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Let me be clear that I refer to “Zen” in a very loose, western, non-religious sense – – as a means of experiencing “simple, calm, focus….. peace.”

Over the past few months my schedule has been extremely chaotic, my workload heavy, my meeting calendar packed, and many of my interactions higher on the “confrontation/conflict” index than I would like.  Mix in some air travel, the fact that my wife works/travels as well, that I have two busy kids, and it adds up to a difficult few months.  Many years ago, I would have just tried grind through it, keep on moving, and attempt to to smile and enjoy the ride.  However, I noticed this week that I was feeling tired, kind of sad and uninspired (oops Thompson Twins lyric alert) and my behavior was a bit more terse and edgy than usual.  On top of that I had a lot of people coming up to me and saying, “you look tired to day, are you alright?”  Of course I said, “I’m fine”, but when I took a few minutes to reflect a bit more deeply, I came to the conclusion that “maybe I’m not alright.”  I realized that what I was experiencing were “early warning signs / cries for help” from my mind and body. I wasn’t doing what I needed to provide myself with a minimal amount of simple, calm, focus (one thing or less to do), tranquility, peace – – aka ZEN.  Over this same period I have been driving fast (metaphorically speaking), but haven’t pulled over to refuel once.  I needed to take a moment, listen and act.

In the spirit of small things add up, and understanding that my schedule, workload and other life demands (husband/parent) would not necessarily let up or “flex” in the near future, I made a couple of decisions.

  1. Block Some ‘Balcony Time’ & ‘Doing Time’ On My Calendar.   Hard to do, but I did it.  I blocked out a few hours each week into the new year, where I will not take meetings or 1:1’s.  The idea was to ensure I had some time to reflect, develop strategy, plan/prioritize, and accomplish a few things based on those priorities.  In a sense, even though this sounds busy, if I’m actually in control of the time, can work on one thing at a time (and focus) it feels a lot less stressful and a lot better.
  2. Get a Good Night’s Sleep.  I’m actually a night person, so I had to make it a point to be in bed at a reasonable hour to ensure that I had at least 8 hours.  Sleep is the ultimate “recovery time” and often what I start cutting into when I’m really busy and stressed.  No mas.  Sleep is good.
  3. (Tough Love) Prioritization.  We all have to prioritize all of the time, and rarely is a hard “No” the answer in a professional setting.  Thus, I made it a point to take my own prioritization to the next level, to ensure I was spending enough time on the top, most critical priorities.  This meant telling a few colleagues, project stakeholders, etc. things like “I would love to meet with you, but it will need to be next week – vs. today”, or simply holding off on meetings/actions that don’t have a time-based deadline, or aren’t critical to the business.  Folks don’t always like this last one, but if you share your logic, and they trust you won’t simply discard the action/meeting forever, I find most people are reasonable.
  4. Focus on Health/Fitness.  I find during these tough times, when it’s easiest to let workouts and healthy eating slide, that it just feels better mentally to know you’re doing something really good for yourself.  So it’s part sublimation and part making yourself a priority – and both are good things.  There have been more than a few evenings recently when the thought of my weight training routine or a 5 mile run sounds almost unfathomable.  However, about 20 minutes into the workout, when the muscles are loose and getting rid of all those toxins, endorphins kick in, all I’m focusing on is counting out sets, or the sound of my running shoes hitting the ground – – I feel an energy, strength and sense of well being I wouldn’t have believed possible earlier in the day.  Of the psychological defense mechanisms to cope, at least sublimation can help increase your personal stock!

The bottom line is that by taking these small steps, taking control, and listening to my body, mind and other signs that I was pushing too hard, I started feeling a bit better.  I have had fewer people say “hey Mark, you look tired today” (which by the way is never a good way to start a conversation), my energy level is up, and my stress level is trending in the right direction.  I know that these are extremely busy and challenging times for everyone, so I hope that you will also take the time to listen to the subtle and not-so-subtle signals that you may need to take actions to FIND YOUR ZEN, refuel, and stay healthy.

I’d love to hear from you, particularly if there are things you do to effectively manage through and cope with all of the demands that define your days/weeks.

Small steps add up!