Posts Tagged ‘goals’

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.


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.

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.

January post-mortem

January 31, 2009

So how am I feeling at the end of month one?  Pretty good, to be honest.  It wasn’t nearly as hard to buy nothing new as I expected.  Granted, I did have that one slip up due to a combination of unusual circumstances, not planning ahead well enough, and general unwillingness to put myself through the torturous experience of shopping for pants.  But I didn’t feel constrained this month, as though trapped in some bubble world where I could watch the rest of society move about normally in realms I could not access.

Did I miss shopping?  I cannot lie, occasionally I thought of all the money I could save on stuff I don’t even need.  But life has been very full this month.  Instead of dumping hours into online sites or wading through stores I cooked.  Read.  Wrote.  Caught up with friends.  Began jogging again.  Sent some letters, actual handwritten notes on stationery I’ve had since middle school.  Found an internship opportunity.  Started a collaborative photography project with friends.

I like this version of my life.  It’s closer to the lifestyle I’d like to lead.  It’s also more balanced.  Towards the end of last semester I grew increasingly dependent on shopping and sewing to balance the stress of school.  Remove shopping from the equation, and other hobbies flourish.  Without the material distractions that create an external definition of self, I’ve been able to focus on internal recalibration.  This is not a radical departure from the Jessica of 2008 but rather a distillation process.  Remove the dead wood to let half-hidden gems shine through.  2009 is about chipping away at the soil around those half-hidden gems, buffing them, learning to work them seamlessly into daily life.

A balanced approach to life means spreading the self-worth eggs into multiple baskets.  It means identifying with multiple parts of my personality.  Just as a three-legged chair is more stable than a two-legged chair, the more identities we create for ourselves the more stable our self-identity becomes.  Baker, crafter, student, friend, runner, photographer, daughter, volunteer, and yes, maybe even writer.

Balance is especially helpful in a society that places so much stock in careers to define who we are.  In my case, this means my identity defined by measures of student success (Grades!  Classes!  Collaborations with professors!), and, by extension, my post-graduation plans.  To solely define myself along these lines, particularly when I’m just acclimating to this program and have quite woolly plans at best, is to throw open the door and invite in self-doubt, anxiety, and depression with wide open arms, particularly if I kick sanity out the door as well and compare myself to my fellow students, an impressive lot to say the least.

Classes start Monday.  I’m excited.  It’s going to be a good semester.  I’m also excited for a new challenge in February.  January accomplished everything it was supposed to accomplish.  I’m ready for more.

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.


January Challenge explained

January 9, 2009

Why buy nothing new?  At first blush it sounds like an odd challenge to start off a year centered all around wellness.  After all, what does material consumption have to do with anything related to wellness?

Everything, it turns out.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s start closer to home.  As I type this I’m sitting at a desk in a one-bedroom apartment overlooking bare trees and snow.  It is the second time I’ve started over in a new city thousands of miles from friends and family, my first time in school in over three years.  When faced with the continual reworking of self-identity and future aspirations that has defined my life from college through my mid twenties, my first reaction has been not to tackle the large challenges but the small ones first.  As my best friend said the summer before we both started grad school, “It’s too much to figure out what I’m going to do with my life once this program is over, so I’m planning out my room instead!”  For both of us a comfortable home environment – our safe harbors – is important to tackle the uncertainties of a new world outside.  As such, each room I’ve lived in has had a distinctive décor to fill this need, at turns whimsical, nostalgic, bright, quirky or all of the above, filled with mementos and faces of loved ones, past lifetimes that peek through in the person that I am today.

I’ve also noticed that in times like this I have a tendency to shop for clothing.  This is not “retail therapy” in the popular sense of the phrase, for normally I find shopping far from calming.  Rather I’m coping with the new environment, new people, and new challenges by redefining myself through the clothes I wear.  New pieces are incorporated into the daily rotation just as the self readjusts the composition of pieces of my personality, even if the core elements remain the same.

The danger, of course, is to linger too much in the material adjustment phase to the detriment of addressing underlying concerns, and that is where January’s challenge comes in to play.  Although I do not want to deny myself these coping mechanisms that have carried me through the past eight years I also do not want them to become a crutch to avoid facing the larger questions at hand.  My place is cozy, inviting and unique to the version of myself that exists at this very moment in time.  I have enough warm clothing to make it through a New England winter.  It is time to move on to the next stage.

With this pledge I am deliberately shifting focus.  As I mentioned earlier, I want realign my day-to-day life to better adhere to the wellness values I hold dear to my heart.  More than that, there are some larger dreams and goals that have been lurking in my peripheral vision, shuttered into the cobwebbed recesses of my mind by the incessant demands of daily life.  The challenge in January is to buy nothing new so that I can turn my focus away from the little details of the external trappings, to the big picture of my internal world, full of hopes and dreams and roads left unexplored.

Maybe this is the beginnings of of, or reaction to, a quarter-life crisis, though I don’t feel in crisis mode at the moment.  At any rate, at the cusp of the last year of the first decade of the new millennium, it feels like a good place to be.

Prioritizing wellness by recalibrating the budget

January 8, 2009

Money affects wellness beyond the scope of “retail therapy” and my January challenge.  After all, our society is built upon money.  It lubricates the cogs of the economic system.  And so it is impossible to consider wellness without considering the impact of money on wellness, and vice versa.

At its core, the most fundamental use for money is to ensure access to basic survival needs.  Anything beyond that is, in the strictest sense, a luxury.  Before we can be picky about what type of food we eat, we must first ensure that we have enough food to make it to tomorrow.  If we cannot meet our basic needs, or if we have other costs that detract from the wellness category, then money stands as an obstacle to achieving greater quality of life.

Thus the second reason for the buy nothing new challenge is to address these larger scale connections between money and wellness.  With no books, magazines, clothing, hobby supplies in the budget, my discretionary spending should go down significantly.  This frees up money to put towards wellness-related activities.  One of the main reasons I never joined the Y or a community pool was that it cost money.  I would constantly spout off to friends about the importance of health and exercise, yet here I was, unwilling to commit to a monthly exercise bill because I felt it cost too much.  And while it’s true that monthly fees can add up, if paying for access to a facility is the difference between exercising regularly and having EXERCISE top the new years resolutions list for four years running – well, that is what I would call money well spent.

That’s the flip side of the money/wellness coin.  Just as a lack of money stands as an obstacle, so too can proper budgeting enable a happier, healthier lifestyle.  If there is a bit left over at the end of the month – if there is room to reshuffle monthly expenses and increase funds in the wellness category – then we have the power to build greater wellness into our lives.  This is not an excuse to buy that shiny new flat screen TV to “put into the exercise room,” only to never use it.  But one or two key investments can make a big difference, like replacing a worn out pair of running shoes with a high quality pair.

One H&M shirt is one yoga lesson.  It is three sessions at the community pool, a student discount play with friends, three 5-pound bags of organic potatoes, an afternoon in the ice skating rink with friends.  In theory I can wear the H&M shirt over and over again, but let’s be honest.  I already have a closet full of shirts, and H&M clothing is not exactly built to last.  On the other hand, an afternoon with friends can be the difference between feeling isolated and depressed and feeling connected to others.  It may be the starting point for a new friendship.  Swimming or yoga is the difference between feeling stressed beyond belief and surfing the endorphin rush towards productivity and a sense of accomplishment.  And three 5-pound bags of organic potatoes?  Well, that certainly makes a ton of mashed potatoes for a potluck, which is a two-for-one, really, since dinner parties bring friends together.  At the very least, potatoes can be spun into all sorts of nutritious meals, plus they store for a long time to boot.

Or one H&M shirt may be the difference between paying off the credit card bill or carrying a balance, between peace of mind and feeling stretched too thin.  It’s true that money in of itself cannot buy happiness.  But it can provide the means to achieving intangibles that are critical to our perception of the quality of daily life, or to the “extras” that increase our sense of well being or our capacity to become the best possible versions of ourselves.

With this January challenge, my hope is to kick start a new year with a shift away from material consumption and towards developing other areas of my life.  I also want to trim the excesses from my budget and put that money towards savings or wellness-related activities and investments such as a pair of running shoes or some yoga DVDs.  Beyond the immediate impact of detoxing from the rampant consumerism of the holidays and holiday sales this challenge should create a lasting recalibration towards a lower consumption lifestyle.  If you constantly eat sweets you become used to a certain level of sugar, and it takes higher and higher levels of sugar to satisfy the same craving.  The counterbalance to this is to eat sweets less frequently.  It’s all about readjusting norms and setting the bar for “normal” a little lower.  It’s the same principle behind the idea that it takes 30 days to form a new habit.  Do anything for long enough and you’ll get used to it; consume less for long enough and you’ll adjust your expectations accordingly.

Detox, recalibration, reorientation, all packaged into one succinct challenge to buy nothing new for 31 days. Now there’s a S.M.A.R.T. foundation.

Pinpointing the driving forces behind our goals

January 6, 2009

As I touched on briefly in my last post, if a goal is to reduce “retail therapy,” it is not enough to just resolve to stop shopping.  If we are to permanently reduce or eliminate shopping, we cannot succeed unless we consider the role it plays in our lives.  Frequently when we hit the malls after work or on the weekends, it isn’t out of strict need that we shop.  Although this economic downturn has dampened our enthusiasm for consumption, we are still a nation of shoppers.  We shop because we’re bored, to be social, because we’re stressed out and shopping calms us down, or just because we need to unwind after a long day.  We shop as a reward for a rough month or for pulling through a big project.  We shop for the thrill of a bargain.  Notice, then, that we don’t shop for the strict purpose of shopping; rather, we use shopping as a tool for coping with other emotions.  We turn to shopping to handle boredom, stress, decompression; we use it as a reward system; we even use it to socialize.

So what happens during an economic downturn and we can no longer afford so much “retail therapy,” or during sporadic bouts of budgeting or credit card diets?  Treating symptoms without curing the underlying illness does not prevent new symptoms from popping up.  So long as the underlying illness remains, symptoms will emerge in one form or another.

In other words, if we remove “retail therapy” from our life without identifying what need it is filling, we doom our efforts from the very start.  The distress will manifest in a different form, or how often have you gone on a strict diet for a few days, only to blow it on a large piece of cake with ice cream and whipped cream?

However, if we peel back the layers to figure out what underlying need drives our desire to shop then us can come up with new coping mechanisms to replace the old behaviors.  Keep it simple.  Pick one to three “replacements.”  Blend them into our life as seamlessly as possible.  This may mean keeping supplies close at hand, building a routine into daily life, or reaching out to friends for support.

In my case, shopping is one outlet for handling the uncertainty and anxiety of starting a new phase of my life.  However, it is not my only way to achieve a sense of control in uncertain times.  I also find it helpful to keep in touch with friends and family, read a good book, listen to music, explore my new environment on foot or by bus, photography, go for a run, engage in creative projects.  So in January as I take away one coping mechanism I must fill the void with a good balance of other activities.  I have a couple good books on my nightstand.  I already have plans to spend time with friends this weekend.  A couple friends are trying out a new collaborative photography project, so I will keep my camera on hand at all times.

S.M.A.R.T. goals are important.  They keep our goals feasible.  They keep us on track.  But to use them to greatest success we must also consider the context in which change happens.  Humans do not exist in a vacuum, and neither do our emotions, behaviors, and habits.  Everything from social forces to individual emotions influence our daily life.  Without them we would not be who we are today, but without factoring them in we cannot achieve the best possible version of ourselves.

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:

.  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.

.  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?