Archive for the ‘goals’ Category

Achieving a healthy eating plan through balanced meals 1

March 9, 2009

Eating balanced meals is important to any eating plan.  Meals that are balanced are ones that incorporate multiple food groups.  A roast beef sandwich with lots of tomatoes and lettuce is a balanced meal.  A plain bagel by itself is not.

Balance is important for many reasons.  The greater the number of food groups in each meal, the greater variety of nutrients provided in that meal.  Our bodies need vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, carbohydrates and yes, even a little bit of fat, for daily functioning.  No one food group can provide all of these.  Fruits and vegetables provide vitamins, minerals and fiber, meat, dairy, and plant-based proteins provide protein and fat, grains provide complex carbohydrates (as opposed to sugar, which is a simple carbohydrate).  In terms of a meal, protein helps us feel full, fat keeps us feeling full for a long time, and fiber provides bulk, which also helps us feel full.  In contrast, refined sugars just run through our system, so that we feel hungry again after a short period of time.  This is why plain white bread, eaten alone, doesn’t sustain us for a long time.  A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, however (or better yet, a peanut butter and apple sandwich), sticks to our stomachs longer because it has protein, fat and fiber added to the complex carbohydrates in bread.

Furthermore, eating a balanced meal means eating a combination of foods that are calorically dense (i.e. many calories in a few mouthfuls, like protein and fat) and calorically light (i.e. few calories in many mouthfuls, like fruits and vegetables).  Particularly for those who favor calorically dense foods, a mixture of the two will lighten up the overall meal without changing how much food is consumed or how full we feel afterwards.  Increasing the number of food groups at each meal also provides greater variety and possible combinations of foods.  This variety means meals are more enjoyable and less prone to become boring or stale; boredom from eating the same foods over and over again is one of the main causes of overeating, as the pleasure switches from the food itself to the process of eating.

If none of the suggestions in my previous post sounded appealing, a balanced meal approach is another way to improve your current eating plan.  Do an initial assessment of each meal and notice which are balanced and which are not.  Do you get at least 2 food groups in every meal?  That’s a good place to start.  Or do you consistently get 3 in some meals but not in others?  Another good place to start.  Finally, if you definitely, most assuredly, absolutely always get at least 3 food groups in every meal, what about the variety at these meals?  Is there a good mixture of protein sources each week, or fruits and vegetables?

For those wrestling with these questions, my next post will cover specific ways to increase balance at both meals and snacks.

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5 places to start making eating changes

March 6, 2009

So you’re ready to make some changes.  You’re convinced an overall eating plan is the way to go, and that it will be created one step at a time.  You want to make some tangible goals to guide your efforts this week.  Where to start?

For some people this may be obvious, as they have a good sense of what they need to cut back on or change.  For others, it’s an overwhelming question because there are so many areas that could be changed that it is difficult to pinpoint the best place to begin.

Generally, most people are doing well in some aspects of their eating habits, but could make improvements in other areas.  It is very, very rare to find someone who has no area for improvement.  In my experience, there are five general areas where most people start to make changes, and when I performed diagnostic assessments in our first meeting, I would usually ask about all of these at some point.

If you’re not sure what area to tackle first take a look through this list.  Even if you know what you want to start with, read through this list anyways.  It will point out areas you aren’t yet focused on, and will give you ideas down the road.   Again, don’t feel pressured to make more than 1-2 changes right now.  I’ve worked with plenty of people who built up their weekly routines to hit all of these after 3 months, and they felt better doing it in a stepwise fashion because it was a gradual, controlled process.  Better to train for a marathon than to go out and run 26 miles on the very first day.  These are not listed in any particular order.

1)    Getting enough servings of fruits and vegetables.  5-A-Day, 5-9 servings, we all know we should be getting a lot, but most of us don’t get quite enough.  Don’t know what one serving looks like?  For now, don’t worry about that.  Ask yourself: do I get a piece of fruit or vegetable in with every meal?  More than one?  If you’re not then that’s a great place to start.  Generally speaking, swapping fruits or vegetables for other foods in your diet results in eating fewer calories, because the high bulk (from fiber) means that for the same space in your stomach, they pack in fewer calories.  Note this doesn’t mean to eat fruits or vegetables on top of what you normally have, it needs to be a substitution to be effective.

Possible SMART goals include:
-Get a piece of fruit or vegetable in with [pick a meal: breakfast, lunch, dinner, midafternoon snack, midmorning snack, etc.], and do it [choose a frequency: daily, each day of the workweek, every other day].
-Have a salad with [pick a meal: lunch, dinner], and do it [choose a frequency: twice this week, a small salad daily, on the weekend].

If you choose a non-daily frequency, think through now which days to make your change.  Do you want to space it out, say Tuesday and Thursday?  Does it make more sense to do this on a weekday, when your schedule is more regular, or on a weekend, when your schedule may contain more free time?

2)    Not eating at regular intervals.  To keep your body’s metabolism most active it must be fed every couple of hours.  Otherwise it becomes unsure when the next meal is coming in and goes into conservation mode, burning fewer calories, storing more calories when you finally do eat.  This is the idea behind the “eat many small meals” mantra touted by nutritionists and celebrities alike.  Also, spreading meals out through the day helps reduce large spikes in blood sugar.

So what does this look like?  It might mean not eating breakfast (more on breakfast in a later post), skipping lunch, going more than 4-5 hours between meals, having a tiny breakfast and lunch and consuming most calories during dinnertime.  This can be one of the hardest areas to change because food habits start young and stay with us for years.  Still, if you are open to building in a midmorning piece of fruit or 100 calorie snack bar, or a similar midafternoon snack, the results can be dramatic.  No rumbling stomach when you get home that prompts you to overeat at dinnertime, reduced afternoon drowsiness, more energy all day long, these all can happen when blood sugar levels are evenly distributed through the day.

Just remember, the idea isn’t to add more food on to what you eat daily, but to redistribute the calories over an additional “snack” or small meal, or two.

3)    Eating too many sweets or other junk food, including soda.  This is huge.  Junk food and soda are empty calories because they provide no nutritional benefit, but take up calories anyways.  They also tend to be pretty dense in calories, so cutting out a few will have a big effect.  One soda has 150 calories.  One soda per day is 900 calories each week, which is about a pound per month, or 12-13 pounds every year.  Cutting out that one daily soda is a small change with a big impact.

Again, if you find yourself eating too many sweets or junk food, ask yourself:
What do I tend to eat?  Salty?  Sweet?  A favorite?  Anything that’s around?
When do I tend to eat these?  For breakfast?  To stave off late afternoon drowsiness?  After dinner?
Where am I at this point?  Home?  Work?  In front of the TV?
Why do I tend to eat them?  Boredom?  No time for a real meal?
How am I feeling when I eat them?  Am I stressed, tired, angry, sad, frustrated?

Even if you know exactly where your weakness lies when it comes to junk food, these questions identify additional factors that come with this eating habit.  We never act in a vacuum.  Our environment, the people around us, our life histories all impact what we eat, when we eat it and why we eat it.  If you always have a bag of chips or popcorn immediately after work and before dinner, is it because you’re starving because you didn’t eat lunch or go 6 hours between lunch and dinner?  Is it your way to unwind after a long day of work?  Do you associate popcorn with certain emotions or times of the day?  Or do you just really, really like popcorn?

Once you answer these questions it becomes easier to see what accompanying changes need to be made to support a change in this early evening popcorn habit.  Maybe a small snack on the way out the door from work to home will satisfy the munchies until dinnertime, eliminating the need for popcorn.  Maybe there are other ways you like to unwind, like a bath and a magazine, gardening, or otherwise tinkering with your hands.  If popcorn is associated with certain emotions, think about where that link comes from.  In the past, what other activities have helped when you feel those emotions, and can you incorporate one of those into your early evening routine?  And if you just really, really like popcorn, my suggestions are twofold: healthier popcorn, and smaller serving sizes.  You can buy the no butter individual –serving packages and then drizzle a bit of olive oil over the top, which acts like butter but is healthier for you, and is certainly healthier than the artificial butter they use.

As you can see, some food habits require “supporting habits” or accompanying changes.  If you set a goal to stop eating popcorn after work but don’t create any supporting habits, this creates frustration and

4)    Portion control.  Even if you’re eating the right foods, if you consume too many of them, weight control will be an issue.  More tips on portion control in a later post, but possible SMART goals include limiting seconds to a couple times a week, ordering smaller portions when eating out, serving food in smaller plates or bowls,

5)    Frequently eating out or eating impromptu vending machine meals.  This generally speaks to lack of time or lack or advance planning so that we are forced to grab food from the nearest available source.  Restaurant meals and vending machine snacks are higher in fat, oil, sugar and salt than foods prepared at home.  If this is a problem area, if the goal is to cut down on the number of impromptu vending machine meals or meals eaten out during lunch or dinner, a supporting habit is advance planning around grocery shopping.  Half an hour a week of planning results in healthy meal or snack items that can be stored at work or at home.  By stocking up on healthy alternatives, there eliminates a major driving force behind the problem.

Pick one or two items off this list to try, or maybe this post sparks thoughts of other eating habits to tackle.  Set a goal for this week for yourself.  Be specific, right down to the time of day.  And let me know how it goes!

Steps to Creating an Eating Plan

March 2, 2009

Believe it or not, this is not the first time I’ve engaged in such a challenge.  Back in 2007 I embarked on Operation Cold Turkey where I ate no junk food and no unplanned snacks for 31 days.  Throughout my life I’ve been a health maniac on one hand, closet snack junkie on the other.  Seriously closeted, seriously a junkie.  I love nutrition, healthy eating, fresh fruits and vegetables but I also had a bad habit of sneaking little snacks now and then, and as the years went by I started indulging more and more.

By the time I started Operation Cold Turkey I was working at a non-profit that had candy and chocolate out in multiple locations.  I would nibble on sweets several times each day, sometimes while chatting to coworkers, sometimes as a “little treat” after lunch or to give me a boost before my teenagers came in for the day.  When I got home each night, still feeling the residual effects of the refined sugars in my system, I would put off dinner until I felt hungry around 8 or 9, or I would eat dinners that consisted of hummus spread on celery, or a single-serving package of Raisin Bran cereal doused with chocolate milk, dipping into the box from the food bank that I’d brought home from work because nobody wanted to eat anything that healthy.  It was such a slippery slope – that first mini Snickers or chocolate graham peppermint bark, and next thing I knew I’d thrown off the balance of my entire day.  The situation was so dire I knew I’d have to take drastic measures to set myself back on course.  Operation Cold Turkey was born.

I remember telling my boss Michelle about the month long challenge.  “And I have two exceptions –”

Michelle burst out laughing.  “Talking about exceptions already?  I see how this is going to go!”

“No really — !!!”  I was so busy blushing my usual shade of fire engine red, I didn’t even have time to finish my thought before the conversation turned in another direction.

Before the month started I had decided on two occasions when it would be best to break the oath and ingest the refined sugars.  One: if a friend, coworker or family member came running in terribly excited because they just baked a pan of scrumptious sweets, there was no way I could turn that down.  Two: if a piece of birthday cake was passed my way, and I happened to like the birthday girl or boy (OK really, anybody’s birthday would suffice to break O.C.T., except, perhaps, mortal enemies).

But other than that, no exceptions, no matter what.  As painful as the detox might be, I wanted to recalibrate my internal sweet tooth so that I could better enjoy the sweets I ate without the little nagging clutter of little pieces of junk.

I made it through the entire month without encountering a single homebaked good or birthday event, which is surprising given the woman who worked in our development office used to own her own bakery and regularly showered us with mouthwatering treats.  Still, those clauses were important, even if they went unused.  Life is unpredictable.  There is some degree of variation that we can count on, like the candy tin at work occasionally becoming populated with our very favorite Hershey’s miniature assorted chocolates, or that Thanksgiving is coming up and the in-laws will bring 3 types of pie, as they always do.  And then there are the unexpected moments, like when we bombard friends with an entire chocolate cheesecake right after exams, and then they turn around and expect us to finish it together that very night (we made it through two thirds of the cake).

When starting up a new eating plan, it is best to think through as many “what if” scenarios as possible, and to create contingency plans for each one.  Most eating plans are derailed because they are broken once and then abandoned.  Contingency plans are part of The Plan; they’re Section 1B Clause 4.2.  There are two types of contingency plans: ones for specific events (such as my two Exception Clauses listed above), and ones for general events, like the general guideline to opt for either wine or the bread basket at a fancy restaurant, or no seconds at the buffet table.

Contingency plans keep our eating plans moving forward.  They also ensure that if we do encounter an unexpected situation, we are better equipped to handle it with moderation, rather than plunging in wildly and digging ourselves deep into the I Blew My Diet hole.  They keep us flexible yet firmly on track.  And they ensure our chances for success.

How successful was Operation Cold Turkey?  There were no birthday parties or homemade goodies that month, so I did indeed make it through an entire month without junk food.  Having a firm absolute rule (with two exceptions) in a defined time period really helped me focus instead of falling into the wishy-washy trap.  That wishy-washiness, in fact, created the problem in the first place, because I could never hold my resolve to have just one mini Snickers or egg custard tart.

Operation Cold Turkey also worked because it paired two objectives: no junk food, and planned meals each day.  I had healthy substitutes on hand to replace the junk food, and I knew roughly when I was supposed to eat what.  So if it was achingly difficult to walk by the plate of Betty Crocker brownies that had been sitting out since yesterday, I knew 1) I had some wedges of pomello in my bag (a delicious Chinese fruit that pops up in grocery stores around lunar new year), 2) those were supposed to be eaten roughly halfway between lunch and dinnertime, not gobbled down 15 minutes after I finished my lunch.  In other words, Operation Cold Turkey attacked the twin root causes of my junk food nibbling addiction: mindless grazing on junk food, and lack of healthy alternatives.

At the end of 31 days, what amazed me most was not the fact that I made it all the way through an entire month without junk food.  At the end of my challenge, when I finally indulged in fun size candy bar or a couple pieces of chips, I was immediately hit with indigestion.  I no longer craved junk food, and if I went ahead and had some anyways, my body protested loudly.  Refined sugar can be addictive, and breaking the cycle lowers the cravings “set point.”  In my case, there was even a physical component to the addiction, and one that protested loudly when junk food was reintroduced to the system.  Sadly, that protest has faded with time, as evidenced by my latest junk food spree.

If you decide to play along with the junk food ban, ask yourself if Operation Cold Turkey is realistic for an entire month, or if it is more appropriate to spread it out in several phases.  This will depend how much junk food you currently consume and how attached you’ve become.  Phase I could be to limit junk food to one piece per day or twice per week; Phase II, or complete elimination, occurs a couple weeks after Phase I.

Some guidelines to create your own Operation Total Elimination:

1)    Identify when you tend to eat the most junk food.  Between meals?  In the afternoon?  Right after dinner?  Right after staff meetings …?  In lieu of breakfast?

2)    Take this one step further and ask: What’s the pattern here?  Usually junk food consumption is symptomatic of an underlying issue, so to eliminate the habit we need to identify the root source.  It could be any number of issues, such as:
*Maybe you tend to grab some candy when you’re stressed or bored at work, or need an excuse to get up and stretch your legs.
*Sometimes we use junk food as a meal stand-in.  This points to the need for advance planning to make sure a healthy meal or snack is on hand.
*Some people need to end a meal with something sweet.
*Others crave munchies when they’re studying or watching TV.

3)    Figure out a plan of attack.  During the first round of O.C.T., banning junk food was actually my starting point.  It was only upon examining my life that I realized I would need healthy substitutes on hand at all times, and to have them planned out in advance to circumvent the “just one” mentality I had fallen into.

Also, remember my conversation with Michelle?  The more detailed your plan is the more likely you are to succeed.  One of the main reasons people fail at diets is that they do well for a couple days, weeks or even months, and then they slip up.  Rather than hopping back on the bandwagon and continuing at full force, they give up and slip right back into their old habits.  In addition to anticipating potential weak spots in your plan, create a plan for if you happen to slip up.

4)    Hold yourself accountable.  Chronicle your efforts in a journal or in a visible location (my favorite is to mark days or weeks on the calendar when I am successful, after awhile you don’t want to break your own momentum!), tell friends and family what you’re up to, keep a notebook filled with dreams, goals, resources, ideas, contact information of useful contacts, etc.

formation of useful contacts, etc.

3 Ways a Support Network Helps You Achieve Your Goals

February 26, 2009

In my family, it’s no secret that I love nicknames.  Silly, irreverent, they often take some passing comment and turn it into a running inside joke, codifying bits of life history that can be drawn upon with a single word.  Occasionally the nickname becomes embedded in daily life, so layered in details and memories that nobody can recall the exact muse for inanity.  So it is that I cannot remember when, exactly, I started referring to myself as ‘Mighty Mouse’ with my parents.  The self-imposed nickname makes no reference to the cartoon from the fifties; the idea sprung up as a metaphor for the angst I was experiencing over my first job.  The idea of a tiny mouse striving for superheroic acts that, ultimately, are inconsequential to anybody outside the miniscule realm in this hypothetical world of mice, struck me as both ironic and a little reminder to stop whining and develop a backbone.  To act more like my namesake while mocking how seriously I took myself, in other words.

There’s very little about this nickname that separates it from scores of others that have faded with time, except that on a whim, I translated it into Chinese.  We have no word for “superhero,” so I used the word xia instead.  Though it literally translates as “warrior,” the meaning is more Robin Hood than knight of the Middle Ages.  The subculture of xia has its own code of conduct has woven itself into pieces of the landscape of Chinese literature for hundreds of years now, right up through the martial arts films of today like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  To this I married the phrase “super,” in keeping with translations for “superman” and “supermarket.”  Chaoji shuxia.  Super Mouse Warrior.  It tickled me dad pink that I finally progressed beyond literal translation, so the name stuck.

Chaoji shuxia is a composite phrase comprised of two individual phrases, each loaded with connotations and references.  Pairing the tiny mouse (shu) with the noble and righteous xia, for example, is as irreverent as the spirit in which I created the nickname.  An added layer of complexity is the fact that the Chinese language is perfectly situated for puns, as multiple characters are associated with one sound, and characters can take on multiple parts of speech, depending on the context.  For example, the word for “father” and “assistant” are the exact same sound, and thus one fine spring day the joke evolved further to birth a sidekick, a deputy mouse assistant who also happened to have brought me into this world.

More a right hand man than a disciple, a cross between Robin and Batboy, dad’s nickname is at once a mocking jab at traditional Confucian values and a reflection of the immense moral support he’s given me through the years.  My mother’s only comment – “Well, at least he’s not Assistant Stapler,” punctuated by an eye roll – underscores the fact that my parents support me in vastly different ways, dad with day-to-day encouragement and as a sounding board for ideas, mom in occasional heartfelt conversations about what it means to operate in this nation as a minority woman, dealing with issues of identity, career, love, power.

Developing courage and initiative is critical for pursuing our dreams.  Just like the visual sources of inspiration that keep us moving forward, support from friends and family is critical to keeping us on track and motivated.  Friends and family offer several flavors of support.  There is moral support, like when I email my fu or dad/assistant, long rambling ruminations laced with self-doubt and uncertainty.  He rises heroically to the challenge, blaring metaphorical trumpets of encouragement and humor that pick me right back up to superhero status once more, or at least elicit a wild outburst of laughter that cause my classmates in the computing lab to all edge a little further away in their seats.

There is accountability, like the year I decided to walk 500 miles and posted this new years resolution to my blog.  Through the year friends asked after my progress, just often enough that I always heard their voices in my head if I felt like slacking off for a day or two.  Let your friends and family know what you’re up to, keep them updated on your status, have them check in with your progress on a weekly basis.  Internally imposed deadlines have more teeth when we answer to both internal and external sources, even if it’s a friendly “So did you get to the gym today?” asked in passing by a coworker.

Or the coworker might meet you at the gym.  The third form of support comes from going through the same challenge together, whether that is a walking buddy or a small business support group that meets monthly.  These people understand the trials and tribulations more intimately than anyone else.  In addition to moral support they offer ideas, resources, experience, and a fresh perspective.  As I mentioned earlier, my daily ping with Kris is not just about accountability, it’s about having someone to share the small successes with, to reflect together and push one another forward.  Thanks to her I wake up at 6:30 now and am aiming for 6AM by the middle of March.

After writing this, I can see that I haven’t enlisted enough support for this writing project.  Although Kris and I still have a daily ping challenge going, I haven’t tapped into the other two forms of support yet.  I think I should change my daily ping to include a minimum word number, which will increase accountability to a certain production level.  I might also want to report a weekly scorecard to a different friend, just to increase the accountability.  Finally, I definitely need a source of moral support.  Part of the courage I’m seeking this year is the ability to show an imperfect face to my friends – imperfectly thought through vision for this space, imperfect words, imperfectly honed ideas expressed by imperfect drafts.  Without their support and feedback I can only get so far.  I need their help to move beyond my current level of imperfection.

Although my parents are a huge support for me in most of my undertakings, I’ve decided not to involve them in this one.  I will miss my fu in this project, but I also know our relationship must evolve to a new level.  To have moved to another country at the start of adolescence and learned to succeed in a vastly different set of cultural norms and expectations, supporting and encouraging your daughter to navigate those ambiguous waters and to do so in a funny, encouraging way in your adopted tongue; to break ground in the first wave of women and minority students to enter the legal profession and to do so as both a woman and a minority: I can only hope one day to have as much patience and strength as my parents do, to help my own children take flight and to have the privilege of looking back on these words etched into memory, and retrace with humility the footpaths tread along the way.

The Connection Between Inspiration and Empowerment

February 20, 2009

Acting on dreams and inspiration is not just about honoring our uniqueness and vision for our lives.  On the most basic level, it feels good.  Think of the times you finally get around to that list of household chores.  Or how much you enjoyed writing a card to a friend, even if it is hard to shut off the TV.  The activity itself is enjoyable, the process feels good, or the sense of accomplishment is satisfying.  It engages the three components of happiness that positive psychologists talk about – positive emotion (enjoyable), engagement (getting into the flow), meaning (doing something with a larger purpose beyond personal fulfillment).

Beyond increasing happiness, acting on dreams spills over into the rest of life in other ways.  The courage and initiative it takes to explore a new hobby or tackle a project are important in so many areas.  These are the same skills as it takes to start up a conversation with the cute girl next to you at the supermarket or to make a career change.  In job-seeking parlance that’s called “transferable skills.”  The process of starting up a new project builds other transferables like persistence, diligence, self-discipline, creativity, and the confidence to tackle new and unfamiliar tasks.  And these are important in all areas of life, not just the fifteen minutes or half an hour set aside each day for personal activities.

In public health parlance this is called “empowerment,” or possession of a sense of control over life.  Empowerment is not innate but developed through life.  That crucial step – knowing that options exist, feeling that there is something I can do about the situation – is the difference between feeling trapped and searching for a way out.  It is the difference between feeling hopeless and finding hope.  And that has a huge impact in how we react to situations, both tiny crises and major life changes.

This is not easy to develop.  Initiative does not pop up overnight, and from the time we are young we are not given many opportunities to develop a sense of empowerment.  First in school then in work, we are always acting on someone else’s agenda.  Empowerment can, however, be cultivated in successively larger projects.  The first time is always the hardest, so it makes sense to start small and gradually build up.  Pick something out of personal interest.  It is far better to take these steps when the stakes are lower and the timeline is fluid, than when the stakes are high and time is limited.

In that regard, taking one step towards something you’ve always wanted to try, like signing up for an adult education class or becoming active in a church committee, is an easy, fun and non-threatening way to develop empowerment and the skills to take control over life situations.  Best of all, it coincides with your personal interests and values.  And who knows?  It might lead to new opportunities in your personal or professional life.  The blogosphere is filled with stories of men and women who started documenting their hobbies and developed them into a full-fledged career, or who met likeminded people through the Internet and created all sorts of interesting, creative, unusual and powerful new projects.

So just start.  Pick something.  Dip your toe in the waters.  Run with it.

Inspiration Challenge 16: Make a Play Date with Your Inner Child

February 19, 2009

The first thing I think of when I think of my inner child is “Harry Potter,” because when I was 15 Harry Potter brought me back my childhood.  My young childhood, the one taken with fairies and magic all around us, just waiting to be discovered by the right pair of eyes.  But simply rereading Harry Potter feels like an easy way out of this challenge, so I pushed one step further.  What about that younger child?  How was she doing?  What would she want to do now?

And then I remember the creek fairies.  Actually, I’m not quite sure what they were called, but they lived in four marbled folders stuffed full of paper that I used to carry around with me everywhere, scribbling notes for the novels I had planned for their adventures, one for each folder.  The fairies were about three inches tall and lived by a creek, though they were eventually forced to move to an island and into the forest, among other places (hence the subsequent novels).  Their adventures were the first novel-length story I planned, and I faithfully sat down to my father’s computer at the tender age of 8, typing away for 20-odd pages after school and on weekends before I stopped one day.  I think the words stopped flowing, and I stopped typing.  It was my first run-in with writers block.

I wish I had that manuscript now.  So instead of putting Harry Potter on audiobook as soundtrack to the dishes, I sit down to recreate the story of the creek fairies.  There are few details I remember now, only that they could fly (all my fairies could fly), and that they were gatherers, making do with nature’s provisions for sustenance and household goods.  It was idyllic for sure, no hunting or conflicts with neighboring tribes of creek fairies, maybe a close call with a fox.  The fairies of my childhood were always sweet, without edge, the type of people I wanted to surround myself – the type of person I wanted to be, I suppose, living in harmony with beauty in the world.

The stories, too, never had much plot.  I was usually too enamored with creating the details of their context to think about action.  Imagining the details of a house in a log inspired me more than friction to move a story along.  I much preferred to imagine how many rooms they would have, how they would furnish it, where they would play and cook and sing and befriend a gross hopper or friendly mouse.  I can think of very few details now in the fogginess of adulthood, only, perhaps, a hollowed out acorn for cups or bowls, but even now the adult censor kicks in, asking if they would harden the acorn shells with fire for durability, how they would find or tend such a fire, whether the cups would really be waterproof.  Perhaps it is this voice of “common sense,” this inner critic, that silences the imagination now, for it has been challenging to recreate these details that I loved so much in childhood.  My mind does not operate on the same scale or see natural objects with multiple uses anymore.  I wonder if I am rusty, or if my mind is too filled with “big world” matters like plot and characterization, to hear the voice of the young child calling through the darkness.

I think the creek fairies must have coincided with my Borrowers phase, because I read many similarities between the two.  The tiny scale (though most my fairies were this small), fashioning daily goods out of found objects, moving in and out of nature.  How I loved nature, even in those days!  How I loved making daily objects from found items, improvising a boat out of a large leaf and a stick!  How I loved stories like Stuart Little, reading about improvising for tiny creatures or for living out in nature.  I loved books like the original Bobsey Twins books, a complete set from my mother’s childhood.  Those books featured activities like experimenting with jelly cakes or making houses out of cardboard shoe boxes.  Making.  Doing.  Creating.

I see now that theme has always been inside me.  Those were the stories that most drew me because they wrote of activities that fascinated me.  Today those are the very same activities I prefer.  Instead of creating small worlds where my protagonists occupied center stage, I’m now taking these activities and using them in my life instead.  What’s missing is the magic and the imagination.  Or perhaps they are merely expressed in a different format, magic and imagination framed in grown up terms like recipe improvisation or the sheer joy of a beautiful sunset.  But I do miss that young child.  I think she still has lessons for me, if only I can cut through the din of the world to hear her whispered fancies.

Day 17 challenge: bring fresh flowers into your life.

Day 18 challenge: Do something new.

Day 19 challenge: Reconnect with an old friend.

Ways to Keep Inspiration In Your Life

February 17, 2009

There are many ways to keep inspiration in our lives.  Daily challenges are one way, inspiration boards another.  In the spirit on inspiration, here are more ideas to spark your thoughts:

*Inspiration scrapbook or binder.  Similar to the board but a permanent landing place that keeps all your ideas in one place.  Can be multiple binders, or one with compartments for recipes, weekend activities, home decorating ideas, work projects ideas, favorite sayings, reflective exercises such as “If money were no object …”

*Inspirational quotes, photographs and images.  These can be placed anywhere: a photo of your next vacation spot next to the computer monitor at work, a picture of the your dream house tucked into the credit card compartment of your wallet, “if money was no object …” list taped to the mirror.

*Visual reminders of impending deadlines.  Some people prefer to track their daily efforts against a larger timeline to keep themselves moving forward.  In this case, weekly or monthly goals should be written up in a prominent location.  Every week I make a list of topics I want to write about.  When I’m fumbling around at 7AM trying to get the words to flow, this list is usually enough to point me in the right direction.

*Visual reminders of progress made.  A visual metaphor for progress is a powerful antidote to the voices of self-doubt, laziness, or the mental roadblocks that make it difficult to start your project each day.  Pinging is one example.  Or place a calendar next to your work spot, and every time you complete your goal – exercise for 20 minutes, write 500 words daily, clean out the attic to make room for your expanding side business – mark that day with a giant X.  As the X’s start to accumulate on the calendar, your motivation to keep going comes from two sources: to keep moving towards your goals, but also to keep up that steady stream of X’s.  Or say you’re trying to exercise regularly.  Put a dollar in a clear glass jar every time you exercise.  It’s a nice feeling as the dollars accumulate in the jar, and you can use the jar as fun money to treat yourself to something you wouldn’t otherwise do.

*Images that remind you of your ultimate goal.  This keeps the focus towards the ultimate goal and overcomes small temptations along the way that detract from the ultimate goal.  A smoker might quit to be around when her grandchildren grow up.  One way to encourage her is to put a box of mints or Altoids where she normally keeps her cigarettes, and paste a picture of her grandchildren to the front of the box.  If habit kicks in and she automatically reaches for a cigarette she’s immediately reminded of her reasons to quit, instead of growing tempted to have “just one” because the conspicuous absence causes her to fixate on smoking.

Take some time to reflect on what you find most challenging, and where you could use some inspiration.  On a day-to-day level, what do you find most difficult?  Getting started?  Keeping the rhythm?  Maybe this means putting the alarm clock across the room and taping an inspirational word or quote to the top of it.  Or it could mean setting up a small corner that is solely devoted to your project and making it as warm and inviting as possible.

Or are your efforts uneven from day to day – some days everything comes together, other days progress is slow?  What patterns do you notice about both?  What rearrangements can you make to increase the number of good days?  Maybe you work best by keeping the final product in mind.  Or maybe you are most inspired when there’s a tangible short-term product to aim for.  For example, if you’re training for a marathon you might find it most motivational to remind yourself “Four months left to train up to 26 miles!”  Or you might find it easier to think, “This week I will train up to 12 miles.”  Either way, transform these into visual reminders and keep them prominent.

Troubleshoot your problem areas.  When do you encounter the most resistance?  Be specific.  Where are you, what are you thinking, and why are you thinking those thoughts (i.e. what are the underlying emotions that create those thoughts)?  Each “W” is an opportunity to change up your routine to overcome resistance to your efforts.  For example, you’re trying to eat healthier by eliminating nighttime snacking.  What is giving you the most trouble?  Perhaps you find yourself constantly going in and out of the kitchen after dinner (where).  Is it during commercial breaks (what), because you’re bored (why), because you like to end a meal with something sweet (why)?

Snacking => kitchen => TV => need something mindless to do while watching TV

Each arrow represents a place in the chain to stop the activities that prevent you from reaching your goal.  In the link between snacking and the kitchen, you might turn off the lights, close the kitchen door, put signs on the kitchen door, refrigerator, cupboard panels.  These signs can be inspirational quotes or reminders of healthy snack alternatives.  To address the link between kitchen and TV, keep yourself occupied during commercial breaks.  Place a stack of magazines or crossword puzzles next to the couch.  To break the link between TV and the need to do something mindless while watching TV, think of various ways to keep your hands occupied.  Take up crocheting, work on a jigsaw puzzle, doodle on scratch paper.

Keep inspiration all around you.  Keep it physically close to the places you could use extra encouragement.  Think about what obstacles you’re facing when you need that extra boost.  This offers clues about the best way to use inspiration to keep you moving.

Soccer lessons

February 15, 2009

In the middle of my first semester of grad school, a little sign popped up in an out-of-the-way message board for intramural indoor soccer. We could form teams ourselves or sign up individually and get placed on someone else’s team. I hadn’t played soccer in over a decade and thought it would be fun to have regularly scheduled weekly exercise and an excuse to band together some classmates to share in sweat, pain and glory. There’s something about that combination that really brings people closer like no other. Katelyn had sent out an exploratory “anybody interested?” email to our cohort to little reply so she dropped the subject, but we agreed to put each other’s names on our individual signups and hope they’d place us on the same team. On the very last day for signups we gathered at the board to fill out our forms. One by one classmates dropped by to see what we were doing, and one by one we talked them into joining us, until, spontaneously, we had enough for a team.

The unfortunate detail I forgot to mention to everybody present was that I suck at soccer. I do. In elementary school we’d had a ragtag team – our school’s only team sport available – that won maybe one game in the entire four seasons I played for them. We had a couple parent coaches with no particular soccer experience, and did nothing but scrimmage on an open field for practice. The field sloped slightly downwards so that whoever won the coin toss and chose their side of the field generally won the scrimmage. I knew very little about dribbling, passing, strategy, where to run and when to do it. All I did know was defense, where two defenders and myself would prowl the perimeter of our territory and attempt to eject any stray balls or opposing players that ventured into our territory.

Enter indoor soccer. A dozen years later I found myself facing the very first sport I’d ever played, the one that really should have turned me off of sports as a meaningful form of exercise but instead, it’s really the form of exercise that I enjoy most. But indoor soccer is a beast of an entirely different nature from soccer. Halve the team size and transport the game to a basketball court, where walls are “in” and so is the area behind the goal. Indoor soccer is like watching a movie on fast forward. The montage cuts out all the nonessential filler and puts the action in a small arena. There is no hiding in indoor soccer, no room for superfluity. Every person counts.

Our first game was at 6PM on a cool November evening. Some of us hadn’t played in over a decade, others had competed on high school teams and such. The referee blew his whistle, and the blur of bodies and ball began. I discovered within seconds that when there’s only five of you on court there’s just not a lot of room to hide. Two people on offense versus three is a 50% increase; it means the difference between one person to pass to or two. And when there are only four people on each side, well, there is a large difference between stranding your teammate in an offensive strike and running up to help out, if only to spread out the defense.

Even if their professed skill level was roughly equivalent to mine, they threw themselves in without abandon – chasing the ball, running back and forth between goals, dribbling, taking aim, giving it a shot. They put themselves out there, experienced or not, and as their reward, they were actually part of the team: laughing, high fiving one another, whereas I, I was still timid, still shy, wanting to be a part of it but not quit sure how to venture in, unwilling to take the plunge on the off chance that I might fail quite gracelessly by dint of trying.

There’s nothing like a rousing game of sports to throw you back to your most primitive state of being. At my very core and youngest version of myself, I am shy, timid, risk-averse and conservative, unsure of myself and unable to put myself out there, and how that all came out in that first game. I froze at the thought of venturing up to offense, a place where I have no skills, no experience, no sense of strategy or field vision, nothing to offer.

Why can’t you be like them, I’d whisper to myself. Just get out there and try. Surprise yourself. It’s the only way to improve. You would have so much more fun, they would have so much more fun.

To make a clean breast of it, for several months now I’ve been meaning to work on this fear of failure that stymies any attempts towards even trying. Sometimes you can hide behind the excuse of exhausting work schedules and over commitment that prevent you from really tackling what you want to do, but out on the court pretense is stripped down in a matter of seconds, and stares you in the face for one long, painful hour.

I’ve grown up in many ways from that shy, timid version of my most primitive being, but in this one area I still haven’t made nearly as much progress as I’d like. More than anything, that is what this year is about: putting myself out there, learning to embrace failure, even seeking it out to force failure upon myself in order to become a better person.

Inspiration Boards

February 8, 2009

Inspiration sparks new ideas and keeps us going through tough times.  Any endeavor that is challenging – weight loss, a job search, a creative endeavor – benefits from constant inspiration to spark new ideas or encourage us to work through the task at hand.  Daily inspiration challenges are one way to generate constant inspiration.  Visual inspiration reminders is another way, particularly if they are integrated into the spaces in our life where we are most likely to need inspiration to keep us going.  The still life I created is one example of this.

Another format I really like is an inspiration board.  A simple board hung on the wall, it is fast and convenient way to create a display of inspirational objects and ideas.  Pushpin boards are cheap and make it easy to add in new items, but be creative!  I’ve seen metal wires with slips of paper attached by clothespins, or a narrow shelf above a desk lined with a few well-chosen objects.  The idea is to keep inspiration visible and keep it close.

What goes on the board is completely up to you.  A dream vacation spot, quotes or phrases, a list of restaurants to try, that couch you’re saving up for, a striking color combination to work into a new design.  Change it up.  Keep it fresh.  Most of all, keep looking for inspiration.

Inspiration Challenge 8: If money was no object …

Take out a piece of paper.  Across the top, write the phrase “If money was no object …”  Now complete that phrase in the phrase below.  What would you do, where would you go?  Would your days be different from how they are now?  How?  How would you really spend your time if you didn’t have to work for a living?

On dreams and princes

February 5, 2009

During a training session at my school-related conference a couple weeks ago, Angela and I started chatting about the future during one of our breaks.  Although Angela and I run in the same general circle of Chinese-speaking first year students, we’d never really spent time together until this conference.  After listening to my jumbled thoughts which, given their current incoherent state in English, sound far more incoherent in Chinese, she switched tactics and asked about some of my craziest dreams.  You know, those deep-held dreams that make you laugh when you list them on the life goals list, the ones you think you have no shot of achieving but list anyways.

Write a book by the time I’m 30.  Film a movie.  Bicycle around the world.

Angela looked at me in surprise.  “But I’ve done a lot of those things!” she told me, explaining that one summer she’d spent the entire vacation indoors writing a novel.  The editor of her school newspaper for six years, she shares my love for words and language.  During college she also filmed several movies for her classmates.

“For the first film I was so excited that I stayed up all night working on the script.  When I brought it to my friends, they took one look at it and told me it would never work as a movie.  We reworked the script and reworked the script until I dropped all of my original ideas.  Still, I had a lot of fun filming it.  Lighting, actors, sets … it was great.

“After that I thought I would continue making films in a serious way.  I even bought an expensive recorder.  We did make some more films but I was never as crazy about it as that first time, staying up all night to work on the script.”

We paused and ate some fruit.  She said, “My friend once made a great analogy:

Going after your craziest dreams is like pursuing a crush.  If you only admire them from afar it is easy to put them up on a pedestal and create all sorts of fantasies.  But if you actually get to know them better – try things out – well, maybe you’ll discover that you don’t want to marry them after all.”

So make eye contact with that crazy dream.  Sidle up to it in a bar, make some casual conversation.  Initiate contact.  See if it’s interested in a longer-term commitment, or if it really only wants a one night stand.  Frogs and princes all look the same from a distance, so get up close and personal.  Just go for it.