flow, learning zone, life lessons, project management

Lessons from Lino

Recently, I laid the lino in our bathroom. It was about time: the roll of lino had been lurking accusingly in the hallway for almost two years, since the end of my last maternity leave.

Laying lino is not a core skill of mine. It is also, I can assure you, not as easy as the professionals make it look on YouTube. The job is not as well done as I would have liked, but it’s done, and along the way I was reminded of a few life lessons I thought I’d share with you.

The learning zone can be very narrow, so learning to stay in it is important.
Part of my desire to lay the lino was for an interesting, but not too demanding challenge: an opportunity to learn something new, but within my capabilities as a sleep-deprived mother-of-two. This is the sweet spot of the ‘learning zone’. As the challenge mounted, and the time pressure increased (due to my teenage step-children coming back from holiday in France, wanting access to the bathroom), I found myself dipping into the panic zone more than once. It reminded me what a knife-edge the learning zone can be: sometimes there’s a very fine line between comfort zone (in this case, paying someone else to do the job) and panic zone (‘catastrophizing’ and poor decision-making here we come). It’s important to cultivate the self-awareness to realise when it’s all getting a bit much, and have tools in your armoury to move back into the learning zone: in this case, everything from taking a deep breath and getting a cup of tea, to accepting mistakes already made and pressing on regardless as calmly as possible, rather than giving in to the temptation to tear it all up and start again.

Flow is incredibly valuable and effective – and lack of it is inefficient at best. One of the most frustrating things about nap-time DIY is the fragmented time you have available. No sooner have you become absorbed in the task of wrestling a larger-than-life lino elephant into your bathroom, a little noise from next door alerts you to the impending wakefulness of a baby needing your attention. I think it’s fair to say that the task took at least three times as long in actual time – never mind calendar time – because of the need to constantly find a convenient (or not so convenient) stopping point, and then get back up to speed at the next opportunity. I’m sure the quality of the job was also impacted: if I’d done the major cutting in one block, there would have been fewer mistakes as I would have more easily remembered what I had done on the other side of the room, and also built up my skills more quickly. If you can focus on a task for longer blocks of time, you are much more likely to get a good result, more quickly!

Even a gigantic task is possible, you just need to break it into smaller chunks. Although nap-times interrupt flow, this approach to a task also forces breaking down the job into smaller blocks of work. Had I fully contemplated when I started the magnitude of the task: since laying the lino requires levelling the floor, and also means putting up the bath side, which means cutting the skirting board, and then cutting and laying the hallway carpet and joining that and the lino at the doorway, and that involves moving a bookcase and finding a new piece of carpet, etc…I might not have started. However because I just focused on the next task at hand – for example levelling the floor, and then planned each sub-task for a specific time-gap: tapping in nails, wood filler, tape and underlay, etc. – the whole project was never overwhelming.

Good enough IS good enough. Like many of you, I have a tendency to want to do things as well as I possibly can. But sometimes, it’s more important to get the job done and move on than it is to improve the quality. I keep reminding myself that one of the reasons for completing this particular project was to improve the home experience for the teenagers. For them, a further delay would be an inconvenience, and they were – and still are – perfectly happy with the quality of the job done, so why worry about the mistakes only I can see? Knowing what is good enough for any given task goes along way towards increasing your effectiveness.

Life is a learning experience. Many carers I know who are returning to work – most of them women – struggle to make their experience seem relevant, or are not taken seriously by recruiters. Often these people would add huge value to a team. It’s up to us as employers to take into account more than ‘work’ experience when hiring, and up to us as job-seekers to learn from life experience, and articulate that experience relevantly. Life throws us challenges all the time, whether we are caring for a family, working 60 hour weeks or travelling the world on a yacht – so treat them as much as possible as learning experiences, and take the time to reflect upon and learn the lessons offered.  For example, here is my previous post on lessons from maternity leave.

Do you agree with the lessons I’ve taken from this? Are there others you think are important? Or maybe you have your own DIY stories to tell – use the comments to share your thoughts.

entrepreneurship, life lessons, resilience

True Resilience

Much ado is made of resilience in today’s literature.  Everything from mental health to success in business seems to rely on this elusive trait.

I thought of resilience as being the ability to withstand stress, to be calm under pressure, to maintain a positive outlook even in life’s darkest moments.  The dictionary definition is “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness”.  I’ve always considered myself to be a strong person – indeed, my name means ‘the strong one’ – but sometimes it is the strongest branch which snaps in a storm rather than bending to the winds.  I realised that resilience in effect captured the type of strength I wanted to cultivate, and I wondered how to work on it.

In my usual way, I turned first to a combination of self-help books and scientific literature (more on this later).  However it wasn’t until one evening, exhausted by a day of child and baby-care with the added stress of a cold, that I really understood the meaning of true resilience.  I was tidying up, past my bedtime, and felt as though I was once again fighting a never-ending tide of ‘stuff’ the chaos caused by the inevitable entropy of a family. I thought ‘this what my life will be like for years to come…the tidying and sorting will never end, I will never quite get to the nirvana of a well-ordered household, no matter how much I nibble around the edges.’  And that’s when it hit me. Resilience is not a one-time thing, an ability to handle the acute pressures that ebb and flow in a workplace and in life, hanging on in there until things get better. Resilience is the ability to face up to slow, creeping progress, and a never-ending task, a constant state of being that is not quite what you’d like it to be. To face up to it, to accept it, and to improve on it, without giving in to hopelessness, despite the fact that you know the problem will never be ‘fixed’.

This constant low-level stress – punctuated by more acute moments – is a state of being certainly familiar to entrepreneurs and change-agents working to make a vision reality. Progress is rarely as fast or as smooth as you would like, so it’s important to cultivate a positive, resilient attitude where you try hard every day, and celebrate the small wins along the way.

consistency, focus, innovation, leadership, life lessons, mindfulness, people management, sales

6 lessons from maternity leave

As I start my first days back at work after seven and a half months of maternity leave, I pause here, amongst the hustle and bustle of working parenthood, to reflect on what it taught me. Here are six of the best lessons I learnt.

Maternity leave was everything I hoped for, and yet nothing like I expected. It started with those tough first weeks that any mother will have buried at the back of her mind, when you are yourself exhausted from pregnancy and childbirth and excruciatingly sleep deprived, trying to care for an infant who is making possibly the biggest adjustment they will ever make, from inside the womb to the bright, crazy world we live in. Doing so for the first time, both you and your infant are on a steep learning curve and it sometimes feels like you’ll never make it to the top.

In fact you never do make it to the top of that curve: lesson number one is that nothing stays the same forever, or even, in fact, for a week. No sooner are you into a routine, than you’re out of it again as new developments change your baby’s rhythms. As a change-agent and innovator, I’ve always been comfortable with the uncertainty and exploration that comes with progress, but never have I experienced it in such an all-consuming way.

The second lesson, is that you are not in control. You may have read a dozen books, taken advice from other parents and determined your ideal approach to parenting, but many of your well-thought-out principles will seem impossible in the daily effort to make life work right now. Being constantly at the beck and call of another human being – and worse, hardwired to respond instantly and urgently to the slightest whimper – is a tough thing to accept when you’re used to being the decision-maker. This was tough for me, because I’ve never been good at being told what to do, but I learnt to accept it, at least for a little while. That’s probably made me a better person, and certainly has been a lesson in humility.

Lesson number three crept up on me: a gradual realisation over time that persistence and consistency reap their own rewards. In fact, you can help your child into patterns and habits that suit your household and feel like good habits for a lifetime, if only you are patient enough and never give in on those principles – just think about the end result, and wait for the wind to turn your way. That’s why it’s easier to sell something you believe in: your messaging is more easily flexible yet consistent if it’s rooted in fundamental beliefs rather than what you think people want to hear.

Lesson four is a philosophy for life: one that’s been repeated to me many times, but never so clearly. Cherish every moment. Make long-term plans, but enjoy each moment as it comes. Soon it will all be over. That golden time of just you and your baby, which at the time seems by turns interminably repetitive and frustratingly unpredictable, will soon be over: you’ll be back at work, or your baby will have grown into a boisterous toddler, and those first toothless smiles and honking laughs and clumsy grasps will be but a distant memory.

The fifth lesson has always been known to me, but never more clearly shown: the value of time. Much of child-rearing is in effect, killing time. How to get through the day having entertained the kids and, if you’re lucky, yourself; having done something educational or otherwise enriching for them; and maybe, if you’re lucky, having done enough in the way of other tasks to keep the household running. Killing time is not my favourite activity – I always want to be doing something useful – but on maternity leave I learnt to accept it, even enjoy it. Now, I’m grateful to the wonderful carers at my daughter’s nursery who are helping share that task, so that I can spend some time doing the job I love. And I know that every minute I spend working is a minute I could have spent with her, so I make it count.

Even more important than time, however, is attention. The sixth and final lesson is that focusing your attention on something is a luxury, especially in the modern world, and yet it is the most precious gift. Whether it’s my baby daughter or my teenage stepchildren, whatever else I give them, they most value my full and undivided attention. Similarly at work, I get far more done, far more effectively, if I focus my attention on the right things and concentrate. When I’m at work, I don’t think about my family; when I’m with my family, I don’t miss work. I’m not sure if I could tell you when I’m happiest, except that it’s when I’m not trying to do it all simultaneously. The gift of full attention and focus is one you should give yourself as often as possible.

Have you recently become a parent or had a break from work?  Comment below if you’d like to share the experience – I’d be interested to hear from you!