Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Importance of Feedback: Why feedback is essential to a thriving workplace?




We all want feedback.  I want feedback from my bosses, those I supervise, and my peers so that I can improve.  Peers and friends seek me out for my feedback so they can improve.  And my children need feedback so they know how to behave.  In short, we all need frequent feedback.  Feedback from others is the fastest way to improve, it is how we learn and excel.  Feedback motivates us and helps us to make appropriate course corrections and leverage our strengths.  Admittedly, sometimes feedback is not what we expect and can push us outside of our comfort zones and even sting a little, but ultimately it is what helps us grow and improve.

At the State Department we have the 360 review process that provides feedback, but that is generally reserved for use during bidding season or when you take a leadership training course at the Foreign Service Institute.  We have the obligatory “counseling sessions” which usually occur in support of the Employee Evaluation Report process.  Though I am sure it exists in pockets, there does not seem to be any uniform application of a regular feedback process, there is even anecdotal evidence to suggest there exists a feedback vacuum. 

Fullcirclefeedback.com.au defines a feedback vacuum as “a vacuum that occurs when people do not receive enough information about their performance.”  This does not refer to the formal performance feedback process I mention above, but is rather an ongoing, regular and informal feedback loop that addresses:

·         Whether or not employees are achieving their goals
·         What they are supposed to be achieving in their role i.e. why their role exists
·         What they are currently doing well and what areas require improvement
·         How they are impacting others in the workplace

Keep in mind that feedback does not always have to be supervisor to subordinate, it can be peer to peer, subordinate to supervisor, and should be actively solicited by colleagues from colleagues at all levels.

The Partnership for Public Service outlines “Ten Good Guidelines for Giving Feedback”:

1.  Make it relevant.  Your feedback should relate to how the person is meeting their performance standards and objectives, and helping to serve the office goals.
2.  Focus on the future.  The past is over.  Use it only to provide sufficient data so the person understands your concern.  Focus on how things could be different in the future.
3.  Be honest and straightforward.  Don’t avoid difficult issues.  Try to be truthful and tactful at the same time.
4.  Make it timely.  Give it as close to the event as possible.  The exception being, wait until any feelings of anger have subsided.
5.  Be specific.  Do not use vague and general statements such as “lacks professionalism.”  Give people tangible examples of what you want them to change.
6. Focus on behavior, not personality.  People can’t change their personality; they can only change their behaviors.  Describe observed behaviors, not your interpretation, or personality characteristics.  Ask yourself:  What could a camera or tape recorder have picked up that is, observable behavior?
7.  Keep it limited.  If you have a lot of negative things to say, consider focusing just on the most important concerns.  Address other issues later.
8.  Be sure it’s actionable.  Only give feedback if the person can do something about it.  Aim at skills, attitudes, and behaviors that can be developed or repeated.  Be sure the person has access to learning opportunities and resources needed.
9.  Explain the impact.  Tell the person why the behavior is important.  Explain who and what it impacts and how.
10.  End on a positive note.  Be encouraging and help motivate the person to develop him/herself.  Remind him/her of their strengths and value to the office.

How feedback helps
Feedback helps employees find answers to important questions such as:

·         How is my performance tracking with the needs of the office?
·         What is the best use of my time? 
·         How do I prioritize tasks?
·         How do I influence others?
·         How does my position fit into the larger mission?
·         What is the quality of my relationships with managers, team members, and colleagues?

Feedback provides the type of information we need to be successful in the workplace.  The most prolific leaders actively seek feedback to enhance their performance.

Why feedback is important
Feedback is one of the easiest, effective, and most underutilized tools available to help people get on track.  Feedback serves as a guide or roadmap to make people aware of their performance and how others perceive their performance.

Building a culture that values feedback is essential to creating and maintaining an environment that motivates employees to always bring their “A game” and to promote sustained high levels of performance.  Feedback is directly correlated with employee satisfaction and productivity.  People like to feel engaged in their organization and understand how their work contributes to the overall vision and mission.  Ongoing and regular feedback is a powerful way to achieve that result.




Monday, September 14, 2015

Practicing Positivity: Happiness is a Choice (A Short Tale)

Okay so I feel like I must be living under a cloud.  Within the last 24 hours I lost my wedding band, been treated like a secretary because of my gender, and now when I am headed to my first ever blogging conference (Blogalicious), it seems like the fates are against me.  The Story:  So I leave the house this morning still some what demoralized because I can't find my ring, (thank god my husband has such a positive attitude about it), realized the gas tank was only half full, and that I need to get cash.  So I decide to go to a gas station near to the place where I have to get on the highway.  I get there and as I am filling up the tank I realize one of my back taillights is literally hanging out and needs to be taped, at a minimum.  I go inside to get cash and to inquire if they have any  tape.  They don't, so now I am in front of the ATM and the attendant tells me the ATM doesn't work.  Mind you, I am trying to do all of this really quickly so I can get ahead of traffic, like that is even possible on a work day in the DMV, but nonetheless I tried.  Thankfully across the street is another gas station, so I decide to try my luck at gas station #2 in terms of getting cash and seeking tape.  Again no tape but at least I got some cash and I am off again, taillight still hanging out.   A little more behind schedule than I want to be, but I will try to make time up on the road.  I head down the road to the place where you begin to merge onto the highway, and my GPS says "moderate traffic up ahead" This moderate traffic added another 10 minutes to my trip, but I am undeterred.  I've already called the hubby a few times at this point to check in, vent, and to keep him apprised of the situation, mostly just to tell him about the taillight and my fear that it will fly off when I am en-route to the conference.  I am finally out of VA and heading around DC via the beltway and am into Maryland at this point when the car starts sputtering, surging, racing and all of the lights on the dashboard are flashing on and off, I know this isn't good.  I'm thinking it might be battery related, so I pull out the car charger, I have my phone plugged into, thinking it might be doing something to the battery.  When I do, the car's functionality seems to improve.  I then keep going saying in my head "I just want to get there, I just want to get there" and I am on the verge of tears due to frustration.  I drive another five minutes with everything turned off, no radio, no car charger, no ac, and the sputtering, surging and racing starts happening again.  I decided to get off the road at that point and that is where I end up, pulled over at a random gas station in Silver Springs, MD, still 40ish miles from the conference, waiting for my hubby to get there to help me out.  Now there is a range of emotions I could justifiably be feeling at this point including anger, frustration and disappointment but oddly and incredibly, I feel blessed and grateful.
smiley-163510_1280
I strongly believe you are responsible for your own happiness, and that being happy is a choice.  This doesn't mean things can't be stressful, irritating, frustrating and overwhelming at times.  Negative emotions are easier to get sucked into than positive ones, at least that is the case for me.  I believe you have more control over how these external influences can affect you than you may initially be aware of.  For instance when I hit traffic the first time I used it as an opportunity to call my husband to vent about how despite my best laid plans, s*it was going sideways.  He heard me out, listened to me, and I felt better.  We hung up.  Five minutes later I called him back to apologize for being so negative and told him that I was going to choose to look at things differently.  

Instead of feeling upset about circumstances beyond my control that unfortunately impacted me negatively, I chose to feel blessed to be in a position to even have this type of problem, as in I have a car, I have a cell phone to call for help, I have someone who cares on the other end of the phone.  Everyone throws around the term "first world problems"  all the time, a missing wedding band and a messed up taillight certainly qualify as such.  In that moment I decided to choose happiness and acknowledge the good amidst the bad and not let the setbacks "steal my joy".

In that situation, thinking in a positive way was contagious, once I shook off the stresses of the morning's ordeal, I began to realize even more positives that I was unaware of until I shifted my mindset, like the fact that I was not at work that day, had gotten into a pair of skinny jeans I haven't been able to fit for some time, was going to see some old friends I hadn't seen in a while, the fact that my gel manicure looked really good.  These little positive things are blessings and my ability to turn around the negative thoughts and emotions I was feeling into positive ones was something I hope to make a practice.  As soon as I stopped thinking negatively and shifted my mindset I felt an immediate change in my body as well.  My shoulders went down, I stopped frowning and started smiling, that pent-up frustrated feeling I had inside went away and I just felt better, more relaxed, clear, open and ready.

I am going to pledge to myself that I will "practice positivity" and conscious gratitude for 30 days from this point so that it becomes my new habit, will you join me?  Let's be happy, life is too short to live in any other way.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Don't Miss Out on Your Child's Childhood!

So we live in the digital age and more relationships than ever are started in the virtual medium.  Nothing wrong there, that's life today.  However, there is one area in life where a virtual relationship won't work and where in fact living virtually is actually the biggest impediment to a real relationship - the one with your children.  Technology is a tool that you can use to engage and interact with your child, but it isn't a substitute.  We are all too quick to turn on the TV, park the kids in front of a video game or IPad/tablet or other gaming system, while we remain equally engrossed in our cell phones, computers, laptops, kindles, etc. Where is the real connection, that in person face-to-face bond?  Where is the interaction? Where is the love?  Our children grow up so quickly and it is a fact that their childhood will end too soon, in the "blink of an eye", so don't squander it or you will regret it and your life-long relationship with your children will be impaired as a result.

You might say this doesn't apply to your situation and you are fully engaged with your child, and I hope you're right.  Here are some scenarios (culminated from other excellent parent blogs on the same subject that inspired this post), that if you find yourself relating to them, you're definitely missing it:
  1. You go to your child’s sporting event and look up periodically from your phone thinking she won’t notice that you are not paying attention to her game.
  2. You keep your phone turned on at all times of the day and allow the rings, beeps, and buzzes to interrupt your child mid-sentence; always letting the caller take priority.
  3. You check your phone first thing in the morning … even before you kiss, hug, or greet the people in your family.
  4. You neglect daily rituals like tucking your child into bed or nightly dinner conversation because you are too busy with your online activity.
  5. You don’t look up from your phone when your child speaks to you or just reply with an “uh huh” to give the impression you were listening.
  6. You get frustrated with your child when he “bothers” you while you are interacting with an electronic device.
  7. You sigh or roll your eyes when your child asks you to push her on the swing because you are busy on your phone.
  8. You use drive time to call other people instead of talking to your kids.
If you are engaging in some or all of these activities, you are missing out on your child's childhood because you aren't present with them, you aren't paying attention, and you are prioritizing the wrong things.  If you continue to engage in these types of activities, it is a recipe for disaster.  It is a fact that we live in the 21st century, a fact that we are globally wired at all times, a fact that your job is important and of course you must be responsive to the office.  However, despite all those factors, at some point you must realize that you don't have to sacrifice your child’s childhood, your sanity, or your life.  

There is a better way.

Portrait of a Smiling Afro-american family on the sofa

How to "Hold On" to your child's childhood!

Be intentional with your children.

Meaningfully connect with them.

Make them the priority when you spend time with them and be fully present.

Set distraction-free daily routines with them that are just for you and them and stick to them, i.e. reading before bedtime, or playing board games or puzzles during a family games night.

Look into their eyes when they speak to you and really listen to them.

Love on them, give them affection.  Give a hug, a kiss, a pat on the head, hold hands, and/or a rub on the back.  Loving affection speaks volumes to them at any age.

Let them laugh at and with you.

Tell them you love them for who they are, this is especially important as they become older and start finding themselves.

Ride bikes with them, throw a ball with them in the yard or park, and actively play with them.

Be grateful for them every day remembering they are a gift.

These are only a few examples of ways you can meaningfully and intentionally connect with your children and there are a zillion more.  However, the real "key to the kingdom" is to remove the electronic devices/distractions when interacting with your children.  Bottom line:  Make the time with your kids count, especially since there is precious little of it, and stay focused on what matters most, them!!!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

8 Ways to Find Happiness in Your Everyday Life

Happiness is a choice.  It is not just a way of being but rather it is a conscious choice and something you must commit to seeking every day.   Happiness is what life is all about; it is what makes the challenges, failures, stresses, and losses, bearable.  Happiness fills you up with goodness, inspires you to greatness, and heals all things.  Happiness is worthy of pursuing every day.  I am not saying you have to walk around all bubbles and sunshine but you can choose to see things from a more positive perspective, a more "glass half full" perspective and you will be amazed at the way the world opens up to you and you to it.

The following list is eight ways, some cheesier than others, that I have discovered to access happiness on a daily basis.  See if they work for you:

1.) Be Grateful -  Instead of always thinking about what you don't or seemingly can't have, focus on what you do have: a job, a home, clothes on your back, food in your belly, health, family and friends, and so much more.  I've seen many people taking part in the gratitude challenges on Facebook and elsewhere and I think that is good practice for reminding oneself about the abundance of good things we have in our lives.  It doesn't mean you can't seek out things you don't have or to stop desiring things you want, it just means be sure to recognize and appreciate the many blessings you already have.

2.) Connect authentically in your relationships - Check-in with good friends often and not just via text message, IMing, or social media, actually call and speak, or even better meet up and see one another in person.  Celebrate the good things in their lives, and listen to them, don't just talk about yourself.  People love to be heard and for friends who are struggling sometimes the best thing you can do is lend a compassionate listening ear.  This doesn't mean you shouldn't talk about yourself, it just means listen (don't just hear, there is a difference), more than you talk.

3.) Learn Something New - Cook a new dish, play a new game, try a new sport, take a class, go for walk on a street in your neighborhood that you have never ventured down before, go into that store you've been curious about but never checked out.  Bottom line:  Get up and get out there.

4.) Pamper Yourself - You've been meaning to get to the salon to get your "hair did" for the longest, or your nails are looking so raggedy that no amount of DIY work is going to help.  Go on and book that appointment, I always feel better when I step out the door of the salon.  Looking better always makes me happy, because it makes me feel good about me.

5.) Dance - No matter how rough my day has been, or how down I feel, when I put on my dancing music and just let myself go, I immediately feel better.  It doesn't solve any problems of course but for that moment I am able to set aside whatever I have going on and it takes the edge off.  It is especially fun to dance with my kids.

6. Get lost in a great book - I am an avid reader and so rarely get to read that it is a real treat to just read for pleasure.  One way I get this in is to read when I am in transit.  I always carry a book or my kindle with me just in case.  Reading helps transport me from "reality" into the "imaginary" which is always fun.

7.) Be Generous - Connecting with other people and feeling part of something larger than ourselves takes us a long way toward happiness.

8.) Meditate - Meditation is an important habit/tool for improving focus, clarity, and attention span.  Meditation literally clears your mind and calms you down, and has been proven in several health and wellness studies to be an effective way to live a happier life.

Monday, August 10, 2015

3 Ways Women Hold Themselves Back: How to Get Ahead in the Workplace

Why aren't I progressing in my career as quickly as my male counterparts?  Why did the person I brought in already get promoted before me?  I could have done that job, why didn't I go for it?  Have you ever asked yourself these questions and if so, what have you done to change your circumstances?  According to BusinessInsider.com, "Women are 57% of college graduates and 63% of masters degree holders, but that majority fades as careers progress."  The question is why?  We know the glass ceiling is a real thing that women in the 21st century unfortunately still grapple with, but we can no longer point the finger of blame at male status quo anymore.  In numerous conversations with female friends, colleagues, and mentees and reading some of the many books on the market on the topic including but not limited to "Lean In" by Sheryl Sandberg, "The Confidence Code" by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, and "Strategize to Win" by Carla Harris, the same themes kept coming up over and over again and I realized there are three main things women do to hold ourselves back from success in the workplace (and in general).

1.)  The belief that "I'm not good enough or I'm not ready yet"
Believing that you aren't good enough or you aren't ready yet because you either don't have 100% of the credentials, enough experience, or because you don't feel completely "ready" for the next step is the thought/belief pattern that holds women back from taking leaps in their careers.  This includes applying for positions in a new/different field, asking for more money or a raise, taking a more visible/leadership role on an important project, or seeking a promotion.  

2.) Too much modesty and no self-advocacy
Numerous studies suggest that when it comes to evaluating their own work performance, men consistently rate themselves more positively than women. Some of the reasons theorized to be behind this result are that women are socialized to be more modest about their work and subsequent work achievements.  The same research also indicates that men are more motivated by the "visibility of their work", while women are more motivated by the "security of their work relationships".  Men are more inclined to take firm positions on key issues and confidently advocate for their chosen initiatives; even when there is a degree of self-doubt, men are more likely to "fake it ’till they make it".  Women in contrast are more prone to hang back and often don't or won't speak up because they are worried about being considered too tough, aggressive, or worse.

3.) Fear of Success
To be clear, the "fear of success" does not mean women are afraid of achieving a particular career goal but rather it refers to the fears about what the consequences or ramifications of the achievement will mean.  For example some typical concerns are can I withstand the stress that this may cause?  How much more time will this require me to spend in the office?  Is this worth the effort, the long hours, and the headaches?  Some concerns relate to the fear of failure such as, can I cope with the additional demands of a bigger role? What if I make a mistake? What if I can’t do it and if I fail what will that mean for my reputation?  A third area of concern is those that relate to the implications of career success on our home life, such as how will my husband/partner react to my success?  What impact will this have on my children?  Will I be faced with jealousy or criticism by my friends/acquaintances? Can I deal with being the one that’s different or set apart?

So how do we begin to change this?
As a start, women must pay attention to and reflect on the behaviors that have been demonstrated to help people move up the career ladder in their organizations.  Women also need to communicate their accomplishments on a wide scale beyond first-line managers, and take on assignments that broaden their exposure and contributions to the larger organization (i.e. move beyond your comfort zone).

Usually, we engage in the above behaviors unconsciously, so becoming more aware of when we are indulging them is getting you halfway there, then choosing to do or think something different moves you closer to the success you deserve and have worked so hard for.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Morning Runs vs. Evening Runs: Which is Better?

After grad school, when life became more predictable and routine driven and the metabolism began to slow down, of course after the babies started coming, I started trying to run on my own in an effort to "stay in shape".  I had always been physically active, played team sports, was a lifeguard, regularly rode my bike, loved taking classes at the gym, running however was never something I did for pleasure it was just a necessary means to participating in the sports that I loved, especially soccer.  However, I was no longer a part of any team, no longer a lifeguard, hadn't ridden my bike in ages, my gym membership had long expired, and I was starting to see and feel the difference and it wasn't good.
Running seemed a simple fix to my situation, but all the runners I knew were "serious" runners and they all trained in the morning.  I am a classic night owl and have always felt more energized at night.  As a non-coffee drinker it takes me awhile to wake up in the mornings and really feel like myself.  However, some of my runner friends claimed to be natural night-owls too and made some good points about why morning running worked for them.
Pros for Morning Runs:
  • You get it done and have the rest of your day to focus on all the other things you have to do, feeling good about the fact that you already got your exercise in.
  • Mornings might be the only time in your day when you can realistically squeeze a run in.
  • The endorphins and adrenalin that flow through your body post-run, can wake you up, put you in a good mood, and set the tone for the rest of day. It never hurts to start your day on the good foot, literally!
Cons for Morning Runs:
  • You may be less productive for the rest of your day because you are tired and not wired to be up and active at that time of day and your body goes into a recuperative mode, making you feel sluggish and sleepy.
  • You may have to get up earlier than you really want to (this is a big one for me, really any time I have to get up before 7 am is a struggle), because you will have to run and then still go through your morning routine after the run and as a night owl despite being tired you may not be able to get to sleep early at night.
  • It might be so early that you aren’t hungry (I know I’m not) and therefore unable to “fuel” properly before your workout which will affect the intensity of your workout.
Pros for Afternoon/Evening Runs:
  • You can work out when you want, and don’t have to miss any critical sleep time.
  • You will have eaten at least 2-3 meals and 1-2 snacks and consumed enough water to be adequately “fueled” giving you the energy you need to do a complete or more intense workout.
  • You’ve been on the move all day, so your body is warm, active, and limber from the day reducing your risk for injury, cramping, and/or susceptibility to aches and pains.
Cons for Afternoon/Evening Runs:
  • Your work and/or family schedule may not accommodate this. You might have to stay late in the office putting in that overtime, or you are on the hook to pick the kids up from daycare and then you want to spend quality time with them and by the time they go down you are pooped and running is the last thing on your mind.
  • Depending upon your profession, you may be exhausted by the end of the day and do not feel physically up for running at that point.
  • If you can’t tolerate tread mill running (I hate it and won’t do more than 3 miles on a treadmill) it’s dark and not all paths are lighted, which makes night time running more challenging.
Think carefully about the times of day when you feel the most energized and when you feel tired.  Are you a natural night owl or an early-bird?  Do you feel lucid, and raring to go in the morning, or does the night life give you that extra spark of energy you need to power through?  Once you can ascertain these things you will soon be able to deduce the time of day that might naturally work best for you.  Then you have to make it work with your schedule.
Whatever you decide if your goal is exercise, weight loss, maintenance, general health or some combination of all of these things, consistency is the key.  Pick the timing and training schedule that works best for you, plan accordingly, and STICK to it!

Saturday, August 1, 2015

When the Kids are Away, the Parents can Play!!!

It's summertime, the weather is amazing, and there is so much to see and do.  The good news is, you've just dropped the kids off at summer camp, or with relatives and you are FREE.  Now what do you do?  If you're like me your first reaction is to feel a combination of remorse, guilt, exhilaration, excitement, and temporary paralysis since you are overwhelmed with options.  Here are some great ideas of things you should do to make the most of your kid free respite.
1.) Take a vacation!  If the kids are away for at least a week, go somewhere.  Make it a couples thing or grab some friends for a group outing.  You don't have to spend tons of money on it, you could go camping, or to a B&B on the beach, hit an all-inclusive resort or take a cruise to a new destination.  Bottom line: Get up and get out there and enjoy your kid free status!
2.) Even better have a "staycation"!  Not in the mood to plan a trip, feel like finally completing some of the long-term projects that always seem to allude you, or you just feel like doing nothing, well home is the perfect place for that.  Sleep-in, take LONG showers, binge watch and catch up on all the shows and movies you've been wanting to see.  Time at home can be just as relaxing, rejuvenating, and fun as a planned vacation.  Bottom line:  Whatever you do, enjoy the time, and keep other commitments to a minimum.
3.)  Pamper yourself!  While you are enjoying your down-time, you can catch up on some much need grooming and being-your-best self activities.  Get a haircut/go to the salon, get a massage, facial, mani/pedi or all of the above.  You've got the time, might as well let yourself unwind, recharge, and feel good.
4.) Go on a date night or many!  Take your spouse or significant other out on a date or several.  You don't need a babysitter and you have no time constraints.  Trust me when I say you will enjoy your nights out even more without having to worry about what the kids are doing at home or being hyper aware of your cellphone in case the baby-sitter might be trying to call.  See a movie in a movie-theater but make sure it is not a cartoon or in any way geared toward a child audience.
5.) Do what you want to do NOT what you must do! If you've been waiting to read the book you downloaded or picked up a few months ago and haven't started reading, now is your chance.  If you want to try a new class at the gym, go for it.  If you actually want to hit a happy hour after work with your colleagues, do it.  This is your chance to let your hair down and be "you" again, not the parent version of you, but the kid-free or pre-kid version of you.
6.) Don’t go grocery shopping for at least a week.  Order in, eat out, and/or heat up something you already have in the fridge and take a moment to enjoy it.  Eat what you want, when you want it, without having to hear "ew vegetables" or "this is gross, I want pizza"!
Many parents feel guilty spending time away from their kids, but it is absolutely essential to your well-being and peace of mind. Parents need to devote attention to themselves and not lose focus on the importance of their adult lives, in order to be patient, supportive, nurturing, and present to their children. If it is hard to shake off the guilt, keep in mind that your children are away having a great time and learning/doing new things without you, so there is no reason why you can’t do the same without them!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Not getting enough sleep: 4 Ways to Cope with a Snoring Partner

Are you ever faced with the dilemma of kicking your partner out of the room vs. just not getting enough (or restful) sleep? Are you kept awake at night by their sleep laughing, restlessness, talking, snoring or some combination of all of these things? In the beginning these things might seem amusing/tolerable but after a while the “bloom is off the rose” and the need for getting a good night’s rest takes over.  We love our partners and don’t want to kick them out of bed but when do you step back to find a solution?  A good starting point would be to determine the cause of the sleeping issues.
1.)  Get to the bottom of it – There are many contributing factors that cause someone to be a restless/snoring sleeper including dehydration, caffeine, alcohol, smoking, weight issues, and even preferred sleep positions among many others.  Figuring out what the root causes of your partner’s restlessness/snoring are and addressing them could lead to better more restful nights for all.  If they are talking in their sleep, it could be due to anxiety, stress, or some issue they need to work out and are unable to address during their waking hours.  If that’s the case, be sure to check in with them to see what’s going on and to see if you can help them talk it out before you go to bed.
2.) Eat a good breakfast – This is so important for so many reasons, but among those reasons is the fact that it will lead to better sleep.  People who eat first thing tend to have/produce more melatonin, which aids in sleep at night.  If you have less melatonin in your system, you may be more susceptible to waking up and more likely to be affected by the night time shenanigans of your partner.
3.) Consider sleep aids – There are lots of products in the market that claim to reduce snoring and/or promote restful sleep from breathing strips, oral/nasal decongestants and antihistamines, anti-snoring pillows to white noise machines.  If the snoring is a result of a cold, allergies, or one or more of the issues in the first point and not something more serious like sleep apnea then consider some over-the-counter options, if appropriate.  Also consider wearing ear plugs.  This may not be the most comfortable option but if you are determined to stay in the same bed, then consider it.
4.) Sleep in separate rooms – It doesn’t have to be a permanent solution but when all else fails, it might be necessary.  Many people balk at this notion and feel like it should be a last resort measure.  However, the thing to keep in mind is that sleeping in separate rooms does not mean there is something wrong with the relationship; it simply means you need your rest and sleeping apart will ensure that you do.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

5 Signs That You Are Doing Too Much

Life is busy, life is messy, we all wear many hats and find ourselves encumbering many roles, but when do you say enough is enough?  Do you ever find yourself awake at night because you feel anxiety about all the things you have to do, literally the "to-do" list is playing over and over in your head and you feel your anxiety mounting? Have you ever found yourself in a situation and wondered why am I doing this or why am I spending time on this?  If you are like me this didn't happen overnight but was more of an accumulation of items piling up over time until you realized one day what once was manageable has now become a little bit more than you can handle.  If you haven't had your "moment of clarity," here are some tell-tale signs you can use to help figure out if you are in this situation:

1.) Regular exercise ain't happening

Were you once a gym rat, or did you get out and run/walk/bike a few times a week on a consistent basis and now you have no time for it?  For overburdened people a common practice to create more time is to cut exercise out.  Sometimes putting aside that trip to the gym in favor of something else is necessary but it is all too easy to fall out of the habit of going, which isn't good for anyone.

2.) Healthy eating is something you aspire to

After a hectic workday and coming home to a  huge list of household chores, it can be pretty easy to give in to fast food temptation or ordering out instead of cooking your own meal.  Again once in awhile is okay but if the pizza delivery guy is on your speed dial and you have already stopped working out, it is not only unhealthy but a sign you might have too much going on.

3.) Hobbies have become a non-existent priority

If your hobbies have been replaced by household chores, doing laundry, running errands, etc, there is a good possibility you are doing too much.  In general, people prioritize things they "must do" over things they "want to do" and sometimes "it is what it is", but if you let life pass you by without doing the things you love and get energized by,  it is a clear sign you are doing too much.  After all, what is life without time to pursue and enjoy the things you love to do?

4.) Constantly running late

We all run late from time to time, our alarm didn't go off, the train/bus was delayed, we're stuck in traffic, or a meeting ran long, but if you are perpetually running from meeting to meeting and are late to all of them, you are doing too much and you either need to dial things back, learn to say no, or learn to time manage a bit more strategically.  The danger here is that while you are trying to accommodate everyone and get to every meeting, your lateness can be perceived as unreliability or lack of respect, and that is clearly the opposite of the message you want to convey.

5.) Stress is impacting your health  

If you experience regular headaches, fatigue, aches and pains, chronic cold-like symptoms, insomnia, weight gain, hair loss, or some combination of these in addition to irritability, lack of patience, become easily frustrated, feel overwhelmed or like you are drowning, lose focus easily and have become forgetful, you are definitely experiencing stress.  If this sounds like you, then you've reached the point where you need to make a change, drop some items off the to-do list, so you can get back on track and return to a more manageable work-load.  After all as the great Count Rugen in the Princess Bride says, "If you haven't got your health, you haven't got anything."




Saturday, May 9, 2015

Raising a resilient child: Parent-coaching, sports and life lessons

Now that my little ones are old enough to play organized sports, I find my role as a parent morphing into parent-coach in this context.  I don’t know about you but I have had coaches in my childhood that ran the gamut from the sweet, understanding, everyone just have fun coaches, to coaches who would make you cry and run extra “suicides” just for kicks, barking out orders and never praising you because you could always "do better".  The coaches that I was always most receptive to were the ones who were able to strike a balance somewhere in the middle, coaches who knew enough about their team to know when to push their players harder and when to ease up.  These situations were always easy to manage however because there was never the added layer of a family tie.  As a Mom however I find it difficult to sometimes figure out the best tactic to take with my own children when I am in parent-coach mode.  

As parent-coach of my own kids,  I don’t want to be too hard on them so as not give the impression of playing favorites or turning my kids into the stereotypical "coach’s kid,” but I also don’t want to go easy on them either because I want them to understand the importance of competition, winning, losing, sportsmanship, resilience, and team spirit.  The competitive side of me wants to push my kids to their maximum potential knowing that they have the ability to do well in any sport they play, but the mother side of me cautions not to project onto them my own desires, and attempts to remember this is their journey, that ultimately they will let me know what path they wish to take and that I am just along for the ride.  When just "the encouraging parent on the sidelines", I find that I am also in observation mode and I’ve noticed that other parents are struggling with walking this line too.  I’ve seen a wide cast of characters from the overzealous mothers and fathers, screaming out orders from the sidelines, frothing at the mouth and chastising their kids when they return from batting saying that “a strikeout is not acceptable.” I see the parents at the opposite end of the spectrum who encourage every kid on the team just for trying, the ones who praise kids for having a good “baseball stance” or a “good swing” even though they are not making even remote contact with the ball.  I watch the kids respond to this parental input in a variety of ways and it ranges from kids who get teary eyed and upset if they don’t get a hit, to kids who get mad and throw their helmet to the ground and refuse to continue playing, to kids who just shake it off, keep it moving and try again fresh in the next inning. 

Of course I want my children to do their best, and want them to be the ones who can shake off frustrations or failures and live to fight another day.  I want to raise kids who use failure as inspiration to do better the next time, and realize this one at bat, or that one dropped pop fly, or  that missed goal isn’t the end of the world but rather an opportunity to try again and do better next time.  I want to raise children who use failure as motivation to practice more, work harder, and focus on improving so they can avoid making the same mistake the next time. A child that can do those things in the face of adversity sounds like a resilient child to me and this is the type of child I want to raise.  True resilience or “grit” in my view is the gift that keeps on giving and is that special intangible quality that will lift your child up throughout their life no matter what they face or what happens to them for the good or for the bad.  In the sports context, you want to make sure your child comes out a “winner,” which in this case means they feel good about themselves and have a healthy attitude towards sports.  

The question is how to do you get there, as in how do you “create” this kind of child?  The following are six lessons I’ve learned from the many good coaches in my past (coupled with some lessons I uncovered while researching sports psychology websites, the best of which was www.competitivedge.com), that apply to parent-coaches today and that I think will assist in “building” a resilient child:

1) Encourage competition (primarily with themselves) – The primary goal of sports is to challenge oneself and to always improve.  Unfortunately, judging improvement by winning and losing is both an unfair and flat-out wrong measure. Winning in sports is about doing the best you can do, separate from the outcome or the play of your opponent. Children should be encouraged to compete against their own potential.  When your child has this focus and plays to better themselves instead of beating someone else, they will be more relaxed, have more fun and therefore perform better.

2) Don’t define success and failure in terms of winning and losing – Kind of a part two to the first point, one of the main purposes of the sports experience is skill acquisition and mastery.  When a child performs to their potential and loses, it is the wrong approach to focus on the loss and become critical.  If a child plays their very best and loses, help them feel like a winner because they did their best!  Conversely, when a child or team performs far below their potential and wins, this isn’t necessarily grounds to feel like a winner.  The point is to help the child make the critical distinction between success and failure in terms of playing to their potential versus winning and losing.

3) The important lesson of “Failure” -   If you truly want to foster resilience in your child, then teach them how to fail.  The most successful people, in sports and otherwise, have on average failed more often than they have succeeded.  So what makes them a success if they’ve failed so much?  Firstly, it is the fact that they are more willing to take risks which usually leads to failing more frequently.  Further and more importantly, theses risk-takers have used those failures as a source of motivation and as a "lessons learned" of what not to do or what to improve upon next time.  We are taught in our society that failure is bad and to fear the humiliation and embarrassment of failure.  This in turn makes us risk averse and unwilling to try anything new or different or to push our boundaries.  However, you can’t be successful if you are always preoccupied with losing or failing.  By teaching our kids to deal with setbacks, mistakes and how to take appropriate risks, they will be equipped to deal with anything life throws at them and will be set up for success in the long-run.  Failure in a sporting context is the best opportunity and the most fertile ground for this lesson.

4) Make it fun – It has been demonstrated time and again that if you love what you do and have fun doing it, the better you will perform.  The element of fun must be present for peak performance to be achieved.  When your kid stops having fun, and/or doesn’t want to go to practice or a game, this is a red flag.  When things get too serious, or the balance between fun and pressure skews toward pressure, athletes many times fall into a performance rut.   A good litmus test is:  If your child is not having fun or not looking forward to playing and practicing, then you need to do some sleuthing and figure out why.  Even in a competitive league/program, there are no prohibitions on having fun, so encourage it!

5) Support your child and love them unconditionally - One of the things I hate seeing when I am in observation mode on the sidelines is a parent who withdraws from their child when they perform “badly”.  If a child strikes out, misses a goal, or botches a clutch play, the parent who responds by withdrawing, anger, disgust or chastisement is one that I pity.  Is it really that deep?  These parents don’t know the price they are going to pay for that response and the damage they are causing their children to feel.  This type of response also begs the question who are you (the parent) doing this for?  Can you say with certainty that your child is playing because they want to, are they playing just to please you, or are they playing just because you want them to?  If they are playing just please you and/or for the glory their success shines on you (the parent), then they are playing for the wrong reasons.  It’s normal to want your children to succeed, do their best and excel in life, but pressuring them to live-up to your expectations and your goals is the wrong way to go.  If you child is in it for their own reasons/interests, they will be far more successful and far more likely to remain motivated to play, have fun and maintain a sense of lasting fulfillment.

6) Avoid comparisons - Supportive parents do not use other athletes that their child competes against to compare and thus evaluate their child's progress. Comparisons are useless, inaccurate and destructive.  Performance comparisons can prematurely turn off otherwise talented athletes on their sport. The only value of comparisons is in teaching. If one child demonstrates proper technique, that child can be used comparatively as a model only! For your child to do their best, they need to learn to remain focused on themselves. Worrying about how another athlete is doing interferes with their ability to do this.

Thankfully our little ones are only in the beginning stages of playing competitive and organized sports, so there is still more time for us to learn and find our footing as parent-coaches.  I think these lessons imparted by my own coaches and their coaches to them will be a useful place to start from to support our children in their pursuit of playing sports and as people learning to ride the unpredictable waves of life.   Knowing that we can instill resilience in our children from an early age and knowing that they can cope with failure and setbacks gives me peace of mind as a parent knowing that when they are faced with challenges in life, even when they fail, they will go through it and come out clean and undefeated on the other side. 



Tuesday, April 21, 2015

10 Things I Hate (in no particular order)

So it is Tuesday and already a couple of these things have happened to me.  However I decided instead of flipping out on people or getting stressed that instead I would write it down and share it.   I don't know about you but it usually isn't the big things that push my buttons, it is more the little seemingly insignificant things that get under my skin.  Do these things ever happen to you?  If so, how do you manage them? 

1)  When you push the elevator button and it is lit, then someone who just saw you push the button comes immediately behind you and pushes it again, like your push didn’t count – why lady why, was my push not good enough for you?

2) When you are in the bathroom stall and you hear another person leaving but you don’t hear any water running or paper-towels being dispensed, then they open the door to leave – Just gross, wash your damn hands, I don’t want to be in the vicinity of your waste matter particles, CLEAN IT UP!!

3) When you are telling someone a story (or anything) and they keep interrupting you trying to “guess” what you are about to say next – just friggin’ listen and let me finish the dang story.

4) That horn noise that goes off constantly in reggae and hip-hop mixes – okay I like it once but don’t keep rewinding “selecta,” just learn to play the horn noise sparingly PLEASE!  Less is more!

5)  Objects that require batteries but in sizes other than double AA, triple AA, D or C, like those stupid round batteries that go in a watch that you can’t find anywhere or those weird rectangle ones with the round things on top, yeah those.

6) Group text messages with people I don’t know, it’s like a bonanza – my phone going off with numbers I don’t recognize so much so that the battery is half dead by the time the conversation is done.  Just want to throw my phone when this happens.

7) Putting a coat on over a long sleeve shirt and having the shirt’s sleeve roll up to your elbow or beyond.  I have tried a variety of tactics to combat this and here are my top three:  A) Hold onto the sleeve in your hand then put on said coat (this usually does the trick but some sleeves can be tight so not as easy to get a grasp on), B) Take the coat off, then put it back on while carefully sliding your arm straight down so there is no contact between the shirt and the coat (doesn’t always work for me, I almost always hit the side), or C) Just roll out with disproportionately large biceps and don’t worry about it (This usually only happens to me because I didn’t leave myself enough time to employ options A or B.) L

8) Any sentence that includes the words cray, bae, fleek, “or nah”, swag, yolo, seriously, really, omg.

9) My phone auto-correcting, it always gets it wrong like why does “love you” become “louie” or “lovely”.

10) That whenever I need some “quality time” in the bathroom at home, that’s when the kids want to bust in the door and talk and hang around and won’t leave no matter what I try to bribe them with.  Please can Mommy finish first, then we can read, eat, play, go outside, do anything … why do you want to be with me right now and why do you want to wait for me in here?  

Please feel free to add things you hate in the comments section for future additions of "10 Things I Hate" and let me know if you hate some of (or all) of these things as well.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

4 Financial Tips/Tricks to “make it” in DC on a public servants budget

Caveat:  I am NOT a financial expert in any way, shape, or form.  I am however a habitual HR brown bag attendee and question asker and the lucky recipient of a lot of sound financial advice during my time in the foreign service thus far, which I will now impart to you. 

Take advantage of loan forgiveness programs
If your employer offers these programs and you have qualifying student loans, participate in them.  Why pay your own student loan debt when someone else will do it for you?  The State Department offers the Student Loan Repayment Program (SLRP), for those who qualify under the parameters of the program.  If you are like most newly minted Foreign Service officers, you have moderate to significant to so big you don’t want to think about them loans and the SLRP is an easy way to knock out your loans.  For those who may not qualify for the SLRP or are not in a position to serve in a service needs differential post, do a little research and see if you qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program and if so apply for it.  The PSLF Program is intended to encourage individuals to enter and continue to work full-time in public service jobs. Under this program, borrowers may qualify for forgiveness of the remaining balance of their Direct Loans after they have made 120 qualifying payments on those loans while employed full time by certain public service employers.

Max out your Thrift Savings Program (TSP) or contribute enough to get the agency match
If you remember nothing else from this section, remember this, “compound interest is your friend.”  The TSP.gov website says this about compound interest, “Compounding is powerful because it allows you to make money not just on the money you contribute to your TSP account every year, but also on the money that it earns.  The power of compounding can work for you whether you contribute $10 to your TSP account or $10,000.  The most important thing you can do is to start saving as soon as you can and be consistent.” I know it can be a challenge to “survive” in the DC-area as a federal employee, especially as an entry-level officer, but to the extent you can maximize your TSP you should do it.  For 2015, the maximum contribution limit is $18,000.  If you cannot commit this much to your TSP, contribute enough to get the employer match, otherwise you are throwing away free money.  Note:  You need to make a contribution equivalent to 5 percent of your basic pay to receive the full 5 percent agency match.  The agency match breaks down as 1 percent automatic agency contribution and an additional 4 percent to match your contribution. 

Live within your means
If you are like many Americans, you may find that you spend more than you save, an easy and common pattern to fall into in the DC-area.  In order to reverse this trend it is essential to employ planning and discipline.  Here are some steps (paraphrased from practicalmoneyskills.com) that can help:

1.) Create a budget
2.) Question your needs and wants
3.) Track, Trim and Target

Creating a budget can be a painful and tedious process, however the process will let you know in painstaking detail how much money you have coming in and where your money is going.  Once you understand your money flows, you can evaluate your larger financial picture, figure out ways to spend less or conversely earn more, establish realistic financial goals, and identify the steps you need to take to achieve those goals.

Take advantage of where you live
I keep alluding to living in DC in other parts of this piece because it actually does make a difference in terms of how far your money can stretch and in this case, “location” directly dictates the terms of what it is to “live within your means.”  DC is currently in the top 10 most expensive American cities according to the most recent CBS Money Watch report.  Some interesting stats from that report are below; I have cross referenced their findings with the national and/or median average cost for comparisons sake:

WASHINGTON, DC                                                         NATION
Can of coffee:  $4.93                                                          $2.38
Average rent:  $1960                                                          $769
Price of a home: $767,000                                                  $188,900
T-bone steak:  $10.52                                                         $3.89
Trip to the beauty parlor:  $51                                            $24
Dozen eggs: $2.36                                                              $2.27
*I guess we’re kind of okay with egg prices.

However, unlike everywhere else in the country, we live in our nation’s capital and with that privilege comes A LOT of free stuff.  There are many sites out there about things to do in DC for free, one of the best and most comprehensive is below:

Take advantage of the: Smithsonian Museums, National Zoo, Screen on the Green, the National Gallery of Art, the Kennedy Center, the Baltimore Inner Harbor, miles of amazing biking/running trails and parks, DC Restaurant Week, free tickets to sporting events, concerts, and more at the Verizon center, and programming at the DC Convention Center.  With all of the Universities, think tanks, non-profits, and consulting firms in this area, there is no shortage of festivals, conferences, and fairs etc. that are often free and open to the public.  There are so many free opportunities and things to do in this area that if you are paying a lot to be social, you are doing something wrong.






Thursday, March 5, 2015

Surviving the “Tired Years”: Five Ways to get through the early childhood years with your sanity and your marriage intact

Before our daughter was born, I thought parenthood would be a cinch.  First of all, we outnumbered our son 2:1, so what was he really going to get away with.  An additional plus, as the only grandchild, we were the happy beneficiaries of ridiculous amounts of love and support from our extended family.  Then we moved and our daughter was born. 
Trust me when I tell you that having a second child changes everything.  We went from being reasonably rested, happy, social and easygoing, to stressed, exhausted, overwhelmed and totally unfocused on ourselves and each other.  It got to the point where leaving the house 30 minutes – one hour late without forgetting anything was considered a “good” day.
If you’re in the same boat as us and learning to adapt to caring for two children (or more), here are some practical tips that have helped us get by and reclaim our sanity and a little of our “pre-kid” life marital swagger:
1. Be on the same page
This is the basis for a successful marriage and a worthy goal to strive for, period. However, before the children start coming it is essential that you and your spouse discuss the roles each of you will be taking on, where your strengths and weaknesses lie, and how you can support one another best. This is not to say that things won’t change (change is inevitable when it comes to parenting), but if you think you can just start parenting without understanding and preparation… you are mistaken!  Take time to talk about each of your expectations and hold each other accountable and re-visit the conversation as often as needed.
2. Have each other’s back
There are lots of resources, parenting books, blogs, websites, podcasts etc. out there offering knowledge to help guide you along your parenting path, but nothing comes close to your instincts/trusting your gut.  If you sense your spouse is at a breaking point, it doesn’t matter how tired you are, or what else you’ve been through that day, you have to get in the game and do whatever you can to help. Even after I’ve worked a full day and battled through a stressful commute home, it doesn’t matter how tired I am or how tough my day was, if I see that my husband is exhausted and needs a break, I jump in and help, and he does the same for me.
3.  Make time to make love
You’re both exhausted and the second the kids go down all you want to do is go down too.  It’s natural to be tired, in fact tired is the norm, but unfortunately this norm is an unhealthy one for your marriage and for your family.  Try to remember that in addition to being parents, you are in a committed and loving relationship with each other first. Whenever and as often as you can, spark the flame and make time to make love. You’d be surprised at how quickly you regain your footing as a couple and despite the fact that these opportunities may be far and few between, they will actually draw you closer together and give you something to look forward to.
4. Give each other a break
Whether it’s an hour or two at the coffee shop or going out with friends, an after work happy hour, watching sporting events,  or whatever, if your spouse works as hard as mine does, the best thing you can do for them is to give them a break. Sometimes just getting away from home for a little while is enough to help recharge your batteries and cautionary note:  don’t you dare complain about how CRAZY things were while they were out, that totally negates the gesture and just causes trouble.
5. Laugh A LOT
I have many friends with young children who look significantly older than they actually are. They look this way because the stress of parenting has gotten the better of them, and in these cases, they have lost the sense of joy and excitement that comes with parenting.  Despite the chaos, make sure you both find humor in the midst of it all.  If you can’t laugh with, for and at each other and yourself, your issues are deeper than you think. The key is to stop taking yourselves seriously and realize how fortunate you are to have each other and how incredibly blessed you are to have these beautiful children in your lives.
As we learn more I’ll be happy to share. But for now these five tips have been a tremendous help in keeping our heads above water and making sure our kids and our marriage are as healthy as can be.