Gwen was a high-powered employee — the sort of person who you want on your team. She was intelligent, social, driven, conscientious, aware and dedicated. After a few years of hard work, Gwen’s employers wanted to support and recognize her, and so when she petitioned them to fund her for a one-year MBA program, they did.
During that year, Gwen put in 45–50 hours per week at work, and was also dedicating 20–25 hours per week on her MBA program, while still trying to have a social life, sleep well, eat healthily and maintain an exercise routine. Needless to say, it was a tough slog, but Gwen found herself loving the fast pace. She was always a go-getter and enjoyed honing her time management skills, creating checklists and always making deadlines, even if she had to sacrifice a bit of sleep or self-care to do it. After all, the program was only a year, and she was young and energetic enough to manage it.
After the program was finished, Gwen got promoted to another job at the same company. The new position was a big change from her previous role. She needed to learn some new skills and industry knowledge. She went to conferences and trade shows and was doing a lot of extra reading and learning in her off-hours. However, even though she was busy, she still had some free time, and so she booked it with social events, visiting family and other things she wanted to get done.
As time went on, Gwen noticed that she was always busy — always doing something — and if she wasn’t busy, she was very anxious about what she would do to fill her time. She felt like she was spending all of her energy planning and structuring her calendar so that not a moment would be wasted. While this mindset was helpful, even necessary, during her year in the MBA program, it was exhausting her now and she felt like she wasn’t enjoying life. She decided to engage with a coach.
I asked Gwen what she wished. She indicated that she wanted to slow down a little bit, but she still liked the edge of planning, thinking ahead and getting things done. She felt like during her exceptionally busy year she had gotten addicted to the adrenaline rush of always being in motion and at the top of her productivity game. Now, it was time to quit that addiction and detox.
In coaching, it’s important that a client has an action plan at the end of the coaching session — something that they will do in the “real world” between coaching sessions. Gwen wanted to have an unstructured day where she would just go with the flow. While this was a laudable goal, there were several problems with it, which she acknowledged as our conversations unfolded.
One problem was that she didn’t have any free days coming up. Every weekend was booked with travel, weddings and visiting, and she was often on the road with work. She was going to be in hotels, working long days, and there was still a steep learning curve with her new position. Another problem was that when she really thought about having a full day with no plan, she started to get anxious, and admitted that she would likely end up planning something out of habit to ease her anxiety.
Gwen considered alternatives — she could take a half-day, or even an hour or two of unstructured time, but she wasn’t entirely sure she could do even that. She felt like her brain was always going at top speed. With some further coaching, we arrived at the idea of some micro-savouring — taking time to be in the moment for just a few breaths. This would be a skill that she could develop over time and take with her even if she was travelling. Gwen came up with some ideas for when she could use this microintervention:
When she got onto her next flight, she would just sit still, observe and breathe. She would not automatically check her phone or read the in-flight card or see if the plane’s entertainment system was on yet — she would just be for 10 minutes.
When her plane landed and she stepped out of the airport to get a cab, she would pause and take in the new city, take a few breaths, and appreciate the hustle and bustle without being a part of it yet.
When she got to her hotel, she would just enjoy being in the quiet of the hotel room for 10 minutes, rather than immediately unpacking, checking email, seeing what’s on the TV, calling for room service — she would just breathe and be in the hotel room.
With these micro-moments of breathing and mindfulness, Gwen was able to craft a new way of being, which would still allow her to harness her skills at getting things done — but by choice rather than by default. By taking back control and being deliberately mindful and present, she would rewire her brain to a less frantic state and decrease her anxiety. These micro-moments wouldn’t replace her usual productive way of being, but would be an additional tool.
Gwen had tried mindfulness meditation in the past, and she recommitted to that practice. She also decided to get an “accountability buddy,” since she knew that she could easily let herself lapse, but if someone else was supporting her she was more likely to follow through on her goals. Finally, Gwen decided to get an app that would allow her to track her progress. Seeing that she had a successful streak of daily meditation would be highly motivating and would encourage her to continue so she wouldn’t break the streak.
We can all learn from Gwen’s experience. When making changes, it’s important to consider what change is sustainable. Sometimes we are attracted to large goals, but as Gwen realized, small changes can add up to a meaningful new way of being and make a more substantial difference in the long run.