What’s so great about Mindfulness?
There’s a phrase I like from academia – ‘there’s nothing so practical as a good theory’. And the thing is, Mindfulness is so practical. It’s not some airy fairy esoteric thing. It’s an approach to life that makes sense, because it’s based on careful study, going back many many centuries, of how the mind works. And these understandings equate to ‘news we can use’. Perhaps, given that it is such ancient wisdom it’s stretching it a bit to call it ‘news’. However there is a great deal of news value in Mindfulness in that the more that neuroscientists study it, the more they announce new discoveries about how it works.
So it’s based on a very old wisdom tradition, but has brand new science continuing to explore it, and supporting it’s value.
Mindfulness Meditation – the gym for the mind
Steadying the mind and improving concentration
Doing regular Mindfulness meditation is like taking our minds to the mind-gym. We learn to steady our minds and develop our ‘concentration muscle’. And that has immense practical benefits in our everyday lives.
Keeping things in proportion
We also learn to observe our thoughts and feelings – to really ‘get’ that a thought is just a thought and a feeling is just a feeling. When we are caught in particular thought tracks, we can fall into the mistake of assuming that the thought is telling us the ‘whole truth’, but more often than not it is just a passing idea often very much influenced by the emotion we are feeling at the time. And when we look at that thought ‘in the clear light of day’ (when we become ‘unhooked’ from the thought) we can see it for what it is. Think of those times where you have a thought like ‘My manager is going to be so angry with me for the mistake I’ve just made – how am I going to cope?’, but when we unhook from the thought we can get the situation into perspective, and know that it is not the end of the world. Similarly with feelings – when we are caught in anger with our partner, we can get caught in believing that he/she is mean, unkind, inconsiderate etc. and completely forget the many kind and considerate things they do for us. When we unhook from the feeling, whether it be anger, hurt, disappoint or some other feeling, we are able to see things in proportion again.
So getting better at recognising and unhooking from unhelpful thoughts and feelings is immensely helpful and can save us a lot of stress, frustration, irritation and shame.
Getting better at being in the present moment
During Mindfulness meditation we focus on a single ‘object of attention’, such as the sensation of breathing. Feeling sensations is something we can only do when we are in the present moment, and not in our heads analysing or thinking. Mindfulness meditation involves bringing our attention back to the sensations of breathing each time we notice that we get caught up in thoughts. So, over and over again, during a single meditation session we practice (and so get better at) coming back to the present moment.
And the better we are at being in the present moment, the more we get to enjoy the pleasurable moments of our lives. Also, the better we are at being in the present moment with the people we care about, the more it will enhance the quality of our relationships and the more we will enjoy them.
Becoming more accepting and compassionate of our selves
Through Mindfulness meditation we also practice being non-judgmental and compassionate with ourselves and our inner experiences. We practice accepting that our minds wander off and that we need to keep bringing them back to the sensations of breathing. We accept that thoughts and feelings turn up uninvited and that this is just part of the human condition. We practice ‘starting afresh’ in a self-forgiving kind of way every time we notice our mind has wandered off, and we bring it back to the sensations of breathing.
So, just imagine how useful it would be to be doing a daily workout whereby you are gently improving the steadiness of your mind, your concentration, your ability to get things back into perspective, your ability to spend more time in the present moment, and your ability to be less harsh on yourself and less judgmental.
But … If meditation’s not your thing, how about Everyday Mindfulness Practices?
The principles behind Mindfulness can either be practiced in the form of regular meditation, or by engaging in what I call ‘Everyday Mindfulness’ practices. For example, we can make a point of noticing when our mind gets caught up in unhelpful thoughts or over-analysing in the course of our everyday life, and choose to bring our attention back to the present moment.
Likewise, we can notice each time we are harsh and judgmental towards our selves or others, and consciously choose to be more accepting.
We can develop the ability to be more aware, more in the present moment, more accepting , less judgmental and more compassionate through a number of ‘Everyday Mindfulness’ practices.
The Combo package
Of course, practicing both Mindfulness meditation and doing ‘Everyday Mindfulness’ practices will help us to develop these abilities more quickly. Just as going to the gym and walking to work will get you fitter than just doing one or the other.
Is it worth the effort?
Increasing numbers of people will answer with a whole-hearted ‘yes’. It seems that Mindfulness was not just ‘flavour of the month’ in the noughties, but continues to grow in popularity. Not surprising, given the many benefits it offers.
If you are interested in learning Mindfulness check out my ‘Mindfulness for Everyday Life’ 6-week on-line course or any local workshops on Mindfulness that I am offering, on my home page: www.thechangeacademy.co.nz
As I write this, it is a little under 5 weeks till Christmas. I am struck by the fact that some people start ‘gearing up’ and ‘girding their loins’ for Christmas two or even three months before December 25th. How crazy is that? How can we get ourselves wound up and in a state of stress for two to three months, all for the sake of one day. We completely forget ‘the reason for the season’ – joy, peace and love. And for those of us who follow the Christian faith, celebrating the gift of Christ. For those who do not follow this faith, the values of joy, peace and love are a part of all major religious traditions and are values of importance to many people with no interest at all in religion.
And as a person who can get pretty stressed out over Christmas, my challenge to myself, and to you if you care to join me, is this: how can we start to ‘unwind’, de-tress, gear down and generally ‘de-frag’ each and every day in the lead up to December 25th .
To me “De-fragging” is about clearing our metal ram, slowing down, relaxing and letting go. And relaxing and letting go are important pre-requisites for experiencing joy, peace and love. To quote the cartoonist Michael Leunig: “We cannot love at speed”.
So, am I suggesting you should plan to be less productive and get less done? Not at all. In fact, ironically, ‘slowing down’ from ‘rushing-ness’ can result in us becoming more efficient and able to get more done in the time we have available. How so? A very positive ‘chicken-and-egg’ dynamic is available here if we choose to tap into. If we are able to intentionally adopt a stance of calmness, gratitude, peace, joy and love and move away from stress and frustration and rushing-ness, it is possible to regain a sense of perspective and from this sense of perspective to be able to think more strategically and creatively and come up with better solutions to problems. On the other hand, if we are caught in what I think of as ‘fight-flight physiology dynamics’ – a greater tendency towards stress, worry, hypervigilance for what is going wrong (a.k.a. negative thinking), black-and-white or all-or-nothing thinking, tunnel vision, and creating worse case scenarios in our heads, we are unable to get things into perspective and think strategically.
And research suggests that attitudes such as gratitude and awe will help us to become less stressed and anxious, thus reducing the ‘fight-flight physiology dynamics’ I mentioned above.
So, if you were to intentionally choose to adopt the qualities of joy, peace and love and develop these over the coming five weeks, not only might you have a more enjoyable lead up to December 25th, but you are likely to find that you are less stressed and more able to think clearly and creatively.
And what if you were to take a two-pronged approach? Firstly, intentionally choosing one or two positive qualities, such as joy, peace and love to focus on each day. And secondly, creating plans for Christmas that allow joy, peace and love to predominate over perfection and duty. Imagine how things could be if you were able to loosen up on your expectations of yourself about the perfect gifts you want to give, the perfect house and garden you want to welcome visitors into and the perfect meals you wish to serve. And perhaps there are other ways you could relax your expectations to make Christmas less stressful , and more enjoyable.
On the practical planning side of things you will find many blogs with helpful ideas. Suggestions commonly include
- If you are hosting a Christmas meal, can you make it ‘pot luck’ or ask specific family members to contribute a dish. Or pitch in together to prepare the meal, but with a shared intention to bring as much joy, peace and love to the process. Without this shared intention, ‘help’ in the kitchen can be a source of huge pressure and tension, where tension is high and tempers are frayed.
- If possible, agree with family about gift-giving. Whether that be a price limit, going in together to buy gifts or agreeing to only give second-hand items. If this isn’t possible, work out your own limits in terms of price and the amount of effort you are willing to make around gift-giving. Remind yourself that in a month’s time, or possibly even a week’s time, your choice of gifts is quite likely to be already forgotten.
But stepping back again from practical strategies to a great ‘defrag’ strategy…
Adopt ‘good enough’ as your motto. Gifts only have to be ‘good enough’, not perfect. Cooking only has to be ‘good enough’, housework and garden maintenance only have to be ‘good enough’. After all, all of these things are in the service of having a wonderful day with people we care about so it’s helpful to move the focus to that end goal. While it seems almost universal to worry about what others think of us, learning to live lightly with these thoughts and fears is hugely liberating. Perhaps now is ‘as good a time as any’ to start on the journey of being less concerned about not meeting other people’s expectations. And as you are probably aware – oftentimes others don’t hold such expectations of us, we just imagine they do. Perhaps now is as good a time as any to really embrace or play with the idea that “What other people think of you is none of your business”.
So, how about challenging yourself to defrag your Christmas, in preparation for defragging your holidays, in preparation for defragging the coming year. Of course, I encourage you to only challenge yourself in a ‘good enough’ kind of way! Make it a light challenge. Add in some fun. Focus on making it a joyous challenge, in the service of creating a joyous occasion filled with lots of appreciation and gratitude for all the small wonders in life.
Scientists have now proven that in a number of important respects following the teachings of ancient wisdom traditions can lead to improved physical and mental health – and in fact can improve our overall happiness. And in particular, gratitude and awe have been found to not just be things we ‘should’ aspire to, to make us ‘better people but are ‘good for us’ in other ways.
While I haven’t researched this in any detail, my understanding is that practices such as gratitude and awe are part of all the main ancient spiritual traditions.
And gratitude and awe were on my mind today as I walked the ‘Fern Walk’ in the Pohangina Valley.
I was grateful on a number of fronts – part of my plan in leaving Massey was to have a bit more time to do things with my partner, Ian. He is a member of a Wednesday tramping group. My goal is to join some of these trips when I am a bit fitter. Today’s trip was part of building my fitness. It was a big deal for me because …
Firstly, it was on a ‘’school day” or would have been, if I’d still been in my ‘day job’. This resulted in an extra feeling of appreciation and gratitude, and that wonderful feeling of being more of a free agent. Secondly I was grateful that I’d managed to force myself to go walking today. I was very tempted to put off getting started with ‘Wednesday tramps’ until I had got on top of more of the groundwork needed right now for the Change Academy. But I’m aware that if I don’t change my routine now, it would be very easy to just fall back into the same busy-ness I was used to in my waged job. So, pat on the back for me. I am feeling a tad overwhelmed with all the work I have in front of me for the next few weeks, but I ‘felt the overwhelm and did it (tramping) anyway”.
And what a day it was. Such a stunningly clear and sunny day – and maybe the sun seemed to shine brighter because it felt a bit like ‘wagging school’!
It was very wet and muddy underfoot because of the recent rain and snow. Having to slow down so much in my attempt to avoid the mud where I could, would on some other occasions have felt frustrating, but today I was able to switch perspectives and enjoy the slowness – perhaps because I’m still a bit in the ‘holiday feeling’ of having finished my waged job.
I found that the verse from Psalm 118 “This is the day the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it” was often in my mind (not that I knew where the quote was from – I googled it just now!) Whether or not you are a Christian or follow a different spiritual or wisdom tradition, or you think this stuff is all a load of baloney, I am sure you will have had that same sense at times – “This is an awesomely wonderful day; we will rejoice and be glad in it”. The dappled light through the trees, the sunlight, the beauty of the ferns – it was all stunning.
And the third focus of my gratitude was the wonderful person / people who had been out and cleared the track. There was a lot of tree damage from the snowfall of last Wednesday / Thursday. That is only a few days ago. There are still roads that haven’t been re-opened, but somebody had cleared this track. I don’t know whether it was a Department of Conservation staff member or a volunteer (this track was originally formed by a dedicated group of volunteers), but I was very grateful to whoever it was.
I gather, according to science, that my body would have been benefiting from all that gratitude! So not only did it make for an enjoyable day, but it was ‘good for me’!
And on top of that was a good dose of awe. The beauty of our native bush. From the giant trees to the miniature wonders such as fungi. The amazing vistas, the stunning beauty of my surroundings. Again, this added exponentially to the day. And, as with the experience of gratitude, not only did it make for an enjoyable day, but it would have been ‘good for me’ in terms of my health.
A tiny ‘birds nest’ mushroom
Simplifying Your Life – Letting Go Our Need For Stuff
Simplifying your life – does it feel like an impossible dream? Have you sometimes found yourself surrounded by chaos and clutter – on your office desk, in your home, in your email in-box, and perhaps, worst of all in your head? Perhaps even to the extent that you feel the desperate need to sort yourself out, ‘de-clutter’ or tidy up, or in the case of those racing thoughts, to organise and simplify your thinking before you can move on to the things you need to do?
Since I first learnt about Mindfulness I have accepted the idea that thoughts, feelings, urges, sensations and other ‘mental events’ just turn up in our heads – it’s not like we invite them in. But when it comes to the world of physical ‘stuff’ sometimes it feels like mischievous forces are at work resulting in ‘stuff’ turning up uninvited or parking itself in strange places.
The ‘Stuff’ Elves
I guess, when I think about it ‘stuff’ happens like unconscious thoughts – all those many moments in the day when we are not being intentional, and are in a state of ‘auto-pilot’, we collect stuff, store stuff, use stuff , move stuff, and put ‘stuff’ on the ‘backburner’ – somewhere where we’ll deal with it later, as we do with thoughts. It can almost seem as if we didn’t invite that ‘stuff’ into our lives when we accumulate physical belongings without conscious and wise awareness. And just like what happens with ‘stuff’ inside our heads, if we do that for too long with physical stuff, at a certain point we realise it’s driving us crazy and we need to take some time out to sort ourselves out and to simplify our lives.
“For the longest time I thought I needed to be more organised. Now I know I just needed less stuff.” Inspiredrd.com
Simplifying and de-cluttering our Physical Stuff
When practicing Mindfulness the goal is to neither pursue thoughts, feelings and other mental events nor push them away. We aim to just ‘let them be’. Now, that is challenging enough to do in a 20 minute meditation, let alone in every moment of our everyday lives.
And if we want to ‘simplify’ and de-clutter our physical ‘stuff’ then we need to have this same attitude of non-attachment.
Think about the benefits if we were able to do this in every moment. If we were able to just notice, when we see some ‘new shiny thing’ without craving or attachment. And if we were able to just register whether we need it or whether it is just our ‘greed’ speaking. I don’t mean greed with a capital G. I mean that normal everyday human urge to ‘have’ something for our very own, just because we want it. That ‘child-like urge’ to have it as ‘mine’. I’m not talking about greed as bad or immoral here, just as a natural human desire that I am sure everyone has to some degree. Perhaps it harks back to ancient times when for survival we feasted when food was available because we didn’t know when we’d next suffer a famine. Wherever it originated from, this kind of ‘grasping’ seems pretty universal to me.
With conscious awareness we can ‘just notice’ this desire to have stuff. We can use our Mindfulness toolkit and ‘Notice and Name’ – ‘there’s desire’ or ‘there’s wanting’ and just ‘let it be’. That is, let the thought ‘be’, so we don’t act on it, and thus letting the shiny new thing ‘just be’ so we don’t find ourselves taking it home!
Simplifying, Letting Be and Letting Go
“In the end, just three things matter:
How well we have lived
How well we have loved
How well we have learned to let go”
― Jack Kornfield
I am not deeply schooled in the wise and ancient Buddhist teachings about Mindfulness, having learnt about Mindfulness through my study of psychology and counselling – I have taken the main principles and general philosophy, as I understand it, and made these ideas my own. So please be aware that what you read from me is my ‘take’ on Mindfulness. So, I have to say that I find the idea of ‘Letting Go’ hardest of all. But I can more easily go with the idea of ‘Letting it be’. Perhaps this is my ‘Clayton’s’ ‘letting go’ – that is ‘letting go’ without ‘letting go’. (See my last blog for the origin of the ‘Clayton’s’ analogy). Working on our ability to ‘let be’ or ‘let go’ is critical to simplifying our lives.
For me, I can see something beautiful, useful (handy), time-saving, funny, or quirky in a shop (these are some of my biggest ‘hooks’, and you will have your own), or on-line, and in my more Mindful moments, I can notice that urge, I can name the desire to ‘have’ it, and can then ‘let it (the urge) be’, without acting on it. I often am not quite able to ‘let it go’ – instead I’ve just ‘bought time’. Created a pause. And told myself that if it really is a good idea, when I’ve stepped back and thought about it wisely, as opposed to being caught in the excitement, enthusiasm and desire of the moment, then I can always come back another time to buy it. So I can ‘let it be’ – stand back from the urge and let it pass. And very rarely do I decide something is worth going back for.
But that’s in my more Mindful moments. Then there are the other times …
When I can hold onto this way of being, I can still enjoy the shopping experience, but in the same way I enjoy going to an art gallery. Somehow, the need to ‘own’ stuff doesn’t turn up when I go to an art gallery. I can admire the beauty, the creativity, the inventiveness, quirkiness, power etc. of different works of art, without feeling I have to ‘have’ them. And I can do that in shops too, when I’m being Mindful. But I guess I’m lucky that way, in that the only kind of retail therapy I’ve ever found to be really therapeutic, bringing me a sense of joy and aliveness, is playing ‘Little Shop’ with my grand-children! So I acknowledge it will be a lot harder to kick the habit if you are a bit of a shopaholic. But if you seriously want to simplify your life, it will be well worth working on. And I have to say, I’m not sure it’s really possible to beat the shopping habit without digging deeply into the Mindfulness toolkit, with tools like ‘Noticing and naming’, self-compassion and urge surfing, to name a few.
If you’re up for the challenge of simplifying related to ‘having’ stuff or ‘things’, you may find Courtney Carver’s writing (Be More With Less) – and the challenges or missions she posts to be both inspiring and helpful. I particularly enjoyed this post ‘My Favorite Things Aren’t Things Anymore’.
Image Credits – Dollar Photo Club
Simplifying Our Life-styles – by reducing the ‘doing’ stuff
Are you a person who finds yourself over-committed? Or tries to squeeze so much into your life that you don’t have any ‘time for you’. Do you also need to let go of some of this ‘doing’ stuff as well as letting go of some of the ‘having’ stuff? In this way you can really simplify your life.
And that is the far bigger challenge for me, personally. I often joke with my colleagues that when I don’t watch myself carefully I am very easily ‘seduced by opportunity’. I’m not so much a person who gets pulled into saying ‘yes’ through guilt, expectation or obligation (although that definitely does happen at times). But I am a sucker for an interesting project. I see so many possibilities for making a difference in the world, so many interesting, rewarding and exciting possibilities, and I am a glutton for them. I want to do them all. I fear that if I don’t say ‘yes’ now, the opportunity may pass. I am seriously greedy. And possibly, it’s Greedy with a capital G. Greedy for excitement and sense of satisfaction and probably also for acknowledgement and recognition if I’m totally honest. And so I end up saying ‘yes’ to more things than will comfortably fit in my life. And my biggest hook – Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) – what if this opportunity never comes around again. And chances are, the Fear of Missing Out probably makes it harder for you to resist your particular brand of ‘bright and shiny new thing’ too. But more about FOMO another time.
For others of you this ‘greed’ may be for other types of goals – desire for adventure, for artistic or creative activities, for fun, for travel, for more destinations or adventures on your bucket list, for meeting more people, for more achievements, for more successes. We all have our different ‘hooks’. And as I said, the desire for these things isn’t bad or wrong. Lots of the activities we desire are very worthwhile. But it can be detrimental when it gets out of balance.
The downward spiral – towards complexity and away from simplicity
Then, of course, if we get into ‘busy mode’ and become stressed or overwhelmed with all these exciting, satisfying, noble, enjoyable or worthwhile activities, our minds are less and less in that ‘place of perspective’ where wisdom and wise choices and simplifying are possible, and more and more in tunnel-vision and urgency. Less and less in the moment, open, gracious, compassionate and kind. More and more driven, goal-oriented and narrowly focussed – and I’m not saying goal-oriented and narrowly focussed is a ‘bad’ thing, but if this is our only mode of operating, we can lose perspective. We can find ourselves driven and goal-focussed on things that don’t serve our overall wellbeing and purpose well. We need to be able to step into both perspective and focus, choosing whichever is most appropriate to our intentions at any given time. When we are overly goal-focussed we can end up being less able to enjoy the many rich moments of beauty in our everyday lives, less able to really ‘be’ with our partners, children or friends. Less able to see the wood for the trees, and less in touch with the things that are important to us and less able to prioritise the important things… and onwards down the spiral. Simplifying can help us to clarify what are the things that are most important to us. And simplifying can ensure we are less often distracted by the things that are less important to us.
The Mindfulness Toolkit for Simplifying
Simplifying and letting go the desire for more of the physical ‘stuff’:
- ‘Notice and name’ – step back into the observer stance (a place of perspective) and recognise “there is desire” or “I notice I’m feeling the need to have that thing” (or whatever is applicable).
- Surf the urge. No feeling or urge will persist for ever. Learn the skill of surfing the urge until it subsides.
- Remind yourself of your most important values. If Simplifying is one of them, that will help you to stay on track. But be clear in your mind – what is simplifying in the service of, your you? Focussing on these reasons will empower your effort to make this change.
Simplifying and letting go of the ‘desire’ for experiences / ‘doing’ stuff
- Breathe and slow down. Remind yourself that there will be many more opportunities which will be at least as rich as this one. It won’t be the exact same package – and that’s O.K. Who knows, it may even be more satisfying. And if you slow down enough to take one thing at a time, you’ll be able to enjoy it, and the rest of your life, a whole lot more.
- ‘Notice and name’ – step back into the observer stance (a place of perspective) and recognise “there is desire” or “I notice I’m feeling the need to say ‘yes’ to that thing” (or whatever is applicable)
- Surf the urge. No feeling or urge will persist for ever. Learn the skill of surfing the urge until it subsides.
- And keep coming back to your values. If you know this is a pattern you really want to get on top of, choose a word or short phrase that really captures it for you. And regularly, during your day, any time you start to notice ‘rushing-ness’ and ‘busy-ness’ creeping into your day, repeat your phrase to yourself and bring to mind either a memory or an image of what this state is like, to ground you back into this state that you value. Examples might be ‘Peaceful’ or ‘Calm and Grounded’ or ‘Gracious and Wise’ or ‘Calm and Organised’ – give this some thought until your goal becomes clearer and you have found the state that you want to hold.
Mindfulness Attitudes and Simplifying
I consider the Mindfulness Attitudes that Jon Kabat-Zinn identified in his book ‘Full Catastrophe Living’ as also being Mindfulness Tools. When we consciously focus on these attitudes – that is, Non judging, Patience, Beginner’s Mind, Trust, Non-striving, Acceptance ( getting real about ‘what is’) and Letting Go, this can help us to stay on track with any challenge we take on – whether it be a relatively focussed habit change such as consuming less sugar, or a more pervasive habit change such as simplifying our lives. I find all of these are useful attitudes to touch base with when a battle is playing out in my mind over the desire to ‘have more’ or ‘do more’. I love the idea that the more we cultivate these attitudes, the more we cultivate Mindfulness. And the more we practice Mindfulness, the more we are cultivating these values.
” You don’t have to have it figured out to move forward” – The Art of Simple
Mindfulness Attitudes and Skills? Or Simplifying and De-cluttering Techniques? – Or both?
There is a lot of useful information, tips and advice available on how to go about the simplifying or de-cluttering process. And it is my belief that without bringing Mindfulness to the process as well, we will inevitably ‘re-complexify’ and ‘re-clutter’ after our initial burst of simplifying or de-cluttering enthusiasm. If you haven’t already learnt about Mindfulness and begun to implement Mindfulness meditation and Everyday Mindfulness techniques in your life, I encourage you to do so. Check out some of my previous blogs – and you might also like to consider registering for The Change Academy’s Everyday Mindfulness on-line course.
A penny for your thoughts … (not literally, but you know what we mean – we’d love to hear your opinion and learn about your experiences). Any and all comments welcome – whether or not you agree with what I’ve written.
Do you get ‘hooked’ by a desire to ‘have’ stuff or ‘do’ stuff? Share your experiences here. Or do you have useful tips or advice on using Mindfulness for simplifying and de-cluttering? We’d love to hear any thoughts you may have on simplifying your life.
Are you a ‘download’ junkie? Have you subscribed to every ‘useful’ e-newsletter in the known world? And are you drowning in information overload? Does FOMO (the ‘Fear of Missing Out’) stop you from deleting emails and throwing out articles? Me too!
But I’m getting better and better at managing this ‘ongoing battle’ with overload. And yesterday I came across the most ‘sane’ blog I’ve ever seen on the subject (ironically, of course, I found it in one of those zillions of e-newsletters I subscribe to. I’ll include the link below. But first …
“That’s a handy thing” / “You never know when it will come in handy”.
I come from a family of collectors, and some of the collecting borders on hoarding (O.K. to be honest, completely crosses the border …). And to make matters worse, my family are very much into local and family history. Now there’s a recipe for disaster when it comes to rescuing / saving and hoarding everything. And a family saying that we all laugh at, but use frequently is “You never know when it will come in handy”. To be fair, I don’t think this is just something our family suffers from. I am sure it is very common – whether applied widely, or to a particular area of interest.
I don’t know if there’s been any psychological research done on ‘the fear of missing out’ but I wouldn’t be surprised if there has (if you know of any, please tell us about anything you’ve found in the Comments box below). Somehow it seems to me to be quite a primal urge. In the same way that that everything seems urgent and important when we are caught in fight-flight physiology or a ‘rushing’ or urgency mode, making it hard to let go the somewhat less urgent tasks and focus on the most urgent, it seems harder to let ‘things’ go the more stressed and busy we are. It reminds me of the hawks on the road, eating road-kill. Apparently they instinctively grip onto their ‘find’ when faced with an approaching car, which limits their ability to fly and increases their chances of being skittled. The busier or more stressed I am, the more ‘important’ / “might be really useful information later” certain emails or e-newsletters seem. And of course the writers often exploit this sense of stress and urgency by having a limited-time offer in the subject line or first paragraph.
My ‘Claytons’ solution
Firstly, to explain the term – in the 70’s or 80’s in Australia and New Zealand there was a marketing campaign for a non-alcoholic drink, called Claytons – ‘the drink you’re having when you’re not having a drink’. (If you’re interested, this youtube clip of one of their adverts gives you an idea why it was so frequently parodied. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylH43Tcaj60) So my “Claytons” solution to email was to set up a folder for all the things that I wished I had time to read, called ‘Labour Weekend Reading’. I did this about five years ago, a couple of weeks before our 3 day Labour Weekend holiday, thinking that I would have heaps of time to catch up on all this reading. And I’m still happily ‘filing’ emails that I haven’t got time to read into my ‘Labour Weekend Reading’ file. As yet, I have not opened that file to actually read anything, so it has a humongous number of emails in it. But it has helped me to use the Mindfulness strategy of ‘noticing and naming’ the Fear of Missing Out, and to recognise my unwillingness to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’! This strategy has saved me from experiencing the discomfort of hitting the delete button and fearing I would miss out on some ‘good stuff’. This is a classic case of avoidance of emotional discomfort! And avoidance is not a Mindful response. But in this case, I’m not sure if there are any harmful consequences to it (I’d be interested on your opinion on this). And one day, with increasing Mindfulness and intentionality, I may reach peace with this, rather than just calling a truce, and I may just hit the delete button and get rid of the whole lot in one fell swoop. But not just yet, because you never know, maybe I might still find time to read some of the emails in that file… I love Christine Carter’s suggestion of setting up a separate email account for all these kind of emails, but in a lot of ways, I think that may also be another ‘Clayton’s’ solution.
And what about paper files?
In discussing this with some Counsellor and Supervisor colleagues recently, it turns out I’m not the only one with this hoarding instinct! We all have boxes or filing cabinet drawers of handouts, training materials and articles which we believe that one day we will sort through and save the ‘good stuff’. I know that I hate re-creating resources on something I have already written about (for example when a file becomes corrupted). So the idea of throwing out a resource and then later discovering I ‘need’ it for a workshop or a client has me holding on to drawer-loads of ‘stuff’. And in reality, if I wanted to look for an old resource for a client, it could take hours to sort through and find. In reality it would be quicker to just re-write it – and I may well create something better and more up-to-date than my original. But the idea of re-writing stuff is, for me, kind of like the idea of scraping my finger nails down a chalkboard (remember them?) But I’m getting pretty close now to just biting the bullet and doing a big toss out.
One idea my colleagues and I talked about was ‘helping’ each other with this task – that with a supportive observer present we might decide “to heck with it, it can all go”. And then we could use the time we saved by not painstakingly sorting through every sheet of paper to have a coffee or a wine and enjoy each other’s company – and celebrate a mini-victory over being captive to ‘stuff’.
Living a simpler life is something that really appeals – being freer from ‘stuff’. Christine Carter’s article on the ‘Greater Good – The Science of Meaningful Life’ website is a great step in that direction with regard to emails. As I mentioned, this is one of the most ‘sane’ articles I’ve read on the topic. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/howand_whyto_take_your_life_back_from_email?utm_source=GG+Newsletter+April+6%2C+2016&utm_campaign=GG+Newsletter+April+6+2016&utm_medium=email
And you might also enjoy Courtney Carver’s website www.bemorewithless.com if you aspire to a simpler life in a broader sense.
Simplifying, whether it be our inboxes or our lives, helps us to lead a more Mindful life. And Mindfulness helps us to value and achieve simplicity. Both seem challenges worth tackling.
Image Credits: Pixaby and Adobe Stock Photos
A penny for your thoughts … (not literally, but you know what we mean – we’d love to hear your opinion and learn about your experiences).
How are you at deleting emails? Or better still, unsubscribing? And how about throwing out old paper records, articles, resources? And other ‘stuff’ (belongings) – do you aspire to de-clutter and simplify with regard to belongings? What have you found helpful in your attempts to de-clutter. Please share your tips. We’d love to hear from you on the Comments Board below.
Any and all comments welcome – whether or not you agree with what I’ve written.
So you had a habit change you wanted to tackle, you set a SMART goal – you were very specific in your goals, they were measurable and achievable, you had a specific time-frame – and you still weren’t able to achieve your desired outcome. What went wrong?
Of course there are many different answers. But firstly I want to ‘zoom out’ a little in answering this question – widen the perspective and look at some essential ‘pre-steps’ to habit change. And contrary to the catchy headline, there may be more than one ‘secret ingredient’!
Firstly, the biggest ‘zoom-out’ question
Are you trying to achieve a goal or change a habit? Mistake number one that many people make is to use the strategies you would use for achieving goals to achieve habit change. When you think about it, you can see that habit change is a whole lot more complex and harder than achieving a goal. For example, imagine you have a goal of saving $2000 for a big holiday you have planned. Let’s say you have 50 weeks to do this. All you need to do to achieve your goal is to save $40 per week, starting today, right? And hey presto! You have achieved your goal. If you are already a good saver, it will be that easy and straight forward. But if the real issue is that you need to be less impulsive with your spending and be more disciplined in how you use your money, a habit change is required. And that means making good choices multiple times every day. Which requires a robust strategy, because there are so many things that can cause us to ‘fall off the wagon’ when we resolve to change a habit.
Dike Drummond, in his book ‘Stop Physician Burnout’ talks about the difference between a ‘problem’ and a ‘dilemma’ – a problem is something that has a simple solution of one or two steps, and applying that simple solution fixes the problem. But many difficult issues in our lives are more-so ‘dilemmas’ than ‘problems’.
So what is a dilemma? A dilemma is a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two alternatives, especially when both alternatives are either undesirable or mutually incompatible. Issues like ‘work-life balance’ are more-so dilemmas than problems. And consequently require a ‘strategy’ rather than a ‘solution’. Resolutions (such as “From now on I’m going to make healthier food choices”) usually require habit change.
The dangers of treating a dilemma as if it is a problem
When we treat issues that are more-so dilemmas as if they are problems, what tends to happen is that we analyse the situation (‘problem’), come up with a solution we think will work and try to implement it, sometimes with some short-term success. And soon we find that our solution isn’t working or feels too hard to continue to implement. We feel despondent and may well beat ourselves up and think the we are the problem e.g. “I just don’t have the will-power required” or “I’m not committed enough” or “I’m too lazy.” Or we start to ‘play victim’ to justify to ourselves why this change is not possible – e.g it’s some-one else’s fault, or it’s the fault of our genes. And then we might start looking out for a ‘magic bullet’ – the ‘fool-proof solution’ that will fix our problem – the magic diet or exercise programme, the magic time-management system, the magic app or gadget or product. Which makes us vulnerable to hard-sell marketing for all the ‘new’ (and “simple”) solutions being offered.
And to make matters worse, each time we set goals and don’t achieve them, we start to erode our belief in our own ability. So the next time we may be a bit half-hearted about our goal because in our heart-of-hearts we don’t actually believe we can achieve it. Which of course means we are less likely to succeed.
Dilemmas require Strategies, not ‘Solutions’
A dilemma requires a longer term approach. With a dilemma we need to identify the various things we could do that might make a difference to the situation, then choose a place to start. And when we choose the place to start we choose an action that seems ‘do-able’ and that we think will make a significant difference to the situation. Then we try implementing this new action. And we continuously review and ‘tweak’ the plan. And ideally, schedule a regular time to review our over-all strategy, taking time to problem-solve the things that aren’t working with our first action, and when we have this first step embedded in our life, we then choose the next action which will contribute to the situation improving.
And a further really important step, when we are ‘in for the long-haul’ is celebrating every small success and tracking our progress towards our desired outcome.
It can be very helpful to have an ‘accountability partner’ or ‘change partner’ when we are tackling big changes – some-one who you share your goals and strategies with, some-one who will be a cheer-leader for you, encouraging you and acknowledging your successes, while also challenging you to persevere when you might be tempted to give up.
This is not a ‘quick-fix’ approach. But it is an approach that is more likely to succeed.
Creating a robust strategy
And perhaps the most important part of successfully moving towards an outcome that requires habit change is building in strategies for dealing with temptations, doubts, impulses, unhelpful thoughts and those times of the day when your will-power might be low and you are more vulnerable to ‘falling off the wagon’. And it is this part of the plan that requires special attention in our ‘ongoing maintenance’ – our regular tweaking and reviewing. Often we are not conscious of what these challenges will be until they happen. So we may fall off the wagon when these challenges first occur. But we can learn from each of these experiences and for each challenge we can identify a mini-strategy that will help us to deal with that challenge the next time around.
So What is the Secret Ingredient?
In addition to changing your approach from ‘problem-solving’ to ‘strategy-building’, what if there was an approach or method that enabled you to improve your ‘foundation skills’ for habit change? What if it was possible to learn the skills that help you stick to your resolutions and not ‘fall off the wagon’ as often, and not ‘give up on yourself’ when the going gets tough?
What ‘foundation skills’ are we talking about here?
How about these for starters …
- The ability to be aware of unhelpful thoughts, let them go and not take them seriously? For example, you are tired and hungry and a thought pops up – something like “I never manage to stick to my goals, I might as well give up now because I’m going to end up giving up anyway.” Or “Right now I need a break so I’ll skip going to the gym today” or “I deserve a reward for being so good, so it’s O.K. if I blob in front of tele tonight with a tub of icecream” – or that really seductive thought “just this once won’t really matter”.
- The ability to be with uncomfortable feelings in a way that enables you to be aware of the feelings and can accept them compassionately and not be over-whelmed by them, and so not have them jump into the driver’s seat of your life. For example you have a goal of spending less time at home by yourself and going out and doing more things socially. You are getting ready to go out to meet some friends but you feel anxious, shy, self-conscious and even a bit nauseous. Imagine if you could calm down that feeling to the extent that you were able to remain committed to your intention to go out, and thus achieve your goal.
- The ability to notice an urge and be able to ‘surf’ urges without giving in to them.
- The ability to spend less time ‘dwelling’ on mistakes, regrets and guilt about the past or worrying and feeling anxious about the future or daydreaming about the future. And therefore spending more time being in the present moment. Daydreaming and worrying don’t help us to make the changes we want to make. And dwelling on our imperfections and mistakes take our focus away from enjoying the present. In fact, the only place we can make a difference to the quality of our lives for the future is in the present moment – we can’t change the past or ‘magic’ the future inside our heads.
- The ability to be less judgmental towards ourselves, to not be constantly putting ourselves down or noticing what we’re doing wrong more than we notice what we’re doing well.
- The ability to be compassionate towards ourselves and to forgive ourselves and move on when we slip up.
- The ability to feel gratitude and appreciation, and to pat ourselves on the back for our small achievements.
- The ability to ‘get perspective’ – to step out of the detail and to step back and see the ‘bigger picture’. That is, the ability to step into the ‘observer stance’ where we can make wiser decisions, the ability to not be ‘in’ the issue but an observer outside the issue, so being able to be the ‘manager’ of the issue.
Without these abilities, tackling a challenging habit change and persevering over the ‘long-haul’ will be difficult. These abilities are, I believe, some of the most essential ingredients for habit change and the achievement of challenging goals. They are not ‘magic bullets’, but they are powerful ‘secret’ or not so secret ingredients. They take time to learn and develop. But they are skills that make a difference in so many aspects of our lives, both in solving problems and dilemmas, and in enhancing our wellbeing and happiness.
If you have read my previous blogs you probably already know that I am a big fan of Mindfulness, and you may recognise that all of the things listed above are aspects of Mindfulness. I can’t emphasise enough how practical and useful Mindfulness skills are in our everyday lives. If you haven’t already looked into learning Mindfulness, I strongly encourage you to do so.
But Wait – There’s More: Another Secret Ingredient
Another really important skill, which I see as critical to any goal achievement or habit change is that of using ‘Implementation Intentions’. Peter Gollwitzer (American Psychologist, July 1999) makes the distinction between ‘goal intentions’ and ‘implementation intentions’ – goal intentions are what we want to achieve, and implementation intentions are ‘pre-decisions’ about the when, where and how of achieving a goal. They have the structure of ‘When situation x arises, then I will perform response y”. These are particularly helpful for things that might tempt us away from persevering with our new habit.
And if we don’t ‘pre-decide’ what we will do in these situations it is much more likely that we will ‘fall off the wagon’ (of progress on our new habit). For example let’s suppose that you are establishing a new habit of avoiding sugary foods. It is 3.00 p.m. and you have been making healthy food choices so far today. But right now you are hungry and tired and would love a little bit of added energy. And you have had a habit of visiting the confectionary bar in your workplace at about this time whenever you felt the need for a bit of added energy. If you have ‘pre-decided’ how you will handle this situation, having identified it as a potential challenge point, you will have prepared, for example, making some healthy sugar-free snacks and packed them in your lunch box – in which case you are more easily able to stick to your resolution. You have an implementation intention for this situation – that is “When I feel the need for a sugary snack, I will eat a healthy snack from my lunch box”.
Implementation intentions that involve a mental rather than a practical response are even more important. For example “When I have the urge to eat a sugary snack (even when I have a healthy alternative in my lunchbox) I will employ the ‘urge surfing’ steps, and will make sure I have my laminated card with these steps on, in my pocket. And while I am waiting for the urge to subside I will go to the water-cooler, get a glass of water and sip my water each time I notice this urge.” If you are not familiar with urge surfing you will find plenty of info on the web. For example, you will find a good clear description of the process on here
So let’s look at an example of putting together a robust habit change strategy.
Your goal is to get up earlier in the morning, perhaps so that you can be less rushed in the mornings, not be late for work, fit in some exercise or have leisurely breakfasts with your partner or friends. If you treat this habit change exercise simply as a goal or as a problem, there is a good chance you may fail to achieve your objective. The obvious ‘solutions’ if we treat this as simply a ‘problem’ are things like set your alarm clock an hour earlier in the morning. And for some people, it is this simple. But for many others a series of habit changes are required to achieve this goal.
So, if, instead, you come up with a ‘strategy’, it might look something like the following. And this is much more likely to achieve success.
Goal: To get up at 6.15 a.m.
1. Identify possible steps to solve the problem e.g. Set two alarms instead of 1, have a friend phone me in the morning, go to bed earlier … etc.
2. Choose one ‘do-able’ step that you feel you could achieve and that might have a significant impact on the problem. Let’s say I chose ‘go to bed earlier’
3. Identify as many of the likely challenges that you might experience as possible, and for each, work out how you will address them i.e. set an ‘implementation intention’ for each. For example:
a. I get busy doing something and don’t realise the time – “Half an hour before I need to go to bed, I will set an alarm to ring, then even if I am in the middle of something I will remind myself that I can come back to it tomorrow, and remind myself of my goal and will pack up and go to bed”.
b. I have a habit of not having everything ready for the morning, so I end up staying up late to get things ready for the morning and then going to bed late. “(When) An hour before bed time (then) I will do everything on my checklist for getting things ready in the morning”
c. You get the idea. Identify the potential challenge and put an implementation intention / plan in place that covers how, when and where.
4. Identify some of the practical issues that might come up and work out strategies for them
a. There’s something really good on T.V. (I’ll record it)
b. I’m so tired that I’m sitting in front of T.V. mindlessly and just ignore my alarm (put your T.V. on a timer so it turns itself off)
c. You get the idea. Again – more ‘Implementation Intentions’.
5. Identify some of the thoughts, feelings, temptations and urges that might lead you to give up on your goal, and work out ‘Implementation Intentions’ for them
a. Potential sabotaging thought “I’m not feeling tired and I feel like I don’t need as much sleep tonight”. Implementation intention: “When the thought comes up that I don’t need as much sleep tonight, then I will remind myself that sleep works best when we keep routine sleep hours, and that if I don’t keep routine hours I will keep struggling with not feeling sleepy at bedtime and feeling tired when I wake up and wanting to sleep in. I will remind myself of ‘the big picture’ and will make a choice to go to bed on time, even if I am not feeling tired”.
b. You get the idea – Again – more ‘Implementation Intentions’ for other potential sabotaging thoughts or feelings you think might trip you up.
6. Each time you slip up, identify what led to the slip up and what you will do in that situation next time. That is, create an ‘Implementation Intention’ that will cover this situation. Then let it go and move on. Forgive yourself for the slip-up.
7. At the end of each day, as you lie in bed, pat yourself on the back for all the things that you did that in any way contributed to you making progress on establishing and maintaining your new habit.
8. Regularly review your strategy e.g. each Sunday evening read over your strategy, identify times you slipped up and create ‘implementation intentions’ for these situations.
I wish you all the very best with any habit changes you are tackling at the moment. I hope that, by employing these not-so-secret “secret ingredients” you have not only greater success, but that you get to enjoy the journey of change that you are on.
Image credit: Dollarphotoclub.com
A penny for your thoughts … (not literally, but you know what we mean – we’d love to hear your opinion and learn about your experiences).
Have you found Mindfulness strategies to be important to you when engaging in changing your habits or achieving challenging goals? If so we’d love to hear about your example/s. Or do you use ‘Implementation Intentions’ (even if you don’t call them that)? Or do you have other useful tips to share. We’d love to hear about this too on the Comments Board below.
Any and all comments welcome – whether or not you agree with what I’ve written.
Just. It’s a word that can get us into a lot of trouble, stress and disappointment. Beware of “just” if you want to improve your time management and reduce your procrastination.
I first became aware of the significance of the ‘just’ word when I was a teenager. I heard some-one talking about how it can be used to reduce the significance of a request by a farmer to his wife (in the days before couples were partners in farm work). A request like “Honey, while you are in town can you just pick up the six 20 kg bags of grass seed I ordered this morning”. Or “Honey, could you just nip down to the back paddock and let the sheet into the next paddock (and this was in the era when you didn’t just hop onto your quad bike or ute). Both jobs required a lot of extra time, and likely a change of clothes for the latter.
So over the years I have been very aware of the dangers of “just”-ing.
Dangers That Arise When We “Just” Ourselves
1. “I will just knock out a blog post before breakfast”. Yes, it may be do-able, especially if you’re only thinking about the writing – but all the ‘extra bits’ such as proof-reading, sourcing suitable graphics, loading it onto the website, sorting out formatting glitches etc. may make this an unrealistic goal.
This danger occurs when we fail to take account of the amount of time that the many necessary small tasks take, as part of a bigger whole. Another example – preparing my ‘Everyday Mindfulness for Peace, Perspective and Productivity’ course. Yesterday I told myself that I “just” needed to record the script I had prepared for one of the lessons, and then that lesson would be finished. And when I actually went to do it, I ‘remembered’ or again became consciously aware of the steps – record it, with pen in hand, in order to edit the parts of the script that don’t flow, then record it again, and often again and again. Then listen through to the recording while following the document in ‘review’ mode in MS Word and notating each ‘bloop’ that needs to be edited out, to send to my tech guy who does my editing for me. Then when he sends it back to me, reviewing the work one final time. All in all, quite a lengthy process.
This meant that the list of tasks I’d thought I’d get done yesterday was quite unrealistic which potentially sets me up for a day of feeling rushed and stressed trying to get these tasks done anyway, and disappointed at what I didn’t get done, rather than fully acknowledging and appreciating what I did get done.
2. Unfortunately, this unhelpful little ‘mind trick’ can also go hand in hand with not having a very realistic sense of passing time. I also have had the tendency to think “Oh, I need to be in town by 2.00 pm and so as long as I leave by 1.30 pm that will be fine”. And I get absorbed in my work and keep on working until minutes before 1.30 pm without being very aware of the passing of time, and also having taken no account of the many small ‘just jobs’ related to getting ready for my meeting in town – which again leads to the potential for lots of wild rushing around in a ‘headless chook’ fashion, and lots of stress and self-berating.
3. When “Just” leads into non-intentional activity, time-wasting and procrastination
Equally dangerous to good time-management is when we get unintentionally caught into activities that waste a lot of time, or that take us away from a more important task for long periods of time. Prime suspects include “I’ll ‘just’ check my email” or “I’ll ‘just’ check Facebook (or substitute your preferred social media sites) or “I’ll ‘just’ spend a moment on my favourite computer game of the moment”.
Imagine if you had a friend and every time you made an arrangement to spend time with her, as soon as her phone rang, she’d say “I’ll just answer that, I won’t be a moment” and then spend as long on that call as you tend to spend on checking email, facebook or games, unintentionally. You would probably have worked out pretty quickly that you can’t trust that friend’s word when they use that “just” word. So how is it that each time we say “I’ll just” do one of these tasks, we still believe ourselves. Derr… Time to become very suspicious of that word, and of ourselves when we notice that word is operating!
A brilliant tip for “justing” and unrealistic estimates of how long things will take: Substitute smaller units of time
Daphne Oyserman of the University of Southern California, in her research, found that it is helpful to substitute smaller units of time – for example instead of thinking “I have 2 hours to get this task done” think “I have 120 minutes to get this task done”. It is easy to see how this could be helpful – a 10 minute distraction that I let myself get caught up in within 120 minutes seems more significant than ‘just this little 10 minutes’ feels within 2 hours. I’ve started to experiment with this and am finding it helpful – would love to hear about your experience if you decide to try it out.
When others “Just” us
It is also helpful to be on the lookout for when others “just” us. “Could you just mind my children for the morning” (when you know that his or her ‘morning’ often stretches into the afternoon, or you know that his or her children are little terrors or very demanding). Or, “Could you just help me to sort out this computer problem” (a real gamble – may be simple, but may take ages).
Of course there are many other skills that are necessary here, when others “just” us, such as being able to feel comfortable to say ‘no’, reflecting back the request with more of the details specified to more accurately reflect the scope of the request, and being comfortable with negotiating quite specific parameters around our ‘yes’ when this is warranted. But even ‘just’ being aware of our ‘justs’ can make a big difference.
So, you have been warned! Beware the ‘just word’ and improve your time management.
Image credit: Dollarphotoclub.com
A penny for your thoughts … (not literally, but you know what we mean – we’d love to hear your opinion and learn about your experiences).
Are there other instances where the ‘just’ word causes problems in your life? If so we’d love it if you would share your examples. And we’d also love to hear what you notice if you start to experiment with substituting smaller units of time, if you have a tendency to ‘just’.
Any and all comments welcome – whether or not you agree with what I’ve written.
The Annual Tease of New Year’s Resolutions
Do you, like myself and many others do a bit of a mental review of your year (or your life)at New Year and come up with some ‘resolutions’ for the coming year? Some big goals for personal change? If so, to what extent do you achieve those goals? I read yesterday that 25% of people abandon their New Year’s Resolutions after one week, and 60% do so within six months. I didn’t check if there is any research backing up these statements, but they were food for thought, all the same.
I think there are many reasons that their New Year’s Resolutions don’t work for many people, but I will list just three that I think are particularly important. Hopefully this list might help you to identify some of the thing/s that trip you up if you are unable to persevere with your resolutions. Or they may even allow you to give yourself permission not to engage in this annual tease, if the time is not right for you.
Your challenging goals – problems or dilemmas?
1. If it is a challenging enough goal that we need to set a New Year’s Resolution to achieve it, it is most likely not a simple or easy goal to achieve. Dike Drummond, M.D. in his book ‘Stop Physician Burnout’ writes about the distinction between a problem and a dilemma. Understandably, we generally approach challenges with a ‘problem-solving’ mind-set – analyse the problem, identify possible solutions, choose the best solution, implement it and voila! Problem solved. This approach works well for straight-forward problems – e.g. there are two people in your house-hold and only one car, but today, you both need the car. Apply this process and voila! Problem solved.
But many of our challenges are more of a dilemma than a problem. A dilemma is a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two alternatives – especially when both alternatives are either undesirable or mutually incompatible. Or perhaps both alternatives are very desirable – for example “I want to lose weight and I want to keep on enjoying yummy sweet and fatty foods”. And in the case of the changes we tackle in New Year’s Resolutions, it’s not just one difficult choice, but a choice we need to make over and over and over again, day after day, after day – on days when we’re feeling highly motivated and on days when we are exhausted and don’t have any delicious and easy-to-prepare healthy food in the refrigerator.
A dilemma requires managing, not solving. And managing requires an ongoing strategy with regular reviews to ‘tweak’ the strategy to find what will work best. It’s not a quick fix process. Many people approach their New Year’s Resolutions as if they are problems, when they may in fact be dilemmas.
Maintaining mindfulness, awareness and perspective regarding our goal over the long-haul
2. When we are working on an issue that requires us to make ‘the good decision’ over and over and over again, we need to be able to maintain a relatively high level of awareness or mindfulness. Using the weight loss example again – we need to be able to notice the urge to grab a bag of chippies or chocolate bar from the ‘snack box’ at work, before we’ve gone ahead and done it. We need to be able to resist urges, see the bigger picture – remember our overall goal for better health or losing weight, be aware of the consequences of our actions, be aware of alternatives for healthier choices – to generally maintain a state of awareness, choice and perspective. These are all mental functions that we can only achieve when we are in a ‘relaxed and focussed’ frame of mind. When we are stressed out, in the ‘fight-flight’ physiology, we are more likely to be caught in tunnel vision, impatience, impulsiveness, and black-and-white thinking – not a place where we can make wise decisions.
In fact, to have a ‘fighting chance’ of sticking to our New Year’s Resolutions, we need to spend as little time as possible in the ‘fight-flight’ physiology, and know how to change state to the ‘relaxed and focussed’ physiology each time we notice that we are stressed. In addition to Mindfulness and Diaphragmatic Breathing, Neurolinguistic Programming has some great strategies for accessing and anchoring resourceful states such as being relaxed and focussed. But first we need to have a good level of awareness of our current state so that we know when we need to change it! Again, Mindfulness is vital here.
Ironically, at the time when we make our New Year’s Resolutions, we are usually in quite a ‘relaxed and focussed’ place. We may be on leave from our jobs or on holiday, and are giving ourselves some ‘me-time’ / thinking time where we intentionally choose to enter a place of perspective. Which is a great place to formulate goals, so long as we stay there long enough to formulate a fairly detailed and grounded strategy that will ensure we are able to achieve those goals. But many people don’t take the time and effort to formulate a detailed strategy at that time, and then return to a busy life and get caught back into the rut (and ‘tunnel vision’) of being busy, ‘fire-fighting’, and coping or surviving. It is likely to be almost impossible to stick to resolutions that involve managing dilemmas under these circumstances.
‘New Year’s Resolution’ or ‘New Year’s Wishful Thought’?
3. Maybe it would help to ‘call a spade a spade’. We think of these things we set in the new year as ‘resolutions’. Definitions of ‘resolution’ include: the quality of being resolute, great determination; a mental pledge. But for many, New Year’s Resolutions could more accurately be thought of as ‘New Year’s Wishful Thoughts’ or perhaps ‘New Year’s Vague Goals’ – if we haven’t developed a long term strategy for implementation which includes supporting our ongoing determination in keeping this ‘mental pledge’ or ‘promise’ that we have made to ourselves. So my suggestion would be that if we haven’t got the time, or level of commitment to create a good strategy, why not spare ourselves the guilt and disappointment and slight erosion of self-esteem that occurs when we break our promises to ourselves, let ourselves down – again, and just acknowledge the reality of the matter, without judgment – that the time is not right for this particular goal at this time.
So bearing this in mind – choose your ‘thing’. If not a ‘resolution’, then what? I do think that setting general intentions without a clear goal can be helpful. Last year, a friend set her friends the challenge of selecting a quality to focus on for the year. I chose the quality of ‘spaciousness’ – which I pondered upon many times during the year. It served as a general sense of direction for the year, and although I didn’t have a specific detailed strategy I frequently revisited this somewhat vague intention, with positive results I wouldn’t have predicted.
Be kind to yourself, and get real
My words of advice on New Year’s Resolutions
– Be real with yourself – accept what is, because it is – yourself and your circumstances. Following the advice of the Serenity Prayer – accept the things you can’t change, have the courage (and determination) to choose to change the things you can when the time is right, and use your wisdom to know when and how to effectively tackle those changes you want to make.
– Be kind to yourself – don’t set yourself up for guilt and disappointment with unrealistic and ungrounded ‘resolutions’.
– Consider using this year to put some more foundations in place to help you tackle those important goals that the time is not yet right for. Look out for ways to develop more mindfulness and mental spaciousness this year – and maybe next year you will be in a better place to tackle those goals successfully.
A penny for your thoughts … (not literally, but you know what we mean – we’d love to hear your opinion and learn about your experiences). Please add your comment/s below.
Do New Year’s Resolutions work for you? What words of advice would you offer regarding setting New Year’s Resolutions?
Any and all comments welcome – whether or not you agree with what I’ve written.
Feeling a bit like you’ve just got too much going on at once? Too much pressure? Too many people making demands on your time or your peace of mind? And feeling like you just can’t think straight, get perspective, work out where to start?
And possibly, as a result of this feeling, saying and doing things that ‘aren’t you’. Maybe you’re normally relatively calm and organised, but at times you just feel like all this stress is ‘doing your head in’.
Well, maybe it’s not just about you. Maybe you’re not ‘losing it’, going crazy or whatever. In fact this is just what our brains do when we end up in the ‘stress response’ (also often known as the fight-flight response).
I personally find it quite reassuring to understand what happens when our brains flick into these particular unhelpful patterns when we are stressed. Partly I find it helpful because I can remind myself I’m not going crazy, this is exactly how my brain is designed to operate under stress. And that thought reminds me that focussing on actions that will help my physiology shift from ‘stressed out / freaking out’ to ‘relaxed and focussed’ is the most useful thing to do. But I’m running ahead … first, here are some ideas that help to explain in simple terms why our minds do what they do when we are stressed.
We’re not as ‘modern’ as we think
In the same way that it is a natural reflex for our bodies to flick into ‘fight-flight’ physiology any time we perceive we are facing a threat (whether that is a real physical threat or a perceived threat, perhaps something that has us feel that our security or wellbeing is under threat) our mind can flick automatically into a ‘fight-flight’ style of thinking. The ‘fight-flight’ reflex is a very primitive reflex which we have in common with even the most ancient animals.
Unfortunately our minds and bodies are not great at telling the difference between real, physical threats and everyday worries or anxieties. So most of us flick into the fight-flight response without even knowing we are doing it. We are then caught in a physiology that would equip us well for a brawl, or to survive in a dangerous world, as if we were surrounded by sabre-tooth tigers.
The ‘logical’ brain goes off-line and ‘emotion brain’ jumps into the driver’s seat
Ironically, the more ‘modern’ or highly evolved, rational, problem-solving part of our brain (the neo-cortex) is less activated when we switch into the fight-flight response, and instead the more ancient ‘emotion brain’ (limbic system) takes over the ‘driver’s seat’. So when we are facing stressors and most need our problem-solving ability, we have least access to it if the ‘fight-flight’ response has been activated. And you may have noticed evidence that the ‘emotion brain’ is more activated in times of greater stress – you may find yourself feeling more emotional than usual, perhaps more prone to tearfulness or more ‘short-fused’ than you would normally be, and you may find that you take things more personally than usual.
In addition, the limbic system responds in a very fast, very ‘black or white’, or ‘all or nothing’ way. You might find that when you are feeling particularly stressed that you find yourself saying things to yourself like “This is a disaster” (as opposed to “This is quite a big setback”), or using ‘all or nothing language’ such as “I will never be able to …”, or “They always do this to me”.
And when I say that we see things as very ‘black or white’ I guess I’m really saying we see things as very black – we are not in a state to notice what is going well or the many good things in our lives. We are in a negative mind-set because of the fight-flight response. This leads to us to a bit of a ‘siege mentality’ – we can feel that we are surrounded by people who are mean and/or stupid.
Looking out for danger
When we are in ‘stress physiology’ we become ‘hypervigilant – we are on the look-out for what is wrong or what could go wrong. This makes perfect sense given that your body and mind are acting as if you are living in a very dangerous world. In a genuinely dangerous world, we need to be on the look-out for danger. But our tendency to flick into this stress physiology, and the hypervigilance that goes with it when faced with every-day ongoing stress, is very unhelpful.
As you can see, we are hard-wired to think negatively when we are caught in the fight-flight response. Another way of describing ‘hypervigilance would be to say that we are in a hyper ‘judging’ mode – we are filtering for whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (and mostly when we are in the ‘stress’ physiology we are only able to see the ‘bad’) and we are paying particular attention to the size of the gap between how we perceive things to be and how we perceive they ‘should’ be or we wish they would be.
The ‘Relaxed and Focussed’ Physiology
This is the opposite to the ‘fight-flight’ physiology. When we are relaxed, we much more easily and automatically notice the good things in our lives. In this physiology we don’t have to give ourselves a ‘pep talk’ to think positively, we are naturally aware of the good things in our lives. We are also much more compassionate, and much less likely to judge – either others or ourselves. In this physiology we also have full access to our pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain that can problem-solve, be rational, be creative, and get perspective on life. Our concentration is better and our memory works better. All-in-all this physiology has a lot going for it!
Adopting a ‘bottom up’ approach
There is growing acceptance within psychology today that we can’t easily ‘think’ or ‘work’ our way out of this dynamic. For many people trying to be ‘rational’ in our thinking when we are caught in stress and anxiety, and trying to be ‘positive’ doesn’t work when we are trying to get out of this nasty cycle. In fact, we can end up feeling worse because we think we ‘should’ be able to ‘just be rational’ or ‘just be positive’ and try as we might, this ability eludes us. And this leads to more self-judgment and more of that nasty vicious cycle.
Instead of trying harder to think our way out of this physiology, a more effective approach is to ‘use our bodies to change our minds’. It is helpful to recognise that we are in the stress physiology, remind ourselves that we are hard-wired to think in this negative way when we are in the ‘stress’ physiology, and then choose to take action to change our physiology. So give yourself a break. Trying to stop yourself thinking in this negative way when you are in the ‘stress’ physiology is like trying to rake water up hill. Once we take action which moves us into a more ‘relaxed and focussed’ physiology, then we can ‘go upstairs’ and change the way we are thinking.
‘Bridges’ into the ‘Relaxed and Focussed’ physiology
There are many ‘bridges’ that help us to move from ‘stressed brain’ to ‘relaxed and focused brain’. Physical exercise is really helpful, as is spending time with people who care about us or whose company helps to uplift us. Spiritual practices such as prayer or meditation, or being in nature can also be very helpful, as can music, art or other creative activities. Play is very potent also.
But perhaps the most direct and powerful is diaphragmatic breathing.
Learning to gain greater control over your physiology through diaphragmatic breathing will pay dividends. Imagine how much more calm, enjoyable and productive life would be if you could easily access the ‘Relaxed and Focussed’ physiology, where your brain is more efficient and you can easily get things into perspective. So if you haven’t already, do explore the simple but powerful process of diaphragmatic breathing. And make sure you use it as often as you need it to, to help you keep things in perspective and to prevent you from visiting that ‘it’s doing my head in’ territory that detracts so significantly from our quality of life.
A penny for your thoughts … (not literally, but you know what we mean – we’d love to hear from you): I’d love to hear your opinion and learn about your experiences: Please add your comment/s below.
Can you relate to any of this – have you noticed some of these thought patterns when you’ve been stressed. And have you been annoyed with yourself for being ‘so negative’ or ‘so grumpy’ but not been able to get out of that frame of mind. Or maybe you’ve had friends who’ve given you that oh so helpful (not) advice ‘Don’t be so negative’. I’d love to hear about your experiences of this ‘stress dynamic’.
Any and all comments welcome – whether or not you agree with what I’ve written.
7 Ways The Fight-flight Physiology Is Detrimental To Your Health
Nothing is likely to improve your quality of life more than understanding how the ‘fight-flight’ response affects your physiology, your brain and how you think and behave. This is ‘news you can use’.
So firstly, what is the fight-flight response?
This is a very ancient response that we have in common with even the simplest animals. It is a response that is designed to help save our lives in physically life-threatening situations. How does it do this? By ramping up our heart-rate, blood pressure and breathing pattern to ensure enough oxygenated blood flows to our arms and legs so we can run like crazy or fight like crazy, and live to tell the tale. Along with these three physiological changes there are many other large and small changes that contribute to our survival. This response is designed as a very short-lived response to cope with real, life-threatening situations. Unfortunately this response is activated whenever we sense a ‘threat’ –– whether it is a physical threat or just a worry about whatever issues are going on in our lives. And because there are nearly always issues we can get worried about, many of us are living in a constant low, or even high- grade ‘fight-flight’ physiology.
7 Ways The ‘Fight-flight’ Physiology Is Detrimental To Your Health
Our bodies are not designed to cope with prolonged periods of ‘fight-flight’ physiological arousal. When left unchecked, we can end up experiencing the following:
1. When we are in an already higher than normal state of arousal in terms of the fight-flight response, with our hearts beating faster than normal, our blood-pressure elevated and our breathing faster and shallower than normal, it only takes relatively small additional stressors to lead us to feeling panicky or overwhelmed. And potentially, when the stress level gets to a certain level we can be triggered into a full-blown panic attack, perhaps ending up in the Emergency department at the hospital feeling like we are having a heart attack or can’t breathe.
2. When we are in the fight-flight response, a more ancient part of the brain, the Limbic system or Emotion brain becomes more highly activated and the logical, rational, creative, perspective-giving, problem-solving part of the brain becomes less activated. Why? We survive best in emergencies if we don’t stop to ponder, strategise or philosophise. Instead our impulse to run or fight kicks in and takes over. Which is perfect when we are in a physical emergency situation, but not so great when in a conflict with our boss or partner, for example. So if you have noticed that you can’t think very clearly, or that you become more emotional than usual when you are stressed, now you know why! And when ‘Emotion Brain’ is in the driver’s seat of our lives, we tend to make poor health choices – to grab that chocolate bar or alcohol to drown our sorrows, or to decide ‘to heck with it, why should I bother going to the gym’.
3. Bodily functions that are not immediately needed for our survival partially close down. This includes our digestive systems. You don’t need to digest your most recent meal to fight the tiger. In modern times, this may help to explain why there is a very high incidence of digestive system disorders such as heartburn or reflux and irritable bowel syndrome. Of course things like not eating enough natural healthy foods and not getting enough exercise are also a part of this – and often these things occur because we feel too busy or stressed to fit in exercise and cook healthy meals.
4. Our immune systems also undergo significant change during the fight-flight response. To begin with, they become ‘ramped up’ which puts us in a good position if we were wounded in the process of fighting and fleeing. But when we remain in the fight-flight physiology for longer periods of time than is healthy, our immune system then becomes less effective, leading to a diverse range of problems which suggest an underactive immune system (eg getting every cold or flu that is going around) or an overactive immune system (e.g. hayfever or other allergies).
5. Our muscles tighten, ready for action when we are in the fight-flight physiology. Whether it’s our arms and shoulders tensing, preparing us for a fight, or whether we are ‘bracing’ our core muscles, it is not good for us! The fight-flight response is designed to be of short duration. Our bodies are not designed to stay in this ‘stress mode’ for longer periods of time. People often notice this effect as tight or even rock-hard shoulder muscles. This can lead to shoulder, neck, and back pain, and in particular, to headaches. And if you do a job that requires repetitive arm or hand movements, this creates the perfect situation to develop Occupational Overuse Syndrome.
6. Our eyes focus in a way that changes the rate of our blinking. This can lead to eye discomfort.
7. And perhaps one of the most important physical effects of being chronically caught in fight-flight physiology, with high levels of circulating stress chemicals (e.g. adrenalin and cortisol), a racing heart and fast breathing is that it is very difficult to get good quality, refreshing sleep. And poor quality sleep makes every aspect of life harder to cope with, which increases our stress, which makes it harder to sleep … And given that sleep is when healing occurs – both physical healing and refreshing our brains – this further impacts on our health.
And these are just the most obvious physical affects. The affects of the fight-flight response on our mood and thinking patterns also take a heavy toll.
If I’d known I was going to live this long, I would have looked after myself better…
You may be thinking, well, I know I’m stressed, but none of these apply to me. YET. I would suggest that if you experience a relatively high level of stress and have done so for a relatively long period, and do not have effective ways of lowering your base-line of arousal or stress each day, then it is a matter of YET. Our bodies are a bit like Planet Earth. For decades the human occupants have been burning fossil fuels, pouring toxic waste into the air or soil, felling large forests, over-fishing and de-spoiling the oceans and waterways etc. And for a long time we had almost no awareness of the consequences of this. Until relatively recently. And now we are so far down that path that saving our planet is not going to be an easy task. Our bodies are like that. We can be, without realizing it, swimming in a sea of stress chemicals, until, perhaps in our forties or fifties, or sometimes sooner with some symptoms, we find that we have some ‘disorders’’ or ‘syndromes’ that are having a significant effect on our quality of life.
So, whatever your age, now is a good time to gain mastery over your stress physiology.
The sooner the better. And a good place to start is to learn Diaphragmatic Breathing.
A penny for your thoughts … (not literally, but you know what we mean – we’d love to hear from you):
I’d love to hear your opinion and learn about your experiences: Please add your comment/s below.
Am I being a bit over-dramatic here? Or do you think there is some truth in my ‘doomsday’ comment that if you are in a constant state of stress and are not experiencing any symptoms yet, it is a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’ unless you make some changes? If you’ve already heard your own ‘wake-up call’ what was that defining moment, or insight or stress symptom that moved you to action? If you’ve helped some-one else make important changes related to reducing their stress, what do you think convinced them to start on their journey of change? (Please respect their confidentiality and do not include any details of their situation, just what the ‘light-bulb moment’ was for them, the key thing that helped them to start making some changes).
Any and all comments welcome – whether or not you agree with what I’ve written.