School teaches many things, but in 13 years most of us learn almost nothing about how to live a fulfilling life.
We’re not taught how to identify what’s most important to us or be true to our deepest desires in a dynamic and imperfect world. We’re not taught how to make difficult decisions with complex and unknown variables. And we’re not taught how to recognize when we’re getting in our own way or what to do about it.
So it makes sense that according to Gallup, over two thirds or US workers report feeling unengaged (defined as not being involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work).
Most of the work that I do with clients is helping them learn the skills that school didn’t teach so that they can identify what type of work would be fulfilling and make their way through the quite challenging but also very rewarding process of moving into it.
I understand, however, that not everyone is in a position to hire a coach right now, so I thought I’d share the one practice that I consistently see making the biggest difference in my clients’ lives.
Before I share what it is, I’d like to say a few more words about why it’s so important.
The Magic Bullet? (No, But Not Too Far From It)
When my clients begin doing this practice, most of them uncover some pretty huge clues about what matters most to them, as well as what type of work they want to do next.
Even some clients who feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of options they have, and others who have no idea what would possibly fulfill them, find that this activity makes it much easier to know in which direction they want to go.
I had one client, for example, who had so many interests that he didn’t know how to choose among them. Through this activity, he discovered that it was most important to him to have some element of entertainment in his next job so that he could make others laugh and feel good about themselves. That realization led him to explore clowning, improv, and corporate teambuilding options.
But the great thing about this practice is that it not only makes it about a million times easier to identify your calling; it also helps you feel more alert, more aware, and more in control—in other words, more connected to yourself. It helps you deal with stress more effectively, and manage your emotions more skillfully. Finally, it lets you know what levers you can pull to find more joy and satisfaction in your day-to-day, in work and outside of it.
I had another client, for example, who was motivated by this practice to stop drinking in bars so much so he could do more of the things he enjoyed, like running races with his friends and daughters.
When I began doing this activity on a daily basis, I was mired in depression and having regular panic attacks. After a few weeks, I was still panicky and depressed, but I had a much better sense of what I needed to do to feel better. Over the next few years, as I continued to work this practice into my daily routine, it helped me heal my anxiety and depression, take bold steps towards my deepest desires, and rediscover my creative talents.
How does one activity do all this?
Moving the Thermostat Indoors
This practice, and several variations on it that can also be used, are so powerful because they close the feedback loop.
Most of us are so busy running around taking care of what we need to do that we don’t take the time to check in with the impact of all this activity—or, more specifically, its impact on us (most of us are very aware of the external results, and whether or not we’re achieving the outcomes we want).
A meditation teacher of mine one time explained this phenomenon as being similar to having a house whose thermostat is outdoors. When we don’t take time to check in with ourselves and how we’re doing, the feedback loop is broken and the thermostat can’t know whether the air needs to be cooler or warmer in the house.
The activity I’m about to share is one very powerful way to close the feedback loop (or, in the metaphor used by my meditation teacher, bring the thermostat indoors). It gives us the information we need to know how to adjust our systems and actions in order to take better care of our own well-being.
In my experience, when we do this—when we close the feedback loop—we begin to automatically make the adjustments that we need most in our work and our lives, often without even thinking about it.
So, Without Further Ado…
What is the practice? It’s actually quite simple. Perhaps even better for most of us, it’s also free and not terribly time consuming.
The idea is to pause a few times a day to reflect on what you’re feeling and why.
There are many ways to do this. The easiest way to start, in my experience, is to identify three times every day when you can take a few minutes to ask yourself two questions. I recommend either doing it before a regular activity (like eating) or setting an alarm or reminder on your phone to prompt you until you get in the habit of it.
When the time comes, pause whatever you’re doing and take a few deep breaths. Then ask yourself:
- How am I feeling right now?
- What’s my best sense of why I might be feeling this way?
I recommend taking brief notes so you can begin to notice patterns.
Your feelings contain powerful clues about what you want, what’s important to you, and what’s key to your well-being. Getting curious about your emotions and what’s contributing to them will give you lots of incredibly valuable information about your work and your life.
If, like most of us, your emotional vocabulary is limited to “fine,” “good,” and “bad,” then print out Nonviolent Communication’s list of feelings and consult it when you do this.
And if you’re not sure why you’re feeling a certain way, don’t worry about it. I find that it’s extremely helpful to ask the question, but that it doesn’t matter so much if you don’t get an answer every single time. With enough repetition, you’ll start to see patterns, and what’s most important will be revealed if you just keep asking.
One final word of warning: please don’t do this practice as a way to get rid of your feelings. Paradoxically, listening to our feelings can help them move through us instead of getting stuck on repeat, but in order to listen to them, you have to be willing to embrace them with compassion and a bit of loving kindness.
For Those Who Want More…
Once you’ve incorporated this practice into your daily habits, if you’d like to go deeper, you can add a third question between the first two:
- How does my body feel?
Scan your body to answer this question and use sensation words like “light,” “heavy,” “warm,” “cool,” “tense,” “relaxed,” “tingling,” “prickly,” “energized,” “tired,” etc.
Finally, one of the other most powerful practices I personally use is a natural offshoot to this one, and that’s to set aside time each day to let yourself feel and express your feelings. Beyond identifying, this means sitting with the emotions (perhaps in meditation), taking time to feel them in the body, or doing things that express them (like crying, yelling, hitting pillows, etc.).
Feelings we don’t feel get stuck, but when we find ways to be with them and move their energy through us, they stop leaking out in our daily lives as irritation, impatience, and anxiety.
Instead, they simply move over and through us like waves on the ocean. And these waves whisper words of guidance to us as they go, if we’re only willing to pay attention and get curious as to what they have to say.
For Those Who Want Even More…
I’m now offering a new way to get the guidance and structure you need to move into meaningful work you love.
Passion Quest: 5 Steps to Find Your Calling in a Fear-Based World, the online course I ran last year, is now available for self-study. It’s a comprehensive program with videos, downloadable PDFs, and supportive emails to help you work through the same process I use with my individual coaching clients. This is the first time that you can access it anytime, anywhere, and work through it at your own pace.
Because I want this material to be as accessible as possible, I’m offering it now at a super special rate (almost half the price of what I charged for the live version, and a small fraction of the cost of individual coaching). You can check it out here if you’re interested.
Over to You
If you try the feelings check-in, I’d love to hear how it goes for you.
What went well?
What did you learn?
What was challenging, and what questions do you have?
Any new practice is going to have its high and low points. I’d love to hear yours in the comments below.