What happens when our actions are misaligned with our intentions and our values?

Before I dive in, a brief aside. The way I started working on designing myself included (surprise!) a framework. I positioned it as three parts of my self: the drivers, the mind, and the body. Now that I've sat with this talk and philosophy for a while, I feel “drivers” could be updated to better account for the heart and the gut. These two parts are similar, but distinct.

My heart is a source of compassion and care. It is empathic. It focuses on feeling and emotion. My gut, in slight contrast, draws on my heart but also pulls on my experience, knowledge, and immediate, deep reactions to things. It's the part of me that “knows” if something is right or wrong, generally in the here and now; my heart is the part that knows how I will feel about that decision over time.

Got it? Great. Now then. Misalignment.

On a very cerebral level, misalignment occurs when your heart, gut, body, and mind are unable to make an idea, a concept, into something else. It may be due to attachment to a specific desired outcome. It may be due to fear. It may be due to anxiety. It might be all of these things.

Root cause analysis for my feelings

Lately, I've been quite misaligned: my mind has been in the driver's seat. Longtime readers and listeners know that for me, that's a common place to be; I've been seeking to actively change it over the past few years. But, as they say, old habits die hard and there is a comfort and familiarity when my mind is in charge that remains tough to resist.

When my mind is in the driver's seat I notice it in my body first. I've felt increasingly disconnected from it for the past few months. There's a lot less of the, “Wow! I can run a 5K!” type of feeling and more of the, “Huh, I don't feel much about my body” notion floating around my head. That's curious to me so I sit with these feelings and track them down. It's like a root cause analysis for my feelings, but way less analytical. I try to relax my inner critic and just listen. When it comes to matters of the body, the first thing I check is how my activity level has been. And I know that it's been low – I know it in my gut, and in my heart. I also check in and see how else I've been treating my body.

Once I've listened to what's going on, I quiet the desire to fix it immediately and consider how it all happened and how I feel about it all. That puts my mind at ease, and satisfies my curiosity... and also lets me address intentions: the things I know and feel in my heart and gut. In the case of low activity, it's a combo of (again) old habits and also new roadblocks I've put up in front of myself: I won't go out for a run today because... I'm getting used to a new schedule. I need time to adjust to all of these big life changes lately. And the classic, But there's so much other stuff to do on your to do list! Then, other parts of me pile on. It gets pretty noisy.

But bringing in the heart and the gut here is key. Because they know what's going on and they also know how I feel about the misalignment. They also help me realize that right now, it seems like my intentions and my actions are on two different planets. Because if I'm doing something or not doing something, and I can't connect it to something of importance to me, it becomes very difficult for me to proceed. I start to resist it. I fall back into old patterns and habits.

Are your habits valuable to you right now?

So, then, once a disconnection is identified and understood at some level, that's when I start to address it. This is tough because there's a reason I fell into the old habits, right? They're comfortable. They're known. They're valuable, for some reason. But I need to ask myself if they're valuable to me right now. And if they are, well, then that leads to further questioning. But if they are not – again, drawing on my intentions and my heart – it's like an action plan springs up before my very eyes. I start to feel like the parts of me that love to plan can start to do it. It gets more exciting.

That doesn't mean the changes are easy, and some are bigger than others for sure. But knowing why and how these habits return, understanding what they're doing for me, and ensuring they align with my intentions help me turn ideas into something more substantial – actions and plans.


The Last Everything

Last year, Chicago had a brutal winter. It was cold, snowy, and totally miserable. As a result of that winter I noticed more and more people saying, “This is it. I'm leaving because of this.” And I understand it! I've lived in this city for 36 of my 37 years, and I understand completely.

Then I realized that this upcoming winter is going to be my last winter in Chicago for the foreseeable future. My family and I are moving to Denver in the spring.

Putting it out there

We're a two-location family household. We have some family members in this area, and some in the Denver area, with assorted folks in other states that are relatively easy to visit. We've managed it pretty well, but a few changes over the past few months led my wife and I to make this decision.

In essence, we put the notion that we wanted to move out there. Now, I've put things out there in the past and many of them haven't gone anywhere. But this one did. Shortly after this decision, I opened myself up to looking for jobs that would be comfortable with this type of move – that is, starting in Chicago and later moving to Denver. Friends provided referrals and ideas, and I got in touch with several people in Denver.

But one day a couple of months ago, I went to the park with my son. I ran into a friend from college, and she started telling me about her awesome job at this great company. She casually mentioned they were hiring but I figured, “Well, that's not for me since we're not staying here.” And yet, I checked out their site and found an open position in Denver that would be a great fit. Within a few weeks, I had a job offer practically as I had imagined. Amazing.

So that's the part two of the new job announcement that was on Twitter: yes, I'm joining the good people at Rightpoint. In the spring, I'll be located in the Denver office full-time.

Lasts and firsts

Last week, I left my job at Centralis. At one point one of my former coworkers kept saying, partially in jest, “This is the last time you'll...” Like when I got a bottle of water out of the fridge. “The last time you'll get a bottle of water from the fridge!” Soon, there were no more lasts.

While we'll be back to Chicago regularly, we've started working on a list (surprise!) of the things we need to do in the city before we leave for good. Some of them may very well be the last whatevers. I'm also excited for the first whatevers in Denver.

The only time I've lived outside of Chicago was, in fact, in Denver over 10 years ago. It was a very different time, and I was a very different person. Yes, leaving Chicago will be hard. Chicago will always be home. I'll always hear the “DING-DONG! DOORS CLOSING!" of the El. I'll always be most comfortable with the grid layout for streets. I'll always see that skyline and feel it in my heart.

But I am making room for a new home in myself, too.

All Apologies

As a parent, I read a lot of kids' books. There's something really lovely about them, in general: when they're looking to teach a lesson or inform a kid, man, they are direct. No 100+ pages of examples or stories; just one straight narrative and a purpose. I love that.

One of my son's frequently-read books is Tumford the Terrible by Nancy Tillman. It's the story of a cat who makes mistakes and messes, and never says he's sorry... until one day he confronts his actual feelings and finds that telling the truth and apologizing makes him feel good. Deep, right?

It seems that the simple act of apologizing becomes a lot less simple as we become older. If we hurt someone, intentionally or not, we put up barriers. We may eschew responsibility and pin it on someone or something else. The email never left my outbox... this person doesn't speak for the company... it wasn't intended that way. But in my own experience, doing this makes me feel uncomfortable. It is a little nugget of a burden that sits on my back and becomes another thing I need to carry, need to nurture, even though it's deserving of neither.

If you already know the truth, then be brave and face it. It may hurt a little bit. But like Tumford, once that apology is out there... your self, your true and wonderful self, can heal.

Reconnecting with the Self

It was quiet in my car, except for the occasional whoosh of a passing car and the distant hum of a leaf blower. I was sitting, eyes closed, breathing in the driver's seat. And then, the silence was broken:

“Ommmm. Ommmm. Ommmm. Shanti, shanti, shanti.”

I surprised myself by saying that out loud. I opened my eyes and the world was still there. I was still there. I looked down at my phone and saw that I had another minute and a half left on the timer.

I promised myself five minutes. I gave myself three-and-a-half.

My mind has been fully in the driver's seat for the past month or so. I've been working hard on a lot of projects and efforts, and as I'm wont to do, I've detached myself from self-care. 

But in those moments in my car, I focused on just connecting with myself and letting my monkey mind go. Certainly, snippets of songs were flowing through my head. Things to do. But then I found a connection with myself. And it was hard to reconnect with that part, because it felt... kind of new again. My “should” parts showed up. “You should do this more often. You haven't been doing enough. You haven't been enough.” Then another part piled on, and saw this as a Huge Setback: one where I reverted to being more connected with my brain and my analytical mind than my body and my emotions – really, my self.

I saw that as a problem, and parts of me wanted to solve it immediately.


What if, instead, I just... let the moment be, and give these feelings space to exist, and be, without judgment? The part of me that wants to fix things, that wants me to be a certain way, has a lot of power in me and it's been that way for a very long time. It floods my mind with “should” thinking. I should be doing this, I should be doing that. So what if I say, “No, it's cool, I've got this?”

Moving to a place without that judgment requires understanding, patience, and compassion.

I certainly understand why that part of me wants these activities and thoughts and words to be just so – it's because of a fear of being perceived as “weird.” Patience? I'm good at it with others, less so with myself. That comes from my long-seeded desire to please others, to get others' approval.

Compassion is the hardest. (I've certainly written about it before – here, and here – so this is not something unfamiliar to me.) In these moments, it's a lot easier to say something or type something than soak it in and believe it. Parts of me want those changes to happen instantly and get really impatient and restless when they don't. And in those moments, it's easier for me to come up with plans and schedules and tick things off of lists in lieu of just confronting those emotions, with compassion, and letting them know that everything is cool. So, I fall into schedules and plans and lists and what's ahead in my day.

But in those brief minutes I had with myself, that reconnection happened. Schedules faded away. Lists fell. Worrying about the future was absent. Thinking about the morning was gone. And I found the compassion to reach out to myself.

So when I heard that chant, when I said those words out loud, I was surprised – because I had found my self. And I had something to say.

Time is Tight

Let's talk about time travel. From my post on writing:

I really took a knack to writing when I was in grammar school. I wrote a book for a Scholastic Book Fair contest called What Year is This? Of course it involved time travel. The lead character went back in time, met her own mother, and then the space-time continuum went kablooey. Happens!

In reflecting on it, one of the reasons I liked time travel so much – and still do! – is that it lets us change something that people created as a concept but do not control. When I was younger, I wanted to travel into the future so I could skip parts of my life that seemed boring, uninteresting, or even painful. It would let me fast forward and savor the moments I have; it would give me that precious illusion of control, the idea that I'm in charge.

Naturally, as I've gotten older I've had to process the idea of limited time and death, and what it means to me. As I first began to confront it, I was overwhelmed. There's no telling when we'll die? And... I have no control? And... what's next is a mystery? That really bothered the parts of me that plan stuff out. Then, that swung back the other way for me. I only have so much time. I need to do everything. How can I do everything? Time isn't unlimited. When will I ever open that cookie shop? When will I skydive? When will I do all of these things I want to do? When will I....

It got overwhelming. Ultimately I chose to get to a place where I plan some things in my life, but not all. I can't say that I live each day like it's my last. I feel that's a little clichéd because if I knew this was my last day, I would be really selfish. But there's even something to take away from that silly statement: the selfishness. When do I take care of myself? When do I express myself? When do I spend quality time with my family, and my friends? When do I make those scary decisions?

Time is one of the few resources that we, as life designers, can't change. It's the most constraining constraint. But we mustn't live our lives in fear that we don't have enough (that's an assumption). Instead, we need to look at what we can do right now, in this moment.

And yes, there's no control. Achieving a state of mind where one accepts there is no control is not fatalist, at least not to me; it's honest and true.

From the 2005 Steve Jobs Stanford speech:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Thus, we are in charge. And we don't need time travel to show it to us.

(Still love time travel stories, though.)

Energy and Spoon Theory

In my Better Living Through Design talk, I touch on how out of balance I was for a very long time. My mind would spin up with ideas and thoughts and plans, but I would almost ignore my body altogether. And one of the ways this showed up was in how much energy I had; I would assume at the start of the day that my energy was boundless (hah!) and that I could do everything on the list. Frankly, while I was a teenager, I pretty much could.

I'm also fortunate enough to currently be able in my life, without any disabilities. I know this will change in the future.

One of the big things that made me look critically at my energy and where I use it was introduced to me by a family member with a disability. I learned of The Spoon Theory, an excellent piece by Christine Miserandino, that gives a shorthand and approachable metaphor for what it's like to live with chronic illness or pain.

The Spoon Theory set me up to be more empathetic with others, and ultimately be more compassionate with them as well.

Lists Rule

It's a harsh truth that out of the myriad things I want to do with my life – and there are a lot! – I won't be able to do all of them. Or, rather, the odds are extremely small that they will all happen. It's not due to a lack of interest on my part; it's simply due to prioritizing what's important.

I know, I know. The default response to, “How are you?” is, “I'm busy.” We've taken busy-ness to be a merit badge of adulthood, suggesting that we have so so much going on that taking on anything else is just too much and will be the one thing that will put us over the top. The truth is that I do have a lot going on... and so do you!

Letting Go of the List

For a list-driven person like me, getting to a place of letting go of the list has been very difficult. It used to be that when I set up my to do list for the day, I'd feel genuinely bad if I didn't take care of everything on that list by the end of the day. And sometimes, I'd sneak things in to my own detriment (like doing a chore in the early morning or late night before bed). This was really misaligned with what I needed but, because I felt so much self-inflicted time pressure, I knew I would feel incredibly good if everything on the list was ticked off.

So if I had that attitude for a day's worth of items, imagine how I started to feel about bigger things. The life things. Starting a family! Buying a house! Dealing with Comcast customer service! Doing a budget! Instead of plunking those on a Someday list (a prioritization) they'd sit around on this big list of unsorted, unprioritized things I was going to do, and I'd look at that list and... yes, that meant I actually had a scorecard to compare myself to! It was setting me up for the negative, and showing all the things I hadn't yet done. I didn't see it as inspirational anymore; I started to see it as a failure tracker.

Working with the List

I will probably never be someone who isn't list-driven. That, I understand about myself. But I've had to really sit with my emotions and let my brain take a breather in order to get to a more comfortable place with them. I need lists. But, I don't need them to drive me; I need to use them as the tools they are and rely on my self to guide me. A big leap! And, it requires changes in the way I feel and think about lists.

The first idea I've had to relinquish is that everything I think of can be done now, and is all highest priority. Silly, right? It was easy for me to talk about the importance of prioritizing a product backlog, but it wasn't easy for me to say that about my own needs and wants. Yet if I didn't even pretend to rank things – and I historically didn't – I felt defeated. Instead, I had to really comb through the list of items one-by-one and be honest with myself. Anything that I couldn't truly do today... I'd schedule for another day, throw into the Someday list, or – big scary one – take it off the list. (And yes, that last one hurts.)

Another very important change: I add and prioritize self-care items to my to-do list. I've also added inspirational messages to the items' descriptions. It's a small gesture but it's been a big help. I'm the only one who sees them, but it's just a nice heads-up from past me. I observe, however, that I'm still struggling with having self-care items get deprioritized or bumped. Worse, they're often the first to go for me, because my brain seems to find things that are more important to do. Definitely something I am still working on!

How to Prioritize

When reviewing my lists, here's what I ask myself about each item. And yeah, I'm breaking out a list.

  1. How much do I care about this?
  2. How much do other important people care about this?
  3. Can I see myself doing a good job of this (today/tomorrow/next month)?
  4. When this is done, how will I feel about it?
  5. Do I actually have time to do this (today/tomorrow)?

The first two work together: there are certainly things on my lists that are not of my own choosing, but other people in my life who matter are depending on them. I need to balance those priorities: it may be something that isn't terribly interesting to me (see #4!) but when it's done, I'll be glad that I helped someone else. If it's something I care about, then I should work to give it a high priority.

Question 3 is important too. If I feel I can't do a good job on something, then I ask myself if this to-do item is appropriate, really. Something like the fabled “clean out the garage” task is a bit large, and I might not be able to finish the whole thing in one fell swoop. Chunking something down gives me a better shot of doing a good job of it, which again, is important to me. This is also a prime time to ensure these actions line up with my overall intentions.

#4 is where my emotions come into play. If I simply will get the little kick from checking something off the list, that may be enough for some items (“Unload dishwasher.”) But for others it won't be. I try to imagine how I'll feel and react on the other side of that item. Will I be relieved? Stressed? Pleased? Proud? Sad? Thrilled?

And the last question: is there actual time to do this. That's where my calendar comes into play. I find it very helpful to actually schedule time on my calendar This puts my brain at ease and answers the, “But when will you do this?!” question. If I can't do it today, I notice a tinge of regret, but plop it onto a day when I think I can do it.

The End of the List

While I'm still a list fan, there are plenty of times and days when I give myself permission to go off-list and not do anything on it. When I first started this practice I felt immensely guilty, because I wasn't being busy nor productive. But now I see it as time to simply be, to simply exist, and let other parts of me take the helm for a while. This has given me a little more balance, a little more flexibility, and has improved my relationship with lists.


After my WebVisions talk last month, there were quite a few fantastic questions from the audience. One of them was, “When you're figuring out what you want to do with your life and how you want to be, how do you take into account the needs of others - like family?”

I clarified by addressing “children” in that “family” bucket, although it can apply to families of all types, really. But my initial answer was this:

All the best designs work within constraints.

I do not have unlimited time nor energy. My wife, son, and other family members all have their needs and wants too. So as I'm planning my days and choosing how to exist in this world, I must take them into account as well. Because, frankly, if I don't, then I'm not being truly myself.

What happens when specific goals or actions conflict with each other? I'm working through this right now: my wife and I made a number of choices that are super important to us, but other people in our family are less comfortable with them to the point of completely disagreeing with them. My old default reaction was to turn around and question my own decision – all in an effort to please the other person, putting my own joy and happiness aside.

But, that's not where my heart is anymore. Now I know these decisions – the ones that I feel are best for me and my family – lead to really uncomfortable conversations and possible consequences. I can't predict how other people will react, even with lots of experience, so my wife and I talked about a few possible outcomes and how we'd feel about them, and how we'd react as well. (This was instrumental, and really soothed the part of me that likes to plan everything out.)

This is a constraint, but an important one. Our decisions and actions have consequences, and how we handle them is also indicative of how we are in the world. No matter what I face, I remind myself of my intentions and work to apply them.

Compassion in Tough Conversations

Recently, I was talking with a person who knew exactly how to press my buttons. We were talking back and forth about something big in the news — a heated conversation — when the topic shifted. Suddenly, I started hearing things about me: I had made bad choices, I had done the "wrong" thing, and I had disappointed people. I was now in an argument, and I was the one who felt attacked.

What do you do when you're under attack? My first instinct was to defend myself. I felt blood flowing through me at a faster rate; fight or flight was kicking in. Adrenaline was powering me through this. I couldn't just leave the conversation so I had to stay.

And I unleashed. I was angry. Everything I heard from the other person wasn't true or, at least, wasn't as I intended. But my actions were being twisted and changed into something far worse, something malicious, and something hurtful. Parts of me chimed in, “But... that's not me! That's not. I'm not a hurtful person! You're wrong!” Lots of defense. Lots of shielding.

The conversation was messy and did not end well. Both of us walked away at the end of it feeling hurt and angry. It did parts of us a world of good to vent and complain and attack like that, but other parts of us were left on the sidelines. We just couldn't be present in those moments. Right?

The illusion

This very driven and heated conversation stirred up our emotions and the bits of both of us that we had each been sitting on for a good long time. Heightened emotions and heightened actions. And yet, compassion and empathy were out the door in this case. Make no mistake: these are really hard instances in which one can practice these things but it is not impossible.

Setting aside our ego and our defenses in order to listen and be compassionate with that person can open the door to greater understanding, care, and connectedness. And yeah, yeah, it's something that I know, but in those moments? Way harder to tap on that. So much of me wanted to respond in kind... and I chose to do so. Of course, it's normal to be angry and pissed and upset in the moment. But we need to keep our ears open and working and present, and truly listen, even when a part of us saying, “Noooooooooo!”

How we respond is a choice. It always is, even when it feels like we have little say in the matter.

Dig this post? Come see me speak at WebVisions Chicago on September 26th! Tickets are available, and code MCALEER gets you 20% off. Register today.

The Qualitative Self

In July, I ran a tremendous amount (for me). I ran the most miles ever in a month, the most miles outside in a month, and the longest distance I ever ran in a month. It was fantastic. At the end of July I felt amazing. I felt great. I felt proud of what my body could do. I had spent some time scheduling out when I would run, and also kept it a little loose so if I missed a day, I would do it the next day.

After my great July, I decided to take a break. "I'll give myself a week," I said. A week went by, and hot weather returned. "I don't want to run in the heat," I told myself (which has always been true, and I don't have a treadmill.) Soon, I looked at the calendar and it was the end of August. I had not run for an entire month.

I noticed that I felt really bad about this, like I had done something wrong. I wasn't noticing how my body felt through not moving as much; rather, I was noticing how my mind interpreted my actions. I felt guilty, bad, and shamed about it. And then other parts of me chimed in and soon, I had put myself into a bad place with exercise again: feeling that I needed to do it… or else!

About that relationship

I started running about 4 years ago. Part of what has fueled this path is the fact that I've been tracking my runs with Nike+. It's a fantastic app, and it has definitely kept me encouraged along the way. I've felt stronger and better because of it, and I know I feel really good when I look at my numbers at the end of the run and make a few comments on my progress.

But in recent weeks, I realized something: all of this tracking, all of this quantitative work, had taken a lot of the fun out of running for me. I started to see it more as a chore and more as a thing that I had to do and, well, I tend to not enjoy things I have to do as much. (Working on that.)

It put me in a difficult place because, here I was, feeling really good about my own physical activity and my body. And yet, any time I wasn't running I started to feel bad about my physical activity and my body. Any time! And that's a lot of times. I got in my own head, as they say.

The new approach

I'm not walking away completely from the idea of tracking my runs. But I'm trying something new during September: I'm running on a very loose schedule and I'm not tracking my runs.

Yep. I'm not tracking them. Nothing goes in the Nike+ app. I listen to music, and that's it.

Based on my runs so far, I've noticed something: I feel way less pressure. It feels more spur-of-the-moment, and I notice that the guilt component is falling away. I notice that I do enjoy the runs a little bit more. I'm not tracking distance, pace, time, or any of that. When I feel I'm done, I'm done. And I work to forgive myself if my internal critic says, "YEAH BUT YOU RAN A 5K AT THE END OF JULY! GO GO GO!" When I'm done, I'm done, and when I can push myself, I will push myself.

It's a new aspect to the relationship, in other words: rediscovering the fun in it, and not just relying on the numbers to tell me I'm enjoying it.

I trust there will be a time when I track things again; I'm still strongly considering doing a "real" 5K in November. And at that point, yeah, I'll want to focus on improving things a bit more. But for now, just enjoying physical activity is a healthy place for me to be.