By Dr. Allison Belger
My husband, TJ, is a busy guy. He usually leaves our house by 4:30am and often comes home more than twelve hours later. We have two daughters growing faster than we can track. Our time with them is becoming increasingly precious and limited as they become immersed in activities and homework, and we attend to our various business needs. When TJ meets with prospective members of our gyms, he often tells them that his number-one purpose for working out, himself, is to ensure that his head is clear and he has his A-game ready to roll for the critical hours of 6-9pm when we are home with our girls. That’s his money-maker, his focus, his priority. Let’s call it his “Money Zone.” No time or place is more important. TJ has learned that if he doesn’t find a way to let go of his day prior to that window, it quickly becomes tarnished, with our girls paying the price.
Let’s say you’re a competitive athlete, training for your next big event. You have a day job, you’re in a relationship, and you enjoy your time on the golf course. You have your priorities, and training is your focus at the moment. Training is your Money Zone.
Perhaps you’re a parent of two young children, you have a partner, and you travel for work. You know the importance of regular workouts and maintaining your fitness, but your focus is your family. Like TJ, family is your Money Zone.
Maybe you’re a twenty-something living it up in the city after years of studying and partying your way through college and graduate school. Your goal is to become financially secure and ready to start a family in the next five to ten years. You enjoy your social life and you’re a weekend warrior on the bike trails, but your focus is rising the ranks at the investment bank where you spend much of your time. Your time at work is your Money Zone.
Final example: you’re a new grandparent twice over, whose mission in life is to mend your relationship with your children. Your early parenting years were marked by turmoil, and there is work to be done. You have a job that pays your bills, and you’re part of the over-60 dating scene, but your focus is being a better grandparent than you were a parent. Money Zone: making peace with your children so you can be the grandparent you want to be.
Life can be busy. Many of us have jobs that require our attention, chores that take up energy, and relationships that require nurturing. We have interests to maintain, our health to sustain, and rents or mortgages to pay. We have friends, lovers, children, and hobbies. It is neither realistic nor possible to expect of ourselves that we can give optimal levels of effort to each endeavor all of the time. It behooves us to prioritize, find our focus, and make sure that the rest of our life does not interfere with the fluid and successful execution of our role in that area of priority.
In the case of the competitive athlete, whose training is her focus at the moment: how can she navigate through life outside of the gym or off the playing field in ways that allow for successful engagement while leaving enough in the tank for training? What if, for example, her coworker drives her crazy and does something particularly obnoxious just an hour before the athlete’s allotted training time? Does she allow her negative emotions and agitation intrude and prevent optimal performance during her workout? Is she thrown because the pullup bar is too slippery, and she can’t quite lift as much weight as she anticipated? Can she determine whether that agitation is actually a bi-product of her work life or true frustration originating from a sub-optimal training session? There is a difference.
In the case of the parent of young kids: Can he squeeze in a 30-minute run at the hotel, pull off a well-received presentation on the road, endure a travel delay and a crappy flight, and still arrive home in time for dinner with his kids without blowing his top at the first sign of a toddler meltdown?
How about the rising banker? Can he get past a sub-par mountain-bike ride or setback in his dating life in time for his alarm to go off at 4:00 Monday morning (west coast stock market hours) when he will need to pull off the most critical presentation of his young work life to date? Can he rid himself of the agitation from life outside the bank in ways that allow for total focus and execution when it matters most?
Then there’s example four: the 65-year-old grandmother working hard to support herself post-divorce while also attempting to find love one more time in her life. Bound and determined to make amends with her son successfully enough to forge ahead with a healthy and rewarding relationship with her grandchildren, she must tolerate the many stresses of her daily life in order to be ready for what comes at her when her son shares his feelings. Does her frustration about dating at an advancing age, or her stress about paying the bills, or her yearning for her younger self intrude on her number-one goal? How does she prevent a date-gone-bad or a fight with her domineering boss from affecting her ability to communicate with her son or play freely with her grandchildren?
As always, and like a typical shrink, I have far more questions than answers. However, given that this blog emphasizes the parallels between sport and life, how about we try capitalizing on that analogy and applying some visualization tools that are often useful when training for competitive sports? Much like we can visualize our performance in a workout or a match, we can visualize our “performance” in our areas of focus. The emphasis in this article is on preventing frustrations and agitations during the parts of our lives that are not our main priority from intruding on the part of our lives that is. This is no small task. So when visualizing, we need to imagine something going wrong—we are stuck in traffic, turned down at a bar, criticized by our boss, injured on the trail—and then rehearse what to do with the resulting feelings. We can attempt to access the grit of the emotions we might experience and then walk through how we might deal with them PRIOR to stepping into the role that is our priority. Sound cheesy? Maybe. But how often do we help our kids with potential social scenarios by encouraging them to anticipate what they will encounter and role-playing how they will manage? This kind of anticipatory imagery and practice can work; you just have to be open to the possibility and get past the awkwardness.
For example, the competitor might practice deep-breathing exercises when the feelings of irritability surface (while visualizing the interaction with the annoying coworker). Then, when the real interaction happens, she can initiate the deep breathing, process the irritability, recognize that she has control over whether or not she lets it affect her training, and move on to tackle her workout with a clear head and calm psyche. Slippery pullup bars will be surmountable, and a non-PR barbell day can be accepted with grace and motivation for next time. Check out my previous article on visualization for goal attainment for more tips on how to maximize this tool.
Perhaps for the parent of little ones desperately trying to keep sacred the hours with his children, more attention to sleep patterns is in order. Much like athletes who need sleep for performance enhancement and skill consolidation (see my previous article on this topic) , working parents who are chronically sleep-deprived are far more likely to leave behind the trials and tribulations of life and save their A-game for their kids when they finally get some rest. Sleep is a powerful tool; use it.
A strategy that might serve particularly useful for the grandmother trying to make amends is keeping a “trigger list.” We all have our triggers—the things that bother us most, the things people say that push our buttons, the ways that our vulnerabilities are most easily brought to the surface. Keeping a list of your top-ten triggers can help you keep tabs on why they affect you the way they do. It’s not enough to just write them down. You must reckon with their power and try to rise above their impact. Why, for example, do you still let your boss’ sarcastic comments penetrate? Perhaps you can recognize that he reminds you of your critical father or ex-husband. You’ll need to work towards letting that go, so that history doesn’t fetter your every interaction in your “Money Zone.” For further reading on how to not run from your past or find ways to distract yourself from your inner world, check out my article from last week .
Once again, we all have our triggers, our issues, and the scenarios and circumstances that raise our blood pressure. The goal here is to minimize their impact, to diffuse their power, and to protect at almost all cost their intrusion into our areas of priority. Your job, first and foremost, is to know what your Money Zone is. Then, be sure you are creating strategies to build a moat around that sacred time and place of priority. The moat should be impenetrable and protective, so that you can live your best self when you’re inside. Don’t minimize your other roles and the work that needs to happen each day, but figure yourself out so you can leave all the crap behind and rock your Money Zone. Otherwise, what’s the point?