The What If Experience

Explore a new "What If..." question about life each week with some thoughts, some answers and some action steps. Share my journey of personal growth and living in possibility.
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Now displaying: December, 2017
Dec 31, 2017

Christmastime is warm. Gathering in. Holding close. It’s reds and burgundies and golds. It’s pine trees, crackling fires, and hot chocolate. It’s snuggles in front of candles and twinkling lights. It’s sharing and laughter with friends and family. It’s get-togethers and cookies. It’s how can we show you we love you. It’s giving. It’s joyful and it’s silent night, holy night.

It’s a baby like no other child born on this earth. For a believer, it’s an unthinkable grace. A gift beyond hope.

We experience the holiday season in hibernating warmth against the winter cold. In this gathering in and folding our lives around each other and around our traditions. In layer upon layer of wrapped memories. Some beautiful and some painful. All of which we unwrap each year as we add another layer.

It’s that child, that infant laid before an unbelieving nation. Celebrated by peasants, angels and the wise. It’s that child that interrupts our productions because today Christmas is a production. It’s a month of going, doing, running, creating, buying, wrapping, baking, decorating.

It’s a month of trying so hard, in celebration of the child who ultimately makes the trying unnecessary.

If Christmastime is about gathering in, warm, rich colors, flavors, and feelings, my New Years is the opposite. I typically leave for a week at the beach with a friend. It’s a ritual we’ve been practicing for almost 10 years now. We leave behind the trying and we rest. We drink in the expanse and simplicity of the ocean. We let the sea air blow through all corners of our souls. We recover and we prepare. We look both backward and forward. We hold the past year and the coming one in this tension of a between week. This odd week between the old and new.

I planned to give you a practical episode today. But, I feel poetic. The sea does that to me. This gulf that I love, the color that astonishes me all over again every time I see it. It’s simplicity, it’s clean lines and open space. It’s always different, yet unchanging nature. It’s power, it’s mystery and it’s music.

We open the door as soon as we arrive and we never close it. We listen to the waves, no matter what the temperature. It’s almost never warm here in this in-between week. It often rains. I haven’t seen the sun yet this trip, and I don’t care. While I cherish warm family trips full of sunshine, sunscreen, and laughter, I crave this season’s long solitary walks on windswept shores. I need the transition space of this week. I hunger for the moments to face truths in deep conversations, in prayer, and in my journal. This is the place my new year springs from.

This is my ritual. It includes things I love like books, fingers wrapped around a warm cup of tea, delicious meals, and the sound of the ocean. It includes a relationship I cherish and a place I cannot say no to. It gives me time and space to center my heart for the new year.

It’s my pause. My respite. My moment outside of normal. We need a pause. We need perspective, stillness and rest. A time and place to stop running through your life and away from yourself. A time to look with a stilled heart, thoughtful mind and clear eyes. Yes, by all means, play, yes rest also. But take time to consider. Consider your life, your place in the world. If you haven’t done the exercises from the past few weeks, here’s your chance to catch up. Create your 5 commandments. Find your gaps. Practice a pause.

How can you pause?

It can be smaller than mine. It might be an hour to yourself. An evening. A special time, place or person. It might be a change of scenery or it might be a few moments stolen from an everyday place. How much time do you need? More than you think you need, probably. But, start with what you can carve out. It takes days for me to still myself at this time of year. This is my second morning and I’m still fighting to let go. I’m still wound too tightly. Some years it takes more time than others. I expected this to be an easier year, but it’s not. My personal rhythms are off. But, I’ll get there.

How do you prepare your heart for the coming year? What is your ritual? How can you pause?

I’ll be back next week with the practical episode I promised and probably an episode about my love/hate relationship with a word of the year. Then, we’ll jump into the nitty gritty of successful change-making. Love you all for joining me on this journey and I wish you a new year filled with love. Shalom.

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Dec 24, 2017

This will go live on Christmas Eve, so if you’re finding this at release, I hope your Christmas is beautiful, meaningful and full of joy. And I hope your new year brings all the things you truly want!

That’s what we’ve been talking about for the last few weeks…the things you truly want. Two weeks ago we talked about creating a list of five commandments to live by. These are the things you want your life to be centered around. They’re a decision framework for what really matters to you.

Last week we talked about what drives our actions, is it urgency or importance? I mentioned that I wondered where my time really goes and I committed to tracking it for a few months. I want to see if I’m spending it on the things I say I want to be spending it on. And I promised a week of results today.

Well, I did it. And here’s a few things I learned.

I learned that this is a stupid season to track time. Nothing’s normal. My work is really slow the last few weeks in December, so I don’t get a realistic picture of how many hours I’m working. And with the holidays, there are a million extra things that don’t happen any other time of the year. School events, extra-curricular things, parties, family activities, shopping…all this adds up to very skewed time tracking.

But, it was still valuable.

I learned how much time I spend on this podcast, which is really helpful for planning purposes. I learned how much time I’m spending writing for my other projects. I learned how much time I spend driving…which is a ridiculous amount considering I work from home.

I learned that the way I’ve divided up my activities to track was only partially helpful. I realized I have a category like a kitchen junk drawer. You have one of those, right? That place where everything that you have no idea what it is or when you’ll need it or where it goes…gets put. Everything from paper clips to plastic pieces that look like they’re important but probably came from a vacuum cleaner that died ten years ago. I have an activity category like that called household. So much junk got put in that category that it became not very useful.

I was also reminded how the act of tracking something makes you so much more intentional about it. Tracking the food you eat makes you much more mindful of what you put in your mouth. It’s a built-in self-accountability. Accountability-lite if you will. There’s something about knowing you have to write it down or enter it into an app that makes you stop and think about it. Tracking time makes you realize when you’re drifting from what you need to be doing. Just because of tracking, I made more intentional choices.

I realized how much brain drift I’m subject to. Cal Newport in the book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, talks about the idea that if you spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness, you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work. Permanently! Frenetic shallowness is a perfect description of last week’s box 3 - the urgent but unimportant box on our matrix. Living life in response to your inbox, social media addiction, or technology addiction, in general, is a sobering example of frenetic shallowness. I’ve noticed in the last few years that the hit of dopamine I feel when I receive a notification on my phone has created habits that have reduced my attention span and ability to focus. So, for about six months, I’ve been working to eliminate distractions and stop multi-tasking. It’s improving. Tracking time this week has helped me realize that I’m doing better than six months ago, but I still have work to do.

Those are some lessons I learned from tracking my time. Now what? What do I do with that information? Here’s our basic outline so far.

  • Develop your why. This is what your life is about. This is the 5 commandments we created.
  • Where are you? This is what we’ve talked about last week and so far this week.
  • Find the Gaps. Compare where you are to your commandments. Ask yourself these questions
    • Are you actually spending your time where your commandments say you want to spend it?
    • In other words, are you investing in what you say will make your life worthwhile?

What we’re interested in are the gaps. If there’s no gap…if you’re doing exactly what you should be doing to create the life you want, then awesome! Amazing! Why are you not doing a podcast I can listen to?! Come back in February when we’ll be on another subject unless you just like to listen to my voice. In that case, it’s fine. Really, though, that’s wonderful if you are.

If, however, you’re like most people, there are likely to be some gaps. My five commandments are: love God, prioritize people, spend intentionally, choose health, practice gratefulness. I found when I thought about it that last year at this time I was struggling spiritually but strong physically. I was doing a great job of choosing health and a poor job of loving God. The last six months, I’ve totally fallen off the wagon health-wise. My training group split up, I’m making bad food choices, I don’t have consistent sleep habits and I’ve gained a significant amount of weight. However, I’m in a much better place spiritually than I was a year ago. I will say some commands are more important than others. If I have to choose between love God and choose health, I’m making the right choice right now. But generally, I don’t have to choose between them.

I have two gaps. I’m not choosing health and I’m not spending intentionally.

Choose health is on my commandment list because it makes all the other things possible. I feel wretched when I’m not eating right, exercising and sleeping well. It impacts my ability to do what I want to do with my life. And I also don’t want to buy a new wardrobe, so I need to get the health thing under control. For me, right now, this is the biggest gap I found.

Spend intentionally means to me that I’m stewarding my resources well. I’m putting my time, talents and money into the things that matter - into the other commandments, into loving God, prioritizing people and choosing health. Tracking my time was also about being able to get my arms around how I’m doing stewarding my time with the intent to figure out if I could do all the things that I want to do next year or if I need to eliminate some of them. Am I overcommitted? Or, just undisciplined? I’m not getting any rest right now…emotional and mental breaks. How can I work that in? Plus, I’ve gotten away from my financial budget in the last few years and I need to fix that, too.

Looking forward to next year, these are the two gaps between what I say is important to me - my 5 commandments and what I’m actually doing. These are the places I’m going to be working to make change happen. Choose health and spend intentionally.

When you take an honest look at your five commandments and at your actions, your current lifestyle, where are the gaps? What changes do you need to make, in a broad sense? I’m not asking you to write SMART goals right now, I’m asking you to decide in a general sense, where are you not living like you really want to? Not, where are you not living up to someone else’s expectations…where are you not living up to what YOU know to be important to make your life worthwhile?

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Dec 17, 2017

Last week we thought about our Five Life Commandments--a decision framework for making choices. Let’s talk today about why we need a decision framework and add a little bit of context.

Why do you do what you do every day? We do things because we’ve put them on our schedule…we take our kids to school or to piano lessons. We do things because other people ask us to. We do things because we have a deadline. We need to pay the cell phone bill because there’s a due date. Sometimes our motivations for actions aren’t what they seem. We eat because we’re hungry, right? Maybe. But, we also eat because it’s a habit, we’re stressed, we’re bored or we’re being social.

What I haven’t mentioned yet…doing things because they’re important…is often eclipsed by all the other reasons I’ve listed. Urgency. Schedule. Habit. Demands of others. These aren’t necessarily wrong reasons to do things. But, they tend to get out of our control. They’re never-ending. They’re not necessarily going to get us what we want. And, by doing too many of them, they’ll certainly keep us from getting what we want.

Essentially, I’m talking about the difference between urgent and important. Many years ago, Steven Covey popularized a matrix based on Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Decision Principle. It involves sorting tasks into four boxes.

Box One

The first box is things that are both important and urgent. These are meaningful things that have a deadline. They may be things like paying your car insurance which is important because of the deadline or things that are important because they need to be dealt with immediately, like a car that won’t start.

Box Two

The second box is things that are important but not urgent. This would be things that you put on your 5 commandments last week, but don’t have a deadline. Things that will make your life well lived. Things that will help you reach your business or personal goals. Things that are less urgent, so they often get pushed aside.

Box Three

Box three is things that are urgent, but not important. These might be tasks that other people request of you, but don’t move you toward a goal. They might be emails or phone calls. These are things that make you feel like you’re accomplishing things because you can check them off your list, but they don’t actually add to your life in a meaningful way. We get easily lost in this swamp.

Box Four

Box four is filled with the unimportant and not urgent. Many of our leisure activities live in this box. Time-wasters like social media and Netflix. Video games. Shopping sprees.

The usefulness of this matrix come in knowing where a particular task falls and where you want to be spending your time.

Using the Matrix

Here’s how to handle the tasks in each box:

Box 1 (important and urgent): This is the DO box. Get these things done.

Box 2 (important, but not urgent): This is the SCHEDULE box. Schedule time to focus on these in your life. Intentionally create the time to do them. They won’t happen by accident.

Box 3 (not important but urgent): This is the AVOID box. Delegate, ignore, or limit these tasks. They’re typically not as important as they feel like they are.

Box 4 (not important, not urgent): This is the CONTROL box. Use these things to reduce stress, relax, to give yourself a mental break, but use them intentionally and don’t let them use you. We spend far too much of our time here usually.

This matrix can be used to sort tasks so you can decide how to handle any given situation and to be aware of where you’re spending your time. We’ll talk more about time next week, but for now, know that ideally, you want to be spending your time in Box 2, on important things.

This is not a new idea. It’s been popular in productivity circles for a long time. Bailey Cooper writes, “We are, as author Douglas Rushkoff claims, experiencing "present shock" – a condition in which “we live in a continuous, always-on ‘now’” and lose our sense of long-term narrative and direction. In such a state, it is easy to lose sight of the distinction between the truly important and the merely urgent.

The consequences of this priority-blindness are both personal and societal. In our own lives, we suffer from burnout and stagnation, and on a broader level our culture is unable to solve the truly important problems of our time.”

I spoke about a year ago about my best friend living with stage four cancer. The reality of our mortality means something different to her than it does to people not struggling with a terminal illness. Something totally different. Cancer draws a swift division between things that are truly important and things that don’t matter.

I know one of the issues I need to deal with in the coming months is that my schedule is too full and I need to take a hard look at all that I’m doing. In the process of thinking that through, I need to start evaluating which box I’m living in.

I want to spend my life on things that matter. I want to live in box 2.

Meaning should be the motivating factor for our decisions. We established what’s meaningful last week. These are the things that belong in our 2nd box. This is what we want to be spending our time doing. Because they’re not urgent, though, it’s so very easy to put off doing them. And then because, in the words of Annie Lamott, “the way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives.” If we’re living out of the urgent but unimportant box, our life becomes urgent but unimportant. We run and run, but accomplish nothing of value.

Lao Tzu says, “Time is a created thing. To say ‘I don’t have time,’ is like saying, ‘I don’t want to.’”

I got curious where my time was really going this week. Have you heard the saying that the way to figure out what your priorities are is to look at your bank account and your schedule? To take a look at where you’re spending your time and your money? I suspect I waste far more time on social media than I’d like to believe. And I wonder how my actual time spent stacks up against my perception of how I’m spending it.

Well, I’m going to find out. I downloaded a time tracking app and I’m tracking my time. Just like you can track food, you can track where your time goes. I plan to do it for a month or two, but I’ll let you know next week how it looks with a week’s worth of data.

Last week we figured out what was important to us. This week I want you to take a look at the things you’re doing. Are they the things you’ve listed in your commandments? Are they the important, but not urgent things? Make a list of your activities. How many of them align with your commandments? With what you say is important to you?

This is a reality check exercise. Understanding and naming what’s important to us is great, but how does it stack up against how you’re living now? Where we find our gaps between what we say is important and what we’re doing will give us areas we need to focus on changing in the coming months.

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Dec 10, 2017

There are two big topics in the media in December. The holiday season and the New Year. Let's start the new year talk a little early. I usually see a handful of approaches to the new year.

The Cynical Approach

The nothing ever changes approach. This person might want something different for their life but believes that nothing ever changes, so they've resigned themselves to a repeat of this year, every year. They won't even bother considering a change. They also might be perfectly happy where they are or too afraid of failure to bother. This group ignores and often scoffs at those thinking about making changes at year end. These are the backseat drivers and the sideline coaches of the world.

The Complainer Approach

These people would really like something to change in their lives, but they aren't willing to actually do anything more than talk about it. Or, about what's not working for them at the moment. Because talking is easier than doing.

The Crowd Approach

This person will join the crowd in talking about change and making some resolutions, or whatever the popular process is in any given year. Lately, it's been choosing a word of the year. These are bandwagon fans, because, when attention turns elsewhere or things become difficult in a few weeks, they'll turn their attention to whatever the crowd is talking about at the moment. In a month, that may be the Super Bowl or the amount of snow on the ground, but it probably won't be the resolution, goal or word they chose that first week of the year. I have nothing against words of the year, by the way. You can check out how my word ambushed me last year in episode 14 and 15. But, realize that choosing a word in January only makes a difference in your life if it's followed by sustained action.

The Change-maker Approach

This is the high achiever. The person serious about making real change happen. They may be naturally an achiever, or they may have just decided to get serious about one particular portion of their life and that "Let's get serious" decision moved them from the crowd to change-maker.

Where do you fall into those categories? Are you interested in change? Are you willing to work to make 2018 better in some way? There are plenty of products available to help you move from the crowd to the change-maker category. Most of them are designed to give us tools and guidance in pursuit of success. If this is you...if you're interested in becoming a change-maker in pursuit of success, I'd recommend checking out either Darren Hardy's or Michael Hyatt's products. No affiliate interest here, I've just used some of each of their methods and they're solid and able to give you good guidance.

But. What if you're not really overly concerned about pursuing success? At least the way the world defines it? What if you want to make some personal, internal changes? What if you'd like to lose 20 pounds, but, there are underlying changes that need to be made first? What if you don’t need more goals, you need real change? What if you're looking for more meaning, not more success? What if you want your changes to last longer than the January white sales? If that's you, then join me for a new kind of process this year.

I'm a natural goal planner and a high achiever. The success systems make sense to me and I've used some version or a homemade mish-mash of them for years. There is nothing wrong with them. If you work the plan, they work. You can accomplish your goals. But, in the last few years, I've changed my approach and you may find it of value if the success-oriented plans aren't appealing to you. Meaning and fulfillment are more important to me than success. I’m more interested in a process than performance. I want a mind and life shift more than I want achievement. I want a lifestyle oriented towards transformation.

Is that easy? no. Is it neat and well packaged? No. Is it one-size-fits-all? No. It's work, it's often messy and uncomfortable. It's not a package of easy answers that work for everyone. And you won't always know where you'll find yourself in the end. But, it’s a process that has led me into a life journey of discovery and meaning.

If that’s appealing to you, let's walk through it together and I'll let you come alongside me throughout this year. We'll work through some personal exercises over the next few weeks, then hit how to create lasting change in the month of January. Throughout the year, we'll follow up and check in on the process.

Five Commandments

Ready? Let's get started with the first exercise. I want you to develop five commandments to guide your life. Just five. There's no magic about the number five, it just forces you to have a small, memorable list. Most of you can conveniently count them on one hand. It also forces you to be general rather than specific because we're looking for big picture guiding principles here.

I'm going to walk you through my five and my reasoning for each one. You may decide you want to adopt my five. Great. You're ahead of the game. But, I only want you to do that if you can absolutely get behind these five. These are my values. Yours might be completely different. Your list does not have to look like mine. But, it should look like five things that if you follow these commandments, you will feel like your life will feel well spent.

My Five

Love God. This is first on my list because it's the central purpose of my life and everything else springs from it. If you do not have a faith as a driving purpose, your list will look very different from mine and that's fine.

Prioritize people. From my perspective, people are what really matter in life. I believe that we are eternal beings, so long after my home, my art, my writing, my earnings....long after these things are gone, people remain. What I can do to serve people will last. Plus, because of my faith perspective, my biblical mandate is to Love God and love people. So, those things are central to my list.

Spend intentionally. Because my resources are limited, I want them to be used in a way that makes the most of them. This means that I'm going to plan, budget and invest both my time, energy, and money intentionally. I'm going to put them into things that matter.

Choose health. In order to do the three things I've mentioned already, I need to make decisions that promote good health. I don't make these decisions to look better to someone else, I make them so that I can better do the things that matter to me. Choosing health for me trickles down to sleep, eating and exercise habits. It's meditation. It's maintaining healthy relationships.

But, I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. I'm mentioning specifics here because these are often things people think of when they look at making changes at the beginning of the year. And I'm a big proponent of good health. But, I want you to think about what you're really after. Why do you want to lose weight? Why do you want to exercise? Why do you want to eat better? Why do you want to feel better? Why does it matter? Keep asking yourself why until you get to a root cause. If that root cause is important enough for your life to be well lived, include it. For me, I want to choose health in order to make the other things possible. When I'm not healthy, my ability to love God and love people diminishes.

Practice gratitude. Frankly, I'm not sure this should be my fifth item. But, I'm including it for a few reasons. I'm telling you I'm unsure because this list isn't carved in stone. It's not the ten biblical commandments carved on tablets in Moses' hands. It's five guiding commandments that you can use in decision making. And, it may take some time for you to get the list just right. So, start somewhere. As "choose health" was the physical basis empowering my other life choices, this is the emotional, mental and spiritual fuel for making them possible.

These five things speak into my life purpose, my foundation, and stewardship of my resources. They can help guide my decisions. They're like building codes, keeping my activity in line with my values and priorities.

Your Five

Now it's your turn! Start writing down things that you might include on your list. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What's most important in my life?
  • If I was to have a fulfilling life, what would it include?
  • What would make those things possible?

If you find that you have related items on your list, try to group them under a larger category the way I did with "choose health" or the way my family, friends, colleagues and even strangers fall into my “Prioritize people” command.

Take your list and try to turn them into short imperative statements. Commands. Ones that will be easy to remember and will move you into action.

Set aside your list for a few hours or a few days. After some time has passed, look at it again. Does it resonate? Does it need changes?

Keep working at it until you're reasonably satisfied. "Reasonably" satisfied means that it's usable. It may not be perfect, but it's usable and you can continue refining as you go along. Remember, this is a process, not a performance.

Take your five commands and put them somewhere you'll see them. A computer or phone lock screen. A bathroom mirror. A journal cover. Wherever you'll be reminded of them until they become so familiar that they come to mind easily.

So, what are your five commandments? I'd love to see them! Maybe you'll think of something I've missed! Snap a photo and share them on social media with the hashtag #my5commandments. I'll start. Check for mine on Instagram @michelle.berkey


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Dec 3, 2017

A year ago this week, I posted an episode that was full of thoughts on a milestone birthday. I turned 50 last year. I was coming off a month of Whole 30, I'd been working out consistently for 9 months and was in great shape. I looked forward to 2017 with anticipation. It's convenient that my birthday falls at the end of the year (it wasn't so great for even present distribution throughout the year when I was a kid), it's a double whammy for end-of-the-year review and planning. It's a natural start to a reflective season for me.

Last year I was feeling on top of my game and looking back today, I realize that I had this idea that I never quite verbalized. I thought my fiftieth year would be epic or that I'd do something epic. A friend and I had talked about a big trip for years and circumstances changed those plans. But, still, I think I had this underlying assumption that it would be somehow bigger than it was.

Staring into the eyes of 51 seems a lot less epic. I lost my workout group in August and can't seem to be consistent on my own. I'm not eating as well as I should. I've had more and deeper bouts of depression recently, we had the devastating, unexpected death of my young nephew a few weeks ago, and I'm very, very tired. I'm feeling decidedly depleted.

I ended last year's birthday episode with a thought about the decade ahead...

As I look forward to the next decade, I commit to walking through the middle with curiosity, with grit and perseverance. I commit to being courageous. To showing up. To living without a mask. To pouring into my son and into other people. To loving lavishly, unselfishly, generously and with abandon. If I can do that. One day at a time. If I can do that, if I can write my story with the ink of matter what the circumstances of my life in 10 years, my 50's will be a resounding success.

When I was doing my yearly planning last December, I wrote this big picture intention: If I had a fulfilling year, I would be a good mom and Cody and I would have a closer relationship, we'd have adventures and grow together. I would develop a sustainable second business that would be my sole income in two years. I would influence others and help transform their lives for the better. I would make art that's meaningful to me and to others.

Essentially, I'd set a decade and a 2017 intention at the start of my planning process last year. And, as down as I feel right now, as un-epic as I felt the year was...when I think through what actually happened in 2017 compared to those two intentions...every single thing on those lists except one (the business) I've accomplished. While it felt more average than I expected, I have no regrets about how I've lived this year. I feel somewhat depleted right now, but I have a sinus infection and I'm still reeling from last week's funeral. Of course, I feel depleted!

Often in the past, when I've felt depleted, "defeated" and "exhausted" have come right along with it. But, this time, I'm not feeling defeated and exhausted. I'm feeling pretty content about where my energy has gone. I'm feeling fulfilled. I may never accomplish crazy amazing things that I might have dreamed up in my younger days. And my year might not seem epic at first glance, not flashy, but I lived it generally in service of other people.

And that's exactly how I want to live.

Your birthday might not conveniently force this kind of reflection, but the end of the year can have the same effect. How do you feel about how you've lived 2017? What do you live for? Do you have changes you need to make for 2018? I'm not talking about resolutions, I'm talking about motivations and lifestyle changes.

As we start this holiday season, I'd encourage you to ask those same questions about the holidays. Why do you celebrate? What's really important? And, how can you make what's important central to your holiday?

How can you make what's important to your life central to your life in 2018?


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