New Year, Same Me

Back in October, I started reflecting on 2019. The planner sat empty, except for my name on the page at the front where I promise a reward if someone finds it, until this week. Uncertainty loomed large. Planners seem orthogonal to ambiguity.

Remember the Be/Do/Have questions?

  • I want to be a national-level powerlifter in my age group.
  • I want to be a better clinician for my kiddos.
  • I want to be a grounded partner, mother, and friend.
  • I want to travel at least once this year.
  • I want to spend more time at the beach.
  • I want to bike more, walk more
  • I want to have a peaceful porch
  • I want to have a productive office space
  • I want to have a tidy home

Take a look at my lists. I am very “BE” driven. Each of the “DO” and “HAVE” items feeds at least one “BE”. Let’s re-arrange these slightly by function.

I want to be a national-level powerlifter in my age group. To make this happen, there is a lot of lifting. There is also active recovery and stress management, which means consistent quality time on the bike and in the park. I meditate on my porch and like to do yoga there most of the year, which is easier when the porch is peaceful and thus inviting. Travel to a larger-scale meet with an extra day or two for a vacation would support this goal.

I want to be a better clinician for my kiddos. Becoming a better clinician involves actively seeking supervision, taking time to reflect on my practice, and continuing education. A productive office space, a peaceful porch, and a tidy home can give me the mental and physical spaces to support intellectual and emotional effort. Conferences and trainings away from home are a great way to break out of routine and wake up my beginner’s mind. Conference on the beach? I’m there.

I want to be a grounded partner, mother, and friend. Reflection, meditation, activities like lifting, biking, yoga, swimming, and reading re-fill my cup and make space for everyone else. No one comes to my house for my housekeeping, but having a comfortable space to share with others is important to me.

What goes in the planner? Like most goals, these break down into a mix of one-off to-dos and habits/processes and not everything can go in the planner at once. Lord have mercy, my head would explode and I’d be a sobbing heap of failure by February. Some people can and have done everything, cold turkey. Fix the eating, hit the gym, clean the house, repaint the kids, do it all! However, most of us aren’t like that. The human animal has an enormous drive to return to the familiar and too much change tends to rebound with a nasty bounce.

What’s familiar right now? Lifting four days a week. Meditation three days a week. Eating well 60% of the time. Erratic housekeeping around my erratic “staff” [read teenagers]. Watching Netflix at night with my husband. Reading 70% of the books I mean to read. Tossing and turning at night because I haven’t left work at work. Hot soaks nearly nightly with epsom salts.

Where are my anchors? Lifting is solid. Going to work is solid.

Which existing habits can be a little better? Eating well consistently. This takes at least 90% adherence to be successful and 60% is frustrating. Housekeeping consistently. There are a few things I currently do sometimes, like start laundry and take care of the dishwasher in the morning, that I could do more often and make a big difference in the state of my world. Meditate consistently. More is better, and fifteen minutes daily instead of 15 minutes on three seemingly random days a week might smooth out a bunch of stuff.

There’s January. Three habits. No one-offs. Anything else that happens is bonus and not tracked, like getting to the local yoga studio I tried last week or to the park on a chance warm evening. Let’s see what happens.

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Birthdays and Planners

My birthday is in October, along with my uncle’s and brother’s and grandmother’s birthdays. Now, my preferred planner ships to me in October and every year about this time I start taking stock and reflecting on goals, process, outcome, and direction for the next year.

This year was a solid “B”. I meant to finish grad school, lose a bunch of weight, be able to deadlift 250 pounds, start a business, and either learn how to dress intentionally or find a job where I wouldn’t have to. Grad school finished, I lost some weight and packed on some muscle, my deadlift is sitting at 225 with two months left in the year, the business is on hold until I can find a partner, my friend is teaching me how to dress and I found a great job where I can wear stretchy pants and untucked dress shirts. Not bad.

What about next year?

I am 51 this year, and I’ve been setting SMART goals since my early teens. There is a difference between setting goals and achieving goals, between being motivated and being committed, and between striving to please your Self and working to ward off outside negativity. The framework I use has layers stolen or borrowed from other sources.

First

The Big Four questions, borrowed from Krista Scott-Dixon, Ph.d, at Precision Nutrition:

  • Who am I?
  • What’s important to me?
  • What am I willing to trade?
  • What’s not negotiable?

These are beautiful questions that go straight to the soul. If your heart pounds with anxiety when you see the questions because you don’t have any of the answers, it’s okay. Part of life is figuring them out. Try something. If it doesn’t work, try something else. Here is Vaynerchuk talking about “tasting” for 2:54.

Whether you’re in your 20s, 40s, 60s, or 80s, tasting is still a great idea. We change as we age. It would be foolish for me to predict at 24 how I will think or feel at 64, and then act at 64 as if those predictions must be true.

Second

I’m starting to enjoy thinking of

  • how do I want to BE?
  • what do I want to DO?
  • what would I like to HAVE?

The Big Four put a fence around all of the acceptable versions of me, so I can think about what my life could look like when lived with integrity. For the last two years, learning was my most important value. To learn, I neglected my family, my health, and almost every other opportunity. Learning dominated to such an extent when graduation came, I felt adrift and created those “lost” months of the summer.

This short video is about parenting, but even if you aren’t parenting, the advice is still great. Find your Thing, do that Thing, enjoy your Thing, value your Thing. Don’t do the thing you hate. Do you. Check your expectations of yourself and others.

This is where I’ll start. It’s a messy process full of color markers, washi tape, scrapbook paper, and Pinterest. What is speaking to me at this time of life? I’ll do some work, take some pictures and let you know.

The War of Art

It is a little book and it was on the schedule for July. July was a Lost Month in my life, but keeping commitments is still important to me and so today I invested some porch time with Mr. Pressfield.

The book is about the struggle to bring forth whatever is within us. Pressfield describes Resistance as an external force or monster compelling behavior. It shouldn’t have surprised me because this technique is at the center of narrative therapy and Pressfield is a master narrator. The monster has you clean the floors instead of writing a chapter of your book, take another course on creating the perfect Instagram feed instead of creating a good-enough one, or anything, anything except create the thing.

In Motivational Interviewing, we talk of resistance as an expression of ambivalence. Change challenges everything we hold dear and generally there are reasons to undertake a new venture and reasons to leave it be. When working with someone who is ambivalent, we honor indecision and talk it all the way through. Typically, when people feel pushed too hard or too fast, they dig in and push back against the thing they desire most but are afraid to reach for. It has been my practice to talk with clients about unfinished business in several ways.

If I can’t get started on a goal or if I sputter out before it’s done, what is at the root? I first consider if the thing I say I want is really what I want, or if it is a remnant of a long-ago inherited “should”. In contrast, Pressfield asserts the very thing we cannot bring ourselves to start or to finish is at the heart of our purpose and the resistance we feel is a product of fear. Life tasks which loom large should provoke fear. They are beyond our current capacities, mental, physical, and emotional, and they demand we grow or give up. Staring into this kind of abyss could drive a person to clean baseboards. Pressfield’s Resistance is actively working against us in the universe, keeping us from making the world a better place through our work. It is the very nature of the Devil.

How might this be related to perfectionism and all-or-nothing thinking? These two cognitive distortions work against progress toward a goal by focusing on outcome goals instead of process. Let’s listen to Brene Brown talk about perfectionism for 3:24.

Perfectionism is a boundary violation, trying to manage others’ feelings in an attempt to protect ourselves. Perfectionism won’t let you send your story off because that third paragraph doesn’t flow quite right, invite friends over for an afternoon because the kitchen is “a mess”, start working with clients because you need one more certification to be of service. All-or-Nothing (AoN) works in Resistance by saying you have to be in the mood to write, or well-rested to work out, or you alternate between being “on diet” and “off diet”. Life seems to be a series of toggle switches with the settings “Always” and “Never”. Perfectionism and AoN thinking protect us from failure by keeping us from making incremental, good-enough, sustainable effort.

What about my friends and family and the support they offer? The War of Art recommends we abandon support because support as defined is unhelpful and a tool of Resistance. There is a difference between the friend who goes with you to a restaurant and agrees it’s been a hard week and you deserve the chili cheese fries and large Coke, and the one who looks at you and asks “Weren’t you working hard on choosing vegetables and lean meats?” The latter is a support, the former is trying to justify her own mozzarella sticks and hot wings. We tend to spend time with people who behave the way we do. We share interests and we share time together. Are the people around you a support or a hindrance? Gary Vaynerchuk recommends you cut one loser friend.

What then? The muses are with us, whispering in our ears and inspiring us to act. They come, says Pressfield, when we are disciplined enough to do the work and push past our fears of exposure, failure and do enough for today, every day. Back to a 6-minute rant from Vaynerchuk about luck and work.

The War of Art is a short book. Pressfield is a master storyteller, outlining what we know about long-term success

  • Achievement is a marathon, not a sprint
  • Focus on process, with an eye to outcome
  • Do the work and then let the results go
  • Show up anyway, ISYMFS
  • Have the courage to stop listening to people who cripple you, obvious critics and “friends”

Let’s end with Des Linden embodying the War of Art

 

 

Being Lost

This week I was reminded of  story. When my oldest child was learning to drive, we would make her drive home from unfamiliar places to build and reinforce her mental maps of the metro area. The city was laid out in a perfect grid, so if you knew key cross-streets it was possible to navigate without understanding where you were. In the days before Google maps, this was an essential skill. The time to feel lost and desperate in the dark, in an unfamiliar neighborhood, is when your parents are in the car to help if necessary.

Reviewing the Merriam-Webster definition of “lost,” it appears lost is a state of mind rather than a state of being. The world has not changed, I am merely unaware of my place in it. I am disoriented. When my oldest drove us home that horrible (her word) night, she was disoriented. We were confident in her ability to take us home, so confident we mocked her misery by singing the first bars of “O, Canada” repeatedly, as if she would manage to drive us to Canada before she figured out where she was. It was not helpful.

If I am lost, I am unaware of my place in the world.

What am I, if not lost? Roget’s thesaurus suggests when we are no longer lost, we are connected to purpose and to others. The oldest child, driving on that dark street, was “lost” until she recognized familiar landmarks. Once she understood the relationship between her current position and her goal state, even though her physical position did not change, she was “found.”

The soul needs time to be lost. I can’t imagine a life with each step pre-determined. When we are lost we are gifted the opportunity to learn about who we are, what we do and don’t value, and a chance to make abysmal trades and discover what is non-negotiable. Being lost is uncomfortable, yet necessary. It is how we learn our way home. I think we err by standing still and waiting to be found. Make a choice. Check, adjust.

Being lost is uncomfortable, yet necessary. It is how we learn our way home.

 

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.

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.

 

 

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.

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