I might have used that question before, now that I think about it. Oh well, this, my friends, is an update episode, and it’s coming at you a little sooner than I’d originally planned. I’m really not due for an update until July, which means I should have a whole ‘nother month to get my eating back under control before I have to tell you I did great for six weeks, then fell hard off the wagon. But, I’ve had some big shifts going on and I wanted to talk about those with you this week.
A few months ago when I did the first quarterly update of the year, I mentioned that I hadn’t planned on doing any serious changes in my work, career, or business bucket, but that some opportunities had come up that changed my mind and shifted my focus. Therefore, I’m working on a new business launch, I think I mentioned that in last week’s episode. I mentioned I was going to have a crazy-intense Teddy-Roosevelt-style planning weekend.
Which I did! I’m on the other side of that experience now and I thought I’d let you know three things: what I learned and a decision that came from it.
First, I learned that three days of non-stop deep work is mentally exhausting! By Monday evening, I was pretty much DONE. And not ready for normal life to start again on Tuesday. At that point, on Monday evening, I was regretting the intensity of the weekend and mourning the loss of a holiday. I was tired and drained. But, now that I’m a few days past the experience, I’m glad I did it that way. I got through everything I needed to…basically every action step in a six-week course completed over 2-1/2 days. Plus, I have a detailed, actionable plan for the next nine months.
I learned it helps to have your space and your tasks well organized. We can spend a lot of time messing around getting to the work…instead of doing the work if we have to figure out what to do next, what we need, where we’re headed or where we left off. Creating a plan helps significantly because you have a path mapped out. But, so does keeping track of what you’ve accomplished. When you’re stopping work for a break, or even choosing to follow a distraction or be interrupted in a normal work environment, writing down two things when you break, will help a lot. Make a note of where you are and what exactly you need to do next. When you come back to it, you’ll be able to step back into the work far more easily.
I learned that mind-absorbing breaks really help restore focus. We talked about this last month, that rest really isn’t doing nothing. And, this is one of those instances where head knowledge has now been replaced by heart knowledge. Saturday after a full day of deep work, we took the evening completely off. What my habit has been in the past is that even during downtime, I’m still thinking about my work. Even if I’m not focusing on it, my mind is still going at it sideways. So, instead of chilling at home surrounded by the work, we switched environments and went to a movie, something that would fully capture my attention and give my mind a break. And it totally worked, I was refreshed and ready to return to it the next day.
That's three tips from my deep work weekend, but we need to talk about something else, too. One of the decisions I had to make in the planning process was about this podcast. This is, unfortunately, going to be the last episode of this show. It has been tremendously fun to do for the past almost two years, but it’s time for me to make some changes in my schedule to make room for other things. Are you familiar with the Jim Collins quote, “Good is the enemy of great”? That’s where I am with this show right now. It’s good - I love doing it, I know it helps people (because y’all tell me it does). But, it has some limitations and I need to set it aside. I’ve been knowing this decision was probably going to shake out this way for about three months and I’ve been in mourning. But, in the last few months we’ve been talking about rest, and the need for space in our lives to do great work and live at our best. So, I’m closing the cover on this show. The episodes won’t go away, you can refer back to them at any time.
I discovered in the last few years that I really enjoy podcasting. I love the process, I love the result, I love that it’s helped people. So, I’m not leaving the podcasting world, but I am switching focus a bit. One of the limitations of this show is that it is not a faith-based show. While it’s not a secret that I’m a Christ-follower, the intent of the show is not to talk about my beliefs. The show is based on the questions I’m working through in my life and when I’m asking hard questions, about things like priorities, or brokenness, or aging…my belief is that the real answers lie in Christ. I’ve never felt that I wasn’t authentic in my episodes, but I do want to be able to explore spiritual truths in a deeper way.
I’ll be launching a new podcast called Words In Action at the end of July for two kinds of people:
We’ll be digging into one or two books a month, and developing a community while we think about and apply wisdom from the books to life in practical ways. I believe that words from wise authors put into action can transform lives. It will actually be very similar to this show, but focused on books rather than my own wandering attention. If you’re interested in that, I’d love for you to check it out. If you’re listening to this episode as it’s released, we’re going to do some pre-launch book reading in the community for the summer so come join me as a pre-launch founding member, I’d love to have you along. You can find that community at wordsinaction.group.
Thank you so much for listening all these months, we’ll wrap up this show with 87 episodes which is kind of astonishing for a girl who struggles with maintaining consistency in most areas of life.
I've been so grateful for your support, your responsiveness, and your willingness to come along on this journey of questions with me.
much love, michelle
“A commitment to deep work…is a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done. Deep work is important in other words, not because distraction is evil, but because it enabled Bill Gates to start a billion dollar industry in less than a semester” ~ Cal Newport.
I’ve been tossing statistics at my son this month about multitasking, distraction, and focus. He, I think, feels like they’re hand grenades. He’s taking them personally as if I’m insulting the things he loves. He loves video games. He loves random videos of ducks quacking to Prince’s "Purple Rain." Not that that exists. In my mind, it would actually be sacrilegious. I’m sure he’d think it was hysterical. I’m not objecting to the things he loves. He has a pretty sophisticated sense of humor and other than when the preteen boy hormones kick in, the things he shows me are really funny. It’s just that I’m taking a hard look at how our habits are affecting our lives. Especially our mental habits. And the more I read, the more concerned I am that we’re changing our minds in ways that aren’t healthy.
Basically, the results of my research say this: We live in a culture that is full of distractions which we both invite and have come to crave. We think we can do more by multitasking and we can’t. We’re losing the ability to concentrate and focus for more than a few minutes at a time. This is causing mostly negative changes to our work, our health, the way our brains function, how we experience emotion, and how we act within relationships.
Even in the midst of writing this episode, I just caught myself somehow watching a video of people being scared by excessively large fake spiders. What? A lost few minutes of life I’ll never regain. Even though I’m hyper-aware of it this month, I’m still struggling with distraction. I am improving though. I thought to wrap up this month, I’d share some of the things that have worked for me as I’ve been putting into practice ideas that I’ve come across. These might be a bit random, but they were either new ideas to me, or I found them surprisingly helpful after trying them.
As much as possible, I’m doing one thing at a time. When I’m not, I’m choosing to multitask intentionally, knowing I’m taking a productivity hit. This means in the car, cooking dinner, working, talking to friends…all the situations I might have previously been multitasking, I’m not doing so anymore. Are there things not getting done because of it? No, not that I’m aware of, except I may be missing out on some videos. Not spider vs. crying child videos, but marketing videos or educational videos. So far, I’m not feeling the loss. And the work that I am doing is better. This is an easy change to make and just requires noticing when you’re multitasking and choosing one thing at a time. This is one of those things that you really should try instead of just hearing me talk about it. Choose a day. Go through it doing one thing at a time. See how hard it is, how it affects your mind, your productivity, and your work.
We have the ability to concentrate intensely for no more than 5-6 hours a day altogether. So, schedule that time when you’re at your best and limit busy work to the best of your ability. Restrict those shallow things more than you think you can and schedule it when you normally feel the least productive. For me that’s between 2 and 4 pm.
Be Hard to Reach.
Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t have to be available all hours of the day. I don’t have to be available to clients, friends, facebook acquaintances and random app notifications 24/7/365. I can limit the ways I’m reached and I can limit the times I’m available to all those people. You are in charge of the use of your time, not random strangers, not your phone, not even your friends.
This has been a game changer for me. It’s a practice to help you learn rapidly the skills needed for deep thinking. The idea is to structure a thought exercise and practice it while doing something physical that requires no thought. So, walking, biking, swimming laps, or running for example. Here’s how to do it.
Downtime is critical to productive concentration. Our minds need the downtime. But, it’s very easy for unfinished business to intrude on our downtime. In order to close the door on work for the day, when you’re ready to switch to home mode, try following a shutdown ritual. This shouldn’t take more than ten or fifteen minutes at the end of the day. It will prepare you to start the following day in a productive manner and will help close the mental loops on work issues. Here’s a sample routine.
This isn’t something I’ve done before and my work location and practices are far from consistent. I do often practice checking my email and schedule, but I tend to never actually intentionally switch work mode off. I’m looking forward to trying this. I think it may save my sanity.
I found this really easy and interesting. It’s essentially practicing delayed gratification in small steps. One way I’m doing it is setting a timer for 30-minute work sessions. I’m not checking email, using the internet, or any other app on my phone until that session is done. It doesn’t have to be 30 minutes. It doesn’t even really matter if you do whatever you’re delaying sooner than you’d planned. Unless, like me, you’re killing digital trees in your Forest app when you ditch the plan. Then it matters! The point is to simply practice the art of resisting distraction. Practice choosing focus.
Teddy Roosevelt's Approach
As a Harvard student, Teddy Roosevelt got a crazy amount of things accomplished outside of school work and made good grades, mostly honors, while studying significantly less time each day than his classmates. He had tons of interests outside of school, including writing books. He managed to include all of his interests in his life, including publishing books by blocking out his workday - including classes, workouts, and meals. Then in the leftover time between those scheduled blocks of time, he studied. In the evenings he was free to pursue his projects and interests. That meant that he had far less time than most to hit the books, so the time he spent studying, he had to really double down.
The application for us is to similarly set an artificial or real deadline to accomplish your goal, one that requires you to cut out the fluff. Create a need to work super-intensely, or be faced with not accomplishing what must be done. I heard an interview with the founder of Basecamp not long ago in which he was talking about what happened when he cut the company work week back to four eight-hour days in the summer. Because they had less time, they cut out the things that didn’t matter, the wasted time and still accomplished everything they needed to.
I have a business strategy weekend planned over the holiday weekend. Probably by the time you listen to this, it will be over, or almost over. Three days. Multiple two-hour sessions per day. Fourteen to sixteen hours total to plan the next year of a new business. That might sound like a lot, but there’s a ton of work to do. This is a Teddy Roosevelt weekend with the evenings devoted to mental downtime. I’m excited to see how far I can get by the end of Memorial Day.
I’m going to leave you today with one more quote from Deep Work,
The deep life, of course, is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits. For many, there’s a comfort in the artificial busyness of rapid email messaging, and social media posturing, while the deep life demands that you leave much of that behind. There’s also an uneasiness that surrounds any effort to produce the best things you’re capable of producing, as this forces you to confront the possibility that your best is not (yet) that good. It’s safer to comment on our culture than to step into the Rooseveltian ring and attempt to wrestle it into something better.
I know my personality is geared toward the deep, it’s my natural bias. But, the uneasiness felt when stepping out of your comfort zone is still scary. The resistance Steven Pressfield talks about in the War of Art is a real thing.
Social media has turned us all into armchair experts where our love of comfort keeps us curled up with a bunch of empty opinions and a rapidly shrinking ability to create important things. But, I’m not satisfied with that. While I may never win a Nobel Prize, I may never do important things according to the world’s measurements, I’m going to make my time matter. I’m taking control of my attention and doing my part to wrestle our culture into something better. I’d love you to step into that ring with me.
I started a writing project ten months ago. When I started having to produce an article every day, I realized I was having trouble focusing. We tend to believe that focus is like a light switch, we just turn it either on or off when the necessity or the mood strikes us. But the truth is that research is finding that’s not what happens. When we develop brain patterns that impede our ability to focus, when we don't train that ability, when we want to flip that switch on, nothing happens. We live in a world that attacks our ability to focus at every turn. Cal Newport’s book Deep Work says this, “there’s increasing evidence that this shift toward the shallow, is not a choice that can easily be reversed. Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to do deep work.”
The work that pays my bills right now is by nature full of distraction and driven by interruptions. It completely fits Newport’s definition of shallow work. I need to be highly accurate in a distracted environment, so in that respect, focus is important for me, but it doesn’t require sustaining that attention for more than a few minutes nor does it require any type of deep thought. So, I’ve found that I’m out of practice at thinking. How can that be? We think all the time, right? Our minds run and run and run. We react, we plan, we socialize, we talk, but how much of that is really thinking?
“Consumerism” has several (and often contradictory) definitions. One of those explanations is the selfish and frivolous collecting of products, or in other words, economic materialism. Generally, in our culture, we engage in consumerism without much thought. We’re culturally biased to consume and consume. Most of us, even those critical of economic materialism, readily engage in the psychological and mental equivalent. We allow a constant barrage of input into our minds. We consume and consume. We lunge after any new tidbit of information without thinking about it. We actually go further than just allowing it, we invite, encourage and enable it.
One study from the University of California-San Diego indicates that people are inundated with the equivalent of 34 Gb (gigabytes) of information every day, which if you were a laptop, would overload you within a week. Good thing we’re not laptops, right?
According to Tech 21 Century, the main effect of information overload is that the human attention to focus is continually hampered and interrupted. We talked about that last week. American psychiatrist Edward Hallowell says we’re so busy processing the mostly superficial information we’re receiving from all directions that we lose the ability to think and feel. If you think that’s an exaggeration, studies that indicate that the way we are currently training our brains to think, the constantly disrupted mental state we’ve come to accept as normal, is hampering our ability to feel empathy for others in addition to other deeply felt emotions. Brain plasticity doesn’t only result in positive changes. It results in negative ones as well.
A constant barrage of stimuli has become the norm. While we might intellectually understand and agree that it has a downside when we see a news headline, read a blog post, or listen to a podcast like this one, we’re remarkably apathetic in applying that information.
I learned some things about myself when I started my writing project last summer. I mentioned that I learned that I’m out of practice at thinking. That’s true. I also learned I’m good and bad at different types of thinking. As much as I loved my college freshman small group philosophy course, I’m no philosopher. I’m not good at teasing out the ramifications of complicated problems. And, I’m not the research scientist that can spend twenty years digging deep into a very specific question. But, what I am good at is taking information that’s out there and applying it in practical ways. That’s the essence of this podcast, me applying available information to improve my life, and maybe yours if you apply it too.
We have so much information available to us. We’re overloaded and overwhelmed with information. But we aren’t strategic about what we’re paying attention to and we aren’t applying it for our own benefit. Recently, I heard it put this way in the context of business development. People don’t need information, we have more than enough information. People need transformation.
According to Maura Thomas, attention management is the most important skill to have in the 21st century. She believes that people should stop worrying about time management and focus on attention management. The ability to control distractions and stay focused is essential.
As I’ve been thinking and reading about attention, I’ve noticed mine more and more. Just that act of noticing has begun to change the way I move through life. It’s changing the decisions I’m making and my awareness and control over my own experience. We’ll talk more about the transformation of our thought patterns next week, but this week, I want to encourage you to do three things. I want you to pay attention to three things.
First, pay attention to the information coming at you.
Where is it coming from? How are you responding to it? This might be external information like that coming from friends and family, media sources, or your environment, but it’s also internal information. It’s about eight in the evening as I’m working on this podcast and all the sudden I became uncomfortable in the skirt I was wearing. Before I knew it I’d set my laptop aside and had stood up to change into pajama pants. Right in the middle of a thought. I became uncomfortable and before I knew it, not even a second later, I was on my feet. What I should have done was notice that I was uncomfortable and finish my thought or finish a section of work and then get up to change. That’s internal information. Information comes from all around and inside of us. Begin to notice it as it comes and how you respond to it.
Pay attention to your ability to focus.
How long are you staying on task? When you set yourself to a task, any task, it could be cooking dinner, reading a book, or talking to your spouse. How long before your mind looks for a distraction? How long before you find yourself thinking about a conversation with your boss as your spouse tells you about his or her day? How long before your mind wanders off to the weekend when you’re supposed to be writing a work report? How much brainpower are you able to harness and how long can you sustain it?
Pay attention to where your attention is.
Begin to notice what you’re thinking about and when. I ran across a whole new world this week. Mental athletes. They compete in mental competitions all over the world. The competitors might be memorizing random shapes, words, names and faces, the shuffled order of a deck of cards or a string of numbers. They might be performing calculations or solving mental puzzles. Daniel Kilov is a memory athlete able to memorize a shuffled deck of cards in less than two minutes. When he spoke at TEDx Canberra, he said that most failures of memory are failures of attention. Your goal doesn’t have to be memorizing a deck of cards in a few minutes, though that would be a fun party trick. But if you want to improve your thinking, your brain function, your memory, the first thing to pay attention to is whether or not you're paying attention to your own life.
There’s a lot highlighted by the work by Cal Newport, Maura Thomas, Edward Hallowell, and others that bothers me. One of those things is this. If I, as an individual, lose my capacity to do deep work, and deep work as defined by Newport is “the ability to perform in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit”. If I lose my ability to focus, concentrate and work intensely over a period of time. I’m negatively impacting my own life and potentially my ability to care for my family.
But if, as a culture, we lose the ability to do deep work, we lose a critical skill for our species. We lose the ability to solve tough problems. We lose the ability to create deeply meaningful works of art. We lose the ability to expand our knowledge. We as a people, lose so much potential. Potential to create. Potential to learn. Potential to solve problems. That's a disturbing loss. We aren't solving the problems plaguing us now very well. I'm certain we'll continually have more.
Darren Hardy says, “The first step toward change is awareness. If you want to get from where you are to where you want to be, you have to start by becoming aware of the choices that lead you away from your desired destination.”
My goal today is to make you aware and encourage you to pay attention to your own habits and choices. Let’s talk next week about how to respond to that awareness.
Let’s jump right in with statistics today. Inc. Magazine says that we’re spending an average of just 1 minute and 15 seconds on a task before being interrupted. Other statistics say that it takes 23-25 minutes to get back on track after an interruption. To put it another way, Dr. Gloria Mark, from the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, found that average information workers are interrupted every three minutes. If you do some super-high-level complicated math with me, that comes out to about 20 times every hour.
Research shows that we typically don’t return immediately to the task that was interrupted, either. We usually tackle two other tasks before returning to the original one. Most of those twenty-time-an-hour interruptions are very minor. About four of them every hour are more serious interruptions. If you’re paying attention to how all those numbers work together (and why would you, that’s why I’m here), the interruptions, the being sidetracked, the time to get back into what you were doing…you’d realize that there’s no way we’re completing our work.
And yet, things do get done. Studies looking at that question found that first, we do push many tasks off until later. And second, we do actually complete tasks, but they’re being done more quickly than they should be and with more mistakes.
Those are all work-related statistics. But, the same thing is happening to us at home, in our cars, and at the dinner table. I’m fairly certain no one will argue with me when I say that we live in a world full of distractions. With the advent of cell phones, we now have many of those distractions in our hand at all times. A study commissioned by Nokia showed that users check their smartphones an average of 150 times during a waking day of 16 hours. With more high-level math, I figure that’s every 6-1/2 minutes.
This is what we think of when we hear the word distraction, and these are a big deal. They affect our productivity in work and happiness in life.
But, they’re not the only kind of distraction we deal with.
External distractions are typically what come to mind when someone says the word “distraction”. Co-workers stopping by your desk to talk about last nights devastating seventh-game loss in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Yeah, I don’t want to talk about that. Now you’re stuck reliving it with every acquaintance that sees you in the hallway.
The phone ringing.
A loud sound from the next room.
The dog sticking his cold nose against your leg.
The really awful music playing in the coffee shop where you're working.
Your boss calling you.
The constant notifications on your phone.
These are all external distractions.
What can you do about them? How can you control external distractions? To some degree, you can’t. But, you do have more control than you think. When you need an uninterrupted span of time, Unplug from browsers and phones. Turn off all the notifications on that phone. Lock your door. Stop checking email. Put your headphones on. Put a sign on your chair, your desk, or your door that says you’re busy, please do not disturb unless you’re on fire.
Remember, your technology is for your convenience. Your phone is available to you so that you have access to people and services when you want that access. It’s not there so that anyone can hijack your time and attention whenever they please.
Obviously, there are some situations which you can’t control, but more often than not, you can drastically reduce external distractions by setting and communicating boundaries.
External distractions are only part of the puzzle, though. Surprisingly, studies find that external distractions don’t explain many of the distractions we experience. They’re actually coming from inside of us. An internal distraction might be a sudden urge to check the weather. Again. A need to make a non-critical phone call right now, stopping what you're doing for a candy bar, texting a friend, or checking to see how many likes we have on our last post—even though we just looked a moment ago and we’ve received no new notifications since then.
We’ve trained ourselves to be constantly receiving input. Our brains get a shot of dopamine when we see a text notification and that encourages us to do it again. Yes, the chemistry is against us. But, we also have created those habits. I realized last week that I’m automatically reaching for my phone at stop lights. On a 12 minute drive. I don’t need to look at my phone on a twelve-minute drive. And yet I’m habituated to pick it up whenever I stop. I also have a habit of turning to it when I have any break in activity or input. We head straight for our phones when the stream of input stops.
We avoid the hard things by distracting ourselves. This isn’t only the hard stuff like relationships or work problems, though it includes those things. It’s also things like silence. Being alone with our own thoughts. Or, dealing with failure. Fear can send us straight to distraction because it’s so much easier.
And I just hinted at another reason we distract ourselves. Avoidance. We’re avoiding pain, fear, work, effort, people, or our own inner monologue. Distractions keep us from hearing, seeing, or feeling things we’re uncomfortable with. And we spend an awful lot of effort to stay comfortable.
Eliminating internal distractions is trickier than external ones. Breaking and reforming habits, training our brave muscles to not live life out of fear and learning to be willing to feel discomfort are a lot more difficult, are a lot harder work than locking a door or turning off phone notifications. But, they also have a higher potential to create a distraction-free life.
When we think about distraction, we’re often thinking about productivity. But, there are other things we get distracted from.
We are constantly being pulled away from the present. We let texts, emails, and social media interrupt and distract us from conversations we’re having now. We let worries and anxiety interrupt and distract us from experiences we’re having now. We let the television or YouTube distract us from the people next to us. Whether we’re intentionally using distraction or allowing it to happen, it’s one of the most destructive forces to our presence in our own life. It’s choosing that a social media post from someone you barely know is more important than the conversation you’re having right now. It’s choosing that a fear or worry about something that might happen is more important than what’s actually happening. It’s choosing that what’s happening on a screen is more important than the real world around you.
I’ve had a parenting crisis develop in the last few days. I have some tough choices to make that affect my son and his summer plans. He had a piano recital last night. It was really hard to set aside the worry and the trying to figure out what to do, but that performance of his would never happen again. The decision didn’t need to be made last night, I needed to sleep on it anyway. So, letting worry and anxiety distract me from the evening with him made no sense. It wasn’t easy to set aside that distraction, but it was worth it.
Distractions from the present kill happiness, damage relationships, and inhibit life experiences.
There’s one more type of distraction I want to mention today as well. Distraction from mission. Do you have a mission in life? A purpose? Do you have roles you want to succeed in, like parenting or your career? Do you have goals you want to achieve?
I had a pastor friend once who used to say that sheep don’t typically choose a big adventure and get lost. They nibble themselves lost. They notice a patch of grass next to the path they’re on and pause to take a few bites. Then they look up and see another bit of enticing green a few steps away and they step over and nibble that. Doing that a few times without paying attention makes it really easy to look up a half hour later and realize you have no idea where you are.
You’ve nibbled yourself lost.
While my pastor friend was talking about sin in our lives, the analogy has served me well in a lot of other situations. It applies to distraction as well. One distraction easily leads to another and before you know it you’re lost.
If you’ve ever started reading an online article about the upcoming political summit in Europe and 20 minutes later realized you were now watching a YouTube video about talking to baby animals, you’ve experienced this phenomenon.
Not that I’ve ever done that. Nope. Definitely not.
On a larger scale, this happens with our lives and our goals as well. If you aren’t paying attention, if you don’t have a practice that keeps your goal or life direction in front of you, the distractions of life will creep in and you’ll nibble yourself off the path you want to be on.
A classic book of psychology was published in 1890. In it, William James wrote, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” That statement is still true today. Maura Thomas, who is said to be the most oft-cited writer on attention management, says it this way, “Your attention determines the experiences you have and the experiences you have determine the life you live. Or said another way: you must control your attention to control your life.”
This month as we talk about our attention, realize the point is not just to be more productive at work. The reason our attention matters is that what we pay attention to prospers. What we pay attention to creates the life we live.
So, as I close this episode today, think about these two questions:
What are you paying attention to? And, how much are you allowing yourself to be distracted from it?
I’m hungry for productivity. I want ways to get more done in less time. We all do. Time is one of our most limited resources in the day and age. The are thousands of articles, books, systems, workshops and products geared toward making us more productive. One of the things we all do to get more done is multitask. Whether it’s geared toward increasing work output or just that we’re afraid we’ll miss something if we don’t, we tend to multitask our way through life.
We listen to podcasts or television while we cook. We scroll facebook while we watch Netflix. We talk or listen while we drive or walk. We listen to a webinar while we answer emails. We email while we’re in a meeting. My son watches or listens to YouTube while he plays games on his computer. And he’s not alone.
Dr. Clifford Nass, a psychology professor at Stanford University, says (and I’m quoting from an interview on NPR), “the top 25 percent of Stanford students are using four or more media at one time whenever they're using media. So when they're writing a paper, they're also Facebooking, listening to music, texting, Twittering, et cetera. And that's something that just couldn't happen in previous generations even if we wanted it to.”
Lest you think this is just a new media problem or a bash technology episode, it’s not. This quote, “To do two things at once is to do neither.” Wasn’t said by a 21st-century researcher. It’s attributed to Publilius Syrus, a Roman slave in the first century B.C. Obviously, this issue of multitasking has been around long before smartphones. I routinely walked around with an open book in front of my face reading when I was a kid. I know this has always been an issue for me. Let’s take the lid off though and see how effective it actually is.
First, I need to say that you can go ahead and consider yourself a fantastic multi-tasker. You absolutely are. Supremely talented even. Because you’re breathing, moving, walking, reaching, digesting your lunch, doing all sorts of things that are involuntary and second nature while you’re accomplishing tasks that take more thought.
It’s the more complex tasks, the ones that take more thought that tend to trip us up, though. We think we can do several of those at the same time. But, we actually can’t. I mean it might look like I’m listening to a podcast and cooking a new recipe for dinner, but I’m actually not multi-tasking. I’m switch-tasking. My brain is doing only one of those things at the same time. It’s switching back and forth between the two tasks. It’s doing so pretty quickly, but it’s only actually processing information from one of those activities at a time. If I really think about that, I know it’s true.
If I’m doing something I don’t use a recipe for, something like a stir-fry, where I’m just chopping vegetables and not measuring, reading a recipe or following a real instructional list, it’s much easier to listen to something and cook. There’s a good chance I’m more distracted than I think I am though because I’ll routinely forget to include something I’d intended to.
If I’m following a recipe, though, it’s much tougher. I’ll re-read. I’ll lose track of where I am, I’ll realize that I’ve either done one or the other thing. I’ve either read and understood the recipe or I’ve listened to the audio. I’ll often miss audio while I’m paying attention to the recipe or have to re-read the recipe because I was paying attention to the audio.
Generally, a loss in productivity or forgetting to put the mushrooms in a stir-fry just means dinner takes a little longer to cook and I have mushrooms for an omelet in the morning. But, that loss of productivity is a bigger deal at work.
Conservative estimates are that we have a 40% loss in productivity when we multitask. We might think we’re being more efficient, but we’re not. A 40% loss. That’s a big deal.
Actually, the news is worse than that. Studies show that multitasking results not only in the 40% reduction in productivity, but also higher cortisol or stress levels, up to a 10 or 15 point drop in IQ (that’s more than smoking weed by the way), more mistakes, decreased memory function, higher anxiety, impaired creativity, an inability to reach or maintain a flow state, and an inability to process visual input.
So, I suppose, if you have more productivity, creativity, and IQ than you need, or if you could use more stress, mistakes, and anxiety, I’d say, go ahead. Multitask to your heart’s content. But, for the rest of us mere mortals, we need to seriously re-think some habits and approaches to our work.
Here are several suggestions for reducing multitasking.
Block out specific time for single activities. Spend a specific amount of time on one task. Be ruthless. Do whatever you need to do to not switch tasks. This will be really tough, but, it does get easier with practice.
Batch process activities. Rather than return phone calls as they happen, set aside time to do them all at once. Rather than choose your meals for the week during each day, choose all your meals for the week at a specific time on Sunday evening. This is an efficiency practice. A productivity hack. But, the relationship to today’s topic is that you’re doing only that thing at that time. By batching them together you don’t have the start-stop time that your brain needs to end one task and start another. You don’t incur the productivity losses that switching tasks causes.
Do not leave your inbox open all the time. Choose a twenty-minute window to do all your email. This is batch processing and blocked out time all at once, but email is such a major offender in the realm of multitasking, that it’s worth calling it out.
Eliminate your phone and laptop notifications. Turn the sounds off. Wean yourself from those little red circles or the sounds that trigger a reach for the phone every single time someone wants to share a piano-playing cat video with you.
And lastly, let’s talk about driving for just a moment. I could spend an entire episode here, but I’m not, You already know this. I’m just going to remind you and point a few things out. Distracted driving is deadly. If you wouldn’t drive drunk, don’t drive distracted.
From distraction.gov comes this statistic: Five seconds is the average time your eyes are off the road while texting. When traveling at 55mph, that’s enough time to cover the length of a football field essentially blindfolded.
It’s not just texting, being on social media, or checking email. It’s talking on the phone as well. The University of Utah published a statistic that says that “Using a cell phone while driving, whether it’s hand-held or hands-free, delays a driver’s reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent”
If you’re like me and have said that talking on a cell phone is no different than talking to passengers, well, we’re wrong. Studies show that conversations with people in the same vehicle are markedly different and less distracting than cell phone conversations due to the behavior of both the passengers and the drivers in those conversations.
You might be thinking right now, “This whole episode doesn’t apply to me. I’m really good at multitasking.” I’m here to burst your bubble. Are you Ready?
The Stanford psychologist I quoted earlier, Dr. Clifford Nass, says,
The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. They're basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking…we have scales that allow us to divide up people into people who multitask all the time and people who rarely do, and the differences are remarkable. People who multitask all the time can't filter out irrelevancy. They can't manage a working memory. They're chronically distracted.
Plus, people who think they are good at multitasking generally have a lower capacity for simultaneous thought. They’re actually less good at it than people who consider themselves less skilled. So, if you’ve been thinking all along that you’re the exception, the odds are overwhelming that you’re not.
I wish I’d done this experiment last week, but I didn’t. I ran across an article by Peter Bregman in The Harvard Business Review detailing a week-long experiment on himself. He tried to completely eliminate multitasking and see what happened. I’m going to quickly summarize the six things he says he learned.
I think that’s really interesting. It’s not a generic study. It’s a real guy with a real family and real work projects who surprised himself by bearing out the results of the science.
Could you do it? Could you go a whole week without multitasking? Could you go a day? One car trip?
I challenge you to try.
I’m writing this after a tough month. I’m wiped out. Sort of. I am really tired. I just got home from a boy scout camping weekend. I came home early because I have a charity event tonight. And before I could start working on this episode, before I leave for the event, I laid my head down and took a 10-minute-power nap. I’m tired. But not as depleted as I expected to be after this month was over.
That in itself is a glimmer of improvement. I knew talking about rest all month was somewhat ironic as it was a really draining month. But, it underscored the importance of the topic in my life and it helped me along the way as I had a busy schedule and a lot of stressful events.
We talked about sleep early on and my sleep has improved. I’ve darkened my room and I’ve noticed a difference. I’ve made a point to go to sleep earlier and it’s made a difference. I’ve paid attention to how sleep affects my decisions, my patience and my ability to think. I’ve noticed, for example, I make terrible decisions about food when I’m tired. Things I normally would be able to resist, I eat when I’m tired. And by “things” I generally mean cookies and chocolate and anything with sugar. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Here are a few more things I’m working on to get more and better sleep. I’m setting myself a bedtime of 10:30. I’m terribly inconsistent right now and that will help a lot. I’m getting my bedroom in order and redoing some of it. I moved out a TV that wasn’t even hooked up and I never use in the bedroom. I realized it had been driving some decisions about furniture. I’ll be replacing my mattress and bed soon as well and turning that room into something that feels more like a personal spa.
That’s the easy part. The attitude that sleep is expendable is a harder mental habit to break, but I’m going to try. I’m starting the 10:30 bedtime tonight, and it’s 10:15 right now, and I really wanted to have worked out all the details for this episode to happen before I go to bed tonight, but that’s not going to happen if I head for bed. I’d also chosen to shut down anything with a screen at 10 pm. I’m going to have to start that tomorrow because I already blew that tonight.
Sleep is pretty simple to deal with, at least in the planning stage. Execution is harder. But, rest itself, that’s another story. Sleep is only one side of the equation. Last week we talked about what rest is and how it affects us. Here’s how I’m going to approach applying that knowledge. I plan to make some changes to create a rhythm of rest in my life. Here’s how that breaks down.
This might be where you assume I’m going to list a major vacation, but I’m not going to do that. I’m not considering vacations to be part of my rest plan. Partly because their effects don’t last that long and partly because, I’m going to try to rely on shorter, quarterly breaks instead for rest. I may take a longer trip (at least I hope so anyway), but I won’t rely on that time as the only way I’m recovering. I’ll use it as a treat and a memory-maker, but not the most important rest activity in my life.
I’m going to plan a quarterly long weekend trip. I’ll be headed to Toronto in June and Philadelphia in July for conferences. I plan to add a few days to those trips for sightseeing and rest. I’ll be in Florida in November for an extended family vacation. And, I think I’ll add a few weekend camping trips on the calendar as well. Plus, I think I’ll let my son choose one long weekend getaway trip.
It's so easy for us to schedule so many activities that our lives become overfull. This is a discipline issue. There are a million good things out there to do. We’re not able to do them all. We have to live within our limits. Different seasons of life call for different levels of activity. So, what works for a newly married couple might not work after kids come along. It seems obvious but it’s easy for circumstances to change gradually (not the having a baby circumstances necessarily, but others) and not really connect the dots that our schedule to change as well.
We tend to think in the US that we can do everything. But we can’t. We can’t have it all. We can’t do it all. We can’t be it all. We need instead, to do, have, and be what’s best. Jim Collins’ “Good is the enemy of great” statement really applies here.
One of the things I try to do (I’ve gotten away from it) is to hold at least one weekend a month completely unscheduled. We might decide to do something at the last minute. Or not. We might decide to do a home project. But, we might not. We can use that weekend however we like at the time. It’s a monthly recovery weekend.
Right now, I’m working six days a week because of ministry and career work. The seventh day tends to be eaten up by volunteer hours, family activities, and errands. It’s just the “stuff-that-needs-to-get-done” day. But, that leaves no time for rest. I’ve been doing that for about a year now and it’s taking its toll. If you’re a Christian, it’s also disobedient. We’re supposed to rest. And for good reason. I have a writing commitment ending this week and have a meeting about how to make my position on a church team more sustainable. Creating a sustainable schedule will help a lot.
Weekly is where another factor comes into play. Remember last week, we talked about how hobbies or activities can function as active rest? That rest and recovery are more than just lying around? Activities or hobbies that require mastery, practice, and learning are a hugely important avenue for rest. They’re active, but they allow our mind and body to be used in ways that give us an emotional and mental break from our work and life. They also often develop complementary skill sets or mental attitudes. What could you learn or do weekly that’s absorbing and somewhat challenging? For me right now, that’s art time. I’ve been away from art for about nine months and I need to be spending consistent time in my studio, whether that’s collage work or quilting work…I need to be creating with my hands. Writing is creative, but it doesn’t offer the same kind of mental break, because it’s too similar to my normal work.
Sleep is an easy daily recovery rhythm to point to. But, there are a few others to think about as well. Exercise is a vital recovery tool. That sounds weird, I know because it can be hard work. It’s important for keeping your body healthy to handle your life, but it can also be used as a recovery tool. Two types of exercise especially are helpful…consistent active exercise like walking, running, swimming, soccer, etc. And contemplative exercise or movements like yoga or tai chi. Right now, I’m walking a lot in the mornings, about four miles a day. It’s become critical for my sanity. If I walk or run, it’s active, but it’s also a way to rest my body and mind from its normal activity. I miss yoga, though, I can tell both my body and mind need it.
I’ve mentioned this periodically before, but another daily rest habit is mindfulness. I find that when I’m focused on the sensory experience of what’s happening in the moment, my mind is freed from the need to worry, rehearse, talk negatively, plan, or be anxious. How does that work in real life? If I’m in the kitchen cleaning up from after dinner, I can be rehearsing a conversation with a client, thinking about what my son needs to accomplish that evening, pre-working on a writing project and worrying about an upcoming deadline. Pretty much all at once.
Or, I can be focusing on how pretty a stack of white dishes is in my cabinet when the light hits it. How lovely it is to have warm water I didn’t have to carry in and heat up. How happy I am to hear my son’s laughter in the next room and how the smooth, cool, clean silverware feels in my hands. If that task lasts between 15 and 30 minutes and I’m thinking about life in the present, sensory experiences in the moment, It’s like a rest from my daily thoughts. You can actually do that all day long. Choosing to focus on the present moment instead of worrying about the next can go a long way towards keeping your mind and emotions refreshed.
That’s a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly rhythm of rest. If you rely on a once a year vacation to handle the whole rhythm, it just won’t work. It won’t be enough and it won’t be when you need it. Consider ways that you can work the ideas we’ve been talking about all month into a personal rhythm for yourself.
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I’m not feeling rested. Even if I sit and do nothing…I’m still not feeling rested. That led me to this month’s focus on rest and a quest to figure out what really will make me feel refreshed. I’ll add an aside here to mention that nutrition makes a difference. I feel much better today than I felt before I kicked off my healthy eating challenge six weeks ago. It’s a good start. But, here’s what I’ve discovered about rest.
We have a culture in this country that believes that work is critical and rest is optional. But, that’s not how it’s always been and it’s not how it should be. Rest should be a teammate of work. It enhances, feeds, and enables work. Historically, many cultures have valued rest and recovery as the pinnacle of culture. We don’t, and as a result, we’re exhausted, burned out, and completely stressed. Counter to our culture’s beliefs, we’re actually less productive, do less great work, and are less creative without resting. If, as a society, we want to develop and grow, this is a real problem.
There’s even been a philosophical shift. Today we believe that knowledge is produced. We take action, we create knowledge. So, the more action, the more knowledge, the more production. But, previously, there was an understanding that there is a component of knowledge work that’s contemplative. Time was prioritized for deep thinking and focus.
In the past, top performers, brilliant minds who have contributed world-altering work, treated rest and work as partners. Most of history’s most brilliant minds worked about five hours a day. When they worked, they worked hard. They typically focused deeply for three or four 90 minute sessions a day. What else did they do? I’ll get to that in a bit.
Sure, we all rest naturally, but we all sing naturally too, and almost everyone can get better at both with intentional practice. The fact that it’s a skill that can be developed is good news. You can improve your rest and recovery! I, thankfully, can get better at it!
Not only does rest act as a teammate to work by renewing your energy and focus. But, it actually creates the environment for creativity to flourish. While I do better with deadlines and know that they can enhance creative work, there’s a portion of the creative process that desperately needs downtime. That can’t be hurried, can’t be controlled, and flourishes with rest. When I mention creativity, I don’t want you to understand that as artists and musicians only. Sure, they’re what our culture thinks of as creatives today. But, scientists, mathematicians, and many other fields we consider non-creative today actually require huge amounts of creative thinking.
Ideal rest isn’t sitting in a recliner for a few hours each night. Ideal rest isn’t the absence of activity. Our brains at rest are actually barely less active than when we’re not at rest. When we drop into a resting state, the brain switches on what’s called the DMN, or default mode network. The DMN automatically activates in a fraction of a second when we’re not engaged in a task. It’s a connected brain network that’s separate from other brain networks. The DMN was discovered in the 1990’s and is now believed to be involved in almost every single significant brain function, like intelligence, moral and emotional judgment, empathy and sanity even. This means that the resting brain is absolutely critical to our lives.
Now that we understand some things about the idea of rest, the last piece of today’s puzzle is what I’m most excited about sharing with you. Well, the idea of a five hour work day is pretty darn exciting, but this is going to mean the difference in creating real rest in my life.
When we think about rest as a teammate of work, there are a few plays in the playbook that you probably don’t value as much as you should. Here are a few of them.
We covered this last week in depth, so I won’t go into it here, other than to say, it’s a crucial component of rest. I don’t want you thinking because I didn’t mention it, that it doesn’t apply. It does.
Remember those 90-minute work cycles I mentioned earlier? The key is both the focus during the cycle and the break after the cycle. We need the recovery time from the work, but also the space that it gives to allow the ideas you’ve been at work on to marinate in the background.
What to do in the break? Here are my top three suggestions. nap, walk, or play.
Napping is productive time. Ray Bradbury, Frank Lloyd Wright, Lyndon Johnson and Winston Churchill are all well-known nappers. If Winston Churchill considered naps crucial with bombs falling outside, surely you can consider the benefits yourself. Naps decrease fatigue and increase alertness, but they also improve memory, increase your ability to deal with frustration, increase persistence and decrease impulsiveness. When you sleep and how long you sleep affects the benefits you receive from napping, but even a 5-minute nap shows statistical improvements in cognitive function which last even into the next day.
Walking has been a tool employed by thinkers throughout history. Walking meetings are currently gaining popularity in some corporate cultures, like Silicon Valley. Walking allows us to both relax and diverts the mind to a degree that we can be occupied with the motion and surroundings, but not so distracted that our minds aren’t free to work out ideas at the same time. Being outside in a natural environment is wonderful for our brains. Simply living on a street with 20 or more trees has the ability to increase your life expectancy to the same degree as a $20,000 increase in salary would. But, it’s not just nature, it’s the movement. No one understands exactly why, but the nature of repetitive exercises stimulates our thinking. It doesn’t have to be walking. It can be swimming, running or other exercises where the movement is repetitive but doesn’t require your full attention.
But what about recovery? What about the kind of rest that isn’t directly feeding work? There are some key things to know about this kind of rest as well.
German sociologist Sabine Sonnentag has been studying recovery for the last twenty years. She says there are four key components: relaxation, control, mastery experiences, and mental detachment from work.
Relaxation is easy for us to understand, it’s an activity that’s pleasant and undemanding. Something that doesn’t feel like work and doesn’t require a lot of effort.
Control is the ability to dictate your own time and workflow. People who have more control over their time need less recharging at the end of the day.
Mastery experiences are things that, while they may be challenging, they’re engaging and interesting things that you do well. They make life more meaningful, more rewarding.
And mental detachment from work is becoming mentally and emotionally unhooked from your work. So the ability to feel disconnected from your job is critical to being able to recover well.
These lead me to something I’ve mentioned a few times today but skipped over until now. Play. Play is one of the most important things we do development-wise, but once we pass the age of twelve, one of the most undervalued. Even when it’s physically challenging, it typically feels absorbing or effortless. It’s enjoyable, or thrilling or engaging, but not difficult the way work feels. Activities become what’s known as deep play if they have at least one of these features: it’s mentally absorbing, uses career skills in a totally different context, it offers similar satisfaction, but different clearer rewards or a connection to a person’s past. Sailing, music, sports, chess, gardening or woodworking, many of the things we recognize as hobbies can function as deep play and be useful in helping us relax, detach from work, have mastery experiences, allowing our brains to rest and recover.
I’ve thrown a lot of information at you today and not a lot of practical application. Next week, we’ll tie it all together with what this really can mean in your life to help you feel rested.
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I’m fairly certain that in my audience, there will be very few people that haven’t heard that we, as a general population, need more sleep. If you’ve been listening to me for any length of time, you’ve heard me mention it before. If you’ve ever heard statistics on stress, nutrition, or health, you’ve probably heard that you should get more sleep.
And yet, we aren’t. As a nation, we aren’t sleeping more. We’re actually sleeping less. We usually hear it as a general recommendation. You should sleep more. It’s not like you don’t really realize that. Most of us know that we’re functioning with less than optimal sleep. Some of you are powering through. Some of you would like more sleep, but can’t seem to get it.
I’ve always loved sleep and have always fallen asleep quickly and easily. Unless of course, I’ve opened a novel in the previous 24 hours and then I’m awake until it’s done. Which is why that only happens on vacation these days. This past New Year’s Eve, I pulled the first all-nighter I’ve done in a long time, Not because I was out partying. I was at the beach with a friend and while she (being in cancer treatments) went to bed at 8, I started a novel and with a break to watch fireworks from the deck, I read until I finished the book at 5 am.
My son takes after my mother. They have trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep and prefer to stay up late and sleep late. Sleep has always been an issue for him, since the moment he was born. When all the other babies were fussy and cranky and ready for bed at 7 or 8 pm, he had the best part of his day. Now that he’s hit puberty, it’s actually easier than it’s ever been, but he still perks up about the time everyone else, meaning me, is ready for bed. This was the part of parenting that scared me the most. I know I don’t function well on little sleep and mothers of newborns don’t sleep much.
It turns out that my fears were somewhat justified. I was extremely sick during my whole pregnancy. The medical term for what I had is "hyperemesis gravidarum" which is fancy doctor speak for "excessive vomiting during pregnancy." In order to keep me semi-functional, I was on several medications usually given to cancer patients to control their treatment-induced nausea. I’m forever grateful for those meds, but the downside was that for the eight months before my son’s birth I was already having to wake up every few hours to take one or more of the different pills. By the time he was born, I was well-practiced but exhausted. And, as I mentioned earlier, he didn’t sleep well. Which meant I didn’t sleep well either. For years. I actually remember very little of his earliest years, because I spent it in a sleep-deprived fog.
It doesn’t take extended excessive nausea or a newborn for us to experience the effects of lack of sleep, however. Whether we feel it or not, lack of sleep affects us very quickly. I read several studies that indicate that one night of sleep deprivation can change how our bodies respond to insulin. One study suggests that one night of sleep deprivation may have a similar effect on our systems as six months of eating a high-fat diet. Shawn Stevenson, who wrote the book Sleep Smarter, said it this way, “just one night of sleep deprivation can make you as insulin resistant as a person with type 2 diabetes.” So, my one-night reading binge on New Year’s Eve? It probably radically changed my body’s ability to deal with the food I was eating. And here, I thought I was just tired for a few days!
It turns out that sleep does an incredible amount of different jobs for us that just don’t happen as well or at all when we miss out on effective sleep. Here are just a few.
Anyone remember the six million dollar man? I’m showing my age here, but the opening narration included, "Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world's first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster." You have that technology too, It’s called sleep. Sleep rebuilds you. Your body is always either in a catabolic state, where it is wasting away or an anabolic state where it’s regenerating. Sleep is a heightened anabolic state, enhancing the rejuvenation and growth of your immune, skeletal, and muscular systems.
Poor sleep will make you dumber. Really. A study published by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that poor sleep quality was equal to binge drinking and marijuana use in determining academic performance. College students who were poor sleepers were found to be much more likely to drop out of classes and receive bad grades. Research shows that with 24-hour sleep deprivation, there’s a 6% reduction in the amount of glucose, or fuel, that reaches your brain. And your brain isn’t impaired equally in all areas. The amygdala or more primitive area of the brain responsible for survival wasn’t impaired as much as that responsible for executive functions. Executive functions are things like decision-making, managing time, paying attention and switching focus, making plans and organizing, remembering details, and having self-control.
I’ll give you one more. Your brain is very active when you’re awake, it’s making all those executive decisions I just mentioned, it’s taking in new information and processing it, it’s learning, it’s monitoring feedback from the rest of your body’s systems, it’s generally doing all the things that make you amazing. All these actions create waste products and the brain runs on a different waste removal system that the rest of your body. When you sleep, that system becomes ten times more active. It’s removing dead cells, getting rid of toxins, and taking out the cellular trash. What happens when the waste removal system in your home is backed up? When the garbage doesn’t get taken out. I’m not tossing blame, in my house, that rests on my shoulders and stacks up frequently, so I know how fast it smells. What happens if your bathroom plumbing gets backed up? Things can get pretty ugly, pretty quickly, right? During sleep, several things happen to make waste removal much more efficient. One theory of one of the foundational causes of Alzheimer’s is the brain’s inability to get rid of its waste products.
Those are only three of a huge number of beneficial processes that are interrupted by lack of sleep or lack of good sleep. Think about it, it just makes sense. We’re designed to sleep maybe a third of our lives. As incredible as our bodies are, something we physically need to do so much of the time has to be incredibly valuable. But, we treat it as completely expendable.
What are you trading sleep for? More awake hours for what? Netflix? Work? Social media? Internet scrolling? Worry or stress? Next time you’re thinking about staying up late to watch just one more episode, consider what it's costing you. Your body will be less able to repair itself, less able to take out the cellular trash, and less able to make good decisions. So, if I can overgeneralize for emphasis, you might know what happened on "This Is Us", but you’re going to be more fragile, dumber, and have a head full of brain waste. Sounds like a good trade, right? Not so much.
If you’re staying awake to be more productive, it will actually backfire on you. You’ll finish whatever you’re working on more slowly and with more errors than you would fresh and you’re decreasing your productivity for the following day as well.
Another area that may hit close to home? Lack of sleep may be impairing your ability to lose weight. There several reasons for this, but I’ll just share one that I laid the groundwork for already. Remember I said that sleep deprivation impaired executive brain function like decision-making and self-control? While it causes more activity in the amygdala? You’re tired. You’re hungry because another thing that happens is that leptin, an appetite-regulating hormone, levels fall. You have impaired self-control and decision-making and your amygdala is sending you messages that you need food for survival, more sugar please, the glucose reaching the brain is reduced, grab those chips, stat! You’re stacking the deck against yourself and this is just one of the ways.
So, what can you do? There are a lot of ways to influence your sleep, and I’ll give you a list of ten. But, mostly today, I wanted to crack the door open on that very general, “we should get more sleep” statement so that you understand that there are critically important things happening in your body when you sleep. Hundreds, if not thousands of specific processes that are really important for your life, health and vitality. Trading sleep for an all-night video game binge seems harmless at 15, but even one all-nighter can have long-term harmful effects that wear down systems over a lifetime. Sleep isn’t just a luxury. It’s a vital part of a healthy life.
Here are ten quick suggestions to help you sleep better, longer. I’m not going to do a lot of explanation, but there are science and explanations available on all of these things and many of them you’ve heard before…you’ve just not done them. I suggest you begin taking sleep more seriously and work these into your life one at a time.
There’s nothing earth-shattering in this episode, but I hope as you make decisions this week about your sleep, you’ll begin to prioritize it more. I’ve changed how I eat in the last six weeks and a side benefit is that I’m sleeping better. I’m exercising again, and I’m sleeping better. I’ve darkened my room, and I’m sleeping better. I went to bed the other night instead of choosing a few more hours of work, and you know what? Life went on. I’m making some more intentional changes in the days to come. I hope you’ll join me!
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It’s ironic really. April and December are typically the two busiest months of my year. 2018 is no exception. That makes it the perfect time to talk about rest, right? In the last few months I’ve been doing a better job getting consistent sleep, but the last three nights I got about 60% of what I usually get. So, I’m prepping this podcast while sleep deprived. Not a good way to start a crazy-busy month.
I’ve talked about busy-ness before. I’ve talked about the importance of sleep before in small bits. But, apparently, something’s not penetrating my heart, because I keep getting into the same situation, where my activity level and schedule are too much. Too much for me to be the parent, friend, or daughter I want to be. Too much for me to do quality work. Too much for me to create art or writing that matters.
My circumstances are stacked against me. Do you ever feel like that? I’m a single mom and a small business owner. Either of those things is enough to be “too much” most of the time. Put them together and it feels to me like a recipe for overwhelm and exhaustion. Add to that my propensity to volunteer and “too much” is a sure thing.
Part of the problem for me is also personality type. I tend to get in deep with things my family is involved in. Part of the problem is also that I’m a natural leader, so I wind up leading everything I’m involved in. Part of the problem is that I’m what’s called a multi-potentialite, polymath or scanner. They all mean basically the same thing. It’s the opposite of a specialist. I had a friend once tell me that I’m a “skill-collector” and that’s pretty true. I love lots of things, and lots of new things all the time.
We live in a culture that drives us to that “too much” point in multiple ways. We value intensity, all or nothing-ness, busyness as a badge of honor, doing, doing, doing, accumulation, more, harder, better, bigger, faster.
My circumstances, personality, and the culture are all factors. But, this problem is epidemic; it crosses all personalities and circumstances.
Why am I worrying about it now? One of my commitments for this year is to choose health. I’m not in a healthy place right now in this sphere. I’m finding I’m over-scheduled. I’ve got very little downtime. I’m not able to do the hobbies I enjoy. I’m consistently tired. There are some seasons of life that are like that. Or, more like that than others. But, I’m not seeing it change enough as the seasons in my life change.
I’ve recently noticed two specific things that have really made me recognize that I need to deal with it right now. First, I’ve noticed that I can’t relax. I can never turn my thinking mind off. I’m working all the time, even when I’m not really working. Not that I don't want to, but I seem unable to. I don't know what to do with myself, my thoughts if I'm not working. This is a huge problem, unhealthy for me and my family, as well as exhausting.
The second thing I’ve noticed is that as I do more creative work, whether that’s in my art studio or writing, I need to be in a different mental state. Creativity doesn’t hurry on demand. The best work is born out of slow skills. If I want to do great work, I need to cultivate that kind of mental presence. It’s not that I don’t need to work at it…waiting around for inspiration to strike is not what I’m suggesting. It takes hard work, but creativity flourishes in an environment with mental space. When I’m constantly hurried, thinking, anxious, and under a time crunch, my work suffers.
Maybe you don’t have the kind of personality, interests or work that I have, but odds are good you struggle with this in some way. Because, as a culture, we don’t value slow, meandering, just being, or rest. We are constantly overstimulated. We treat our life as escapism. If we're exhausted and overworked, we don’t have to deal with real heart or relationship issues. And, we think we can live with no limits.
For about six weeks, I’ve been working with a group focused on improving our health. As I’ve been thinking about the idea of rest as it relates to physical effort, I realized that many of the concepts also apply to a life that’s over-stimulated, over-committed and over-worked. I’ve had many conversations in the past with people doing hard workouts, but not understanding that rest and recovery are crucial to fitness gains. Here are seven reasons why.
Those seven reasons that rest is crucial to physical recovery and wellbeing also apply to mental and emotional wellbeing. Rest is part of the equation of life. We need it. Science is finding more benefits of rest all the time. And, we continue to ignore the warning signs that our bodies and minds give us that they need rest. We need it physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Lack of rest or recovery mentally and emotionally leads to burnout, a bazillion dollar mental health sector of the pharmaceutical industry and the breakdown of families and relationships. Sure, seasons of hustle might need to happen. But, not years. Not as a permanent condition. Like physical overtraining, the toll in susceptibility to injury, lack of ability to bounce back, negative impacts on sleep and weight loss, mood or mental health issues and general enjoyment of life all contribute to a “too much” lifestyle.
I’m taking a serious look at my “too much” lifestyle this month and what I can do about it. I’d encourage you to join me. We’ll talk about what kind of activities or lack of activity actually contribute rest and recovery, why sleep is important and how to improve it, and how we can create a rhythm of rest in our lives.
My question for you this week is this: Are you getting enough physical, emotional and mental rest? If you look past the excuses, like personality, circumstances, and culture, why not? What are you valuing more than your relationships and your health? That’s a really important question. I’ll ask it again. What is it that you are proving with your actions that you value more than your health and your relationships?
Right now, when I really get right down to it, I’m valuing work more. Whether it’s creative work, career work, ministry work, or personal projects…it’s all work. And my son deserves better, he is way more important than work. And I’m modeling a behavior that I don’t want him to learn.
So, I have some changes to make. How about you?
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Spring has sprung here in Middle Tennessee. As I work on this episode, it’s pouring down rain, we have flash flood warnings, and we expect up to 4” to fall tonight and tomorrow. It’s going to drown out the daffodils and cherry blossoms I’m afraid. What that really means for me is that allergy season is underway in one of the worst parts of the country for allergy sufferers like me. And what that means for you is that you get to suffer through a month of me sounding stuffed up. I’ll do my best to spare you. But April Fool’s Day on the horizon also means that the first quarter of 2018 has vanished. POOF! Gone! Just like that!
Most people’s New Year’s resolutions or goals don’t make it out of January alive, and I told you when we were talking about it a few months ago, that I’d update you as we went through the year on my progress with my goals and how I stay on track. We're in a month with 5 Sundays and I thought I’d take this first week of the quarter to do some reflection and check in on my progress.
Whether you care how I’m doing on my goals or not, that’s the first key thing I want to remind you of today. Creating a rhythm of reflection in your life is really important for your personal, emotional, spiritual and intellectual growth. I think I spoke about this in an episode a long time ago, I’ll try to find that one and link it up in the show notes, but if growth in any area of your life is important to you, you need to spend some time reflecting on that area of your life on a regular basis.
Self-reflection is deliberate thinking about your own behavior and beliefs. We’re not used to doing that in our culture. It requires slowing down. It requires vulnerability, courage, and discipline. But without it, without a rhythm of reflection, growth is haphazard at best and learning doesn't happen. Here are five important tips to keep in mind:
I’m not doing a general self-reflection today, but more a peek into the process I use specifically to keep my goals on track. I spend about a half hour at the end of each month doing this. Because it’s the end of a quarter, though, I have one extra step.
First, I review my goals. I set my goals a little differently this year. Usually, I’d do some dreaming about what I want my life to be like, then I’d evaluate my life in different categories, like work, relationships, finances, etc. I’d figure out how to get closer to that dream and then I’d create goals in each of those categories. This year, however, I did something totally different. Back in episode 62, I talked about creating five commandments to live by. I named five things that if I’m doing these five things consistently, my life will have been lived well. Then I created goals in each of these five areas.
My five commandments are: love God, prioritize people, spend intentionally, choose health and create consistently. Typically, in this step, I’m reminding myself of what I said I wanted to accomplish. But, since this is a quarterly review, today, I’m doing more than refreshing my memory, I’m taking a deeper look and asking questions as well. Is this goal still valid? Is this really the path I want to be on? Circumstances change over time, and new priorities can crop up. For example, I’d specifically not set any work or career goals this year. It wasn’t where I wanted to put my focus. But, some things have changed in the last three months that have brought that to the very top of my list.
The first step is to go through each of my goals and check their validity and my progress. So, I’ll go with the first as an example. That first commandment is to love God. One of the reasons I’ve pulled back from work goals in 2018 is that I’ve taken on a ton of ministry responsibilities in the past twelve months. Part-time job-ish commitments, probably 20 hours a week. It’s very, very easy to get so busy giving and serving, that you lose track of your own relationship with God and you crash and burn in a variety of ways. My goal is to cement my own relationship time, not study, writing, team-leading, or serving time, but relationship time. I’ve been semi-successful. The first six weeks of the year were spot on and the last six, not as much. Is it still valid? This is still a critical goal for me, so I need to recommit to it and get back on the wagon.
I’ll do one more. Because I chose health to go through in episode 69 when we were talking about a plan t0 make permanent changes, I’ll review that for you. Up until this month, I’d been on a seven-month binge of really bad health choices, I’d gained 25-30 pounds, and was feeling wretched. To kickstart myself, I started a 30 day challenge on Facebook with a group of people that wanted to join me and I’ve met all of my March goals, I’ve made healthy choices for more than 25 days in the month, I’ve been exercising five or six days a week, I’ve lost close to ten pounds by the time this airs, and most importantly, I’m feeling a lot better. This one’s still important and I’ll be continuing what I’m doing in April. If you’re listening to this in April of 2018 and you'd like to join us, it’s free and you can sign up here.
It takes me a lot less time to mentally process that than talk through it. It’s asking myself:
The first two questions are the difference between a quarterly and a monthly review. On any given month, I’ll look at the goals and evaluate my progress, but not necessarily be checking in on the validity of the goal itself.
When I have that done, I run through a series of exercises in Cultivate What Matters Powersheets (a tool I mentioned in episode 66). Basically, I review the previous month, the good and bad. I put down in writing anything that’s stressing or bothering me. I look at my calendar and then I write down what I need to accomplish this month. Then, the key task, I create a month-long task list. This includes daily tasks or habits I want to cultivate in the upcoming month, weekly things I need to do, and monthly tasks—which I assign to which week I’ll accomplish them within the month. Then, I pull out the habit trackers I created in January and fill it out for daily tasks I listed and then place it in my journal/planner.
I see the daily task tracker in my journal each day. Weekly tasks tend to be scheduling issues, like making sure I send ministry emails, prep and print small group discussion pages, or work on this podcast. Weekly things tend to get done without this process, so the daily and monthly tasks are where I spend my attention. Sunday evenings, I usually set up my week in my planner, so I check my monthly tasks at that time to see what I need to focus on that week.
And that’s it, that’s my monthly process. It takes about 20 - 30 minutes at the end of each month and keeps me on track throughout the year while being flexible enough to adjust to changes and circumstances.
Back in episode 64, I mentioned that the gaps between how I wanted to be living and how I am living are biggest in two areas. Spending intentionally, (mostly about time) and choosing health. I’ve already shared that I’m doing well on choosing health now and I feel really good about that.
Spending intentionally, I’ve still got some work to do. April is going to be a super busy month for me. I have house guests coming, two out of town trips and dog sitting for a dog trainer friend of mine. Usually, that involves five to eight dogs at a time. At the same time, I’m starting two educational courses in April, and it’s the onslaught of the busiest time of the school year for my son. This is all on top of an already full schedule. Oh, and it’s allergy season, so I’ll be feeling generally rotten this whole month.
This is the season that my goal is to plan for less, not more. On the other hand, I’ve chosen to do these things intentionally. There are reasons, good reasons, behind each choice. My schedule didn’t fill up accidentally, which often happens. I’m paying close attention. I’ve also off-loaded some things and am continuing to pursue ways to do so to make room for those choices. So, I have been intentional about it, I’m just choosing to be busier than I prefer.
One last thing to mention. I said earlier that some things have changed with my work plans, so that will be taking up an increasing amount of time. I’ve added that on to my goals list for the year and will be working on that alongside the commandment goals. Things change. Circumstances change. If you need to adjust priorities, that’s a choice, not a failure to achieve something else. I need to decrease focus on some other things in order to increase focus on business.
I’ve added this to my list in February and March. There’s nothing magic about the beginning of the year, it’s just convenient and present in conversations around us. There’s nothing magic about the beginning of a quarter. It’s just a convenient time to trigger me to remember to review my priorities.
What is magic, whether it’s January first or a random Tuesday morning, is that you make the choice to get up and move forward, no matter what you’ve done or not done previously. I posted a photo that I took on a hike before work in my healthier challenge group a few weeks ago. It was of a NO PARKING sign. The only way to achieve what you want in life is to small-step-by-small-step walk toward that thing that’s important to you.
I haven’t done everything right in the last three months. But, I’m not parking. I’m continuing to take steps. Change is an ongoing process.
So, that’s a first-quarter update for you. I’ll check back in with you early July about my progress in the next quarter. I mentioned how busy my April will be, and so, I’m going to be talking for the next few weeks with you about the importance of rest. Makes sense, right? Here’s why. I’m realizing that I’m having a harder and harder time relaxing, even in downtime and I need to address that, it’s not healthy and correcting that is part of my choose health goals. Plus, I need reminding about the critical nature rest plays in our lives. Statistics say I’m not the only one struggling with this in our always-on, always-connected world. So, let’s see what we can find out about it this month. Until next time, y’all have a fantastic week!
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If our expectations affect our own behavior, the behavior of others, our relationships and even our health, then they’re pretty important. We talked about how disappointment is the difference between expectation and reality. But where do our expectations come from? What is it that’s setting us up for those differences and that disappointment?
We begin filling up our backpack of expectations from the moment we’re born. Some of us learn to expect attention, food, dry clothes, or snuggles when we cry. Some of us learn to expect anger or neglect. These are expectations set from experience. Other expectations are set by observation, how we see our friends and family interact with each other and with strangers in all types of circumstances. Where we live, both the macro and micro cultures we live in form expectations. Society at large sets expectations, norms and standards for us as well.
Today I want to talk a bit about those expectations, the ones set for us by society and culture. And I want to talk about it because those expectations translate so subtly into our own “shoulds” that unless we’re hyper-vigilant, can seriously affect our own sense of self.
What kind of norms am I talking about? We live in a curated world. This has always been true, but technology has made so much more of that world so accessible, that we’re inundated with the message more and more. Let’s talk through a few examples.
I’m a photographer. I owned a portrait studio for awhile and I also took travel, landscapes and dog portraits for years. I started shooting in college with film, left it completely for many years and started again at the beginning of the digital revolution. I’ve watched digital photography and processing come of age over the last few decades.
I am not declaring either digital photography nor processing an enemy in what I’m about to say, please don’t misunderstand. They are tools, tools that can be used to make great art, tools that can be used for social commentary, tools that can be used to portray emotion, portray reality, and to manipulate reality. This has always been true. Darkroom images were manipulated as well. Images that move you…so most photos that are used in media, whether that’s to sell you something or convince you of something are pretty significantly manipulated.
Many of us are aware of the degree of manipulation of images of women in print and we’re aware of the damage it causes. I’m not going to rehash that. Although, I may post an example of typical adjustments made to images before publication. It’s actually not just photographic processing that manipulates reality, but the whole process, including styling hair and especially makeup and lighting. So, we know that images of women in media are highly manipulated and damaging. We know. And it still makes little difference. We’re still faced with social norms of impossible standards. And we still feel the expectation within ourselves and from others to meet those standards. But, we can’t. It’s impossible to do so.
That’s a really obvious example, one that’s made the news frequently in the last several years. But, let’s talk about a few more. Think of every example of a beach you’ve seen in print, movies or online. Think of every example of images of Fall foliage shots. Think of mountain lakes and country roads. The images we see of our natural world are manipulated too. They’re curated to include only the most breathtaking shots and then those shots are enhanced. What are the images of the travel photos you see of your vacation location? They’re taken from the most flattering angle at the most flattering time of day. Is this wrong? Not necessarily. It can be if it’s completely intentionally misleading. But, I just want you to think about how your expectations are being unconsciously formed. Are your expectations of the beach, or the woods, or the mountains affected by the curated images you see? Of course, they are. Our world is stunningly beautiful. Grand. Magnificent. But, if your real life experience is being compared to manipulated, curated images, your experience might come up on the short end of the stick. Your expectations weren’t based on a healthy model.
It’s not just photography that does this for us. I’m going to read you a few paragraphs from a piece published last week by Robert Finch about his first experience visiting Walden Pond.
It was not until much later that I realized I had been disappointed, not by Walden, but my own expectations. I had read the book and then had gone out and expected the reality of the natural setting to unfold, chapter by chapter, with the same ease and drama that Thoreau had quarried out of it only after years of hard work fashioning the landscape into the stuff of literature. It was my first lesson in mistaking art for place.
What we see, or experience in nature depends, not so much on where we are as on an almost infinite number of other factors: how much we know, or think we know about a place, our physical condition and mood, the time of day or year, the weather, the wind, the sky, the clothes we wear, whether we are alone or with other people, and so on. But often the most important factor is how we have experienced a place vicariously before we actually experience it in person.
Most of us are, in a sense, crippled in our encounters with nature because our formative experiences of the natural world are not first-hand but “packaged” – in books, movies, television documentaries, museum exhibits, guided nature walks, lectures, and of course the infinite representations of nature on the Internet. No matter how informative or professional these representations may be, we are conditioned by them to expect nature itself to appear before us in a condensed, narrated, edited, illustrated, and above all entertaining form, one that requires no investment from us.
Here’s the thing. We expect our lives to unfold in that same “condensed, narrated, edited, illustrated, and above all entertaining form.” But they don’t. Our lives are not curated. Not edited. Not enhanced. The colors aren’t saturated all the time. The walls of my apartment aren’t magnificent. They’re not Pinterest or Instagram worthy.
When we allow culture to set our norms, standards, and expectations, we’re dooming ourselves for a life filled with a vague or not-so-vague sense of, “I’m not good enough.” I’m not pretty enough. Not together enough. Not stylish enough. Not athletic enough. Not loved enough. Not organized enough. Not rich enough. Not perfect enough. Not enough.
We know our friends’ social media accounts are a curated subset of their lives. We know the fights, the late nights, the falling apart marriages, the financial stresses, and the kids checked in to addiction centers don’t usually make our social media feeds. Our whole kitchens don’t look like that pretty corner where the Instagram image was taken and our kids only hugged for a second, bribed with an ice cream cone before adorable little Emily shoved that cone up Jennifer’s nose and an all-out war broke out. Again.
We know it.
The problem is that knowing doesn’t keep us from comparing.
This isn’t an episode about the damaging effects of social media on teen self-image, depression, and anxiety, but those statistics are becoming more available. Yes, this is an issue for teens, especially because their brains, their social skills, and their coping mechanisms aren’t fully developed. But, it’s an issue for adults too.
We live in a very false, highly curated world. If you let your expectations be set by traditional media, popular culture, or social media, your life is going to fall short every time. I just want to remind you today to start being aware of what is setting your expectations.
You will be affected by this curated world we live in. We can’t help it. I’m not suggesting you withdraw. I’m suggesting you be wise and aware of where your expectations come from. Be smart about the kinds of media you consume. Be aware of the intention behind every image, story, or entertainment.
Have conversations with your family and friends about ways you can reinforce healthy expectations with each other. Expectations about our relationships, our bodies, our homes, and our natural world. Base your expectations for experiences on values rather than appearances. So, make the beach trip about family, laughter and togetherness and less about the perfect accommodations and weather. Make the point of a vacation internal rather than external. Make the dinner date about exploration, new experiences, and learning rather than about the perfect meal in the perfect place with the perfect people.
Pay attention when you think, “I should” and ask yourself where that should originates from. If it came from your values and desires, that’s great, listen to it. If it came from your parents, your friends, your social media field, then evaluate it against your own values and desires before complying with its demands.
Do not let Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, LinkedIn, or any other social media feed tell you who you should be. You do you. If you need a break from social media because it’s setting up damaging expectations in your life, then, by all means, take a break. I promise it will all still be there when you come back. Pay attention to your own expectations, and those you’re setting up for your kids, intentionally and unintentionally. Make sure those expectations are healthy for you and healthy for their future.
That wraps up our March series on expectations. Because April has 5 Sundays, I think next week, I’m going to give you an update on the changes I’ve been working on this year and how those are going. The good, the bad and the ugly. And then we’ll jump into another four week series for the rest of April.
When I began researching the topic of expectations for this month’s episodes I ran a quote search. And most of what I found were quotes like this:
When you have expectations, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. -- Ryan Reynolds
My life motto is basically to lower your standards and expectations so you're never disappointed and never put any trust in anything, -- Tavi Gevinson
Expectation is the root of all heartbreak. -- William Shakespeare
Expectations are premeditated resentments. -- Alcoholics Anonymous
The secret to happiness is low expectations. -- Barry Schwartz
No expectations. No disappointments. -- Anonymous
Note to self: stop expecting. -- Anonymous
The best way to avoid disappointment is to not expect anything from anyone. --Anonymous
That felt incredibly sad and depressing to me. If you never set expectations, you’ll never be disappointed, of course, but you’ll also never feel the high of meeting or exceeding expectations. It’s like suggesting you never get into a relationship to avoid being hurt. Sure, you’ll not be hurt, but you’ll never experience the joys of love or friendship either.
Protecting yourself from all pain is no way to live.
There will be disappointments in life, all different kinds. Last week we talked about relationship expectations and when they aren’t met, the disappointment that follows. Most of what we talked about was romantic or friend relationships, but plenty of disappointments happen in work, volunteer, or social situations as well. Pretty much anywhere there are people, we’ll eventually be disappointed in someone.
We can be disappointed in ourselves, too. I was a competitive swimmer growing up. When I didn’t place, didn’t get a personal best, or I swam poorly, I was disappointed. Our own performance can disappoint us. Or, we can be disappointed in our own behavior. What if you plan to eat well, cook a healthy meal, eat the healthy meal. And then snarf down the whole box of Girl Scout cookies in the freezer. You’re likely to go to bed disappointed in yourself. Not that I have any experience with that. Nope. I have complete control over my cookie consumption at all times.
One of the quirks of imaginative idealists is that often they’ll anticipate upcoming events with the vividness of a strong imagination. Very often, this imagined scenario becomes an expectation that reality just can’t live up to. Their imagination is always better than real life. Consequently, they experience ongoing disappointment.
I’m sure you’ve experienced all of these types of disappointment at some point in your life and to some degree. And probably others that I haven’t mentioned as well. I had a counselor once tell me that I didn’t allow myself to experience disappointment and I needed to. I’ve never been able to figure out if he’s right or not. But, it’s bugged me ever since. I probably should dig into it a little further when I have some time because as I prepared for this episode, I started thinking about times I’ve felt disappointment in my life. I started writing them down in a list. And I felt something unlock in my heart. I got a distinct impression that there is some buried junk there that needs unearthing. Some things I need to deal with.
But, what are we supposed to do with disappointment? How do we process it? Well, I went on a hunt this week and here’s a summary of what I found, five stages of dealing with disappointment. Like the stages of grief, there is no one perfect way to deal with it and no typical length of time for each step, but here are some generalizations.
Allow yourself to experience it with no agenda, not trying to fix it or get rid of it. Just feel it. As you do, acknowledge it, don’t try to pretend it doesn’t hurt. It does. Realize that everyone experiences it and It won’t last forever. Writing about how it feels can help, so grab a journal or notebook and use it as cheap therapy. One of the key things in this stage is to label it. Consciously say to yourself, “I’m really, really disappointed.” or “Oh, this is a disappointment and it feels awful.” It sounds silly, but labeling emotions switches processing locations in our brains and helps to give us a bit of distance or perspective, allowing us to get through it. Which is the next thing on the list.
After you’ve done your share of feeling--at the point it’s about to turn into wallowing--you can move into the next step.
This is the stage where you gain some perspective and begin to deal with the reality of the situation. Ask yourself, “how bad is it really?” kind of questions. Others can help you put it into perspective as well (Often they’re overly eager to do so!). Positive activities can help; exercise is great for helping to process emotion. Begin to dismantle illusions and untruths. “I should have” or “this should have happened” can be flat out lies that keep us from dealing with reality.
One of the quotes I ran across in that initial search was, “If you align expectations with reality, you will never be disappointed.” by Terrell Owens and that has some truth to it, though I’d say you’ll still experience disappointment initially. When you accept that reality is the way things are, you can then begin to deal with it productively and move past the disappointment. At some point, you need to choose to focus on what actually is and let go of your expectation in order to move forward.
Here are a few things that can help you make that choice:
Laurie Sue Brockway says,
Sports journalist Sam Weinman, author of Win at Losing: How Our Biggest Setbacks Can Lead to Our Greatest Gains, has interviewed many public figures and mental health professionals about disappointments."The psychologist Dr. Jim Loehr talks about 'framing' events in our lives in a constructive way," says Weinman. "His point is that our interpretation of what happens is in many ways more important than what actually happens. If that's the case, Loehr says, in any disappointment we need to find something useful that we can build on, or that at least lets us see even the smallest positive." The more we can learn to frame in a way that's constructive and positive while still being honest, the better we are able to process disappointment.
One way to do this is to look for the growth opportunity within the disappointment. Ask yourself what you could do differently, what you can learn from the situation, how can you improve, or what do you need to change. Growth can be difficult and painful at times, but it creates positive emotions and outcomes, momentum in a healthy direction, and of course, actual growth.
Another way to reframe your experience is to separate your expectation from your real desire. For example, you’re disappointed that a vacation isn’t turning out the way you expected because the concert you traveled to see got canceled. Can you believe it?! You're crushed! So, you might identify the real desire of the trip to be doing something out of the ordinary and relaxing. Usually, the true desire underneath the expectation can be fulfilled in many different ways. Which leads to the next step.
If your desire can be filled in other ways, what else can you do? In our example, what if you googled “interesting things to do in (whatever your location)” and decided on another activity that would be doing something out of the ordinary and relaxing, like going on a sunset boat cruise. Of course, that may not work if you're landlocked, but you get my point. Making an alternative plan and acting on it puts you in control of the direction of your emotions and helps generate momentum toward the positive. It changes our focus from passive victims to active participants in our own future.
And finally, after a big disappointment that you’ve moved past, I’d suggest doing some self-reflection.
Self-reflection is ‘meditation or serious thought about one's character, actions, and motives” It helps build self-awareness, resiliency, growth, and wisdom. It instructs us, guides us and informs us. Review the expectation, where it came from, and what went wrong. Ask yourself questions like,
These kinds of questions can lead to better and better choices in the future.
One more comment that I’d make about the process of dealing with disappointment before I wrap up this episode. Choose to communicate in a healthy way, with others and with yourself as well. Speak positively with an intent to understand. Choose not to participate in blaming, tearing down, or insulting. Choose not to allow circumstances to label you or anyone else. There’s a big difference in thinking you made a mistake and thinking you are a mistake. It’s very easy in the process of disappointment to say things you’ll regret or make judgments about others or yourself. Instead, choose to commit to using your words for good.
Let's review! The steps we’ve talked about to deal with disappointment were to turn toward it and allow yourself to experience it, accept reality and let go of the disapoointment, reframe the situation, make a plan of action and follow it, and self-reflection. I hope this helps you next time you hit a road bump of disappointment, but I hope you don’t need this information anytime soon. Until next time, y’all have a fantastic week.
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William Shakespeare said, “Expectation is the root of all heartbreak.” He might be right! Last week we talked about the power expectation has over behavior, both ours and others'. It can be a force for good, but like many things, it can also do harm. I’ve been thinking about how expectations are affecting my friendships, how they played out in my marriage and how they affect my current relationships. Here are seven “don’ts” that will keep your expectations from killing your relationships.
Don’t expect someone else to make you happy.
Have you ever fallen into this trap? The cliche example of this is the single person that feels that they can’t be happy or fulfilled outside of a relationship. Don’t let the fact that it’s a cliche cause you to dismiss it. Or, if you’re not a single person putting that expectation on a potential crush, you think it doesn’t apply to you. But there are other ways this happens. What if you clean the house up on a Saturday while your spouse is gone and they come home preoccupied and never mention it? Should they? Sure. But, what if they don’t? How does that affect your happiness that evening? What if you send a friend a birthday card and they don’t acknowledge it? I’m terrible about this. Should they acknowledge it? Yes. But what if they don’t? How does that affect your relationship?
What if you have a hobby that you love, let’s use fishing for example. My son loves to fish. I grew up on a lake, I love everything water-related…except fishing. I’ll happily lay around in a boat with you all day while you fish, but am totally uninterested in fishing myself. My grandfathers were both fishermen…the genes just seemed to run out before me. But, apparently, they’re trying to revive in my son. What if I got into a relationship with someone who loved to fish. What if their happiness depended on me enjoying their hobby with them? That happened in my marriage. I was supportive of my husband’s hobby, I just had no interest in it myself. But, his enjoyment of parts of it depended on my participation and enjoyment. Which, I’ll come back to in a few minutes. Here’s the summary, it’s ok to have expectations in a relationship, it’s not ok to base your happiness on someone else fulfilling those expectations. You are responsible for your own happiness. No one else is. You cannot control someone else’s behavior, only your own. You’re responsible for your own happiness, you can’t put that burden on anyone else.
Don’t expect someone else to always be happy.
We are so uncomfortable with pain. We do everything we can to avoid it. Physically, emotionally, and relationally. We avoid both our own pain and that of others. So, when someone we know, a friend, spouse or child is unhappy, we tend to respond in one of three ways: we avoid it, we put limits on it, or we try to fix it. Often, we flat out avoid it. This looks like not calling a friend who is grieving or sad. It looks like telling a significant other, “ok, I’ll just give you some space until you’re feeling better.” Not in an I’ve-asked-you-and-you-want-space kind of way, but in a “this-is-uncomfortable-and-I’m-getting-out-of-here kind of way. Or, we try to fix someone’s pain. There’s plenty of time for advice or suggestions, just be sure that the advice you want to share has been invited. And lastly, we often put limits on others’ pain. You’ve grieved long enough. You’ve been sad about that long enough. You’ve been depressed long enough. Maybe they have or maybe they haven’t. Allow others to experience their pain their way for as long as they need. People need permission and ability to feel the whole range of emotions. Do not expect them to always be happy. And don’t take responsibility for their happiness. Your happiness is your responsibility and theirs is theirs. What should you do? Be with people in pain, help people in pain, and love people in pain.
Don’t expect others to read your mind.
Remember when I mentioned a bit ago that my husband expected me to enjoy his hobby with him? It was car racing. He loved all things mechanical and automotive. Me, not so much. I’m as non-mechanical as you can get and I’d rather be reading, hiking, painting or sewing than doing anything with cars. This caused some friction in our relationship. Not because I was unsupportive. But, because he expected me to enjoy it with him to a greater degree than I was able. He envisioned us attending car club meetings together and going away all the time for summer racing weekends with other car people. The problem was that I had no idea that these expectations existed. Have you ever done that? Had expectations of someone else that you failed to communicate and then as a result, when your expectations weren’t met, you know, the ones they didn’t even know about? You were disappointed, angry or over time, resentful? We all have. Sometimes we don’t even realize our own expectations exist.
This is a huge problem. No matter how well you know each other, no one reads minds. Communicate your expectations clearly. Sometimes the expectations aren’t a problem…if both parties know what they are. Sometimes the expectation is a problem, in which case knowing about it can lead to resolution instead of anger and resentment.
Don’t expect others to do things the right way…if the only right way is your way.
This is another one that’s easy to shrug off as extreme. Of course, you let other people do things their way! But, are there expectations they need to live up to? If they don’t, do they pay for that in any way? Do you let them know they didn’t meet your expectations? I’m not suggesting that you don’t have discussions in any relationship about expectations not being met…but have healthy discussions about it.
The cliche, “If you want it done right, do it yourself.” Comes from some nugget of truth, right? But, if you’re doing all the things all yourself because there’s no room in your world for things done differently, then your relationship will suffer. Burnout and resentment aren’t good for any relationship.
Don’t expect the people in your life to agree with you all the time about everything.
As much as social media begs to differ, we actually can agree to disagree with other people. We can actually love people who disagree with us. Shockingly, we can even like people who think differently than we do. No relationship is going to exist in which you agree on everything. It’s just not. Maybe if you hung out with your clone all the time, but, seriously, how boring would that be? Our differences are what make us unique and interesting. Treat them with respect. Not just the other opinions or ideas. But, the people who hold those opinions and ideas.
Don’t expect perfection.
It will never exist. Not in yourself and not in others. No one can live up to that standard. We’re imperfect beings in imperfect relationships. Understand that, be willing to treat failures with understanding, openness, effort, and grace and you’ll go a long way toward a healthy relationship.
Lastly, don’t expect others to have the same idea of what your relationship should be as you do.
We come to our relationships with different needs, interests, intentions, backgrounds, habits, and values. Even people who grew up in the same family may have different perspectives on what any given relationship should look like. Siblings might disagree on what relationships with their parents should be. Friends might disagree on how much contact is expected in their relationship. There are a thousand different ways we could have different expectations about what a relationship should be like.
You can’t control anyone but yourself. You can’t make them share your perspective. You can try to figure out what each of your relationship expectations is and try to come to a common ground. This takes effort on both sides.
Those are seven pitfalls we can sabotage our relationships with by having unhealthy expectations. What can you do? Here are three ideas:
So, what happens when we let expectations get the best of us? When there’s a gap between our expectations and reality? That’s where disappointment, anger, and resentment can live. Next week, we’ll talk about how to handle unmet expectations.
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Last night and today, I've had a relentless headache. Not the migraine, I’m-feeling-like-I’m-going-to-puke-can’t-open-my-eyes kind of a headache. But, the kind that just won’t go away and makes it hard to think clearly and put two sentences together. I’ve taken some pills, used peppermint oil and done a few other things that usually help. Nothing is touching it. I feel like I could be coming down with something, which wouldn’t be shocking, pretty much everyone in the state of Tennessee is either sick or just getting over being sick.
What I suspect is going on with my head is a combination of the start of allergy season, not sleeping well for several days, and a stressful week. But, probably the biggest contributing factor is that I just went cold turkey cutting unhealthy food out of my diet. Particularly for this discussion, sugar. If you imagine sugar as an adorable little stuffed pink unicorn, well, you’re wrong. Sugar is far more like a lovely bride turned into a screaming bridezilla when her wishes aren’t met.
Having done this before, I know that in a few days I’ll feel a lot better. I know the brain fog, the headaches, the feeling-like-I’m-getting-sick symptoms will all go away. But, in the meantime, I still have to get a podcast episode recorded, several articles written, business accounting done and be a mom with a middle school sleepover tonight. Oh, and manage to cook healthy meals and not eat the three boxes of girl scout cookies in my freezer.
I love macaroni and cheese. The whole Southern United States loves macaroni and cheese. Here, it’s considered a standard side dish like french fries or green beans. Just as commonly, it’s a main dish. I love both box and homemade mac-n-cheese. Actually. Since I’ve been eating healthier the last few years, the box version now tastes like chemicals to me. But, my point is that I never expected them to be the same dish. They don’t have to taste like each other. I can still like them both.
Like millions of other people, I love bacon. I also love turkey bacon. Not as a substitute for bacon. I just like them both. Mentally, I consider them two totally different animals. Which, in fact, they are. I don’t expect them to be the same so it doesn’t bother me when they’re not.
How does this apply to life if you’re not worrying about the food you eat? What if you don’t expect one relationship to be exactly like another, even if they’re both within your family? What if you don’t expect this holiday to be exactly like all the holidays before? What if you don’t expect one child to progress, perform, behave, speak or dress like your other child? What if we can love things equally, though they are different?
What if it’s just a willingness to let go of expectations to make room for something new and surprising?
Yesterday, because of a project I’m working on, I had a lunch meeting with a local chef who cooks whole food, plant-based non-inflammatory meals for a foundation which delivers food to patients who are in active cancer therapy. She would not approve of a Thin Mints treatment for sugar withdrawal. Ever since I spoke with her, I’ve been thinking about how our conversation kept relating to expectations.
We talked about cooking classes she teaches. When she markets them as healthy, she has fewer signups. People’s expectations are that healthy food tastes bad, and who wants to learn how to make food that tastes bad? When she publishes a menu that includes, for example, lasagna, people expect a traditional dish. She once got class push back on a healthier version of lasagna and decided to do her version and a traditional version at the same time. The class preferred the taste of her version. Even though they expected not to like it initially. On the other hand, when she markets a class as “seasonal menu” people have the expectation that they’re going to be surprised and are more open to trying something new.
It’s all about managing expectations, our own and others. What if you approached something you struggle with, with a new set of expectations? What if you decide to expect this visit with your in-laws to be different? This argument with your spouse to be different? This holiday dinner conversation to be different? How would that change your attitude? Your own behavior?
This morning as my son was getting out of the car, we had this two sentence exchange.
“Have a fabulous day!” Now, I should explain that neither of us is morning people, I don’t normally say this, and I was particularly tired and groggy this morning (a headache, remember?). It sounds much perkier than it felt…though I totally meant it.
“Have a fabulous day!” I said. As he gathered up his stuff and opened the door, my 12-year-old son responds with, “I probably won’t. And look, a really big puddle right outside the door. Of course.” I love him, but he was totally responding Eyeore to my attempted Tigger.
What do you think? What kind of day is he likely to have? Science says it will not be fabulous. Even if he stepped over that puddle intending to have a good day, his expectations would dictate his day, not his intentions. He’s not always had a negative outlook. I’m desperately hoping it's a puberty thing, a phase that will vanish when middle school is in the rearview mirror.
Our expectations shape our reality in more ways than we realize. Not in an I’ve-manifested-my-million-dollar-salary kind of way. But, in scientifically measurable ways. Imagine for a second that he would go into school that day truly with the expectation of a good day. Odds are that his day will align with his expectations whatever they are.
Your expectations affect not only your behavior but others’ behavior as well. There’s a well-known study done in the late 1970’s and repeated since them that gave teachers bogus information about students. Some students were said to be expected to “bloom” academically and others not, when in fact there was no difference between the groups other than the teachers’ expectations. At the end of the test period, the students expected to bloom academically had. Their test scores were higher. Though they treated all the students the same, the teachers’ expectations had influenced reality. Years later, it was discovered that the teacher’s behavior was subtly different to those students which dramatically increased their success in the classroom. Their expectations had influenced their own behavior, which then influenced others.
Anyone who’s had a child crawl up on their lap and snuggle for a moment, look in your eyes and say, “I love you....can I have another cookie?” knows that manipulating other’s behavior is a natural impulse. What I’ve been wondering this week is how we can use our expectations to encourage both ourselves and others into healthy behaviors.
How can I use my expectations to influence my son’s positive attitude? How can I use my expectations to eat healthier? How can I use them to influence my sales or marketing discussions? How can I use them to influence what I believe about myself?
How can you use your own expectations to improve your life?
A few months ago, we talked about developing a "5 commandment" list for yourself - five statements that if you lived by them each day and made decisions by them, you’d be living a life centered around the values you want your life to be marked by. I’ve edited my list since then; I changed one statement. Here are my five commandments:
You can check out episode 62 if you want to understand what those mean to me or more about why or how to create that list.
Since that episode, we’ve been talking about tools and tactics we need to make lasting change in our lives. This is the last episode in that series and I wanted to summarize it all for you today by showing you an example of how all the pieces could work together.
When I compare how I'm actually living with how I want to be living, there is a definite gap in two of those commandments. I’m not doing a good job of choosing health or creating consistently. Actually, I’m writing very consistently, but I’ve not been in the art studio in months. And I have some deadlines coming up for some pieces that need to be finished. I need to find a way to work that into my schedule.
The bigger problem is my health. In the last year, I’ve gone from being in the best shape of my adult life to terrible shape. I’m neither eating right nor exercising. That has to change, I feel terrible and it keeps me from doing things I want to do and living the way I want to live.
Today I’m going to walk you through how I can use all the tactics we’ve talked about to get my eating back on track. I’m going to go through the steps in the order I presented them in the January and February episodes.
A few things to remember as we dig into making a plan…
There are different types of relationships that can help you succeed. Mentors can be people you know and meet with or people you learn from online, in books or by media like this podcast. This one I’m going to have to think about. If I do another round of Whole 30, then Melissa Hartwig, (creator of Whole 30) would be considered a mentor. If I do a four to six-week stint of vegan eating, then I’d count Forks Over Knives as a mentor, as well as a handful of friends who are vegan. But, I’m leaning towards doing a more sustainable, long-term plan, so I’m going to have to work on this one after I decide what exactly I'm doing.
Cheerleaders are another personal resource. These are people who encourage you along the way. I have a friend I meet with weekly and I’ll recruit her specifically to be a cheerleader as well as a long-distance friend who’s changed her eating habits dramatically over the last few years.
Partners are people walking the same road at the same time. My family will be partnering in this to some extent, but they may not be entirely enthusiastic partners. I’d also love if you partnered with me. You don’t need to do the same thing I’m doing, but if you’d be interested in participating in a 30 day Healthier You challenge alongside me, sign up here and I’ll send you some info about how to get started and open up a private facebook group as well.
I’m going to have to think further about this one, I can’t think of any unhealthy relationships off the top of my head (I've weeded out many of them already). This might include people who encourage overindulging, or who I only get together to eat ice cream with or people who don’t have a focus on a healthy lifestyle.
My default future if I continue down this path is that I’ll most likely be on medication for weight and diet-related disease. This could be heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or any number of other issues. I won’t be able to enjoy life as much or play with my grandkids. Things that I love to do will be much more difficult and so I probably won’t do them. Things like hiking, kayaking, and beach-walking. I don’t want those days to be over. I don’t want to spend my time in a hospital. I don’t want to be constantly dealing with medications and doctors. I don’t want the constant pain and inflammation I’m feeling now. I don’t want the second half of my life to be lived on the sidelines from a recliner. I want to be active. If I keep on like this, that won’t happen.
The whole truth right now is that I’m an overweight, middle-aged mom. I’m hampered by my weight gain and by my body’s reaction to the foods I’m eating. I’m uncomfortable, but not doing anything about it. There is nothing good on this path except immediate, momentary satisfaction that only lasts until the next cookie. And, I’m being a terrible role model for my son. I’m not acting like I value health right now.
Because I want to feel good. I want to be functionally fit. I want to be able to move and react easily and freely. I want to be able to run, dance, jump, walk, and skip, just for the joy of movement. I want to play on the floor with my grandkids (assuming I ever have grandkids). There is too much world left to explore to be unhealthy.
I’m going to work on healthy eating for the rest of the year, but I’m going to work in 30-day increments to keep the time frame smaller and more immediate. I'll start this plan on March 1st. For this month I’m going to use an incentive to gamify the process and I’ll talk about that in a few minutes. And I’ll track each successful day in my journal. I’m going to use a long-term incentive too. I’m going to consider a month successful If I’ve made all good choices for 25 days out of the month. When I reach 10 successful months, I’ll treat myself to something I’ve wanted for a long time, a stand-up paddleboard. I’m going to cut a photo of one up in 10 pieces and begin to put it back together again as I complete each successful month.
This is a statement that I will repeat to myself before I eat anything. I'm going to start by trying: I make healthy choices so that I can hike, travel and play with my grandkids.
I need to make a decision on how I’m going to eat and I need to carve out time for planning meals.
I’ll make a decision on what to eat and create a meal plan before March 1. Mostly, that’s not acquiring skills, but spending time pulling recipes together. And I think it’s going to be slightly different than anything I’ve done before, so I may need to do some online research.
Step one: good choices at home for snacks
Step two: good choices at my Tuesday and Wednesday meetings where there’s food present
Step three: good choices when I’m surrounded by bad food all day on Sundays
The women in my groups and on my Sunday ministry team
I’m going to put $1 a day in a jar each day I make good choices all day. After a month I can spend that or keep adding to it.
That $1 a day? If I don’t make good choices, it’s going in another jar and I’ll donate it to a charity I totally disagree with.
For the next month, I’ll order groceries online once a week. This keeps me from making bad choices when I’m there and limits my options for making bad choices at home.
I’ll eliminate the junk and tempting things from the kitchen. I’ll move anything remaining to the back of the pantry where I tend to forget it…or the other end of the house. Or, I’ll throw it away if that doesn’t work.
I’m putting some photos of travel, hiking, and kayaking inside my kitchen cabinets. Maybe do some art pieces or put some posters up too that will remind me subconsciously of who I am.
I need a meal plan. If I have a 30-day meal plan, I’ll follow it. I tend to fall off the wagon far more easily when I work without a plan. When I have a meal plan in place, I have to make an effort to break it, and if I do, I know I waste time, food and money, which I don’t like.
I’m going to track food and water for a month. I’ve done this before and it really helps with awareness and accountability.
That’s it! Remember, these tactics are about how you’re going to support yourself as you make changes and not what you’re changing. Also, parts of this might not work. I’ll try it for a month and see. I’m sure there are other things along the way I’ll think of and I’ll add them in as I go along.
This process isn’t limited to making changes in how you eat. You can use it for any change you want to make. What do you need to change? You’ll be far more likely to be successful if you make a plan.
If you do want to come along with me on a Healthier You challenge in March, click here and join in. I’m actually doing exercising alongside healthier eating, so I’ll probably be talking a bit about that as well. You don’t need to be doing what I’m doing, but we can help partner in making good choices and sticking to our own plans. Let’s see what we can start to accomplish in the next 30 days!
My degree in college was in Interior Design. We did a little bit of decorating—I was trained in stylistic periods, materials and furniture. I was taught fabric types and color theory. But, the majority of my training came in three parts: determining the problem, solving that problem and presenting a solution. It just so happened that the problems I was solving had to do with environmental spaces that people lived or worked in. We learned how to make spaces functional to solve practical issues but at the same time, we solved psychological issues as well.
For example, you want your bedroom to function well as a bedroom, but you probably also want it to be a restful space that promotes sleep. You want your office space to allow the right number and different types of work that need to happen, but you also need it to promote the right quality of work or promote sales.
Our environments influence our behavior, often unconsciously. When restaurants want to turn tables faster, they can change the music to be more upbeat and a faster speed. You’re more likely to eat faster and leave than if the music played is relaxing and calming. Research has shown that a subtle background aroma of cleaning liquid in the air influences people to be perceptibly cleaner and tidier than they would otherwise be. This leads me to believe I need to diffuse Lemon Scented Pledge in my son’s bedroom and whenever I want him to take a shower. Mark Tyrrell says,
Another fascinating piece of research reported in the journal Science in October 2008 involved hot and cold cups of coffee. Students were asked to hold a cup of coffee in their hands for a few seconds before reading an information pack about a hypothetical person and then assessing this person's 'character'. The students who had held a hot cup of coffee were significantly more likely to describe the hypothetical individual as 'warm and friendly' than the students who had held an iced coffee. Just the immediate environment of their hands had seeded their unconscious minds, and, although they all read the very same information about the imaginary individual, their responses were largely in accord with the environmental 'suggestion'.
Environment influences behavior. Designers of all kinds know this to be true. I know how your eye is likely to move across a web page and I can influence your behavior with what I put in those locations. Landscape designers know how they want you to use an outdoor space and create environments that lead to the outcomes they want.
I could go on with examples for a very long time. But, instead of creating paranoia about how every environment you enter has been designed to affect your behavior…let’s talk about how this idea can help you influence your own behavior. Last week we talked about how to beef up your internal ability to make changes. We talked about motivation and skills. This week, let’s talk about ways we can make external things work in our favor. I’m going to focus on incentives and environment.
Let’s start with incentives. You know how this works. Companies offer incentives for employees to work there. Stores offer incentives for people to buy there. The dictionary says that an incentive is "a thing that motivates or encourages one to do something” or "a payment or concession to stimulate greater output or investment." You probably have thought about using incentives to change your own behavior before. It might sound like this, “when I lose 20 pounds, I’ll buy a new wardrobe” or, “if I eat right for six days, I’ll eat whatever I want on the seventh day.” Do incentives work? Yes, they can. But we need to be very careful to use them strategically.
Give yourself a reward for studying an hour each day, not for obtaining a specific grade. Orient your incentive to train a behavior that leads to a change. Reward what you do, not what you achieve.
Small incentives have the power to influence our behavior, but not be the sole reason driving us toward change. If your incentive is too large and becomes the primary motivation for behavior change, then once that incentive is gone, a relapse is pretty certain. So, think of incentives as small encouragements and as supplements to the other tactics we’ve talked about.
Another reason to use small incentives along the way is that your motivation needs help in the beginning and middle. Momentum has a way of helping the final push. The odds are greater that you will stop or quit in the middle or be overwhelmed at the beginning. So, reward small wins along the way (during the process) and don’t focus on a large incentive at the end.
We humans are wired to be more motivated to avoid losing things than we are to gaining things. In other words, we’ll work harder to avoid a loss than to receive a gift. What if every week that you didn’t work out at least five times, you require yourself to send $20 to a charity whose purpose you really hate? This is technically a bit different than punishment because, with punishment, you’re trying to decrease a behavior. Apply negative incentives to behaviors you’re trying to increase.
The other external factor that influences your behavior is your environment.
Draw some lines in the sand. If you overspend when you go to the mall, don’t go to the mall. Simple, right? Or, leave your credit card at home and only take the amount of cash you’re willing to spend with you. If you can’t avoid the chocolate croissant and fancy sugared-up drink at the local coffee shop, don’t spend your Saturday mornings hanging out there.
Boundaries can be created in your home as well. If you want your TV time to be an intentional choice rather than a default behavior, move the TV to the basement family room where you have to intentionally choose to watch.
Two cautions about boundaries. They work so well that we can rely on them the same way we can rely on large incentives. Use them as part of a plan for change, not your sole approach. And make sure you create and maintain the boundary by choice. Someone else cutting up your credit card, telling you to avoid the bars or ice cream is never going to work as well as boundaries you create and maintain yourself.
Make the behaviors you want to do easy and habitual. Make the behaviors you don’t want difficult and keep them far away. If I find myself snacking on something when I don’t want to at a table with friends, I move the snacks to the other side of the table. If you want a better relationship, spend time with that person. If you want to exercise more, make it easy and convenient. If the effort of going to the gym will be too much and you won’t get there, then figure out something more convenient like a subscription to a yoga site that will let you workout anywhere you have room to lay down and wifi access (here is one option and a second one).
On the other hand, loss aversion can come into play as well with a gym membership…if you pay enough that the idea of wasting the money becomes a strong enough incentive to get you there, that’s legit too. If you’re not enforcing a no-chocolate (or alcohol, Dorito, or Oreo) boundary, then keep the undesirable item in the most difficult to reach location in your kitchen. Make it inconvenient and difficult to get to.
Create physical cues that remind and reinforce the behaviors you want to encourage. Create a pre-flight checklist for walking into your home in the evening with the right attitude after work. Put a photo of an active, healthy person inside the snack cabinet door. Put a poster in your office showing the behavior you want to encourage. Put a mirror behind the phone in your workspace to remind you to smile and be friendly when answering a call. Put a behavior reminder on your phone lock screen to remind you of the change you want throughout the day. Make a wall-hanging checklist for habit tracking. Be aware that you might need to periodically change these, visual cues tend to have a half-life. My five commandments have been on my lock screen and bathroom mirror for about two months now and I tend not to notice them anymore, it’s time to change things up.
We have a default bias. Our brains want to conserve energy and any decisions they can create a default for, they do. So, make your default the behavior you want to encourage. Do you want to spend more time with your spouse? Buy season tickets to something you’ll enjoy and find a babysitter in advance. Put it on your calendars and it will become a default. It then becomes something you’ll actively have to cancel instead of actively have to pursue.
Another great way to encourage default behaviors is habit stacking. Tack behaviors you want to encourage on to other things you already do habitually. It’s ridiculous, but I have trouble washing my face and brushing my teeth in the morning. I’m groggy, I’m rushed and it just often doesn’t happen. So, I decided that it was part of my initial wake up routine. Before I even let my dog out of his crate. I get up, use the bathroom, brush my teeth and wash my face. I don’t leave the bathroom to start my day without doing that. It totally worked, I almost never miss a morning now. Instead of a decision I have to make, it’s a pattern in my life.
There are tools available to help us do so many things these days. Track food and water intake, sleep schedule, steps walked, heart rate and habits formed. I have a friend who wanted to intentionally spend a few moments with her spouse uninterrupted reconnecting after work every day. She painted up a bench, put it in her kitchen in a very prominent spot, and christened it "the love bench". She and her husband spend time there each day and the kids know that’s parent time and they can wait a few moments for whatever they need. This is a tool to add intentionality and togetherness to her marriage.
How can you use your phone, TV, video player, yoga mat, notepad, journal, furniture, or bookshelf to help you succeed? How can you harness tools that are easily accessible in your every day to work for you and not against you? There are dozens of trackers, reminders, equipment, and tools available. Find them. Try them. Get creative. Make them work for you.
Next week, we’ll finish up this series on change-making by putting it all together. We’ll review all the tactics we’ve talked about by creating a plan to make a change using all of them. I’ll bring you along on my plan for change and you’ll see one example of a way to put it all together.
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We’ve talked about the tools you need, a growth mindset, and busted some myths about making changes. Don’t you think it’s about high time we actually make some changes? It’s sooooo much easier to think about and talk about making changes in our lives than actually doing it. I’ve had a legitimately crazy week with an average of one major crisis per day. Authentically major crises, not some silly hangnail kind of crisis. And this podcast recording is late. Even though I know it’s late, I’ve put it off all day. I’m generally not a procrastinator. But, I’m was having a ton of trouble forcing myself to get to work on this episode. Why? I think it has to do with the fact that I actually have to buckle down and make some changes at this point. It’s much easier to think about it and plan to do it…tomorrow. Or, next week.
Much of what we’re going to talk about in the next two weeks comes from a book published in 2011 called Change Anything. (not an affiliate link, just a great book) The folks that wrote the book describe six outside influences that affect our change-making ability. These six fall into a few categories. Half relate to our motivation and half to our abilities. In each of these two categories, there is a personal, a social and a structural influence. In the toolbox episodes relating to people (here and here), I already talked about the social aspect, so we’re going to focus on the personal motivations and abilities this week and the structural motivations and abilities next week.
When it comes to making changes in our lives, many of us feel like Allie Brosh who says in Hyperbole and a Half
Most people can motivate themselves to do things simply by knowing that those things need to be done. But not me. For me, motivation is this horrible, scary game where I try to make myself do something while I actively avoid doing it. If I win, I have to do something I don't want to do. And if I lose, I'm one step closer to ruining my entire life. And I never know whether I'm going to win or lose until the last second.
I know it’s a book of hyperbole, but she hits pretty close to the mark about how we feel about personal motivation and willpower. Usually, we know what we should do, the question is will we do it? If my son liked doing his homework, the laundry and taking showers, he wouldn’t need external motivation, like my constant insistence, bribes, and threats to get it done. Now, wouldn’t that be a lovely world? If he eagerly tripped off to take a shower and do his laundry? But, I can’t really judge him too harshly, because I have the same issue when it comes to balancing the checkbook and paying bills, choosing the carrots over chocolate, and cleaning pretty much anything.
If the change I need to make is getting my finances under control, I’d better learn to balance my checkbook, control my spending and pay my bills whether I enjoy it or not. If I need to change my eating habits, how can I make myself bypass the chocolate and reach for the carrots? Or, if I want to have a presentable house, how can I convince myself to clean consistently and thoroughly? How can we convince ourselves to do things in the short term we really aren’t eager to do in order to get the long-term results we really do want?
I’m going to give you five strategies today. Grab your pen and notebook, because this is a super practical episode and you are going to want to remember these tactics. Grab this printable worksheet you can use to generate ideas about each of these tactics and apply them to the change you want to make.
My ex-husband is a diabetic and suffering the physical deterioration that uncontrolled diabetes causes. He was recently in the hospital for a few weeks with kidney failure. I’m not in any immediate danger of being diabetic. But, my grandfather was and its always in the back of my mind. I have a serious sugar addiction and I’ve gained a ton of weight in the last several months. Someone you know facing a life-threatening health crisis that is a potential result of one of your behaviors that needs to change is a way to make the future seem very real. Feeling, touching, smelling, visualizing that future - good or bad is a way to help bring it to bear on the decisions you face in the short term. What can you do to make the future seem more realistic? If you need to develop a habit of wearing a motorcycle helmet. Talk to an emergency room nurse. Spend time with people who live in or daily deal with the future you want or want to avoid.
We have a way of conveniently avoiding unpleasant details by glossing over them or using language that sounds polite and less provocative than the truth often is. I noticed myself doing it as I thought about the language I just used a few moments ago in talking about the results of diabetes. I said, “the physical deterioration that uncontrolled diabetes causes.” This is politely sanitized language. Telling you that is one thing. When I’m trying not to eat a half a package of Oreos I need to think of it as, “having parts of my feet amputated, losing my eyesight, missing my son’s life because I’m in the hospital half the time, losing consciousness, kidneys failing, facing death before my boy is grown.” See the difference? Don’t shy away from the whole truth. Visit it in as much detail, vivid language, and gritty realism as you can possibly muster.
While talking and thinking about your behaviors and habits, obsess about the why behind the actions. Constantly associate your behavior with the values driving the change. Since I started with the health example and it’s where I need to change right now, I’ll just stick with it. When I think about making a choice, I need to remind myself that I’m choosing family. I’m choosing longevity. I’m choosing the ability to run, play and hike with my grandkids rather than watch them from a recliner. I’m choosing real lasting joy over temporary pleasure. I’m choosing to be responsible and healthy. I’m choosing to be a good example for my son. These values that I can associate with choices help me see a bigger picture, a “why” that helps overpower immediate gratification.
One of the biggest recent trends in marketing meets personal motivation. Turn your change-making into a game. There are three keys to doing this…limited time, chunked down challenges and meaningful scores. Whole30 works because it's a limited time, the rules are clear and the scorekeeping is how you feel. I track habits I’m trying to form because there’s something incredibly satisfying about seeing those x’s on the page and something motivating about not wanting to break a streak. There’s a story about a man struggling to complete his doctoral thesis that illustrates this point. He gave himself 90 days. That’s the limited time. He created a task of writing 2 pages a day - that’s an easily doable chunked down challenge. And here’s the part I love most about this particular story…the clever scoring. He borrowed doctoral robes, took a photo of himself in them and cut it into 90 pieces. As he completed his 2 pages a day, he added a piece of the photo and he began building the picture of himself as a doctoral candidate.
Develop a short sentence or two that you can repeat to yourself when faced with a choice that will put the choice in perspective. It could paint the picture of your default future, it could talk about what kind of person you want to be. It should be full of value words and it must be personally motivating to you. Commit to repeating this statement to yourself before making choices relating to the change you want to make. As I’m thinking about this for myself, I’m going to test out, “I’m the kind of person that makes healthy, responsible choices that mean I’ll live to play with my grandkids.” Yours could be, “I’m responsible with my money because I take care of those I love.”
Those are five tactics for increasing your personal motivation. Add them to your personal “why” and the five commandments we developed at the end of last year and you’ll have a set of strategies that help tilt the odds in your favor for making short-term choices that lead to long-term change.
That covers the motivation side of the personal influences, but what about the abilities? We tend to have blind spots when it comes to what we know and don’t know. For example, if I want my son to make good food choices, I might need to educate him about those choices. Is yogurt a healthy food? What about granola? Are the Clif bars he loves a good choice? I don’t have Coke in the house, so he’s not faced with that choice daily, but what about wanting one every time we’re out? What if I taught him that a daily sweetened soft drink can add 15 lbs a year to his weight. And over five years that’s 75 lbs. What if I see the 35 lbs I should lose as constantly carrying everywhere I go an extra bag of the dog food I dread carrying down my stairway every month. What if I have to buckle down and wade through current health data, or find new recipes or learn a new way to cook? What if I need to develop new skills in the grocery store: reading and interpreting labels, not shopping when I’m hungry, distracting myself when I’m prone to snacking, identifying when I’m stress eating and developing other coping mechanisms. What skills or abilities do you need to make your change possible? Relationship skills? Budgeting skills? You may need to ask a partner or friend because we often don’t see exactly where we’re lacking.
After you’ve identified those skills, start developing them. Get help, take a class, learn to use deliberate practice to acquire a new ability. It’s an intentional learning strategy.
Also, be aware that willpower can be an acquired skill. We don’t think of it that way, but be encouraged, because it can be practiced and improved, just like other skills. Start small. Practice intentionally. Recruit a coach or a helper. Increase your skill level.
I threw a lot of tactics at you today - this week and next will be tactic heavy. Super practical. So if you have that thing you want to change in your life. Take these tactics and start applying them. Recruit a friend to help you brainstorm ideas, hold you accountable and help you practice.
Remember that change is a process and you’re approaching it with the attitude of a research scientist. Try these tactics and evaluate the results. What worked? What needs changing? Your motivational statement isn’t motivating? Try a new one. Your “why” isn’t powerful enough? What would be?
Up until about six years ago, I hated running. I had to run when I was in school to condition for swimming. I hated it. But, it’s convenient! It accomplishes a lot in a relatively short period of time and can be done almost anywhere. After I was no longer swimming competitively, every so often I’d think about the benefits of running and I’d decide I was going to be a runner. Yep, I was going to do it! This happened about every three to five years. So, I’d pick a date, I’d lace up my shoes, I’d head out the door with my enthusiasm.
And, I’d hate every minute of it. I’d want to die. If I was really hardcore about it that time, I might last three days.
About six years ago, I was watching Darren Hardy talk about the differences between how successful people behave and how unsuccessful people behave. He said one thing that changed my attitude about running. He said that everyone has things they don’t like to do. Successful people don’t like the things that are hard any more than unsuccessful people do. They just do them anyway.
They just do them anyway! And I realized that I don’t have to like to run. If it works best for my schedule and lifestyle, I just needed to do it anyway. That fundamentally changed my expectations about how I feel about running.
I decided to start running again. But, this time, I did it differently. I learned how to start running. I got a Couch to 5K app and started slowly, increasing my run to walk ratio gradually. I gave myself a goal of running a particular race hosted downtown by my favorite hockey team…a Nashville Predators shirt was incentive swag. And I began to post run photos online and arranged to do the race with friends. This time, I was successful. I did the race. I had a great time and I've been running off and on ever since. The really funny thing is, that I really do enjoy it far more than I ever expected to.
I tried repeatedly to make that change in my life and failed pretty miserably. And then, I finally succeeded. Fluke? No. I did all the wrong things for the wrong reasons all the times I failed and I increased the odds significantly the time I was successful. Some of the things I did hint at some of the ways you can increase the odds of making changes successfully. We’re going to talk about those strategies in the upcoming weeks. This week, I want to dispel a few myths about change so that we’re all starting from the same place.
Wrong. If you have a tremendous amount of willpower, that’s awesome and it certainly will help you. But, for the rest of us mere mortals with willpower that crumbles in the face of a single Reese cup, the good news is that willpower doesn’t have to be the deciding factor in whether you succeed or fail!
In 1962, Walter Mischel did a study that put a marshmallow in front of children who were instructed not to eat it for 15 minutes. If they held out for the whole time, they received another marshmallow, doubling their treasure. Most kids couldn't resist, but the minority that did went on to be more successful in life. This study was interpreted for years to show that intrinsic self-discipline and willpower was a key factor to success in life. But, what if that was too simple a conclusion? What if there was another factor involved?
Recently some researchers at Change Anything Labs reworked this experiment. They ran it exactly the same way the original was done and got the same results. Turns out human nature hasn’t changed in fifty years. Shocking, right? But, then they did something different. They taught the kids some strategies for dealing with the temptation in front of them. And the kids actually put those strategies to use. They really wanted that second marshmallow, they just didn’t have the skills to know how to avoid eating the one in front of them. This time, many more of them won the marshmallow stare down and 50% more of them walked away with two marshmallows clutched in little hands. Sticky little hands.
We learn from this that experiment that willpower can be supplemented by skills and strategy. And that’s what the next three weeks are going to be about. Strategies that will increase the odds of your success tenfold.
Wrong. Change is not an event, change is a process. When I failed in becoming a runner, I thought that what it would take for me to make that change was to make the decision to run and then to follow the oft-quoted slogan of running shoe giant, Nike. I’d just do it.
But, that’s not what it took. It took time for me to learn how to run. It took time for my body to adjust. It was a process of change that took months. And frankly, the first round of that Couch to 5K didn’t really make me a runner. Repeating that process a few times did. There were milestones along the way. The first time I felt a runner’s high. The first time I ran twenty minutes straight, without stopping or walking. The first race I did. Realizing that for me, running is therapy and not competition. The realization I didn’t need to run fast or far to be a “real” runner.
These things all took time. The physical, mental and emotional changes were all a process. Even now, it’s a process. I’ve not been running in about six months and I want to start up again. But, the strategies I use might need to be different. I’m not in as good physical condition as I’ve been the last few times. My schedule is different. I’ve lost the built-in accountability of my workout group. The process goes on.
Wrong. It’s absolutely critical to approach change like a research scientist participating in a long-term experiment. If change is a process, we need to also understand that in that process, things almost certainly will go both right and wrong. We’ll succeed and we’ll fail. If we understand the process to be linear, we’ll expect to head right out and eventually reach the end. Success!
Unfortunately, that’s not exactly how it happens. It often looks more like a tangled ball of yarn than a straight line between two points. There will be setbacks. Even when something works for a time, it may stop working. How you deal with those setbacks is absolutely crucial to your eventual success.
Treat the process as a research scientist would. Do you remember the scientific method from school? Let me refresh your memory.
Those were simple, common sense changes I made in this example. But, had I not had an experimental attitude, I would have stopped at the first speed bump and just decided that it didn’t work and I’d never be a runner. I would have missed out on the success and on all the benefits running has brought me over time.
As we begin to make changes in our lives over the next few weeks, I want you to understand something. Just because you’ve not been successful before, doesn’t mean you can’t be. It means you haven’t been successful yet. Let’s try again, together. I’m going to give you some direction on how to get there, how to use the tools we’ve been talking about for the last few weeks and some strategies for success. I want you to approach it without relying on willpower, with the understanding that it’s a process, that there will be ups and downs, wins and losses in that process and with the experimental attitude of a research scientist. Be willing to examine what you’re doing and adjust. And keep making adjustments until you turn around one day and realize that you’re a runner. Or, 50 pounds lighter. Or, a better wife. Or, whatever it is that you’re trying to improve in your life.
What is it that thing for you? If you worked through the What’s Important series with me after the first of the year, you should know. If not, go back and listen to episodes 62, 63 and 64 and find the gaps between what’s important to you and how you’re currently living. Then we’ll start tacking strategies for making changes next week!
We’ve been talking for the last several weeks about what you need in your toolbox to make lasting change in your life. We covered some basic gear-n-gadget things I use to keep myself on track and the last few weeks we talked about people, the people we do need and the people we don’t need around. This week, we’ve got one final tool. It’s your mindset. Don’t you roll your eyes at me…now, don’t, I can see them rolling, c’mon. Hang with me. There’s real science here and important information.
Carol Dweck, Ph.D. in Psychology and professor at Standford University became interested in her students’ attitudes about failure over 30 years ago and ever since then, she’s been studying how changing our beliefs (even the very smallest ones) can change our lives. You can read about her findings in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Here’s how she talks about it in her book:
For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value.
Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them…
Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?
There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts…
Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.
So, how you think about how you think and how you think about who you are affects your behavior. Dweck found that people with a growth mentality are more successful in every aspect of their lives and live with lower stress levels.
A fixed mindset believes that the things that make us who we are, our personality, our intelligence level, our creativity, everything about our abilities is unchangeable. How smart we are is just how smart we are. How creative we are is just how creative we are. All these things are set at birth and can’t be changed.
A growth mindset, on the other hand, believes that all these things that make up who we are are simply a starting point. How you develop them determines your potential, not your birth.
People with these two mindsets actually think differently and respond to information differently. When brain activity is measured, those with a fixed mindset have more brain activity when they are being told how they did. They’re responding to how they’re perceived. Those with a growth mindset showed more activity when being told how they can improve. They’re more concerned with how they learn. The activity in their brain shows them translating critique into improvement rather than into judgment.
Why does this matter?
My son is a sixth grader. He’s always breezed through school and for the first time is starting to have to work at it a little bit. Not much, but a little bit. He’s always been told he’s smart by many people around him. So, imagine for a moment that you’re him. You think you’re smart. School is easy. You don’t need to work at it. All the sudden you run up against something more difficult. (remember, you’re not an adult able to think about it in adult terms.). So, you hit something that’s hard and you have a setback. You struggle. If you have a fixed mindset and school gets hard…what’s wrong? I guess you’ve hit your limit. I suppose I’m not as smart as everyone thought I was. I suppose this is the extent of my ability. This is where my smart runs out.
How does your belief about yourself affect your actions? What happens next time you start to struggle? Statistics say you’re likely to become uninterested and give up. If my son starts struggling, believes that means he’s just not good at something, becomes uninterested and gives up…what do you see happening in school for the next six to ten years? What would that habitual belief and practice lead to in his job? His marriage?
If, on the other hand, he has a growth mindset and he begins to struggle, he does not believe there’s a glass ceiling on his ability. So, a struggle is not a judgment on his capacity. It is simply a struggle and seen as an opportunity for growth. So, let’s say he struggles. And believes there’s no reason why he can’t succeed, so doubles down and works at it a little harder. Finds ways to improve. And succeeds. What happens the next time he hits a struggle? What patterns for life begin to be laid down because of his belief about his own abilities?
I don’t know what you’ve been told about your abilities. I don’t know the words spoken into your life and taken into your heart as truth. But, science is proving that our brains are far more malleable than we’ve ever believed. Our brains can be changed at any age. Scientists call it neuroplasticity and it’s really good news for us. If you’ve always believed you’re just not smart enough. Not creative enough. Not organized enough. Not outgoing enough. You’re wrong. You may not be those things…yet. But, where you are now is not at the fullness of your capacity. Where you are now is simply a starting point.
You need a growth mindset in your toolbox to effect change. How you think about your potential matters. What if you fall toward the fixed mindset? Are you doomed? Nope. Your mindset can be changed. Neuroplasticity, remember? Here’s a ridiculously long list of things you can do to move toward a growth mindset.
My son takes piano lessons. He hates it. Well, he constantly tells me he hates it. He cries, rages and complains. What he really hates is taking time away from his games. I make him do it for reasons that have nothing to do with music. I think a music education is important. But, he’s also doing it because sometimes we have to do things in life we don’t like and he needs to learn to work at those things he doesn’t want to do just as hard and with as much grace as he does the things he enjoys. As I mentioned the tears and whining, that lesson obviously has yet to be learned.
He’s also doing it so that he has a tangible example that effort makes a difference. That practice equals mastery. His recital pieces usually seem difficult at the beginning of each preparation period. But, working on the pieces consistently over time yields a beautiful performance. Doing these kinds of things can help him cultivate a growth mindset. It’s a tangible example of expanded capabilities.
Drawing used to be a part of every student’s education. It was regarded as a skill that was taught and learned, not the “You have it or you don’t” attitude we have about it now. I understand perspective and design, but I don’t draw very well. So, I started a sketch diary. It’s amazing to look back on my progress. Practice leads to mastery. I can learn to draw. Am I as good as I’d like to be? No. Will I be an amazing sketch artist in the future? Maybe…but, not likely. It teaches me to value progress. I post them on social media, so it’s also teaching me to embrace imperfection. And I believe that I’ll only improve with practice.
Nelson Mandela said, and I wish it for you, “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”
Where do you fall on the continuum of belief? How do you think about your own abilities? You need a growth mindset in your toolbox in order to believe that change is truly possible in your life. What will you do to move yourself farther toward a growth mindset?
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Do you have areas of your home that need purging? If you don’t, I’m not sure we could be friends! Everyone has at least a junk drawer…right? The first time I went through a home purge was before minimalism or KonMari was a thing. I had looked around my apartment after a separation and realized that I didn’t need half of what I saw. So, I decided to get rid of half of it. Half of everything in the house. With a few exceptions. The kitchen. My bookshelves. And my shoes. Those three things were exempt. They got a get out of jail free card. I went through each room, each drawer, closet and shelf and got rid of at least 50% of what was there. It was liberating. That was in 2008. Since then, I’ve gone through several more rounds of that and I’ve lifted the exemption on the kitchen, books, and even shoes. Yes, I’ve purged my books and my shoes. Shocking, I know.
Sometimes, we only need to tidy up. But, every so often, we need to do a deep dive and purge things. We’ve been talking for the last few weeks about what belongs in your change-making toolbox. I did a gadget-n-gear episode two weeks ago and last week we talked about people, about what kind of people you need around you. This week, we’re going to talk about people again, but switch it up a bit. Let’s talk about the kind of people you don’t want in your toolbox. The kind you might need to deep clean or purge.
Last week I asked you to take a look around you at the people in your social circles and begin to think about who does or could fill the roles of mentor, cheerleader or friend. If you did that, you might have noticed that there are probably other people in your life that don’t fall into those categories. Some of these people have a negative effect on your ability to make changes in your life.
First, there are the obvious enemies. Do you have people in your life who actively sabotage things? Or, they would if you tried to make a change? Maybe they feel threatened by you, maybe they’re jealous of you, maybe they don’t like the color of your skin or the clothes you wear. Maybe you’ve had a conflict with them. Maybe they’re an ex-spouse or a family member. Maybe you have no idea why they seem to oppose you every time you turn around. But, they’re easy to spot. They’re the obvious and overt opposition.
Then there are the silent ones. They may not be actively opposed to you, you might not even notice them. But, they affect your perception of what’s normal. Let’s pretend you’re part of a work or social culture that eats a lot, drinks a lot, and doesn’t move around much. You all have jobs that park you in front of a computer and after ten years of this you see a photo of yourself and it shocks you into the realization that you’re really overweight. Seriously overweight. But, how did this happen? Why didn’t you notice? Because those around you determine your norms and they were all gaining weight at the same rate as you were. You don’t have to follow the norms around you, but if you aren’t actively working against the ones you aren’t interested in, the odds are in favor of the norms.
Another way those around us affect us without even speaking is to fail to call us out on poor choices and behaviors. We tend, often out of politeness, to sanction poor behavior of others. I read a story recently of an anesthesiologist who had undiagnosed Alzheimer’s and it wasn’t until a patient’s life was endangered that co-workers admitted having seen the signs of Alzheimer’s in his work for a long time. But, no one wanted to bring it up. This wasn’t a bad behavior on his part, but silence can be unhealthy in many situations.
People can sabotage your change-making situationally too. What if your circle of friends participates in a habit that you’d like to change, but that’s what your social interaction is based around? Maybe it’s drinking. Maybe it’s shopping. Maybe it’s complaining or gossiping. You might really like the people and want to spend time with them…but time with them inevitably involves over-drinking or over-spending or over-speaking. In this case, it may not be the people themselves that are the problem, but the behaviors they lead to.
I remember vividly sitting in a small group in the early ‘90’s talking about habits that led us to choices we didn’t want to make. I remember realizing that if I wanted to get my spending under control, that one of the fastest and easiest ways to do that would be to stop looking at mail order catalogs. If I didn’t know something existed, I wouldn’t “need” it. How could I feel like I needed it if I didn’t even know about it existed! Shopping is a recreational activity for many women. If there’s a group of women who get together to shop, I need to think seriously about not being a part of that group. It’s way to easy to either feel pressured to buy things I shouldn’t or to unintentionally spend more than I want to. Similarly, if you’re part of a crowd that builds social interactions around a behavior you want to change, you’re going to need to take a hard look at changing your social circle.
And lastly, what if you have someone in your life who actively holds you accountable to a bad habit? I have had friends who felt like my refusal to do something…shop recreationally, make copies of music, writing or art against copyright laws, or do drugs was an attack or a judgment about them. So, they’d go out of their way to put me in situations where I’d feel pressured to act in a way I didn’t want to.
Who are the people in your world who will be working against any changes you want to make? Maybe overtly and maybe in subtle ways. Ask yourself who’ll speak up or criticize if you start acting differently? Who are you afraid of disappointing or receiving criticism from? Who might get angry if you start making changes? These are the people you do not need in your toolbox. You don’t even need them in your workshop if we’re sticking with the toolbox analogy.
Once you identify them, then what? Do you need to get rid of all of them? What if you can’t? What if they’re relatives, co-workers or close friends? Here are some ideas.
First, try elimination. Maybe the people you identify as unhealthy for you can be eliminated from your toolbox. If so, do it. For the relationships you can control, you choose whether to spend time with them or not. Be your own gatekeeper and if a relationship is unhealthy and you can remove it, then do. It may not be easy, it may not be comfortable, but healthy isn’t always easy.
If you can’t eliminate the relationship, can you put as much distance between you and that person as possible? If they’re a co-worker, how can you change your routines, habits, or meetings to avoid that person as much as possible?
What if you have a relationship you don’t want to lose or can’t eliminate, but it’s unhealthy? Try turning that person away from the dark side. Have a frank discussion with them about the effect their behavior is having on you (don’t assume or label their intent, just talk about what the effects are for you) and explain that you’d like the relationship to be healthy and discuss what that would mean. I’ll admit, this won’t always work. When it does, you’ve gained an ally in your toolbox. A strong one. And when it doesn’t, at least you’ve tried.
There’s a lot of emotional immaturity floating around us and the more we can act like adults ourselves, model it for others and expect it in our relationships, the healthier we’ll all be.
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My ex-husband is in the hospital this week. My son spent last week with him in Orlando and today, we’re expecting results of tests that may indicate liver damage or failure. The thing is, this was generally preventable. It’s the result of the progression of uncontrolled diabetes which itself was brought on by lifestyle choices. Friends, our choices are important. They affect us and those around us.
Certainly, change is hard. Usually, most of our circumstances and habits are stacked against us. But, while it may not feel like a crisis, the changes that we often want to make for our health and well-being, our spirituality or our relationships…these things are crucially important for our lives and the lives of those around us.
In the last mini-series, we identified the five commandments that we want to live by and where we’re falling short. In this mini-series, I’m covering the tools that you need in your toolbox to make those changes successfully. The first was a gear-n-gadget post last week. Mostly, that’s fun helpful stuff, rather than essential. The next few weeks are the essentials. What you must have in your toolbox to make lasting change. And the best part? You don’t need to spend any money. These things are completely free!
The first essential for your toolbox is people. You need the right people around you. People can have either a positive or negative effect on your attempts to make a change. They may intentionally be helpful or unhelpful. Or, they may be affecting your effort un-intentionally. This week, let’s talk about the positive side. What people do you need in your toolbox? There are several roles that people fill that make it much easier to make changes in your life. You need mentors, cheerleaders, and partners.
A mentor may be someone you know personally or someone you don’t. I know some of you who listen to my voice each week, but the vast majority of you I don’t know. But, if you’re listening, learning and putting into practice the things I talk about…I’m functioning as a mentor for you. You may have someone in your life who plays that role casually, occasionally, or unofficially. Someone you look up to and seek out for advice. Or, you may have asked someone specifically to be a mentor to you and you have a relationship built specifically around this purpose. You meet or talk on a consistent basis about the topics or behaviors you’re interested in growing in. You may be mentored by books you read or people you follow online. A mentor is essentially an experienced or trusted adviser.
A cheerleader is an encourager. Someone who is pushing you toward doing the right thing, celebrating when you do it, and encouraging you to try again when you fall short. It’s someone who not only believes in you but is vocal about that belief. When you leave the presence of these people, you feel refreshed, refocused and able to do things you didn’t think possible. They don’t need pom-poms and a back handspring. But, they do need a consistent willingness to be “for you” and to tell you about it.
A partner is someone who will come alongside you and share the journey with you. Maybe they’re working on the very same change you’re working on. Maybe it’s something different. But, they’re willing to share the journey with you. The everyday nitty-gritty of it. The failures, the triumphs and most importantly, the day in and day out work of the journey. The mud-on-your-shoes kind of work of it.
If you think about your change-making as a journey, a mentor is someone you stop and check in with on a regular basis. Like putting fuel in your gas tank, checking a GPS for course corrections or looking something up in a travel book. It’s knowledge, strategies, and wisdom. A cheerleader is someone who pops up around every corner saying, you’ve got this! You can do it! I believe in you! Try again! Like the fans with signs along the side of the road at the Tour de France. Only, not the weird, freaky, war-painted half-naked fans that chase the bikers. The more normal ones. With signs. And a partner is the one walking, biking or driving right next to you every step of the way. Every pedal turn. For every mile of the journey. They share the ups and downs and road dust with you. They experience it alongside you.
These roles don’t have to be different people, they can overlap or be present in the same person. You can have a friend who functions as both a partner and a cheerleader. But, don’t discount how valuable each of these different roles is. Each of them will be necessary to you at different times.
Can you make lasting change without having these roles in your toolbox? Sure. Probably. But, it’s going to be a whole lot harder. Like painting a Michelangelo masterpiece with your feet. I’m sure there are people who can do it, but why work that hard if you don’t have to? There are a lot of things in life that conspire against you making changes. We’ll talk about them in the upcoming series. You want to do everything possible to stack the deck in your favor. And these relationships will help you do that.
Begin to look around you for the people who do or could play these roles in your life. Who would make a great cheerleader? Who already encourages you? Who do you look to as a trusted adviser? Who could you learn from? Who might you know that would be interested in making lasting change, either the same type as you or other changes?
The changes you want to make might not keep you from kidney failure in 10 years. But, then again they might. Maybe they are that critical for you. Maybe they’ll save a marriage or improve a relationship with your kids. Maybe they’ll allow you to succeed in your career. Whatever change you’re interested in making, it is possible. But, it’s going to be a lot easier with the right people around you.
I want to mention one other thing about the people in your circle of influence. Motivational speaker Jim Rohn famously said that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. After combing through 30 years of data from 12,000 residents of Framingham, Massachusetts, Nicholas Christakis, a Harvard sociologist determined that having obese friends increases your chance of obesity by 57%. 57%!
Who you have around you matters! This has a few applications for our discussion of change making. As a child, your friends were chosen for you in large part by proximity…who lived in your neighborhood, was in your class at school or was the child of family friends. You had very little influence on who you spent time with.
Today, you can choose your friends that way too. Who you work with or parents of your kids’ soccer team can become your social circle. But, as an adult, you have the opportunity to do something different. You can pursue friendships with whomever you choose. You can intentionally choose your friends. Thinking about that Framingham study, if you want to be a physically healthy, spiritually mature, fit, person who drives a vintage truck…who do you think you should hang around?
What if you intentionally chose your friends? What if you fill your social circle with mentors, cheerleaders, and partners? Where might you be in five years?
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I love gadgets and tools. I love my leaf blower and my cordless drill. I took my Instant Pot to the beach a few weeks ago. I’m eternally grateful for my refrigerator, washer and dryer, my laptop, Kindle, iPad, and camp stove. I love my kitchen gadgets too: my microplane, tea bag buddy, and rice cooker. I’m sure we all have favorite tools and gadgets.
For the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about what’s important to you and what changes you’d like to make in your life. As I’ve been working through that series, I promised you a practical episode about the tools I use in pursuit of a better me. We’re actually going to spend a few weeks here. Your toolbox is really important. There are some key items you need to have available to be successful in making changes. This particular episode is actually the least important of the next three, but fun for gadget and tool loving people like me.
As we talk about these tools, something else you should know about me is that I love well-designed things. I’m also very tactile, so how something looks and feels matters a lot to me. I want to curate an environment filled only with things that I really love to use or to look at. Are all the things I'm going to talk about necessary? Nope. Are they the best options? Maybe. Maybe not. These are the things that I’m using right now. Your mileage may vary.
Let’s talk about planners. A million years ago, when I got my first real job and needed to be able to keep track of tasks and appointments, I began using the Franklin Covey planners and materials. I used them for years. They’re effective and useful. I don’t use them right now because they don’t fit my lifestyle. They don’t work as well for what I need. I’ve used an awful lot of different planners and systems since then. I mention that to explain that all of them are more effective than nothing and all are perfectly suited to someone. So, if my tools don’t appeal to you, just try something else until you find something that works perfectly for you.
Standard calendar-based planners don’t work well for me anymore because my life is really variable. Sometimes I need a daily calendar system and sometimes I don’t. So, all planners that are based on a calendar only get partially used and because I don’t need it all the time, I don’t carry it with me and so even when I would need it, I don’t have it along. Usually, around February or March, it becomes buried on my desk, never to be used again. If you need a calendar-based system, there are many to choose from.
Here’s what I do instead. I use a combination of a Google calendar, a journal, and a goal-planning system. I use Google calendar for appointments and long-term plans, like vacations. I check it every day and have it available on my phone. It’s with me all the time when I need it.
I got intrigued by bullet journaling a few years ago. I did a ton of reading, understood their philosophy, saw beautiful examples and decided to try it. Very quickly I realized there were things about it that made sense for me, but most of it did not. I do use my journal for to-do lists, brain dumps, tracking things, and daily calendars when I need one. But, I also collect notes, thoughts, lists (like books, I’ve read or art projects ideas). I use it to think through life questions. To brainstorm plans and to keep track of things I want to remember. I use it to get ideas out of my head so that I can move past them. In these activities, it more resembles a commonplace book than a planner. Commonplace books are typically collections of thoughts, ideas, recipes or things to be remembered that you might gather as you go through life. I do create daily calendar entries when I get especially busy and need to plan how to get everything done.
My journal of choice is a Leuchtturm1917. They have hard covers and come in a variety of sizes, colors and page styles. I use a medium size with a dotted page. I like them because I can choose a different color for each year - I tend to go through at least two per year. Last year was lime green, this year is emerald, which really is more like a seafoam green and reminds me of the ocean. I like the dotted pages because it gives me some guidelines without being as rigid as a graph or lined page.
But, the best part about them is that they have numbered pages and several blank tables of contents pages in the front. As I use pages, I can choose to enter them in the front with the page number or not. I don’t need to know where my daily calendar-type pages are, because once past, I shouldn’t need to reference them again so I don’t note those in the front. But, lists, plans or ideas pages…those I can enter on the contents pages and they’re much easier to find in the future when I need to reference them.
I’m also partial to colored pens. I’m an artist and love art supplies. When art and office supplies intersect, I’m even more of a sucker. So. I have a pen holder with a jillion colors of pens. My favorites for daily use are Pentel EnerGels in a variety of colors. If you do any research at all on bullet journaling, you’ll find beautiful, elaborate, lovely journals with colors, stickers, washi tape and gorgeous design. While mine has lots of ink color, it is not like that at all. Those journals are impressive. I love looking at them. But, my journals tend to be raw, messy, and not designed. You have permission to use your journal however you want. Other than one particular kind of entry, I use color completely randomly. I’m messy. My journal is a tool to keep my head and life organized so that I can do my art - live my life - out in the world. Many people’s journals are their art, and that’s a wonderful thing. But, they don't have to be like that. Mine is definitely not.
Before I leave the topic of my journal, there are two things that I used to do in my journal that I’m separating out this year. I’m adding two other journals to my toolbox. One will be a book journal and one a sketchnote book. I read a lot and I read fast. Two years ago, I decided to read 100 books a year. I didn’t do it. Because I realized during that time that that’s a really bad goal for me. I was reading just to meet the goal. I wasn’t absorbing the information from the books the way I should. So, I’m planning this year to have a dedicated place…my book journal…to slow my reading down. I’m going to record the books I read and either take written or visual notes as I read or at a minimum write a synopsis and my thoughts about each book when I’m done. Instead of a particular quantity of books, my goal will be 30 minutes of reading a day with the note-taking helping me to absorb and apply the information. This journal will stay at home.
The other thing I want to separate out is a note-taking journal that will stay in my bag. I’ve started taking visual notes of speakers at workshops, sermons, and meetings and I want a different type of paper for that, so will be putting that into a separate journal with art paper.
That’s the practical everyday side of my tools. But, there’s a planning side too. I’ve tried a lot of different planning systems over the years, but my favorite right now is Lara Casey’s Powersheets. You can find out all about them and her philosophy at cultivatewhatmatters.com. The 2018 Powersheets are sold out (I know, I should have done this episode a month ago, right?), but you can always get the non-dated six-month version, it will work just as well. The powersheets mimic much of the planning approach that I have found to be effective in the past. They’re about cultivating the life you want. Lara has also written a few books, the most current is Cultivate: A Grace-Filled Guide to Growing an Intentional Life.
The Powersheets are a really thorough, powerful planning system based on cultivating the kind of life you really want. It’s a planning system only, there’s no calendar in it. However, there are activity sheets for each month that help you figure out what you need to be doing each month. I highly recommend it. By the way, I don’t get anything from talking about these products, they’re just what I’m using right now.
One of the monthly activity sheets that I’ve found especially helpful in the Powersheets collection is the Tending List. It’s essentially a goal tracking list of daily, weekly and monthly goals for each month. I mention it because a daily habit tracker is something that I have always drawn into my journal each month. The things I track often change month to month, but I got tired of drawing the chart…it gets messy and always looks the same anyway. I don’t always have the powersheets with me and I usually track more things than the powersheets have space for. So, doing it there is kind of a pain. Instead of redrawing it every month this year, I decided to create a tracking chart document that I can print and tape into my journal. Then I don’t have to repetitively draw it and it looks neater. So, that’s what I’m doing this year and you can download a copy of it below if you like. It’s simple and functional and not cutesy or fancy…but, if you decide to track some habits in the new year, it might be helpful for you. You can print them off, cut them out and tape them in a journal or leave them as is and put them in a three-ring binder.
There are a few miscellaneous items I want to mention also. I add a pen loop to my journal and usually have one pen hooked to the outside of it (my pens don’t fit inside the loop well). Most of the pens I carry in a RusticTown pencil case. It’s a brown, vintage leather zippered roll and one of my most favorite things ever. The leather feels wonderful, it looks like a well-traveled vintage piece and I have about 12 colored pens and sketch pens in there right now.
Another random item I use is a chalk marker. I have a set of MooMoo Creative chalk markers and use them to write notes to myself on my bathroom mirror. In November, we write things we’re grateful for. Right now, my 5 commandments are on the mirror. It's a good way to remind yourself of attitudes you want to have, quotes or verses you want to memorize or things you want to do or aspire to.
I’ll probably be mentioning these tools in the upcoming series on making lasting change and I wanted to give you an overview of them. You don’t need any of these to make changes in your life, but Leuchtturm journals, Pentel EnerGel pens, and Cultivate What Matters Powersheets are some of the tools I have in my toolbox. Tools I use to organize my head and my life.
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