Posts Tagged ‘taking action’

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.

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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.