Eye on the Ball


My daughter and I have been taking group tennis lessons.  It wasn’t until lesson 6 of 8 that I began to enjoy them.  Lesson 6 was a private lesson because my classmates were absent that evening.  I only had me to focus on – no watching my classmates, no joking with my daughter, just me and my tennis game.

My teacher also had more time to focus on me.  We were practicing volleys – where you hit the ball before it bounces – and I was consistently missing them.  He told me to keep my eye on the ball.  For some reason I had not connected “eye on the ball” to tennis – golf yes, but not tennis.  There is so much to watch in and around a tennis game – your opponent, the people playing in the next court, the people outside the court.  I realized I had been spreading my attention over all those things and not focusing on the game.

Once I started keeping my eye on the ball and ignoring everything else going on around me it made a huge difference.  It wasn’t until that one comment that it became clear how distracted I had been.  I also realized that I hadn’t been really enjoying the lessons because I wasn’t making any progress.  I wasn’t improving because I wasn’t focusing.  I read a book recently that said if you are not focusing you will “get half as much done in twice the time with quadruple the stress”.  I was just showing up and it wasn’t working for me.

The experience made me think about other areas in my life where I may be just showing up – not focusing on the goal or the task at hand.  Marianne Williamson describes it well in her book A Return to Love when she speaks of an acting teacher she once had, “By teaching us the truth about acting, he taught us the truth about life.  Once you know: 1. Leave your personal problems at the stage door; 2. Treat the material with honesty, dignity and without embellishment; 3. Show up fully no matter how many people are in the audience, then you know everything you need to know in order to have a powerful professional career.  To know the real truth about anything is to know the truth about everything.”

Hopefully my discovery of the real truth in tennis, keep your eye on the ball, will help me fully show up fully in everything I do.  If I choose to play tennis, I will focus on playing tennis.  If I choose to work, I will focus on work and the task at hand.  Not only will I get more done, hopefully I will enjoy the process and the results more.  Eye on the ball!

Posted in Behaviour | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

No More Decisions


How many times have you stressed over a decision – unsure of the right course of action to bring about the outcome you want?  Decisions can feel big, life altering, permanent!  A lot of thought and planning goes into them – a lot of agonizing over making the right decision.  That’s why I am no longer making decisions.  It’s too stressful.

I was at a talk by Sharon Lewis where she encouraged us to stop making decisions.  Instead she suggested we make choices and that we change them every 10 seconds if need be.  Choices are lighter, smaller, and easier.  If you don’t like the direction your choice is taking you, make another choice.  How freeing is that?

I’m a bit of a control freak, so I like to plan things out.  Many times I’ll get stressed trying to decide things that really don’t need to be decided at all, or sometimes can’t be decided.  For instance, my husband and I have been in a bit of a transition.  He was transitioning to autonomy from a 30 year career in government.  His transition prompted me to start thinking about my career future and what that would look like.  I thought I needed to make decisions, finalize my plan, and announce it to the world.

However, forcing myself to make decisions about my future was causing me stress.  It felt like I had to decide NOW, even though I didn’t know the best course of action.  I finally realized that I didn’t have to make any big decisions.  No one was pressuring me, except me!  I didn’t have to decide to wind down my business on a certain date.  I didn’t have to make a proclamation and set my plan in stone.  It could just evolve naturally, one right choice at a time.  I could focus on doing what I want, what I have energy for, without ever having to stress over a big decision.  The pressure to decide was causing me grief rather than the contentment I thought it would bring.

I don’t need to make a firm decision about my career future right now.  Decisions are big.  Choices are smaller.  So, rather than forcing myself to decide – NOW – life or death; I am stepping back and making it smaller – what is the next right choice?  Not a forever decision, but a present moment choice.  If that choice doesn’t work out the way I hoped it would, I will choose again in 10 seconds, or tomorrow, or next year.

Posted in Perspective | Tagged , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Fear of Life


What’s the worst that could happen?  Isn’t that what we’re supposed to ask ourselves when we’re afraid to make the speech, accept the job offer, or make the dreaded cold call?  Sometimes it helps and we realize the worst is that the other person will say no or we will stumble over a few words.  But other times the worst case scenario is that we could die or be physically hurt.  Actually, if we drill down, the real reason we avoid many things is fear of death or injury.  I know this.  I have a 17 year-old daughter who went on a March break road trip to Montreal with her friends.  All my fears about her trip revolved around death or injury – long hours of driving on highways, driving in very busy cities, crime, making bad decisions.  We live in a fairly small city and I worried how four teenage girls would fare in the big city of Montreal.

Every motherly fibre in my body said no – don’t go – not safe.  Stay here where there are fewer unknowns and dangers.  It’s the same instinct that still has me reaching for her hand when we cross the road even though she is nearly an adult who drives a car and is a certified lifeguard.  It’s a hard one to let go of.  My job is to keep her safe.  I can’t do that if I am in Guelph and she is in Montreal with no adult supervision.

Her dad wasn’t particularly worried about the driving or the predators.  He wanted her to be aware of all the potential issues and dangers, be prepared, and to go and have a good time.  After hearing me out he simply said, “I want her to have an exciting life.”  So do I!  I want her to be safe and have an exciting life.  That’s when I realized my fear of death and injury was really a fear of life.

I’ve been re-reading Pema Chodron’s Comfortable with Uncertainty – 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion.  She explains that by “always trying to create safety zones” we are effectively “preferring death to life.”  I get it.  I could lock my daughter in a room to keep her safe.  Good intentions, sure, but I would be denying her a full life.

The irony is that even if she stays home I can’t keep her safe.  I have no control over anything really.  We are all going to die.  We know this.  We don’t know when or how, but we know we all will eventually.  Most of us do what we can to prolong that eventuality and many of these things are great – eating well, staying active, wearing a seat belt.  However, hiding from life in order to be safe is not so great.  I may think that I am keeping my daughter safe by keeping her close but I am really just keeping her from living.

As Pema Chodron says, “The essence of life is fleeting.  Life might be over in the next instant! … It’s okay to let it scare you.”  What’s not okay is to avoid life because I am afraid of death.  Maybe it’s time to look more closely at what I’m not doing in order to keep myself safe.   As Pema says, “We become habituated to reaching for something to ease the edginess of the moment.  Thus we become less and less able to reside with even the most fleeting uneasiness or discomfort … This is our way of trying to make life predictable.”  However, life is not predictable and no amount of saying no and living small will guarantee safety.

And my daughter … she and her friends not only survived their trip to Montreal, they had a great time and had an experience that contributed to the exciting life that we all want.

Posted in Fearlessness | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

How to Be More Confident


How confident are you?  What does confidence mean to you?  I used to think that people either had confidence or they didn’t.  Some people just exude confidence – they appear to be sure of themselves and very comfortable in their own skin.  I assumed they were born that way – that they were naturally good at things and they knew it.  I didn’t include myself in the ranks of the confident.

I was at a networking meeting last year and the question put to the room of women was, “What is holding you back from doing all you want in life and business?”  Confidence was the main thing these businesswomen said held them back.  It was enlightening for me to realize that confidence is not the default for most people.

It was even more enlightening for me when the speaker, Sharon Lewis, asked us what it feels like to be confident.  My initial reaction was I don’t know – I’m not one of those naturally self-confident people.   Then she gave us her description of confidence.  It’s not something we are born with.  It is simply what we are sure of.  To be confident is to know something – to be certain of the outcome.  That’s when I began to more clearly understand that self-confidence is how we view our abilities.  For example, I am confident in my ability to drive an automatic transmission car.  I have done it many times before and I know that I am capable of doing it again.  That’s what it feels like to be confident.  Cool!

So how do I develop that kind of confidence, that kind of certainty, in other areas of my life?  When I choose to drive my car, my brain very quickly scans past patterns and sends the message to go ahead – I know how to do this, I’ve done this before, all systems go.  However, I realized that my default reaction or brain pattern to new or challenging situations is to think “this looks hard and I may not be able to do it”, so my brain sends the message to stop.  I want to reprogram that mindset.

This type of default thinking is what Dr. Carol S. Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, calls a Fixed Mindset.  As kids, many of us were only praised or measured on our abilities.  That kind of ability-praise creates a fixed mindset.  You get good grades in school so you must be smart.  Or, you don’t get good grades in school so you must be dumb.  Dr. Dweck’s studies of students showed that kids with a fixed mindset would reject attempting a challenging new task that they could learn from because they didn’t want to do anything that “could expose their flaws and call into question their talent”.

Dr. Dweck gave a group of kids a fairly easy test on which they did well.  They were praised for their ability – you did well, you must be smart.  Next they were given a much more challenging test on which many of them didn’t do well.  This one poor performance was enough to make the ability-praised students lose faith in their abilities.  When given the easier tests again, they didn’t do as well as when they started.  The fixed mindset kids had let the tests define them, “If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb.  That’s the fixed mindset.”

One of my current goals is to develop a Growth Mindset, the opposite of a fixed mindset.  People with a growth mindset believe that if they do poorly on something it doesn’t mean they are dumb, it just means they need to work harder and learn how to do it better.  They don’t let failure define them.  I want to change my default brain pattern from this looks hard, I’m not doing it because I may fail and look stupid, to this looks hard but I am doing it because I know if I work hard I can eventually figure it out.

So to build confidence, I need to change what I am sure of.  However, like strengthening a muscle, it isn’t a one shot deal.  Like Dr. Dweck says, “change isn’t like surgery.  Even when you change, the old beliefs aren’t just removed like a worn-out hip or knee and replaced with better ones.  Instead, the new beliefs take their place alongside the old ones, and as they become stronger, they give you a different way to think, feel, and act.”

Posted in Behaviour | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

Savour Life


I went through a very busy period last year.  I was quickly moving from one task to the next, always rushing and often trying to do more than one thing at once.  It was stressful and tiring but I kept telling myself that it was only temporary and soon I’d have time to relax and do some fun things.

Then one day I was forced out of my office by the noise and fumes from a neighbour’s gas wood chipper.  I had to get some fresh air, so I went for a walk.  It was a beautiful summer day and all I was thinking about was how I needed to get back to work.  That’s when it dawned on me that I was wasting a big part of my life!

I was trying to rush through a walk on a lovely day so I could get back to work and then rush through that so I could get to the next thing.  How much of my life had I wasted on mindlessly powering through tasks – working, washing dishes, making dinner…?  It occurred to me that these are not just tasks I have to do before I can get to my life.  They are my life.

So I chose right then to be fully present for the rest of my walk and enjoy it, not just endure it until I could get back to work.  I walked past a grove of Japanese Katsura trees and paused to breathe in the aroma.  At certain times of the year they smell like cotton candy.  I stopped for a few minutes and sat on a bench with a lovely view of the arboretum.  I was feeling much more relaxed.  I enjoyed the walk because I was both physically and mentally present.  I wasn’t walking while mentally already home and working.

I leisurely walked on through the trees, thinking I had it figured out.  Everything I do, every task, is a part of life to be savoured.  Life was going to be so much better with my new attitude.  Then I got to the end of the tranquil forest and began walking through busy city streets on my way home.  I started to speed up my pace, thinking that the nice part of my walk was over – the part in nature – and now I just wanted to get home.  Fortunately, I realized fairly quickly that my new attitude had just flown the coup and I was right back to my old “I just have to get through this” attitude.   Every time I started to veer off into ‘get home quickly’ auto-pilot mode, I reminded myself to savour walking outside on a beautiful sunny day.

So this year I am trying to find pleasure in everything I do, not just the fun things.  When I sit down at my desk to work, I am trying to be fully there and savour working.  When I stop working to make lunch, I try to leave work behind and savour the experience of making lunch.  I’m trying to really be there for everything I do and live in the moment.  After all, there are no guarantees about how many moments we get in this life.  If making lunch is the last thing I get to do in this life, I sure hope I savoured every minute of it and didn’t just mindlessly move through it so I could get on to the next thing …

Posted in Behaviour, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

Fake It Until You Make It


My mother was never really heavy, but she was often dissatisfied with her weight and the way she looked.  When I had my own daughter I decided that I didn’t want to pass on that legacy.  Every time I looked in a mirror, even though I usually didn’t feel it, I would say out loud “I look great!”  If my daughter was standing beside me, I would say “We look great!”  I wanted her to grow up believing that what she saw in the mirror was okay.

Year after year, I said it out loud for my daughter’s benefit, but I never truly believed it.  I still felt fat and frumpy.  My words may have been benefiting my daughter but they weren’t doing anything for me.  It wasn’t until I chose to believe the words that I gradually lost the extra weight.

Dr. Bruce Lipton, a cell biologist, says, “When we shift the mind’s interpretation … to positive belief, the brain responds biochemically, the blood changes the body’s cell culture, and the cells change on a biological level.” (Rankin)  I think this happened to me.  I consistently shifted my interpretation of what I saw in the mirror from fat to slim and started a process that changed the neural pathways in my brain that led to physical changes in my body.

It took awhile for my new interpretation to become a habit.  I would look in the mirror and as soon as I caught myself going back to my old, yuck response, I would smile and switch to my new, slim and trim response.  The smiling part is important.  Studies have shown that the physical act of smiling, even a fake smile, can induce positive emotions (Scientific American).  I wasn’t just telling myself I was slim and looking great, I had to feel that way as well and smiling helped create those positive feelings.

My physical changes didn’t happen quickly.  It took a few years.  I didn’t change my diet or lifestyle.  I changed how I thought and felt and that eventually changed how I looked.   I know it may sound like delusional thinking, but as Dr. Joe Dispenza says, “The latest research supports the notion that we have a natural ability to change the brain and body by thought alone, so that it looks biologically like some future event has already happened.”   It’s not delusion, it’s creating the future you want and that’s a legacy I want to pass on to my daughter.

Selected References: 

Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself: How to Lose Your Mind and Create a New One and Evolve Your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind by Joe Dispenza, D.C. 

Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself by Lissa Rankin, M.D.

Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict, and Increase Intimacy by Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman


Posted in Perspective | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Change Your Reality


I changed outfits three times before going to a recent networking dinner.  I was working on a project that had some glitches and didn’t get ready to go out until the last minute.  Not only didn’t I finish the project, I had to scramble to find something to wear before my friend arrived to drive me to the meeting.  I ended up running out of the house in a top I borrowed from my daughter and fastening my shoes and cleaning my glasses in the car, where I remembered, too late, that I forgot to brush my hair.

As you can imagine, I was feeling at loose ends, both mentally and physically, when I arrived at the meeting.  I felt rushed and stressed and was sure I looked that way too.  The first words I heard at the meeting were from Marilyn who said, “Lisa you are looking very … very ….” and as she was searching for the word, my mind was racing to all the ways I was feeling – rushed, frazzled, a mess.  Just as I said to her, “You really are going to have to finish that sentence”, she found the words and said “put together and confident.”  I laughed out loud, both from relief and at the irony.  I couldn’t have felt any less put together and confident at that moment.

The topic of the speaker that night was Mirror, Mirror – Do You Trust What You See?  How appropriate!  I saw one thing and Marilyn saw another – our realities were very different until Marilyn changed my reality with her comment.  All of a sudden I was no longer a dishevelled mess.  I was put together and confident.  Cool!

Reality is really perception and perspective.  I assumed that I looked on the outside the same way that I felt on the inside.  I forgot that I can only see from my own limited perspective, which doesn’t always include all the information required to get an accurate picture.  It reminded me of the time I took a drawing class and only had the back view of what appeared to be a male mannequin.  However, when I walked around to the other side of the room, I saw very clearly that the front view revealed a large busted female mannequin.  Different perspective, different reality!

Other people don’t see all our inner turmoil.  Mentally I hadn’t moved on from scrambling to find something decent to wear.  Physically I had found a nice outfit, fastened my shoes, cleaned my glasses, and tidied up my hair on my way into the meeting.  The story I was telling myself was different from my actual physical reality.

So how could I have done for myself what Marilyn did for me that night?  I could have taken a moment to stop and breathe before going into the meeting.  I could have looked in the mirror and reminded myself that I was right where I was supposed to be – that all was well in this moment.  I could have left the stress of getting ready back where it belonged, in the past.  Just like the mannequin, if I had taken the time to look at my situation from another angle I would have seen what was actually there – the finished product, not the chaos it took to get there.  Think differently, feel differently.  Change your mind, change your reality.

Posted in Perspective | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Mind the Gap


A few years ago my daughter and I were helping to close up the family cottage for the winter.  The water system was turned off so I went to the lake to rinse my hands before we left for home.  Despite many years of warning my daughter to be careful on the slippery rocks, I slipped on those rocks and fell in.  I screamed at the shock of the fall and I screamed again at the reality of sitting up to my neck in the cold water.  My daughter, shaken by my screaming, helped me out of the water and out of my soaking wet clothes.  The whole situation seemed surreal and quite funny.  One minute I was getting ready to go home and the next I was soaking wet and trying to fashion a dry outfit out of towels and a few old clothes.  My daughter said that she expected me to be really angry.  Instead, I was laughing.

In psychology there is a process called Appraisal Theory.  Something happens to us, we evaluate the situation, and finally we respond to our interpretation of the situation.  The evaluation takes place in the gap after the event or experience – a space where we choose how to react.  According to psychology professor Barbara L. Fredrickson this gap is the gateway to whether our emotions surrounding the event are positive or negative.  You and I could respond to the same situation in very different ways depending on how we interpret it.

The goal isn’t to eliminate negative emotions.  Dr. Fredrickson points out that we need both positive and negative emotions to be happy and that we can experience positive emotions even during times of great difficulty.  For example, with the death of a loved one it is natural to experience negative emotions like grief and loss and maybe anger.  However, we could also experience positive emotions like gratitude for the time we had together and hope for the future and comfort in knowing that others have experienced this before and that we are not alone.  Holding positive and negative emotions at the same time can help to avert a downward emotional spiral because our emotions in the current moment influence our experience of future events as well.

Although ending up in the lake turned out to be a funny experience for me, when it happened there were other possible reactions – anger, blame, regret.  The event had happened and that couldn’t be changed.  However, my reaction to the event was within my control.  By evaluating the situation as funny I avoided a downward emotional spiral thinking that “This is terrible.  I am wet and cold and I have no dry clothes and now my whole day is ruined”.

According to Dr. Fredrickson, “Negativity doesn’t always feel like a choice; it feels like it just lands on you, and you have to deal with it. Positive emotions, I think, are more of a choice.”  So mind the gap, because the emotional choices we make in the gap will shape our day and, ultimately, our reality.

Posted in Perspective | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Reality Check

P1030349 crop

Lately I’ve been wondering to what extent we create our own reality by how we perceive it.  I guess the universe didn’t think I was catching on fast enough so it sent me a message that was rather hard to ignore.

We were visiting Verona, Italy during one of the biggest heat waves in years.  Temperatures were up to 40°C during the day in the blazing sun and not dropping below 30°C at night.  The heat was taking its toll on my patience at times.  People were often doing things that I perceived as completely rude or just plain stupid – not paying attention to what they were doing and bumping into people, sitting in the wrong seats on a train and causing a commotion, or butting in at the front of a line which for some unfathomable reason they thought they didn’t have to wait in like the rest of us.

One morning midway through our visit we were rushing to catch the Hop On – Hop Off tour bus before it pulled away from the bus stop.  I was focussing on the bus and not on where I was walking when I tripped on an uneven cobblestone while crossing three lanes of traffic.  I fell down fast and hard on my knees.  My husband had to help me up.  I assessed the damage as I limped the last few hundred feet to the bus – bloodied and bruised but nothing broken.  There was a short line-up of people waiting to get on the bus.  We already had our tickets but had to wait for the people in front of us to buy theirs.  I thought I was going to faint in the heat and from the shock of the fall, so while my husband waited in line I pushed past to sit down on the bus.

When we were finally settled in our seats, even though I felt like crying because everything hurt, I had an “aha moment” which actually made me smile.  I realized how overly critical and judgemental I had been of people lately.  My fall was a reality check for me.  One day it will be me.  Whatever stupid or rude human behaviour I am witnessing, I will be doing that very same thing.  At some point in my life I will be every stupid or rude person I have ever met or seen and I will probably be them at their worst.  I was that woman who pushes past you to get to the front of the line and you think “How rude, who does she think she is?”  I recognized that very look on the face of the tour bus lady as I pushed past her.

So what was the universe’s message to me?  Have more compassion for others.  When I see someone doing something stupid, just smile knowing that I’ve “been there, done that.”  Instead of thinking “Who do they think they are?” choose to accept that for some reason they need to sit down or be at the front of the line.  I don’t need to know what that reason is.  No one in the tour bus line knew what my reason was.

I realized that having more compassion for others will improve my own reality.  Being calm and open minded has to create a more pleasant reality than being agitated by someone else’s seemingly foolish actions or feeling wronged by someone who has pushed in front of me.  And now, thanks to the universe, I’m going to have a doozy of a scar on my left knee to act as a reminder that we are all human and that I too will have good reason and ample opportunity to be the one acting stupid or rude in the eyes of others.

Posted in Perspective | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Tiny Habits: The Key to Sustained Behavioural Change

Decorative Picture of a Wheel

I recently watched a TEDx video about behavioural change (Forget big change, start with a tiny habit).  The presenter, BJ Fogg, PhD, caught my attention when he said relying primarily on motivation and willpower to change your long-term behaviour will not work.  They work for short-term change but not for long-term change.  How cool is that – beneficial change without willpower – or as I like to think of it – gain without pain!

So if it’s not motivation or willpower, how do we effect lasting behavioural change?  Dr. Fogg said that in order to be sustainable a new behaviour has to be easy and it has to follow a trigger.  People will do hard things for short periods of time if they are really motivated – like training for a marathon or following an extreme diet to lose weight for a special occasion.  However, that motivation will eventually wane and they will stop doing the hard thing.  If the behaviour is easy we don’t need much motivation, but we do need a trigger to remind us to do the new behaviour.  The best triggers are things we already do on a regular basis like go to bed, brush our teeth, use the toilet.

About a year ago I started to mentally recite a gratitude list after I lay down in bed at night.  After I close my eyes I list at least three things I am grateful for that day – small and big – a great parking space, a walk in the sunshine, my daughter home safely, whatever I can think of.  Even on bad days I can come up with a list of three small things to be grateful for.  I have tried to keep a written gratitude journal in the past, but it never lasted very long.   So why has this gratitude habit stuck for the long-term when the journal didn’t?

According to Dr. Fogg, these three elements must happen at the same moment for behaviour to happen:

  1. There has to be some level of motivation – you want something
  2. You have the ability to do it
  3. There has to be a trigger or a call to action

My nightly gratitude habit has all three elements.  I want to remind myself of the good things in my life, rather than focussing on what is missing or is not going well.  I am able to do it.  Perhaps most importantly though, is that there is a trigger to remind me to do it – closing my eyes in bed at night.

Dr. Fogg explains that there are many behaviours that can contribute to our desired outcomes and most of the behaviours that we need to do are habits.  If better health is our desired outcome we can design tiny habits that lead to that outcome.  I realized I had created a new tiny habit with my mental gratitude list and I wanted to try it with other things.

I liked Fogg’s personal example of doing two push-ups.  I had been planning to add some strengthening exercises to my day and this was perfect.  I’ve been doing at least two push-ups after I use the bathroom for a month now and it is becoming a habit.  It’s a little tricky in public washrooms but if I can’t find a clean counter upon which to do two leaning push-ups, I just wait until next time.  Sometimes I do more than two, but I only have to do two.  Keeping it small and easy is what makes it work.  Even with a bad cold I have managed two push-ups.

I may not be doing a full-on strength training regime, but I am consistently doing about 20 push-ups a day and that must have a better health outcome than the zero push-ups I was doing before.

If there are things you want to add to your life, you may want to try Fogg’s formula for establishing a tiny habit:

After I ______________ , (existing habit you do every day with the same frequency that you want the new behaviour to happen)

I will ________________ , (new tiny behaviour)

Posted in Behaviour | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments