Standing in the Tornado

“I’m in a rut.” “Life is a rat race and the rats are winning.” “There is never anytime to do what I want to do.” “If only I had more hours in the day.” “I go to bed tired and I get up tired.”

These are common refrains I hear daily from people in my professional life and in my personal life. Seems everywhere I go, people are feeling overly stretched, as if they aren’t completing enough each day and generally a malaise colors most of what they do. What’s the reason behind this? Why do perfectly healthy, talented individuals often feel they aren’t getting anywhere and they can’t make a dent in what they need to do?

There are many factors, I believe, contributing to this. Certainly the combination of too much technology coming at us 24/7 impacts us, alongside already overly scheduled work and “play.” The difficult economic times and the bad news about the economy impacts us – we are worried some days that if we stop running, we’ll be seen as slackers or disinterested at our jobs. Those of us with children have demands put upon us from the school systems, and from academic and sporting interests. Those of us with elderly parents may be dealing with illness or running to doctors’ appointments. We may also be struggling with our own health and have less energy to do what we need to.

There are many reasons why this frenetic feeling may exist. But, in the midst of this, what if we made a conscious decision to just try to do something differently? What if we mentally refused to get caught up in the rush, the panic and the worry about what we have to do and how we’ll do it? When I work with coaching clients I ask them to think about the image of a tornado swirling around them, and they are standing safe within a plexiglass booth watching it swirl – but the tornado is unable to touch them. They are in the middle of the storm, but they aren’t drawn into the storm. They see it swirling but they are standing and watching it, instead of being sucked into it.

Sound impossible? It certainly isn’t easy. It’s easier for us to just get caught up in a rush of doing and miss an opportunity to step back for a minute and think about our goals, our priorities and what we care about. To start to get a handle on your own personal tornado, think about the following ideas:

  1. It’s important to know what we are doing and why we are doing it. I had the opportunity to take my children with me on a business trip recently. My elderly parents were going to be in the same location – and my dad is about to turn 80. I started to agonize about what would happen if I took my kids out of school. What would the principals think of me? Would my kids fall too far behind? All of a sudden, in the midst of my worrisome thoughts I mentally stopped myself and stepped back. I remembered that my priorities are first and foremost my family – my parents and my kids. I remembered that life is very short and having a chance to have my entire family celebrate with my father as he turned 80 was more important than anything else. This realization and remembrance of what matters allowed me to let go of the anxious feelings around this decision.
  2. Have a plan and work the plan. In preparing to go on another trip not too long ago, I was copying papers I would need, writing out the list of what I needed to do, and organizing meetings for a couple of weeks out in advance of my leaving. One of my friends asked me why I was spending so much time in preparation; “you have plenty of time to get ready and you can do the rest when you get back,” she said to me. But I don’t enjoy being frantic and rushing around at the last minute to figure out what I need to do. Yes, I had a ton of other things to focus on, but it was important to have a plan and work the plan. This allowed me to go off for my trip and not feel rushed and uptight about what I needed to do.
  3. Work time in for fun. This one sounds so simple. It’s age-old advice. But once we leave childhood, how often do we work time in for “fun”? And fun is different depending on who we are. I love a game of golf. I love cleaning cages at the rescue group. I love reading novels for pure fun (Janet Evanovich is my current favorite – nothing more fun than laughing at Stephanie Plum’s antics!). I love doing anything with my kids. For other people, fun might mean going to a concert or out to dinner. It might mean going for a hike or taking a walk. Maybe it’s skateboarding or snowboarding. Know what you enjoy – make a list of what’s important to you and what brings you joy. Keep your “fun” list handy and make sure each week that you work in time for your fun. Schedule it if you have to, but make sure you do it.
  4. Learn to breathe. It’s another one that sounds simple, but the truth is that our minds can’t focus on two things at once. If I am busy doing healthy deep-breathing, I can’t possibly be worrying myself about what’s going to happen next. If I am calmly breathing in and then exhaling while focusing on my breathing and nothing else, the tornado will swirl without my involvement. Deep breathing is healthy in general, but it’s also a calming activity you can do anytime, anyplace. Remember, when you feel yourself giving in to worry, “Just breathe!”
  5. Recognize your gifts. We take so much for granted in life – even the fact that we can breathe is a gift to us. A good friend of my husband’s has a note on his email, “Every day above ground is a good day.” I love it every time I read this. Realize how fortunate you are to be doing all of the things you are doing. Many times when I feel myself beginning to stress as I am rushing to get one of my children, I just start to say “Thank you. Thank you for this child. Thank you for my car that works. Thank you for the time I have to spend with him or her.” I try and think of as many thank-yous as I can that are related to whatever I am doing at the moment. My mantra becomes “Thank you, thank you, thank you” over and over. I am thanking God but if this doesn’t work for you, just say “I’m grateful for…” whatever it is. Gratitude is so uplifting and it can provide a beacon for us when we are swirling in our thoughts and worries.

I hope this week that you will try just one of these ideas to help you stay calm in the midst of your tornadoes. The tornadoes never stop; when one goes away, another will be there to take its place. So, the secret is not to eliminate the tornadoes, but rather to live peacefully in the midst of them. Hard work? Yes. Challenging? Yes. But worth it in the end? Absolutely yes.