3 Key Life Lessons From My Painting Journey

I found a new hobby recently and started to pick up after more than 20 years of not picking up my art brushes. I used to paint seriously in my school and college years but the passion somehow got buried after I started working, among many other things.

Many times, I tried to resurrect the passion to no avail. However, a recent AHA moment somehow hit me and here I am, painting (again) with a completely new medium, the medium that I was very scared to try previously – watercolor.

What really unblocked this resistance are a series of moments and decisions but I recognized there were 3 key lessons in this journey.

1. Understand the resistance and explore the motivation

I recognized that the main reason why I hesitated to re-start painting is the lack of time. Time is of the essence and clearly, with a lot of juggling these days, it is a precious commodity. After much exploration, I realized that the reason why I didn’t want to start my painting is because in the past, most of my paintings were oil or acrylic on big canvases. That simply took days and months to finish them – and right now, the massive oil painting that I am used to do sounds like a lot of commitment for me.

Instead, I understand the driver is creating something beautiful and quick. With that understanding, I explored if watercolor is something that can fit both. An A5 or A4 size is good enough for a spur of the moment painting – also, having a designated painting station works wonders and I am free to reach out to my painting set anytime I want.

Think about the times when we really want to do something but lack the drive to start it – it can be writing a book, doing morning exercise, doing some chores or managing our finances. The same technique can be applied and I am sure, just like the painting, we will find pleasant surprise after understanding what’s holding us up and addressing them.

2. If it’s challenging and scary, start with the easiest and find models / mentors

Watercolor has been scary for me, given the technique is less forgiving and very fluid. Perhaps the technical understanding of watercolor painting scared me off – or maybe just not knowing how to control the strokes and values seems daunting. Fortunately, the internet has so many free (and paid) classes for beginner’s watercolor and much to my surprise, it is very easy to pick up.

So, lesson #2 is to start small and keep going. Find one thing that will make us start and go from there.

3. Foundation and practice matter a lot for further improvements

This is a given but still amazed me with its power. After 2 months of free-flow painting, I started learning the techniques more seriously. Since I have done painting before, the foundations are not much different from other medium – composition, strokes, values. Additionally, I find that my painting significantly improved once I established certain cadence in my practice.

In short, to be better, there is no way I can take a shortcut – this principle remains true in life as well.

Stay positive? Stay negative?

In one of our safety engagement meetings this week, one of my colleagues had a closing remark as “stay (covid) negative, but stay positive (mentally)”.

I thought his remark was on-point.

In a lot of our safety engagements, we keep reminding each other to keep the SOPs tight, to be vigilant and to protect each other from the infection. However, we rarely talk about the other part of the equation – staying positive mentally – and I want to address that here.

I understand the long-drawn pandemic can expose us to fatigue or burnout. It is not a sign of weakness but instead, it is a sign of strength that we recognize and give ourselves permission to acknowledge it.

Over the past month, in between responding to emergency calls, I carved out my time to do these to stay grounded and sane. [Caution: this may or may not work for you – the intent is to trigger interest or ideas for you to explore what works.]

1. Routine: I know I don’t have the luxury of time but it does not mean that it is impossible. Simple things like a set prayer time and breakfast during my “golden hour” were non-negotiables for me.

2. Exercise: Fitness routine never fails to energize me. I alternate between a 15-min quick yoga, pilates, qigong or mobility exercise in the morning and 20-min walk on the treadmill after dinner while listening to podcast. Works wonders every time – especially it ticks 2 boxes at once – keeping fit and learning at the same time!

3. Reset: After a day of go-go-go, reset is super critical for me to slow down. It depends on my mood for the day; between meditation, breathing exercise, listening to instrumental songs, prayer, vagus nerve exercise, qigong- any of these work.

4. Fun time: This is the most random, but that is the point! It can range from watching Douglas Lim’s parody to ordering ice-cream from Grab. 🙂

5. Connection: The most important of all, is to invest time to connect with families, friends and colleagues. Even at the moment of stress, I believe that we all benefit from a compassionate act – be it as a receiver or a giver.

Of course, if you need professional help, do not hesitate to reach out to therapist / counsellor. The key is to acknowledge and prioritize our mental health during this challenging phase.

Stay positive (mentally)!

Stick with micro habits, not resolutions

I wrote few years back on my practice on having the Word for the Year, instead of resolutions.

Recently, I am getting hooked at implementing another life hack – it’s called habit-stacking. It’s about building a set of routines that we don’t have to think and deliberate that it becomes automatic and embedded as part of our daily schedule. Essentially, we stack micro (easy, small) actions that it removes our cognitive load and inertia from starting it.

It all started from listening to my daughter on getting her quest to finish reading the Quran last year. I was so impressed that she completed what she set out to do without much fanfare. So, I asked her how she did it – the answer was deceptively simple. She set a practice that she would read 2 pages a day after Isha’ prayer.

I thought if she can do it, so I can too!

I tried with one action first, which is to read a page of Quran (for 5 minutes) and I set it right after the Subuh prayer. Easy.

Then it goes to doing 5-minute meditation after that. Doable.

Then I also set my 10-minute exercise (Pilates, Qigong, walking or Yoga, whichever that I fancy for that day) right before I start working. No problem.

The list goes on, I hope you get the idea by now. It does not have to be super difficult, but just easy small acts that creates the momentum. It is best if you anchor it with another task that is already in your routine. The options are endless.

Some tips that worked for me:

  • Define a trigger for the habit (for example, I will set the same time to do the exercise. And if I miss it, I just move on to re schedule / re slot it another time of the day, (which is quite rare but happens sometimes)
  • If you need a tool to help you (ie workout mat, books, journal, vitamins etc), prepare it a day before or have a place for it that is easy to reach when you need it
  • Keep doing it. If you miss a day, reschedule and do again

There are lots of resources out there, from Charles Duhigg to this fascinating TedTalk by BJ Fogg, a Stanford faculty https://youtu.be/AdKUJxjn-R8. And don’t forget to celebrate your small wins!

Failed? Try again..

At a glance, this might seem to be a nice doodle, and just that.

But it’s more than that – this doodle represents an important lesson to my daughter (and a great reminder to me) that I would treasure.

Only last year, Arts was a struggle to her. She has always thought that she is not creative and artistic, hence she is unable to make a great piece for her Arts homework. Arts is a chore for her (and for me, it creates stress when she keeps asking on what to do for her Arts projects!). I have seen this mental block in many people before and I want to teach her such important lesson on self-fulfilling prophecy (and to avoid it by taking small steps).

Eventually, we found out that she was not confident of her ability to design something from scratch. So, that became the entry point for us to encourage her to start copying first. Of course, after a few rounds of Arts homework, she slowly developed her confidence in visual aesthetic elements. The struggle now becomes something of the past, though she still relies on a copy.

This whole experience just gives me a perspective that we can extend to other parts of our life. When faced with a difficult situation that raises doubt, find a way to take the first small step. Is it updating that resume? Or making a call ? Or is it just taking a break to step back and ask expert on the small step we can take?

Just as much as my daughter learnt her lesson, I did too..

2020 is a wrap. What’s in store for 2021?

Goodbye 2020. You have been sneaky but wise. You have been ruthless but generous.

My 2020 word was “Focus”.

Never can I imagine that it was such an apt and powerful word that helped me to get through this year. From two deaths in our family to new portfolio while supporting our family and keeping my sanity intact.

I was listening to a podcast yesterday and was struck by this quote by Epictitus, which embodies what the “Focus” theme was all about for 2020.

Keep your attention focused entirely on what is truly your own concern and be clear that what belongs to others is their business, and not yours.

– Epictitus

Throughout the ups and downs of 2020, I have learnt to FOCUS on only several things and dial down the rest of the noise.

1. Focus on what matters: I find solace in validating my values and in identifying what matters to me most (which turns out to be a short list of the impact I care about, the uplifting circles that I choose to be with and the memories I create with my family and friends).

2. Focus on good intention: There are times we broke our own promise, or many times were disappointed by others. Reframing back to the intention keeps my integrity in-check and I have also learned to forgive others and move on.

3. Focus on gratitude: Yes, Covid-19 sucks. It sucks the joy and the normalcy we used to have. However, it also taught me to not take things for granted – a simple walk at the park, eating at my favorite restaurants and simply being able to breathe. There is something humbling about the pandemic, that a really tiny thing can bring the whole world to a halt. This pandemic taught me that we cannot control everything (and more importantly, we need to control our habit of excessive consumption). A “negative visualization” exercise really helped in times of crisis – it could have gone worse (and thankfully hadn’t!) So, I have learned to focus on savoring ordinary moments – and I call it “micro gratitude exercise”.

Completing our family 2020 photobook yesterday (which is an annual routine for me) made me so grateful to look back and find a lot of silver lining in the darkest days in 2020.

So, thank you 2020, for showing me what matters. Thank you for teaching me resilience and gratitude.

Here’s to “Thrive” in 2021!

Happy New Year and blessings to you and your family!

What’s New? 7 lessons from the last 70 days

What an interesting time we live in, now. Many things have changed since then – from the routine of our daily lives to my internal beliefs. Not all are positives but undoubtedly they all provide useful insights and require some reflections, for sure!

Sharing my 7 main lessons from the last 70 dayssome are the old-aged conventional wisdom and some may seem counter-intuitive:

1. The importance of routine

We are the creature of habits and routines give some sense of normalcy. I have to admit that this plays a major part in stabilizing our household and creating that sense of security. Enlisting our children as part of the planning process helps in empowering them to choose their own commitments and decide on how they will spend their time. In turn, this helps me to balance working-and-parenting and to focus on other matters.

2. But, Always be Flexible

While we like to have all our plans to be 100% fool-proof, I would be naive to say that everything will go according to plan (never!) Hence, my second lesson is a constant reminder for me to remain flexible in our routine plans. This also helps me reduce all the unnecessary mental distractions if things don’t go well. What helped me really is to be curious to solve unplanned issues (be it from broken printer to lack of vegetable supplies!)

3. The fallacy of Dream

This fallacy is such a good lesson for me to re-evaluate and learn to distill the essence of my dream / aspiration. I have always dreamt of working from home and being able to homeschool the children. After these 2 1/2 months, shall I say it is always good to test and validate my dream! It turns out that I am definitely not fit to be a homeschool teacher and would rather delegate this role to professionals (and I have no qualms admitting this!) Instead of being so surprised by this, I got curious and explored this assumption. I still like the part of being accessible to my children and imparting some life lessons – but that was it. I did not enjoy teaching them the run-of-the-mill school subjects, but enjoyed their presence. In summary, more than ever, I become more cognizant of the fallacy of dream and the only to do it is to test and experience it.

4. But, dream anyway!

This crisis presents such an opportune time (and low risk) to test this assumption of mine. Without these experiments, I will never learn. So, dream and set goals anyway!

5. The wonderful way of learning new skill

(Note: OK, so I am one of those statistics of working mothers who suddenly find herself immersing and learning new cooking skill). I cannot tell how much I used to stay away from cooking and baking (and would prefer to delegate to our food delivery services and restaurants!).

One observation I had in learning (any) new skill is to be conscious of the objective of learning, be clear on the foundational skills and be confident to try. Of course, the external motivation for me is to see the family enjoy the cooking.

Similarly, some people broaden their skills by learning other cognitive skills like data science, finance etc. The basics remain the same in approaching new skills, whether it is learning about investment or cooking – be clear on learning objective and nothing beats immersing yourself by being in action.

6. And, at the same time, honing our superpower(s)

For learners like me, we thrive in the process of learning itself, so this is the part that I struggle the most when I get distracted in the learning journey itself. After so much divergence, I finally decided perhaps that I can try to focus on one thing at a time, especially sharpening my existing superskills/ superpowers. What helped my distracted self is to create monthly reflection on what I can further improve on. Incremental daily improvement of 1% is better than a yearly 10% step improvement.

7. The critical part of building mental fortress

This comes as a no surprise, yet remains a powerful lesson in terms of daily application. I find micro breaks and micro gratitude practices helped me tremendously in prepping the mind. I would have never imagined that visualizing my favorite vacation spots is on top of this list, but it has proven effective once I try it. The act of eliciting positive emotions really helped me to prepare my mind to be more expansive.

So what would be your surprising practices to clear the mental fog?

Staying Home? How to stay sane

With most countries going into the restricted movement order or lockdown, more of us are getting familiar with the concept of working from home (WFH). For me, I have not had any problem working from home, but I do see that it can get challenging from some of us who are not used to it (just yet.)

There have been many tips written on WFH productivity (e.g: set routine, designate a separate work place etc), and I don’t intend to repeat most of them. However, I wanted to share some tips on staying sane as a working mother.

(Disclaimer: My children are all grown up, so I will not even pretend that it will be easy for mothers with young children. For those in this category, you have to set your expectation lower that you are likely not going to be able to sit more than 2 straight hours working and that you will require extra support.)

First: Pre-planning is key!

A day before the effective movement control order, the kids and I had a fun family breakfast meeting on the agreed schedule. Since they are used to the self-monitoring concept and also have been empowered to make their own choice, it was quite natural for them.

Here is the summary of their proposal (from my teenage boys and tween daughter):

  • Morning prayer
  • Family breakfast time
  • Independent study / work: 8.30 – 3.30pm
  • Family / Fun time: 5- 7pm
  • Dinner and prayer
  • Free time

We decided to not worry about specifics but be guided by these block schedule and our own commitments. Each child needs to reflect what commitment he/she has (mostly academic work or their passion project).

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Using the same principle, I have also asked my team at the office to get their preferred time and frequency for group check-ins. This would be much harder if we did not have a strong work culture, trust in the team and also a way to monitor and report out the work progress: hence, I would say that these pre-requisites must take place way before the implementation. We had the opportunity to start doing this more naturally beginning of this year – so the transition was not particularly hard for most of us.

On top of pre-planning, we need to take into account other enablers to make this successful. For me, the food preparation was key for the children and the IT infrastructure (including cloud storage) was important for the team at work.

Second: Flexible is equally critical

Quickly, midway on Day 1, I found our plan is not 100% foolproof 🙂

What do I mean by that? As a human, we all need interaction and I am very sure that even all of us in the office would not like to be glued in front of our computer for 4 straight hours (save for some other critical roles like surgeons that require laser focus in long extended hours.)

What we learned is to cut some slack without losing its intention for the specified time block. We ended up taking 10-minute breaks, checking on each other, making jokes — and happily resumed our work/ study after that. (Also, sometimes they kids will mock me during my teleconference. 🙂 )

I also found that I work better if I don’t cram all the virtual zoom meetings back-to-back. Spacing out 10 – 15 minutes in between or moving around help to keep my sanity (and also keep my step counts!) It sounds common-sense but it was not as common when I was engrossed in work.

Above all, be human

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”

This is my biggest lesson learnt for the last 2 weeks. I have learnt to insert and entertain some ideas of fun and love in our daily schedule and do more of those. Even during work breaks, I decided to entertain jokes from our residence court jester (i.e our second boy) and also to make sure I incorporate exercise, and time to do things that I enjoy such as swimming, yoga, reading books during our free time at night.

For those who want to feel accomplished, I highly recommend learning new skill (I am reading a book on Ultralearning which is super fun) or carve out your own side project (cooking, baking, painting). For others, the night time is an ideal time for quiet reflection, and connect with God. I am not a subscriber to Netflix binging and have not done that yet (because it is just not my habit), but if you are into something that you like, feel free to do so (but remember, be balanced!).

I also found that this is also the time to really connect with myself and the people that matter. Share your care, ask friends how they are, send encouraging words – I was surprised how touched I was when some friends as far as in the US reach out to me with well wishes.

In summary, be prepared, be flexible and be human. It is a challenging time, but it is also an opportunity to reset - just the way Nature resets itself now.

God bless and stay safe!

Goodbye 2019, Welcome 2020!

When we did our 2019 family reflection earlier this month, I openly shared my disappointment in meeting some of my “Align” projects for the 2019 (Align was my word for 2019). My 11-year old daughter then said “mommy, is it because your aspirations are too complex?”, pointing to my long to-do list.

Take two

I did the reflections again last week when I did the family annual photobook and relooked at my own definition of “success”. Instead of “complex” definition, I asked myself a simpler question: What did I learn from the 2019 experiences and do they contribute to my “Align” intention? The answer was a clear YES.

Here are the top 3 of my “Align” reflections:

1) Align with “Who I want to become”

Admittedly, I had been struggling to come up with 3-year and 10-year vision. After many iterations, I needed to reframe the question from “what do I want to do” to “what do I want to become”. The slight tweak in the semantics opened up more possibilities and now I feel more congruent in the vision. It is much easier to define my character, and my contribution, than planning something that is hard to predict in foreseeable future.

2) Align with the things that “give me energy”

This remains a continuation of past year’s experiment on what brings me real joy and energy. I became more mindful of the people I surround myself with, the promises I make, the stuffs I own and the way I spend my time. Let’s say, I did major “Marie Kondo” in many parts of my life (and our family life) this year.

Surprisingly (which is not surprising at all), I find that those good old advice still prove very worthy, such as weekly planning and daily prioritization and reflection. This way, I feel more in control of my energy and whether the time spent are aligned with my intention. Overall, I am only at 70%, and looking forward for more energized and focused life in 2020.

3) Align with the concept of “blessed life”

This is probably the most vague but also turns out to be the simplest. Blessed life to me is really living mindfully and being at peace, by grace of God. Sometimes, I feel that we get trapped by “external noise”, be it validation or just artificial measure of success. At the end of the day, I realized blessings can span from help from unexpected sources during my trying times to signs to the questions I had been asking.

In summary, I am grateful for all the lessons and experiences in 2019 that helped me align in critical areas of my life.

So what is my word for 2020? “Focus” – as a response to my daughter’s observation and also the lessons of moving one step forward.

I shall “focus” my energy on things that matter and spend time with people that matter. Here’s more to a more productive 2020!

Three Lessons from the Holy City

I have to admit that I have been putting this story for a while since our visit to the Holy City, Mecca, last December. But, today’s casual chat with a friend at work urged me to pen the thoughts down before I lose these insights. My intention is really to share the three powerful lessons with hope they may facilitate you to find your own AHA moment from something simple in life.

For those who may not be familiar of the Umrah rituals (or mini Hajj / pilgrimage for the Muslims), Tawaf is one of the pillars and mandatory ritual as part of the Umrah. This involves circling the Kaaba seven times counterclockwise, which seems to be quite simple on the surface – yet the flash of insights from that ritual are not that trivial (at least to me).

Lesson 1: There will be always relief – ALLOW things to unfold once you set the intention

Given the big crowd at the end of the year, I had some hesitation whether we could even have the opportunity to do the Tawaf comfortably. Even the kids openly expressed their “anxiety” before we arrived in Mecca – to which I acknowledged openly and also encouraged them to set the intention and hold a prayer to make it bearable.

We were lucky to arrive from Madinah around 10pm and started our ritual soon after. However, the crowd did not seem to subside even at midnight. Somehow, in that 2 hour window, we stuck together as a family (and as a group with the rest of the group members who are travelling with us), and somehow the 7 rounds seem to be smooth and bearable.

What was the secret?

Later only I realized that since we had set the intention that there will always be relief, we tend to see “empty spaces” (or relief) during the Tawaf. It is not any easier but the intention helped us recognize the opportunity more clearly and seize it. This just validated some of our life experiences where sometimes help seemingly come from unexpected sources – when we really set the intention and believe that God (or Universe for some) will help us. And the key is really to allow help to come.

Lesson 2: Once set in motion, let go of the outcome

On my third Tawaf a few days later, I decided that I would not worry about how long I will take to complete the 7 rounds (and this was done at noon, when it was hot and between lunch time). For an A-type person who always keep tab on KPI and timing, it was actually not an easy decision to make for myself. But I decided I am going to have fun experimenting this and see how it will turn out when I am focused on the process, but not the outcome (i.e how fast can I complete it).

It turned to be a powerful lesson on trusting the process.

The moment I let go of the outcome, I was more focused on the ritual and was more at ease. There was no expectation of when I would finish it and gave me a breather to just pace my speed and to focus on the prayers during the ritual.

This remains the hardest to implement in real-life, I admit. It did give me a glimpse of peace if I learn to focus on the task at hand, without clinging onto my own set of expectations.

Lesson 3: Your journey is yours, don’t worry about other people’s journey. It is not yours to worry.

By far, this is the most powerful insight from this ritual. You can imagine that it is very easy to get triggered when you are being pushed constantly (and sometimes for no apparent reason) in the big crowd while circling the Kaaba.

As part of the spiritual and mental preparation before this ritual, I had reminded myself that this is something that I need to learn – learning not to judge and learning to focus on my own journey.

As a result of this, my strategy was to imagine that everyone had the same good intention in this ritual and that I can choose to focus on my own reaction and behavior. It does not mean I condone to his / her untoward behavior, but I became very aware of my own feeling and quickly let the judgement pass -of course, for practical purposes, I would just step aside and let the ‘storm’ pass. (No pun intended! :))

Boy, that made the whole ritual much more peaceful. So, reminder to myself now that I am back in the daily grind – there will be storms created by other people, but let them pass and not perturb your own peace. We are capable of creating our own inner sanctuary when we focus on our journey.

To my friends who are planning for Umrah this year, may your ibadah be blessed!

Thriving in Workplace and Home

My spouse and I recently had the opportunity to share a few lessons and tools on enabling us to thrive in workplace and home as a dual-career family. The most popular question from the participants is that while they want to thrive in both environments, they wanted to know how to prioritize and juggle the conflicting priorities.

Since this seems to be quite a popular question, I thought it’d be good to share some of the key takeaways here for the benefit of the larger group.

The most foundational step when it comes to thriving in workplace and home is to have the belief that we can thrive in both. The semantic of “work-life balance” somehow gives the impression that something has to go. The reality is that our life is dynamic and that “see-saw” balancing act always oscillate from time to time. As a family, we made a conscious decision very early in our partnership that it will be “work-life integration”. By using the word integration, we are conscious of the choices and priorities that we make and we are committed to stand by our principles at all times.

With this foundation laid, as a dual-career family, we see thriving in workplace and home as running a “Life Enterprise”. This means that we approach everything as running an enterprise, we integrate both with the other life aspects, using the tools and processes to run as a unit. This includes setting the family guiding principles based on values, systems, support, and decision-making matrix. In a simpler form, it means we are mindful and intentional over the things we do, be it at work or at home.

We believe in preserving the core while being flexible in executing.

To run the “Life Enterprise”, we have observed that these “pillars” have significantly helped us set it up effectively:

1. Build your support, processes and systems: For our family, we have set-up many systems to automate, delegate and prompt our important tasks. Of course, just like any enterprise, we need to start somewhere and further refine the systems as we go along. Some examples of the systems include the morning breakfast system, laundry management system, house-cleaning support system, homework support (which is minimal except if it was Bahasa), monthly bills payment system, kids’ annual stipend system and our property management system. We even have a travel checklist and toiletries & travel essentials ready to-go whenever we decide to travel (near or far).

2. Plan and prioritize: We cannot stress enough the importance of planning and prioritization. Given that our time is finite, we have to be mindful of what gets done and what gets dropped. As a life enterprise, rather than prioritizing in silos and in isolation, we would rather look at the bigger picture and that means balancing our family, our life and our career. I can expand this topic on its own – so I will deliberate more in a different entry on time management. 🙂 Hint: Things get done when scheduled in your calendar

3. Habits and rituals: We admit that we are creatures of habits and our willpower can bring us only so far. Hence, we believe in creating daily habits and family rituals to increase the chance of success in integrating both worlds. We believe in being role model to our children, hence setting up core values and use those as our compass has helped us tremendously. We also believe in consciously creating our family identity: the family rituals will help us through this journey and bind us in a more meaningful way.

4. Create open and honest communication: This is the most interesting journey so far for us, as we build this life enterprise. We joked at the learning session that we observed that the number of “silent treatments” and “unnecessary fights” have exponentially decreased over years, as we learn how to fight well. We learnt how to be transparent and communicate our needs openly. We need to understand where the other person comes from, what is his/her motivation when expressing their stand and how we can work together in co-creating the solutions. As we learn to fight better, we created deeper bond and mutual respect for each other, as partner in this life enterprise.

In summary, a slight shift in perspective will yield completely different strategies. And above all, this fits nicely with our persona – my spouse and I find meaning in the partnership and we get the joy in growing together.