Society points the finger at the individual—to raise a good kid, to be healthy, to recycle, to reduce carbon emissions, to succeed financially—but it’s a deflection to keep us engaged in our own personal choices rather than hold the society at large—our leaders, our institutions our policies—responsible for creating a culture that supports us to thrive.

We need each other. We always have, but now in the times of lockdown our need for support and camaraderie is probably more important than ever. If you’ve never been a part of an intentional circle or support group of some kind, you are in for a treat.

Scott and I are currently in week four of our lockdown. Our New Mexico governor wisely called a state of emergency well ahead of the others. So in an effort to do our part in flattening the curve, and shortening the duration of this crisis, we shut our doors socially and professionally (i.e., to seeing clients in person). Fortunately, a portion of our work––coaching, online courses and Wisdom Circles has always been done virtually, so our days are still engaged and fulfilling. But that doesn’t make the lockdown any less challenging.

Last night I received a call from a loved one in Seattle. She and her roommates were self-quarantined in their home, at least one of them had COVID-19. They are young and vital, yet with Seattle melting down around them, their workplaces closed, graduation postponed, and their college classes abruptly shifted online, the household was becoming a veritable titanic of emotion. She was leaving Seattle, she said, along with her roommate, to take refuge at her roommate’s family home across the country.

I fall in love with people. This is a strange thing for an introvert to confess, because for the most part I prefer my own company in solitude, or alongside a four-legged companion. But when I do spend time with people, I do it deliberately and only among those with whom I really want to spend time…people I’m in love with.

Let’s face it, the holidays can be really intense. December is filled with lots of opportunities to be triggered: Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Ōmisoka, Christmas, Winter Solstice, and New Year’s Eve. Something about the combination of family, obligations, politics, secrets, loyalties, gift buying expense and stress, alcohol, and unresolved tension creates a toxic cocktail for drama. And most of the time we are dealing with folks who don’t know how to relate skillfully or consciously.

Dream denial comes in all kinds of forms, packaged seductively inside facts, rationalizations, statistics, or morality. I would hear things like, “Well, let’s just be realistic here. Banks don’t make business loans to companies with your cash flow.” Or “It’s even more expensive to take care of your own horses than just board them at a stable,” Or said for my own good like “Do you want to have all that responsibility?”…

It’s been two months since I’ve written an article, and the reason why begged to become a topic—overwhelm. It occurred to me one morning last week (while I was busy apologetically responding to several early July – yes, July – emails), that I had indeed succumb to the collective cultural cry of I’m really sorry; I’ve been slammed…

‘I’m so tired of apologizing,’ sighed a friend recently in her final defeat-by-inbox. I dramatically rolled my eyes in solidarity, while scrolling through all the text messages I had yet to respond to.

In 2015, the average American was receiving 88 business emails per day, according to the market research firm Radicati, and it shows no sign of slowing. In 2015, the number of worldwide email users will be nearly 2.6 billion. By the end of 2019, the number of worldwide email users will increase to over 2.9 billion. 

That’s a lot more potential emails in your inbox that you get to handle. Not to mention mushrooming use of texting, posting, iMessaging, Facetiming, Skyping, pinning, WhatsApp-ing, and Zooming. My heart rate goes up just writing about it.

The hydra of overwhelm has become a constant in 21st century life. No matter how many life hacks one implements to chop off its head, another hundred emerge. 

We are all trying to beat time. Jam more into less. In 2012 Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote the cover story in The Atlantic entitled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. The most disturbing account was the one about an overworked mother of three who ‘organized her time so ruthlessly that she always keyed in 1:11 or 2:22 or 3:33 on the microwave rather than 1:00, 2:00, or 3:00, because hitting the same number three times took less time.’

Perhaps the most startling statistics come from the front lines of the frenzy – the upper class C-suite white males. Hand delivered to the top of society by their privilege, they have become the veritable canaries in the coal mine. In 2015, the age adjusted suicide rate in white men was almost four times as high as that of white women. And the suicide rate for white males aged 40 to 65 was more than twice the rate of suicide in the general American population.

Depression in the C-suite has gained attention in Silicon Valley lately, where ever-growing expectations and capital for promising startups can overwhelm anyone. One study found nearly 50% of entrepreneurs reported having a mental health condition.

Recently, the almighty outspoken and brash Elon Musk broke down, confessing exhaustion and the ‘most difficult and painful year of his career’. Inside an hour long interview with the New York Times, he ‘choked up multiple times, noting that he nearly missed his brother’s wedding this summer and spent his birthday holed up in Tesla’s offices as the company raced to meet elusive production targets on a crucial new model’.

Even young children are overwhelmed. Overscheduled and seldom unplugged, the average American grade-schooler spends seven hours a day in class, often without any recess, and over two hours a day on smartphones or tablets on social media. Suicide deaths among people age 10 to 19 have also risen sharply, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Theories about this vary, but overwhelm is a constant in the narratives.

What is overwhelm exactly? It’s when a finite resource – time – collides with an infinite demand – things to do. When you think of it that way, it’s quite simple. We have a limited number of hours in each of our lifetimes. But we have an infinite number of things, and possibilities of things, to do. So to strive for the end of the abrasive rub between the finite and the infinite, is futile. You may as well try to stop the sun from coming up.

This is why trying to hack your overwhelm mostly misses the mark. These life hacks imply that you have more power over the physics of time, space, and the collective consciousness than you actually do. While I geek out as much as anyone on some of the really good books on innovative time and project management (David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and The Power of Full Engagement by Loehr and Schwartz being two of my personal favorites), it’s important to understand what’s really going on here.

“The problem of overwhelm is much bigger than you,” writes Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, And Play When No One Has The Time. The problem is systemic, and cultural. For example, while time saving innovations have emerged such as flexible work schedules and virtual workspaces, they are overlapped with longstanding outmoded expectations such as ‘face-to-face’ meetings and the idea that longer work hours equate to excellence. This creates the perfect conditions for overload at an organizational level. 

Schulte continues, “It all comes down to systems change: What if instead of expecting workers to ‘fix’ themselves on their own, we designed work environments that led everyone to make better choices?” Pointing out that humans are very influenced by social norms, she suggests organizations take responsibility for overwhelm by making it uncool to be overworked.

“How do you shift social norms, so that overwork goes from being virtuous to being shameful?” she quotes Dan Connolly, a senior associate with ideas42. “Can management, at a senior level, begin to treat long work hours as a sign of failure—the result of poor planning, or poor management—rather than a necessary or toughening experience?”

Mandatory vacation days, technology that bans work after 5 pm, and required hobbies are all part of this new thinking.

So, on one level it may seem like a relief to know that your overwhelm is not proof that you are broken in some way. In fact, overwhelm is a natural response to unnatural circumstances. But on another level, you may be asking, ‘there must be something I can do?’

Go ahead and enjoy any of the time saving, chaos diminishing life hacks that you may have. But here’s another idea. And it’s not a hack.

Trust.

The anecdote to overwhelm is not more done, or less to do, or more time (there is only so much of that, remember?). And it’s not Adderall or caffine, or Zoloft. The anecdote is trust.

The other day I was in a conversation with my son. He’s an actor, living in L.A., doing the real work of acting. If anyone understands overwhelm it’s Dakota. Just imagine it…every audition has the potential to give him work. And every missed audition could mean the difference between success or failure. Rational thinking would suggest that the more auditions he does, the more potential he creates for himself. It’s a perfect overwhelm generator. Do more. Do more. Do more. Or else.

We were talking about the effects of overwork, and how corrosive it was to creativity. Caught inside the headlock of not wanting to miss out on anything, lest it risk our very survival, and needing to nourish a different rhythm in our lives, we were brought to the threshold of a simple truth. So, in his characteristically direct way of speaking he said, “You know mom, at some point, you just have to trust.”

Trust is a complete sentence. But for anyone wanting longhand, here it is: trust that which is orchestrating this entire machine. Whatever force – call it God, call it consciousness, call it whatever—that life energy that is conspiring events, moving the tides, animating all the hands that send you emails—is in charge. Let it handle the events. You do not have to toil behind the curtain, trying to make all the magic happen. And trust that if you relinquish some control, you will not get lost. You will not starve. You will not end up adorning rags on Hollywood Boulevard pushing a shopping cart talking to yourself.

Dakota’s words dropped into my heart with such gravity. The next day I discovered myself to be less rushed, less determined to make it to the end of my to-do list. If the behemoth of modern life really is much bigger than me and my insignificant strategies, then I can hand it over to a life-force much bigger than me too. I can surrender. I can push all my emails aside to write this blog. I can delay that important proposal to follow a quieter, yet truer calling.

Curiously I began to notice something positive. I was more present on phone calls to clients; I prioritized better; I became more efficient; I followed more leads, and the big surprise? The following week became our best financially in the history of EQUUS.

Perhaps overwhelm is here to cook us, to crush us in its relentless crucible that keeps us up at night, and set us free. “Surrender!” she screams with her foot on our neck, while we carry on pretending we are beyond mortal. For me, I’ve decided to kneel at her feet. To stop. To leave my desk on a Wednesday morning, grab one of my horses from the paddock and take a wild gallop down the arroyo. To flip the proverbial bird at my to-do list. 

And trust.

 

When I was in my early forties, I had the good fortune of participating in a women’s intensive retreat with one of the world’s renowned women’s empowerment leaders. Her approach was intense, radical and unconventional, and not intended for the masses. Some of the most powerful moments of my life were inside that small circle of women who came together to dive deeply into the multi-layers of womanhood – physical, emotional and spiritual. And I can tell you that the places our venerable facilitator invited us to go, took way more than just courage to enter.

But go we did, and to this day I remain astonished that she was able to take us there. Due to the confidentiality of the work, and the participants involved, I cannot share the details. Suffice to say it made Burning Man look like Sesame Street.

In later years she and I became friends, and we spoke a lot about her work, and what physics were at play in order to create a safe enough space for us all to have such a definitive encounter with our highest feminine selves. She was adamant that the work itself was only as good as the container that is was held in. ‘Everything must be absolutely and completely perfect,’ she would insist to her, often frazzled, retreat assistants, pointing out a fork left askew, or a tissue left on the floor.

In my return to her retreats, I became not only a student of her work, but more importantly a keen observer of the skill of creating an impeccable container so the impossible could be made possible.

The mastery of container creation is not purely for the domain of intensive retreats and workshops. Though sadly, so many of them neglect this aspect. It is also for leaders and family members, couples, friends, volunteer groups and anyone who is in a position to shape outcomes of something they deem important. For whatever it is that wants to be done, learned or achieved, it is best supported by creating an intentional container for it.

What is a container exactly? I define it as the purposeful and skillful creation of an environment, through agreements, communication, structure (physical and organizational), physical beauty, order and safety (emotional, psychological, spiritual and physical) that holds a body of work.

A container is based on the concepts of Systems Theory, which basically states that anything we do as individuals impacts others around us. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And more interestingly, the parts are profoundly affected by the whole.

W. Clement Stone said, “You are a product of your environment. So choose the environment that will best develop you toward your objective. Are the things around you helping you toward success — or are they holding you back?”

In the early 1970s, a team of researchers dropped hundreds of stamped, addressed letters near college dorms at an East Coast college and recorded how many lost letters found their way to the right mailbox.

The researchers discovered that students in some of the dorms were more considerate than others, and noticed a marked trend towards the students’ environment that shaped such thoughtfulness.

Nearly all of the letters dropped near less crowded dorms — residences where comparatively few students lived on each floor — reached their intended recipients. In contrast, only about 6 in 10 of the letters dropped near crowded dorms completed the journey.

Apparently, the students in high-density housing, where everyone was packed close together, felt less connected to their college companions and this apparently dampened their benevolence.

Since then, many other experiments have illuminated the same phenomenon. Neighborhoods with broken windows attracted more vandalism, and litter attracts the habit to toss more trash on the ground.

In one study, social psychologists placed paper fliers on over 100 cars in a large parking lot and watched to see what the car owners would do with them.

Again, the environment appeared to shape the response.

When drivers discovered a parking lot littered with scattered fliers, candy wrappers and coffee cups (arranged by the researchers, of course), nearly half of them removed the fliers from their cars and tossed them on the ground.

In contrast, when the researchers swept the same parking lot clean before the drivers returned, only 1 in 10 tossed the flier. Unwittingly, the drivers adopted the behavior of the area’s apparent prevailing norms.

Put succinctly, ‘You get the vibes of your surroundings and it rubs off on you,’ wrote Gordon Lightfoot.

This is why creating a deliberate environment is such an essential part of leadership in an organization. I would argue that it is important in all settings where more than one person is included—families, couples, volunteer groups, church circles. Because when ‘two or more are gathered’, there is a system. And systems need to be shaped. And they need to be shaped with both the ‘care of the whole, and the individual’ as the intention.

Often leaders (and parents, group coordinators, partners in relationship) conceptualize leadership as a set of strategies, skills and directives to create an outcome. But this is linear, and therefore limited, thinking. It fails to recognize the collective soup within which the leadership is foisted.

The best strategies fall over at worst, and limp along at best, when implemented within a toxic or unconscious environment. Exceptional leadership includes the creation and maintenance of a correct environment in order for the outcomes to manifest.

Look inside any system, let’s take for example a family, and notice the impact that system has on each individual. Often parents will send a child to therapy imagining the child’s issues to be independent of the family system, unique and personal to that child. The best therapy in that scenario is one that takes the entire family into account, and treats the system as a whole.

Dutch motivational speaker Alexander den Heijer said, “When a flower doesn’t bloom you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”

Recently I participated in a retreat that I had felt I had searched for my whole life. It took an enormous about of resources to attend. And I was open, excited and vulnerable in that way that all steep learning curves evoke.

Sadly the experience was mis-held. There was no container. Some common symptoms of a group absent any intentional container are: drama, negativity, gossip, creating ‘proxies’ for projecting stress, vying for position, silo-ing and anxiety. Additionally, people are denied their ability to show up as their truest and best selves.

The impact on me—regardless of clear my intention, enthusiasm and desire—was that my learning was compromised, my attention distracted, and my ability to show up as a fully contributing participant was reduced.

Event organizers do participants a huge disservice when containers are ill-made and poorly maintained. It is nothing less than an imperative to create a container of safety for all participants. Without such a container, people are subjected to uncertainty, stress, isolation and it compromises their ability to be vulnerable, to connect to one another in any capacity, let alone deeply, and to truly learn.

In our work at EQUUS we have a mantra —everything matters. Scott Strachan, CVO of EQUUS, states, ‘We know that everything we do has impact, and we take that responsibility very, very seriously. We create space filled with trust that allows for people to reflect on the environment that may have sent them to us in the first place and to view from the balcony the influence it has on them.’

Through careful container creation, we endeavor to give our clients permission to show up as their best, empowered selves, to acknowledge their courageousness so they are confident in showing up differently, in ways more true to wholeheartedness.

How do you create a good container? The details vary depending upon the context. But here are just a few broad pointers:

Physical space – the physical space in which work is done shapes a sense of belonging, respect and ease. Attend to elements of order, structure to support efficiencies, and beauty. Natural light, flowers, symmetry in a circle of chairs, enough boxes of tissues, the feng-shui of how a room flows, can all be considerations.

The emerging field of innovative office space creation is very exciting. And you’ll find and abundance of resources out there on how to create great workshop / retreat / meeting spaces, and great family spaces too.

Agreements – agreements outlined to all group members helps everyone to feel safe, heard, and accountable. They form the backbone of creating a positive atmosphere and alleviating drama. Here are some of ours:

  1. Treat everyone with respect
  2. Cell phones off – your presence matters, for yourself and others.
  3. Please arrive on time
  4. No putdowns even the joking kind – we differentiate between humor (which is essential) and joking at someone’s expense.
  5. Share group space – This largely related to how much people speak – some can tend to take up too much space, and others not enough.
  6. No FRAPP-ing (Fixing, Rescuing, Advising or Protecting, or Polling) – polling is when you illicit agreements from others to support a story you are holding.
  7. No cross-talking – let everyone speak without interruption or commentary.
  8. Share only your own story – Share using the word ‘I’ rather than a generalized ‘you’ or ‘we’. For example, ‘I often forget how privileged I am,’ instead of “We often forget how privileged we are.”
  9. Observe confidentiality
  10. You have the right to pass – It’s not ashare or die circle.
  11. No triangulation or gossip
  12. Expect a lack of closure – there’s a lot to cover in any workshop / meeting / retreat and consequently there may be some things left to resolve over the arc of time.

Similar agreements can be crafted for family environments (ie, no cell phones at the dinner table, no name calling, etc) and office environments and meetings.

Upholding Agreements – it’s not enough to just proclaim them. The real work is in upholding them in real time.Particularly early on in the workshop we remind people quite frequently about the agreements in a light-hearted non-threatening manner. We revisit the group agreements at the start of each day.

My kids had a swearing jar, not for them, but for me! Whenever they heard me swear, I had to put a dollar in the jar. After the jar was full, I would take them out for a treat. It was just one of the ways we maintained a commitment to our agreements.

Nutrition – the consistent availability of a variety of fresh, healthy and nourishing foods and snacks helps peoples brains stay on line, and prevents low blood sugar crashes. When people are learning, they burn large amounts of glucose and often need more food, at more frequent intervals, than usual. Attend to the various needs required such as gluten free, vegetarian and vegan options.

Flow – cramming way too much into a day is stressful, and compromises the ability to learn. Create a flow inside hours, days, weeks that includes breaks, down time, and integration time. Negative space is generative.

Details – the smallest things can make a huge difference between people feeling stressed, or feeling terrific. Good maps to important locations (do not rely on everyone’s GPS working well), welcome letters, ‘what to pack’ emails, in case of emergency phone numbers, are all details to include.

Feedback – the best way I’ve learned to create containers is through the direct and honest feedback of our clients. I’ve learned if the maps aren’t right, the day was too crammed, and if I overlooked elements of importance to them. So we treat feedback as a sacred, important offering from our clients. Create a safe space where feedback can be given, and received, wholeheartedly.

For me, container building is an active, constantly evolving, creative way to show care in form and in action. I am constantly learning how to refine and improve the various environments in my care. Have fun thinking of ways you can create deliberate containers for your team, or family. And enjoy the journey!