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The ABCs of Cultivating Practice: How to Get Where You Want to Be
Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Yvonne Ator, MD, MPH.
“One, two, three...! I’ve got this! Four, five, six... Easy day! Hooyah!”
Gasping, I bear-crawled through the sand, step by tiny step, my legs and abs clenching with cramps, tears dripping down my salt-stained face.
I collapsed mid-crawl…face in the sand.
I tried to get up but collapsed again.
I was in trouble.
It was the fifth hour of a six-hour physical crucible event called 20X, a SEALFIT program designed to help participants discover their 20X potential, 20 times what they thought was possible. I had been up since 3am in preparation for the beatdown, with no end in sight. I had been in constant motion, getting yelled at by Navy SEALS as we did countless burpees, squats, pushups and jumping jacks; ran from the beach to the surf and back again; rolled in the sand; and hiked for miles carrying heavy sandbags.
Other times, my fellow participants and I lay in the Pacific, with waves washing water and sand into our eyes, nostrils, ears, and tightly clenched teeth. We locked arms, several of us members of the pioneer class of the Unbeatable Mind Coach Training Program where we had trained in Mental Toughness and Emotional Resilience with a Retired Navy SEAL, Commander Mark Divine for the past year. This six-hour crucible would test everything we had learned.
I looked up from the sand and at my team. I had several feet to bear-crawl, but my arms were shot after hours of drills and dragging my swim buddy back and forth from the ocean. Even worse, I felt cramps forming in my lower back, abdomen, shins, and calves.
I couldn’t move.
I thought back to a brief respite earlier. Our coach, a tall, burly, bearded man with dark shades who looked every bit the intimidating part of a drill instructor, asked us about our why. I told him about my passion for sheepdogs, my dedication to serving those who have sacrificed to make a positive impact in the world, and my belief that the world needs idealists to thrive. Little did I know he’d be barking my words at me while my muscles spasmed on the beach, unable to move.
“Ator! Get up! Get up! You said you wanted to serve sheepdogs! You said you cared about those who wanted to make a difference. You said you wanted to serve those who have sacrificed? What are you doing down there?!? Is this what you want them to see? Get up! Get up!!!”
Something about hearing him yell my own mission with such conviction stirred and shifted something deep within me. I couldn’t afford to give up, he believed in me even more than I did! I lifted my head from the dirt.
I crawled. Sand in my hair, eyes, teeth… Cramps…
I fell back onto the sand.
“Come on, Yvonne! You’ve got this!” My peers cheered me from several feet away. But they might as well have been on the far side of the beach.
I looked at the space between where I was and where I wanted to be. Then I saw it. I saw my why in my mind’s eye — my daughters and those I had committed to serve.
I pushed up from the sand again and began to crawl.
“1,2,3,4,5... I’ve got this!” I breathe, my shoulders burn. “...6, 7 8, 9,10… Easy day!”
As creative giants, vision is one of our greatest superpowers. Not only can we see for miles into the future, but we can also see infinite possibilities and their corresponding consequences almost immediately. This is a beautiful and powerful gift. It enables us to make the positive impact we want to make in the world in breathtakingly creative and beautiful ways.
But left unchecked and undeveloped, our gift can become an Achilles heel. We see, so clearly, where we want to be, what we want to accomplish in the world, all the possibilities and their corresponding outcomes...and, it all becomes so grand and overwhelming that we do nothing. We spin our wheels. Analysis paralysis, perfectionism, mind-numbing fear, a collapse in the sand.
How do we bridge that gap?
How do we bridge the divide between where we are and where we want to be?
By cultivating practice.
We have to cultivate a practice around what we want to achieve. We repeat, over and over again, until we gain proficiency. Then we deepen from proficiency into mastery by going deeper and deeper into the practice.
But the thing you have to realize is, there is no destination. When we start a practice, many of us put our lives on hold, hoping we’ll know when we “arrive.” That, or we hope that, when we get “there,” we will be happy, successful, etc. But there is no “there.”
The daily practice is the there. It is the bridge, the journey, and the destination all rolled up in one. When we embrace that practice, it becomes our whole lives, constantly helping us to go from where we are to where we want to be. But there is no there. We never really get there. We just go further into the territory of where we want to be. You go deeper and deeper into the practice. It is all a journey.
Think about that idea for a second. Breathe into it. There is no there. There is just one unfolding journey. That takes the pressure off. (Tweet this.)
The ABCs of Practice
A framework that has helped me achieve my goals is something I call the ABCs of Practice. These ABCs cultivate a regular practice, both now and in the past. They can help you, too.
Nearly three years ago, I went through almost every horrific experience possible. Homelessness, divorce, eviction, financial destitution, food instability, job layoffs, deaths of loved ones. Yet in the middle of that, I was able to build a coaching and facilitation practice; write a book; go through a grueling integrated warrior training program; publish articles in an international magazine; speak to thousands; embark on deeply immersive ongoing daily quests such as writing and sharing over 700 daily haikus; meditate for 1,080 consecutive days; perform 12,200 burpees and counting to support Courage Foundation’s #BurpeesForVets challenge to help veterans with PTS; and raise two strong warrior princesses as a single working mom with ADD. How did I realize such consistency in the midst of devastating and chaotic life circumstances? By applying the ABCs of Practice.
Maybe you’re going through a rough time in your life and want to find a way to endure without abandoning your dreams. Or maybe you wish to make a journey from where you are to where you want to be. Think of your goal, your “destination,” and run it through the ABCs of Practice framework.
Align with your inner compass. As with any destination, you have to identify where you are and where you want to go. Nowadays we use a GPS to reach our desired destination. So, what is your internal GPS? What guides you? What are your values, principles and ethos? Are you living them? Are you embodying the values you profess? The space between your professed values and practiced values is where burnout lives. If you are feeling burned out, it could mean you have gotten out of alignment with your GPS. That is unsustainable. You must get clear about what your values are.
Empower your journey. Aligning with your inner compass also requires knowing what your strengths are. Strengths are not merely things you are good at. They also are activities and traits that give you energy, strength, and light you up. That is, your strengths are gas in the tank. You can know where you are going, but, without gas in the tank, you will go nowhere. You will have no energy and will burn out quickly.
If you aren’t sure what your strengths are, use the Gallup CliftonStrengths assessment and the VIA strengths test. Getting clear about your strengths and passions is also important because you can use your strengths to hack your weaknesses. Plus, we, as creative giants, often get into trouble for strengths we later discover are undeveloped or imbalanced. By discovering and harnessing your strengths now, you can power your values and get closer to where you want to be with more ease, flow, effectiveness, and joy. Learn more about my values-strengths framework from My Thriving Idealist Framework here.
Envision where you are headed. Two other actions help with alignment, envisionment and embodiment. Envisioning helps you see where you are headed. So envision your goal and see yourself as worthy of what you envision. Visualize what you want your practice to be and how you want to accomplish it. You can’t be what you can’t see. And when you’re going somewhere, you don’t just set the GPS and drive. You check the GPS, making sure you’re still headed where you thought you were headed. When you aren’t… “Recalculating… recalculating!” So remind yourself of your goal. See it. Speak it. Declare it. Make it a mantra.
Embody your goal. Become it. You can’t just profess your values and strengths with words and intentions. You have to commit to them and live them out in the day to day. Authenticity is the highest form of integrity. Who are you and who are you becoming? If you profess inauthentic values, you will find it difficult to live with integrity. So if you’ve set the GPS and are looking at it but aren’t getting anywhere, check yourself. Are you embodying your goals? Moving toward them on a daily basis? You won’t get anywhere if you don’t move. So move. Drive the car. Walk. Bike. Or, as in my case, crawl toward your destination. Do what it takes to get to where you want to go. That is embodiment.
Nanogoal the heck out of it. If you want to reach a particular objective, nanogoal it. Break it ALL the way down. Nowadays, you can’t get on the internet without someone telling you to crush it, hustle, and grind. I know many people, including myself, have taken these directives to heart, comparing others’ heavily edited highlight reels with our own raw, first drafts. We forget about context, seasons, the unique nuances of our lives, and all the work that went into those highlights—and a lot of work did, even if we never see it.
But we don’t think about that. We focus on their success and our seemingly weak attempts. And when we do, many of us run smack into burnout, depression, anxiety, divorce, sickness, bankruptcy, and thoughts of suicide. Fortunately, our society is slowly starting to talk about these issues. And at the Productive Flourishing podcast, we hear about them frequently, intentionally, and mindfully.
I’m deeply grateful for that because they give a solid foundation for nanogoals. We don’t have to do everything RIGHT NOW. We just need to take the next aligned tiny action and the next. I actually coined the term “nanogoals” when coaching my physician moms. I realized even micro-goals seemed overwhelming for working professionals who were also parents. They needed something even smaller, so I gave it to them in the form of nanogoals. The term simply means taking the tiniest, most consistent action you can take. In other words, if you can’t run, you can walk. If you can’t walk, you can crawl, sometimes even on your belly until you get there. I started telling my clients, “Just nanogoal the heck out of it.” The advice gives them permission to focus on just taking action instead of getting stuck on the size of the problem or goal.
Simplify it. Another way to break it all the way down is to think in not only size but also simplicity. Remove the clutter and emotional drama around your goal and practice. Keep things simple. For example, I could have written a poem or an article every day. But I decided to keep it simple by writing a haiku (a three-line poem) daily. Keeping things simple frees up energy for the actual practice.
Fail it. A final way to break it all down is to accept doing the practice imperfectly. To quote The Matrix, the greatest movie of all time, “Nobody makes the first jump.” We can’t go from where we are to where we want to be in one jump. We will fail. So we need to train. And we get our butt kicked. So we train again and learn to be okay with breaking stuff. Perfectionism and analysis paralysis will keep us from taking any action at all. I know. I had to bear-crawl with several cramps. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t perfect. But I kept moving. Scott Dinsmore, the founder of Live Your Legend, always said he looked for something to fail at. What would life look like if we regarded failure as a part of the process, part of the journey? If we did that, we could use our gift of seeing possibilities, test our hypotheses, find ways to break our ideas, learn lessons from our failures, and make the possibilities better. That is how we grow.
Dedicate it. You know where you are going and what you will do to get there, but do you know why? What pulls you forward? What is your purpose? Why is this practice important to you?
Keep your eyes fixed on the why. Dedicate to your why. Really commit to it. Connecting with it means you are connected to something bigger than yourself. When you find that connection, you will show up with your hair on fire. Show up with dedication day in, day out.
Many think they need more willpower. But what they need is dedication and discipline. Discipline is not mere will power. Discipline means being a disciple or student of something bigger than yourself. Connecting your practice to a bigger why will be a larger and more powerful pull than sheer willpower alone. Your strengths can drive you forward. But sometimes, the gas in the tank runs out. You’re human and will hit a wall some time. When that happens, you need a tow truck, a bigger why. It propels you forward even more powerfully. It will continue to pull you forward when your strengths fail.
So what is your bigger why? Your faith? Your kids? The positive impact you want to make it the world? What is your purpose? If you can answer those questions, you can break your answers down into nanogoals. And when you do that, you’ll show up more consistently because you have a sense of purpose and an action plan. For me, my purpose was and is to inspire and to serve those who sacrificed to make a positive impact in the world. To do that, I developed nanogoals to help me master myself because self-mastery would help me fully tap into my potential to serve my kids and my thriving idealist community.
Communicate it. Speak your practice not only to yourself alone, but to your community. Communicating with your community creates accountability. When you share your practice, communicate authentically and courageously. Ask for what you want. Tell your story. Own your story and the parts where you fall short or need help. If you don’t know where you struggle, identify your tendency. If you know it — obliger, questioner, rebel, or upholder — you will better understand how you meet internal and external expectations and what you need to be held accountable. And if you need help, ask your community for support. Set boundaries, too, so that you have what you need to be successful.
Grace it. Finally, give yourself grace. Be kind and gentle with yourself. Breathe. With all the actions you are taking, you will face mistakes, failures, heartbreaks, faceplants, and grief. Give yourself time to heal. Grieve. Respect the seasons of your life. If you are a middle-aged working parent of young kids, you can’t be on the same timeline as a single young student. Practice self-compassion at all times. According to Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion has three parts.
Mindfulness. Be aware of what you are feeling, saying, thinking, and doing to yourself.
Self-kindness. Be kind and gentle with yourself in what you do, say, and think.
Common humanity. Remember you are not alone.
So practice self-compassion. Be aware of how you feel and own your emotions. There is no need to escape or numb your feelings. Remember other creative giants are going and will go through the same thing. Rest. Eat. Take care of yourself. Connect with a friend or loved one. Breathe. And get back in the game.
Speaking of the game...
“Hooyah, Yvonne! You’ve got this!”
I rose from the sand and began to breathe, nanogoaling the heck out of my bear-crawl. I fixed my eyes on my teammates, envisioning my why — my kids and thriving idealist community — and repeating my mantra over and over until I reached my team.
“1, 2, 3, 4, 5… Easy Day!” Breathe. “ 6, 7, 8, 9, 10… I’ve got this! Hooyah!”