Chop Wood, Carry Water

The ice storms of early April (at least in Eastern Canada), the international worries of a nasty virus and the war in Iraq have been consuming our thoughts for at least the past week or two; many have found that this “triple whammy” has effected their focus and workplace productivity. Even so, the woes of the world around us can only be used as an excuse for a few days, or weeks, tops. How long can we say that we can’t focus on the needs of, eg. a project, or a client, or a deadline because we’re too worried about the war, or about protecting our health, or because we’re too depressed about a spring that’s dragging its feet? After a while, no matter what, we must get back to “chopping wood and carrying water.” Globe and Mail Columnist Judith Timson states, in her article of April 2, 2003, “War, apparently, is not an excuse to say to your boss, ‘I’m sorry, I’m too distressed about the coming end of civilization as we know it to finish this marketing survey…and it is certainly not an excuse to drink at your desk.”

How are you doing with all of this? Are you an obsessor or a coper? Obsessors inflame their woes, and experience productivity paralysis by subscribing to the “what you think about expands” philosophy. Copers make sure they know news, and know the “score”, by keeping their ear to the ground, but they exercise the discipline of shutting the “noise” out when they know they must focus on the their work.

Whether it’s because of local or global news, or the daily demands of your job, it’s often difficult to emotionally manage it all, and know where to begin to help improve the “situation”. This much is true…”There’s only one corner of the universe that you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self.” Aldous Huxley

Here are fiver tips to help you do just that!

1. Have an “out of body” experience: Where are you at with your current stress levels? If you were observing yourself over this past month, what would you report? changes in emotional tolerance of others? chronic fatigue? tense muscles? mood swings? antisocial feelings?

Exercise 1: Draw a stick man picture of yourself and circle where it “hurts”? Where, in your body, are you holding your physical stress? Your body often knows–before your mind–that you are over–the–top stressed. “Listen” before it does damage.

Exercise 2: Write a letter to yourself from your body; what is your body trying to tell you? If you feel you’re “too close to the material” canvass a couple of colleagues for their observations about your behaviour–sometimes it takes two to see one; it’s easier to take initial steps to reducing your stress if you know where it “hurts.”


Exercise 3: Call the doctor! Forgive me for sounding like your mother but…when was the last time you had a medical physical? Many people can remember the last time they changed the oil in their car, or tuned it up, better than they can remember when they took themselves in for one of the same! They wouldn’t dream of missing their kids’ or their pet’s annual, but they don’t (or won’t) go for their own! Why is that? Is it (over) time for your annual? Surgically curable cancer was diagnosed as a result of my annual, four years ago. An annual physical saved my life! Do you need to call today?

2. Champion “choice” language: even in the toughest of situations, where you may feel powerless, you always have some choice. Watch the “choice” language you expressed to others, and especially to yourself. How often do you hear yourself saying, I have to do this or I have to do that? How many “have tos” really exist? “Have to” languaging has a ball and chain energy…duty bound and full of burdensome obligation.

Exercise: Declare aloud (with a little bit of “woe is me” melodrama thrown in, for fun) two burdensome things that you have to do today. Use the structure of “I have to…or else…”. How does it sound to your own ears? Not thrilling, I suspect. Change that same statement to, “I choose to…because…” It may still be something you perceive as a chore but the energy to get on with the essential task is lightened by a mere shift in your “choice” language. “Choose to” self–talk increases your personal empowerment and leadership to get through the most stressful workdays, seasons or political times.

3. Control the controllable:

Exercise: list the things that are actually within your control; make another list of those things that aren’t. You will probably notice that your “don’t control” list involves others, while your “do control” list involves only yourself–aha! The most fertile ground for increasing your sense of control lies within yourself! Look for ways you can take more charge of yourself. Make a plan, today, to create greater control for yourself around at least one situation.

4. Balance your wheel: think of your life like a wheel. Some believe you can’t be a fully functioning professional at living unless your “wheel” is balanced; others insist that people do their best work, and are most motivated, if they are at least a little imbalanced. This much appears true…it’s nice to pass through “balance” every once in a while, even if you know that it’s merely a pit stop on your way to imbalance once again! How’s your work–life balance these days? Have you stopped, lately, to give this much thought, or are you just go, go, going all the time for fear of what might happen if you dared to take a breath?

Exercise: Brainstorm a list of values that are important to you, eg. family, friends, health, finances, job security, physical wellness, emotional wellness, career, community, education, primary relationship(s), religion/spirituality/faith, etc. Draw a circle. Put the word “Me” in the middle of that circle. Draw “spokes” radiating out from “Me”, at even intervals (making a skeletal framework for a wheel, which currently does not include the outer rim). Label each of these spokes with the values you’ve identified (one value per spoke). Notch each of the spokes from 0, at the center, to 10 at the outer edge of each line. Rank each of the spokes in terms of the current attention and energy you dedicate to each, where “0” is no energy and “10” is maximum. Join the dots by creating a “circle” (your wheel’s outer rim). How round is it? How would your current wheel roll down the road of life? Merrily, merrily, merrily merrily? Yes, I know that this is a boat metaphor (“row, row, rowing your boat”), but work with me here! Or would it be more like, bumpity, bumpity, bumpity, bumpity (notice the root word “pity” in this)? Life is but a…dream? a nightmare? Where are the indentations in your wheel? Are these indentations (probably causing a bumpy ride), OK with you? If so, carry on with the ride you’re experiencing; if you’re not enjoying your current imbalance, and can now plainly see how your wheel is lopsided, decide on one thing that you can implement, today, to inflate that part of your wheel.

These exercises can also be applied to your team. For example: where does it “hurt” on your team? What things does your team bellyache about having to do? What does your team actually control and what is beyond its control? How balanced is your team’s wheel (merely sub-in different team values for each of the spokes) and, last but not least…

5. Celebrate what April offers: We can’t always count on April’s weather, wellness or war, but we can count on April for celebrating Administrative Professionals’ Day and for Earth Day, too!

Exercise 1: During the week of Arpil 21st, create a team event at which your administrative professionals, and other support staff, are the guests of honour.

Exercise 2: Brainstorm a fun, community spirited Earth Day project in which your work team can participate. Join a tree planting event, or help clean up a park which is soon to be frequented by fellow employees during lovely, sunny springtime lunch hours.

Implementing at least one of these ideas will help improve how you feel about your local work life and world. Even though it helps to get another’s perspective on what would help maintain your balance, you really do know yourself better than anyone else: “My closest relation is myself.” Terence

The trouble is, sometimes it’s bothersome to look inside: “It is not only the most difficult thing to know oneself, but the most inconvenient one, too.” Josh Billings

But if you are willing to take a peek, regardless of what you have to admit about your current attitudes, behaviours or results, tell yourself: “I am as bad as the worst, but, thank God, I am as good as the best.” Walt Whitman

And remember, when it comes to working on improving yourself: “There is nothing noble about being superior to another. The true nobility is in being superior to your previous self.” Hindu Proverb

And, ultimately, when it comes to knowing the truth about what you can do for yourself to improve your situation, realize that: “Every truth passes through three stages before it is recognized. In the first it is ridiculed, in the second it is opposed, in the third it is regarded as self-evident.” Arthur Schopenhauer.

Trust that your “small” self-improvements are making a difference. You can’t see a child growing, day-by-day, but they are; you can’t always see the positive impact your improvements bring, to yourself, and others, but they do.

“Things” do seem to be improving, a bit, over the past few days—this is good; now, more than ever, stay focused and keep on chopping that wood and carrying that water!

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