Following the first rule was relatively simple—I just had to physically go to the office. The second rule was a little tougher. Sometimes I was full of ideas, and sometimes I was full of doubt. Sometimes I felt very creative, and sometimes I yearned for a simple, straightforward task. To make life easier, I took advantage of my psychology training about learning and cognition to create structured-yet-flexible work plans so that I didn't have to constantly ask myself what to do next. Oftentimes, trying to generate work plans or decide which task to do at any given moment is actually more difficult than the tasks themselves. So I kept a very long list of tasks: the list included everything from researching online forums where I could blog or post about my practice, to creating attractive and branded client invoice forms, to approaching seasoned psychologists on social media platforms for informational interviews. If I was feeling creative, I'd tackle tasks that involved writing or designing; if I was feeling less creative, I'd build lists of forums or contacts to have handy for days when I was feeling more social and ready to connect with the network I was slowly beginning to build.
The list of things to do was endless, but that was actually by design. I wanted never to feel helpless, as if there was nothing I could do. My long list actually gave me comfort because it helped me channel my nervous energy into healthy steps forward. When we're feeling anxious or like our survival is on the line, we sometimes get an extra shot of adrenaline. If we use this energy wisely, then it is a boost; if we don't know what to do with that energy, then it just manifests as extra cortisol leading to tension or depression (cortisol is a hormone associated with stress). This is why having a clear way to focus our energy, like drawing up the lists I made for myself or the exercises offered in this book, can help convert nervous energy into productive zeal. I realize that my actual survival wasn't really on the line, but honestly it felt that way somewhere in the back of my brain. I was a single woman in my mid-thirties with a mountain of student debt, with my financial future riding on my new private practice. Many clients in my practice who are passionate about their goals tell me they feel similarly when important goals are at stake, especially if the goals relate to major milestones like finding a life partner or a job in which they will feel fulfilled and successful.
We usually get a boost in mood and productivity from a sense of organization when we're facing complex goals, so taking the time to strategize saves us energy in the long run. It can be difficult or draining to think clearly about strategy during our day-to-day busywork. That can lead to feelings of helplessness, which can leave us feeling paralyzed and overwhelmed. Similarly, when we see a mountain of things to do but those things are not well organized, we feel like we're "shooting in the dark," which can be anxiety provoking and overwhelming, as well as inefficient.
The interactions between organization, emotion, motivation, and productivity I've described are why people like Amy and me (and possibly you!) take such comfort in lists, worksheets, or exercises that help us know our "next step": these things help us be more organized and strategic about goals; they help us manage our nervous energy in a productive and calming manner. With a good set of lists, all we have to do is pick a task and get to work; and we'll suddenly have the sense that we're moving forward—and in fact, we will be moving forward. This knowledge tends to increase feelings of motivation and engagement. Organizing yourself with a deliberate strategy and specific action steps works very well for goal attainment and for many of the therapy skills that I want clients to practice between sessions. This is why you'll find each tool in this book has an exercise to help you stay on track for success, well-being, or whatever your goal may be.
The Good News About Structure
The good news is that people like Amy generally respond very well to a structured, skills-based approach that plays to their strengths of intelligence, discipline, and persistence. By structuring myself with this system, plus all the other lessons I learned along the way, I'm proud to say that after less than a year in private practice, I had to hire another therapist to help keep up with demand for my sessions. By the third year, I employed six therapists plus a full support staff and was occupying three offices. In the meantime, I somehow started getting calls for national and international television networks. It started with VH1's Love & Hip Hop, then grew to CBS's Inside Edition and a host of other lifestyle and news programs on which I've been privileged to connect with millions of people globally. Sometimes I still can't believe that it all started just a few years ago with a brand-new degree and a lot of well-harnessed nervous energy.
My practice now uses video technology to see clients all over the world as well as quiet towns here in the United States—high functioning people are everywhere! In New York, my office works with successful Broadway actors, artists from world-class museums, and professionals in the city's most prestigious banking, law, and publishing firms. Of course, we also see many people who consider themselves to be "just regular everyday people." However, in my
view, many of these soccer moms, pre-revenue entrepreneurs, and other clients who quietly lead excellent lives, rich with a cognitive and emotional depth that stirs me, actually aren't much different from many of my more high-profile clients.
The common thread is that all of these clients feel a strong personal drive and desire for success, however we define it. We love to keep growing, and we crave tools to help us do that. I believe the reason my practice has been so successful is because it gets great results for people who have a strong desire to succeed and who have the basic raw materials to do so. Learning skills to both harness and embrace our nervous energy helps these clients (and me!) reach greater levels of productivity, fulfillment, and self-compassion as well as practice truly effective, strategic self-discipline that centers around doing what we want to do and feeling how we want to feel.