“Maybe the journey isn’t so much about becoming anything. Maybe it’s about un-becoming everything that isn’t really you, so you can be who you were meant to be in the first place.” - Paul Coehlo
In my theme for the year “healing through knowing ourselves,” I started taking a hard look at who I think I am, and who I project myself to be. But another interesting plot twist came through: I’m figuring out what I’m not, or at least what I’m not anymore.
I used to be:
Keep in mind that I don’t consider any of the above categories and descriptions positive or negative, they just are. Or in my case, are not. I’m not judging them, but instead just reflecting that they don’t describe me. Even those things that I used to be good at and enjoy don't necessarily need to have a spot at the table now.
So where does this leave me? I’m still an organizer (small “o” organizer - it applies to so many things), a teacher, a connector, an analyzer. I’m pretty sure I’m someone who is good at breaking something big into lots of smaller approachable parts, and someone who can listen to others and help them connect their dots. I’m a writer, a reader, a learner. Hopefully, if I can let go some more of those things I’m not, I can be a great coach, a wiser friend, and (fingers crossed) more of a world traveler.
What did you use to be? What isn’t you anymore? Who are you becoming?
In the spring of 2016, I was at my wits’ end - my father had been in the hospital, very ill, spent a stint (most unhappily) in rehab, and had finally consented to move into an assisted living arrangement. I was spending a lot of time burning 90 minutes each way on the interstate to help with things…from labeling everything in his new apartment to trying to figure out when and how we would sell his home. At the same time, we were dealing with other family illnesses, I was managing our son’s DI team, keeping my business going (including an unusual number of speaking engagements), and managing the house almost full-time due to my husband’s travel schedule. It’s not like I was handling all of this responsibility completely on my own, but it was a huge shift in terms of schedule, tasks, and emotions.
I told my family during a rare evening all together that I felt like Gumby, stretched in all directions with no end in sight. I’m guessing lots of you have been there.
I was also becoming incredibly forgetful and scattered - doing things like double-booking appointments, forgetting to get school fees turned in, and (gasp) routinely losing my keys. Some days I couldn’t focus or remember what had just been said to me. I started Googling to see if extreme stress can induce ADHD symptoms. As it turns out, stress can affect executive functions like task management and planning - and yet we tend to think of it the other way around (good time management and planning skills decreasing stress). I got through that spring, but it felt like just barely.
Contrast that whole situation with a year and a half later when we decided to move to a smaller house and stay in the same school zone. It's not a secret that moving is a stressful event. You may recall that our particular move was challenged by the fact that we found the perfect house before our original one had sold. So yes, we closed on a new house without having sold the one we were still living in. Not ideal, but that’s the way it worked out. We staged the first house, painted, coordinated repairs and yard cleanup, cleaned baseboards, washed windows, called for donation pickups, got ready for numerous open houses, vacuumed what seemed like enough dog hair to fill several mattresses - anyone who has put a house on the market knows the drill. All this while gradually preparing the new home, moving smaller items and furniture in a little at a time, purging more stuff, more painting - oh, and still running my business, handling family responsibilities, etc., etc., etc.
But this time, although the stress was once again extreme and I’m confident I was just as busy, I didn’t drop any balls (or none that I recall), and nothing was missed. I always knew where my keys were (even from one house to another), and Gumby didn’t even cross my mind until I started writing this.
What was the difference? There may be studies to answer the question, but anecdotally I would say it’s a combination of perception and fit. When life hands us challenges we’d rather ignore or avoid, our brains do everything possible to take a vacation. We perceive that the challenges are negative, that they won’t ultimately lead to a good result, and so we carry out our responsibilities with a constant, subtle (or maybe not-so-subtle) inner resistance. Conversely, when we really want something, or want to accomplish something, our systems will put up with a lot. I wanted to move, and I knew that ultimately the choice to relocate would be a good fit for our family in many ways. Thus, I sucked it up and stayed focused on all of the moving parts no matter how crazy things got.
What you select for seemingly smaller tasks makes a difference, too. We all face things that must be done vs. things that could be done. In that second category, are you making the wise decisions? Do you choose things that reflect your values and who you are, or do you choose tasks and projects to please others or just because someone asked you? For example, did I really need to accept all of the speaking engagements that hectic spring of 2016? Or did I agree to them because I thought I should, or because I didn’t pause to be aware of the time it would cost me? Filling up your time with commitments that don’t mean much can double the stress - not to mention leave you feeling pretty depleted.
So with what are you wanting or facing this year, try examining the choices you DO have some control over in order to make your life flow a little more easily. Have you set some pretty lofty goals or started big projects? Or are you perhaps doing your own Gumby dance, dealing with difficulties that you have no alternative but to accept? What can you choose that makes it easier?
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’”
Last summer I decided to jump back into volunteering for my local NAPO chapter and take on the Vice President position (filling a vacancy for a colleague and friend Barb who moved on to other adventures). I’ve served on that board before, and I’ve helped in other leadership positions for NAPO, as an elder at my church (chairing various committees), managing my kids' Destination Imagination teams, and going back further, for other lots of professional and school organizations. I used to joke and say I must have that “Chapter Secretary” look about me because often that’s what I get asked to do (and I enjoy it). Some of you have probably been asked to step into a leadership or volunteer position, maybe for your profession, church, kids’ activities, or school. I’m often asked by clients to help them with getting a handle on things they volunteer for, like Girl Scouts or the travel soccer team. My ideal clients often have those “Sure, sign me up!” hearts for service, and that’s certainly something I like and admire about them.
Have you ever been volunteering in a collaborative effort, though, and one or two people sort of…don’t hold their weight? They drop balls, show up late to events, or forget to pick up supplies. It’s pretty frustrating, isn’t it? Or have you perhaps volunteered and suddenly become incredibly stressed out with the load? Are you the one missing meetings or forgetting to make calls?
Maybe it’s for entirely excellent reasons, like a major life interruption, illness, or the like. Things we don’t get paid to do are generally the first things to get cut when our wellbeing or livelihood is threatened (and hopefully, we can become the recipients of some volunteer grace ourselves). But sometimes our best intentions don’t always match up with what is realistic, or with our skills for managing time and follow-through. Our giving hearts can run ahead of our capabilities, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still be useful in sharing our gifts. While each position we might choose has varying responsibilities (President of the PTO does quite different things from the chair of a church worship committee), there are some common factors I think anyone should review to make sure they give their best to volunteering.
The first, but often most overlooked, is time management. Before you even raise your hand or plug your name in on the list, ask: What is the realistic time commitment for this job? How many hours a week or month do I have to share? If you have no idea what might be needed, ask someone already involved (and let it be someone who isn’t desperate to get out of the work themselves - you may not get the clearest answer). Be inquisitive, go to a training or interest meeting, and take a look at your life and calendar overall. Your altruistic desire to encourage voter registration or read to the elderly won’t pan out if you’re needed during your work hours. Keep in mind that many volunteer organizations need people who can do things from home in off hours, like sending emails, updating website information, or putting supplies together.
Speaking of supplies - this part can quickly get out of hand if you’re not careful. Example: for our DI teams, we need all kinds of quirky, crafty items for “instant challenges.” Everything from golf balls, to chenille sticks (pipe cleaners, for the uninitiated) to duct tape, and more. Sometimes we need huge pieces of cardboard or foam core, cans of paint, electrical equipment, and power tools. I was lucky enough to have a big closet where everything could be tucked away safely, if not always neatly. Scout troops and sports teams need tons of gear, too. Do you have space for everything that’s needed for your volunteer gig? How and where will you store everything? Is some of it temperature-sensitive, or have an expiration (like food items)? Be prepared to create some appropriate space, unless you’re comfortable giving up a lot of countertops or the floor.
Next up is record keeping - are you required to maintain lists of other volunteers, report to a board, review and curate key emails or other notes? If so, is that your strong suit? What has been the process for keeping track of things in the past? You may discover that there is no process, and you’re the one who’ll need to create it. Can you take a hodgepodge of written notes, documents stored in various formats (Word, Google, Evernote, or something else) and pull them together into something that actually supports the purpose of the organization? At the very least, you’ll want a notebook or something else to capture your own notes.
Finally, effective communication is critical. Do you tend to type up lengthy detailed emails? Well you should probably stop, because I’m here to tell you no one is reading them. Volunteers working with other volunteers should develop an awareness that because everyone is giving their time, getting to the point quickly is appreciated. Bullet points rule the world. If you happen to be in charge, keep meetings on track and at or under the time allowed. Something else I’ve discovered that makes a difference - if there’s a meeting scheduled and no agenda, don’t be afraid to reschedule to a time when things do need to be discussed.
Asking key questions like those above can make all the difference in your volunteer experience, both for you and for those you serve. If you haven’t found your perfect volunteer position fit, check out https://www.volunteermatch.org/, where you can search for jobs that fit your talents, interests, and availability. I’ll close with another great MLK quote, because I think it’s important to remember:
“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”
Sara Skillen - I'm a Certified Professional Organizer®, coach, wife and mom, and serial list-maker. I'm excited to be in the process of becoming a Certified ADHD Organizer Coach. I love to help people from all walks of life get organized and productive - and I'd love to help you, too:
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