Slumps

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This picture is what a slump feels like to me – a long path in front of me, no end in sight, no one to talk to, only the path to keep running. What I have learned about slumps, and what I am having to do right now as I go through one, is that all you can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other and move on down the path in the moment you have right now.

Slumps come in a lot of different forms and in various parts of our lives. When we’re experiencing slumps in multiple parts of our life at once it can start to feel overwhelming. When only one area is going through a slump, we often think there is something we can DO to get out of it if we just work harder, push harder, focus our effort. The reality about most of the slumps we go through in life is that there isn’t much we can DO about them, we can only keep moving forward.

Life is pretty good right now. My wife and I feel like we’re in a real “sweet spot” in the parenting of our 9 and 6 year olds (if you haven’t hit these ages yet, they are the easiest to date). After a major physical wake up call, I’ve lost nearly 20 pounds in the last month and feel healthier than I have in a year. Spiritually and emotionally I feel as peaceful and tuned in as I can remember in my adulthood. Financially our family is stable and comfortable and we live in a great neighborhood with a lot of luxuries that many others do not enjoy.

Yet still, despite all of the good in my life, I’m experiencing a business slump. Almost daily I spend some time wondering why I’m on a cold streak of closing new business deals? I start to analyze what I’m DOING and questioning whether I’m working hard enough, making enough calls, reaching out to the right people, saying the right words. All of my insecurities revolve around some failure on my part to not DO THE RIGHT THING or enough of it. I feel like my business prospects are like staring down this empty path – no one to talk to or no one to listen to me, no end in sight, and no opportunities in view. It is maddening and disheartening. Sometimes I exacerbate the situation by trying to DO something else unrelated to work just to get the satisfaction of accomplishment. Maybe if I can successfully plan a family trip that will make me feel better. Maybe if I can get a good deal on a new car I’ll feel a sense of accomplishment. Maybe if we moved to a new house the change of scenery would jump start things! It snow-balls quickly…

Here is the reality I recognized this morning as I finally sat quietly and examined my thoughts (crazy thoughts about uprooting my family in hopes a change of scenery would help)…slump-busting isn’t about DOING. Breaking out of a slump is about staying on the path, putting one foot in front of the other, and staying true to who you are and the values you hold true. Slumps are a normal part of life, family, sports, and business. Jon Doyle, from BaseballTrainingSecrets.com, said this about hitting slumps:

Most people actually think slumps are created by the hitter doing something wrong with their mechanics. However, what usually causes an ongoing slump is how the hitter is affected mentally.

I believe business slumps are the same. As I reflect on this slump I’m in, I realize I’m not doing anything different than I was doing 6 months ago when we had so much business coming in we couldn’t keep up with it. No, what I’m doing is allowing my focus from a business standpoint to wander to other solutions, looking for an action that will fix things. Like a hitter who starts by moving back a bit in the box to get a split second longer to see that ball, I started with trying to get the ‘feeling’ of winning a deal a different way and focused energy there instead of plugging down the path. As a hitter’s slump continues, they often make more and more drastic changes in an effort to break out of it until pretty soon they’re using a different bat, eating a different pre-game meal, and shopping for new cleats. All along, for hitters, and for me, the solution is in our head. And it isn’t a solution at all…it is just getting all of that other junk out of our heads and focusing on the moment we have right now.

So today I’m going to stop worrying about the details of that family trip that is months away; email those car dealers back and tell them I’m not buying after all; and I’m going to throw away those real estate listings on the coast that I’ve been fixating on for that past few days. Instead, I’m going to focus on staying in the moment with my clients which leads to meaningful conversations. I’m going to talk freely and without pressure to prospects about the value our company can bring to their projects. And I’m going to keep my mind and eyes open for possibilities for business and explore them when they come, not choke them when I see them. I know that less DOING and more BEING PRESENT MENTALLY will break this slump.

The Compulsion to “DO”

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Applying mindfulness to the thinking mind is incredibly revealing.  It allows me to observe my mind’s constant compulsion to “do,” to squeeze another activity into this moment, often without regard to whether or not the present moment actually calls for it.  This impulse will feed on just about anything, most often my cell phone or something electronic.  It would have me watching television with an iPad on my lap while I shove food into my mouth, oblivious to the presence of my children except for brief moments of chastisement for being too loud.  It seems as if its purpose is to maintain control and keep me on autopilot – unconscious and numb.

I’ve learned to observe this impulse and to question it.  Not ignore it, mistrust it.  Choosing simplicity helps me accomplish this.  Intentionally doing one thing at a time helps ensure that I’m actually here for it.  By doing this, I find that I am available and present for things that truly matter, and that my attending to these things is much more effective and appropriate.  In his book Wherever You Go, There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn explains the concept of voluntary simplicity:

“Voluntary simplicity means going fewer places in one day rather than more, seeing less so I can see more, doing less so I can do more, acquiring less so I can have more.  It all ties in.  It’s not a real option for me as a father of young children, a breadwinner, a husband, an oldest son to my parents, a person who cares deeply about his work to go off to Walden Pond or another and sit under a tree for a few years, listening to the grass grow and the seasons change, much as the impulse beckons at times.  But within the organized chaos and complexity of family life and work, with all their demands and responsibilities, frustrations and unsurpassed gifts, there is ample opportunity for choosing simplicity in small ways.”

Practicing voluntary simplicity is extremely difficult to do in a Western society where achievement, financial gain and productivity are constantly celebrated and rewarded.  These ideals are worthy of celebration, but are also fraught with problems and dysfunction unless they are tempered with awareness and simplicity. Even activities and results that are “good,” are not fulfilling or ultimately rewarding unless they come from a place of mental stillness; a place that acknowledges what the present moment calls for and is void of self-interest and ego.

What happens now affects what happens next.  So, doesn’t it make sense to take a look around and pay more attention to what is happening right now?  I’ve found that practicing mindfulness and voluntary simplicity helps me minimize distractions, cultivate awareness, and mistrust the compulsion to do.  And the paradox of it all is that by mistrusting the compulsion to do, I get more done.

by Dr. Jason Pittser, friend and fellow Zen seeker