“If you didn’t have a great experience in high school, it’s your fault.” I recently attended a high school graduation where the valedictorian shared this message with the graduating class. Did I hear that correctly? There was a murmur in the crowd. Let’s just say her message didn’t resonate with all of the high school seniors ready for the next chapter.
But after thinking about it, I got her point—with a few caveats. I think she was trying to say, “It’s up to you. Be accountable.” We don’t control everything in life, and some days it may not feel like we control much of anything. Yet it’s the already-successful and content people who seem to be the ones asking, “What can I do?”
In 2012 I wrote about my mother-in-law, Helen Johnson, and I think this question defined her life. Even in tough times, she put her energy toward making things better, for her and for others. “What can I do?” is the flip side of “It’s your fault.” Instead, it says, “You are responsible for your thoughts and your actions.” So focus on getting out of your own way and doing what you can. Here are some simple gifts you can give yourself every day to keep you focused on what you can do:
Control the tapes in your head.
You are sabotaging yourself if your first reaction is how it’s someone else’s fault, how things never go your way or why your situation is tougher than everyone else’s. Our thoughts affect how we feel, which in turn affects our actions. Self-discipline starts with your thoughts, so pack up the blame game. Be kind to yourself and be responsible for you. No one else has that much influence over your day.
Own up to your multitasking.
You know you can do this even though you think you can’t. If you are multitasking on important things with important people, it seems like fighting a losing battle. I admit it, I’m pretty addicted to my phone. My husband has mentioned a discussion we had and I somehow missed just a few little important details. But I did answer the pressing email!
I am trying to lessen my phone dependence for Lent. I know. I’m working on it.
Change one thing in your routine.
In my article on ideas for shaking up 2013, I mentioned the dependence we have on habit. Changing just one little thing can change how you think about your life, your work or your day. Come into the office early to have some quiet time to plan your day. Go to the Bible study you have had on your list for a year. Turn off the TV and take a walk. It doesn’t have to be big. Small changes remind us that we can do more than we think.
I have been reading more and listening to inspiring podcasts in the car or on walks. It’s like having a personal motivational speaker or renowned expert right there in the passenger seat! Why don’t we do this more often? This is a great way to learn more, focus on gratitude and stay centered. I’m not a Pollyanna (though some may disagree), but seriously—if you only think about what is wrong, the changes you want to make will always seem too big.
Spend 30 minutes connecting and reconnecting.
A mentor once told me to spend 30 minutes every day staying in touch with my network and business friends. Don’t be the person who only asks to meet for coffee during the job search, never to be heard from again until the next job change. Instead, make a call on your way to the office. Send an email. Show interest and concern if you want to have good relationships. Check how the new job is going, ask about the bumpy relationship with the boss or share helpful information. Be willing to give without expecting anything in return.
Don’t make everyone’s problem your problem.
Your boss is having a bad day. The supplier doesn’t like the new product you designed. Your co-worker won’t share any credit. These situations can hit your emotions and change how you feel and interact with others. This is when the “What’s in my control?” question is great to ask. It’s another way of saying, “Don’t give others the power over your day.”
Do one thing toward your big goals.
Most of us have a fast-paced career or life and everything needs (or seems to need) immediate attention. If your goal is starting a business, but you have a full-time job, do one small thing every day that moves you closer toward being an entrepreneur. Set up a lunch meeting for some advice. Do some research online. Work on your financial plan for getting started. Don’t let the fire hose of little things overtake your big things.
Use the ‘Will it matter in two weeks?’ test.
In 2013 a team member was devastated over a mistake she made in communicating with a business contact and “felt sick to her stomach.” After talking about it, we concluded that she had apologized gracefully and it wouldn’t matter in two weeks. She let it go. We all have disappointments in our careers or make mistakes because we are human. We have to regroup and move on to the next option. I use this question often because it helps separate the passing frustrations from the big issues that need more attention.
Call your mother.
OK, yes, I’m a mother, so I’m slightly partial here, but I really mean all of the important people in your life. After some recent losses, I have been reminded that family and close friends aren’t always magically there. Don’t take these relationships for granted. Enjoy them! Call often! And, to my oldest son in college, texting me first is the next best thing.
Don’t sleep with your phone.
Make sure you get the mental break you need to clear your head and not be in constant contact. Even the hyper-connected benefit from time to relax and think on their own. I’m working on this myself. I am convinced that it’s a part of being more intentional, thoughtful and focused.
I hope you’ll do these favors for yourself, for they are reminders of how to start the change in your life and work. Small things can have a big impact if you stay with them every day. Make “What can I do?” your mantra.
This article was published in March 2013 and has been updated. Photo by Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Patti Johnson is a career and workplace expert and the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and human resources consulting firm she founded in 2004. Previously, she was a senior executive at Accenture and has been recently featured as an expert in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, NBC, Money Magazine and Working Mother. Patti is also an instructor for SMU Executive Education and a keynote speaker on “Leading Change.” Her first book, Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work & in Life, hit shelves in May 2014. Visit her website at PattiBJohnson.com.