Holding attention: Can the charming little tomato timer help me maintain focus on my purpose?

Like so many people, my mind wanders easily and my days get chopped up into fragments of time. The days begin filled with alternating blocks of appointments and work time, and then are peppered with impromptu interruptions from colleagues and clients. The work time never feels like it is enough, and perhaps it isn’t, but I must manage.

Photo by Sonja Langford, via unsplash.com

Photo by Sonja Langford, via unsplash.com

I have all the ideas and intention right there! Ready to go!  Until I find that yet another day slips away and poof! My potential for the day has no where to go. All that ambition and energy and anxiety is bottled up inside, packed in a bit more tightly as these days stack up.

It is challenging to feel connected to one’s sense of purpose when we are frazzled like this, but I recently played around with integrating a mix of using the pomodoro technique with meditation and found I got a lot done and felt better.

Here is how it went…

As happens at the New Year, I am a bit more reflective as I try to figure out what I can do to enhance my contributions and satisfaction in the year ahead. I had been thinking about how my goals and time interact, and finding myself reminded that how that dynamic shakes out has a major impact on my well-being.

My sense of hopefulness about my work and life, and my ability to come home at the end of the day and feel a sense of ownership and accomplishment for what I was able to contribute to the day vary greatly depending on how spacious the day felt.

So I wondered, how could I “fake” a feeling of more spaciousness in my day?

Pomodoro to the rescue!

Many times I have heard productivity folks talk about “the pomodoro technique” and I always thought it sounded charming. A darling little tomato timer is all it takes to have clarity and find productivity? How cute.

So I tried it a couple afternoons this week, paired with very brief “mindfulness moments”, I will call them, and it was promising.

The pomodoro technique, according to Wikipedia, is a time management approach developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. To give it a try – simply set a timer for 25 minutes and have a short break of maybe 5 minutes in between sets. There are several apps you can download, but the ones I tried were clumsy so I used this free tomato timer website.

I tried this for 2-3 hour blocks of time on a couple of occasions when I felt terribly crunched for time and I found it helpful. I was certainly better able to maintain my focus for the 25 minutes. It also helped me increase my focus on the task at hand. The freedom of knowing the timer was there helped me to let go of all the other tasks awaiting me and really attend to this one task that I selected to work on during that time block.

I also enjoyed the breaks. Five minute can quickly turn into 30 if you aren’t careful when taking breaks to check social media, news, or look at email. It helped to have a timer for those breaks as well. The limited time also helped me to be more purposeful with my breaks. I got up to fill my water and walk around much more, and when a colleague started talking I had a real reason for saying, “I’ve actually gotta run and get back to something…” because my timer was running.

A cool addition I made to the experiment was using the Calm app for some of my five minute breaks. In this way I integrated mindfulness moments into the productive sessions too. I could feel the stress levels decrease with this, and I suspect this freed up my mind to really focus when it was time to start up another 25-minute work session.

Perhaps the best result I found is that at the end of the day I could leave work feeling like I really did what was reasonable to expect I could do given the time that I had available. I made small but steady progress on things that I prioritized to be most essential for the day. Leaving work I felt more lightness and ease as compared to other days when I am more drained, frustrated, or over-stimulated by information overload.

The freedom to let go of what did not get done, while also feeling heartened by the progress I made on things that reall mattered to me was a refreshing way to end my day.

Give it a try, and if you do, let me know how it goes!

I am eager to hear how you find the integration of the cute little tomato timer concept with a quick meditative break. Is it helpful? Do you feel lighter at the end of the day? Could you hold your focus more comfortably? What new ideas did you come up with to enhance this time management frame work even further?


$62,998… would you major in STEM for this starting salary?

Yesterday, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), released their January 2015 Salary Survey report, which showed that engineering majors are expected to be the highest paid graduates for bachelor’s degree students graduating this year.

That number in the headline? The average starting salary of new engineers, according to NACE.

If you knew that in your first year out of college you could make that kind of money, would you major in engineering?

Maybe, but maybe not – and it’s a shame.

NACE chart on top salaries from January 2015 Salary Survey - see http://www.naceweb.org/s01072015/engineering-majors-top-salary-class-of-2015.aspx

NACE chart on top salaries from January 2015 Salary Survey – see http://www.naceweb.org/s01072015/engineering-majors-top-salary-class-of-2015.aspx

What’s STEM?

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. Salaries are high for these students right along with the demand for new STEM grads.

Here in the U.S. there is a significant shortage of STEM professionals. Some debate how significant the needs really is, but I can attest from personal experience that my husband, who is an engineer, is contacted frequently by recruiters and headhunters.

So how great is the need? Around this time last year Ira Sager explains in an article he wrote on the topic (“With a shortage of STEM graduates, Accenture hopes to grab them early“)  that I found on Businessweek.com. In the article, Sager quickly summarizes the situation:

Economic projections point to a need for approximately 1 million more STEM professionals than the U.S. will produce at the current rate over the next decade. … Currently the United States graduates about 300,000 bachelor and associate degrees in STEM fields annually. Fewer than 40% of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree.” — quoting “a 2012 report by President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology”

So the number of new STEM professionals we need isn’t 50,000 or 100,000 people. We are talking about huge numbers of professionals when we start throwing around the word “million.”

Recently I have been talking with colleagues and friends about the reasons people do not pursue careers in STEM fields. Clearly money isn’t everything. In our conversation two myths stood out to us as potential reasons why people avoid STEM:  

1. STEM seems too hard. 

In my career consulting work I see how quickly students foreclose options that require math and science. It is such a shame. True, math and science ability is necessary for these fields but I believe many more students could persist through the required coursework with appropriate tutoring and support. What happens to a student in elementary and middle school sets the stage for their confidence in math and science and their concrete skills in these areas.

Since having greater exposure to friends in STEM fields I question whether I was too quick to foreclose these paths for myself. False beliefs can be one of the biggest challenges to student decision-making about major and career. I think this was certainly the case for me. I had a false belief that I wasn’t smart enough to hack it in math and science and I probably created my own self-fulfilling prophecy.

I may be right. In his great book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul Tough, explains the impact mindset can have on performance when he highlights the findings of Stanford Psychologist, Carol Dweck, who found that people have one of two types of mindsets – “those who have a fixed mindset, who believe that intelligence and other skills are essentially static and inborn, and those who have a growth mindset, who believe that intelligence can be improved.” She also found that those who think they can improve their intelligence actually do improve their grades (Tough, p. 97).

Maybe my mindset was too fixed.

2. STEM seems a bit boring. 

I can tell you right now this is not the case. Growing up I craved a career where I could help people and be creative. I never guessed a career in math or in technology could get me there. But I know understand the world differently at my age than I did at 16 or 21.

For me, it is true that my math and science classes were a bit boring. The concepts seemed abstract and the work seemed futile. I couldn’t understand how I could apply my learning to real-life situations that were relevant to people – the people I cared so deeply about. Engineers I talk with often say that the coursework you have to complete in engineering majors is surprisingly different from what it is actually like to be an engineer.

In engineering, you go to meetings with people, you may get in a lab or go out to do a visit on a project site, and you spend a good deal of time trying to think creatively and solve complex problems that impact people. Much more creative, enterprising, and connected work than I would have guessed… and anything but boring.

Still, what could change in math and science education that would expand the concepts beyond the calculations and help demonstrate, earlier on for students, the ways in which these concepts can be powerful tools to create amazing change in our world? Linking the sometimes tedious work of math or science to the big picture could be a big help for students on the margins.

Where to go from here? 

The significant demand for new STEM professionals is a national issue that needs greater attention. I understand that not every student will be interested in majoring in STEM. However, if fewer than 40% who are interested and start as STEM majors finish, more must be done to help these students find the academic and co-curricular support to thrive. We also must do a better job making it inviting for more students in to these fields.

As a career coach and higher education professional, I feel a responsibility to at least explore a bit with my students to see if they may be open to STEM, to challenge false assumptions students hold that may be barriers to them finding success and happiness in these fields, and to raise awareness about the realities of the occupations so many of us are quick to dismiss. I won’t try to steer students towards majors in math or science over art or history, but I will try to create space for the student to hold these STEM fields in their minds as possibilities for as long as is possible before they move along.

What are your thoughts about STEM? What assumptions do you have about the need for more STEM professionals in our country? Looking back at your younger self, would majors in science, technology, engineering, or math excited you? Why or why not? What can we do in higher education and in the K-12 system to make these possibilities more inviting to a greater and more diverse range of students in the coming years? 

Don’t be the one to get in your own way

“Life throws enough obstacles your way – don’t be the one to get in your own way.” These are the wise words that came from my mouth today when I was presenting a workshop for first-year college students seeking support selecting a college major.

It is good advice. In both my personal life and my professional experience I see this over and over again. Life is challenging, and significant obstacles will come our way regardless of the steps we put in place to control for them. Illness finds you, a car accident happens, or someone you love dies unexpectedly. Everything is shaken.

What surprises me – and maybe it shouldn’t – is how often we are the ones to get in our own way. We are on track to apply to graduate school until we suddenly decide we can’t hack it and we never submit our finished application. We worry that studying abroad will be too expensive and so we never explore the option (my biggest regret from college!).

Or sometimes it isn’t a big thing that blocks us from our own happiness. Sometimes little thoughts here and there add up to have a collective impact on our mindset in big ways. I’m not good enough, smart enough – who am I to think I could do that anyway?? And then we quit or, potentially worse, feel really shameful about ourselves for a long time.

(For more on shame – check out the brilliant Brene Brown, who writes and speaks beautifully on this topic. To me – shame is the “nasty ick” feeling that lingers and makes me want to shrivel into myself… but you may have other ways of describing how shame shows up in your life).

So, here it is… New Years time.

My resolutions this year are something like:

1. Try to take to heart my mother’s sage wisdom: “be gentle to yourself” and my 99 year-old grandmother’s frequent wisdom: “be cheerful, be kind.”

2. Don’t be the thing that gets in my own way.

I like to think #1 sets the backdrop for #2, which will be really tough. Good news though! I’ve already been working on it personally, and am practicing more mindful attention to this phenomenon when this comes up for my clients. Each time a client is struggling under their own self-created barriers it can be a chance for me to not only help them see things differently, but it can also be a good reminder to me that I am on that same journey right alongside them.

The first step is in noticing what is going on. Clearly seeing the self-talk or story you are creating for yourself that is detrimental to your goals. So often we aren’t even aware we are putting up our own walls and challenges for ourselves.

In my experience I have seen how incredibly hard it is for us to stop our little minds from thinking pesky thoughts. Thoughts like, “I’ll never be able to succeed in that career anyway – how could I have been so dumb to consider the possibility anyway? I’m such a failure.” These thoughts come our way even when we set resolutions to “not get in our own way”!

The practice for this New Year, is to lean into the pesky thought more deeply. Hold it and really feel how yucky it feels. That’s no fun, but I promise, it is important. Then, push back with a little affirming self-talk: Yes, I know I may feel afraid to try, and I may doubt myself, but I am a good person and a hard worker and if this is a career I really want I need to find a way to keep moving forward even though I feel scared right now

You aren’t somehow magically “not afraid”. You don’t wake up one day this year feeling like the dynamo you always hoped you would be. But each time your self-doubt or self-sabotaging behaviors rear their ugly heads in your world, you pause to acknowledge them, lean into them, and then just do your very best to detach yourself from them – remembering that at your core you are gifted and have contributions our world needs very much and we have to parse out that pesky thinking to get along with the life you are meant to live.

As I said in the beginning of this post – “Life throws enough obstacles your way – don’t be the one to get in your own way.”  While I’m wise enough to know this is a wise statement, along with so many of you this year, I am hoping to spend this New Year taking this wisdom to heart so I can get out of my own way just a little bit more.

Wishing you all bright things for the New Year!

Is The MSW The New MBA?

Tomorrow’s CEOs will be working in an environment that demands proactive empathy with the needs of an ever-changing workforce, and innovative collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders on the most pressing issues that face our global society. That sounds to me like a job for a social worker who might be able to help not just the world’s companies but its people and environment as well.

In this great article, Is the MSW the new MBA?, author Christine Bader argues for the value of the MSW degree in business contexts. Clever to approach problem-solving from such an interdisciplinary perspective – especially in light of how rapidly changing our world is and will continue to be.

Why hating work is problematic

In their recent New York Times article, Why You Hate Work, Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath shared recent research findings that provide ample evidence for what we intuitively know: We hate our jobs.

Turns out, those of us in the Unite States are slightly better off than many of our global peers. According to the article, “just 30 percent of employees in America feel engaged at work, according to a 2013 report by Gallup. Around the world, across 142 countries, the proportion of people who feel engaged at work is just 13 percent.”

The article focused on core needs that must be met for us to feel that sense of engagement so many of us are lacking (physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual). However, I couldn’t stop wondering: What does our global community lose when only 13 percent of us are feeling connected at work?

Engagement, as defined in the article, is “involvement, commitment, passion, enthusiasm, focused effort and energy” and when we experience engagement in our work, not only is individual well-being improved, but typically organizations enjoy better results – from business performance to reduced costs due to decreased errors and injuries, among many other factors.

From a sustainability perspective – it is a win-win. Do right for people, and they will have more to give to your cause. If we want to sustain our ability to operate our business, live lives well and with the capacity to raise and care for new generations of problem-solvers and thought-leaders, then hating work is hugely problematic.

Fortunately, the keys to success, are relatively simple: 

Renew – find ways to support a culture where employees take breaks to restore and renew. Do this right, and the authors suggest we could see nearly 100 percent of people feel inclined to stay with their company – and – employees may enjoy twice the sense of health and well-being.

Value – encourage supervisors to actually care for their employees – or at least do enough so that employees feel cared for.

Focus – create work environments where people can actually focus on what they do best, without interruption. In the age of technology we live in, this may be easier said than done.

Purpose – support individuals in finding positions where they are able to derive some sense of meaning and purpose from what they do.

As a career development professional, of course I am keenly drawn to anything having to do with helping individuals from all backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, and education levels find work that is fulfilling and helps them feel a sense of integration in their life – but the beauty of the authors’ article is that the other steps are fairly simple. Perhaps difficult to enact, but in reality, they are relatively simple and cost neutral changes that can be made in most organizations.

It’s a shame that more of us are not outraged about the epidemic of missed opportunity that we all suffer from when only 13 percent of employees globally feel that sense of connection between life and work. This epidemic is not only crucial to personal vitality, but it is also vital to the sustainability and success of enterprises across the globe.

Schwartz, T. & Porath, C. (May 30, 2014). Why you hate work. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/01/opinion/sunday/why-you-hate-work.html?_r=0 



Fake it until you become it.

Recently I asked the students in my career exploration class to watch Amy Cuddy’s TED talk video as a “reading” for class. It was easy to assign because it is so relevant to helping them both academically and professionally.

Amy’s research focuses on the ways in which body language and physical poses shape our experiences, specifically looking at how physical poses impact testosterone and cortisol levels… which in turn, significantly shape success.

In her talk, Amy encourages people to “fake it until you make it” because doing two-minutes of “power poses” – like standing with hands on hips or standing with arms up as if crossing a finish line – will increase testosterone and decrease cortisol levels, which are key to performance and success. Then she goes on to say, it isn’t just faking it until you make it, we really ought to fake it until we become it.

We are actually changed as a result of those experiences.

Reading the reflections my students wrote in their journals helped me see just how applicable Amy’s research really is to daily life. Sure, doing the “power poses” could be helpful preparing for job interviews… that makes sense.

I did not expect to hear students describe the ways this video helped them reflect on their body language in various contexts of their lives. For example, a couple of students observed that they demonstrate low-power poses in class, and they questioned why this was and dedicated themselves to trying to show up more confidently in class. Incredible!

From help with job interview prep to addressing bullying in schools to instilling confidence in students as they go off to college this research can help us all live to the fullest of our potential and navigate challenges that we encounter along the way. Best of all? It is free! FREE! Doing a “power pose” for 2 minutes before a big event or to start the day, costs nothing and can yield significant effects.

As Amy Cuddy says in her talk, “I want to say to you, don’t fake it till you make it. Fake it till you become it.”

Thinking beyond the major.

93% of employers say that a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than a candidate’s undergraduate major.

Source: Association of American Colleges and Universities- Liberal Education & America’s Promise (LEAP) Employer-Educator Compact, April 2013.

Challenges to scheduling rest

At first glance, the idea of scheduling rest seems worthy. Yet in my case, it is far more likely to be a harbinger of burnout on the horizon. Let me explain why…

This year has been a wild ride of hard work, difficult days, and an overabundance of blessings. Since finishing graduate school, landing a job I love, moving across country, and buying our first house (phewf!) – I have been hyper aware of the multitude of things that “need” my attention.

Overcome with the blessings in my life, I have been fixated on honoring them to the fullest by working harder and harder to make things click at work, home, and in my relationships. Why? I do this all so that I can feel at peace and open to all the grace in my life. (This is also a major downside to having “responsibility” as one of my StrengthFinder strengths).

So I have been scrambling for the last several months. Got it. This is how so many of us live.

Well the trouble is that tonight is Tuesday, yoga night, and I am not there.

This happens to me. I “schedule” my downtime (responsibility) but when it comes time to rest and renew I am not up to it. I get so worried about everything I think I should be doing (one responsibility competing with another) that the fleeting thought of doing something kind for myself (yoga) falls victim to my never-ending to-do list of things I’m stressed about getting done.

This all has me wondering: How often are productivity systems just ways of hiding from our worries or our fears?

I recently spent a good deal of time tinkering with some new ways to streamline my to do lists at home and at work.

That’s all nice, and I value organization, but if I critically look at the lists I see my worries and fears jumping out at me:

  • Will we be happy in this house?
  • What will we eat this week and how can I handle all the prep?
  • Are we saving enough?
  • What really are my passions and interests?
  • Am I good at my job? Is this really what I am meant to do?
  • Are we living in accordance with our values?

How do I know my productivity systems are masking my worries? Capturing my “should do” or “ought to do” items in a list doesn’t simplify anything. I’m still not at yoga tonight. If I said yoga was important, and I scheduled it, it should happen. Something else is going on.

What if the simplest way to simplify isn’t to work tirelessly to capture and do it all? What if it actually lies in looking at the questions and worries driving all these tasks to see how they align with my real priorities? 

You won’t get any answers from me tonight. Just an invitation to ponder the questions behind your “to-dos” and explore the ways they may be challenging your priorities, values, and your deep desire for peace in your life.

  • What might it look like to re-invent your to-do list so that it honors, but does not mask, your worries and fears?
  • So that it clarifies and affirms your priorities?
  • So that it puts your responsibility for taking care of your needs, hopes, and passions first?