Julie Mitchell's CoachNotes

ACHIEVE YOUR VISION . . . ONE STEP AT A TIME.


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Boost productivity: Make footprints in the sand

Footprints in the sand lead to better work performance!

Footprints in the sand lead to better work performance! Photo by J. Mitchell (Location: British Virgin Islands)

Feeling stuck? Stressed when you need to do your best? Is your creativity blasted? Are you distracted? If you’re mobile and near water, get back on track with a beach walk! Any outdoor trek is a step in the right direction, but my preferred path to better work begins with surf.

In 2003 my International Coach Federation (ICF) colleagues beached their routines for a lakeside CoachWalk experience. They were eager to learn about integrative coaching (connecting mind, body, emotions, spirit) and I wanted to test-walk my theories with respected peers. Also, it was fun to hit the beach in the name of professional development.

Since then, an ocean of evidence affirms what we discovered, and what trailblazers have known for ages. Walking in nature improves attitude, creativity, mindfulness, clarity, strategic thinking, learning, problem solving, focus, mood, and more. It’s good for you and your work!

Curious about taking your work for a beach walk? Here are 7 tips to get your feet wet:

  1. Be safe. Make sure you’re fit for walking on coastal terrain, e.g., uneven sand, rocks, or shells. Beware of hazards and be prepared to call for help. Once, while barefoot on silky white sand, I stepped on broken glass. Ouch.
  1. Choose the right time. Consider whether others will be crowding the coast. Show up early for sunrise. Try “not good beach weather” days, off-season, or less popular spots. Avoid distractions (the fascinating range of bodies on display, roaring jet-skis, volleyball games).
  1. Give your brain a break; have no objective. Allow your mind to be empty, free and open. Let your thoughts meander, coming and going like the waves. Trust you will feel restored, energized, and more focused following the walk.
  1. Alternatively, have a realistic, next-step agenda. (Yes, I’ve contradicted no. 3, above.) A beach walk rescue and recovery talk may be just what you need when facing an unexpected event or sticky situation. Invite a colleague or thinking partner to help you “walk through” the issue.
  1. Be present and engage your senses. This will come naturally if you slow down and pay attention to nature’s wonders. Stop, look, and listen. Enjoy glorious shades of blue, green, brown or gray. Feel the sun, see the clouds, hear the birds, and breathe in fresh air. Appreciate the soft sand or cool refreshing water.
  1. Explore pace and space. Weave in and out of the surf, stay close to the water, or make tracks through nearby dunes. Vary your stride or stop altogether. First steps may be heavy with fatigue, but later you may feel invigorated and inspired to stretch, skip, or jog. Have fun.
  1. Maximize walking momentum. If an idea popped into your head mid-walk, note it before you forget it. Return to work immediately. You’re likely to be more awake, inspired, efficient, accurate, and focused.

I encourage you to experience the wonders of beach walking. Your footprints in the sand may lead directly to better work performance!

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March Forward: Walk at work!

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Walk at work this Spring. Ideas, productivity, and energy will blossom!

Hooray for Vernal Equinox, new moon, and eclipse day. Spring forward (or, as a drill sergeant might say, “Forward, March)!

It’s an ideal time to make your move at work, improving health, fitness and productivity. Take a walk and discover what innovative thinkers have known for centuries.

Spring walks blossom with possibilities. Going outdoors is a breath of fresh air, a Spring-cleaning for stale, stuffy ideas and sticky work situations. Walking in nature stimulates creative thinking and opens minds that may be closed (bored, distracted, or tired) within confined cubicles or conference rooms.

Workers who walk return to their offices (customers, patients, clients, students, machines, or devices) inspired and energized. I’ve witnessed this countless times. Research underscores multiple benefits of workplace walking.

As winter fades, I invite you to explore a wooded trail or park convenient to work (or trek around the parking lot). Try it on your own, or invite a colleague. See what happens.

Hate walking? Have outdoor allergies? Consider a brief workplace “change of venue” as an alternative way to get moving on a project (an open, inspiring, light-filled space — such as a museum or indoor botanical garden — may do the trick).

Want to learn more about taking your work for a walk? Contact me for a free phone consultation.


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The upside of down time: Work less, accomplish more

Crazy-busy and working to death? Take a break before your eternal rest.

Crazy-busy and working to death? Take a break before it’s time for eternal rest.

NOTE: This post was revised on August 21, 2015.

Down time is looking up. What a relief! Mainstream publications, best-selling books, TED talks and social media reflect what should be obvious (but we humans can be so stupid): It’s not healthy to work too hard. It’s dangerous to be sleep deprived. It’s counterproductive to skip vacations or never take a break.

In honor of long-overdue attention to these issues, I revisited what I wrote two years ago on overwork, down time and the sad contest of being overwhelmed. Here it is, for your reading pleasure:

“I’m too busy” is a worn out phrase I wish we could retire. Growing up in a culture that venerates working hard, being a go-getter, and doing whatever it takes, I, too, have engaged in stupid, competitive, winning-by-losing “I’m too busy” conversations.

How often have I been caught up in boasting — disguised as complaining or commiserating — about who’s the most buried in work, stressed, overwhelmed, swamped, slammed, exhausted, wiped out, ad nauseam? Ugh.

How sad to feel inferior — a loser in the non-stop energizer bunny at work game — because I need 7 hours of sleep to function well, when famous biz gurus brag about clocking 4-5 hours. I’m weary of feeling judged or resented, too, for my favorite path to renewal and productivity: a daily walk. I recently heard this unhelpful comment: “Well. Lucky you. Must be nice to have time for a walk. I’m way too busy to even consider it!”

I’m coming out as a person who needs quiet time to accomplish my best work. I’ve learned something about time management and goal setting. “Down time” steps up my creativity, clarity, and connection with clients to achieve their goals.

I can put nose to grindstone when necessary. I’ve had happy periods of extraordinary energy, productivity and flow, being so absorbed in business matters that I lost track of time. I have climbed and conquered mountains of work, but I’ve also suffered altitude sickness, and worse.

Through painful consequences of over-work I’ve learned I require breaks, from a few minutes to clear my head, nurture my heart, and rejuvenate my body and brain… to vacations, retreats and even sabbaticals. (During a sabbatical in 2002 I founded Coachwalks, cared for a friend in need, took courses to enhance my skills and did the most rewarding volunteer work of my life.)

An important note: I’m aware of my privilege in this unfair world of unequal opportunity. I’ve been able to afford sick days, vacations and the occasional sabbatical. “Take a break” advice is pointless and absurd for too many people forced into working their butts off to survive, buy groceries, or pay rent. Policies need to change, wages need to go up, and I could go on, but not here, not now.

I’m simply inviting other fortunate people to take a stand for down time (a rare and courageous stance when it’s more popular to pursue lots of stuff and money).

Years of “way too busy” times taught me I never win through wiping myself out. I need to be thoughtful, open-minded, rested and not overwhelmed if I’m to be a helpful consultant, communicator, teacher, learner, friend and human being.

A final thought: It’s dangerous to admit I don’t live to work (yet I love my work)! Self-employed folks are drilled in laboring harder, faster, better and longer. The argument I hear most often for a relentless focus on business is this: How else can an entrepreneur succeed in an era of rapid change, customer demands, and intense global competition? Well, it helps to redefine success.

I don’t have millions of dollars, but I’m grateful to have extraordinary, rich work/life experiences and to enjoy loving relationships on my “down time.” My best ideas and creative business solutions come up during walks, vacations and times of rest.

Is this true for you, too? I welcome your comments.


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Try a walking meeting by yourself (no company required).

Photo from a memorable and restorative, solo walk in Orkney, Scotland.

Photo from a memorable and restorative solo walk in beautiful Orkney, Scotland.

Do you need to give your brain a break?

Yearning for distraction-free creative time?

Feeling overwhelmed with too many “to dos” and too little time?

Have you considered strategic planning on your feet? Trust me: It can be done!

Are you motivated by research warning of too much sitting being linked to aging, weight gain, and — I would argue — slow, muddled thinking? If so, you are just one walk away from better health and ideas.

Walking meetings have taken off like crazy since I started using them through CoachWalks, 12 years ago. I knew then — as others have known for centuries — that a walk in the woods, walk in the park, walk around the neighborhood, “walk and talk at work” or a “moving meeting” can work wonders.

I’ve addressed how to get started with walking meetings, but I have not shared what keeps me going as an entrepreneur, consultant, and leadership communication coach: I’m at my best on my feet. I count on solo walking meetings for business planning and more.

How do solitary work walks help?

1) They get me outdoors, open to whatever I might experience (sights, sounds, inspiration)…

2) If I can’t think, walking shakes off doldrums, a bad mood, fatigue and other versions of being stuck.

3) I feel virtuous and more healthy because I’m moving and getting my heart rate up!

4) Once I’m in the flow of walking and have emptied my brain, I’ve created space for whatever is next on my agenda. When I’m back in the office, I’m energized, focused, and working more effectively.

5) I’m enjoying nature and in my own small way I’m engaging in a green, sustainable business practice (using natural light instead of office lights, wearing my jacket on a chilly day, instead of turning up the heat… you get the idea).

Need more encouragement? Check out this New York Times article on the benefits of restorative walking (no agenda or thinking necessary). I particularly like that it cites research from Scotland, one of the best places I’ve walked!


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Goals on the rocks? Be realistic about time.

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Door County, Wisconsin.

It’s mid-March, already! Where has the time gone? I’m sensitive to this issue as I’m helping a client with time management while tracking my own goals and hours I’ve lost, found, re-scheduled, wasted, or invested.

Some goals may be “on the rocks,” but I’ve reached others by committing the necessary time. I’m learning by looking into and beyond my piles of unfinished business. This process reminds me of an awkward, rewarding walk my husband and I took on a stone-filled beach (see photo): Treasures may be found, but it’s not a smooth, easy path.

I’m happy about meeting my fitness objectives. This has been relatively easy, because daily movement evolved from goal to habit two years ago. However, I’ve faltered on other fronts, including publishing a blog post every month (oops). Most noteworthy is my positive attitude shift about what I have not accomplished.

I’m less judgmental. I recognize the impact of circumstances beyond my control. I understand more about being a human being who can’t do everything. I’m less likely to feel defective because I “should” be doing x, y, and z instead of a, b, and c. I’m more likely to be a detective, finding clues in how I spend and experience time.

For instance, I’m not at my best playing the role of driven SUPERSTARPRENEUR — I believe I just made up a word — in a rush to do more and seize every business opportunity. I admire go-getter, focused, high energy types and when I’m inspired I can “turn it on” and burn through projects with the best of them. Yet, deep down, I’m inclined to slow down in a world of “more, faster, bigger, better.” I advocate a strategic, one step at a time approach for better understanding of complex issues. Fortunately, my clients appreciate this perspective.

Instead of wishing for more energy — whining about needing  7-8 hours’ sleep when best-selling, TED-talking leaders, authors and others accomplish amazing feats on much less — or  falling into despair over requiring quiet, introspective breaks to fuel creativity, I’m becoming more realistic, honest and respectful of my unique time and energy limits.

I’m recognizing the truth about what I can (or want) to do in a day, week, month, or year. This feels better than idealistic, I-can-do-it-all fantasies, or comparing myself with “more productive” others who zip and glide through the rocks!


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Willpower and good intentions: Manage energy wisely!

I can't resist chocolate cake when I'm stressed or tired...

I have no willpower and can’t resist chocolate cake when my energy is depleted…

Are you wondering how to lose weight, get organized, exercise more, or quit procrastinating? Does the thought of adding a virtuous behavior to your “to do” list make you want to give up before starting? Welcome to the club.

I recently taught a 3-week course on “New Year Intentions: One Step at a Time.” We told tales of tantalizing temptations and defeated diets. I promised participants they would not hear about their “unlimited human potential,” nor would I introduce transformational methods for managing mayhem.

I favor a practical approach, so we explored what’s most likely to help us develop greater self control, based on a growing body of research by Roy Baumeister and colleagues. There is good news on the perilous path to willpower. People can learn to make and keep more realistic promises to themselves and others. It helps to arrange your life so you have a chance to succeed.

When surprises and outside circumstances hinder progress, there’s not much we can do. However, most of us can manage a small part of our routines or schedules more wisely and set goals more mindfully. It starts with paying attention to how we allocate limited resources: time and energy.

At what time of day or week do you feel your best? When are you energetic, productive, or “in the flow?” When do you feel most drained, exhausted, or shut down? Are you strategic about your time and energy? Are you realistic about what you may accomplish and do you recognize signs of depletion? Have you allowed yourself the time and energy required to answer these questions?

This moment is an example of implementing strategy, based on knowing my limitations. I’m writing this post while standing, early in the day. I get sluggish by late afternoon, especially if I’ve been sitting too long. I knew I’d be more tired and less productive today, because I have a cold. I’ve planned a streamlined schedule so I may rest. (It’s futile to expect peak performance in the grips of a virus, but that doesn’t stop most of us from trying, showing up for a full day’s work, making mistakes, and spreading bugs to colleagues.)

Time and energy management is a lifelong journey. Willpower takes patience, practice and wisdom; there are no shortcuts. It helps to recognize obstacles and plan around them. We need to know our limits, set up our lives so we have a chance of succeeding, and keep at it, one step at a time.

Here’s an interview with willpower expert Roy Baumeister. I like the way it ends, with common sense recommendations about eating well and getting enough sleep. Time for me to have chicken soup and take a nap!


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Ideas take flight: How to get started with walking meetings

Walking meetings are taking off, for good reason: Innovative ideas take flight when people get moving!

Recently, I’ve talked with several leaders about how to encourage walking meetings at work.

There is no one “right way” to take your work for a walk, but to get started in your organization, consider these guidelines:

Motivation. Research affirms walking meeting benefits: People are energized, group interactions shift (positively), problems are solved, calories are burned, and creative ideas are born. Walking is good for mind, body, spirit, and your business!

Location. Choose a quiet, safe, familiar, and distraction-free environment. Make sure your path is “walking friendly” for everyone involved.

Intention. Plan your walking meeting agenda mindfully. Focus on identifying one, specific “next step” in a project by the conclusion of your walk, or try narrowing several possibilities to the “top three.”

Participants. Start small, inviting one colleague to a walking meeting. Experiment with up to six people, walking with partners, or three abreast, to ensure everyone is heard and feels included.

Results. Capture ideas while walking, using a small notepad, smartphone or other portable device. Before the walk, assign responsibility for distributing follow-up/action plans after the meeting.

Comfort. Consider participants’ fitness level, preparation (including appropriate clothing), and potential obstacles, including skepticism or anxiety. Walking meetings bring out the best in some folks, but they are not for everyone. Ideally, they should be proposed as a positive, relaxed option to traditional meetings.