Habit: On the One Hand…

In this series, we are looking at routine, ritual, and habit. If routine is the mid-point, habit and ritual are the end-points on a continuum. Routine is one or more actions taken as a matter of course, they are fairly automatic and can serve us if chosen purposefully. Today we are looking at habits. For a long-form treatment of habit, the book by Charles Duhigg is an excellent, easy read on how habits work and how you can establish new ones.

What makes a habit different from a routine? Habits live deep in the brainstem and become nearly as automatic as breathing. They are literally mindless. You can acquire habits without conscious thought, the involvement of active learning strategies or even memory structures. A habit has three parts.

  1. Cue. The cue starts the chain of events. Substance misuse counselors will talk about “people, places, and things” for cues for unwanted habits like alcohol use, smoking, or substance misuse. Waking up can be a cue to pick up your phone or to go sit and meditate. A feeling can be a cue. The story in Duhigg’s book everyone appreciates involves his afternoon cookie habit. Duhigg realizes he has put on weight by standing up in the middle of his afternoon at the office and going to the breakroom to eat a cookie every day. Was hunger the cue? Not at all.
  2. Routine. The middle part is the thing you do. Duhigg would stand up, go get a cookie from the breakroom and chat with his colleagues for a few minutes and then return to his desk.
  3. Reward. There are two kinds of “rewards” – positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.
    1. A positive reinforcement is a good thing you get as the result of the action or activity in Step 2. This is what we usually think of when we think of rewards – work hard, get a raise or promotion, behave yourself during a meeting, get an ice cream. Do the action, get something good.
    2. The second kind of reward, negative reinforcement, is a bit more subtle and wickedly effective. Put on your seatbelt, make the stupid beeping/pinging/plonking sound stop. Eat a whole pizza, make the hole in your heart stop aching. Give in to your child’s whining about the candy bar, the whining stops. Do the action, make a bad thing stop. The reward is what sends us to the activity again and again, building up strong biological connections between the cue, activity, and reward.

Learning theory tells us habits are never “broken”, the biological connections always exist. Thus the biblical exhortation to “raise a child up in the way he should go“. Early learning theorists, before the age of fMRI and brain scans, estimated replacing an old learning/habit with a new learning/habit would take three times the initial effort to establish the old habit.

Let’s return to Duhigg and his cookie problem. He realizes the afternoon cookie is a problem, and also realizes the cookie is solving some other problem. The $1,000,000 question is – what problem? The cue is easy to identify, mid-afternoon at his desk. He tries substituting healthier snacks like apples or granola bars, but still ends up in the breakroom with a cookie more afternoons than not. Over a period of weeks, he comes to understand he isn’t hungry. What he wants is a break and a chance to chat with people for fifteen minutes, about the time it took to eat the cookie. By replacing the cookie action with something else, he is able to work within the established chain. The cue still sends him to the breakroom to talk with friends, the reward.

For example, my husband and I have very different habitual movement patterns when we first enter the house. This means vehicle keys are either in a “Dad place” or a “Mom place.” Neither place is bad and we don’t feel the need to establish a single place for keys to go, however it does mean when looking for keys you have to know who drove the vehicle last. In college, I knew people who only smoked when they drank beer from a bottle of a particular shape and were baffled by it. There are people who will immediately run through their mental to-do list if they find themselves with a few moments of ease.

If half of your life is by pseudo-choice, there are a series of cues for you and the beings you live with, do those habits serve you, or by solving one problem ineffectively, are those habits creating other problems?

To analyze a habit pattern, look for the three pieces.

  1. What started this?
  2. What action am I taking?
  3. What do I get out of it?

Remember the cookie problem? It isn’t about the cookie.

Here is Duhigg making an entertaining 15-minute presentation.

Habits establish themselves. The cure for maladaptive habits is mindfulness and intention. Next, we will talk about the ritual or supercharged mindfulness and intention.

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What do they mean to you?

The medals from my first powerlifting meet came today. When I’m talking about a new goal with a client, one of the first things we have to get right is what the goal means. One way to explore the underlying meaning of a goal is to do the classic 5 WHYs exercise. Originally developed to be a part of root-cause analysis in quality improvement efforts, the 5 WHYs can also be used to get to the root motivation.

I never would have thought to do the meet if my coach hadn’t suggested it before Winter Break, and I’m not sure who was more surprised I agreed to it. For this particular goal, I chose to do a powerlifting meet to give me something to focus on while I lifted weights to keep me de-stressed during the last semester of grad school. The meet would also occur after graduation and hopefully off-set the graduation let-down.

None of those reasons ascribe any meaning to the medals on my desk. What do they mean?

The human mind chases after the next thing. Today, I am three weeks post-competition, two weeks into the next training macrocycle, and at least three evil plans deeper in the stack. I have already moved on to the next things.

What did it mean to participate in a powerlifting meet?

It means I kept my commitments. I showed up when it was cold. I showed up when it was hot. I showed up when I was tired. I showed up when I was rested. I showed up to get under the bar when I couldn’t stand to be anywhere. In six months I missed three scheduled workouts.  It means I compromised when necessary. On the days I couldn’t lift the scheduled weight or all the reps, I did what I could. It means my identity shifted. I have always been “a swimmer,” even when competing in other sports I was merely a guest on vacation from my real self. I’m not a powerlifter, nor am I exactly sure how I’ll know I’ve become one of those amazing women who pull and push heavy weights, but at this meet the feeling of not quite belonging was notable by its absence.

It means I have an incredibly supportive spouse and a wonderful coach, who were with me when it was cold and hot, when I was tired and moody, even when I threw a barbell into a set of J-hooks. They were with me at dinner, in the unexpected restaurant with the beautiful live music and the mango sorbet, which I enjoyed more than my deadlift PR.

Don’t leave the story thinking this is some Cinderella tale! There were more awards than women in my bracket and the medals are effectively for participation. Participation can still be packed with meaning.

 

 

G *grumble* P *grumble* P *grumble*

If you are a coach, or even my coach, feel free to laugh here. It’s been a tough week in South Carolina, with temperatures in the mid- to high-90s every afternoon. Did I mention I work out in a single-car garage at 2pm? There were incredible views of cotton-candy clouds suspended in unbelievably blue skies while I walked around the block between circuits. The house is located at the high point of the block and so it is uphill either way. If my coach could make it uphill both ways, he would. My current preference is the sharp, short downhill followed by the smooth, winding uphill. I have a hate-hate relationship with cardio at this time, but there’s an eerie familiarity from my days as a competitive swimmer. The familiarity keeps me from fighting with the gasping and lets my chest heave and the water pouring off my skin may as well be from a pool. This is normal.

We de-loaded for the first meet in Atlanta, took a week off, and then returned to the garage for General Physical Preparation (GPP). I still have a nagging shoulder injury, stability issues, and definite cardiovascular weakness. The prep is for that long warble between hypertrophy and strength with extra cardio thrown in to promote fat loss. Extra. Cardio. I’m also deep into menopause and getting all the signs of low estrogen, e.g. sleep disturbances, heartburn, and problems with libido and intimacy. All of these things affect training. However, my coach and I have agreed ISYMFS and as long as I stay injury-free, we press on.

We lose the garage in July. His lease is up, the gym equipment goes back to its owner and the coach goes to a new address. For the first time in nearly eight months, we will be back in a commercial gym. Transitions generally suck. Someone will have to wear shoes, we will have less control over any music, and it will be different. Things changing also highlights my problems with grasping and attachment.

I like what I have now, minus the heat and cardio. If I had my way, everything except the shape of my ass would stay just as it is. I will not have my way.

Not only am I challenged to embrace the power of hills and heat to shape my physical self, I am challenged to sit in my feelings of insecurity and vulnerability and embrace the reality of change. ISYMFS.

Namaste.

Monday Morning Excitement – A Better Version of Me?

Monday morning begins a new phase of training. This will be an 18-month macrocycle of muscle and strength gain balanced with fat loss, which follows a 6-month macrocycle of muscle and strength gain introducing me to powerlifting. Will this lead to a better version of me?

I say no.

There is a difference between who I am, those stable internal characteristics, and what I do, unstable internal characteristics. Am I a better person at 35% or 30% or 25% bodyfat? If I’m a better version of myself at 25% then shouldn’t even lower bodyfat be better? One of Simon Sinek’s more famous quotes is

What you do simply proves what you believe.

Sinek, one of the world’s most sought-after figures in leadership today, did not say “What you do proves who you are.” Let’s do a little thought experiment. Substitute a bank balance, prestige, fame, or any other external marker of success for bodyfat. Does more achievement equate with a better version of myself? Does less achievement equate with a worse version of myself? Take this a step further. Does more achievement mean I’m a better person than someone with less achievement? Is the bank president a better person than someone with no home? I say no.

If you resist this idea, take a closer look. Are you trying to argue the person who is able to execute the processes necessary for greater achievement is a better or different person than the one who is not? The common meme from Pinterest looks like this

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Who am I, and how is who I am separate from what I believe? Self-image is collection of beliefs about the Self. These beliefs may or may not have any grounding in reality and influence how we see and respond to the world around us. The beliefs are layered on as we interact with people and the environment from the moment of conception. One of the most profound questions I can ask someone searching for personal growth is “How do you know any of this is true?” Think about how your behavior might change if a few key beliefs you hold were different. Does that change who you are?

One of the functions of asana and meditation practices is to separate who-you-are from what-you-do. The who-you-are is sometimes characterized as the sky and what-you-do, or emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, as the clouds in the sky. Who-you-are can watch the what-you-do, therefore they are not the same. With careful observation of what-you-do, it is possible to peel back the layers of belief to arrive at a more complete sense of Self and accept the present moment as it is, not create a better Self.

Nadia Bolz-Weber engages with this idea of self-image and ideal self in this 11-minute talk at the Makers conference. Go watch it now and come back.

What I believe to be important, my values, creates a fence around all of the acceptable versions of me. As long as I am inside the fence, I am in my integrity and am a valid version of my self.

There is this dark corner where the Inner Critic lurks. He tells me I will know I’m okay if my children are polite, my house is clean, I earn advanced degrees, teach more people, finish another project, or any one of an infinite list. The Inner Critic has all the time in the world to come up with new tests, new proofs, new “if-onlys” and “as-soon-as”. The Inner Critic can suck it.

When I was younger, what I believed led me to do things which deposited a heavy layer of adipose tissue on top of an otherwise capable body. The adipose tissue protected me from a variety of evils and uncertainties which no longer exist and it has to go. The 18-month arc is not about becoming a better, stronger version of myself.

I am, and that is enough.

Namaste.

Routines

I want to start with routines, because routine is the midpoint between habit and ritual.

When we talk about changing the things we do, we have to talk about brain physiology, learning theory, systems thinking, cognitive distortions, and the Heath brothers. As mentioned in the previous post, our lives run on autopilot most of the time simply because actively making decisions every moment of the day would consume the mind. Your brain uses the pre-frontal cortex to make and execute plans and regulate emotions. It was the last brain structure for evolution to construct and the last structure to develop in an adult brain, finishing up around the age of 25. Learning theory describes how we reinforce and extinguish observable behaviors through two sets of direct mechanisms, as well as social learning theory which describes how we reinforce and extinguish observable behavior by watching others. Systems thinking treats an actor as a member of a larger system, which acts and is acted upon, a formal way of saying “No man is an island.” Cognitive distortions are ways of thinking that distort observations to fit a pre-conceived narrative and are considered to be maladaptive. The Heath brothers have written wonderful popular books on change and introduced a variety of metaphors into popular culture.

What about routines?

If most of your day is going to be on auto-pilot, it would be nice if the auto-pilot took you where you preferred and not only where you went last week. Take a moment and think about what you do for the first hour after you wake up.  Chances are you have a set of things you do in a general order and those things could include periods of indecision or chaos. Chaos and indecision nest nicely into a routine. If you have ever heard a parent of young children complain about “trying to get out the door” and “every day is a battle” then chaos is a part of their morning routine. Deciding what to do for the rest of the day can also be part of a routine. If you walk into your favorite restaurant and consider the menu before picking the same thing, or never picking the same thing, that’s a routine.

A routine is a behavior or a set of behaviors that execute on semi-conscious cues.

Purposefully built routines have the power to alter our paths. What would change in your day if you began it on purpose? Could you be more calm or more energized? How would you like this day to happen?

You are the expert on you. Without giving any advice about what to do with your morning routine, let’s talk about how to change the routine you have.

  1. What is the result you want? Begin with the end in mind. If you had the perfect start to your day, how would you be and what would be happening?
  2. Notice what you’ve got. For 2 – 3 days, watch yourself go through your morning without judgement. Notice what you do and notice what works and what doesn’t. At this point no one cares why some things happen and some things don’t. The story is irrelevant. Just notice.
  3. Break down the ideal start to the day. This is a loop. Your loop may have you walking all the way back to the night before.
    1. What is the last thing that has to happen?
    2. What conditions or actions have to exist to make it possible?
    3. Repeat with the condition or action from 3.b
  4. What’s already in the routine and working? Does it need to move earlier or later or stay right where it is?Next is the most difficult step.
  5. Change one thing. Just one, for a week or two. Make a change and monitor how it goes. Even if the change seems stupid easy and you are certain you could change the entire morning, don’t. For most people, change is best accomplished in small increments. Be patient. Change one thing. Once that thing is fairly well integrated, which takes a week or two, change the next thing.

Routines are that mid-point between mindfulness and habit. We use the mindfulness technique of notice-and-name to become conscious of patterns, consciously change parts of the pattern, and as they become more automatic, make more changes. The routine may over time become habitual, but for the moment we are still very aware of actively making choices.

In the comments, let me know how it’s going or ask questions! I’m happy to help.

Routine, Ritual, and Habit

The brain is an amazing multi-tasking sensory-processing device. I can walk down the street, taste an ice cream cone, watch children play, hear my companion talk to me and make meaning of the patterns of the sound waves, all while feeling the breeze blow through my hair and remembering the ice cream cone from last week. What I cannot do is attend to all of those things at once. On a normal day, my attention will flit from sense to sense, directed to novel, interesting, or potentially threatening stimuli. If I am “lost in thought,” I may miss part of the conversation or an oncoming car. How many times have you been urged to “pay attention!”?

Most of your behavior is cued by your environment.

What would life be like if you had to attend to everything, all the time? That would mean keep your heart beating, remember to breathe, actively think “little circles” while brushing your teeth, create a mental map and execute a path to get from your bed to the coffeepot in the morning, and so on. Life, which already feels complex, would become unmanageable. Different tasks require different levels of attention and some tasks deserve more attention. Research at Duke University showed students actively made decisions less than half of the day. In reality, most of their behavior was cued by the environment. When you realize you are living on auto-pilot, some behaviors make sense, like eating ice cream while standing in front of your open freezer at the end of a stressful day. How did I get there?

Bowl of chocolate ice cream with silver spoon
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If you have a Facebook or Pinterest feed, you might see references to the importance of routines and rituals and habits. You may see the words used interchangeably. These are three different things. When speaking casually to someone in the grocery check-out line, feel free to say whichever comes to mind. When you are working on your self-awareness, behavior change, or self-care, the differences are important. If we aren’t mindful, routines and habits are accidentally built from mindless repetition and can require enormous energy to change.

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Water kettle on kitchen counter, morning light

 

 

 

 

 

Mindfulness is the art of consciously attending to stimuli, both internal and external. When we are being mindful, we may “notice” and “name” sensations, emotions, behaviors, and thoughts as a way of turning off the auto-pilot and checking in to our experience.

What would be possible if you could change that environment?

In the next few posts, we will engage with what they are, how they work, and how you build routines, rituals, and habits to support how you mean to be.

Attribution Theory and Keeping Demons at Bay

At the moment, powerlifting is my yoga practice. The intensity of effort to move heavy weight throws my behavioral, emotional, and mental patterns into high relief in a way I craved from asana practice, and I noticed a pattern. You know how it goes, once you see a pattern you can’t stop seeing the pattern.

I want to talk about some related concepts. Attribution Theory, shame vs guilt, and maladaptive behavior.

Attribution Theory describes a relationship between human storytelling and self-image. We tend to attribute outcomes in our lives which align with our self-image to stable, internal characteristics, e.g. who we are, and outcomes which do not align with our self-image to unstable, external characteristics, e.g. circumstance or chance. Strangely enough, we reverse those attributions for people we do not know or do not like. We have a story we like to tell about ourselves and we go to great lengths to prove our story to be correct. If you want to take a snapshot of your self image, respond to the prompt

I am…

twenty times. “I am”. It is a fundamental assertion of self. The image of the Self is a lens through which we view and interpret the rest of the world via the stories we tell to explain what we see. It has limited connection to reality.

How is this related to shame vs guilt? If we check Brene Brown’s quick-start guide to shame, shame is a pervasive sense of “I am bad.” There is something about me, if you knew, which would disqualify me from receiving love and belonging. Guilt, however, is a sense of “I did something bad.” Shame is related to the perceived value of stable, internal characteristics, who you are, and guilt is related to the perceived value of unstable, internal characteristics, what you do. According to Dr. Brown, shame is correlated with eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Guilt is inversely correlated with those things. Shame and guilt operate on our drive to tell stories to maintain a set of beliefs about the Self. When we tell stories which attribute our despair to the core of our being, we create a sense of deserved personal exile. The fallout from the disconnection from our fellows creates tragedy. It started with a story.

I deserve disconnection because of how I am or I deserve correction because of what I did, is a story we tell ourselves.

The pattern I am seeing is the need for control and creation of order, but it could be disruption and sparking of chaos. What makes this need for control maladaptive instead of adaptive? We admire people who “punt the system” (Vaynerchuck, 2018) and take control of their destiny, health professionals urge patients to “take control of their health”, bystanders can be desperate for a parent to “get control” of a child. With clients, it is often my job to help them move from an external locus of control to an internal locus of control – a belief in their ability to steer their own ship and not be at the mercy of the seas of life. What’s the problem? The story.

From my perspective, chaos and order are value-neutral. The interesting questions are

  • What is the story you tell yourself about what you do?
  • How does what you do preserve the story you tell yourself about who you are?
  • What feeling does creating either order or chaos reinforce/alleviate?

What demons does your story keep at bay?

Trust

School is over. The first powerlifting competition is in two weeks. What next?

I have a good relationship with my coach, so I let him choose. If you don’t have the kind of coach you could trust with your body, find a new one. Seriously. He’s certified, degree’d, and committed to holistic well-being. We’ve spent more than (2 hrs * 4 weeks * 4 months) + (3 hrs * 4 weeks * 6 months) together and he knows me fairly well. He was also spot-on with his lift estimates for my first meet, even with my wacko eating, stress, and sleeping the last semester of school. We committed to eighteen months. If I had eighteen months to spend on a goal, what should it be?

He chose body transformation with a sprinkle of powerlifting for interest. We agreed to blog both sides of the quest over at groundedsc.com, because AO is also my business partner. My blog is about my stuff, the emotional and mental game, and my response to coaching. His blog is about working with a difficult client on a challenging goal, e.g. balancing the calorie deficits required for fat loss while increasing muscle mass and maintaining powerlifting performance.

You’ll be a different person in eighteen months. So will I.

Body transformation is an ambitious goal. In theory and in practice, I understand nutrition, change psychology, habit formation, blah, blah, blah, so AO has stayed out my nutrition struggles. He’s the CSCS, I’m the LMSW. We have scopes of practice, but I’m having trouble settling into consistent eating habits and my weight loss is stalled. He’s gently insisting on a higher level of accountability because as a client I am back to knowing and not doing. I thought I could count macros and cut once school was out and I was so wrong. As long as I am still inhaling chips and guac or treating myself to a burger and fries this often, he can’t do his job. He is very good at his job.

The plan at the moment is to use Precision Nutrition‘s ProCoach system to manage my return to sane, consistent eating. It will lead me back through thirteen evidence-based habits, while I reflect on what’s important to me and any barriers I experience. On the movement side, AO is anticipating an eighteen-month macro cycle composed of four meso cycles, each of which will culminate in a powerlifting meet. Each meso cycle consists of a fat loss, hypertrophy, and strength microcycle. I’m glad he’s doing the spreadsheet because it hurt my brain just to construct the sentences.

We are also avoiding setting any end-game goals. It was his idea to set micro-goals as we go and not look too far ahead. I suspect, however, he will set secret goals. His eyes lit up and he got a vision when he thought about me being a different person, I saw the thought run across his forehead. We don’t care so much about the scale as we do body-fat and tape measurements. The scale will move, but weight loss isn’t a linear process and I care less about how much I weigh than how much weight I can push or pull. I ordered an inexpensive at-home body-fat BIA device which may not have high validity but should have good reliability.

If you can’t do this with your coach/trainer, find a new one. You deserve better.

 

Planning as Security Blanket

I love to plan. Once I realized how amazing plans were, calendars, markers, highlighters, and washi tape became some of my closest allies. Converts are always the most fervent.

In the last weeks of the semester, I had no plan and became a crazy person. Every time I tried to plan, there was nothing to plan and the calendar stayed empty and I became unhinged. If there was only a plan for life post-graduation, then everything would be okay. Stand-alone events slowly began to populate the calendar, but they weren’t a plan to follow or from which to deviate.

Today I read a short article at the New York Times discussing the necessity of quitting, stopping, shutting down. The author bailed on a marathon for which she had been training nearly a year after an injury which wouldn’t heal. She noted our culture’s drive to push on through discomfort and how unnatural it is. What caught my attention was the reference to Barbara Cecil. We cannot plan our way through a crossroads because alignment of our direction to current circumstance requires deep listening. Planning is declaring an intention.

School is over. There is time to do laundry, clean the house, and listen. The washi tape will be there when the Universe lets me know where I’m headed.

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