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.

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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
https://www.twincities.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/170831puck.jpg

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.

Preparation & Scaffolding

One of my favorite theorists is Vygotsky. His work influenced how I taught aquatics forever and it’s time to revisit an old friend.

Last Saturday, my coach said he wanted me to know what 205 felt like in my hands. We are working on my deadlift and while I’ve pulled 190 a few times, 205 would be a lovely PR on track to make the goal weight in June. All I had to do was lift it out of the rack from about mid-thigh and hold it. At first, I couldn’t lift the weight. The bar wouldn’t budge. After a moments thought, he re-loaded the bar to 185 and described how he would put 205 in my hands. My job was to lift the bar out of the rack, and he would load extra weight once the bar was up. It worked. Today we lifted from 45s instead of the floor, which puts the bar higher than my sticking point, and I pulled the 205 which wouldn’t budge from the rack a few days ago.

Vygotsky’s idea is a novice can accomplish a task beyond his capabilities with support from an expert. Vygotsky was concerned with cognitive tasks and we first became acquainted during an educational psychology class. Over time, the novice learns how to learn and the expert’s assistance at that level can be removed. Others have extended the work and refined ideas of how far the novice can stretch with assistance. The distance is personal, called the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). If the expert places the novice too high, even with coaching, the novice will be unable to complete the task. If the expert places the novice too low, the learner will be unmotivated because he has already mastered the content. Because these concepts are nearly 100 years old and absorbed into common knowledge, my exercise-science-trained weightlifting coach flawlessly erected appropriate physical and mental supports and withdrew them as they became unnecessary.

The expert has to deconstruct the skill and the learner into their component parts, and adapt the attempt at the skill to the learner. Not every expert is naturally able to teach a novice because most experts have internalized complex skills and forget how many parts there are. For example, a meme floated through my social media feed and claimed “Showing up on time” required zero skill. Showing up anywhere on time is actually a complex skill, as any parent of a four-year-old can attest. We spend inordinate amounts of energy teaching small children how to create a system to ensure they have clean clothes, a clean body, whatever materials they must take with them, acceptable shoes, and transportation. Perhaps a meal or a snack before leaving is necessary. If there is no expert in your house to teach you how to plan and prepare to be somewhere on time, you may or may not learn. If your expert’s teaching consisted of yelling or unrealistic expectations, you may or may not learn. You may learn you aren’t the kind of person who is ever on time, and incorporate that belief into your identity. “Showing up on time” is the result of the successful execution of a complex sequence of skills, resting on the ability of the prefrontal cortex to manage executive functioning.

Everyone needs a little help now and then. The best help is a carefully constructed set of supports which allow the learner to teach himself and are then removed.

Friday I will pull 205 from the floor.

Saturday.

Saturdays have this strange, roller-coaster quality. I can go to the garage and lift! Yea! I have to go to class. Boo! Saturday is squat day! Boo. My squat is getting better! Yea! Equanimity is still a goal state for me. I spend a lot of my time on the various roller-coasters in the amusement park that is my life right now.

And I feel angry. Really angry. It has something to do with the end of the semester and graduation and life pressures. That’s fair. What wasn’t fair was throwing the barbell after a few sets of terrible squats. Nothing felt right. My knees were creaky, the squat wasn’t deep enough, the shelf wasn’t supporting my upper body and a warm-up weight was kicking my ass. It felt so wrong, I picked the bar up off my back, hoisted it overhead, and threw it into the J-hooks from about three feet, and yelled “No!”

The garage is supposed to be my happy place, where the weight makes it all go away. I don’t have to share it with my family or the people at school. The garage is my place, where I have space and excellence and effort, and the barbarians tore down the gate. Like most people, I resorted to blame. It’s their fault, those people. Those people who are not me. They stole one of the happiest hours of my week.

If you live for a few hours in the week, you’re doing something wrong.

I am doing something wrong. First, the expectation of equanimity is bullshit, at least for now. Second, what’s creating the base conflict is an uncertainty surrounding what I’ll be doing after graduation. Third, fueling the base conflict is a reflexive checking with the voices in my head for direction. They are not helpful, and never have been. I should fire them. A few quiet moments to check in with a good friend is what was desperately needed, and wasn’t happening. These last two weeks are filled with other people’s business. Class is for professors. Field is for patients. Home is for homework. The garage is for me and I couldn’t keep the barbarians out. My coach is not my therapist. We have a relationship, but not that kind of relationship, and my barbarians are my business.

What did we learn? We confirmed performance is linked more to joy than to sleep. I’ve staggered into Saturday mornings, happy to be there, on four hours of sleep and a previous day’s diet I wouldn’t confess to my macro counter, and lifted well and easily. Yesterday’s shit show followed three straight nights with seven hours of sleep and good nutrition. It’s all about me and my head space.

Self-compassion is the way out. It’s understandable to feel angry right now, and I’m sorry I’m going through this. It’s hard and it sucks. I’m good at what I do, what I have to offer is valuable. I don’t have to be at the top of my game everyday and I’m proud of myself for sticking with it, loading the bar and working through what I could.

The barbarians can suck it.

Ready Player One.

Read the book last year, saw the movie tonight. I found the movie to be a disappointment for a variety of reasons and combined with a reflection on Molly Ringwald’s piece on the drive home, realized the Cool Kids still only pretend to understand and like us. Molly Ringwald doesn’t realize she was not the innocent hero in Breakfast Club, her character deserved to be called names and her job was to realize she wasn’t any better than the other kids. The audience understood.

I was never a gamer, and quit playing my one MMORPG before starting grad school. There were, however, years when slipping on the headphones and sliding into my online persona felt more real than my life. A gamer friend pointed me toward the William Gibson book, Neuromancer, because he said I reminded him of the main character. “You aren’t playing the same game the rest of us are.”

Tonight in the theater, the audience laughed at the fat woman dancing on a pole in her VR universe. Alone in her trailer, she wore hot pink velour and danced for an unseen audience who appreciated what she had to offer. Somewhere, she was desirable, and people in the theater found the notion preposterous, as intended, and laughed. The movie played lip service to the tragedy with a voice-over by the main character, explaining how people could be anyone in the Oasis. The book was much more direct, showing as the economy moved from real life to virtual life, real life ceased to exist except for the people who operated the online universe and its requisite real life infrastructure. There should have been no people on the streets in the movie. Everyone is at home, imprisoned by rigs which allow them to pretend to escape their imprisonment, receiving deliveries from drones, isolated from other people. Only the very poor and very rich still are outside.

The appearance of the Molly Ringwald piece was coincidental,  but the leader of the corporatist scum of IOI was styled to resemble the vice principal from Breakfast Club, Richard Vernon. Do you remember when the Internet was the opposite of corporatist? When it was going to free us, connect us, and let us wander the world of ideas? Now you’re imprisoned by your Facebook advertiser profile and aggregate activity, with Twitter and Google deciding what you may see and read and watch. We accept the deliveries from search bots as if they were all the world had to offer, and remain isolated from people who don’t think as we do.

The amount of time and effort it takes to master game content is staggering, and the high-end gamers I knew would shrug it off as inconsequential. It was possible to spend thirty or forty hours a week playing the game and still not reach the highest levels of play. Excellent play required research, preparation, and social capital inside the game. Moving to higher levels of play involved remembering incredible minutia, e.g. running into the walls of an elevator while it descends in a particular quest allows the player to drop through the floor and reach the bottom a split-second earlier. Only noobs ride it all the way down. Someone had to find that hole, reproduce it, and transmit the knowledge through their social network. The movie invented an impossible first stage to the easter egg hunt. It is inconceivable that an entire player base of expert VR gamers didn’t turn around to find the back way to the solution and the first key. Only noobs run the actual quest. The key to winning is in the metagame, which the book illustrated again and again. The movie missed the mark by trying to make a movie which appeals to the masses, who, like Molly Ringwald, don’t realize they aren’t one of us.

Sometimes I miss being able to sit down with a glass of iced tea, a sandwich, and tirelessly roam lush landscapes with my great sword in hand. I miss all the people and the laughter and the sense of accomplishment. There is a line in the movie, uttered by the female lead, Art3mis, to Perzival  “You don’t know me. You only see what I allow you to see,” as if this were some sort of revelation on the nature of online life and not the human condition.

It is difficult to “be” IRL. It is difficult to “be” in-game. The pressures are similar, other people have expectations, needs, and wants. They make demands on your time, energy, and resources. The persona in-game doesn’t have to worry about endless laundry or paying bills and can log out when the grind is all too much. Maybe the checking in and checking out is what prevents us from mastering either world. The difficulty lies in remaining present to experience, to the Self, and answering the great questions –

  • Who am I?
  • What’s important to me?
  • What am I willing to trade?
  • What’s non-negotiable?

Tomorrow is squat day.

 

Decisional Balance

WordPress wants to correct “Decisional” to “Delusional,” and that’s pretty funny. Decisional balance is ambivalence jiu-jitsu. Again, from Motivational Interviewing, when a client is struggling to resolve ambivalence and you’ve reflected and summarized and done your Fiddler on the Roof routine

there is Decisional Balance.

decisionalbalancesheet

it’s time to walk the client through the 2×2, starting with No Change X Advantages, then moving through No Change X Disadvantages, Disadvantages X Change, and finally Change X Advantages. The order is important because the last taste in the clients mouth needs to be the sweetness of possibility in the thing they are afraid to do. The balance acknowledges there are reasons to change and reasons to not change, has the advantage of transparency, and allows the client to talk himself into change.

“Has anyone done a decisional balance with you yet?” asked a friend after class today. This woman is so clinical, so curious about other people’s experiences, she puts me to shame and I’m happy to know her.

“Nope.”

“Let’s do it. It’ll only take about 15 minutes.”

Fifteen minutes to change your life, or not.

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