Once-in-a-Lifetime Goals and Executive Functioning: Q&A with Lindsay Zoeller

Have you ever felt that your Executive Functioning skills may be the reason why the big, once-in-a-lifetime goals that you have for yourself are still undone? The Chicago Family Tutor offers coaching for individuals, students and families who want to engage with the big and the small goals in their lives. Working on skills such as planning, prioritizing, flexible thinking, and organization ensure that our clients feel equipped and confident to accomplish exactly what they aim to do. In this interview with Lindsay Zoeller, the founder and owner of The Chicago Family Tutor, we talk about the role that Executive Functioning has in achieving big goals and how Lindsay has learned to enjoy the process and not just the end result.

Lindsay is the author of the new book “Busy Parents, Happy Kids: How Executive Functioning Can Bring Out the Best in Your Family” and the owner and founder of The Chicago Family Tutor. Over the last 25 years, Lindsay has worked with hundreds of children and their families through her work as a babysitter, nanny, family law practitioner, teacher, and tutor. She graduated from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology, and a J.D. from the University of Illinois College of Law. While in law school, her desire to help families began to emerge, and she focused this interest by specializing in Family Law. Shortly after law school graduation, Lindsay embarked upon a period of soul searching and self-reflection. She realized that this desire was served better through education rather than litigation. Lindsay became an Illinois-certified educator in 2012, and she has been true to her calling ever since.

Q: What were your Executive Function skills like as a child? Would you consider yourself goal driven, even in your childhood?

I always liked doing hard things and still to this day enjoy doing challenging things. In recent years, I ran a marathon, started a company, and wrote a book which have all been very challenging for me in the sense that it has required me to adopt a set of skills that I didn’t always have. When I was younger, I believed that if I just pushed myself harder, I could achieve what I wanted. I worked harder because I didn’t know how to work smarter and be more efficient. I took great pride in achievement so I was a good student, but I would not say I had great executive functioning skills. For better or for worse, I was smart enough that I was able to apply myself minimally and still do okay. However, when I was a sophomore or junior in high school, I was taking an honors English class and wasn’t getting the outcome I desired. I had a B but I wanted an A, and I had no idea how to get myself there. I didn’t know how to apply myself more and I felt very helpless in that situation. It was at that point that I knew something was lacking but unfortunately I started to internalize thoughts of not being good enough. I went on to college and took with me the idea that I was pretty smart – not super smart, but just smart enough – and that was what was going to get me through. But then I went to law school and that is where things fell apart. It fell apart because in law school, you either have to have strong executive functioning skills or want it really badly. And I didn’t have either the passion for the law or the set of skills that would be necessary to succeed there. I thought that the problem was that I wasn’t smart enough, or I wasn’t as capable as everyone else. That led to me feeling very defeated.

Q: As a coach, how do you use your experience to help people take steps towards achieving the big goals they have for themselves?

My experience in law school and now running a business and becoming an author has taught me that skillsets can always be strengthened if you intentionally work on them. There are two things that are absolutely crucial to success. The first is breaking things down into very, very small habits. We work on habits because as the saying goes, “habits are your life”. What you do every day is who you are. I’ve really tried to embody that by doing the things that I want to do every day and seeing them add up in the long run into something bigger and better. However, it can be daunting and overwhelming to look at your whole life and decide everything that needs to change, so we start with one thing at a time. What would help you have more free time or feel less stress? Maybe it’s starting your homework an hour earlier every evening, maybe it’s getting to bed an hour earlier each night, maybe it’s eating breakfast that you hadn’t been eating before. Connecting feelings with action and reflecting on that once it’s been experimented upon is very important to the process. Human beings are very motivated by feelings. Even when it comes to accomplishing something big, oftentimes that comes from a place of wanting to be recognized, feel special, be loved, belong, or matter. And so those feelings are what drive us. The second thing crucial to success is having a strong support team. People who you can ask for help and know how to do what you want to do, people whose strengths can offset your weaknesses, who can encourage you to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I feel like I have been uncomfortable a hundred percent of the time in the last few years and that’s exciting and scary and hard. But I look back and I see the things I’ve accomplished and feel really proud and capable in light of them.

Skillsets can always be strengthened if you intentionally work on them.

Q: What are some productive ways to measure success along the way of achieving goals?

I have not perfected this, but something that I’m constantly striving for is letting go of external validation. For example, grades, income, everybody else’s reception to what you do. Letting go of these things help you get really clear on what it is that you want. Knowing that you are in pursuit of something that’s important to you is what’s going to keep you going on the days that are hard. Knowing that you are doing something that you love or that is meaningful to you is going to keep you going. Whereas praise and positive feedback are not going to sustain you when things get really difficult, even though they feel really good. For students, this can be a difficult one because a lot of what they are being asked to do in school isn’t of personal value to them. But I try to make the connection between showing up and having integrity and giving something you’re all as being a reflection of who you are and of your values. Everything you do is a reflection of the person you want to be, even if the endeavor itself isn’t something that you would like to stick with in the long term. Being the person you want to be in every respect, all the time. That’s the measure that is truly productive in supporting our goals.

Everything you do is a reflection of the person you want to be, even if the endeavor itself isn’t something that you would like to stick with in the long term.

Q: You published a book this year. What was it that made you want to start writing? Why this book?

I’ve always loved writing. It’s something I’ve done on and off throughout my life with various blogs or journals, not always looking for a final product but using it as an exercise or beneficial process. That’s something which I don’t think we do enough of in our culture. As I worked with students, I realized that there is a very systemic component of our work and the work is always more effective when parents are working with us. I know that our services are not accessible to everyone and not everyone is available to take advantage of the kind of coaching we provide. So I wanted to create a kind of handbook, another resource that families can use to help shed light on something that I just don’t think gets enough attention or has enough visibility at this moment. Ultimately, I would love everyone to be more familiar with Executive Functioning and its importance. Right now it’s really prevalent in education circles and in the ADHD community, and often we get clients who have received some kind of diagnosis where they find these skills impaired. But we all have these skills and we all have varying levels of ability. As we get older, they diminish and at various phases of our lives they may diminish if we have more going on that competes for our energy and attention. I believe that if parents are able to get really good at these skills, they’re going to be modeling those skills to their children and their children are going to pick that up. I just think it’s really important to make people more aware of executive functioning.

Q: What is one thing that you hope parents would glean from this book as they read it?

One thing that I hope they’d glean is that it’s not as hard as it seems. I know it seems really overwhelming. Especially when you already feel like you’re drowning, and I do believe that is just an endemic in modern life. There’s an expectation that you are always busy. We wear that as a badge of honor. Kids are super scheduled. Both parents often work. So there’s just a lot going on and adding one more thing to the pile feels like just too much. Yet I do believe that this set of tools is not as difficult as it first appears. In the book I talk about some of the foundational habits that, even if you’re not prepared to keep a color coded calendar in your living room, things like getting enough sleep is just as, if not more, important. So what I hope a parent would take from this book is that there’s something in there that could work for you. If you could change one little thing, that’s all you have to do. And if that works and feels good, why not try adding another little thing. The book presents things in a very manageable and very accessible way and the small steps might really make all the difference in the world.

Q: What is your favorite tool or practice that you use in your personal life and in your business right now?

As we grow this business, it’s become very clear where I have blind spots and I think it’s really important to remember that nobody is perfect. It’s certainly a work in progress, but what I know I can control is what I eat, if I exercise, whether or not I’m sleeping, how clean and tidy my physical environment is. That’s how I gain a sense of control. So those are the things that I’m most committed to in my own life because I believe they lay a strong foundation. Something else I would never live without is my calendar. I write everything down, everything I need to do. That’s really, really important to keeping me on task. That’s the first thing I suggest to anybody I’m working with is to get a physical calendar. While many use their phone calendars or digital calendars, there’s something about having it laid out in front of you that makes getting a sense of what the week holds so much easier to plan and anticipate. It’s worked really well for me.

Q: For those trying to accomplish something really big in their lives, what is your advice for overcoming your personal weaknesses?

I really appreciate this question because I don’t like doing things I’m not good at. And I think that’s really common. So, the first step in dealing with your weaknesses is accepting them without taking it personally. We can’t all be good at everything and your value is not tied to how good you are at something – you can always get better. For example, I’m learning pretty quickly that QuickBooks and Excel are not my things but that’s okay. I’ve never spent a lot of time with them or had an opportunity to really hone those skills. At first I felt completely inadequate because as a business owner, I thought I should have known how to use them. But I took a step back and realized that I had never been in a position to learn, I’d never had anyone teach me. It is totally okay. I can learn. I think a positive mental attitude is absolutely necessary to overcome weaknesses and that mentality fuels action. My marathon running experience is the best of example of this. The coach I worked with broke it down to the first two miles. Not everyone can run two miles on the first day, but everyone can get up to two miles. You can start with walking, you could start with running. But you start with the smallest, most manageable piece that you can. Then the next day you go another half a mile or another mile. What you devote to the practice dictates how quickly you’re going to achieve the goal but just because one person might get there sooner than you doesn’t mean that the goal is out of reach. Committing yourself and taking steps forward is what it takes to overcome the areas where you are weak.

Just because one person might get there sooner than you doesn’t mean that the goal is out of reach.

Thank you for joining this conversation with Lindsay. What are you going to take with you from this conversation? What did you resonate with? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section. Interested in working with one of our coaches? Please fill out this contact form so we can schedule a free consultation with you.

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