The Importance of Morning Rituals

Fall is always a get-back-into-the-routine kind of season. The more relaxed feel of summer fades as kids go back to school and work projects ramp up. For me, morning rituals are an important part of starting my day off on the right foot, and it’s something that I strongly encourage my clients to consider. Everything we do each day is a practice whether we’re conscious of it or not, so if the first thing I do is check email even before getting out of bed, that’s a practice. And unfortunately, research shows that that practice will likely negatively impact your whole day. At the same time, if I take the first moments of my day to engage in positive rituals such as reading an inspiring quotation, meditating, gentle stretching, and/or setting an intention for the day, I’m setting a foundation for a more positive day.

If you do an internet search you’ll find lots of suggestions on the best rituals to start your mornings. The intention is to create a routine that gives you energy, creates a positive mindset, and sets a successful tone for the day. I’ll offer a few that resonate with me.

Practice gratitude: There is a great deal of research on how gratitude increases well-being, relationships, optimism, physical and mental health and overall happiness, so practicing gratitude is a no-brainer. In my life, Jon and I wake up and cuddle for a few minutes then share something we’re grateful for. Another option suggested is to write in a gratitude journal.

Read something inspiring: Whether it is as short as reading a powerful quotation or a chapter of a book, daily learning and reflection is important. About a year ago, Jon and I started a practice of sharing a morning reading together (one of those books that has 365 days of wisdom) and we really enjoy it.

Be silent: Actively meditating, praying or breathing can be helpful in this fast-paced world. Most mornings, I light a candle, say my personal commitment to myself and then sit for 10-20 minutes. In the summer I do a walking meditation in my labyrinth outside.

Set an intention for the day: “What good shall I do this day?” is the question Benjamin Franklin asked himself each morning. I often ask clients to say their leadership commitment in the morning as a way to remind themselves of what they care about and what they want to pay attention to. You could also reflect on something you’re looking forward to or plan for possible challenges.

Make your bed: In the Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg claims that making your bed is a “keystone habit” correlated with better productivity and a greater sense of well-being. It’s an initial positive action that starts a chain reaction for other good habits take hold. We use a duvet cover to make it quick and easy!

Exercise: Exercise improves blood circulation, builds energy and improves your cognitive skills. I typically do the 7-minute workout and my physical therapy exercises before breakfast. Some people (e.g., Barak Obama) swear by doing their exercise first thing in the morning as a way to make sure it happens.

Connect with loved ones: Research shows that people who have positive relationships live longer- a kiss or hug before leaving for work is good for us. For myself, in addition to the morning kiss goodbye to Jon, I also try to be in the kitchen for the fifteen minutes when the girls are eating breakfast as a way to be available and have a little conversation before they go back into their rooms to get ready for the day. (They’re no longer into the hug and kiss goodbye like they were when they were five.)

Cup of coffee or tea: One can’t deny the popularity of a morning beverage as a worldwide ritual. The familiarity, the comfort, the small joy it brings can be an important way to start the day. For me, after the kids are at school I enjoy my first cup of coffee while preparing for the day at my computer. Other people may use morning coffee as a time to connect with family, a quiet, reflective individual time, a pleasant treat while driving to work, or as a way to say hello to neighbors in the coffee shop.

Eat breakfast: The book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, recounts a research study where a group of children were told to skip breakfast, and then at school, half the students received breakfast and half did not. Guess what happened? Those children who got breakfast learned more and misbehaved less, and then after all the children got a snack, the differences dissipated. Think you’re above that as an adult? Think again.

Worst thing first: We tend to have more self-control in the morning, so before getting on email, Facebook, etc. spend the first 20-30 minutes of your day doing your most important task that you’re likely to procrastinate on. I find that when I choose the task the evening before and write it down, the next morning when I get to my computer I jump right into it (sometimes I even open the document the night before) and it creates enormous positive momentum for the day. Mark Twain called this, “Eat your frog.”

Delay getting on email: What you don’t do can be as important as what you choose to do. Studies show that email is a stresser and negatively impacts productivity– so by staying off of it, you’re helping to manage your mood from the start.

Here are a few other things to consider: brush your teeth right when you get up, make your bed, drink a glass of water to rehydrate, get outside even for a few minutes, set your intentions before bed the night before, put your alarm clock across the room to avoid the “snooze” button, get dressed right away, end your shower with a blast of cold water (invigorating!), say a daily affirmation, journal (“morning pages” as described in “”The Artist’sWay” by Julia Cameron is an exercise many people love),

Clearly, there are a lot of choices on ways to start your day.  Join me in reflecting on what intentional morning rituals you want to try out.

Moving From Theory To Action

To support you in reflecting on your “no”, here are some reflection questions:

-How did my background (culture, gender, race, socio-economic status, education, work history, personal experiences, etc.) influence my relationship to saying no?

-To what extent can I appreciate how this perspective was trying to keep me safe?

-What are the risks and costs to saying and not saying no generally?

-From the voice of my inner wisdom, what do I want to remind myself the next time I want to say no?

To say no to a specific request:

-What is the yes, behind the no? For the sake of what do I feel I need to say no to this?

-What do I want to say/have them understand? (although “No.” is a complete sentence, so you may choose not to say more.)

-What might be my opening lines?

-How can I prepare your body to be centered (vs. tense, rigid, collapsed, etc.)?

Why Saying No is Good

This time of year always seems particularly full: work projects to be completed before summer begins in earnest, end-of-school activities, yard work and planting that needs tending and gorgeous weather that calls me to go outside for a bike ride, walk, or a casual drink with a friend. “Can-do” attitudes are admired at work and at home. Saying “yes” when someone asks you for something makes you a team player, an ideal employee, and an all-around productive human being. But in deeper reflection, maybe it’s doesn’t?  Taking on too much, losing priorities and trying to be something to everyone can not only leave an individual exhausted, but can compromise our personal capacity as well as the capacity of an organization.

This year at the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility conference, I co-presented a workshop on “Why Saying No is Good for Business.” Learning how to successfully navigate a “no” and communicate more honestly and effectively when given a request is an essential skill for everyone wanting to create balance and focus both in work and in life generally.

The first distinction I want to offer comes from Fernando Flores, an Argentinian professor, entrepreneur, politician and management consultant. He created a model on types of conversations, including Conversations for Action. In it, he asserts that there are five possible responses to a request, not just two, “yes” or “no”. (And many people, especially at work, may think that no isn’t an option, so there isn’t really much choice).

Responses to a request:

Request for clarification -For many of us this step is critical. I think I’m not alone in having said yes, and then realizing I don’t really understand what was asked for me, or it turned into something much bigger or different than I expected.

Ex: “I’m not completely sure what you’re asking for. Could you give me more specifics of the changes you want to see in this month’s report?”

Accept – The tricky thing here is for your “yes” to truly be a “yes.” Align your word and actions. When we say “yes” and then don’t follow through, it breaks trust and puts our integrity into question.

Ex: “Yes, I can do that by 4pm today.”

 Decline -Many people think that a “No” isn’t allowed or appropriate, but if we don’t say no to active requests sometimes, then we may be saying no to things that are actually more important to us. If I say yes to every non-profit board request, I’ll be at meetings most evenings, and then I’ll in effect be saying no to family dinner. Getting clarity around your “yes” behind the “no” can give you the grounding and energy to be willing to give the uncomfortable “no”.

Ex: For a tech-savvy person who gets asked to solve everyone’s computer problems: “I’m sorry, I know I’ve helped you with that before, but I really think you need to ask someone in IT about that.”

Counter Offer -This is helpful if you want to say yes to at least part of it, but you have other constraints or considerations. What I appreciate is that it’s more honest than making a promise you can’t keep. People would rather have the truth than to have you say yes, but then not fulfill. Counter offer is stepping into a negotiation to find common ground on what works for both of you.

Ex: “Sorry, I can’t get that to you today. However, I could get you a draft before my meeting starts at 2pm. Or alternatively I could get you a finished draft by 10am tomorrow.”

Promise to commit -For those situations when you just need a bit more time to process and consider the request, promise to commit offers a pause button to center and consider what you really want and can do. I often invite people who tend to be “automatic yes’s” to master this strategy.

Ex: “I need to check in with my supervisor first. Can I give her a call and get back to you in an hour?”

What I appreciate about this model is that if offers me more choice and agency in responding to a request.

That said, applying these strategies isn’t necessarily easy. Social context matters. This is the deeper aspect of understanding why no can be so difficult and why we all won’t just go forth with the above-mentioned suggestions. We need to recognize that our backgrounds and experiences are going to have a profound influence on how much agency we think or we have to say no. As an example, generally speaking, women are “supposed” to be helpful and kind- and saying no goes against the norm, and thus may carry greater negative consequences. One’s positional power (boss makes a request of subordinate) or social context-cultural upbringing, race, social status, education, etc. will all influence our relationship with “no”. What is the fear behind saying no? All of this comes into play. It makes it more complex than we’d probably like, but it needs to be considered when we enter this topic. See below for some more reflection questions.

Book Review: Change Anything

By: Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler

 This award-winning team of writers does it again. What I like about Change Anything is that it breaks down how we make change happen from six main sources: 1. Love what you hate- learn to like the changes you make; 2. Do what you can’t- learn the skills through deliberate practice in order to make the changes you want; 3&4. Turn accomplices into friends- we all have people in our lives who sabatoge our best efforts- turn them into supporters. 5. Invert the economy- by bribing yourself and raising the cost of bad behavior you can actually get yourself to act in ways you want 6. Control your space- use the environment to become an ally for the change you want rather than a barrier. It’s an engaging book, with good examples and really breaks down the change process which will increase your likelihood of success! (Their book Influencer does the same thing in an organizational context).

Moving From Theory To Action: On Planning

To support you in moving toward action, here are some reflection questions based on the recommendations by Richard Wiseman:

1. What are the benefits to me of taking on this goal? How will my life be better?

2. How can I break down this goal into manageable steps? What are some realistic dates for completing these dates? What is one action, no matter how small, that I can take today?

3. After looking at this concrete timeline, what are small rewards I can give myself to celebrate milestones along the way?

4. How will I track my progress? Visual calendar? Phone app? Handwritten journal? (set this up now)

5. Who do I want to tell about my goal, and what are the specific ways people can support me in reaching it? (accountability partners can be very helpful).

The Power of Planning vs. Dreaming

This summer I decided to begin my goal of hiking the entire Long Trail. It’s a 272-mile trail that runs north to south in Vermont, and I’ve been thinking about it for years. The problem was that my mindset around it was getting in the way. I had dreams of hiking it with my two daughters and a friend of mine who also had a daughter or two. One minor flaw to this plan was that this ideal person didn’t exist, my daughters have stated in no uncertain terms that they “Hate” hiking (and walking for that matter these days), and other family trips took priority over planning a week in the woods for the next three summers.

And then I paused, broke it down and started thinking concretely about this goal. First, I decided it was my goal to hike the Long Trail, no one else’s, and so I would let go of finding a partner to hike the whole thing with, and instead would section-hike it, breaking it down into small chunks. One weekend I could go with my husband and do a part of the trail, another weekend with a girlfriend, a weekend alone, and if the stars align, perhaps in a few years, I might even get my daughters to do a section with me. I moved the timing on my goal out- no need do complete it by the time my elder daughter completed high school. What if it took me ten years or more? After all, to repeat the often-said quote, it’s about the journey, not the destination, right?

And so I have begun, first with my husband in August, then with a girlfriend a week later. I thought that was it for this summer, but unexpectedly a bike trip with friends turned into doing another section of the LT when I injured my shoulder and couldn’t bike for a while. With this long-term goal clarified, I am now seeing ways to make progress even though the completion date isn’t in sight. It’s a good reminder about the power of breaking goals down.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad about dreaming. It can provide us with hope and inspiration. In my case it motivated me to buy new gear so that I could travel lighter on the trail. That said, just as buying the gym membership doesn’t improve your health, a new backpack didn’t get me on the trail.

Here is an excerpt from researcher and best-selling author, Richard Wiseman, from his book: 59 Seconds: Think a Little Change A Lot. See below for his top five list of what works in achieving one’s goals:

  1. Break your goal into a series of steps, focusing on creating sub-goals that are concrete, measurable, and time-based.
  2. Tell your friends and family about your goals, thus increasing the fear of failure and eliciting support.
  3. Regularly remind yourself of the benefits associated with achieving your goals by creating a checklist of how life would be better once you obtain your aim.
  4. Give yourself a small reward whenever you achieve a sub-goal, thus maintaining motivation and a sense of progress.
  5. Make your plans and progress concrete by keeping a hand-written journal, completing a computer spreadsheet or covering a notice board with graphs or pictures.

OK, so I didn’t pull out this list before I started thinking about my Long Trail adventure, and in fact, I didn’t know about it until I started researching for this newsletter. But what is interesting is how many of these I had done in my own way:

  1. As I shared, I decided to section hike it in smaller pieces, extended the timeframe, and shoot for 2-3 weekends a year (that puts me at under 10 years if I do 27 miles a year- clearly doable).
  2. I put my goal on Facebook- and was surprised and grateful for the number of encouraging comments. Several people said they would love to join me for a weekend.
  3. Benefits are clear, as I love being in the woods, hiking and sleeping out. I miss my big international backpacking trips of my 20s, and this connects me to an important aspect of myself.
  4. From my backpacking friends in Lithuania, I learned a lovely tradition to bring a “surprise” on each trip. I love pulling out an unexpected surprise and to receive one. My girlfriend carried in fresh orange juice for our morning after our first sleep out-awesome!
  5. The Long Trail requires a journal to get credit so I created a spreadsheet with who, where, miles covered, and fun notes to remember about the trip. I also started taking one video on each section to remind me of the experience. Maybe I’ll put it into a montage at the end.

What about you? Any big goals that you haven’t figured out how to make happen yet?

Book Review: The Upside of Stress-Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It

By: Kelly McGonigal

If you’re curiosity is piqued and you think you’d like to really pause and dig into this really important concept- please read this book! It’s a way to walk yourself through a process of creating a new, more positive relationship with stress. Part One engages you with rethinking the narratives and stories you have about stress and countering it with some useful research that shows stress actually has some upsides. Part Two explains how to transform stress, including rethinking anxiety and building deeper connections with others in stressful times as a way to build resilience against stress. Throughout the book there are personal reflections to prompt your thinking and great stories that cause you to nod your head and say “Me, too!” Two thumbs up!

P.S. If you’re feeling too stressed to read another book, here’s Kelly’s  TED talk on the topic:

Moving From Theory To Action: On Stress

To support you in changing your mindset on stress, here are some reflection questions:

1. To what extent do I find the stressful aspects of my life also meaningful?

2. When have I experienced that stress actually makes me more productive and engaged?

3. What is the language I use around stress and how might I make a small shift toward a more positive relationship with stress?

4. Since reaching out to others is one of the ways to reduce stress, who can I reach out to for support?

Mindset Shift: the Good News About Stress

June is always a crazy period for me- end of school-year activities, cramming in work projects before summer vacations start (like this newsletter!), extra social events, tending to the garden, not to mention that I want to go outside and enjoy the sun that’s finally here. There just doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day and I hear the conversations about how busy we all are, running from place to place, losing sleep, not being able to settle in and actually be present for any of these myriad of activities. It’s all so STREEESFUL! And we all know how terrible stress is for us… but is it really, and in what ways? I’ve been reflecting on the impact my relationship to stress has on me and those around me, and took a deep dive into some of the newest research on the topic showing that it might not be as bad as it seems.

A University of Wisconsin- Madison study asked 29,000 people to rate their stress level in the last year and how much they believed stressed influence their health. Then over the following eight years, they recorded the number of deaths by any of these subjects. What they found is that people who reported having high levels of stress and who believed stress had a large impact on their health had a 43 percent increased risk of death. Those who experienced a lot of stress but didn’t perceive its effects as negative were amongst the least likely to die in comparison to other participants in the study. Forty-three percent! Given that I don’t anticipate giving up my work, family and other commitments, it might be worth making this mindset shift.

Furthermore, a study by Roy Baumeister shows we believe the most stressful events are often the most meaningful. (Childbirth comes immediately to mind!) And when we work hard in our careers, give our all to our kids, and get engaged in our community, we may indeed, be stressed, but it is also be an indicator of a life of great meaning. I like that. I think going forward when people ask me how I’m doing, instead of saying “Wow- good, busy and stressful,” maybe I’ll try out instead, “I’m leading a life of great meaning!” I’ll let you know how people respond.

Finally, you can channel your stress into energy that increases your performance. When we see that stress is a natural part of life, we’re in a better mindset to find ways to deal with it, ask for help and see stressful events as challenges rather than something to be avoided. I often say to clients, anxiety is excitement without the breath. And that’s the exciting part, because we can become aware and can choose how we perceive the situation: problem or challenge? Danger or opportunity? Fear and anxiety, or excitement?

How you speak about something matters. I remember my daughter saying one time, “I’m completely overwhelmed and freaked out about my test tomorrow.” I responded to her by asking, “Are you completely overwhelmed, anxious or a bit nervous?” She responded by saying “a bit nervous” and her body visibly relaxed, shoulders lowered, and she exhaled. Studies show people who have some stress going into a test or a public speaking actually do better than those who don’t have a little adrenaline running through their body. I’m going to go back to my day and my To-Do list now, a little more grateful for the stress in my life.

Book Review: Leading and Managing in the Social Sector: Strategies for Advancing Human Dignity and Social Justice

Editors: S. Aqeel Tirmizi and John D. Vogelsang

For the first time, I’m able to recommend a book that I participated in writing! While it’s hot off the shelves and I haven’t read all of it yet, (though I know that Chapter 12 on Women’s Leadership Development is very good), this book offers important developments in the field of leadership for the social sector in order to have more impact. The opening quotation of the book, by bell hooks (who doesn’t capitalize her name) expresses the intention of the book compellingly: “There must exist a paradigm, a practical model for social change that includes an understanding of ways to transform consciousness that are linked to efforts to transform structures.” The book covers Leading Social Innovation, Engaging Meaningfully in the Complex Social Context, Fostering Organizational Resilience, Leading in Social Sector Organizations, and Measuring Success. I highly recommend it! (Please email me if you’d like me to send you just a copy of my chapter on Women’s Leadership Development Through Networks of Support).

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