Pick fewer things to focus on. Our attention is our most precious resource. When we try to focus on everything at once, we’re not focusing on anything. Narrow your focus so that you can give the best of your attention to the things that matter. When you’re with your kids, put your phone away. Right now, my focus is on just four things: my family; my teaching; my personal self-care and creative work; and writing a book. I’m putting a lot of things on the back burner, and I’m letting that be okay.
As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christy Tending.
Christy Tending is an activist, educator, and writer. She teaches online courses about sustainable self-care to students all over the world, and hosts the podcast Tending Your Life. She lives on occupied Ohlone territory (Oakland, CA) with her family. You can learn more about her work at www.christytending.com.
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 was born and raised near Washington, DC, and had a very active, creative and nature-oriented childhood. I grew up horseback-riding, ice-skating, and working on a farm — I competed in equestrian events for ten years. I took ceramics classes throughout high school and one of my pieces was featured at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. I also loved to read and dreamed of being a writer when I was a kid. I had a very keen sense of justice as a child, as well. I attribute that to my grandmother, who was a family law attorney. It’s funny to see now, as an adult, how much all of that has informed my life now and the things that I love to do as an adult.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
I was initially on a completely different career trajectory. I intended to go to law school, and was working in the environmental and human rights non-profit world, when I essentially had a nervous breakdown. In reality, I was deeply burned out and dealing with a lot of trauma that I had witnessed doing that work. I knew I needed to heal myself if I was going to be any good to the world, so I started studying yoga and meditation. That led to my first teaching jobs, and eventually I started my own coaching practice to help people develop self-care and self-advocacy so they could avoid the burnout that I experienced.
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?
I owe a lot to my teachers — Kristie Dahlia Home and Elena Brower — who created the space for me to heal myself and come into relationship with myself so that I could step into not just teaching, but into leadership. They both showed me, in a lot of ways, that you don’t have to be perfect to be a spiritual teacher. It’s actually your trials, difficulties, and flaws that create the most potent impact.
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?
A few months after I gave birth to my son, I realized that all the things I had been teaching, in terms of self-care and wellness, had completely gone out the window. I found myself really burned out — even though I teach people how to avoid and heal burnout! That was a hilarious and humbling moment, and actually paved the way for one of my courses, The Art of Self-Advocacy. I realized that sometimes, we don’t have access to our old ways of self-care. Or those old self-care practices stop working. It’s in those times that we need something more potent: self-advocacy. Which is not just being compassionately present with ourselves, but advocating for ourselves in a bolder way.
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 great to have mentors and to study others’ paths. But my biggest piece of advice is to develop your intuition. Know what your values are and cultivate a relationship with your inner voice so that you don’t get knocked off balance by everyone else’s input. Learn to listen to your own inner wisdom. Learn how to tell the difference between your fear and your knowing. I know know that we can ever really emulate someone else’s path — there are so many factors beyond our control that go into something like that. But that’s my best advice for forging your own successful path.
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?
Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön was game-changing. That was my first real foray into Buddhist study that took into account all of the complexities and tribulations of modern life. It has informed a lot of the wisdom and practices that I look to on a daily basis: compassion, non-attachment, mindfulness, and being with what is (no matter what arises).
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
Hands down, the Audre Lorde quotation, “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” People have called me fearless in the past, when that’s the furthest thing from the truth. And one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that my fear is secondary to my vision.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I teach two courses online: The Art of Self-Advocacy and Sacred Focus.
The Art of Self-Advocacy helps people create the tangible, tactical skills to start advocating for themselves and
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?
Good habits are so personal. They should serve you, individually, in the way that you need, and in a way that works for your life. Creating those habits is what helps us make an impact. Without turning what we do into a habit, we’re just splashing around in the shallow end. If you want to make an impact, you need to go deep. Through repetition, through creating something into a habit, it’s more likely that we’ll be able to create something meaningful.
Just this morning, my husband asked me (during our yoga practice) how I’m so flexible. And the simple, but annoying, answer is that I’ve been practicing yoga for 20 years! Similarly, I wanted to be a writer. I could have daydreamed about it, or bought lots of books about writing (and I did both of those things!). But what turned me in to a writer was developing a writing habit. Sitting my butt in my chair and — even when the writing is bad — getting those words down on the page.
How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
Habits have formed the core of my personal healing — which is the only way I’m able to serve others. Some of the habits that have had the biggest impact have been my morning yoga practice with my husband; developing a (non-monetized!) creative practice outside of work; and being in nature as often as possible. I also treat my workspace like a spiritual sanctuary, which helps me meet it with the reverence it deserves. In the last couple of years, since becoming a mom, I’ve also started meal-planning, so I always know what I’m making for dinner, and dramatically simplified my wardrobe, so I never have to think about what I’m wearing.
Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?
The two biggest factors are sustainability and compassion. Those might sound like they have nothing to do with building habits. And yet: you can’t build a new habit if you’re trying to do everything all at once (or if you’re trying to start eight new habits at once!). Go slow. Take baby steps. Build consistency and trust with yourself. And be compassionate. Don’t shame yourself or give up if you mess up or miss a day. Offer yourself the compassionate understanding that you’re a human being — not a robot.
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.
- Breathe. I think most of us walk around holding our breaths a lot of the time. A regular breathing practice is essential for our well-being. It’s the most necessary part of being alive, and often neglected. Breathing is not only good for our bodies, but for our minds and spirits — offering an easy access point for mindfulness practice.
2. Designate phone free time. Our attention is our most precious resource. And yes, there are so many times when we do need to be on call for things. But if I’m always on my phone, I can’t be creative. If I’m always consuming others’ content, I’m not innovating or using my own voice. That time away from my phone is crucial for my well-being and for me to focus on what’s really important (which is, as it turns out, usually not Instagram or Twitter).
3. Laugh. Honestly, I find so much of the productivity advice out there utterly joyless. What I know is that if I’m not laughing, I’m not living. I need several good belly laughs a day: with my son, at a silly show, at myself. It clears my head, and keeps me connected to my own humanity — not just how efficient I can be. It makes me better in every aspect of my life.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.
- Give yourself blank space. Before the pandemic, my most creative place was on long train rides. There was not much to do, no place to go, and only a soothing landscape for entertainment. I often used the time for journaling, sketching, or brainstorming new ideas. Over time, I started replicating the conditions outside of train travel. I call this blank space: scheduled time where I don’t have to be anywhere or doing anything specific. I can let my mind wander, and allow the creativity to flow.
2. Set clear boundaries. Optimal performance can’t happen with leaky (or non-existent) boundaries. Maybe this looks like constant interruptions. Maybe this looks like people disrespecting your time or values. Maybe this looks like lots of unsolicited advice. To deal with all of these issues, you need to create strong, confident boundaries that reflect your values and the esteem with which you hold your work.
3. Cross-train. When I was a competitive horseback rider, I also took dance classes. To be my best in skiing, I practice yoga regularly. As a writer, I read lots of different genres, even through I mainly write non-fiction these days. For me, optimal performance is hindered when we get ourselves stuck in a rut. By cross-training (in whatever field you’re in), we create the possibility to make more connections and develop new perspectives that we wouldn’t otherwise.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
Schedule that blank space on your calendar. Treat it like you would any other appointment — except it’s an appointment with your own creativity and focus. Maybe you’ll work on something specific related to a place you’ve been stuck. Maybe you’ll use the time for a walk and to let your mind wander. Maybe you’ll free-write or brainstorm on possible ideas for your next big thing. The point is to have unstructured time to let your mind wander.
Setting boundaries can take lots of different shapes. For me, it’s scheduling things on my calendar — and treating them as sacred. (Even things other people think are silly.) But more often, it’s having real-life conversations with people. Telling the people in my life what I need — and what I won’t tolerate.
Cross-training is really about getting out of our own rut. Try that thing that’s always seemed interesting — but doesn’t quite fit with your “real” work. Learn about something that seems like the “fun” version of what you do. Or pick up a hobby that has absolutely nothing to do with your day to day work. Letting yourself be a beginner again, and stretching your brain or body in new ways, can have a beautiful ripple effect.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.
- Pick fewer things to focus on. Our attention is our most precious resource. When we try to focus on everything at once, we’re not focusing on anything. Narrow your focus so that you can give the best of your attention to the things that matter. When you’re with your kids, put your phone away. Right now, my focus is on just four things: my family; my teaching; my personal self-care and creative work; and writing a book. I’m putting a lot of things on the back burner, and I’m letting that be okay.
- Use a “Bike Rack”. One of the things that dilutes our attention is having tons of ideas — and chasing them all down immediately. As someone who seemingly always has a million ideas (but not enough time to do all of them well), I have a running list I call my “Bike Rack” — a place where I can “park” all of my ideas so that I don’t forget. This lets me stay focused on what I have committed myself to, but also keeps track of all of those brilliant ideas!
- Take baby steps. If you’re having trouble focusing, make it easier for yourself. In a world of constant distraction, it can be hard to dive into (and focus on) projects that feel really nebulous. Break them down into bite-sized pieces to give yourself a sense of accomplishment and to build momentum. I’m currently writing a book proposal, which feels like a giant, daunting task, so instead I broke it down into the smallest possible activities (some as short as 10 minutes!) so that I can chip away at it without feeling lost at sea.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
In a single day, list three things you want to accomplish. If you do more than that, celebrate! It’s a bonus! But if you really want to focus, especially on a big project, you likely can’t do more than that. Picking fewer things means that our attention doesn’t have to bounce back and forth between things quite as much. It also offers a clear sense of accomplishment and prioritization.
If you’re really trying to focus, all new ideas get put on the “bike rack.” I keep a running list of things that inspire me, projects I want to pursue, and things I want to accomplish. Most of them, to be candid, aren’t keepers. But instead of either dismissing them immediately (and feeling that FOMO) or pursuing them (and breaking up my flow), I put them on my “bike rack.” It’s a sheet of paper — that later gets transferred to my online bike rack — where I can jot down ideas without letting them sidetrack me.
Every day, I interrogate my to-do list and see just how granularly I can break things down so that I can take small baby steps. For me, breaking things into manageable pieces is crucial. Otherwise, I feel overwhelmed and don’t feel like I can ever make real progress. Those bite-sized tasks make it feel like I’m making progress and not just spinning my wheels.
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?
Bring joy and intuition into your work whenever possible. Play music that makes you happy. Eat food that’s not only nourishing, but delicious. Infuse opportunities for your wise inner voice to speak — and then listen to what it’s actually saying. Sometimes, flow just happens to us. Most of the time, we have to create the conditions for it to emerge. Joy and a willingness to listen and be led give us the best chance of finding that state of flow.
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.
Right now, we need to be throwing every ounce of our ingenuity, creativity, and political force behind reversing the trajectory of climate change and preparing ourselves to meet the global humanitarian crisis that is already beginning as a result of climate change.
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 🙂
I would love to have lunch with Elizabeth Gilbert. Her book, Big Magic, had a huge impact on me, and I admire her deeply as someone who lives a creative (and sometimes unconventional) life. (We also — as it turns out — got sober around the same time!)
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can find all of my work at ChristyTending.com; listen to my podcast Tending Your Life wherever you like to listen; or follow me on Instagram @christytending.
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.