You should, you ought, you have to

It's Sunday night. You've just looked at your calendar for the week ahead, and it's rammed.

Meetings, travel, early starts, late finishes. The prospect of another week without the space you need to actually get some work done - quiet, focused time - is forming a knot in your stomach, and the realisation that you'll have to eat late suppers and rushed lunches all week isn't helping either.

It's like someone hijacked your diary and said 'yes' to a whole host of things on your behalf, because they thought you 'ought to'. There's no room for you in the schedule, let alone family and friends.

But, your role comes with obligations. People expect you to show up. You should be there for the planning discussion up North on Tuesday; you ought to attend the senior management forum in the West Country on Thursday; and you have to take part in the all-day strategy review in London tomorrow.

"No choice or I'll look flakey", you tell yourself sternly. "Stretch and pressure come with the territory; there's no point complaining – just get on with it."

It's also crossed your mind that while it may feel like you've been hijacked, you did actually agree to all of the things in your calendar! You said 'yes', albeit without perhaps spending enough time weighing up how all those commitments fit into the overall deliverables of your role.

Senior execs, particularly those with a burning desire to make a difference, struggle with this the world over; over-commitment and overwhelm come up time after time in coaching sessions

Out of control

When everything in your calendar has obligation attached to it – a should, an ought, a have to – it's a sickening feeling. Like you're not in control of your time. It makes your cortisol levels soar, making you feel edgy and stressed out. Apprehension builds, and if someone were to say to you on a Sunday night "The meeting's cancelled tomorrow – you can have your day back", oh the relief! You'd feel instantly (and physically) better.

So what's at play?

 Photo © Kevin Zollman, Flickr CC

Photo © Kevin Zollman, Flickr CC

"That there's saboteur country"

Over committing is just one of the many ways that our inner 'saboteurs' can trip us up. They love to roam a packed calendar, like outlaws in the Wild West. They're not cowboy gunslingers like Jesse James, of course, but saboteurs can definitely feel like the bad guys.

The concept: 'saboteur' refers to groups of thought processes and feelings that maintain the status quo in our lives. At some point, those thought processes protected us and kept us 'safe', but as adults, saboteurs prevent us from moving forwards and getting what we truly want in life. They keep us playing small, and living limited stuck lives - both at home and at work.

If you've ever tuned in to your own head talk and noticed that you've got some negative scripts running, then you've 'heard' your saboteurs at work. The can sound like the biggest nag you've ever witnessed, and the worst critic you could possibly meet.

Interestingly though, saboteurs lose their power over us when we can (a) identify them for what they are, (b) notice our options in the situation, and then (c) consciously choose the action we really want to take.

In our Sunday-night scenario, the saboteur's chatter is likely to tell you "I have to attend tomorrow; I have no choice; I'll look weak if I don't go; people will think I can't cope, or worse that I'm incompetent. They're counting on me. I'm the only one that can make the meeting a success." Feel familiar? Of course, you do have choices, whatever the situation. You might not like them, but there are always choices!

Being 'at choice', as my US colleagues would say, is definitely a muscle that needs work.

Reconnect with what you really want

Saboteur busting can be fun, once you get fully attuned to the negative self talk that has a hold of you. So here are some resources and action steps that we've learned over the years really do help get back in a positive mindset, pushing those saboteurs aside.

1: Watch this
This fun, inspiring and helpful TEDx talk, ‘Know your inner Saboteurs’, by the amazing Shirzad Chamine at Stanford is simply a must watch. Chamine discusses how we all develop Saboteurs as kids – as coping mechanisms for all kinds of things. And they stick, so our true selves gets lost, and we forget how amazing we are. It's entertaining, touching, and brilliantly enlightening. Plus you get to understand the scientific background to saboteurs and the brain. You’ll like it!

2: Read this

'Taming your Gremlin' by Rick Carson, has to be the seminal book on saboteur (or Gremlin) busting. The subtitle for the book is 'A Surprisingly Simple Method for Getting Out of Your Own Way'; says it all.

If you don't have time to read the whole thing, cherry-pick pages 7, 109, and 136. You can also download the audio book and listen while you're on the road here.

One of the key concepts of the book, signposted to me by my former coach Ronnie Clifford many moons ago is to 'simply notice'. Notice when a saboteur is in play, and you're back in charge. I've lost count of the number of times I've re-read that chapter, and referred my own coaching clients to it, when our saboteurs have us by the hair.

3: Listen to your language
There's a simple way to start noticing your saboteur(s) – through the language you use. Listen out for any sentence you speak (or thought that you have) that contains the words "should", "ought", or "have to". Chances are you're in the grip of a saboteur and are not fully choosing your actions.

Notice the 'shoulds', and when you do, choose what you want to do instead. Simple, and it works.

Over to you

What are your shoulds and oughts today? What have you told yourself you have to do? Are you consciously chosing those decisions, or are you in the grip of a saboteur or two? And what work situations trigger your saboteurs to come to the fore?  Come over to twitter, let us know.

Time to take stock?

If you're grappling with saboteurs on a daily basis, and need some one-to-one support to help you move forward, you might like to take a look at our Take Stock call, for forward-thinking leaders who don't have time for 6 months of coaching, but do need clarity and objective insight. You'll be paired up with one of our team of talented coaches, who have bags of experience helping senior executives turn indecision into clarity and calm action.

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