• Christie Caldwell

Create Your Own Ground: Tip #1 "Corralling"

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

TIP ONE: Create Your Corral

Make Bounded Spaces that are Off-Limits to Stress, Problems and Work. Then Guard These Spaces Fiercely.

These spaces can be big or small, long or short. They can be as simple as a 5-minute walk during lunch or listening to music on your commute home (if any of us are still commuting). I know an HR Director who swivels her chair away from her computer at lunch and simply reads an article. I know an MIT scientist who goes on a walk every day as soon as he gets stuck on a problem or feels his stress levels peaking. Winston Churchill was famous for his two-hour wartime baths.

The key is to make a space for yourself that is off-limits for the things that stress you out.

It helped to understand myself as an animal (albeit one with a highly-functioning pre-frontal cortex). In creating these stress-free zones, I am trying to create a predator-free corral for that animal.

Lots of good things happened in this corral that involved my autonomic nervous system rebalancing and my body and brain rebuilding trust with me. All good things stem from a sense of safety. So I had to start here.

It wasn't like I didn't have times of disengagement before I started studying all this. My mistake was not making them regular or reliable. I would give up my dinner time for a late-night conference call. I would allow a stressful deadline to bump my evening yoga class. The external demands always trumped my internal needs and I allowed that. My constant dismissal of my body's signals (exhaustion, muscle tension, crabbiness) communicated to my subconscious that I wasn't safe with myself, that my needs would always be secondary to external demands and expectations. Unreliable or irregular disengagement spaces don't work.

It's like having a corral with an entire section of fence missing. Predators (and yes, I mean your colleagues, clients and those endless to-do lists) can all wander in at will.

In this state, I started having hallucinogenic visions of my colleagues and clients as carrion birds pecking away at my flesh, alway asking for late-night calls or extra work. I became resentful and snappy, all because I wasn't taking care of my boundaries. At a psychological level, my corral was broken.

During my first year of experimentation, I created two "corral times" for myself. The first was early morning. I got up at 6 a.m. and allowed myself a slow start to the day. That's all. No big transcendental meditation goals. I simply sat and sipped my coffee and looked out the window. I took no calls, I checked no emails. No mad dashing. I walked my dog peacefully, no longer yelling at him to hurry up and do his business. I rode my bicycle to work and opened my computer at 8 a.m., not a second before.

The second corral time was early evening. I started leaving the office at 5 p.m. Did I mention that I was the most senior person in the Shanghai office at this time? It felt a little scandalous. But I did it anyway. I blocked off 5-8 p.m. every evening as out-of-bounds for work. I walked my dog. I went to yoga class. I spent time with loved ones. I made a nice dinner. I didn't think about work. I scheduled my work calls after 8 p.m.

As you can see, I didn't do anything particularly special in this corral time. I just kept it for myself. It seems like a very small thing. But it had a massive impact. My happiness went up exponentially. I stopped wishing ill for my colleagues and clients. I didn't seem to mind the night calls anymore. They were no longer preventing me from meeting my needs.

And then something amazing happened.

I was doing this for my own sanity, but the most unexpected thing happened after I fixed my corral and started guarding it with heavy artillery. I was more productive. I did better work in less time. Our Shanghai office made more money and got more projects that year than any previous year. There are, of course, many contributing factors to this phenomenon. But this experience killed my fundamental, fear-driven belief that the company's success was dependent on me being available 24/7 to engage all its urgent requests. It obviously was not. In fact, it seemed better off for my leaving it alone.

Beyond the productivity, the biggest impact of corralling for me has been a turning toward myself. It has been a commitment to being on my own side first and recognizing that this is no one else's priority or responsibility. This did not happen overnight. It took about three years. But it started here.

None of this is rocket science. In fact, it feels like "Fundamentals for Being Human 101". I'm sure lots of folks have figured this out a long time ago. I'm sure lots of folks just naturally listened to their bodies and never needed to figure anything out. But I needed to go to remedial training to learn this. I'm writing this in case there are any fellow remedial students out there who want to join me.

I think every corral looks different as well. From where I stand now, three hours a day in the evening seems paltry. I coached a pharmaceutical executive this year who wasn't making time for lunch or bathroom breaks between calls. Her corral was committing to a 30-minute non-working lunch break and 10-minute buffers between calls. Just turning toward yourself and your own needs is powerful, it can take on a million different forms.

For me, having a few simple things to try out made it possible to get started.

I encourage you to experiment with this first step if you don't already practice "corralling". Cultural norms and market maturity seem to play a role--either enabling or disabling. (In my work with leaders across the globe, Europeans seem to outperform on good boundaries.) Figure out a corral space that works for you and then ritualise it. People will come and poke at it for sure. But if you are firm, everyone will get used to seeing it within your landscape and they will walk around it. It will also give others permission to create their own corrals. From this safe ground, you can build many good things.

We'll explore TIP #2 Balancing Your Energy Bank in the next blog!

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