“Clear your calendar and plan the activities” With Lisa McGrath

Clear your calendar and plan the activities that put you in a pleasurable mental state, anything from reading a good book, writing, practicing a skill, or participating in a hobby. The magical moments of being in the state of Flow are contagious, productive, and meaningful. They provide a positive intrinsic value that feeds your confidence […]

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Clear your calendar and plan the activities that put you in a pleasurable mental state, anything from reading a good book, writing, practicing a skill, or participating in a hobby. The magical moments of being in the state of Flow are contagious, productive, and meaningful. They provide a positive intrinsic value that feeds your confidence and self-worth…and who wouldn’t want more of feeling that?

As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa McGrath.

Lisa McGrath is a National Board Certified Teacher, Personal Coach, International Bestselling Author and Speaker who offers inspirational, practical, and spiritual guidance. She teaches women to find clarity, purpose, and direction with the intentional acts that help them achieve their goals and live their Intentional Life with her monthly online coaching program, A Pilgrimage to Self and private coaching practice at www.lisamcgrath.me.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up in a dysfunctional blended family and found myself homeless at fourteen years old to escape the physical and emotional abuse. My step-mother, teachers, and others in authority repeatedly told me I wouldn’t amount to anything, that I was worthless, and incapable of achieving anything in my life. This led to my personal mantra of “I’ll prove you wrong.”

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

It became clearly evident to me that I had always needed someone outside my inner circle of people to help guide me as I healed from past traumas, divorce, and heartbreaking relationships. I needed someone to listen and help me reframe my negative self-talk, to know my worth, and tap into my personal gifts. My spiritual pilgrimages across Europe and an emergency health scare in 2015 illuminated my path to helping others learn to become the master of their own lives by teaching the life management skills that I had learned on my own. My education and experience, along with the perseverance to live a better life than what was forecasted for me, led to my mission to help others.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

My step-mother had a lot of influence over who I am today. Yes, this same step-mother that instigated and took a blind-eye to the dysfunction in my childhood also inspired me to be who I am today. Because she was married to my father and I wanted him to be in my life, I continued to visit them over the years. After my father’s open-heart surgery, and a week after my now ex-husband attacked me, we took a trip to visit them. During that visit, she intuitively knew about the abuse I’d endured, and she put her hands on my shoulders and said, “You turned out in spite of me.” I listened quietly as she continued, “You need to get away from him before he kills you.” She made me promise that I would leave him and find a lawyer. I did. I think I did for a number of reasons, but mostly, I always felt like a child in her presence and I had made a promise. I don’t like to go back on my promises.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

In 2018, I fell and broke my ankle just weeks before a business trip to Toronto. My orthopedic surgeon consulted with my pulmonary doctor and finally agreed to let me go on the scheduled trip a week post-op even though they certainly didn’t recommend it. I called the airlines, made train and taxi arrangements, and booked a handicap room at the hotel. I was determined to learn how to use the wheelchair and get to the conference. Once at the hotel, other members in my circle became my “wheelchair posse” and wheeled me to the meetings, meals, and even a scavenger hunt around Toronto! It was a fantastic conference, but I still don’t know how and why I was able to get there and home again safely…I guess it was a bit of tenacity, courage, and stubbornness.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

It’s important to keep trying, even when feeling low, defeated, or frustrated. There is a three letter word that can be the most significant in anyone’s vocabulary…YET. The power of YET is giving yourself the grace to know that whatever you want to learn, do, or master can be accomplished with proper time, education, and practice. When a baby is learning to walk, stumbles, and falls, we praise her for trying and encourage her to try again because we know she just hasn’t mastered walking “yet”. We don’t scold her and tell her she isn’t good enough and should give up; instead, we teach the power of “yet”, and this is exactly what we need to teach young people: a growth mindset, perseverance, and commitment can pave the way to success.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Mitch Albom’s bookTuesdays with Morrie has had a significant impact on me because of the life philosophy presented in the lessons: love and forgive everyone for everything (including yourself), live a life of purpose and meaning, and give back to your community.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

Dr. Wayne Dyer had a profound effect on my life and from his teachings, I learned the power of intention…I also learned that our thoughts create our feelings, and our feelings lead to our actions or lack of action. When we change our thoughts, we change our lives because our perspective has the power to direct our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

Currently, I’m working on my memoir based on my spiritual pilgrimages on the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route across Northern Spain. I learned, or was reminded of, many life lessons, including the powers of gratitude, forgiveness, and self-care. The experiences helped me heal from past traumas, divorce, and self-sabotage. My young son accompanied me on the first pilgrimage which allowed us time to connect, grow, and create lasting memories.

My coaching practice is an exciting part of my life because the strategies, techniques, and systems I teach have an impact on the lives of others. It’s rewarding to bear witness to the achievements, healing, and success my clients experience, and the transformations feed my faith in possibility and how finding your “why” ignites your personal powers of strength, wisdom, understanding, and will.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?

I follow and teach the philosophy of the Indian Proverb A House With Four Rooms that states we must do something for our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being daily. I learned of this proverb while reading Rumor Godden in the early nineties, and this philosophy has helped me find stability in my life. It has become the foundation of my life and allows me to center myself in peace, harmony, and joy. I’m able to pause before reacting to situations that are out of my control and compose my responses in an intentional way.

How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?

Routines, rituals, and habits become basic systems that make life easier or more difficult depending on the behaviors. For example, because I follow the philosophy of A House With Four Rooms, I do something daily for my physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. This means I monitor my water intake, diet, and exercise, as well as organizing and maintaining the physical space around me; I intentionally read, write, and engage in thought-provoking conversations daily, I try to learn and practice new skills, and I monitor my self-talk for my mental well-being. The proverb advises going into each “room” every day, even for a short time to “air” it out, and it cautions us not to spend too much time in one “room” over another. The emotional “room” is one of the rooms that many people get hung up in or try to avoid all together; for me, I make it a practice to do breathing, journaling, and forgiveness exercises to help me cope with the ups and downs of life. My spiritual “room” includes meditation, prayer, and gratitude practices that fuels my senses of grace, passion, and intention. Because of my foundational routines, I’m able to invest my attention and time on other areas of my life. For instance, a simple wardrobe or uniform takes away the time needed to find an outfit every morning…think Steve Jobs with his jeans and black turtleneck or Mark Zuckerberg with t-shirts and hoodies. Choosing a menu of a few simple meals takes away the uncertainty and indecision of my next breakfast, lunch, and dinner which helps alleviate decision fatigue.

Making it a habit to schedule basic activities, such as exercise, allows one to be more intentional with my time and energy. Another success habit is investing time to review monthly, weekly, and daily goals. Make it a habit to identify the top three activities that will allow you to move the needle towards achieving your goals, and those are the tasks you do first. Having positive habits, routines, and rituals allows you to achieve more, and with routines and habits, you’re able to avoid decision fatigue. Another habit that’s been a success is practicing time management techniques like the Pomodoro technique; simply set an alarm for twenty-five minutes and focus on your task. This habit allows you to accomplish much more than other strategies, and much more than trying to multitask.

Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits.

Behaviors that are repeatedly done become habits. It typically takes twenty-one days to develop a habit, and many repetitive negative behaviors become bad habits without much thought or intention. On the other hand, decisions to develop good habits usually stay top of mind; for example, if one decides to eat a much healthier diet, food, especially restrictive foods, are thought of often. The same is true when people make a decision to quit smoking; they must deal with the emotional and physical consequences as well as the mental chatter in their minds. Bad habits can be replaced by good habits with intentional decisions, thoughts, and actions.

Let’s talk about creating good habits in three areas, Wellness, Performance, and Focus. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum wellness. Please share a story or example for each.

A House With Four Rooms suggest each of us think of ourselves as being made up having four rooms: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. It advocates that we must go into each one of these four “rooms” every day; we don’t have to spend a lot of time in each room, but we must go in each even if it’s only to open a window and “air” it out. The proverb also cautions spending too much time in one room over another. Following this philosophy makes it easy to develop positive habits for wellness because practitioners do intentional routines, such as monitoring health, maintaining physical space, practicing mindfulness, stimulating intellectual health, attending to emotions and coping skills, developing gratitude and forgiveness practices, prayer and meditation for spiritual well-being. The proverb maintains that daily practice allows you to be a complete person. I adopted this philosophy in the early 90s and have made it a routine to “air” out each of my four “rooms” daily. This has been an essential habit in my life. My morning routine includes time for mediation and prayer, journal writing, and setting my intentions for the day.

An important habit for optimum wellness is keeping regular health and routine maintenance appointments. These check-ups are first defense in catching anything unusual or threatening to good health and optimum wellness.

Sleep and restorative rest must be a priority for optimum wellness of the physical body. It’s also important for brain health.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

To be at your best for optimum wellness in life, it’s important to establish healthy habits. This includes monitoring your diet and exercise, avoiding stress, and monitoring your thoughts. Diet and exercise can be monitored by making intentional decisions such as drinking so many ounces of water, eating a proper diet, getting appropriate cardio and weight training. To avoid stress, I’ve experienced the benefits of meditation and breathing exercises. When I find myself in a stressful situation, I can quickly center myself by regulating my breathing and taking a few moments to pause, gather my thoughts, and choose how I will respond. Learning about the power of your thoughts can make a major difference towards establishing healthy habits. When we take control of our thoughts, we can reframe negative self-talk or doubts and change the emotions we feel. With more positive thoughts and feelings, it’s much easier to take the positive actions that help you make great progress in work, sports, and life.

I find scheduling activities to support the habits I’d like to develop is essential to being successful with lasting change. For example, if it takes 28 days of continuous practice to establish a new habit, I make sure that I have the new activity written in my calendar. When I first started walking and monitoring my steps, I was on a personal mission to get 10,000 steps per day. The first days, even though I scheduled walking into my calendar, I wasn’t achieving the total steps I wanted, but rather than give up, I continued to schedule and practice my walks each day. This was the process of not only reaching my goal to be fit enough to get my daily 10,000 steps, it also created my healthy habit of taking a daily walk: walking was a priority and now fit into my daily calendar naturally.

A good practice for scheduling necessary medical appointments is to use your birth month as a reminder. I like to schedule all appointments, even 6 month dental appointments in advance, so that I don’t forget or have to wait months for an appointment when I’m ready to schedule. This saves me time and frustration.

Routine habits before bed should be a priority. Many of us would benefit from avoiding television, computer, and phone screens about an hour before bedtime. The practice of recharging technology in another room is also a benefit if you’re in the habit of checking it at night or upon waking in the morning, so make sure to set up a recharging place away from your sleeping quarters so that you can detach from your technology.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.

To optimize performance, I like the Japanese technique of Kaizen which allows me to make small and consistent progress forward. I learned that even baby steps forward are positive steps towards reaching my goals. I connect this idea to a young baby taking her first steps. When she falls, we don’t throw up our hands in disappointment and resign ourselves to the idea that she’s not good enough to learn to walk and never encourage her to try again; we know learning to walk is a process and takes practice. This is important to relate to ourselves when we want to learn and experience something new; we have to allow ourselves to practice and go through the processes of learning.

A good habit is to prepare yourself for making decisions and avoiding overwhelm from decision fatigue; this can be done by making “master decisions.” We have hundreds of decisions from the moment we awake, from the clothes we’ll wear, our breakfast, our purchases, and hundreds of other personal and professional decisions that need to be made. One of the easiest ways to avoid this fatigue is to eliminate the small decisions by limiting choices as I mentioned earlier; there are many daily decisions that can be made in advance which allows for clear thinking and concentration as needed. Imagine not having to think about which way to drive to work, what to have for lunch, or finding the professional services you may require (plumber, real estate agent, lawyer, etc.).

I have personal and professional systems established and automated to save me time, mistakes, and overwhelm. For example, I rely on my calendar to keep me organized and on schedule. My calendar coordinates all of my work meetings, doctor appointments, and any other activities that I want to schedule into my day. I schedule my morning practices, private appointments, and daily routines. Scheduling systems allow my clients to book appointments when I’m available because my personal and professional calendars are integrated; this system makes sure I’m not overbooked. Automated systems that can free up your time and energy include making recurring payments, household expenses, and investments. You can take your scheduling systems further by having routines scheduled for the same day each week, month, or year; for example, household chores can be designated to a certain day, doctor appointments can be scheduled for certain days of the week, and yearly reminders can be scheduled for your birthday month. I use my birth month to check smoke detector batteries,

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

Taking small and consistent actions helps you build the muscle memory needed to establish sustainable habits. Eliminating or limiting choices is one way to narrow the everyday decisions you make. Preparing the night before can be an incredible timesaver and practice that helps you develop habits and avoid frustrations. For example, if you’ve scheduled your gym visit or run for first thing in the morning, get your exercise clothes ready, or as some people do, wear them to bed. Assemble all pieces of your daily wardrobe, including accessories, freeing you from making clothing decisions in the morning. Practice the same habit for your children’s outfits, lunch preparations, and organizing backpacks, purses, or other items that will be needed for the day.

Try keeping track of all the decisions you make for an entire week. Which decisions and choices are most repeated? These are the types of activities that typically fall into the category of “master decisions” and can be managed, limited, or eliminated altogether. When you are in control and intentional with your choices and decisions, you can avoid decision fatigue. Your mind remain clear and focused for other important matters.

These practices are important to my habit of monitoring my activities for my physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. I created a personal planner that not only organizes my appointments, but allows me to record my Top 3 for the week and Top 3 for each day, list daily results for the activities I’d like to monitor, summarize my day, and record the 5 things I’m most grateful for that day.

Relying on an organized calendar can also save frustrations from missing appointments to overbooking. Find a system that works for you by incorporating all personal and professional responsibilities. It is also important to find a calendar that incorporates scheduled time for personal self-care, family obligations, and down time. I use about a half-hour on Sunday evening to review my upcoming week. This practice allows me to choose The Top 3 activities that will make a positive difference to my life and help me achieve my goals. I use this method to break my larger goals into smaller achievable tasks that keep me organized and move me forward. I like to practice “The Top 3”; these are the activities that will move me closer to achieving my goals.

A good strategy is to practice the systems and habits that you want to incorporate into your life daily. It doesn’t have to take a great deal of time, but you must do it.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.

Many studies have proven that multitasking isn’t a productive strategy, so it is important to dedicate time to individual tasks. One great strategy that I use is the Pomodoro technique which involves using a set time for focusing on an individual task. Depending on the task, I set an alarm for 25 to 45 minutes. During this time, I focus on the job at hand, and when the alarm chimes, I take a quick break and determine whether I will set the clock again or move on to an entirely different activity. This works well with big jobs like cleaning the garage. Breaking the job down into time increments takes the pressure off because I can use my estimated times to determine how long I’ll need to finish the job.

Another focus strategy is to turn off the television and unplug from social media. It has become too easy to check our emails and social media posts from our smartphones and become addicted to each notification chime; however, we don’t have to be manipulated or enticed because we have the power to shut off notifications. We can also choose when and how often we will log into our accounts. I have a mentor that makes it a habit to only log onto social media for 15 minutes three times per day, and I’ve taught many of my clients to use the Pomodoro technique to be intentional with handling emails, social media, and internet searches.

A powerful activity to help one learn to focus more is to practice observing. This includes being mindful of your own breathing patterns, emotions, and thoughts. When you notice negative self-talk, you can stop and reframe your thoughts so that they don’t strip away your confidence or hold you prisoner and cause unnecessary anxiety. Controlling your thoughts is one way to stay focused on what’s important to you; being mindful and self-aware is a healthy habit that affects all areas of your life.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

Use technology such as a smartwatch, Alexa, or alarm clock as a timer for a prescribed amount of time to focus on a given task. When the alarm chimes, make sure to take a small break. I use this time to walk away, get a drink of water, and assess my progress. Many times, momentum encourages me to set the alarm for additional time on that particular task. The Pomodoro technique comes in handy when you have big jobs to complete. If you can estimate how long the task is bound to take, you can then determine how many Pomodoro sessions will be needed to complete the job.

The television and internet can steal away precious hours of your time if you’re not careful and purposeful. Shutting it down or off is much harder once it’s on, so postpone when it gets switched on at all. This delay can be used for purposeful focus on tasks. Another strategy is to shut off notifications; this is especially important if you have the tendency to check every comment or message that comes in. I also silence the ringer on my phone during work hours so that I’m not interrupted; however, I do check phone messages at scheduled times throughout my day.

Keep a notebook with you or use an app on your phone to record what you observe about yourself. Pay close attention to your thoughts, how you feel, what you are eating and drinking, and anything else that affects your body and how you respond to outside situations. A major benefit of learning to be self-aware and mindful is the ability to understand that you have no control over others; however, you do have the choice how you’ll respond to people and situations. Constructing your response is much easier when you are in control of your thoughts and feelings because they lead to your actions.

As a leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?

To achieve Flow more often in your life, be more intentional with your time…the most valuable of all assets. When you are purposeful with what you do and how you do it, you will create more opportunities to experience Flow. To put yourself is this state, make sure you are free of responsibilities and obligations before you begin the activity. For me, I find when I’m in the state of Flow, time slips away easily; I often miss meals and am surprised to see that the day has gotten away from me.

Clear your calendar and plan the activities that put you in a pleasurable mental state, anything from reading a good book, writing, practicing a skill, or participating in a hobby. The magical moments of being in the state of Flow are contagious, productive, and meaningful. They provide a positive intrinsic value that feeds your confidence and self-worth…and who wouldn’t want more of feeling that?

When you know which activities put you in the state of Flow, make sure to schedule them and make them a priority in your life.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

The movement that I believe brings the most amount of good for the greatest number of people is the practice of Random Acts of Kindness. Imagine a stone that is dropped into the water; it creates several circular ripples before the water settles again…kindness is the stone. I have found in my own life that I’m inspired by the acts of kindness that have benefited me, so much so, that I choose to pay it forward. Paying kindness forward allows that ripple to continue and have a larger impact. It’s like a compounding effect as kindness recipients also pay it forward.

I’ve always admired the Secret Santas we hear about in the news when the lay-a-ways are paid in full in major department stores in time for the holidays. Imagine the impact those acts have on the lives of those recipients. What a powerful Kindness ripple.

Hearing about the acts of others, no matter how large or small, inspires the Kindness ripple. It’s not possible to know or hear about every act…folks paying for coffee or meals for others; paying for tolls, groceries, and lay-a-ways; or sharing a kind word, being neighborly, or hospitable. It doesn’t seem like these positive intentions are the first to come to mind for most folks, but if we all pitched in and made it a practice to contribute to the Kindness Ripple, imagine the impact on the world.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

There are so many people that I admire and have learned from at all stages of my life, but the one person that I have long admired, often think about, and consider a mentor, is Oprah. Oprah epitomizes the woman, the values, mindset, and heart of what truly is possible when you overcome diversity, take personal responsibility for all areas of your life, create opportunities for success, have a strong work ethic, and grateful heart. I’ve secretly admired her friend Gale and have wanted to be included as their friend sharing in the laughter, common sense advice, and loving friendship. I even confess to having a picture of Oprah on my Vision Board with the dream of one day sharing my memoir with her, talking together about making a difference in young people’s lives, and creating opportunities to inspire, encourage, and support others on their journeys to heal, succeed, and live Intentional Lives.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My goal is to inspire others to live an Intentional Life, and I offer several coaching programs at www.lisamcgrath.me, I also have a lifestyle blog, Stepping Stones from A Pilgrimage to Self at www.lisamcgrath.me/blog. You can also follow me at www.facebook.com/coachlisamcgrath.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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