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Holding true to myself: harder than choosing

 If you are like me, you are probably very busy right now, juggling the additional work and private demands that seem to make most of us a bit more frantic than usual as we approach Christmas.

Every year I try very hard to plan for additional buffer time to help me cope with the inevitable year-end urgencies; and every year I end up filling up all my buffer time and a little more.

Yet there is progress: I am still busy, but not stressed. What is the secret?

Yes, of course, we often wish to do something special towards the end of year. We know that it will be great to start the new year if we have managed to complete certain projects; we want to be sure to set aside time to reconnect with family and friends, and we want to take some quality time with ourselves to reflect about our progress.

Then we also want to take care of others around us, and of course they also have additional wishes in this period; our bosses, colleagues, friends, families, they are all sharing (or trying to impose) their needs and desires with us; as much as we feel inclined (or forced) to meet their needs or satisfy their request, we also know that we cannot possibly do it all.

We need to identify what is a real priority and what is not. We need to choose. And to stick to them!

If we don’t, instead of enjoying what we earlier had anticipated to be possibly the best period of the year, this will actually become (again) a classical year-end nightmare. Sounds familiar?

I have been there myself, but I am learning. Yes, the good news for me is that every year I learn a bit more about what is truly important to me: I am getting better at trusting my choices and especially at holding true to them. Am I less busy? Not really. Less stressed? I think so. Happier? Definitely.

I used to think that I simply needed to learn to make better choices: I focused on setting clear priorities and learning to say no. Then I used to systematically fail.

I eventually learnt two important things:

  1. It helps to know the relative “priority” (singular) of my values, rather than preparing a long list of “priorities” (plural).

    I recently read that the word “priority” only existed in its singular form until around the year 1940; since then we have been introducing the plural form “priorities” (as in: Priority 1, Priority 2, Priority 3, etc.). A concept that was originally supposed to help us identify what is really important in our life, and simplify it, was transformed in the declination of our addiction to being busy.

    On a more pragmatic basis, I started to realize that a long list of priorities (i.e. important tasks) only helps when everything around me stays the same, which is almost never the case. As soon as something new comes up, I am lost. If it is not in the “to do” or “not to do” lists, I have to start all over again, is it important or not? It is almost impossible to anticipate every type of urgency, or opportunity, that comes my way, so no matter what decisions I have made upfront, it is likely that I will have to spend time and energy re-evaluating it several times.

    For example, I might decide not to bake for Christmas (I will buy) or not shop for gifts (I will only send cards) or not accept last minutes projects (I will say no) or refuse to compile any last minute year-end reports (I will question the need, simplify or delegate), etc. Then something pops up that is not exactly as I had imagined; let’s say that my son comes home earlier and proposes that we bake together and I really like the idea; suppose that I just finish reading a great new book that I know one of my friends would just love, and I get the urge to buy her a copy for Christmas, then I suddenly feel that I need to give gifts to everybody; or maybe I unexpectedly hear from a client who has long been hesitant to buy, but now discovers to still have room in the budget and asks for that workshop that I have wanted so much to deliver; or maybe another reorganization gives us a supportive new boss and I really want to be sure that she gets a well-structured set of updated reports to bring her up to speed. So I am actually quite happy to re-think my decisions, in the light of the new events.

    So how can I choose in a better way? When I start to examine what made me re-think my decisions, I realize that every time I gladly say yes instead of no, I honor my values (e.g. family care: spending time with son; sharing: buy book for friend). Other times I choose out of obligation and I am not so happy (e.g. buy gifts to other friends). Or I choose based on assumptions of other people needs’ before I even ask (e.g. reports for anew boss who may want to take one thing at a time)

    So my tip is: choose the values that you want to honor, not the tasks. This makes it easier for me to re-evaluate and continue to make sound choices also when something new comes my way.

  2. It is easier to make a choice than to hold true to it and continue to respect it and honor it.

    In the previous example of buying a book for a friend then finding out that I “cannot” give a gift to one friend and not to the others. I start a dialogue inside my head and ruminate over what I should or should not do, I become judgmental and loose sense of perspective, then end up buying a gift to everybody in spite of my earlier decision to just send cards.

    What happens? Am I experiencing a clash of values? Actually, I am falling into the trap of self-deception. On one side I have a primal urge: I want to share a nice experience with a friend, presenting her with the same book that I have enjoyed; I am honoring my value of sharing. On the other side, I mislabel this as “generosity” and start to wonder if I am been unfairly generous with one vs. all others; then I beat myself up for not being fair or generous; in reality, I am afraid of being perceive as unfair and not generous. It is my self-image that is not happy, not me.

    I am fully able to hold true to myself when I am not worried about my self-image. As long as nobody else knows that I have bought a book for this friend, I can continue with my plan to send cards to everybody else. It is the fear of being found out and the anticipated need to have to “defend” myself that makes it so difficult to stick to my true urge. And yet, there is nothing to defend; nobody will really mind, it is the tough that counts and we all receive far too many things anyhow; and even if one or two might mind, do we really care so much for some who measure friendliness in terms of gifts rather that thoughts?

    So my tip is: learn to recognize the little voice of obsessive self-consciousness that sabotages our clear choices and stop listening to it; rather learn to follow your self-awareness of what is really important to you to be authentic, not what your self-image needs to protect itself.

So to conclude: be mindful of your choices and watch out for self-deceptions that can derail you!

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