I’ve started so let me finish

I’m a stickler for good table manners. I can’t bear it when people don’t pick up their feet. And finger drumming really gets my goat. I have, I am aware, multiple bêtes noires; but by far the most unpleasant “bad habit” in my book is interrupting. As bad behaviour goes, it’s one of the most common and also the most damaging to interpersonal relationships, but luckily, it’s also one that’s relatively easy to correct.

Interrupting during a conversation takes two main forms: cutting someone off to make one’s own point and finishing someone’s sentence for them. Both drive me mad. The former simply shows a lack of respect for the other person, their right to express themselves, and what they have to communicate. It says, “What I want to say is more important and/or interesting than what you are already in the middle of saying, and frankly, I don’t much care about what you’re trying to tell me”. The latter annoys me because I want to be allowed to express my opinions in my own specifically chosen words. When someone cuts me off and finishes my sentence for me, they almost never say exactly what I was going to say, so I feel like my point is misrepresented and I’m not being fully “heard”. I regularly want to shout “I’m not running out of steam and I don’t need help to make my point; am I just not speaking quickly enough for your liking?” but of course, I’m British, so I just seethe silently instead…

Being regularly interrupted makes the “victim” feel unheard, frustrated, disrespected – none of which helps build a relationship with another person, which, ironically, is often the point of having a conversation in the first place. I don’t know anyone who enjoys being interrupted… which is odd since we are almost all both victims and perpetrators of this destructive conversational habit.

So, what happens when you’re the interrupter? In addition to the message you’re sending the person you’re talking to, you’re not doing yourself any favours either. How stressful is it to be responsible for both sides of a conversation – both your own and the end of every sentence your partner tries to get out? How tense do you get when, instead of listening and then responding, you’re formulating your reply to your friend as they’re talking so that you can start making it even before they’ve finished? How often do you finish someone’s sentence only for them to say, “Well, no, that’s not where I was going with that”?

Curbing the urge to interrupt – to butt in with my idea or push people to make their point quicker – is something I’ve been working on for a while now, and I have to say the benefits are both powerful and immediate. When I’m not thinking ahead to my turn to speak, I can fully listen to friends, right to the end of their sentence or story – which lets me relax and makes them feel unrushed and heard – which makes them relax too. Since I’ve heard their full point in their own words, my replies are more pertinent and structured; which makes for a richer conversation.

It’s no fun being interrupted, but short of actually calling someone out on their bad habit, there’s not much you can do about it. But in a spirit of being the change you want to see in the world, you can work on your own tendency to interrupt, and it really is win-win. The less you do it, the better your conversations and, as everyone relaxes and gets used to being fully heard, the less likely it is that you yourself will be interrupted. So, next time you’re chatting to friends, mentally note how often you start talking before others have really finished. The first step in changing a habit is to acknowledge it – and when you do start noticing, I bet you’ll shock yourself. And when you start to stop yourself and force yourself to listen patiently, you’ll be amazed at the effect it has on both the people around you and on your own stress levels and enjoyment of the conversation!

Pearl of Wisdom

Pearl S. Buck is one of those writers that I keep meaning to read and never quite get around to. My mother raves about East Wind: West Wind, and friends sing her praises but I regularly forget her while browsing Amazon. So, her name remains on my list of books and authors to investigate, which is a sorry state of affairs given that it is one of this great lady’s pearls of wisdom that I consistently invoke when I’m feeling unmotivated and just can’t be bothered. The words of the prolific writer, Pulitzer and Nobel prize-winner, and political activist that never fail to get me off the sofa are:

I don’t wait for moods. You accomplish nothing if you do that.

Your mind must know it has got to get down to work.

Even as I write this, I have Pearl to thank – I didn’t much feel like writing today, but I heard her words ringing in my head as I put on the kettle this morning and so went to set up my laptop.

The thing is, I love writing. And I’m guessing Pearl did too. But it sounds like she, like me, often found herself not “in the mood” to sit and type. At least not at first – once I’m here and the old Earl Grey is kicking in, I am in “flow” and totally absorbed in what I’m doing; my mood changes. But I know that if I waited for my mood to change in order to start I would wait all day.

The same is true when I look at my to-do list. I don’t much feel like doing any of it: find a place to get watch repaired; complete tax declaration; organise my computer files. Hard to get excited about these tasks when the box set of season 2 of 24 beckons to me from the other side of the sitting room (yes, I know, I’m way behind but I’ve only recently discovered the joys of the show having resisted for years thinking oh-so-wrongly that I wouldn’t like it). But I know that if I wait to be in the mood to look for a good jeweller to fix my watch, I risk turning up late for every appointment I make for the foreseeable future. So, I think of Pearl and get on with the job in hand.

It’s a little like the famous “feel the fear and do it anyway”. Pearl’s nugget of wisdom is “feel no motivation whatsoever and do it anyway”. I like the way she doesn’t even suggest you try to motivate yourself or pretend to be inspired. It’s a gloriously down-to-earth and brutally honest way of accepting that sometimes we just can’t wait to feel ready before we have to get stuck in.

I have found ways to help myself, of course, as I work towards achieving Pearlesque productivity levels. I operate a rewards scheme: tick three things off the to-do list and you can have a cup of tea and one hour of the long-suffering Jack Bauer; or, return three phone calls and then you can have a piece of cake. I also break tasks down: this morning, I’ll pull out all the necessary documents for the tax declaration, this afternoon I’ll do the calculations, tomorrow morning, I’ll do the online return. It also helps to sweeten the deal: get onto the yoga mat for half an hour, but put the radio on while doing so; have an old episode of Sherlock on the TV while clearing out a cupboard.

Pearl’s discipline mixed with Mary Poppins’ spoonful of sugar is a force to be reckoned with.

The big spring stock-take

A DIY coaching tool for taking stock of your life and getting your house in order

The benefit of regular clear-outs is a fact universally acknowledged. Or at least it is in my house. My husband was stunned by the joy I felt when they installed massive clothing donation bins at the entrance to the metro nearest our flat; and I challenge anyone not to feel freer, lighter and more in control after taking a bag load of I’ll-never-read-these-again books to Oxfam.

But what about moving the stock-take from the back of your closet into your mind and soul? When it comes to having a good sort-out, there are many areas of our lives that would benefit from a little light dusting and polishing, not just the kitchen cupboards. Coaching offers a wealth of great tools to do just that – take stock of your life and see where your figurative house needs to be put in order. While it is always more helpful to do such exercises with a qualified coach, it is also possible to use them on your own and glean some helpful insights.

The Wheel of Life is a simple way to identify the various major “bits” of your life, assess your satisfaction with them, and start coming up with a plan to raise that satisfaction level.

The Wheel of Life aka Not so Trivial Pursuits

Draw a circle on a piece of paper and divide it into wedges like the pies in a game of Trivial Pursuits (number of wedges is your choice – starting with six is pretty manageable). Assign a theme to each wedge. Themes are areas of your life that you wish to take a look at – or indeed, they can just be areas that spring to mind. In this exercise, your subconscious is a good guide. A few examples: one wedge might be “family”, which for some might mean “me, my partner and our kids” but for other people might mean “parents, grandparents, siblings” – and those people might choose to put “partner/love” and “children” into separate wedges on their own. What you mean by each of your themes is your business, as long as you are clear about how you load the word you choose. Other wedges might be “money”, “leisure”, “health”, “career”, “spirit”… it’s a very personal choice.

On your marks…

Once you have your themes, take some time to consider each one and to rate your satisfaction with this part of your life from 1 to 10 – draw lines in each wedge so that 1 is a line near the interior of the circle, and 10 is the further edge. Like so:

Wheel of lifeYou’ll probably end up with a very bumpy wheel!

Get set…

The next step within a coaching session would be to discuss each area and the mark attributed to it, and to choose one or two on which to work. On your own, you can take your time to look at each one and think about what makes your health an 8 but your love life a 4 – talking to a friend can also help. Then, taking each one in turn, think about what it would take to turn that 4 into 5. Think specifics: spending more time with your partner? eating dinner at the table rather than in front of the TV? a monthly date night? a daily lunchtime phone call? more cuddling? What would it take to bump it up to a 6? And then a 7…

The idea isn’t to go from a 2 to a 10 in two weeks flat, but to identify areas for change and improvement that will eventually harmonise the levels of satisfaction across all your wedges. A wheel with lumps and bumps cannot roll. But the challenge of trying to turn a career “3” into a 10 can simply be paralysing. Concentrate on the areas that naturally attract your attention and list small, actionable changes.

Go!

Once you have some action ideas, consider which you can actually put in place, and, crucially, which you want to put in place. It’s no good choosing “go for a weekly run” if you have absolutely no desire to go running. Yes, it might bump your “body image” score up to a 7, but your “time for fun” score might take a hit. I advise kicking off just one action per week and taking a moment at the end of each week to see what’s working for you.

Take your time. Your Wheel of Life is ever-changing. Even if you managed to take all your wedges up to a perfect 10, at some point you’ll decide to buy a house or have a baby, and new wedges will appear for you to work on. The idea isn’t to strive for a perfect circle, but to use the exercise to see where your pain points are, and what you can do about them.

One last thing…

Don’t forget to take a moment to celebrate in the wedges that are looking pretty damn good. If your “friendship” wedge is a healthy 9, why not make a list of all you’re grateful for in your relationships? If your “work” wedge is flying high, why not acknowledge that by taking in some Friday afternoon pastries for your charming colleagues? Work on the low numbers, revel in the high ones.

GAGging the voice of overwhelm

keep-calm-and-get-a-grip-18

I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth. Well, not quite; I’m certainly nowhere near Hamlet’s level of sadness and introspection, but I have found myself somewhat on the grumpy side recently. You know, that state where everything seems like a big deal, nothing strikes you as terribly funny, and life just feels like hard work.

The makings of such a mood can come from any quarter – professional setbacks, disappointments in friendships, money problems. For me, it’s been due to feelings of bog-standard overwhelm. I am coming up to the sixth month of my first pregnancy, and my husband and I are currently looking to buy a house and move just outside of Paris. Not bad when it comes to life-changing decisions, huh? Add to that our full-time jobs, families, friends, my writing and coaching, and it all seems like a mountain from which even the fearless Bear Grylls would run screaming.

The inconvenient truth

And the thing is, there’s not really much to be done about overwhelm. You can roll your sleeves up, make a plan, start a list, make a plan B, and discuss options with your partner ad nauseam, and those actions are practical and wise. But they’re not always enough to quiet the nagging little voice that pipes up at 2am and whispers some variant on, “It won’t all be ok; you shan’t get through this; you cannot manage”.

GAG thyself

It is my firm belief that the only thing to do in those situations is to GAG oneself. No, we’re not getting into 50 Shades territory here; GAG stands for “Get A Grip”. It’s an old expression that sounds rather shocking nowadays, doesn’t it? In an age that favours self-examination even to the point of self-torture over the old “buck up” attitude, exhorting someone to simply get a grip seems callous. But I maintain that sometimes it’s the only way.

It’s like a mental self-slap. A reminder that we really are dealing with first-world issues, here. My husband is fond of asking me to imagine how I would feel if the things overwhelming me weren’t happening – if I weren’t able to have children, if we couldn’t envisage getting a bigger home, if I didn’t have employment, friends that want my time, family who need me… The simple answer is: I’d feel pretty rubbish (he can be infuriatingly right at times)!

It doesn’t always work. Sometimes a problem really is a problem and needs talking through and solving, but it’s often just a proliferation of activity, obligations and, well, life that puts us in a tail spin. That’s when a self-shake and a firm “For God’s sake, Jo, Get. A. Grip.” works wonders for me.

Do try this at home

GAGging works best when performed using a specific accent. I occasionally hear a plummy-voiced Malory Towers- type Sports Mistress barking at me. You may prefer an American drill sergeant or even an exasperated version of yourself. Sometimes I like to hear my Scottish grandmother’s voice softly burring, “Now, now, dear, you know I love you, but do try to get a grip for goodness sake”. She never said anything of the kind to me, but somehow the vision of this strong, no-nonsense yet kind and loving woman works every time.

GAGging is also best achieved when used entirely on its own. No extra pep talk, no list of “examples of times when it has all been ok in the past as so will be this time too”, no reasoning or cajoling. Just a mental “No Entry” sign that brooks no argument.

It’s not easy at first, but if you GAG each time you head back down the road of ovewhelm, it eventually comes more quickly and more naturally. Give it a try. I’m interested to know how it works for you!

Choose your words carefully

Time

To resolve or not to resolve, that is the question. It’s the one we ask ourselves each January as the annual invitation to start over rolls around. In the media, there’s the usual flurry of “How to make resolutions that last”-type articles (the kind of stuff I love to read), along with the expected slew of “Why making resolutions is a waste of time” pieces (not my cup of tea). Personally, I feel resolution-making as an expression of the will to self-improvement is never to be discouraged: the simple act of voicing a desire to change and then attempting to do so is a massive step forward. For me, failure to keep a resolution does not indicate that making resolutions is futile; rather it suggests that the resolution was perhaps the wrong one for you, or it was made for the wrong reasons, or – crucially – it was badly worded.

Specific and committed

The way in which we word and specify our intentions is crucial to their longevity. The difference between “I’m going to be healthier in 2015” and “I’m going to jog for 10 minutes twice a week in 2015” is huge. The first is vague and contains no real action, the second is specific and involves a solid commitment. Which is more likely to be kept?

Now, you’d think that, self-improvement info junkie that I am, I’d be able to sidestep these kinds of mental potholes. Think again. This New Year, I caught myself making a whopper of a rookie error as I sat down to set some intentions for 2015. There I was with a nice list of all the things I wanted to find more time for over the year – yoga, new coaching clients, promoting my work as a writer – when I noticed that every item on that list was – mentally – preceded by the words “I will find more time to…” See the fatal flaw? Answers on a postcard to the woman who’s still looking through her chest of drawers to find where she left that bit of spare time she just knows she put somewhere for safekeeping.

Stop searching, start creating

What was I thinking? You don’t find time for anything. Time is not a crumpled fiver you come across down the side of the sofa, nor is it something you discover left over at the end of a long day. Time is finite; no-one gets any more than 24 hours in a day.

The minute I changed the word “find” to “make”, my perspective on my resolutions changed. I am going to have to make time to prospect for clients, clear space in my diary for that extra yoga class, and – whisper it – make the choice between crashing on the sofa like an extra from The Walking Dead and getting out the laptop to write. Finding time is about trying to cram even more into the day, snatching five minutes here and there. Making time is about saying no to activities that aren’t priority, crafting your schedule to work towards your objectives, and making conscious decisions about where you put your energy at any given moment – which sometimes means giving up things that aren’t useful and don’t serve you.

A sense of agency

It all comes down to a feeling of agency, really. Making time puts me firmly in the driver’s seat of my life, relying on myself to make the decisions that get me where I want to be. Finding time – just like finding a forgotten banknote – relies to a large extent on luck and good fortune. And my goals are a little too important to me to leave them in the lap of the gods. Aren’t yours?

Appreciating all the saints

It’s 31st October, Halloween; and pitch black outside. As I type, a single candle glows on the coffee table and the street lamps are starting to flicker to life. All spooky stuff, of course, if you’re in the mood to get into it, which sadly we in Europe don’t tend to do that much. I rather like Halloween – it has always seemed to me to be a great festival of autumn – the orangey colours, the pumpkins (a good excuse for pumpkin bread and soup), the nights drawing in. I love it for the same reason I love Guy Fawkes Night – the cosy, gather-round-the-fire, be outside wrapped up against the cold feeling it gives me.

Everyday saints

But this Halloween, I’m turning my attention to tomorrow’s holiday. Here in France, 1st November is a national holiday for All Saints’ Day, a Catholic celebration of all the saints in heaven, known and unknown. I’m not Catholic but the message of the day speaks to me on some level. For some reason, this year, it’s made me think about all the everyday saints that touch our lives.

I’m thinking particularly of a man who works in the canteen in my office building. He rings up the workers’ meals for payment and cheerfully wishes us a good day. He reminds you if you forget to take a paper napkin, and always has a genuine smile and a “bon appétit” for everyone. I always go to his queue to pay for my lunch, just because I know he will brighten my day. Now, I’m not actually suggesting anyone petition the Pope for canonisation, but I do want to take a moment to give thanks for this unsung hero of the lunchroom who never fails to put a smile on my face.

They’re all around…

And while I’m at it, I’d like to remember my friend Patricia, who, while I was off work sick recently, texted me a video of naughty baby pandas that warmed my heart. And the kind lady on the tube who silently handed me a tissue when I was literally crying with laughter at a David Sedaris book. And Jennifer Worth, author of Call the Midwife – I’m on the third book of the most humbling and uplifting trilogy. And my chum Jimmy, who always greets me with “Hello, you beautiful thing”, something which will never cease to buoy me. And my Mum, who will make a full roast with parsnips whenever I am home for the weekend, as well as buying my favourite type of coleslaw, only to delight me. And my husband, who just has to look at me to make me smile.

These people will never have churches names after them. They won’t be praised in song or verse. But tomorrow, I’ll be thinking of them – and the million other people who touch my life – and giving thanks for the joy, warmth, humour, love and light they bring me.

Now that’s a happy thought strong enough to scare away any Halloween ghouls that may still be lurking in the morning.

 

Every time we say goodbye

Saying goodbye to friends is never easy, but the end of an era can be the perfect reminder to live in the moment.

Living abroad is an immensely rewarding experience: the constant sense of adventure; opportunities for language learning; a greater respect and tolerance for difference. However, as an ex-pat, one inevitably makes a lot of ex-pat friends. It’s only natural – you’re taking language lessons together, perhaps working in international companies, people helpfully introduce you at parties (“Jo – meet Svetlana – she’s Russian so, well, foreign, just like you! You must have lots to discuss…”). And, in my opinion, having ex-pat friends is no bad thing, it’s certainly not a worry.

Until…

Until your ex-pat friends come over all patriotic and leave.

My refined and notoriously indecisive Bostonian friend (it’s all very “Where do you summer?” à la Katherine Hepburn), whom I have in past musings referred to as Peggy-Sue, is returning to her native land, where a new job and her wonderful man await. Despite being thrilled for her, this imminent departure makes me unutterably sad. Peggy was a bridesmaid at my wedding; she’s spent Christmas with my family; I call her when I need to work out the Big Issues of life and when I have nothing other to report than what I ate for dinner. Her not being in the same country or even in the same time zone any more will leave a chasm in my life.

All good things

Quite a few friends have left Paris recently – sabbatical years, travelling, job opportunities – but they all plan to come back. Not Peggy-Sue. She’s leaving on a jet plane and not coming back again. Since I found out, I’ve been heavy-hearted, with an unshakeable end-of-an-era feeling. The fact that Peg’s departure coincides with my getting married and a number of friends either doing likewise or having babies only adds to my fin-de-siècle malaise. Like many thirty-somethings, we’re closing the Roaring Twenties chapter of our lives and starting a new one; and while, in its own way, it’s equally as thrilling, I can’t help but mourn the end of a glorious period of much spontaneity and few responsibilities.

Profit and loss

The French have a wonderful verb for which I’ve never found a satisfying English translation: profiter. It means “to make the most of” or to “fully take advantage of”, though neither seem to really capture the notion of living fully, enjoying, savouring. It’s a word I’ve often had in mind of late. Have I lived this era of my life to the full? Have I made the most of my twenties and of Peggy Sue, enjoyed time spent together, gone places and done things we wanted? I’m still trying to answer myself, and I’m guessing the reply is somewhere in the grey area of “yes, but could have done more”.

Making your mind up

So that’s what I’m trying to focus on in the run-up to Peggy’s leaving. Living deeply and fully. Enjoying every moment. Savouring the people in my world. I can’t redo the chapter of my life that’s slowly coming to a close, but I can learn from it and resolve to make the next one even more of a page-turner. I can make the trip to visit Peggy Sue (and not simply talk about it); schedule skype dates over a glass of wine (and not just collapse in front of the television); make more time for friends who are still in Paris (and elsewhere); book tickets for that stand-up comic/play/band (instead of simply looking at the posters)… I’m sad to see my friend move so far away, but I have control over how our friendship evolves and the time I choose to invest in it from a distance. I can choose to wallow and focus on all the things we’ll no longer do together (silly films, Friday night drinks), or I can choose to be here now and make the most of what is. One path leads to misery and statis, the other promises growth, joy and gratitude.

Even Peggy-Sue would see that’s no dilemma!