In order to develop a truly impactful, conscious, and sustainable leadership style, it is essential that you create space to rest and rejuice. What’s more, it’s also essential that you make time for creating thinking, strategic priorities and unstructured activities that support real innovation. You probably already know this. But knowing doesn’t necessarily equal successful implementation. In fact, while time management is not too tough for most people to understand, it is one of the toughest challenges for most of my clients to actually break through. If you are still feeling burned out, or simply have less energy than you’d like to admit, then there is undoubtedly some work for us to do in this domain.
Once again, we’ll turn to the body for guidance. What is the real problem here? And how can we fix it? Research on high-performance athletics shows that both our physical muscles and our minds function best when they are stretched to capacity, then given downtime to rebuild. Literally everything in nature is built to expand . . . and then contract. In other words, the contraction is part of the cycle of life. Without it, we’re only living into half of our natural potential. Whether we notice it or not, we are significantly less effective when we are running forward to infinity on a half-empty tank than when we are fully resourced. Sacrificing things that matter in order to “get more done” prevents us from ever completely filling our tanks. Likewise, barreling forward in business on last year’s strategy without pausing to take stock of shifting market trends, employee morale, and client needs is your one-way ticket to chaotic, reactive recovery—or even irrelevance—in the long run.
Unfortunately, cultural norms don’t help us out much here. As a society we’re used to feeling busy, being busy, and talking about being busy. Not only is busy an acceptable state of being, it’s often worn like a badge of honor. “Let me tell you about the week I had last week!” This leads to another leadership myth: There is not enough time, because my time is not my own. I’m at the mercy of other people and deadlines. Unconsciously, we use this myth as a way to connect with others. And others expect it from us. Unconsciously, it’s seen as par for the course at work.
It makes sense. In the past hundred years, our cultural norms shifted to meet the demands of our rapidly industrializing societies. Now, we are racing to keep up. During this time, human beings have undergone a transition of mindset—from allowing growth via the natural cycle of expansion and contraction (intense motion followed by an equally rejuvenating pause) to expecting growth in a straight line, continually increasing on both the x and y axis, into infinity.
The thing is, our bodies simply weren’t built to function this way. When we perform nonstop, our delicate machine parts begin to wear out. And, as one of my mentors says, in the end, the body always wins. The good news is, we still have choice—and choice is power. Here’s the truth: Your time is more malleable than you think. When you exercise healthy disbelief and challenge your constraints, you can create space and bend time. In this chapter, you will learn how to restore balance in your body and in your calendar.
So what would an ideal day, week, or month look like if you operated on “the body’s time”? It would include both periods of exertion and periods of rest, in right proportion. You would feel awake and alert (rather than overwhelmed and exhausted) the vast majority of the time. And you would be directing the right amount of attention to the concerns that matter most. Sound like a fantasy? It’s not. Most Olympic athletes actually design their lives this way. And you know they get some amazing stuff done. Yet many of us derail our daydreams about how our ideal schedule would look and feel, with even stronger beliefs about why it’s just not possible. Or why we don’t deserve it. We also practice unconscious habits that can keep us on the hamster wheel without us even noticing. Through our own self-fulfilling actions, we prove our beliefs “right” on a daily basis. This chapter is about getting real. It’s about loving yourself, challenging your beliefs, and taking a new stand immediately.
Take a deep breath and get ready to dive in. Just like Rome wasn’t built in a day, you may not have an ideal calendar in place by the end of this week (or ever!). Nonetheless, I promise that if you take the following practices seriously, things will get better. This simple but not easy lesson is about finding creative ways to build the kind of relationship with time that you’ve been craving . . . step-by-step.
Have you ever noticed that even when you have the best of intentions, your day can get away from you even before it begins?
Often, we think of a new day as a metaphorical “blank slate.” Yet it’s rare that we actually live that way. If we did, it might actually be scary as hell! Think about it: a blank slate. That means empty. A sense of nothingness. Like a bottomless pit. Full ambiguity. Not knowing the answers yet. In this place, we could easily get lost. Or worse . . . In this place, we might have to face the deeper fears and whispers that creep in when the busyness of the daily grind falls away.
Last year I moved across the country from Boston, Massachusetts, to Oakland, California. I had just received the acceptance of this book proposal, and I couldn’t wait to land in my new home and get down to writing. Using the tools I’m about to share, I cleared space in my calendar and was ready to go. There was just one problem . . . the moving truck hadn’t arrived. Sitting alone in a completely empty two-bedroom apartment with no plans, no housemates, no research materials, and no furniture, I found myself in a waiting game with literally nothing to do but write.
On the one hand, it should have been the ideal scenario. No distractions . . . just a big goal and a ton of time to achieve it. Instead, it turned out to be one of the most anxiety-ridden weeks of my year. While I knew I could and should get a lot done, it was far more difficult to make use of the empty space than I had imagined. Even though I’ve been teaching these tools for over ten years (and I’m a badass at getting things done under normal circumstances), I was reminded just how nerve-racking a blank slate can be.
And that, my friend, is one of the biggest reasons why we (often unconsciously) keep our plates full. Without even realizing it, most of us are terrified of having empty space in our calendars. It’s just too much ambiguity, with no guarantee of a successful outcome. What if it doesn’t work out? Why should I take the risk? Sounds crazy, right? But uncertainty can lead to failure . . . and that would be unacceptable.
Of course, there’s another way of looking at it, isn’t there? The way we’d like to approach our extra time. A blank slate. That means empty. A sense of possibility. Like a bowl waiting to be filled with anything wonderful. Not knowing the answers yet. Infinite potential. Opening and receiving. Magic. Trust.
In a beautiful poem called “What to Remember When Waking,” poet David Whyte writes about the first moment we wake up from sleep in the morning. This is the moment just before plans, worries, future-looking goals, and to-do lists reassert themselves in your head. It’s the moment just before your body dons the armor that typically keeps you safe in the day-to-day world.
In that precious moment, you still have a choice. Do you choose to allow the rush of things to fill you up quickly and enter the day already knowing what’s next? Do you assume the same stance you always take in order to cope? Or do you dare to suspend yourself in the emptiness of that first morning moment and open yourself deeply to the gifts the new day may unexpectedly send your way?
The Science: Making Time for Connection
In her book The How of Happiness, author Sonja Lyubomirsky describes a number of simple activities that, when practiced, can elevate your mood and support your well-being. One such exercise involves expressing gratitude. Lyubomirsky suggests keeping a journal of things for which you are grateful and adding to it on a regular basis. While it doesn’t require a lot of time, the practice of gratitude can be a powerful medicine. It helps us savor positive life experiences, maintain hope in times of great stress, and boost our self-esteem. It can also have a positive impact on our interpersonal relationships. In fact, research suggests that appreciating others by writing a letter of gratitude describing how they impacted your life can both increase your level of positive emotion and help reduce depression. By connecting you with your own state of gracious receiving, feeling gratitude toward others pays dividends for your well-being.
What’s more, taking the extra time to express your gratitude in person makes an even bigger difference. In a series of studies, participants were given the option to simply write a gratitude letter or to write and hand-deliver the letter, thanking the recipient in person. Those who delivered the letter in person experienced significantly larger mood boosts. These findings suggest that taking the time to nourish your interpersonal connections is also well worth the investment. Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting The Life You Want (New York: Penguin Books, 2007).
I know. These practices are so much easier said than done. The beauty is that every morning affords an opportunity to make the same choice again. What’s more, every other beginning, small or large, offers an opportunity to make that same choice as well. And every time you choose emptiness, you step into the dance of the unknown. It’s a different game than the game of “getting things done right” and “guaranteed ROI” that we typically play. It’s a game of curiosity and receiving. It’s a game where the only rule is trusting that whatever shows up next will be enough. And that you will be enough to receive it.
Years ago, when I would ask, “what’s next?” a dear friend of mine would often say, “anything, everything, something, nothing . . .” Knowing him, it’s probably a line from a film. Nonetheless, it stuck with me all this time. For me, it points to the paradox of emptiness and the infinite possibility that exists in the moment of awaiting. Although it may sound impossible, I believe that you can approach life as though you were empty and awaiting anything, everything, something, and nothing every single day. It is a choice you can make in your body. And it is a daily practice.
It’s time to embrace the empty space. Let’s start exploring how.
Empty: Reflection Questions
- If your day were an empty slate, what would you be happily and hopefully waiting for? And what would you be most afraid would show up?
- What are the various ways you fill up your day to the brim in order to avoid facing an empty slate? What are your favorite distractions, to-dos, shoulds, and have-tos?
- What bodily sensations let you know that you’re in an overwhelmed, guarded, or contracted state rather than a spacious, empty, and receiving state?
- What would it look like to create space for yourself this week (including physical space, mental space, emotional space, and space in your calendar)?
Excerpted from Guts & Grace: A Woman’s Guide to Full Bodied Leadership: Chapter 2 Excerpt: Taking Back the Reigns. © LeeAnn Mallorie & Conscious Capitalism Press 2020
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