Catriona Futter – Equip For Life Coaching Becoming your best self and living life to the full – 07713 974138

Category Archives: Boundaries

The tyranny of the urgent over the important (Or, Habit number 3).

Tyranny of the urgent over the important

Tyranny of the urgent over the important

The tyranny of the urgent over the important – It was Charles E Hummel who first used this phrase in referring to our constantly pressured lives, with endless unfinished tasks and little fulfillment.

And he said this in 1967!

Seems like in some ways our oft gerbil-wheel-running lifestyle is nothing new. I have spoken here before about Burnout, which has been around since Victorian times, and which they termed neurasthenia – nervous exhaustion.

There really is nothing new under the sun.

One of the strengths I find most appealing about Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is that he does not claim to have come up with the habits, nor does he take credit for them. He states simply that he has brought together in one place a series of paradigms, mindsets and ways to live that have been around for many years in different forms.

Habit Number 3 is about putting first things first – learning how to prioritise in our lives that which is important rather than being consumed by what is urgent.

Let me expand (you know I was going to).

Urgent tasks are very visible, press round us, insisting on action, often with a short-term, shallow focus.

There will never be an end to them.

Notice too that they are often based on the priorities and expectations of others, and can be associated with achieving someone else’s goals.

Important tasks, in contrast, are associated with long term results and development, establishing and maintaining good roots, achieving your own goals. This is about considering our values, life purpose and mission, and prioritising what and who matter to us most. Important tasks are about our legacy – what we want to leave behind, the difference we want to make.

This is the outworking of Habit Number 2.

When much of our time is spent preoccupied with Urgent tasks at the expense of Important tasks, our lives can feel out of control, flitting from one crisis to another, constantly reacting to things with little breathing space. The focus becomes short-term fire fighting, or responding to the needs of others.

Choosing Important tasks however takes initiative, forward planning, thinking ahead.

Regularly implementing important tasks takes discipline and requires us to be proactive.

This is the outworking of Habit Number 1.

This can seem hard to the point of impossible at times, not least when we consider how many of the Urgent tasks are not going to disappear. And there will never be an end to them.

But it is exactly in taking that initiative, making a decision to prioritise what is Important, and keeping focused on our life goals and purpose, that we notice our effectiveness and fulfillment increase. We have a greater sense of purpose when we invest in something of value, and often this pro-active approach to developing and nurturing what and who matter to us most prevents the kind of crises that end up in the Urgent category.

As examples, consider the impact of regularly investing in your personal development, key relationships, health, and whatever team or community you are a part of. Now imagine the cost of losing sight of your goals, taking those closest to you for granted, neglecting your health, not investing in the people you work with. When viewed in such black and white terms, the contrast and impact are clear.

Of course, everything we do is on a spectrum, and life is not always clear cut. We can go through very busy seasons when there are a high proportion of activities that are both urgent and important. But that is where investing in ourselves and what/who sustains us is so vital to resource us and equip us for life’s challenges.

The central element to Habit number 3 for me is in this simple quote from Dr Covey himself:

the key is not to prioritise what’s on your schedule but to schedule your priorities.”

To make time for the things that are most important to you each week.

Time management is largely a misnomer – the challenge is not to manage our time but to proactively make choices about how we use our time based on what is most important to us. Trying to prioritise what is important to you each week without a strong basis in your own proactivity and personal responsibility for your life, and without clear values, will not get you very far.

Saying this is the easy bit. Living it out is far more difficult. The first step, as always, is awareness.

How do you spend your time? How much time each week do you spend on that which is most important to you?

As ever, food for thought….

Choosing to say ‘I will’….

Choosing to say "I will".No, it’s not what you think.

This is not a treatise on getting married, although that might be more along the lines of choosing to say “I do” rather than “I will”.

Anyway, I digress.

Someone asks you to do something. Might be your boss, a friend, a family member. How often is your response, “I’ll try”?

Nothing wrong in that, I hear you mutter. And to a certain extent, I agree.

My children have heard me say often enough:

It’s ok to get it wrong, it’s not ok to not try”

…usually as they squirm uncomfortably on the receiving end of a lecture about music practice, maths homework or Biology revision. We learn by trying, getting it wrong, trying again, making mistakes, trying again and eventually succeeding. Thomas Edison famously said that he didn’t fail 10,000 times to make a light bulb, he simply learned 10,000 ways that wouldn’t work.

So, if we define ‘trying’ as having a go, stepping out of our comfort zone, not being afraid to learn from our mistakes, these are all important aspects of growing up, learning, maturing. Essential elements of life.

But what of a more negative way to define the same phrase?

Because sometimes, “I’ll try” is simply a way of getting ourselves off the hook of really committing to something. A safe on-the-fence-response that suggests willingness initially, but allows for an opt out at a later date.

Imagine the scenario. You are asked to get involved with something that will require time, energy, and some effort. Perhaps a colleague asked you to help with an organisational event, or a friend with some fund raising. The cause seems a good one. There is kudos in being asked. It would be good to be involved, and might be quite fun. These initial responses run through your head, and then you are aware of an inner stirring in your gut that points towards the cost. How whatever it is might start to suck time and energy from your very bones, become a drain or a bit of a millstone.

But an early admission of these concerns is not de rigueur, and saving face or trying to please others, or not letting someone down motivate you to say – “I’ll try”. Then, when further down the line the cost hits home and we want out, our identity is less at stake. It is easier to opt out, justifying to ourselves and others, that “I did only say I could try, I didn’t commit to anything.”

I am aware I am on thin ice, and there might be daggers being drawn even as I write this. Bear with me.

Same scenario, two alternative options.

Firstly, the request comes. Again, it is a good cause, good to be involved, you don’t want to let folk down. All valid and important. However. There is then a brave choice – to weigh up the cost of saying yes, measure it against other commitments and your values, take your own boundaries into consideration….and say a straight out

No I can’t”.

Of course with grace and an apology, but without a string of qualifiers and disclaimers. No shame in this. But not always an easy thing to do, and takes a strong internal awareness of values, priorities and good boundaries.

Alternative option, is to give the answer “I will”.

You take a little time – how often do we say ‘yes’ too quickly before we give ourselves time to think, let alone discuss the situation with others who might be affected?

You weigh up the merits and costs of the request, and consider it against your strengths, time and energy availability, and values. A frank inventory of your other commitments allows you to see clearly what you will be saying ‘no’ to by saying ‘yes’ to this. The summation of all these reflections then enables you to see that this is important, and fits well with who you are and what you can do.

You say yes to the request – “I will”. And in so doing, give yourself and the requester an understanding of your full commitment.

This is a perspective shifter – in saying “I will” rather than “I’ll try”, you are choosing to give your best commitment, and will apply perseverance, discipline, and probably some bravery in your quest to fulfill the request.

Having courage to say no to a good and valid request can be hard, as none of us like letting people down. And if we are honest, there can be an element of pride in thinking we can do it all, and we like to be needed. But being aware of our finite energy and time requires an element of humble acceptance of our limitations – we simply can’t do it all. Choosing not to be too proud is where we will go next week.

But meanwhile, choosing to say “I will” – where might that change things for you this week?

Stopping to pause

Stopping to pauseToday…a little hiatus. A humpluck if you will. Somewhat unexpected and very out of character. This day started with six clear hours to work, and a list of things-to-do. Some, practical, dull and long-put-off. Others, more inspiring and of the longer-term investment type. But a day filled with tasks. Tick. Tick. Tick-tick, done. Achievement, satisfaction, on to the next thing.

Because there always is a next thing.

And in that, there started an unravelling of this planned day.

Because in the end very little on my list was ticked off.

Instead, I sat looking out the window….read…..listened to music…..wrote – inner thoughts type writing, not writing to be read by others. Ate toast, drank coffee.

I have long been a just-get-on-with-the-next-thing sort of person. But in talking and writing about letting my soul catch up, creating and maintaining good boundaries, understanding my values and living accordingly, what is surfacing is simplicity, rest, love.

And it turns out, what was most important today was to switch off to the lists and achievement, and sit and be still instead. To pay attention to what is going on inside, and silence the external voice in favour of a much quieter, less familiar internal one.

A voice that was hoarse, out of practice, somewhat croaky.

What am I feeling?

What do I want?

What do I need?

What am I starting to learn about myself, and how I want to live the next bit of my life?

Learning to be stillThis isn’t about narcissistic navel gazing. But it is about the process for me of learning to stop, and pay attention to what is going on inside rather than live at full pelt, always rushing on to the next thing without necessarily stopping to enjoy the current thing. The present, this moment, now.

I am not alone it seems – there are others I know who, like me, are realising that a change is required.

Non-stop-gerbil-wheel living is not sustainable.

Living according to what matters requires self awareness and self examination, and that takes time, stillness, stopping. Which I did today.

The list remains, but even had I completed today’s list, another list awaits tomorrow.

There is no end to the lists.

I love a list, but I am learning to love stillness and quiet too. To give myself permission to stop and be quiet, still, rest.



Neglected values – at what cost?

Neglected valuesWhen have there been times of stress in your life due to your values being neglected or ignored? Contradicted or not honoured? In conflict with someone else’s?

Neglected values is a huge subject, and touches on that tricky area of self care. Because doing things for ourselves, prioritising ourselves over others, viewing our own needs as important – well, that’s selfish isn’t it? Self indulgent perhaps, too inward looking.

We’d feel too guilty, and anyway, who has the time?

Ah, and there I would beg to differ.

When we neglect the things that matter to us most, the impact is a lack of fulfilment, dissatisfaction and no peace.

It has taken me many years, and some internal soul searching and digging around, but I know with clarity and confidence what I most need in a week. And it all comes from my values.

I need outside time with fresh air, the natural world, space. I need music, especially the piano, and to create something, from a cake to a new coaching tool. I need some level of organisation and efficiency, in my work and in my environment. I need at least one good soul-connecting conversation with a life-affirming friend. And with those closest to me, to know that there has been some connection beyond the superficial, functional normal-life type – a deeper connection where both parties feel heard and are really seen.

This is me, you will be quite different. Now, just because I know this, does not mean that I implement it. That is an entirely different challenge.

But with knowledge comes power, and choice.

The impact of not living according to my values has caused my soul to become weary, wizened, dried out. I have spoken here of the impact of this, and the importance of soul rest. But this extends further. This isn’t simply about re-fuelling once we have become spent and exhausted.

This is about proactively choosing to invest in ourselves to prevent us burning out in the first place. When we know what matters to us most – our values – we can make better choices about how we use our time.

It also becomes easier to create good and grace-filled boundaries – when we know clearly what it is we are trying to protect. What do we need, what is most important to us, what is OK and what is not OK. Clarity on those topics – each of them huge – comes only when we are clear on our values.

Think about times of stress in your own life, and take a bravery pill and root under the surface. What led up to that time of stress?

  • Perhaps there been compromise of your values for someone else’s – you have heeded what matters most to the other at the expense of yourself.
  • Or short term gain at the cost of long term fulfilment or peace?
  • Perhaps you find yourself in a situation where you are rubbing up against someone else’s very contradictory values. Neither of you are wrong, but how do you unravel what is going on, and make a choice that respects what you both value? Consider the outworking of you valuing stability when someone close to you values risk taking. Or financial security versus generosity. The key is understanding what is going on.

Neglected values can only lead to discontent, discouragement, stress and unhappiness. Not a pretty picture, and not worth it. What is most important to you, where have you been neglecting that, and what first step towards change can you make this week?

Breaking up is so very hard to do….

Taking regular breaks

Taking regular breaks

Breaking up is so very hard to do. Or so goes the song. Not a very up-beat, life-affirming place to start, especially when we are on the bleak subject of burnout anyway. And since the words of The Walker Brothers song are cheesier than the cheesy vapours emanating from Ian Mellis’ cheese shop, let’s keep the cheesy theme – because of course we are talking here about breaking up your daily routine as a way of addressing some of the risks of burnout. Taking regular breaks, if you will. I knew you’d like that.

Ok, perhaps a more sombre tone is required. Last week we started exploring the importance of paying attention to our bodies, and what they were telling us. Taking regular breaks throughout the day is a natural extension of this, and relates in part to the nature of the much more sedentary, desk-and-computer-bound lives that many of us inhabit.

Burnout can in part result from a misalignment of input and output – you are giving more out than you are taking in. This could be for any number of reasons, including lack of energising, life-giving activities, no time for relaxation, a constant state of electronic availability, energy drainers including chaos and disorganisation, all of which we will dip our toes into in the next few weeks.

But the simple act of taking regular breaks, if only for a few minutes, throughout the work day allows us to stop, reconnect with what we were doing in the first place, and top up our batteries.

Our much needed and relied on electronic devices do not survive for more than a few hours without being plugged into a source of power, so why should the astonishingly complex, multifaceted, highly sophisticated computers that are our brains be any different? Without even considering the impact on the physical vessels of our bodies that house our brains, emotions, and responses.

The key here is to know yourself, and your own rhythms.

  • Are you more of a morning or evening person?
  • When are you at your sharpest and most mentally alert, and what tasks can you prioritise for those sections of the day?
  • Equally, when is your least productive time during the day, and what tasks would more usefully be suited to those times?
  • How long can you work for at full focus before your concentration starts to lapse?
  • For shift workers, this is a whole new challenge, as your biorhythms can be sorely messed with in switching between day and night shift, but probably applies even more.
  • What constitutes a break for you – what short activity would use your mind and body in a completely different way, perhaps allowing dormant, underused muscle groups a chance to wake up a little and engage the opposite side of your brain?
  • What does it mean for you to work smart – to maximise your working patterns to your own rhythms, varying the levels of intensity accordingly with regular position and task changes to allow your body and mind time to recharge. This is not always practical or realistic depending on your work environment and constraints. But the simple act of stopping, changing position, taking a few deep breaths and consciously bringing yourself back to the present can help to ground you in who and where you are.

Taking regular breaks is also important to allow ourselves to ask one of my favourite questions –

So what?

To step back from the task in hand, if only for a few minutes, and remind yourself of the goal and desired outcome

I am doing this, and so what?

What am I hoping to achieve and why?

What is most important here?

What difference is this making, and am I still on track with the original objectives?

So, make it easy on yourself…..(you knew that was coming)….by taking regular breaks throughout your day. Pay attention to your body. Recharge your mind for a few minutes. Reconnect with what you are seeking to do, and why. Your body will thank you for it.


The Burnout Bandwagon

Neurasthenia: Victorian burnout

Neurasthenia: Victorian burnout

Everywhere I turn just now it seems that burnout is the topic of discussion. Several articles have appeared on LinkedIn recently, aimed at coaches who work with Chief Executives, and at care givers. Responses to my own recent musings on the importance of good boundaries, and the need to let our souls catch up with our busy and over-stretched selves have struck a chord with many of you.

I wonder did our ancestors suffer from burnout? What symptoms would our Victorian or Renaissance predecessors have experienced? They too had 24 hour days that filled up with time constraints, employment issues, and family challenges.

Curiously, some very brief research has produced the marvellous term neurasthenia – believe it or not, the Victorian term for what we now classify as burnout:

emotional and mental weariness, anxiety, aches and pains,

sluggishness and sleeplessness, and general malaise.

The diagnosis, as cited by David Schuster, originated with 19th century neurologist George Beard, whose view was that the body ran on nervous energy, and when this energy was expended, many physical and physical health problems manifested themselves.

What prompted this diagnosis of symptoms that were common enough in the day to coin their own term? The late 19th century was a time of rapid change, industrialisation, increased transportation and movement of people to the cities, and the advent of – wait for it – the telephone.


Nothing wrong with the telephone you understand – well done to the genius Alexander Graham Bell. (And he was Scottish!)

But observe with me the irony of it all – we invent new and faster communication methods to improve our lives and narrow our world, and eventually our bodies and minds rebel. Typical me-statement that: very black and white. Clearly, it is not as simple as that, but I am only seeking to stir your thoughts.

Neurasthenia becomes the trendy 19th century ailment even as people are stretching themselves to learn more, invent more, move further, create more. As humans, we are truly astonishing – capable of incredible creativity, inventiveness, depths of emotion and resilience. That is who we are, and each of us is unique and amazing with the most powerful computer at work inside our heads.

But – and there is always a but – we also require rest and restoration to allow us to function at our best.

What did the Victorians do about neurasthenia? What were some of the recommended treatments? And what are the symptoms we would recognise as burnout? What can we learn from past generations? Explore with me over the coming weeks.

Learning to stop, notice, and value friends

So after last week’s little humpluck in the duvet of life, normal services resume this week. Christmas seems to be hurtling towards us faster than ever before. My senses were assaulted this week at a large garden centre by a singing reindeer complete with winter wonderland entourage, and an overwhelming scent of cinnamon from the barrage of candles that greeting me. Some of you reading this will know exactly where I have been!

And so to what is exercising my mind this week. I am planning a big launch in January of a coaching tool that I have written, and want to share some of the backstory that led me to write it. It will be very personal, and will need to be approved by my beloved before I publish it, as it is very personal to him too. Our story has had it’s complications, but nothing is wasted, and I never stop learning.

But that is just a wee teaser for you….Advent will see me writing simple short reflections on keeping focused on what matters most at Christmas (a theme never far away for me!). And between now and then?

Learning to apply my own medicine seemed to really strike a chord with folk. The concept of boundaries and limits that we have been exploring has really made me stop and think about how I choose to live, and what I need more and less of in my weeks to not overstep my own limits.

Valuing friends

Valuing friends

Friendship is very high up that list and realising that making time for friends is crucial to my mental, social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.

When I better understand my limits, I am less likely to become overstretched and miss out on time with friends. The other side of that equation is about prioritising friends because they are important (and probably much more important than many of the things I am tempted to become preoccupied with when in hyper-controlling-mode) and therefore protecting time with them with good boundaries.

Some observations about friends over the last few weeks:

  • the support network aka protection squad of friends around elder daughter at a potentially nerve-wracking social event in her honour
  • having friends listen to and reassure me about my own anxieties concerning same event
  • being asked to help a couple of different friends in dire straits (and having time to do so)
  • support for younger daughter as she learns to deal with her twin braces
  • at the Good Food Show, inspired by chef/TV chap James Martin emphatically affirming his own friends – “If you want to get anywhere in life, you need to have good friends around you”. A humble, honest and very down to earth guy.

None of these examples are life shattering, and again are simply my own recent reflections. But as I start to look out for that which is most important, and prioritise it, my perspective shifts. Celebrating my friends, and seeking to be a good friend, are aspects of life that are well worth protecting.




Learning to take my own medicine!

It’s been a funny old week. A week of learning how to take my own medicine.Learning to take my own medicine

Almost all the things that were planned at the beginning of the week have gone out the window – meetings, evening commitments, social events, and not accomplishing most of my scheduled work. In a recent musing, I talked about the fact that sometimes life just chucks stuff at you over which you have no control. Now, I was referring to really hard stuff – illness, unemployment, bereavement etc – but the same is true for minor inconveniences too. In my case, two ill children, one after the other, and a radiator falling off a wall. So today, I am keeping second child company and waiting for radiator man.

The key for me in this is my response to these very-common-and-very-minor events. The last few weeks have prompted me to think about my own boundaries and limits, even as I have been challenging and encouraging you to consider yours.

Prior to this week, life had been very busy indeed, take own medicineand I was reaching the very edge of my limits. Indeed, a couple of times I had to catch myself on and apply my own questions to myself. Never easy to take your own medicine, but one of the most important lessons I have learnt in this line of work is to be honest and real (as regular readers here will know).

So, a few reflections that I am learning to take with a spoonful of sugar:

  • I have the power to choose each day how I respond to that day’s events and circumstances.
  • I can be proactive in how I use my time but I can also learn to relax my controlfreakery and re-assess what is most important.
  • When plans change, stopping and asking, what and who are really important here and letting go of stuff that I might have considered crucial but was really more about me, my ego or my need to be in control
  • just chilling out without guilt! (watched quite a few funny films this week with one child or the other)
  • making the most of suddenly free-ed up but captive-in-the-house time: Christmas cake made, floors cleaned, lots of odd jobs finally finished
  • knowing that in terms of my work, I have prioritised the most important aspect – clients

Taking my own medicine: learning to be content and thankful in small things, recognise and pay attention to my own limits (enforced house rest does that to you!), letting go my need to control and valuing what really matters.



How to communicate your emotional needs Part II

How do you communicate with those close to you?

How do you communicate with those close to you?

When discomfort and resentment are your reactions to an interaction with someone, why? What is it about the person’s expectations of you or behaviour towards you that is bothering you? Is this about you, and therefore there is something here that you need to pay attention to and take on board? Or is it about them?

Or – most likely – a bit of both?

Is it because you have gone beyond your own limits of energy (mental, emotional, physical, spiritual) and have nothing left? That may well be the case, but is the other person aware of that, and why?

What gives you life might drain it right out of someone close to you, but without clear communication and understanding, it is easy for boundaries to be crossed and others’ limits stamped on.

So… do you communicate such matters? a few tentative thoughts….

  • look back at the questions that explored your limits, and answer them for yourself
  • who is it around you that you need to communicate some of this information to, and when and where are best? – a relaxed, neutral environment, somewhere unlikely to trigger negative reactions in either of you
  • ask the other person to talk about who they are at their best, and in what circumstances; what contributes to that, what brings out the best in them, what gives them energy; affirm them and add what you see about them at their best
  • ask them to listen as you tell them the same about you, and request their positive input
  • do the same for what drains their and your energy, and what you understand of your limits
  • listen without putting your own take on what they are saying – try not to listen autobiographically, but listen with a view to getting into their skin
  • if this level of conversation might not be appropriate, try some of these phrases as starting points: “I am learning to recognise that I am [this] kind of person, and that too much or too little of [  ] is likely to cause me stress and function less well…..I want to be the best [  ] I can be and therefore sometimes will say ‘no’ to things simply because I am learning to recognise my limits.”
  • keep focused on the bigger picture of what you are trying to achieve – greater openness and mutual respect

Understand and respect other people’s boundaries, and they are more likely to respect yours. Respect their boundaries without judgement and without projecting your own values or ideals on to them. Healthy boundaries create an environment of understanding, mutual support and respect – give and take. When we have confidence in our own boundaries, we can be clearer on when and how to bend them, and under what circumstances.

Believe in yourself – who you are and what you can do. Communicate that with those closest to you, and the risk of wrong expectations is reduced.

Each of us is unique, and fearfully and wonderfully made, to quote the Psalmist. Don’t be afraid to gently open up to those close to you when you feel squashed or overstretched.

Communicate your emotional needs to them and listen to theirs, and in so doing, create more space for mutual value and respect.

How do you communicate your emotional needs?

How well defined or communicated are your own emotional needs in your closest relationships?

Oo-ohhh – can open, worms everywhere! (To quote a flamboyant old friend!)

You may be starting to understand and create or strengthen your own boundaries, but do those around you understand what they are, and why? How does this apply to those you live with, work with, and socialise with?

How to communicate your emotional needs - what's inside you?

How to communicate your emotional needs – what’s inside you?

We accept that having boundaries is healthy and necessary – you are protecting what you know ie:

who you are, your values, personality, what you can do and what is important to you.

This is about self worth and self acceptance, and understanding your limits. But if those around you don’t know or understand this, it is harder for them to respect your boundaries and the unique way you are wired.

My beloved is as different from me as it is possible to be. He has also understood me better and for much longer than I have understood myself. When I am very stressed and overstretched, and feel out of control with life (usually because I have ignored my own limits) I have a fairly well identified way of expending my pent up frustration without exploding. I tidy the house like some kind of Tasmanian devil. Nothing is safe. He has been known to warn the children to stay out of the way for fear of being vacuumed or put in a bin bag.

The first time I did this in full charging bull mode, he quietly let me finish, then gently put his hands on my shoulders, looked into my eyes and asked ‘Do you feel better now?’ I was so cross – but only because he had me absolutely sussed.

We have learned from this and now communicate our quirks, needs and week’s schedule in advance. He needs time to recharge on his own at the end of a busy, people-filled working day, as he is a natural introvert.  Along with this, small chunks of solo self care activities throughout the week top up his energy levels and enable him to function better as dad, husband, friend, boss.

He knows I need at least one life giving conversation with a friend a week, some time on my own, some degree of order in the house, and time to sit and talk with him so we properly connect. So we are learning to make those things a priority for each other. We have much clearer boundaries on what we say yes and no to individually and as a family because we understand our limits.

What do you know of the needs of those around you? How are they wired, compared to you? Those that you live, socialise and work with?

And how can you communicate your emotional needs to them, and learn to listen to theirs? More to explore here next week.