Archive for the ‘30 day trial’ Category

Why “Inspiration”

February 2, 2009

Last month I wrote at length bout clearing away the cobwebs in the brain caused by excessive shopping.  I needed a detox from materialism, to stop myself from spending hours glued to online shopping sites, looking for good deals on stuff I don’t need.  There’s a whole world outside my computer just waiting to be discovered, social causes that could use an extra hand.

I now spend hours in front of the keyboard struggling with words instead, but words that capture my interpretation of the world at large.  (Don’t worry, my new internship is very much in service to a good social cause)  Writing daily is a goal I’ve struggled with for years.  Ever since I was five and decided I wanted to be a writer, I’ve been a writer who dreams of writing, who jots down story ideas to herself, random half-thoughts and vivid details captured on scratch paper and eventually lost, who feels guilt over her lack of writing but does little to act on that guilt.  This is exactly what 2009 is about: taking that first step, strengthening the ties between my interests so that they coalesce into an integrated whole, pulling the little details of life into alignment with the big picture.

February, then, is about finding inspiration to dream big.  February is also about bringing snippets of inspiration into daily life.  These snippets are little reminders to stay true to the larger dream, but they are also bits of happiness woven into the daily fabric of life.  Daily inspiration, drawn from daily life.

Daily inspiration invites new ideas, creativity, and directions for growth, because it encourages us to constantly see the world and our lives in new ways.  The unexpected challenges conventional wisdom we hold about who we are and what we are capable of.

This month’s challenge of daily inspiration is about consciously seeking inspiration.  And it uses the power of habit and reinforcement to attune my eyes and heart to all sources of inspiration in the world around us, to stay open to new ideas and new ways of seeing the world.  I will write out 28 distinct inspiration-themed activities on separate slips of paper and draw one each morning.  I will post the theme of the day to this blog, and report back on progress throughout the month.  Some days won’t be easy, I know this now, but part of living an inspired life means following inspiration out of our comfort zone.  Besides, some of the best stories come from testing unchartered waters.

Day 1 challenge: Create a clear workspace.
Day 2 challenge: When strangers meet.

jar with slips of paper

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February: A Month of Inspiration …

February 1, 2009

When I first started grad school, I attended a brief “get to know the department” meeting where the professors sat at the front of the room and the students sat at the back and gawked at World Reknown sitting in Row 2 and Rumored to be Intimidating, perfect posture and unsmiling, front row center.  They addressed us one by one, handing out the elevator speech on their research interests and courses taught.  A woman with brown hair – New but Unknown, she had been on leave the previous year – faced us, smiled, then introduced her class, “And, because I know that 8:30AM in February is exactly what every student looks forward to …”

She has a point.  Not necessarily the 8:30AM part because I’ve been getting up at 7 daily, but the part about the utter gloominess of February.  Although the daily 7AM awakening has been a bit of a killjoy as well: unbeknownst to me, the failed daily ping set my internal alarm clock and has refused to let it snooze ever since.  Curse newly-minted-grad-student-me for my lack of foresight!  Didn’t I know I’d come to cherish the night owl study habits, only to discover too late that I had managed, once again, to foil my own plans with good intentions?

But I digress.  We were talking about gloom.  The gloom has seeped its way into every corner of my life, even dimming my initial burst of enthusiasm over starting this blog.  As I’ve been working away at my Vitamin D deficiency, it occurred to me that if the sun refused to cooperate, I would just have to combat the external grays with some internal shininess of my own creation.  And thus I present February’s theme: Inspiration.

Something light and airy, shimmering gold to brighten the still-darkened mornings when I crawl out of bed to write (did I mention slightly-dinged-grad-student-me is exacerbating abovementioned situation by aiming for 6:30AM daily?), a cheery hearth to return to after picking my way through icy, darkened streets each night after class.  Inspiration to remind us that spring – or sprinter, as it is known around here – is on its way.  Inspiration to stoke the fires of creativity, of joy, of possibility, a new kick of enthusiasm to propel us forward as wait for the first sign of new life is coaxed from the ground.

This is the perfect time to take on something new.  If you’re considering a monthly challenge, there’s the additional advantage of starting it in a shortened month!  And building on the theme of values, February feels like the perfect time to dig a little deeper into what we truly want, to pick a new direction and take those first, tenuous steps.  It might be career-related, it might be personal interest or that nagging item that always pops up on the to do list.  It is the perfect time to remember back to the dreams of our childhood, to start afresh with that vision in mind.

As for me, I think I’ll do something inspirational every single day.  What about you?

Short-term vs. Long-term decision making

January 22, 2009

I have a confession to make. I broke my January challenge and bought a pair of dress pants.

Let me explain. My January travel was for a winter session course involving a gaggle of grad students collaborating with several federal agencies. As a student working with mid-level and senior members of federal, state or local agencies, it is critical to be as professional as possible. This includes wardrobe considerations.

None of the jobs I have ever held have required formal outfits. They haven’t even required business casual because it didn’t fit with the culture of the organizations. There was no interview for a Masters program. As a result, I have very few formal occasion outfits, and the few that I have tend to be a stretch and not properly formal.

Thus, after the first week of the program I could tell I was going to have to step it up a notch to just keep pace with the rest of my classmates. I mean, I still don’t have a suit, but at least I have a decent pair of pants now.

I did plan ahead by purchasing some items during the Thanksgiving and Christmas sales. I scoured the pants racks of several thrift shops, something I never do. I admit, though, that I hate finding pants, particularly dress pants, and through the years I’ve constantly put that one off and mentally prayed that the khakis I have on hand would be sufficient for the occasions that present themselves. Pants rarely fit well (hence various techniques to tweak them), and I’ve never invested enough time in shopping to find the one brand or style that I can passably wear. Frankly, the thought of spending an entire weekend hitting up every single store with business formal clothing is not appealing to me. Hence the procrastination that has stretched out for years.

Which is why, when I was standing in the dressing room in my last-ditch attempts to find something, anything passable, I kept screwing up my face in the mirroring and mumbling, “I HATE pants. Hate, hate, hate.” Unfortunately Ohio in January is too cold to wear anything besides pants, so I was trapped into a purchase that, realistically, will only help in the long run, if only to avoid further night-before-my-flight excursions to the shopping mall to find myself screwing up my face in the mirror, growing desperate and angry over the lack of any decent prospects.

As much as it hurt to falter in my January challenge, I made the conscious decision to do so for two reasons. One, I was running out of time, and when you need something in a hurry, thrift shops and eBay generally don’t cut it. Two, it is more important to maintain a professional appearance than to maintain the sanctity of the challenge. These will be my supervisors and colleagues once I graduate from this program. This January challenge is but one piece of a larger, yearlong challenge to myself.

Although the best life lessons are the ones learned from handling the consequences of our mistakes, in this instance the consequences would have farther-reaching consequences for my career and the relationships built during these two weeks. That is very different from living with a smelly sponge for a month (I was only joking, though it didn’t hurt that I was gone for two weeks in January). Either way, in the future you can be sure I won’t cut it that close in the future. The choice to break the challenge was a matter of balancing priorities, but I don’t anticipate any other big emergencies coming up for the rest of the month. Furthermore, I am already reaping the gains that the challenge intended to produce.

More on that in my next post.

Tips for a successful 30 day trial

January 11, 2009

The first time I attempted a 30 day trial to jump start a new habit, my friend Kris and I both wanted to wake up earlier to get a head start on our days.  It was September, that time of fresh optimism for students when you still think you can do it all, that you will fix all your mistakes this term and squeeze every last bit of opportunity out of your tuition bill.  I was just beginning grad school.  After a couple years in jobs with flexible schedules, I thought regularly getting up at 6:30 felt reasonable, starting at 7AM and pushing it back by 15 minutes with each passing week.  Granted, I hadn’t regularly woken up before 7AM since high school, but that didn’t mean it was beyond the realm of possibility.  The world felt wide open with endless possibilities, and I was going to get each day off on the right foot with a bout of productivity while my classmates were still sleeping.

Although if my classmates were anything like Kris, then obviously I had a ways to go.  She set her goal at rising between 5:30 and 5:50 daily.  Following her lead, we each drew up contracts for ourselves and emailed them to each other.  Here is mine:

I commit to a 30 trial of

1) Getting up at 6:30AM by the week of October 1, 2008 on the
following schedule:

-Beginning September 8, waking up at 7:15 AM
-Beginning September 15, waking up at 7AM
-Beginning September 22, waking up at 6:45 AM
-Beginning September 29, waking up at 6:30 AM

2) After waking up I will do 20 minutes of stretches and exercises followed by 30-60 minutes of writing.  Then I will ping Kris plus ~10-20 minutes of crafting blog appreciation/voyeurism, no longer than that.  After that I will spend 20 minutes on breakfast, then continue on to other homework or other PRODUCTIVE time usage for the day.

3) 2 free days allowed

Kris’ contract was even more specific, down to the exact actions she would take the minute her alarm went off.  This level of specificity is helpful for several reasons.  You can almost go on autopilot if you follow the exact same sequence daily, which is helpful to shake the cobwebs in those groggy early morning hours.  It prevents indecisiveness, which leads to inactivity, which leads to talking yourself out of follow through.  It allows you to envision what the 30 day trial will look like each day, and we are more likely to succeed to actions we first visualize.

The idea was to keep each other accountable through a simple daily email.  If I’d succeeded in completing all items on my contract I’d send her an email with a single word, Ping!  She’d send one back if she was successful as well.  Living on separate coasts, my ping usually reached her first, but it was a really great way to start off my day each morning.  That sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, combined with the accountability and the knowledge that we were going through this together, really made Pinging successful for us.

Most importantly, we agreed, once you start racking up a string of Ping!s, you really don’t want to be the one to break the trend.  You develop rhythm, momentum.  Each day’s accomplishment is rewarding in itself, but so much more so in the context of the larger picture of continued success.

We learned several lessons from our first string of Pings.

*Be as specific as possible when laying out your contract.  Imagine your daily routine.  Pick a time to start and stop.  Think through the obstacles you will face in accomplishing all the items on your contract, and put safeguards in place to help yourself succeed.

*We originally set a “2 free passes” clause into our agreement, namely that we could each have 2 days where we did not have to adhere to the 30 day trial.  This was a big mistake because once we used our free passes it was difficult to get back on track.  It allows a wishy-washiness that detracts from the positive energy built up by a string of pings.

*Emails don’t have to be limited to the word “Ping.”  It’s fun to share successes, words of encouragement, and progress.  I always loved hearing what Kris was up to, and it was nice knowing I had someone I could blab to about word counts or other such mundane details.  Other friends who are less involved are great support networks, but they won’t have as great an appreciation for your efforts.

*In the course of your 30 day trial you may come across obstacles that morph into their own 30 day trial.  In my case, towards the end my efforts faltered because I wasn’t getting to bed early enough.  By the end, my head was so foggy in the morning that it ruined my entire day.  When we tried another Pinging session a couple weeks later, I made my bedtime routine the subject of my 30 day trial.

I still love Pinging with Kris.  In fact, we have another one going right now.  I’m supposed to write for at least 30 minutes daily and post to this blog at least 3 times per week.

Ping!

One year :: 12 games

January 5, 2009

With all this talk of new years resolutions, you might be wondering what my resolutions are for the year so that you can grill me on if they are specific enough, measurable and attainable, realistic and most of all, timely.   Fair enough.

My goals for this year are not one but twelve.  And!  Before you protest that this is way too many to keep track of (if you don’t protest I’ll do it myself – even five was too many for me last year, and that was after much culling to only the most meaningful of resolutions.  I was supposed to simplify, after all.  You can see what good the culling did me as I failed in all those resolutions), let me offer a few additional pieces of information:

One
.  I am not going to focus on twelve goals at once, but rather one goal per month for a grand total of twelve by the end of 2009.

Two
.  It just so happens that this is how my mind works best: not spread out evenly over four or five different subjects, but focusing in on one area in brief bursts to a clearly delineated benchmark and then rotating between those four or five subjects.  I can’t say this is true for everyone, but for me this is the sanest way I’ve found to balance my many interests.

Three.  They say it takes about 30 days to create a new habit.  30 days, happy coincidentally enough, is roughly one month’s time.  So each resolution, encompassed as it is in this one month time period, will nonetheless leave a lasting mark.  The hope is to build a series of new behaviors over the course of a year, one at a time.

Four.  One month is just long enough that you can really get into a new goal or habit, but not quite so long that your brain can’t make sense of the limited time period.  Let me explain.  By focusing in on one resolution per month, it gives me a solid period of time to really dig in to the topic, focus on the ins and outs of making it work in my life.  One month is enough time to test out a routine, tweak it then tweak it again, establish a solid foundation and feel comfortable with all the changes I’ve made, and to transition into maintenance mode.  On the other hand, 30 days is not so long that the mind loses focus on the end goal and motivation slacks.  Also, if I’ve grossly miscalculated and pick a monthly resolution that is far from what I intended, 30 days is not an torturously long period of time.

If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense.  When we create stepwise goals we are really stringing the days and weeks together into a progression towards a final, ultimate goal.  Along the way we solidify a series of behaviors and habits that become second nature, ones which are necessary towards the bigger picture that drives our incremental actions.  If you wanted to run a marathon and had never trained before, you might start out with a one mile walk-run, and slowly over the course of half a year or a year, build up to 26 miles.  You can think of this as adding a mile or two each month, or you can think of it as weekly running goals.  For those who prefer laying plans far in advance (oh come now, I can’t be the only one!), it can be helpful to have that additional layer with which to plan out steps to an ultimate goal.  And for those who don’t, there is nothing wrong with taking it one week at a time.  More flexibility to you, and that’s a good thing.

My ultimate goal is to live a life as closely aligned with my wellness principles as possible.  I’m a decent ways towards that goal, but there is so much further I have to go.  So I am splitting the year into 12 months, and each month I will tackle one wellness area.  Yes, there are this many areas in my life that I would like to improve.  And yes, I think it will be more fun this way.

To keep things interesting, I’m going to frame each month as a challenge to myself instead of a resolution.  Games are good for us.  They keep us on our toes.

Challenge 1: Buy Nothing New.

That’s right.  For the entire month of January, I am buying nothing new.

Creating successful new years resolutions with S.M.A.R.T. goals

January 3, 2009

I’m familiar with new years resolutions.  Believe me, I am.  I make them almost every year, though their format has changed through the years, and correspondingly, so has their success rate.  There was the year I vowed to read 25 books in one year (check); another year I vowed to lighten up (failed), meditate (failed), and simplify (moderate failure, but failure nonetheless).  Oh yes, and that year I was going to be less hard on myself as part of the lightening up pact (failed again).

As a nation we are obsessed with new years resolutions.  Come January first we swear off the excesses of the holiday season and vow for a year of austerity, reform, and penance.  Despite admirable intentions our national track record shows that our resolutions are not very successful as agents of change.  In fact, they stink.

Ah, but they don’t have to stink.  Take exercise.  Gyms know that weight loss consistently tops our resolutions list, and they capitalize on our enthusiasm by rolling out incentives and package deals every January.  So why is it that some take full advantage of their membership for the entire year while others can’t seem to set foot inside a gym after the first week of January?

Or tell me, what is the difference between these two scenarios:

Person one: I’m going to lose weight this year!  I’m getting a treadmill and starting back on Weight Watchers!
Person two: My wife and I will walk 500 miles this year.  There’s a track near our home and we like to walk on our lunch break.

Neither one of these is a bad goal, but the second one is framed to encourage success.  It defines a clear end point, a path to success and benchmarks along the way.  The tight focus on one aspect of exercise creates consistency and priority.  The biggest mistake most people make is to try to change everything at once.  They go about their efforts haphazardly for several days, feel overwhelmed and confused, then give up and stray back to old habits.

When thinking about tackling goals and making changes, an excellent framework to think about this is S.M.A.R.T. goals.  S.M.A.R.T. is a handy acronym and stands for:

Specific: Be very specific about what you hope to achieve.  “Exercise more” is much more difficult to pin down than “I will walk a mile every day,” and when things are difficult to pin down they are easy to avoid.

Measurable: a specific numeric target provides very tangible proof of success or the effort left to achieve the goal.  “Exercise more” becomes “one 30 minute walk daily.”  The best part of measurable goals is that it is clear when you can celebrate a success!

Attainable: these should be goals that are achievable for the version of you that exists today, not some fuzzy image of yourself at a distance point in the future.  The best use for that vague vision of Future You is to guide what types of goals to set today, and not as an excuse to put off goal-setting because you aren’t ready yet.  If the thought of carving out half an hour every day for exercise sounds too daunting, “exercise more” might initially translate into “one 10 minute walk daily” until that feels natural, and then gradually lengthen to 15, 20 then 30 minutes.

Realistic: appropriate goals shouldn’t require a drastic lifestyle change or heavy investment in expensive new equipment.  If these changes are to be sustainable they need to work for your lifestyle.  Night owls would not want to define “exercise more” as “wake up early to hit the gym.”  Be realistic about what will and will not work for you.

Timely: applying a timeframe to goals creates accountability and tangible guidelines for intensity of effort.  “Exercise more” becomes “increase strength training to three times per week” or “swim 100 laps every month.”

The advantage of the S.M.A.R.T. framework is that it provides very tangible benchmarks by which to measure success.  These goals can be daily or weekly goals, which is frequent enough to maintain focus, yet flexible enough that these goals are not derailed by unexpected events in daily life.

Furthermore, tall towers have solid foundations.  Most people who achieve their goals find success doesn’t come overnight, rather, it takes a series of steps to reach their ultimate destination.  Just as we must learn to walk before we can run, with goal setting it is important to start out small and built on our successes.  The S.M.A.R.T. framework is very amenable to this as well.  As the initial goals are built into daily life they can be expanded and modified to build towards greater challenges.  S.M.A.R.T. goals can be both short-term and long-term goals, just extend the timeframe to 6 months or a year and use short-term goals to keep on track.  They are an excellent way to frame new years resolutions, because when we make resolutions we are trying to build new habits or behaviors.

Looking back at the new years resolutions I mentioned in the beginning, you can see now why the first one succeeded and the second failed.  “Read 25 books” is S.M.A.R.T.  25 books/year is about 2 books/month, or one every two weeks, which is realistic for me and really easy to tell if I’ve fallen behind.  “Meditate, simplify, lighten up,” on the other hand, are so broad and vague that it’s no wonder I failed at these!  This year I’m going S.M.A.R.T.  And you?  What do you hope to achieve this year?