Three stories were repeatedly told to me and about me when I was a kid:
First- when I was 3.5, a woman passed out in front of us in church. She collapsed in such a way that she hit her head on the pew on the way down. I immediately started shouting to ask for a doctor while her husband and the rest of my family were somewhat frozen. At least that’s how it’s been told; I don’t have an independent recollection of anything other than the fainting.
Second- when I was 5, my 2 year old brother had a seizure for the first time and my mom and I found him unresponsive in bed one morning. My mom called 911 but was unable to speak much beyond the initial “we need an ambulance.” I spoke to the dispatcher and then called my grandparents while we waited an agonizingly long 23 minutes for the ambulance to arrive.
And finally- when I was 11, my mom was driving me to a karate tournament at the local high school and passed out while going 45 mph. I can’t remember what was wrong with her that she passed out while driving (mom, we should talk about this- are you ok?) but it was 25 years ago so I assume it was a random freak incident. Anyways, I was able to maneuver the car safely to the side of the road and call for help from her phone. Yet my parents STILL didn’t let me get my license until I was almost 17! Go figure.
Beyond those stories that were told to and about me, I’ve also had someone have a heart attack in my office back in 2011 while working in NYC and was quick enough to think to get him some aspirin while we waited for help. I’ve been through situations where I have been physically attacked or threatened, where I’ve been in the room with someone who needed walked off the edge from taking their own life. I’ve not had someone push out a baby in my presence but you know for damn sure I’m ready if that happens.
All this to say, I was blessed to be born with a good fight or flight response and I’m a great person to have around in an emergency. Heck, I’ve even said that in job interviews and maybe a first date or two.
I’m one of those people that prepares ahead of time for a variety of crazy scenarios that could happen just in case I’m ever presented with them. I know the quickest way out of the supermarket and church in case of crisis, I know exactly what I’d do in any number of situations that arise if I was using an ATM and someone was trying to rob me, and I definitely have about six scenarios played out in case some lunatic tried to take one of my children while in a public place or parking lot.
That doesn’t mean the scenario in my head would go as I think it would, but I definitely sleep better at night knowing that I’ve thought through some options and wouldn’t be left to waste precious seconds in a real life emergency.
But what I’ve never been able to prepare for? The effect that chaos in my personal life might have on my ability to focus professionally.
I’ll admit, I was terrible at this when chaos and trauma entered my life some time ago; it was difficult if not impossible not to stress, worry, or simply be distracted by the many complicated things that were happening at home. However, as I’ve grown out of codependency over the last few years and into a healthier space, I have learned quite a few things that have allowed me to continue to perform at the highest level. I’d love to share these with you today in case any of you may find it helpful as well.
Deal With The Sh*t
Avoiding the difficult aspects of your personal life will not make them go away (believe me). It’s important to find the time and space to deal with the chaos that is going on in your life. That being said, it’s easier said than done and there’s not a prescribable one size fits all way to do this. But, because losing your job would in all likelihood only complicate your life further, you need to find a way to deal with it and move on so that you can get back to the business of being the professional you otherwise are.
Maintain a Routine
Unlike firefighting, where you stop what you’re doing to go put out the fire, in ongoing chaos you need to continue with normal as much as possible. Don’t abandon what you were doing. Keeping things as normal as possible will not only help to keep you going, step by step, but there’s also a sense of calm that comes with routine. It also keeps you from having new problems to deal with by virtue of relegating your regular duties/schedule. So stick with what you can as much as you can!
Practice Self Care
Whether that means a long hot bath at the end of the day with a good book, bringing the babysitter over for an extra night, calling an old friend to decompress on the phone or hitting the spa for an afternoon – it’s important that you find time to not be in chaos. Fight or flight is not sustainable for the long term; it’s intended to be and works best as a short term solution to a very short term problem. Allow yourself the grace to return to a state of calm. Meditate. Go to the gym. Play some music. It’s necessary to be able to function at the top of your game.
My very favorite way to do this is to schedule a spa day. I tend to do so on vacation and not at home because… 5 start resort spas!!! But when I can’t do this, I certainly try to mimic that environment at home and light some candles around my bath, lower the lights, play music, and relaxing my mind. Or trying to 🙂
Let Go of What You Can’t Control
Identify what you can solve and let go of what you can’t. You need resources- time, energy, sanity- to deal with the big things, so don’t spend those precious resources on things you have no control over. Make peace with ambiguity and things that you don’t understand.
Tackle the Hardest Things First
I cannot tell you how many arguments I’ve had over this. And based on how many times I’ve had, I’m sure there are lots of successful people that tackle the easy things first. But bear with me for a minute while I explain.
If I have ten things to do and limited mental capacity due to emotional, personal or physical strain, I use as much of that capacity to tackle the hardest, most important, or most complex thing (or most visible or most consequential… depending what it is) on my list first. Because everything else is easier, I feel more confident that I can do it with the little I have left.
Contrast that with others that have passionately argued this approach – if you have limited mental capacity, take care of the little things first so you get 7 or 8 things done on the 10 item list. Then you have more completed and that momentum will drive you towards completing the rest of the items.
Both approaches work, this I know, but in my opinion- if I had one very challenging thing to do and a bunch of easy or moderate tasks, I’m spending my energy getting the hard thing done.
Keep a Notepad Beside Your Bed
In order to deal with personal chaos and be effective professionally, you need sleep. And not just a little bit of sleep, but regular sleep that extends through multiple sleep cycles. If you’re not sure, ask any new parent 🙂
One way that I try to make sure I’m getting regular extended sleep is to keep a notepad beside my bed for the million thoughts that creep into my mind and keep me awake. Whether it’s items for the grocery list, that appointment that you forgot to put on the calendar, your child’s permission slip for the field trip, or anything else- simply writing it down in the middle of the night when it comes to me allows me to let it go from my mind.
I also do this for things that aren’t big items, but things I’m stirring on. Maybe I’m replaying an argument in my head or my brain thinks that 3am is a good time to strategize about the pay raise I was going to ask for — I take pen to paper and just write down “pay raise” or “indemnification clause- Mullen deal” and I find I’m able to let it go and get back to sleep easier than if I didn’t.