When I was 9, I got a gerbil named Penelope. At first, she was adorable, running on the wheel in her cage for hours. After a week, the novelty wore off. She ate and ran on the wheel. She slept and ran on the wheel. You get the picture. That little gerbil got her steps in every day, but she went absolutely nowhere.
Somewhere along the line, I became Penelope. It seemed like I was always running, and I was always busy, but I was getting nowhere.
Before the outbreak of COVID-19, I saw so many people struggling with the Penelope Syndrome. We would wake up, check our phones, go to work, check our phones, react our way through the insanity that is our inbox, check our phones, stay busy, check our phones, sleep, and do it all over again. Some days were great, some days were crappy, and most were somewhere in between. But were we getting anywhere, or just running in circles?
It’s easy to get carried away by being busy, reacting through life and not achieving what is most important to you. Unfortunately, it took a pandemic to stop us in our tracks, and it often takes something drastic to force us out of our habit patterns.
What if you could break free of the Penelope Syndrome with a reset—a chance once and for all to define the life you want and create a path to get there, all while building resilience along the way? You can.
Resilience is a muscle, and this is your chance to grow it.
Here are five strategies that will help you not only survive these uncertain times but grow smarter and stronger as a result.
NO. 1: DEVELOP A RESILIENT MINDSET.
A resilient mindset is a set of conscious and unconscious beliefs that impact how you see yourself, how you interact with others, and how you respond in times of uncertainty.
Your mindset is literally the story you tell yourself about yourself and your life. What story are you telling yourself?
First, it helps to understand your brain and how it interprets your stories. The human brain is built to protect you from threats. It has evolved to overestimate the negative and underestimate the positive.
Breaking news! Layoffs! A free fall in our economy! Death! We’ve all been bombarded with negative messages. These things put our brains on high alert looking and scanning for more threats to pounce. It’s like a police speed trap, and you are going 120 in a school zone. Whether we realize it or not, we are priming our brain to seek out more threats, negative information, and worst-case scenarios. If your narrative involves zombies, the apocalypse, and a perpetual shortage of toilet paper, your brain defaults to the negative. You can rewrite the story.
Your story could also be one of strength. You have survived the worst things that have ever happened to you. You have lost loved ones, faced career setbacks, had your heart broken, and had your share of disappointments. Yet here you stand, stronger, smarter, and more determined than ever. You can look back with perspective and see how you’ve grown.
Our beliefs drive our behavior. If your story is negative, you will operate out of a place of fear. This will shrink your short-term memory and make it more difficult to focus and regulate emotions. Conversely, if you view this as one example of how adversity will not defeat you, you are more likely to take action.
NO. 2: GET CLEAR ON YOUR PRIORITIES.
What if, on December 31, 2019, you were told that in just over a month, the world would be completely turned upside down? You could spend quality time with your family, reassess your priorities, and live in sweatpants.
We complain constantly about the challenges of juggling work and home. Granted, this hasn’t been the ideal testing ground, but it’s the one we have. Resilient people make sure their actions align with their intentions. You might say your family is your number one priority, but do your behaviors reflect that?
We have become efficient at prioritizing our schedules. Scheduling our priorities seems to have taken a back seat. The goal is to be deliberate and intentional about how you invest your time. This is the time to reconnect with family and friends. This is the time to do things that support your physical and mental health. This is the time to establish new business goals. This is the time.
Your résumé and your eulogy should not be the same thing. Use this time productively to get back to what is truly important.
NO. 3: FIND UNLIKELY GRATITUDE.
The most resilient people proactively cultivate positive emotions like gratitude and optimism. This offsets the negativity bias and primes your brain to start scanning for the good things.
Gratitude has been proven to be the single best predictor of well-being and a strong determinant of resilience. People who practice gratitude have improved sleep, mood, decision-making, relationships, lower blood pressure, fewer aches and pains and fewer bouts of depression. The benefits are almost immediate.
Optimism does not mean you see the world through rose-colored glasses. It means you are deliberate about the way you interpret the adversity in your life. Every situation, especially the cruddy ones, provides an opportunity to choose your interpretation.
Plus, when we attune our attention to the good things, we find more of them because we find what we’re looking for.
NO. 4: SWIM TOWARD YOUR LIGHTHOUSE.
When you learn to swim in the ocean, you are taught to aim for an immovable object, like a buoy or a lighthouse so that regardless of where the current moves you, there is something steady to aim for.
In my work consulting with organizations of all shapes and sizes, providing professional development for leaders and teams, and speaking for thousands of people around the world, I often hear people say something along the lines of, “If I just keep my head down and work hard, everything will fall into place.”
Unfortunately, I see many people who have lost their way, simply reacting to the waves and tides.
A lighthouse is the calm in the storm that keeps you moving in the right direction. You can have little lighthouses that you look forward to, like a vacation or date night. Other lighthouses are bigger. These can guide you, your decisions, and your daily behavior. It can be your purpose, your “why” or your North Star.
Life is like the ocean. Some days are beautiful with calm seas. Other days are torrential storms with crashing waves that will suck you under. Having a lighthouse will keep you swimming in the right direction.
NO. 5: PRACTICE MIND OVER MOMENT.
Mind Over Moment is a science-based strategy I developed that utilizes mindfulness to help you become aware of your thoughts, feelings, habits, and behaviors in the moment, in order to steer yourself toward better responses and outcomes. It means being proactive and deliberate about the choices you make and the habits you practice, throughout your day, week, month, year, and your entire life.
Our levels of anxiety and depression have sky-rocketed, and people are anxious and overwhelmed. I own a small business and felt my own anxiety this spring as I watched one speaking engagement after another get postponed or canceled altogether. I had a choice. I could stay in a place of fear, wondering how I will support my team and my family, or I could practice Mind Over Moment.
Most of us don’t like uncomfortable emotions like stress and anxiety, so we rush to numb them, usually with an unhealthy vice. Those feelings may be uncomfortable, but research has shown that avoiding them increases their intensity and duration.
Instead of trying to push those feelings away, observe how you are feeling right now. Are you feeling relaxed or are you multitasking? What do you feel in your body? Are your shoulders tight?
Just observe, notice the emotion, notice the feeling, and let it float by. Feelings and emotions are simply information. You don’t have to act on them. You can bring yourself back to this moment because in this moment, you are safe. You can observe the emotion without judgment, knowing that it’s normal to feel or think whatever you are feeling or thinking. You can propel yourself to action by refusing to operate out of a place of fear.
If I let my anxiety get the best of me, I could have watched my business crumble. Instead, I let myself feel it and then moved forward. My team and I took the virtual sessions we were already offering and amplified them. I have presented virtual keynotes and training and development sessions for our clients. And I have used this time to build even more free resources for our community.
Building your resilience muscle means living purposefully rather than drifting into automatic—life’s screensaver mode.
It’s time to delve into your automatic thought patterns, belief systems and daily habits to identify which ones are serving you. Resilience is built by deliberately cultivating productive beliefs, behaviors, and habits to intentionally break out of reactivity and live purposefully. If you have found yourself in the Penelope Syndrome either before this pandemic or during it, remember to reset, practice Mind Over Moment, and purposefully build the life you deserve. It’s about what you do starting now that matters.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo courtesy of Anne Grady