When Life Throws You a Curve

The three actions that kept me going after a family tragedy can guide you through hard times too

Just when everything is running smoothly, an unexpected event knocks you off course. It happened to me this year. In January I was in the midst of creating some fun new products for my company, The Reinvention Institute. My husband and I were planning a cruise in the spring, and I was feeling excited and energized about the year ahead.

Then, bam: The cruelest curveball of all. After a bout of health challenges a year and a half ago my mother-in-law had been doing really well, but on Valentine's Day she unexpectedly passed away. My husband and I were shocked and heartbroken. As her primary caregivers we had many arrangements to handle so everything else got put on hold. It was four weeks before I had the mental and emotional space to deal with work again.

We've all been in that spot when, just as things are going great, a sudden blow like an illness, divorce, layoff or death of a loved one derails us. You can't control when tragedy strikes, but I've found that if you focus on three key practices you can regain your equilibrium and get yourself back on track.

Accept your new normal. If you resist what is happening and try to stick to your original plan, you'll feel anxious and overwhelmed. Acknowledge that life has changed, and grant yourself permission to shift gears. Your near-term goal is to give yourself the room to regroup emotionally; that way, down the road, you'll have the clarity and bandwidth to figure out your next steps.

Pull into the parking lot.

One curveball hallmark is the need to manage a flood of details. The "parking lot" is a simple tool: every time you think, "I need to do X," write it down, adding to the list whenever a new notion pops up. Don't worry about what seems to be a pile-up of items—this isn't your daily to-do list! You're simply giving your mind a place to "park" tasks so you can deal with them in the future, an action that stops the deluge of thoughts and frees up mental energy. I use an app on my iPad called Paperless to keep track of my own personal parking lot, and there are plenty of similar organizational apps ones for whatever phone or tablet platform you use. An old school pen and paper work just fine too.

Pay attention to process. This tip comes from a really wonderful book I recently discovered called The Practicing Mind. In it, Thomas Sterner provides a blueprint for developing the patience, fortitude and focus needed to overcome formidable challenges (or to develop a new skill, like golf or playing an instrument) by learning to love the process rather than striving blindly for the goal. He calls his method the four S's.

1. Simplify: Break down what you need to do into easy-to-accomplish projects; that way you'll avoid frustration and feel the satisfaction of consistent wins.

2. Small: Next, divide your projects into bite-sized pieces. Quickly finishing a task and moving on delivers a sense of accomplishment that gives you the inspiration to tackle the next item.

3. Short: To boost your concentration, work in brief bursts of time. Sterner recommends 45 minutes, which is optimal for maintaining focus. Have fun with this step by setting a timer; when the bell dings, you're done. Using this trick I've become so immersed in the activity that I didn't feel the clock ticking.

4. Slow: Though it may seem counterintuitive, Sterner suggests slowing down rather than working faster. Find a pace that allows you to pay close attention to your task; by doing so, you're actually using energy more efficiently and getting more done.

One last thing to remember when life hurls that curveball at you: be sure to carve out plenty of time for self-care. Treat yourself to something physically, mentally or spiritually nurturing, whether it's exercising, getting a massage, binge-watching The Americans on cable, or reading a great book. (Myself, I gorged on decorating magazines, knitted, and watched reruns of The Honeymooners with my husband.)

My mother-in-law was an incredibly vibrant woman who lived life exactly the way she wanted. Though I miss her every day, her passing has inspired me to embrace my work and my world with the same enthusiasm. And this is the lesson hidden at the heart of every setback or tragedy: when you remember to do the things that make you happy you'll be able to right your ship and continue sailing toward the life you want.

Tags: memoirs

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