Graduates, stop worrying so much about being successful.

Congratulations, graduates! (And parents of graduates, too.) As you gaze with pride on your diplomas, I’m sure you’re also thinking about what comes next. No doubt you’re planning how to build a successful life with your newly earned degree. I wish you the best of luck as you search for a job and embark on a career…but I also want to extend a viewpoint that you may not have heard in graduation speeches.

It’s simple: Happiness and success are not—let me repeat, are not—necessarily the same thing.

Aren’t they? you ask. I’ve been working my whole life to get a good education and to earn this degree—all so I can hopefully get a job in the field I want and do it well. You’re telling me that successfully achieving this goal won’t make me happy?

Well, no. Don’t get me wrong: Getting a promotion or being recognized for a professional achievement can make you really happy—briefly. But what about all of the weeks, months, and years of work that came before that moment of success?

Personal experience and extensive observation have convinced me that the lifestyle required to become “successful” makes you anything but happy. Long hours, devices that tether us to work 24/7, insufficient time with friends and family, and constant stress drive you into the ground, not to new heights of fulfillment.

The problem is, as a culture, we’re so focused on getting to the next rung of the ladder that we have forgotten how important quality of life is. We have accepted stress, unfulfilling careers, strained relationships, and little free time as the price we have to pay for the “good life.” Meanwhile, happiness has totally gotten lost in the equation, and the lives we’re living aren’t “good” at all.

So, graduates, here’s my advice to you if you’d like to keep your success from destroying your happiness:

  • Do work you enjoy. First (as I’m sure you’ve been told before), try to go into a field that you enjoy—not one that you think will make you rich. While workaholism can sour any passion if taken too far, you’ll generally be a lot more fulfilled if your success is driven by work you like. If you reach the top because you’ve been doing something that you’re passionate about and that you feel is inherently worth your time and energy—and if you keep your work-life balance healthy—you’ll also be happy. It’s when you blindly pursue the symbols of success without regard for the other areas of your life that you run into problems.
  • …But realize that you are not your work. What you do is certainly part of your identity, but it should never become your primary source of self-worth. If you ever begin to feel that the only thing you have to offer the world are achievements that happen on the job, it’s probably time to take a step back. I understand being proud of your career accomplishments and of other things in your life, but I have learned beyond a shadow of a doubt that you can be truly happy only if you draw your self-worth primarily from your relationships: first and foremost from your positive relationship with yourself, and secondarily from your relationships with other people and with your Higher Power (if you believe in one).
  • Understand that you’re never “stuck.” If you’re less satisfied with your field or career than you’d hoped, realize that it’s never too late to reinvent yourself and move in a direction that will make you happier. Find mentors, take classes, pursue certifications, or network—just don’t settle for dissatisfaction and a job you dread.
  • Choose happiness every day. With all of the responsibilities on your plate, nothing is likely to improve unless you specifically focus on it. So make working towards a happier life one of the two or three priorities you absolutely must accomplish each day. To remind yourself, put a note where you can see it—maybe on the refrigerator or bathroom mirror. I could write a book (and have!) on how to infuse happiness into your life, but briefly, some happiness-boosting activities you can choose to incorporate into each day include: exercising, reading motivational material, learning new things, helping others, expressing gratitude, spending time on a hobby, fully engaging (sans devices!) with loved ones, etc.
  • Look at the road ahead of you through the eyes of those who have traveled it. Yes, I know you’re young right now, but someday, you’ll be looking back at and evaluating your life. You don’t want it to be filled with regrets. That’s why I’d highly recommend reading an article called “Top Five Regrets of the Dying” by Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative nurse. Like Bronnie, I believe that individuals who are nearing the end of their time on Earth may see things more clearly than those of us who are still “in the thick of things.” And I also believe that it’s definitely not a coincidence that nearly all individuals who are facing death share the same regrets. One of them is “I wish I didn’t work so hard.” Turns out, professional success doesn’t hold a candle to being a good spouse, parent, and friend in terms of the fulfillment it brings.

Grads, you get only one shot at life. If you prioritize happiness and the things that really matter right out of the gate, you’ll also be creating a firm foundation on which to build professional success. Why? You have a strong support system, a soft place to land, and a healthy work-life balance—all of which will contribute to your creativity, motivation, and engagement over the long haul.

Congratulations, Class of 2014. Here’s to happiness!

The Perfectionism Antidote

In my last blog post, I discussed perfectionism (which, in my opinion, is becoming increasingly prevalent in our society) and why it’s so harmful. I also shared that for much of my life, I was the “poster child” for perfectionism. Yes, my desire to avoid mistakes, mediocrity, and certainly failure pushed me to achieve great things…but they also contributed to a life of stress and anxiety. As a perfectionist, I was never comfortable with where I was, and I certainly didn’t love myself. I was always worried about the future, because I felt that I was only as good as my next accomplishment.

Finally, after experiencing my breakdown, I admitted to myself that my perfectionist tendencies were doing much more harm than good. Over the past decade, I have made an effort to leave this type of unhealthy ambition behind, and to develop a more balanced outlook regarding what I expect from myself.

Working to overcome my perfectionist tendencies has been one of the most liberating things I have ever done for myself. I promise, when you successfully shed the belief that everything in your life has to be just so—or else!—you will feel a weight lifting from your shoulders, too. You will take more risks, have more fun, live in the moment more often, connect with others more effectively, and most of all, experience a ton more relaxation and happiness. I promise! That said, here are a few things you can do to overcome perfectionism:

  • Learn to recognize the signs. In order to change any habit, you must first be able to identify when it’s manifesting. Take a few minutes to list what you actually do and feel when your quest for perfection kicks into high gear. Are you zoom-focused on something in particular? Do you feel anxious and stressed? Does a certain thought play over and over again in your mind like a continuous mental loop? Do you start to ignore other areas of your life? Knowing what the “symptoms” are will help you to consciously recognize when perfectionism is taking over.
  • Ask, “How much is this helping?” I know from experience that perfectionists tend to get bogged down in the details. In more recent years, I have also learned that those nitty-gritty things don’t always matter as much as you think they do. When you notice yourself beginning to obsess, ask yourself, “How much is this helping?” For example, is it worth spending several more hours tweaking a small part of a report to your boss, or would that time be better spent on another project? Often, running this type of cost-benefit analysis in your mind will give you the clarity you need to let go and move on.
  • See goals as guidelines. When perfectionists set goals for themselves, they tend to see any other result as a failure—even if it’s still very positive. Remember, life is unpredictable, and people—as well as what they want for themselves—can and should change as they move forward. That’s why it’s much more helpful to see goals as guidelines instead of harsh, inflexible benchmarks. Use your goals to motivate, inspire, and direct your progress, not as standards by which to negatively judge your achievements and progress. If you do encounter difficulty after difficulty in your pursuit of a goal, try not to see those incidents as reasons why you are failing to measure up. Instead, use them to assess your overall direction and development. Do these challenges reveal skills and abilities you would like to develop further…or are they telling you that you’re driving yourself down a path that isn’t right for you? When the latter option is the answer, don’t force yourself to continue moving in an unhealthy direction.
  • Celebrate successes. When I look back at my career as a student and young professional, I see many, many successes. However, what I don’t see is my younger self celebrating those victories. Instead, I immediately focused my attention on the next challenge and began to worry about the mistakes I might make in the future. I wish I had learned earlier in life how important it is to acknowledge your own accomplishments and reward yourself for them—it raises self-esteem, boosts morale, and reaffirms how capable and valuable you really are.
  • Focus on your strengths. Perfectionists tend to obsess over the areas in which they fall short. However, experience has taught me that you’ll be much happier as well as more effective if you focus your efforts on the areas in which you excel. Plus, when you’re more frequently doing things that you’re good at and that you enjoy, you’ll be able to look at the inevitable mistakes that you will make with a healthier perspective.
  • Get rid of all-or-nothing thinking. Have you ever worked on a project or task that was mostly a success? If you’re a perfectionist, the answer is “no,” because anything that’s not a free-and-clear win is a loss. The problem is, this kind of thinking robs you of so much happiness and fulfillment. The next time you think you have failed, take a second look at what happened. You might even ask a friend or family member to discuss the event or project with you. Try to identify things you did well, progress you made, and lessons you learned—all of which are positive! No, you don’t have to ignore what went wrong, but at the same time, don’t ignore what went right, too!
  • See life as all for one, not one versus all. As I mentioned in my last post, perfectionists have a tendency to isolate themselves from other people. Some compare themselves to others in a negative way and voluntarily withdraw; others are overly competitive in their quest to be the best. If you see yourself taking either one of these routes, make a conscious effort to connect instead. Rather than trying to outdo your coworker, for instance, realize that you’re on the same team and collaborate with each other. (Chances are, you’ll achieve more when you combine your respective talents and abilities!) Or, when you catch yourself listing all of the ways in which you don’t measure up to your running buddy, switch gears. Find out what has helped her to succeed and ask if she’ll help you to improve.

Ultimately, I believe that the best way to overcome perfectionism long-term is to learn how to love and accept yourself simply as you are and for who you are (which, in my opinion, is the very definition of happiness!). The more you value and accept yourself for the unique person you truly are, the less you’ll be driven to draw your self-worth from other areas.

I urge you to practice treating yourself with the same kindness you would show to a beloved friend or family member when you fail to live up to your own expectations. Remember that you are human—which means that you are fallible—so you will always make at least one mistake a day. And that’s okay!

 

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Perfection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

I’ve been thinking a lot about perfectionism recently. That’s because everywhere I look, I see it in action.

I see thousands of young people desperately striving to compile the “perfect” résumé so they can get into the “perfect” college and eventually get the “perfect” job. I see parents searching for the “perfect” child-rearing methods because they’re terrified of screwing up their kids. I see families spending large amounts of time and money on decorating the “perfect” house, because Pinterest has convinced them that’s how everyone lives. I see professionals in all industries running themselves ragged because they’ve been told that the “perfect” employee never stops leaning in. Most of all, I see a nation of people making themselves unhappy as they try to fix various aspects of themselves, their careers, and their lives.

Trust me, I understand—the first three and a half decades of my life were filled with perfectionism. I told myself that I was working toward better things, greater achievements, and my best self in general, but in truth, I was pushing myself to the brink mentally and sometimes physically. My thoughts were always fixated on how I had fallen short in the past or on what I needed to do in the future. I rarely, if ever, enjoyed the present moment. And there is no doubt in my mind that this perfectionism-driven anxiety was a major contributor to the breakdown I eventually suffered at age 36.

Unfortunately, as I’ve learned through personal experience, our efforts to achieve perfection usually have the opposite effect from what we intend: They contribute to our unhappiness. In general, here are some ways in which perfectionism tends to harm us:

  • It causes a lack of balance. When you are driven to achieve perfection in a certain area, that quest will often come to dominate your thoughts, actions, and intentions. You may neglect other important parts of your life, such as your relationships, health, or career, as you work toward doing or being the best in that one area. An out-of-balance life is inherently unsustainable.
  • It breeds self-destructive habits. The human body and mind were designed to achieve great things, but not to be perfect. When we try to push ourselves beyond nature’s limits, we end up hurting ourselves. The self-destructive habits that perfectionism causes can be mental (e.g., a tendency to obsess about every little mistake), physical (e.g., ignoring your body’s need for fuel and rest as you work on a project), and/or emotional (e.g., constantly feeling unworthy or guilty). Furthermore, perfectionism can drive some people to cope in unhealthy ways. Drinking, gambling, doing drugs, and more can temporarily assuage the negative feelings that result from “not being good enough.”
  • It lowers your self-esteem. It’s simple: We are all fallible. But when a perfectionist inevitably makes a mistake, she doesn’t see the error as a part of being human; she sees it as a personal shortcoming. She’s never satisfied with herself or her accomplishments; instead, she usually feels like a failure. Plus, she’s constantly comparing herself to others whom she believes are “better” than her. Unfortunately, chronic low self-esteem becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you believe you can or can’t do something, you’ll almost certainly be right. 
  • It causes you to live in fear. Trust me on this one: While a perfectionist’s life may look enviable from the outside, that person is not experiencing the good life because he feels he is only as good as his last star performance. He is constantly afraid: of failure, of criticism, of making a bad impression, of deadlines, of other people’s judgment, and much more.
  • It reduces opportunity and alienates people. The definition of perfectionism is expecting things to be a certain way and not accepting anything less—qualities that don’t exactly foster community and collaboration. Say, for instance, that someone is a perfectionist at work. Chances are, he won’t be able to effectively work with his colleagues because their contributions will never be exactly right or good enough to meet his high standards.

This person might nag his coworkers and tell them where they’ve gone wrong, or he might keep his mouth shut, then go behind them to make “corrections” on group projects. Either way, he will be seen as judgmental, overly competitive, and/or nitpicky. His insistence on doing things a particular way will eventually cause him to be isolated and ignored because he will be seen as difficult and frustrating to work with.

  • It contributes to anxiety and depression. When you “train” your brain to be consistently worried, stressed, and down on yourself, those unhealthy states of mind become your norm…and they’re known as anxiety and depression.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to do and be your best, or to reach your full potential. You should. But I also think that each and every one of us needs to honestly assess our lives to make sure that we haven’t crossed the line from “wanting our best lives” to demanding the impossible from ourselves and others so we have “a perfect life.” That line, thin as it may appear, separates your ability to be happy from constant dissatisfaction, stress, and frustration.

In my next blog post, I will share some tactics that have helped me to overcome my own perfectionistic tendencies and that will enable you to do the same.

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How to Boost Employee Engagement: Part 2

Unless you’ve been living under a cultural rock, you’ve seen the popular 1999 film Office Space. And if you’re like millions of Americans, you know all too well what the film’s characters mean when they refer to “a case of The Mondays”: low-grade dread, sluggishness, a lack of motivation, and an overall sense of disengagement when it comes to your job. These feelings inspire workers to do only the bare minimum necessary to avoid being fired, and they can easily bleed beyond the first day of the workweek.

As a leader, you don’t need to be told just what a negative effect this “ailment” can have on your company’s culture, bottom line, and employee turnover. What you do need are real-world tactics to help banish The Mondays from your organization.

In my last blog post, I shared my belief that the “cure” for The Mondays is actually pretty simple: To create more workplace happiness, motivation, and productivity, you need to show your people more gratitude, individual recognition, and (yes!) love. Believe it or not, these things make employees happier in their day-to-day work lives than huge salaries and corner offices!

I’ve already shared three tactics to help you cultivate happy, engaged employees:

  • Catch people doing things right.
  • Praise employees publicly as often as possible.
  • Handle mistakes with care.

Here are five more tactics to add to that list:

Don’t be the sole decision maker. Maybe you’ve never put much emphasis on the thoughts and opinions of your employees. After all, you pay them a fair wage to come to work each day and perform specific tasks. As a leader, it’s your job to decide what those tasks should be and how they should be carried out, right? Well, yes—strictly speaking. However, this unilateral approach to leading your team sends the impression that you’re superior (even if that’s not your intent) and also contributes to disengagement.

You see, employees who are told what to do feel like numbers or cogs in a machine. To unlock buy-in and achievement, make your employees feel like valued partners by seeking out their opinions, ideas, and preferences. They’ll be much more invested in your organization’s success because they had an active part in creating it. And here’s some good news that may surprise you: Your employees probably won’t care as much as you think they will if their suggestion doesn’t become reality. Mostly, they just want to know that their voice was heard by the people in charge.

Help your employees grow. As a leader, there’s a lot you have to deal with on a daily basis: Meeting quotas. Making sure procedures are followed. Keeping up with advances in your field. Learning and disseminating company policy. The list goes on. But no matter how full of “stuff” your plate is, don’t forget that a crucial part of leadership is developing your people.

Ultimately, the success or failure of your business depends on the people who show up each day to do the work, so place a strong emphasis on developing them. Give each member of your team progressively more autonomy, authority, and responsibility when they show they can handle it. When they feel challenged and know that their talents are being utilized, your employees will be more engaged. And whatever you do, avoid micromanaging, which can give employees the impression that you don’t have faith in them. If you have to, lock yourself in your office or go for a walk to keep yourself from hovering!

Remember that business is personal. Your employees will be more loyal and more motivated if they feel valued as individuals, not just as job descriptions. So get to know each team member on an individual basis and incorporate that knowledge into your regular interactions. For instance, if you know that John in Accounting has a daughter who’s applying to college, ask him which schools she’s considering. Or if Susanna in HR just came back from vacation, ask to see a few pictures.

Actually, showing genuine interest and caring is the greatest motivator I know. When you dare to “get personal,” your employees’ desire to please you will skyrocket. That’s why, when I was leading Autopart International, I took advantage of every opportunity I could think of to let my people know I was thinking about them. I recommended books I thought they might enjoy. I sent motivational quotes to employees who might appreciate them. I attended all weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, and graduations I was invited to. And guess what? Not only did I boost employee engagement…I also formed a lot of meaningful relationships that continue to this day.

Make it a family affair. Whenever possible, engage your employees’ families in a positive way. In addition to holding contests with family prizes and inviting loved ones to company celebrations, make sure that your team members’ families know how much they’re appreciated by your company. Having a leader validate all the hours each employee spends at work will be remembered far longer than a bonus (really!). Plus, when spouses and kids know what Mom or Dad does at work and are “on board” with it, your employee’s performance will be buoyed by support from the ones he or she loves the most.

For example, if an employee at Autopart International did something really tremendous, I would call his home, generally trying to get the answering machine and not a person. Then I’d leave a voicemail like this one:

Hi, (name of spouse and kids), this is Todd Patkin from Autopart International where your husband and dad works. I just want to tell you that he is incredible! He just broke our Nashua, New Hampshire, store’s all-time sales record. Guys, that is tremendous! So, please, kids, do me a favor. When your dad comes home tonight, everyone run up and give him a huge hug and tell him how proud you are of him and how great he is. And, (name of spouse), I hope you will give him a wonderful kiss to make sure he knows how much you love him and how much he is appreciated for all he’s doing for our company. Thanks, guys.

Years later, many employees whose families received these phone calls told me that although they didn’t remember how much their bonus checks were for that year, that extra-special homecoming was still clearly etched in their memories. And you know what? Leaving that message cost me next to nothing.

Re-recruit your best people. Since the buck stops with you, it can be tempting to focus the bulk of your help and encouragement on your lower performers. If I can help Ted and Tina boost their numbers, the thinking goes, this entire department will be better off. Plus, I just don’t want to explain their dismal performance to my boss. While it is your duty to help your weak links move up in (or out of) your organization, your efforts are actually best spent with your top people. Just think of how much more impressive their already-great work could be with some more encouragement and guidance. Also, think of how far back your team would slide if these MVPs decided to hand in their notice and work for the competition.

You should go as all-out in “re-recruiting” your top people as you would in attracting new talent. At Autopart International, I regularly thanked my top performers and gave them tickets to concerts and sporting events, gift certificates to restaurants, etc. in order to show the depth of my appreciation. And considering what it would have cost in turnover to attract and train suitable replacements, well, I never considered those expenses to be anything other than money well spent.

If there is one thing I would like to tell all leaders at all levels and in all industries, it’s that you have nothing to lose and everything to gain—including an improved bottom line—by making your organization as happy a place to work as possible. While a lack of employee engagement is certainly a costly problem, its solution doesn’t have to be.

How to Boost Employee Engagement: Part 1

We all know that employee engagement matters. Yet again and again, studies point to a pervasive lack of it (for instance, a recent Gallup report indicates that only 13 percent of employees worldwide are engaged), as well as the incredible costs of this problem. No one can deny that disengaged employees are less productive, less innovative, less collaborative…less everything that leads to successful organizations. Yet, despite all the handwringing, no one seems to know what to do about it.

That’s not particularly surprising. After all, it’s not like companies have the money to spend on lavish perks or formal “engagement” initiatives these days, nor do busy leaders have the time to obsess over such matters. Everyone’s just trying to survive.

Well, here’s some good news. I know for a fact that true employee engagement needn’t be expensive or difficult to implement. Engagement is really just another word for on-the-job happiness…and we intuitively know that happiness is connected to the simple things in life. So why not apply that principle to the workplace?

I first tested this theory out when I was leading (along with my father and brother) Autopart International. (It was sold to Advance Auto Parts in 2005.) I knew that the key to our company’s growth and success was to have motivated, fulfilled, and inspired employees. I wanted everyone who worked for us to have great attitudes about their jobs. And after testing out a few “motivation plans,” I realized that—believe it or not—simple things like gratitude, respect, and autonomy make people far more happy day-to-day than big salaries and corner offices. Best of all, these things are free and usually easy to provide.

If you’re wondering what the catch is, it’s that you might have to put some work into changing the leadership habits that might be keeping your employees beaten down and resentful. But doing that work is worth it. It’s the cornerstone of a cultural change that will naturally and organically lead to better employee engagement.

Here are three employee engagement strategies to help you get started. In my next blog post, I’ll describe five more.

Catch people doing things right. Everyone knows how embarrassing and stressful it is when the boss catches you doing something wrong. And for most employees, those negative feelings can linger (and impact performance) for hours, days, or longer. That’s why, if you don’t want your team to dread your presence in their workspace, you need to start each day with the intention of catching as many people as possible doing well.

People love to hear positive feedback about themselves, and in most cases, they’ll be willing to work a lot harder to keep the compliments coming. That’s because praise, especially when it comes from an authority figure, is incredibly fulfilling. (And sadly, it’s also rare.) Phrases like, “Bob, I’ve noticed that you always double-check your reports for errors, and I want to thank you for your commitment to quality,” or, “Sue, you always take such care to keep the file room neat. Thank you so much!” take about five seconds to say, but they can pay long-lasting dividends for your company.

Praise them publicly (and then praise them some more). Even if they brush off praise or downplay their achievements, everybody loves to be recognized and complimented in front of their peers. So don’t stop with a “mere” compliment when you catch an employee doing something right—tell the rest of the team, too! Whether correctly or incorrectly, many employees feel that their leaders take them for granted and point out only their mistakes in front of the group, so make it your daily mission to prove that perception wrong.

When I was at Autopart International and I saw that one of my people did something noteworthy, I made sure that everyone else knew about it by emailing the story to the entire chain. I could literally see the glow on the highlighted employee’s face for weeks, and I also noticed that many of the other team members began to work even harder in order to earn a write-up themselves. Other successful recognition strategies included writing thank-you notes to my employees and publishing a company-wide monthly newsletter highlighting our “stars.” During our best months, it might include everyone from upper management to drivers to floor and road salespeople, and was often over 30 pages long!

Handle mistakes with care. In business, mistakes are going to happen. You don’t have a choice about that. What you can choose is how you as a leader handle them—and by extension, what kind of impact they have on your company. Sure, lambasting an employee who has dropped the ball may make you feel better in the short term, but it’ll negatively impact that employee’s self-confidence, relationship with you, and feelings for your company for much longer.

Don’t get me wrong: You shouldn’t take mistakes, especially those involving negligence, incompetence, or dishonesty, lightly. But when your employees have made an honest mistake, try to be as understanding with them as you would be with your own family members. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that the employee feels very bad already, and that yelling or lecturing won’t change the past. Instead, focus on figuring out what went wrong and how to keep it from happening again. Did the employee (or the company as a whole) learn something? Should a process or procedure be tweaked going forward to reduce the chances of something similar reoccurring?

Also, never forget that mistakes are an essential part of growth. The innovation and creativity it takes to grow a business will be accompanied by setbacks and slip-ups. You don’t want to create an environment where people don’t take potentially productive risks because they’re afraid you’ll get mad if they screw up.

Be sure to check back for my next blog post, in which I’ll share five more employee engagement strategies that really work—and that won’t blow your budget.

Eight Tips for Salvaging Your “Get in Shape” Resolution

“This is the year I’m going to get fit/lose weight/exercise more.” If you made any version of this common New Year’s resolution, you probably meant every word you said. It’s likely that you stuck to your gym schedule through the first week of January, and maybe even through the second. But by this point, you may be finding pressing reasons why you can’t work out, why other things on your to-do list need to take precedence. And soon, you’ll stop trying to fool yourself at all. Another year, another failed resolution, huh?

Believe me, I get it. Making big lifestyle changes is tough. And it’s not like you don’t have five thousand other responsibilities to focus on, right? Between your job, your kids, your house, and the million other chaotic details of everyday life, how did you ever expect to find the time to sweat off those extra 20 or 30 pounds?

Well, don’t throw in the towel just yet. Even if your exercise regimen is starting to slip, you don’t have to join the 92 percent of people who typically fail at achieving their resolutions. There’s still time to salvage your “get in shape” resolution—trust me! I’ve been down this particular road a few times myself, and as a result, I’ve learned a few things about staying on track—and about getting back on the wagon when you’ve fallen off! In this blog post, I’d like to share a few tips that may help you to breathe new life into your New Year’s resolution:

*Get rid of the excuses. The number one excuse that people use to not keep an exercise resolution is that they simply don’t have the time. But consider this: If you don’t take or make the time to take care of yourself, the stark fact is that you’ll probably have less time to spend on this earth. Also, it doesn’t take an expert to confirm that if you don’t care for your physical and mental well-being, you’re going to spend more time feeling sick and tired. So think of taking care of yourself physically as an investment—because that’s exactly what it is. Looking at exercise through this lens, weigh it against other activities and obligations in your life, and see which one comes out on top.

*Ditch your gym membership. Yes, seriously! That’s because the key to instilling a habit into your life is to make it doable. If you’re not exercising at all now, realistically, you probably won’t become a gym rat overnight. (And you’ll feel bad about yourself when you don’t get your money’s worth out of the membership fee.) So for now, put the running clubs, spin classes, and personal trainers on hold. Those can come into play later if you choose. At this point, all you need is a pair of walking shoes and the willingness to get off the couch for 15 to 20 minutes every other day.

*Start small. To start, try taking just a 20-minute walk every other day. That’s it. For example, you might walk around your neighborhood first thing in the morning (it’s a great way to start the day!), or maybe take a few laps around your office building at lunch. You could even go to a track or use a treadmill. I’ve found that the earlier you take your walk the better, because if you wait till evening “life” tends to get in the way. (Oh, and if you’re so busy that you don’t have 20 minutes to spare every other day, two 10-minute walks will work, too!) Over time, you can consider increasing the pace, duration, and frequency of your walks.

*Find some company. Consider exercising with friends or family members. Knowing that you have someone to whom you’re accountable will prevent you from slacking off too much, and the company will make your walks, workouts, or whatever else you choose to do more enjoyable. Especially if you have kids, I suggest making exercise a priority for the whole family. Being active together will instill a healthy habit in all of your lives, and it will also bring you closer together. Even if you don’t exercise together, though, make sure that your family understands and supports your own quest to become healthier. This is very important. You’ll need their support and understanding to make this big change.

*Schedule your exercise. If you leave your exercise up to chance, it probably won’t happen. “I’ll get around to it” is not a strategy for success. But if your workouts are on your calendar, they’re one step closer to becoming reality. When you know beforehand what time you plan to work out, and for how long, other excuses are much less likely to take precedence. And guess what? If you consistently schedule your exercise for long enough, it will become a habit.

*Make it easy to get started. After a lifetime of exercising, I’ve learned that the most difficult part of a workout isn’t pushing through to the finish when you start to get tired. It’s taking that first step out the door! Seriously, the comfort of your couch (or your bed) is the number one enemy of your New Year’s resolution. I recommend taking a good look at your particular routine and figuring out how to make that “first step out the door” easier. If you exercise first thing in the morning, for instance, maybe you lay out your workout clothes the night before—or even sleep in them! Or if you want to get in a walk after work, bring your athletic shoes to work with you so that you don’t have to stop by your house—and risk falling prey to your easy chair—first.

*Plan on making some mistakes. If you manage to salvage your exercise resolution mid-January, you’re doing great—better than many of your peers. But that doesn’t mean it will be smooth sailing from now till December 31st. Actually, I can pretty much guarantee you that you will fall off the wagon at some point this year. Probably multiple times—and that’s okay. Slip-ups are what make us human. But you know what? One of the other great things about being human is that what the future looks like is our choice. Even if you failed to lace up your athletic shoes for a week…or two…or three (or more!), you can still choose to put them on today.

*Remember that it’s not just about getting in shape. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Exercise is the single most important thing you can do to improve your life and your happiness level right now. That’s because physical activity is a fantastic energizer (mentally and physically!). It will make you feel more relaxed and less stressed. In fact, it can be just as effective as taking an antidepressant medication…without the potential side effects. Just imagine the effects a consistently improved attitude might have on your 2014!

If your goal is to have a healthier, fitter 2014, know that I’m in your corner—and that I’ll be exercising right along with you. Remember, you don’t have to run a marathon or work off all of your body fat to consider your New Year’s resolution a success. All you have to do is get out there and move.

The Resolution Project

Ninety-two percent of the time, we don’t end up keeping our New Year’s resolutions. That’s a shame—not just because we don’t experience the outcomes we’ve dreamed about (e.g., losing weight or socking away a certain amount of money) but because we also deny ourselves a lot of happiness on the way to achieving them.

Yes, you read that right. I understand for most people, doing things like slaving away in the gym, cutting calories, and curtailing “fun” spending might not seem like a recipe for joy. But according to multiple experts, working toward a goal does boost your happiness. Here’s what Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., of the University of California-Riverside has to say: “People who strive for something personally significant, whether it’s learning a new craft, changing careers, or raising moral children, are far happier than those who don’t have strong dreams or aspirations. Find a happy person, and you will find a project.”

Find a happy person, and you will find a project. I tend to agree. Throughout my life, I’ve noticed that projects, whether they’re for work, part of a hobby, or (yes!) even a New Year’s resolution, give you purpose and structure. They keep you from sitting around twiddling your thumbs, which inevitably leads to discontent. And when you accomplish milestones on the way to finishing your project (not to mention crossing the big finish line), your self-esteem and sense of accomplishment grow. And those things are all big contributors to an overall sense of contentment.

That being the case, here are some of my tips to help you stay on track and keep your 2014 resolutions:

Stick to one meaningful resolution. First of all, don’t overcommit. If you divide your attention and energy between multiple goals, you decrease the chances that you’ll follow through on any one of them. Even if there are several things you’d like to accomplish in 2014, I encourage you to narrow down the list (especially if your past resolution track record isn’t so good!). Identify one thing that means a lot to you, then devote your time and energy to accomplishing it.

Sit down now and plan out how you’re going to get there. Big accomplishments don’t just happen—they take thought, planning, and commitment. And most of the time, they’re built on a series of smaller, consecutive achievements. So figure out what baby steps you’ll have to take and which milestones you’ll have to hit before the clock starts ticking on January 1st. Write them down. If you can see exactly where you need to go, you’ll be less likely to stall out or make a wrong turn.

Schedule dates for your milestones. If something is written down on your calendar, it’s more likely to happen. (Face it: Saying, “I’ll get around to it one of these days” isn’t exactly a reliable strategy.) For example, you might say, “By March, I’d like to have lost five pounds,” or, “By May, I’ll have turned in my application for that online master’s program I’ve been eyeing.” These deadlines aren’t meant to be set in stone; they’re just guidelines to keep you on track and prevent you from procrastinating for months at a time!

Expect to slip up… Here’s the truth: Nobody’s perfect. Not me, not you, not anyone. I can tell you that during every project I’ve ever successfully pursued, I’ve still made mistakes, dropped some balls, and backslidden. I’m not saying this to discourage you, but to assure you that when the same thing happens during your resolution project, you haven’t failed outright!

…but don’t let those slip-ups derail you. Remember, tomorrow’s a new day and a new chance. You may have fallen off the wagon on Tuesday, but you can climb back onto it on Wednesday, or Thursday, or even next Friday. Whenever you slip up, spend a little time refamiliarizing yourself with your goal and refocusing on why it’s important. Always remember: Quitting or continuing is your choice.

Reward yourself for small and large victories. Yes, you’ll derive satisfaction from the work of progressing toward your goal, but that doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate small victories along the way! Every time you lose five pounds, or save another hundred dollars, or pass any milestone, reward yourself. Even if it’s just a cup of your favorite tea or a night at the movies, acknowledging your progress will give you the fuel to keep going.

Build a support team. It’s hard to sustain any important work for a year without external support. Tell your friends and family members what you’re doing and ask for their understanding, help, and encouragement. And if you know anyone with the same goal as you, think about becoming accountability partners. If you know your friend is waiting for you at the gym, for instance, you’ll think twice about skipping your workout.

Take your project’s “temperature” each month. On a monthly basis, it’s a good idea to reexamine your resolution. Make sure this is still something that you want to do and that it’s taking you to a place you still want to go. The truth is, people and circumstances change. It’s completely possible that what made sense on January 1st no longer honors who you are on September 19th! Remember, this is a project that’s supposed to make you happier, not crazier and more stressed. There’s no shame in changing course mid-year if it’s done for your well-being.

Here’s to a productive, happy 2014!

Season of Peace: The Importance of Quiet Time

For many of us, this time of year—now through New Year’s—is very busy. There are parties, get-togethers, year-end events, concerts, receptions, and more. In my mind, there are several reasons for this December social crunch. The first is very simple: It’s fun and fulfilling to celebrate various holidays, as well as the completion of another year. From here on out, though, the reasons for our busyness get a little more complicated.

  • In our society, being busy is a badge of honor. The more booked your schedule is, the thinking goes, the more “in demand” and important you must be.
  • Many of us purposefully fill our lives with endless duties and distractions because the alternative—being alone with ourselves—isn’t attractive. We don’t want to have to think about and process our lives, and we’ve never learned to be comfortably quiet with ourselves.
  • We feel compelled to use our time constructively. For many people, sitting and doing nothing feels downright wrong because we think we can’t afford to fit that kind of indulgence into our busy lives.

I definitely understand these reasons for being and staying busy, no matter what time of year it is. There was a time in my life when I was constantly engaged in some activity or other—when being alone with no distractions was a foreign concept to me. But over the years, I’ve come to realize that “quiet time”—in other words, any sort of peaceful reflection like meditation, prayer, breathing exercises, taking a walk, etc.—isn’t something to be avoided. In fact, it’s something we should all cultivate for the sake of our mindsets, well-being, and personal development. Here are a few reasons why. Quiet time:

  • …strengthens your ability to focus and lengthens your attention span because your concentration isn’t being pulled in ten different directions.
  • …charges your creative juices. Often, you’ll have your best ideas and most imaginative thoughts during your quiet alone time.
  • …helps you connect to your innermost thoughts, intentions, desires, and values as you “converse” with yourself…without the often-distracting opinions of others.
  • …improves your attitude and puts you in better control of your life, because it gives you space and time each day to reconnect to your most important goals and dreams.
  • …can help you decompress and relax at the end of a hectic day. (And those seem to occur quite frequently this time of year!)
  • …can slow down your heart rate and even lower your blood pressure!

Throughout your life—and especially in the midst of busy seasons like the end-of-year social swirl—it’s important to proactively carve out quiet time in order to relieve stress, recenter yourself, and check in to make sure your life is reflecting your values. My best advice is to approach quiet time as though it were any other essential activity (which, in my mind, it is!): Plan ahead of time when you want to do it.

Personally, I meditate in the evenings. I find that taking 20 minutes around 7 p.m. is a wonderful way to process everything that’s happened throughout my day and to clarify my intentions about what I want to accomplish most in the future. I have also talked to many people who say that quiet time at the beginning of the day is helpful in developing a sense of deep-seated peace and a positive attitude that lasts through the day. Here are a few other ways to fit quiet time into your schedule:

  • Turn off the radio during your commute to and from work. This period of time might not be totally distraction-free, but I bet you’ll still be surprised by how peaceful the relative solitude can be.
  • Bundle up and go for a walk. If you bring your mp3 player, make sure the music you play isn’t intrusive. You’ll reap twice the benefits from this activity, because exercise is a form of physical meditation and is itself a great way to boost your brain, creativity, and mood. (In fact, some of my greatest ideas and personal revelations have occurred to me while I was exercising with no other distractions.)
  • Build in a buffer zone before you go to bed. Don’t turn the TV off and immediately crawl under the covers. Instead, dim the lights and meditate, pray, or reflect on the day for a few minutes before getting in bed and going to sleep.
  • Instead of eating in the office break room or watching TV while you down your meal, set up a lunch date with yourself. Use the time to really savor your food and think about whatever occurs to you.

I think you’ll be surprised by the impact the “sound of silence” can have on your mental, emotional, and even physical well-being. So in the midst of accepting social invitations and connecting with your friends and loved ones, set up a few distraction-less dates with yourself. A few minutes alone each day is a small price to pay for increased happiness!

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Masks: The Other Side of the Coin

Two weeks ago I wrote about the “masks” we so often wear in our daily lives—an appropriate topic to post about on the day before Halloween, I thought! Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote:

As many people go through life, for a variety of reasons, they feel compelled to “be” someone they’re not. Are you one of them? You might wear a mask all the time, or only in certain situations. You might be trying to please others, to make them believe a certain thing, or to keep a secret. You may be using your mask as a defense mechanism. You might even be trying to prevent yourself from having to face the truth…

…As I eventually learned the hard way, there are consequences to wearing a mask. Masks prevent you from living fully and authentically. They limit your potential and rob you of joy while compounding your feelings of inadequacy, helplessness, unworthiness, and more.

As far as they go, I did—and still do—stand by those words. Living an inauthentic, out-of-balance life in which you deny yourself self-love (and perhaps don’t live by your values) is a mistake.

However, after that post went live I received an email from a friend that caused me to think about masks in a different, more positive light. Essentially, this friend reminded me that sometimes masks can help us become happier, healthier, less dysfunctional people. And you know what? She is exactly right!

Have you ever been in this situation? You’ve identified something that isn’t working in your life (perhaps it’s a negative mask that you’ve been wearing), but you aren’t sure what to do next. You may not think you have the tools or the ability to move forward and make a change.

For example, maybe you’d like to be more assertive at work, but you consistently lose your nerve when it’s time to speak up in meetings. Maybe you’ve ended a relationship and want to move on, but can’t seem to find the motivation to add events to your empty social calendar. Or this year, you’d like to be more welcoming and engaging at your extended family’s holiday party…but how, exactly, do you stop dwelling on your bitter, judgmental feelings about half the people in the room?

In any of these situations, you can—as my friend suggested—put on a positive mask. You can “try on” positive new habits and attitudes. They may not feel natural at first, but you’ll be surprised by how quickly they become habit. Here’s what I mean:

  • As a young leader in my family’s company, I often felt through-the-roof stress and tended to handle my anxiety poorly when a crisis cropped up. Sometimes, I even felt physically sick. (In fact, my father told me that if I couldn’t learn to manage my anxiety in a healthier way, he might have to transition me to a different role.) So I put on a mask. Even though I didn’t feel calm when a manager quit with no notice, for instance, I reminded myself that handling instances like this was part of my job description and challenged myself to act with competence. Before long, I learned that I could handle what my job threw at me, and my “mask” of capability soon became reality.
  • Later in my career, I worked with a lot of salespeople. Many of them were naturally outgoing individuals, but some weren’t. I challenged these more reserved salespeople to think of and imitate their favorite comedians while talking to potential customers. When these salespeople put on their “comedian” masks, their sales numbers usually shot up!
  • After going through a difficult time, a friend was stuck in a rut. Tired of feeling like a victim, she decided to “copy” a vivacious acquaintance. In time, my friend found that acting more open and friendly made her feel much happier—and brought a lot of exciting opportunities into her life! Now, she says, what was once a mask has become second nature.

So, friends: Continue to be vigilant about recognizing and moving away from masks that are holding you back and keeping you from living an authentic life. But don’t be afraid to try on new masks that have the potential to make you a happier, healthier, more vibrant individual.

Remember, you may not be able to control what happens to you, but you can control how you think and react. Making a conscious choice to change those things—even if it doesn’t feel comfortable or natural at first—is the best way I know to become more resilient, capable, and happy.

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Are you wearing a mask?

Tomorrow is Halloween, a day when kids (and adults!) across America wear masks. It’s fun to “become” a superhero, a werewolf, a princess, a robot, a witch, or something else entirely, simply by putting on a costume. And it’s nearly as fun to observe others’ costumes, identifying who or what each person is supposed to be. I’m looking forward to seeing what my neighborhood’s trick-or-treaters have in store this year!

Thinking about Halloween costumes over the past few days has led me to consider something more serious, though: the concept of masks in general. On October 31, it’s easy to tell when someone is wearing a mask. Throughout the other 364 days of the year, however, masks aren’t so obvious—but they are common.

As many people go through life, for a variety of reasons, they feel compelled to “be” someone they’re not. Are you one of them? You might wear a mask all the time, or only in certain situations. You might be trying to please others, to make them believe a certain thing, or to keep a secret. You may be using your mask as a defense mechanism. You might even be trying to prevent yourself from having to face the truth. Here are a few examples of what I mean:

  • John is dissatisfied with his career, doesn’t feel challenged, and is sick of having to stroke his egotistical boss’s ego. But when he walks into his office building every day, he puts on the mask of an engaged worker. In order to maintain the status quo (and keep his job), he has mastered the ability to seem interested and eager when he’s anything but.
  • Stacy has been married to Travis for years, but still isn’t comfortable around his parents. During family visits, she downplays her political beliefs, dampens her humor, and bites her tongue in an attempt not to offend her set-in-their-ways, judgmental in-laws. The Stacy whom Travis’s parents think they know is a complete fake.
  • Ella has been battling breast cancer for several years. She often feels discouraged, defeated, and lacking in hope. However, her friends and family members describe her as the most optimistic, upbeat person they know. Why? Ella feels that it isn’t fair to drag others down and believes that she isn’t “supposed to” show any signs of giving up, so she buries her negative feelings deep inside while pasting on a smile.
  • Keith, a high school junior, isn’t very popular. He is deeply hurt when his classmates tease him about the clothes he wears and the comic books he reads, and he dreads walking into school each morning. However, he usually throws his classmates’ name-calling and insults back in their faces. He is known as “that wisecracking kid who doesn’t care what anybody thinks.”
  • Marian’s friends think that she lives a charmed life. Her house is immaculate, her clothes are stylish, and each batch of professional-quality pictures of her children that she posts on Facebook are more adorable than the last. What Marian’s friends can’t tell from external appearances is that Marian is miserable because she is on the verge of a divorce, and two of her children are driving her over the edge as well.

If you’re wearing a mask in your daily life, you may be tempted to tell yourself that “it’s for the best”—that it’s worth putting on an act of some kind in order to avoid confrontation and judgment while earning the approval of others. That’s exactly what I told myself in the years leading up to my breakdown. Deep down, I knew that the anxiety and unhappiness I felt wasn’t healthy, but I simply couldn’t face the possibility of being anyone other than the upbeat, workaholic golden boy so many people expected me to be. At that time, I didn’t love and respect myself enough to honor what I was truly feeling, and I managed to convince myself that I could keep up the act forever.

As I eventually learned the hard way, there are consequences to wearing a mask. Masks prevent you from living fully and authentically. They limit your potential and rob you of joy while compounding your feelings of inadequacy, helplessness, unworthiness, and more.

Please trust me when I say: While taking off your masks may seem frightening, painful, and/or unwise, it’s one of the best things you can do for your health, your ultimate peace of mind, and your future. Being authentic is the only way to live the full, abundant, and satisfying life you were always meant to live. (For an in-depth look at how to begin removing your masks, review my posts on creating a more authentic life with yourself, your spouse, and your friends.)

So friends—I hope you enjoy wearing whatever mask you like tomorrow on Halloween. But after the tricks, treats, and parties are over, I hope you’ll make a genuine effort to put masks away until next October 31. If you do, I promise that the next year will be more full of growth, opportunity, and fulfillment than you ever thought possible.

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