A couple of weeks ago I went on a California vacation. I was excited to take a well-needed break from work and drive down the Pacific Coast Highway for a little wine tasting in Sonoma.
As I always do prior to a vacation, I put my out-of-office notification on. Then I boarded the plane and settled into my much anticipated, guilty-pleasure, marathon catch-up session of Scandal.
Then my phone rang. It was my doctor’s office.“I’m on vacation!” I shouted in my head and happily sent the call to voicemail. They’ll leave a message, I figured. Back to Scandal with my phone in airplane mode. Sayonara.
My doctor’s office didn’t leave a message. They decided to email me instead.
And then my out-of-office email responded to their email. And then their server responded to my out-of-office email with their automated “this email cannot receive replies” email. And then my out-of-office email responded to their “this email cannot receive replies” email, and then their “this email cannot receive replies” email responded to my out-of-office email.
These two emails soon became old friends, ping-ponging back and forth for the five hour flight. When I arrived in California I had over 2000 undeliverable emails in my Gmail Inbox.
“Oh my god!” I said out loud when we landed — 2,000 undeliverable emails, and they kept pouring in. But, with every ounce of my vacation-cool, I ignored it. I got back in the present moment thinking I would just batch delete them later.
The thousands of emails piling up in my inbox resembled a spam account, which triggered Gmail’s algorithms, and they (Gmail? Code? Bots? The Illuminati???) disabled my account. If you emailed the account you received a message that it wasn’t a real email account, and this was both my personal and professional account.
I run two businesses via this account, and any email account I’ve had over the years forwards to this account. I know, I know…this is a terrible practice, but when easy works, I like easy.
Panic is an understatement for what I started to experience.
Contracts. Contacts. Paper trails. Years of correspondence. History. Files. Folders. Memories. My life!
How to remain intact when the shit hits the fan.
These are the moments in life we hope never happen, but they always do. It doesn’t matter if you’re on vacation, or watching your kid’s soccer game, or having the worst week of your life. It’s not a question of if but when. And the choice in these moments is always the same — how will you handle it?
Yes, I thought about cancelling the vacation and flying back home. I thought about holing up in my hotel room until this mess was figured out. But this vacation was important to my husband and I. I needed to remain intact and present.
So, here’s what I did…
I paused and assessed what I could and could not control. This is called an internal locus of control: the belief that you can influence events and their outcomes; as opposed to an external locus of control, which is the belief that the external world controls you and is therefore to blame for whatever happens to you.
I took the necessary steps to reinstate my Gmail account. I filled out the reinstatement request form Gmail offers if you feel your account was wrongly disabled — a form that feels akin to writing the request on a piece of paper, putting it into a glass bottle and throwing it into the ocean.
I took to the Gmail forum message boards, searching for anyone who could help. I contacted friends and associates who might have insider access to the Google kingdom.
Whether Gmail would heed my calls and reinstate my account was out of my control.
So my next step was to look at cool art in Santa Cruz.
Of course, finding your internal locus of control is easier said than done, but there are a few things you can do to make it easier.
1. Give yourself space to freak out.
When going through stressful experiences I recommend a solid hour per day of what is known in the psychology world as a controlled freakout.
Ok, I made that up, but it should be a thing.
Each morning for the week we were on vacation, my husband would awake at about 5:30AM to the cool California morning breeze, the feel of crisp hotel sheets, and the sound of frenzied typing as I drummed up support on Gmail forums.
Then we’d talk about it. Talking helped me figure out my action steps, both physically and mentally. Without talking and processing, it all stays in your head and continues to grow. When you talk about it you release the anxiety.
Then I would move on. I was still alive, the earth was spinning, I was on vacation.
Every day I made a choice to find my internal locus of control.
2. Release anxiety by naming your emotions.
This is a process called “Affect Labeling,” it’s been around for awhile, but has only recently been named.
UCLA psychology professor, Matthew Lieberman, did a study that showed that labeling your emotions reduces the effect of the emotion. He coined the process “Affect Labeling.”
I talked about the situation with my husband, but also explained what I was feeling — sad, scared, anxious, and angry. But my emotions while watching this weird looking fish at the aquarium in Monterey were happy and curious.
By naming what I was feeling, I gained control over those feelings.
3. Recognize that you are in a period of intense learning.
I talk and write a lot about resilience and how it’s a major component for successful leadership, but I’m not Tony Robbins. I’m not always as resilient as I should be.
This was my opportunity to walk the walk. And a funny thing happens when you make a conscious choice to shift how you think about a situation: life becomes less scary.
In the moment, it often doesn’t feel like you have control over your emotions. But like everything in life, it’s a choice. Instead of living in panic, I chose to view the situation objectively, as one that would help me hone skills that are incredibly valuable.
Because the truth is, we should be activating our internal locus of control on a daily basis. It starts with recognizing that ultimate happiness doesn’t come from perfect lives or perfect vacations, happiness comes when we choose to take control over how we react to our emotions.
The shit will always hit the fan. How you respond is up to you.
Waiting, blaming, procrastinating, wondering, and self-pity will always make time for you. Inaction and external focus can bolster anxiety. Positive action, however, quiets the critical and anxious mind. When you take ownership and action, even if the end game is a losing one, you will know you did what you could do; you’ll sleep easier because you acted, you focused on what was in your control.
There’s a Buddhist saying that goes something like, “If you can do something about a situation then why get angry about it, and if you can’t do something about a situation then why get angry about it.” That’s some ancient leadership development for you.
Oh, and one bonus piece of advice — prevention is key. If you’re going to build your whole life and business on a single account, use one that has a customer service department, like G-Suite or Office 365.
And if you notice that your out-of-office notification starts going crazy, turn it off immediately!
And finally, if your doctor calls, answer the phone.
I would love to hear about your own coping mechanisms and times when they had to kick into gear!