Ambition: When you don’t want what they’ve got

This month I’ve written a guest article for clouds+dirt, an online platform that seeks to ‘redefine spirituality for the modern woman’. The article may ostensibly be written for women, but there is a message for everyone in there. If you’ve ever felt an unravelling of the path you’ve hitherto been following, and realised how vital it was for you to re-evaluate what matters to you in your life and career, then have a read – and let me know what you think.

http://www.cloudsanddirt.co/ambition/

Other people’s opinions about you are none of your business

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I love the texture of this concrete. I also think that this is a good reminder before we plunge into the next working week. Honestly, stop worrying about what other people are thinking. Do what you think should be done. Take the risk. Follow your dreams. Wear the bikini. You’ll look back on this day and realise that this was the day you took hold of your power and stopped letting other people (and yourself!) get in the way of your living this one precious life.

Coaching for introverts

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A bit of light-hearted relief as we head towards the end of the working week – this is for all you grumpy introverts. There appear to be rather a lot of you out there – hello!

Now, I do appreciate the irony in this, but if you’re feeling like this and if you’re fed up with your work – well, I’d love to talk to you. Coaching can be hugely helpful in managing communication, relationships, performance under pressure, and career transitions. I’ll even stick my neck out to promise you’ll feel better after talking to me.

Drop me a message, and feel free to share this flowchart!

Blooming, like a rose

rose bloomingElizabeth Appell wrote: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

It’s sometimes said that hitting rock bottom can truly be the making of you. Unlike in the velvety rut of your comfort zone, you are galvanised into action, because the perceived risk of change pales in comparison to the pain of staying where you are. So you change, and you learn, and you grow, and look at that – that rose – is that you? Why, yes, yes it is; finally unfurling. That’s the beauty of you, in you all along.

Come with me, take my hand, and let’s step onto the path to this adventure together.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Procrastination and perfectionism

Earlier this week I read an article on BBC News, which reported on a recent study that had provided physiological evidence of how the emotional centres of the brain can overwhelm a person’s ability for self-regulation (such as when you’re trying to keep on task), and how procrastination is a problem much more to do with managing emotions than it is to do with managing time. (Lots more information on this is available at procrastination.ca.)

I’m no scientist, but here’s a highly-simplified representation of your brain, so if you’re also a non-scientist you can visualise what I (hope I know I) am talking about.

three-brainsOne thing I found particularly interesting about the article was that the study showed that the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system and deals with motivation and emotion, was larger in procrastinators. It also showed that in these individuals, the connections between the amygdala and another part of the brain, the dorsal part of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), weren’t as good as in the non-procrastinators. (The ACC, which sits in between the ’emotional’ limbic system and the ‘cognitive’ prefrontal cortex (part of the neocortex), takes information from the amygdala and uses this to decide what action the body will take as a result. It helps keep us on task and on track by enabling us to filter out emotions and distractions.)

So what does this all mean? If your amygdala’s more active, and your brain isn’t filtering that information out effectively, your decision-making and task-management ability can suffer. In sum, how our brains are wired can determine whether we’re more likely to get on with a task or continually put it off.

All this made me start reflecting on the work I’ve done with clients who have wanted help with time management. Inevitably, the core issue has not in fact been to do with time management. Instead, the difficulty of completing tasks has been interwoven with feelings of overwhelm and not being good enough; avoidance of tasks that trigger feelings of anxiety; and a deep-seated fear of what the client views as failure. A lot of this often has its roots in patterns learnt in childhood – enter the loud inner critic and the continual need to prove oneself through doing everything well.

In job interviews, when asked to talk about one’s weaknesses, one answer that often gets used is “I’m a real perfectionist and have high standards, and this can mean I spend more time than necessary getting things just right.” The idea, of course, is to present a weakness that you don’t actually see as a weakness. The trouble with this (apart from the cliched answer – which I don’t recommend, by the way) is that I don’t think perfectionism really has anything to do with standards and with getting things right. Rather, it’s an inability to be happy with what you have achieved because there is always room for more improvement: “Good, better, best; never let it rest. Till your good is better, and your better best.” It’s not a pursuit of excellence, it’s an endless cycle of nothing you do ever being adequate. It’s the constant, unhappy refrain of “if I don’t do a stellar job then I am not good enough”. Perfectionism and low self-esteem are a great double-act, and have been shown to be associated with anxiety and depression. 

For the perfectionist, working drafts are often anathema – you want things to be just right straightaway. You dislike being a beginner; if you’re going to do something you want to be good at it from the get-go. You get bogged down in the details, crafting and re-crafting something to try and get it just-so. Instead of relaxing into and enjoying the process of learning and growth, you are constantly assessing your performance. You think you’ve failed if you haven’t driven yourself to deliver anything less than perfect.

The constant need to live up to what are actually quite unrealistic and unfair expectations of yourself can be an exhausting struggle. Far easier to avoid doing something, because then you also avoid the negative emotions associated with it. And that is precisely what happens: you put off doing things because they trigger your anxiety about inadequacy in some way. I can’t face that right now. There’s too much to think about. I need to have time to do it properly. Over time, this can lead to complete overwhelm.

How do you break this cycle? Let’s first be clear – like anything else that takes a lifetime to build up, these negative patterns will take time to fix. But the important thing is to recognise that they can be changed. I believe that that change starts with learning self-compassion. In self-compassion, acceptance is key: accepting what is, what was, who you are and how you think and feel, without judgment. I think an important aspect of self-compassion is also self-forgiveness – learning to let go of not just the past and its regrets, but also all the future possible somebodies or somebody elses you may feel you need to become, in order to allow yourself to come fully into the present.

I’ve written several previous posts about mindfulness and meditation and thoroughly recommend this as a valuable partner in the journey towards being kind to yourself. Briefly back to the science – research has shown that mindfulness meditation is related to shrinkage of the amygdala and expansion of the prefrontal cortex. Learning to love yourself, in other words, literally changes your brain.

If this article has struck a chord with you, and you’re looking for support in your journey, coaching can help. Do get in touch. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some short-term practical assistance: there are tools out there that can help you get to grips with tasks when you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed. I often use this action-priority matrix with clients:

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You may well have seen something similar – a common one is the ‘urgent vs. important’ matrix – but this particular rendition is a PICK chart (Plan-Implement-Consider-Kick Out) and the idea is that you categorise your tasks in terms of their relative impact vs. effort. So:

  • Low effort, high impact: Quick wins, go do them now. A complementary exercise I often use with clients is what I call “What One Thing (are you going to do today)?”   
  • Low effort, low impact: These are ‘time-fillers’ – consider doing them if you want to, but they shouldn’t be your go-to pile all the time.
  • High effort, low impact: (Don’t. Unless you have an actual obligation to do so.)
  • High effort, high impact: This is often where the procrastination comes in and, together with the Implement quadrant, is where clients typically need to focus. These are tasks that you need to do but can’t be done in one sitting. They require planning, and benefit from task breakdowns and micro-resolutions (small, achievable goals).

I hope you’ve found this useful. If you have, why not subscribe to my mailing list so you don’t miss future updates?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Breaking barriers (and ceilings)

I’ve got a thing for ceilings. The more architecturally interesting, the better. When I posted this on my personal Facebook timeline a few days ago, a friend left a comment that made me stop and think.

Me: I’ve got a thing for ceilings.
Her: And trying to break them! Go Nat! 💪

I’ve never thought of myself as breaking ceilings. But then it occurred to me that this is what I work on with people all the time – breaking through their barriers. And the more architecturally-significant the ceiling, perhaps all the more its being fair play. Right?

Now stop reading and go break through some ceilings.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Words to myself, at 10, 15, 18, 21, 32 and 35

IMG_8161I am really proud of how this little girl has turned out.

If I had the chance to say something to her at the age of 10, I’d say things get a lot better. The days won’t always be so dark. You won’t always be bullied and this is making you much, much stronger.

If I had the chance to say something to her at the age of 15, I’d say that you are incredibly beautiful, and strong, and perfectly enough. You have always been perfectly enough. Let those who love you support you.

To her at the age of 18, I’d say this relationship is not good for you. Know that others love you so much and the world isn’t going to end if you break up with him. You will learn to value and love yourself and how to stand up for yourself. You’ll learn how not to be emotionally blackmailed.

To her at 21, I’d say that others don’t love you because of your grades and your achievements. Truth be told, these things matter quite little in the larger scheme of things. People love you just because you are you. No matter what.

To her at 32, I would say that you don’t have to be a perfect mum, wife, daughter, employee. You don’t have to be perfect, full stop.

And to her at 35, I’d say you’ll hit rock bottom, but the only way is up. And what a fabulous journey it’s going to be. I promise. Things won’t always be easy, but you’ll finally have learnt to love yourself. And it’s then that you will truly be able to give, give, give. God had a plan for you after all. And you’ll be filled with gratitude.

Looking forward to whatever’s round the corner. This world is so big and so full of promise.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

What motivates you?

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A little while ago I posted about the book Drive (Daniel Pink) and the ‘motivation trifecta’. The idea is that, in contrast to the (outdated) carrot-and-stick paradigm, we’re all catalysed by basic drives to achieve three things: autonomy (the desire for self-direction); mastery (the desire to keep getting better at something that matters to us); and purpose (the desire to connect to a greater and meaningful cause). In brief? We want to be good at something that has meaning for us, and to be allowed to get on with it.

There’s a great summary in the video below (adapted from a talk given by Daniel Pink at the RSA).

When it comes to work, I like to equate autonomy with being given a licence to operate. One of the (suite of) very appealing things that self-employment has brought is that I no longer need to navigate a host of red tape to get things implemented. Employers take note – if you spend time on recruiting the right staff, then let those people do their jobs without being micromanaged. Trust that they know how to consult on and mitigate any major risks, and let them ask for forgiveness for the minority of things that might go slightly wrong, rather than require them to ask for permission for the things that should be within their remit and control.

Outside of an organisational context, I like to think of the principle of autonomy in the context of the control you have over your life. Working with clients, I often introduce concepts relating to constructionism and narrative: becoming the author of your own story, rather than acting out or directing a script that someone else has created for you.

With mastery, the starting point is the flow state, where the challenges you’re faced with are aligned with your abilities so that you’re doing tasks that are neither too easy nor too difficult (aka ‘Goldilocks tasks’). It’s the space where peak experiences live: where you lose track of time because you’re so in the moment; where you’re absorbed in what feels effortless and thoroughly enjoyable; where you’re using your learned and innate skills and abilities, everything is going well, and you know you’re going to be successful.

You flow in the moment, but mastery emerges over a much longer period – months, years, decades. Hence Pink’s first law of mastery: mastery is a pain. Grit isn’t the easiest thing to learn, but it’s a vital companion to talent.

The second law of mastery is mastery is a mindset. If you’re not familiar with Carol Dweck’s work on the importance of cultivating a growth mindset, it’s definitely worth taking a look at. Building on the first law, the growth mindset says that innate talent, intelligence and ability is just the starting point, and needs to be augmented and developed through learning and effort. Believe that you can, work for it, and success is within your grasp.

My favourite’s the last law, though: mastery is an asymptote.

This one’s for all you perfectionists out there. Just like an asymptote, mastery is something that you’ll approach, but never quite reach. So reach for it, if you will, but gain your joy from the pursuit and don’t get discouraged when it eludes you.

Finally, on the question of purpose: what meaning do you seek, and what purpose does your work fulfil? If your core values aren’t met by your work, are they aligned with something you are pursuing elsewhere in your life? Do you know how your work contributes to a larger cause (and do you care about that cause)? If you’re yearning for something, to do what you do in the service of something larger than yourself – go and find out what that something is. And then go get it. Life is too short to keep thinking you should be doing something worthwhile, yet not doing anything about it.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree with Pink’s motivational trifecta?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Career Reinvention Day – 15% discount!

Who’s coming to the workshop on 21st April?! It’s gonna be good. Here’s a sneak peek at delegate workbooks and the cards we’ll be using as tools for one of our exercises on finding out your values, strengths and skills! Plus a three-course lunch from the award-winning Warwick Conferences, at the University of Warwick in Coventry (and Warwickshire), and a valuable follow-up coaching session with me to consolidate your learning from the workshop.

Pssst – now running a 15% discount for the final 3 spaces! Message me for your code, and then get your place at www.quietspacecoaching.co.uk/events!

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd