One of the advantages of being a woman “of a certain age” is a lot of years of experiences and opportunities to learn and grow. In this episode I talk about a few lessons about productivity and life I've learned over the years–that I wish I'd learned sooner.
Trying to practice the wisdom I wish I'd known years ago
The day this episode is published is my oldest granddaughter's 12th birthday. In the weeks leading up to her birthday, I've been thinking about her and about the life ahead of her.
That got me thinking about younger me, and some things I wish I’d known–things I’d want Audra to know as she grows and goes out into the world. I thought I'd share a few of them with you.
1. Don’t wait for “someday” to do the things that matter most to you
There’s never a perfect time to start, but today will be better if you’re spending at least part of it on something you really care about. The days pass slowly sometimes, but the years fly by.
I’m in my late 50s and I’m an empty nester. I know it’s cliché for a woman who’s reached my stage of life to say to younger moms “They’ll grow up before you know it.” But it’s true. Those days when your kids are young can seem so long, so exhausting and overwhelming. But before you know it those days are gone, and you really do wish you’d slowed down a little and appreciated it.
The same goes for those who are in school. The days seem long, and it feels like you’re on hold waiting for your life to begin when you get out of school. But soon your school days will have passed and you’ll be in the next phase of your life.
Maybe you would enjoy the earlier days if you are in the moment and not looking ahead thinking “I can start when I graduate or when the kids are older.”
I wish I had realized sooner that I didn’t have to wait for some future event to happen to start pursuing my dreams and going after my goals.
The corollary to that is that it’s never too late to do what you’ve dreamed of. You’re not too old, and you haven’t missed your only or last opportunity. (Listen to Episode 68 for more about these and other lies we tell ourselves.) I was in my mid-thirties when I started law school, but I wasn’t the oldest person in my class.
2. It’s okay to say no
Our time, energy, and attention are finite resources. It’s okay–in fact, it’s good–to be intentional about how and where we spend them. Saying no to things that don’t fit within our priorities leaves resources available for the things that do.
Back in episode 8 (Saying No Gracefully), we talked about why saying no is difficult for many of us. We hesitate to say no because of FOMO (fear of missing out), or fear of what others will think of us, or to avoid conflict, or all the other reasons we’ve talked about in past episodes. This results in us being overcommitted and maybe even resentful, and our days are not what they could be. But our saying no can actually benefit other people because it gives someone else the opportunity to contribute.
Furthermore, the ability to say a purposeful no is necessary for our yes to have any meaning. If we say yes to everything, we’re not giving a committed yes to the things that matter most to us. I also talk about saying no in episode 115 (Mindset Matters: Productive Skills) and episode 97 (10 Lessons Learned from My Guests).
3. Regret is worse than failure
I can look back over my life and see the times I missed opportunities and even fun experiences because I was afraid to try something new, afraid to step out, afraid of failing in front of other people. I wish I’d realized sooner that failure wouldn’t kill me, and it wouldn’t be as long-lastingly painful as memories of the things I didn’t do for fear of failing.
The corollary to this is that “Inaction Is Worse Than Rejection.”
When people think about failing, they think it’s the worst thing in the world. In fact, sometimes people think it’s the end of their world. But failure is a good thing. It can be learned from, and it shows you’re trying. Inaction, however, is worse. Inaction means you aren’t even trying. That’s bad. Always try.”
4. What other people think of me is none of my business.
“What other people think of you is none of your business. If you start to make it your business, you’ll be offended for the rest of your life.”
“What other people think of you is none of your business. You can’t change it, you can’t control it. The only thing you can control is your reaction to it.”
This concept has been so hard for me to internalize. I want everybody to like me, and I assume nobody does. It has interfered with my life in so many ways and left me feeling anxious and down a lot of the time. It has prevented me from doing things I wanted to do, including reaching out to others in friendship.
But the truth is, most of the time, what other people think of you is more about them than it is about you. For example, when another mom criticizes your parenting style or your housekeeping, it’s likely a reflection of her insecurity in her own choices. Turning that around, if we’re criticizing and judging what other people are doing with their lives, we need to look at ourselves closely because it may be a reflection of our own insecurities about the choices we’ve made.
We should strive to be decent, civil people because we don’t want to go around hurting people on purpose. But our choice to pursue a goal or go after our dream is seldom going to hurt somebody else, and we’re better served by not letting worries about how others might react hold us back, especially people who aren’t actually affected in any way.
Making the decision to move forward in pursuing our goals and not worrying about what other people might think means we should be selective about whose opinion of us we pay attention to. In one of her books, Brené Brown gives a tip to keep a small sticky note with the names of those very few people whose opinion of you matter, and keep it close by to look at when you are tempted to worry about the opinion of somebody's whose name isn't on the list.
5. There is enough time to do what matters most
Every one of us has the same 24 hours each day. Nobody can do everything. But if we’re willing to be aware and intentional and choose on purpose what to do with our minutes and hours and days, and if we’re willing to say no appropriately (to others AND to ourselves!), we can use our 24 hours to do the things that matter most to us.
When I catch myself saying, “I wish I could do this thing but there just isn’t enough time,” I can now ask myself, “Okay Laura, Seriously. What are you doing with your 24 hours that is actually more important than this thing you wish you had time enough to do?” There are always things that are not as important and we get to choose how we use our time. If we are not accomplishing the things we care about the most, it’s not because there isn’t enough time. It’s because we are choosing to use our time for something else.
The corollary to this is that nobody else gets to tell you what matters most to you. What other people do with their time is not the barometer for what you should be doing with yours.
This all comes down to being aware and intentional and making these choices on purpose instead of floating through life and letting things happen to you. You may say that certain things are important, but your checkbook and calendar tell the truth about what matters most to you.
6. You can do more than you think you can
I’m inclined to say “I can’t. That’s not possible for me.” But often this means “I don’t know how.” The truth is you are capable of learning what you need to learn, developing the skills you need, disciplining yourself, choosing intentionally how to use our time to accomplish pretty much anything you truly want to.
On the other hand, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. I’ve been in many situations where I felt like since I could do a certain task or fulfill a certain responsibility, I therefore ought to. But guilt-driven service isn’t the way to make a life that matters. (This ties back into the earlier discussion about saying no.)
We shouldn’t live our lives surrounded by the feeling of “I can’t,” because we really are capable of doing more than we think we are capable of. And by ‘more’, I don’t mean adding more things to our list of things to do in terms of quantity, but rather the kinds of things we thought about doing but felt that we couldn’t.
7. What you do matters, but you are not what you do
I’ve spent much of my life identifying myself by what I accomplished and measuring my own worth by what I did or didn’t do. If I was crushing my to-do list, keeping a clean house, acing my classes, etc., then I was a “good” wife/mother/student/person. If not, well… .
The truth is (and I struggle still to believe this), the things I do in terms of my work and maintaining my household and sending birthday gifts to my kids and grandkids all matter. But if I don’t do them well, or do them at all, it doesn’t diminish my worth as a person.
The contributions you make to the world and to the people around you matter, but your worth and value as a person are completely unrelated to the things you do.
8. Nobody but me is responsible for my happiness
Not husband, not kids, not parents, not friends. I am responsible for making the life I want. I can and do choose how I feel by choosing–consciously or not–what I think about and how I think about it.
I wish I’d understood sooner that my happiness isn’t dependent on my circumstances, that regardless of what happens to me or around me, I can make a life that matters by living intentionally, by ordering my own life based on my own priorities, instead of reacting to circumstances beyond my control.
I am not at the mercy of my feelings or of every thought that crosses my mind. I am by nature and by legal training a worrier. I am inclined to see what can or might go wrong, and am easily attuned to the negative, especially in my own actions and character. If I allow myself to focus on the negatives of my actions, I will be unhappy all the time. No amount of positive feedback from my husband or kids is going to overcome that. I’ve heard someone say “No one will ever love you enough to overcome the fact that you don’t love yourself.”
So I've learned that I can manage my own thinking by learning to be aware of those times when my thoughts are taking me down an unproductive path. I’m not talking about ignoring or denying my feelings, but seeing them, recognizing them, being curious about where they’re coming from, and then choosing to direct them down a path that serves me better.
Often, the way I overcome the discouragement and negativity is to find something to be grateful for. There is always something to be grateful for. Always. And we can, intentionally and on purpose, choose to look for it. When we do, it changes our perception of our circumstances in a way that nobody else’s actions can accomplish.
What do you think?
What are some lessons you’ve learned recently that you wish you’d learned sooner? Please share them in the comments section below this post or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group or send me an email.
Resources and Links
- Episode 8 – Saying No Gracefully
- Episode 68 – The Lies We Tell Ourselves
- Episode 97 – 10 Lessons Learned from My Guests
- Episode 115 – Mindset Matters: Productive Skills
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