Thursday, October 8, 2015

Life lessons

This piece about the lessons I've learned working with my life coach first appeared as one of my columns in the Dairy Star. I hesitated for a long time before writing this piece. But after it was published, I got thank you messages from so many fellow farm women that all my fears were forgotten. I hope it resonates with you just as much.

In middle school and high school, I was lucky enough to have excellent guidance counselors – people who helped me wade through all the muck that somehow builds up between middle school girls and later helped me wade through all the important life decisions a high school student needs to make. When I look back at those years, having trusted advisors like my guidance counselors made all the difference between sinking and soaring.

I’m also sure that in 10 or 20 years, when I look back at this time in my life, I will say the same thing: having a trusted advisor to turn to with life’s challenging situations has made all the difference between enduring life and enjoying life.

For almost a year now, I have been working with a life coach. We meet once a month to talk about strategies for better dairy farming, parenting, communication, relationships, stress management, and just about every other topic under the sun. My life coach isn’t a dairy farmer herself, but she’s a mom and a small business owner, so she understands most of my challenges.

One of the great quotes my life coach has shared with me.

I don’t adopt every strategy we talk about, but there are several which have had a big impact on my life.

One of the topics we talk about most is time management, because that’s my biggest weakness. My life coach has helped me understand that extroverts, like myself, tend to overschedule themselves. But if my values and my time expenditures don’t align, it results in a constant state of stress. So, now, when I’m invited to participate in an activity or event, instead of just asking myself if I have time, I also ask myself, “Is this really important to me?”

One of the discussions about time management with my life coach had a huge impact on the way I think. We were talking about being overextended – not the financial kind of overextended, but the time and energy kind of overextended. I explained that when life gets extra busy, I always think to myself that one of these jobs or activities has to go. But that’s really hard for me to think about because I love everything I do – being a mom, dairy farming, writing, volunteering – so how could I give one up? That’s easy, she said. “If you were diagnosed with cancer tomorrow, what would go?” I’m sure you could substitute some other serious condition, but the word cancer hit me hard. Cancer killed both of my grandmothers, at relatively young ages. I thought long and hard after that meeting about my values and how I was spending my time.

Another strategy that has helped me immensely is one that I call “finding the middle ground”. I tend to think in terms of all or nothing – it’s a symptom of perfectionism. For instance, I used to think that if I didn’t have time to do a full workout, then I didn’t have time to exercise at all. Now, I look for something in the middle of all or nothing, like exercising for 10 or 15 minutes. I constantly remind myself, “Something is better than nothing.”

I’m also working on tackling one task at a time, instead of multi-tasking. A fair amount of research has shown that multi-tasking reduces productivity. I think we all have a story that goes something like: I went into the shed to get a pail of grain for the heifers, remember that I forgot to collect the eggs earlier, go to the house to get an egg carton so I wouldn’t forget again, see that there’s a new message on the answering machine, go find Glen to relay the message (so I won’t forget), along the way notice the float malfunctioning on the stock tank, go up to the shed to get a screwdriver to fix the float, see the empty pail and realize I haven’t fed the heifers their grain yet.

We run around for an hour working on parts of eight different jobs and feel like we get nothing done. When I’m working outside, I now use the mantra: “Focus where your feet are.” And if I think of something else that needs to be done, I write it down on my arm. I believe this idea of focusing and being present is also a big part of living fully. When I'm milking cows, I focus on milking cows; sure, my mind wanders while I'm milking, but I steer it away from thinking about what jobs I need to do next. When I'm helping the kids with their homework, I try to focus on my kids, not the pile of mail on the table or the dishes that need to be put away. When I'm writing, I resist the urge to check email in between paragraphs or check the tracking on the package that's on it's way.

When I’m working on the everyday, less-enjoyable jobs, like e-mail, laundry, processing the mail, etc., I set a timer for 15 minutes and focus on just that job until the timer goes off. Then I switch to the next job. I can get a lot more done when I focus. Plus, since I’m a deadline-oriented person, the timer gives me a deadline for jobs that otherwise don’t have set deadlines.

Some of the most important conversations I’ve had with my life coach have been on the topic of making time for family and making time for self.

When summer started, my coach asked, “What are you going to do for fun, each week, with your kids?” It was a much-needed question. When the 2014-15 school year started, I looked back at the summer and realized that we had taken the kids to the lake exactly two times. So this summer, we made it a priority to make time for family fun. We went swimming as often as we could, we took the kids fishing, we went to a collegiate league baseball game, we actually went out to eat for Father’s Day, and we went camping. There’s never a time when we feel like we have enough of our farm chores done to justify taking the afternoon off, but we had to get over feeling like that. A quote one of my friends shared recently sums it up: “In business, what you don't get done today can likely be done tomorrow, but with family, what doesn’t get done today is gone forever.” (from Procrastinate on Purpose by Rory Vaden)

Life is both challenging and joyful and I believe it’s meant to be that way. But sometimes a little coaching can help us minimize the challenges and maximize the joys.

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