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!

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

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.

It’s Not You, It’s Me: One Year Since Losing a Friend

Tami and my cat Gretchen

About 10 years ago my friend Tami and I were in the basement of my townhouse so that she could visit with my cat Gretchen. My other cat, Mo, was up on the main floor. The two cats had become incompatible, so my husband and I were rotating them every 24 hours, and it was Gretty’s turn to be in the basement (which I would like to point out was a finished and relatively pleasant basement).

Tami was holding Gretty, and she looked at me and said, “You know, this situation with the cats is more about you than it is about them.”

I was flabbergasted. My reply was weak and forgettable—probably something like, “Um, ok, whatever you say.” Then I changed the subject because I did not want to argue with her.

Over the years since that trivial incident, I have crafted sassier comebacks in my head—none particularly worth sharing. I’m not sure why that remark bothered me so much. Now that Tami is gone, having passed away a year ago today, it still lingers in my mind alongside weightier memories.

A woman in my grief group told us how her therapist often asks, “Why do you think that bothers you so much?”

So, I’ve asked myself that question. Why did her comment bother me so much that I still recall it clearly ten years later? The answer is that Tami was at least partly right. When the cats would fight, I couldn’t bear to hear Gretty’s cries—she sounded like she was seeing the very gates to hell. That sound made my bones ache. I did not have the guts to let the cats duke it out and settle their conflict.

A reunion did happen gradually and by accident, as people came over and left the basement door open. For a couple blissful months, the cats coexisted again. And then Mo startled Gretty one day, and the truce was over. Sometimes Gretty would pee on the floor when she was afraid of Mo, so I don’t think the decision to keep the cats apart was entirely about my own neurotic tendencies.

Tami’s remark to me that day echoes as I grieve her loss. Her death haunts me, as the unexpected death of a 54-year old woman is likely to do. I am sad. I feel guilt. Most of all, I am mad. Mad at a long list of people, including her. I hate being mad at someone who I loved and who is no longer on this earth. My anger feels righteous, earned—but as Tami might argue, it really does say more about me than it does about her.

My reactions to her life choices were largely due to my own insecurities and angst. I was afraid we would lose her, and we did, but my fear did nothing to stop that.

A part of me wants to dig through both of our failings, turning them up like soil, letting them sift through my fingers as I try to glean something of use. There will be plenty of time for that later.

For today, I will say that only a friend like Tami can challenge you in that way, and I miss her dearly. 

Procrastination, Priorities, and Vegetable Soup

Let’s say you are making a big pot of vegetable soup. (Yes, it’s analogy time again.) You find a recipe online but decide to improvise—spending an hour inspecting your spice rack. Once you settle on a mix of herbs and spices, you grab whatever bags of veggies you have in the freezer and dump them into the pot.

Your soup may turn out perfectly fine, but most folks would agree that your emphasis on ingredients was misplaced. Flavor enhancements are important, but this is a vegetable soup. You might want to spend more time choosing and chopping fresh veggies if you want a truly delicious soup.

If you want a truly fulfilling life, you must also choose which ingredients (or actions) to concentrate on. For years, my personal priorities were out of whack. I would spend precious time on busywork rather than creative projects.

If you’re anything like me, this train of thought might sound familiar:  I need to write a blog post, but maybe I should put on a load of laundry first. Oh, and now would be the perfect time to rake up those leaves in the front yard. And wouldn’t it be nice to organize that pile of stuff on the coffee table? Laundry’s ready to fold! Ugh, now I’m drained, and I deserve a break. Instead of writing, I’ll just collapse on the couch and watch Netflix.

This was happening over and over again because I was stuck in a loop of focusing on things that were mentally easy to do but still consumed considerable time and energy. It felt good to be crushing it at “adulting”—but this system was leaving me unfulfilled in a larger sense.

Last fall I took a course to help get my life on track and establish a writing practice. In the first phase, we were encouraged to set goals that we could achieve in approximately three months. One of my goals was to write 30,000 words in my book by the end of January.

This goal sounded intimidating, given that I hadn’t written regularly in ages. But if I wrote, on average, five days a week, I only needed to produce 400 words a day over the 15-week period. Totally reasonable!

But to make this happen, I had to stop staring at the spice shelf.

I had to break my habits of:

  • Making meticulous to-do lists for everyday tasks and striving to check off every item
  • Jumping on non-urgent things to get them “out of the way”
  • Turning trivial chores into complicated, time-consuming projects
  • Insisting on doing everything to my standards, by myself

When I felt the urge to procrastinate with busywork, I had to ask myself:

  • Will I get to these chores eventually, even if they’re not on a to-do list?
  • What would happen if I saved this task for later?
  • Am I being paid to perform this chore at a master level?
  • Can someone else help with this task or take it over altogether?

Doing the above was the only way I could make time for my writing. I had to suffer the pain of watching the laundry pile up higher than usual, push past the discomfort of seeing those damn leaves every time I walked in the front door, and learn to ignore the clutter on the coffee table.

And by Jan. 31 I had exceeded my writing goal, pounding out a grand total of 40,060 words. Writing was the star ingredient in my plan, and by placing my attention there, I produced the result I desired.