation that I share my life in real-time because others were doing so began to feel oppressive.

These days, I am barely on Facebook. I deleted the app from my phone more than a year ago, and I feel much better for it. No longer do I get sucked into pointless arguments in the comments, and I am able to keep my scrolling to two short sessions per day (well, mostly).

TikTok came and went on my phone in a matter of weeks due to my obsessive nature, and I’m on Clubhouse, but I’ve yet to actually do anything on there.

Instagram is a different story. I have four individual accounts that I feel compelled to update regularly, which can stress me out—even though it is my choice to keep these balls in the air. I enjoy posting on IG and cherish the communities that have developed on the platform, but sometimes it feels like a 24-7 personal branding competition.

I’ve started hating how every time I do something, I wonder if I should post about it. I can’t take a photo or form an opinion without assessing its post-worthiness. Or, if I haven’t posted on one of my Instagram accounts in a while, I feel the need to generate ideas. It’s like I’ve taken on the role of digital marketing and public relations for the business of simply being myself. And don’t get me started on how, as a writer, I should totally have a newsletter by now!

Currently, I’m experimenting with posting only when I truly feel inspired versus pushing myself to keep up a regular schedule. I’m in search of the right balance of posting, consuming, and commenting that makes me feel connected to others without getting all angsty about it. One day I might decide that no such balance exists, and that will be the day I leave social media altogether. But not yet.   

In the meantime, consider following me on FB or IG @lisamaybennett!

Are You Ready to Shine?

Basketball isn’t exactly my favorite sport, but I’m familiar with the major players. I was a big Michael Jordan fan back in the day, I’m mildly obsessed with Shaquille O’Neal, and my current faves are Bradley Beal, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant. If one of the NBA teams from my various hometowns appears headed to the playoffs, I usually start paying attention.

So, when the New York Knicks brought backup player Jeremy Shu-How Lin off the bench in 2012, and the team proceeded to go on a thrilling run, I took notice. It’s hard to overstate the frenzy that became known as “Linsanity.” Lin was on fire, helping resuscitate the Knicks at the end of a disappointing season.  

The crowds were going nuts. Fans held up signs with playful puns on Lin’s name—like “Truly a Linderella story”—and waved giant carboard print-outs of Lin’s face. Suddenly, I was counting the minutes until the next Knicks game. The energy exploded through our television, and I found myself jumping up and cheering.

Lin was all over the local New York City newspapers. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated several times, scored the cover of TIME magazine, and even had his own flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. The Knicks made it to the postseason thanks in large part to Lin’s play, but he exited prior to the playoffs due to a knee injury. Linsanity was over, but what a ride it was while it lasted.

Not to insult Lin, but I’m guessing he won’t be remembered on the same level as basketball greats like Jordan or LeBron James, or even within the next several tiers of players. But for seven glorious weeks in 2012, no one was more talked about or admired in the sports arena.

I have long enjoyed watching people excel in their chosen fields. I think most humans are drawn to dramatic success stories. Our appreciation is usually limited to those whose work takes place on the public stage—like athletes, actors, musicians, and other performing artists.

As a writer, I have struggled to come to terms with my lack of achievement. While I was in college, I came to believe that rising to the top of the literary world was essential to my sense of self-worth. Anything less would indicate that I was inadequate. Instead of working hard to prove that I was more than adequate, I simply gave up under my own judgmental eye.

These days, I’m comfortable admitting that it’s a long shot I’ll ever be a famous, decorated author. Very few people get to sit atop the heap. But I do believe that Linsanity-like moments of transcendence are available to us all, regardless of who we are or what we do.

I’m talking about experiences where everything comes together, when you’re in a groove and it just feels right.

Here’s a real-time example: I wrote a full-length memoir recently. After thoroughly editing it twice, I recruited some test readers to determine if I have something worth publishing. Despite my fears, I took a deep breath and hit send on a series of emails. The comments have started coming in, and I’ve had conversations with several readers.

For someone who less than five years ago thought she had given up on her writing for good, it sure is a bizarre feeling to discuss your manuscript with someone, to hear what passages touched them and what made them laugh. Maybe this book won’t be read by more than a handful of people, but the experience of having it reflected back to me by someone else has been priceless. I imagine it’s a little like having a crowd painting your name on signs and screaming for you.  

A New York Times article reported how Lin was “underestimated and overlooked” for years and credited his breakthrough with the Knicks to his “perseverance, hard work and self-belief.”

You have to be open to the possibility of channeling Linsanity. You have to put yourself out there. You have to let the coach of the universe know that you’re ready to shine.

Stepping up to the line is scary. Going for a promotion, taking your first-ever ballroom dance class, heck, even attending a party after these long lockdowns—challenges of any size can be intimidating.  

But if you can get past the assumption that being “the best” is the only trophy worth having, then you can bask in your own personal breakthroughs.

An Intentional Life: Steps 3-4, Goals and Motivation

My “Colorful Week” board

Other steps: Step 1 | Step 2 | Step 5

Steps 3 and 4 in my life-balance framework go hand-in-hand, so I’m going to cover both of them in this post. When last we met, you divided your Automatic and Willpower activities into The Four Ps and then gave each category a rating based on your current activity level. Grab your work from that Step 2 exercise, and let’s jump in!

Step 3, Goals

First, determine a set period of time during which you will work on building new habits. I suggest anywhere from four weeks to three months. For your first time doing this, I wouldn’t go any shorter or longer—but ultimately, it’s up to you!

Now, look at your ratings for each of The Four Ps. Where would you like to be at the end of this set time period? Do you want to do more in one of the Ps and less in another? There might even be a P where you don’t necessarily want to move up or down in intensity, but you’d like to reprioritize the activities you’re doing within that category.

Let’s say you’re using numbers for your scales. You’ve determined that you are doing a lot of activities in Productivity and Play but few in Progress and Peace. So, you might want to move from an 8 to a 6 in Productivity, and from a 7 to a 5 in Play. In Progress, you’d like to move from a 3 to a 5, and in Peace from a 2 to a 4.

Remember: This exercise is subjective—there are no perfect levels to achieve. These ratings are there to help you envision how to adjust the balance of activities that fill your days. But they are only a guide, not grades.

So, how are you going to turn the dials up or down? Under each P, list several actions that you can start performing either more or less frequently, which will help you move in the desired direction.

Here are a few examples:

Productivity (aim to spend less time and energy here)

– Split up laundry duty with other family members.

– Scale back frequency of yard work.

– Consolidate errands into once or twice weekly trips instead of small daily trips.

Play (aim to spend less time or higher-quality time here)

– Limit social media scrolling to 2x/day (15 min. max each).

– Take two nights off a week from TV/Netflix.

– Phone, Zoom, or visit with friends instead of just texting.

Progress (aim to increase activity level here)

– Do yoga 2x/week; experiment to find suitable time of day.

– Read before bed 3x/week.

– Start taking pottery lessons.

Peace (aim to increase time spent here)

– Make a gratitude list 3x/week after breakfast.

– Take a walk outside 2x/week with phone in pocket for emergencies only.

– Sign up for free trial w/meditation app and aim for 10 min. sessions 2-3x/week.

Try to make your goals specific and achievable. If you set your goals too high, you might get frustrated. Small, incremental changes will add up.

Step 4, Motivation

Now it’s time to create some motivation. I designed a reward system for performing new actions. It is ridiculously simple—so simple, you might question whether it’s worth doing.

Refer back to the list of goals that you just developed. Take the activities that you want to start doing regularly and assign each a one-word label, such as: Exercise, Yoga, Nature, Learn, Write, Craft, Meditate. This list should not include any activities that you’re already doing regularly; the purpose here is to motivate you to do the things you’re not doing.

Decide how you want to track your rewards. My online course was going to have a cool app to help participants do this, but for now you’re on your own. Get creative or keep it simple. Here are some ideas…

You could keep a running note in your phone, and under each day, add the word for each activity you perform that day.

Or, you can go big and colorful, like I did (and still do). I bought Post-its in lots of different colors, and gave each activity its own color. I got a big white board (but you could use a piece of poster board or even an old mirror or framed picture) and wrote the days of the week across the top. Each day, I add the appropriate color squares, and then at the end of the week I take a photo of the board, move the squares back over to the holding area, and start all over again.

You could do a version of this on a piece of paper using colored markers or in a document on your laptop. I like having something highly visible. I find it inspiring to watch as my habits develop—it helps me spot patterns and see where I can use some more color.

There are no rigid rules as to when you’re allowed to give yourself credit for having done an activity—that is up to you. Perhaps you read a book for 10 minutes instead of scrolling through social media. Give yourself a reward!

Maybe you’re thinking, these labels or squares don’t sound like much of a reward. Give it a try anyway; I think you’ll find it surprisingly motivating, as I did.

Reflect on how this unfolds: Are some colors showing up more than others? Are any patterns emerging? Do certain times of days work better for adding in new activities?

Not everything will turn into a regular habit, and that’s ok. For example, over the six months that I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen reading, writing, yoga, and meditating form into pretty solid habits. Exercise, crafting, and learning remain more like options on an à la carte list. Still, seeing them listed there helps me remember to do them more often than I would without a reward system.   

Over the last couple years, I’ve read a number of excellent books about habits and motivation, so I created a recommendation list as a supplement to this step. You don’t have to read any of these books, but if you do, I’m sure you’ll find them helpful, especially Atomic Habits by James Clear.

I’ll be back in about four weeks with the final step. In the meantime, good luck, and I wish you many colorful days!

Proceed to Step 5.

An Intentional Life: Step 2, Balance

Other steps: Step 1 | Steps 3-4 | Step 5

For years I’ve been developing a framework to help me build a more intentional life. During the pandemic, I started transforming this concept into an online course. The live version of the course is currently on hold, but I decided to start sharing the content here.

In this post, we will walk through the second exercise. Step 2 moves beyond the insights of Step 1, further dividing the activities that fill up your days into what I’ve dubbed The Four Ps.

I first wrote about The Four Ps back in 2016. You don’t have to read that old post, but it goes into a bit more detail about my early experiences with the process, if you’re curious.

Here are The Four Ps and how I define them:

Productivity: A fitting term for this category might be “adulting.” It includes cyclical tasks that must be performed regularly, like paying bills, shopping for groceries, preparing meals, caring for children or other family members, participating in the paid workforce, and so on. Some of us are inclined to load up on these tasks, others less so.

Progress: This category encompasses hobbies, passion projects, and upgrades. These activities typically help you cultivate a body of knowledge, hone a skill, or produce a tangible product. This includes pursuits like writing, painting, knitting, guitar lessons, researching how to start a small business, renovating a bathroom, learning a new language, and so on. They tend to be less recurring and more linear than the Productivity tasks (and one would rarely call them “tasks”).  

Peace: These activities promote quiet contemplation, presence in the moment, or devotion. This category includes activities like spiritual practices, meditation, time in nature, journaling, gratitude practices, and other actions that allow you to refocus and recharge. Other P words that work here are Pause and Perspective.

Play: These are activities you do to have fun without concern for any specific outcome other than relaxation, entertainment, and/or connection. Pamper and Pleasure are two more Ps that apply here. This category includes hanging out with friends, watching Netflix, scrolling through social media, “retail therapy” (yes, I think sustainable amounts of this are ok), getting a pedicure or massage, etc.

If you are feeling dissatisfied or out of sorts, perhaps you are doing too much of one or two of the Ps and not enough of the others. It is my firm belief that working toward a balance of The Four Ps that clicks for you can be life-changing.

Four Ps Exercise

Make sure your list from Step 1 is handy. Now, take another piece of paper (or whatever medium you prefer to use) and draw a vertical line and a horizontal line in the middle so that it’s divided it into four equal squares. Write Productivity at the top of the first square, Progress at the top of the next square, Peace in the third square and Play in the final square. (It really doesn’t matter in what order you place them.)

Take the items from your first sheet and write each one in its appropriate square. Try to find a way to note whether each item came from the Automatic or the Willpower column. You could write an A or W next to each item (whichever applies) or write the Automatics in one color and the Willpowers in another color. Maybe you write the Automatics in lowercase and the Willpowers in ALL CAPS? It’s up to you.

You don’t have to transfer every single item from Sheet 1 to Sheet 2—just the ones that take up significant chunks of time. For example, if you wrote “brush teeth” under Automatic, you could probably skip that one. You will also transfer over the Willpower items that don’t yet take up much time, but which you want or need to do more often.

Some items may fit in more than one category; do your best to limit each item to just one P. For example: I put yoga under Peace, though it could also fall under Progress. As with the first exercise, don’t get hung up on trying to be “perfect” here—if you find yourself wavering, just pick a square.

Now, look at your Four Ps: How do they compare? Do some squares have more Automatic items while others have more Willpower items?

Assess the amount of energy and time you currently dedicate to performing activities in each category. Give each category its own rating for comparison’s sake and to establish a baseline. Previously, I used numeric scales for measurement purposes. These days, I try to avoid using numbers when they aren’t necessary because they feed into my OCD tendencies.

My paid version of this course was going to have a kick-ass color-based system to give each category an “intensity” rating (shout out to my husband who was going to do the coding). For now, you can use a scale of 0-10, or a letter rating, or whatever floats your boat. Feel free to get creative!

A score at one end of your range indicates that you’re doing zero regular activities in the category; a score at the other end of the range signals that you’re performing a heavy load of tasks in the category. For most people, the high end of the scale is not the goal—in fact, it likely means you’re overloaded in the category.

Once you have assigned your ratings, ask yourself: How do I feel about the balance that my Four Ps depict? Would I like the categories to be closer in intensity?

As we move on, remember that there is no ideal recipe for The Four Ps—only the formula that best suits you.

Until next time, great work!

Ready for more? Move on to Steps 3 and 4.

An Intentional Life: Step 1, Awareness

Other steps: Step 2 | Steps 3-4 | Step 5

Over the past six months, in addition to writing and editing my memoir, I’ve been developing an online course. The concept is based on a life-balance framework that I first wrote about on this blog way back in 2016.

For a long time, I felt stuck in my daily routine. I wanted to cultivate a more fulfilling mix of activities in my life, but I was always putting off taking action. So, I started reading about habits and motivation. Then, I experimented with how to set new priorities and make mindful choices. A course I took from Jocelyn K. Glei called RESET also helped get my butt in gear.

The approach I came up with worked so well that I am now writing, reading, practicing yoga, and meditating regularly—all things I was struggling to do before.

I’ve decided to pause creating the live version of this course, but I still think the ideas are worth sharing. So, I’m going to post the content here in four steps, similar to how the course would have unfolded in Zoom sessions.

If you aren’t quite ready to hire a life coach but could use some tools to shape an intentional life that works for you, my approach just might help.

Activities Exercise

Start by taking a close look at how you currently spend your time—this includes activities that you do on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.

Take out a piece of paper and draw a vertical line down the middle (or do this on your laptop, on a white board, your phone, whatever makes you happy). At the top of the left column, write Automatic. At the top of the right column, write Willpower. Then, start listing activities under each category, as defined below:

Automatic – These are activities that you perform freely, with little-to-no prodding (from yourself or others). This includes activities that you find fun or rewarding, habits that have become second nature, and tasks that you perform willingly out of a sense of responsibility.

Willpower – These are activities you want or need to do, but do not perform consistently (if at all). You have to summon significant willpower to start and/or complete these tasks, so they rarely get done. This includes activities that you find boring, challenging, or alien to your regular routine. 

Here’s a condensed example of my sheet from when I first started doing this:

Automatic

  • Watch TV
  • Scroll on social media
  • Caretaking for Mom
  • Walk the dog
  • Make meals
  • Pay bills
  • Texting with friends
  • “Busy” work (tidying, organizing)

Willpower

  • Read (and finish) books
  • Write and edit
  • Yoga
  • Meditate
  • Cardio exercise
  • Crafting
  • Calls and visits with friends
  • “Heavy” chores (bathrooms, floors)

Take your time and try to get down as many activities as possible. My full list had 22 items in each column! Sometimes a task seems to fall in the middle. Try your best to put it in one column or the other—you’re not being graded, so just pick a side.

Now, reflect on why items landed in either column and how you might shake things up. Ask yourself these five questions:

  1. Why do I perform the Automatic activities on a regular basis? This may include a variety of reasons, depending on the task. You don’t have to do this for every item, but try picking out at least five and asking why. Keep going if you’re having fun and gaining insight.
  2. Why are the Willpower activities so challenging for me to perform regularly? Again, varied reasons may apply, depending on the task. Start with a few items and continue as long as you like.
  3. Which Willpower items would I most like to incorporate into my schedule? It is highly unlikely that you’re going to suddenly start doing everything in the right column. This approach is about creating a sustainable balance—not pushing yourself to take on too much. As you move on to later steps, you may want to build habits for some of these Willpower activities so that you perform them regularly; for others, you may simply want to be more mindful that they’re on your menu.
  4. Are there any Automatic tasks that I can scale back or delegate to other people in order to free up time for Willpower activities? Circle those tasks. (Sadly, there is no magic way to add minutes to your day. You must make the time yourself, and the Automatic column is where you look to do so.)
  5. Am I resistant to the prospect of letting go of any of the Automatic tasks? If so, why?

This exercise might seem like a giant no-brainer, but I promise you that being more aware of how you spend your time is critical to moving forward. Getting it down on paper can be hugely enlightening, even to those of us who consider ourselves highly self-reflective.

Splendid work—good for you for getting started!

When you’re ready, you can move on to Step 2.