You’ve seen the image before: the amateur marathoner who barely finishes the race. With the finish line in sight, their legs lock up, they stumble, and — though they cross the finish line (on all fours) — it’s not pretty.
That was me at the end of March. Just two weeks earlier, without ceremony, our boys had passed the one-year mark of being home all day, every day. With no firm date for a return to in-person learning, I wondered if my older son would finish first grade without crossing the threshold of his school even once.
On the work front, March was brisk. Scratch that. Some days, the string of back-to-back Zoom meetings was so long, I started evaluating my risk tolerance for a muted off-camera bio break with my laptop in hand. Don’t worry; ultimately, I did not take my device to the restroom. I struggled, however, to imagine a time when life would feel less overwhelming.
And then spring break happened. My family took a much-needed trip. For eight days, we escaped the confines of our home. We played, exercised, lived outside, ate and drank delicious food, and rested. I rested so much I caught up on sleep — that thing parents say will never happen.
At the end of the trip, I was ready to head home. I was not, however, ready to return to work. The last Sunday night of our break, I heard this strong internal voice saying, “I don’t want to!” I don’t want to juggle an appointment while my seven-year-old needs me to upload the work from his math test. I don’t want to facilitate another workshop while my five-year-old screams from his bedroom that he’s over remote learning. I don’t want to have another string of workdays where I hardly step outside our home, leaving me wondering if my Fitbit is even working. I don’t want to work on my laptop nightly until bedtime.
Recent circumstances aside, I love being an executive coach. Like my first coach Pat Adson, who was coaching me in her late eighties, I hope never to retire from this work. And while my work offers enormous flexibility, during the pandemic I’ve stretched that flexibility in every direction toward working more.
The stakes feel higher these days. My freshman roommate and dear friend Bob died unexpectedly in March at just forty-seven. Our birthdays were only a day apart, and like mine, his kids are still young. Looking at better work-life balance as a matter of life and death was no longer hyperbole.
Given all this buildup, why then did I feel overwhelmed when I heard that schools would reopen in two weeks? Why did the realization that I could bring my kids back to extracurricular activities lead to worry about how the reopening would affect my business? Why did scheduled vaccinations fill me with anxiety about being able to shake hands again or hug a vaccinated friend? An article from Adam Grant on languishing circulated among friends, colleagues and clients. Was that what I was experiencing?
In simplest terms, I felt like all these changes were happening to me. I felt powerless. Evolution has a model called “powerful/powerless.” When we are powerless, we see few options, we attribute power externally, and we are stuck. We are more likely to cling to our own opinion, get overwhelmed, and avoid conversations or experiences that could challenge our beliefs.
We shift to a powerful mindset through presence. Presence allows us to take ownership, offers solutions, and emphasize what we can do to change the situation (or our experience of it). When we show up as powerful, we are open, curious, and innovative. We are more committed to learning than to being right. Presence allows us to move out of the drama triangle — where we are hero, victim, or villain — and into more productive roles — creator, challenger, or coach.
Here are three things that helped me shift into presence.
1. Reconnecting with My Community
Just a few days back from vacation, I attended a virtual conference from The Hudson Institute, the coaching organization where I first trained to be an executive coach. For two days, 300 people from around the world convened to recharge and inspire one another. There were dear friends I’ve known and worked with for more than five years and people I met for the first time. Eve Hirsch Pontes had me dancing with hand movements while I sang along to a beautiful song that had me crying tears of joy. David Clutterbuck challenged my belief that coaching must have measurable goals. Shirzad Chamine taught a simple strategy for strengthening positive intelligence (PQ) brain muscles, calming my anxious mind and unproductive thoughts, by just rubbing my thumb and forefinger together with enough attention that I can feel the ridges on both fingers.
Spending time virtually with my community energized me to begin making post-vaccination plans to connect in person with friends. Last weekend, we spent five hours at the beach with a family we hadn’t seen in person in 18 months. This weekend, we celebrated my sister-in-law’s milestone birthday with a small group of friends. Giddy to be out socially, I found myself initiating conversation with strangers, inspired to be exposed to new people and ideas. In both instances, time flew as I enjoyed the moment. I was in flow in a way I hadn’t been since the start of the pandemic.
In an attempt to shift to a powerful mindset with the changes I was facing, I asked myself the question, “What if instead of feeling the changes were happening to me I could explore the possibility that the changes were happening for me?” Marilee Adams defines this as switching from judger mindset to learner mindset. If I want better work-life balance, including daily fitness, how might new commitments outside the home add healthy guardrails to my working hours? There was no guarantee that this would work, but trying it was certainly more appealing than staying stuck feeling powerless.
So I’m experimenting with building in breaks between appointments, using the reminder app on my phone to keep track of my priorities, and bundling exercise with audiobooks. I know I can bring openness and creativity to this process, because experiments in life are not the scientific kind, where we need to change one variable at a time to be clear on what’s working. I don’t need to precisely measure the impact of each experiment if the collective outcome is positive. As my friend and coach Bob Dickman said, “Why do you need to limit it to trying just one thing to help you feel better?”
3. Doing My Best to Avoid Extreme Thinking
In the middle of my busy March, I felt I’d never get caught up. It was hard for me to imagine going to bed without a long list of urgent and important unfinished business. When I found just one day with a light schedule, I was energized to learn how much I could get done with just a few free hours. The boost in productivity motivated me in subsequent days. It also helped me avoid unproductive worries when the less intense schedule continued. Instead, I poured my energy into business development.
This same concept applied to my thinking about the kids’ return to school. Upon hearing that in-person learning would return for just three hours each day, I thought, “What’s the point?” It took just two days of uninterrupted mornings for me to realize how much I could get done with as little as three hours each day. It felt as if I’d taken off a weighted vest for the first time in thirteen months. Sure, I hope the kids can return to full days soon, but this current model is way more sustainable than I had ever imagined.
I will hang on to these reminders of big wins from small shifts for the next time I’m feeling overwhelmed. That way I can remember that a viable option may sit nicely between all or nothing.
The world around me has had a dramatic shift in thinking during the past few months. Aside from March 2020, it’s hard for me to think of a greater one during my lifetime. Sure, we aren’t out of the woods completely in the U.S., but the outlook is more promising than it’s been in a really long time. For now, I will relish the possibilities, the opportunities to move more freely without the weighted vest. Some of the biggest lessons I will carry with me from the pandemic have happened in the fourth quarter. For now, I’ll avoid the temptation to rush the field, and do a few push-ups instead. I’m ready for the next event.
Peter Gandolfo, a partner at Evolution, is a certified executive coach and career coach who works with leaders at all levels to build awareness and make progress towards their goals. He’s passionate about working with fathers who want to continue to achieve in their careers while also being present for their children. He lives in Los Angeles with his husband and their two young boys.