Turn Over a New Leaf

This is the time of year where many folks start gathering up their New Year’s resolutions.   We start putting together the list that will cure all our ills and bad habits.  We decide it’s time to turn over a new leaf.  Lose 50 pounds, quit smoking, get out of debt.  Pick your leaf.  You might be ready to tear up that leaf by the second week of February.  You’ll be sore from that new exercise regime, or blow $100 on that new Thai restaurant, or break out the plastic again.  Why can’t we stick to the same leaf…new or otherwise?

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There is a lot of scientific evidence that is available now to help show you the way.  If you really think it through and set up a plan, you can succeed.  There are ways to anticipate the self sabotage. To be one step ahead of yourself and anticipate a few faltering steps.  If you understand your willpower and can short circuit your “auto-pilot”, there is hope that you can achieve your greatest desires.  You can succeed in turning over that leaf.

Here are a few steps:

1. More.  It is much easier to get behind the concept of more versus less.  Drink more water versus drink less soda.  Exercise more versus eat less.  It is so much easier to say, “Yeah, I ran more miles this week than last.”  But how do you know if you ate less, without meticulous logging of every calorie?  Even in the during performance reviews, it’s so much easier to ask someone to do more of something than less.   Frame your goal as something you want to do more of.

2. Identity.  Kelly McGonigal in her book “The Willpower Instinct” calls this your “Want Power”.  Think about how you want to identify with yourself.  It’s not that you want to save more as much as you want to see yourself as a “financially stable” person.  So when you make choices, you see yourself in the condition you are aspiring to.  So, if you identify with being a long distance runner, you aren’t likely to stop at McDonalds.

3.  Plan B.  Make sure you have a back up plan when hunger, stress and fatigue kick in.  These will happen.  Maybe not the first day, but at some point, you will be standing in the check out line at the Piggly Wiggly, a half hour late for your Zumba class, starving to death and that York/Reeses/Milky Way/(fill in your favorite candy) will be calling your name.  There are times when making a good choice will be impossible.  Your willpower is at its brink.   Pick the “regular size” versus the “king size” bar; choose gum or a bottle of water.  Pick a new default when your back is against the wall.

4. Schedule.  I’ve been a Franklin Covey Facilitator for several years.  One of the principles that has always been esposed in their “Focus” and “7 Habits ” courses is to schedule the big rocks.  The big rocks are the important goals in your life.  Whether it is training for a marathon, a happier marriage or being financially stable, if you schedule time in advance, you are much likelier to actually show up.  So plan a date with your partner, schedule ten miles for Saturday morning or spend Sunday afternoon working on your business plan.  Scheduling it will ensure that it happens.

5. Imagine temptation.  Envision your worst case scenario.  What bump in the road is likely to show up in the first week or so?  Birthday cake at work during your first week of your fitness plan: imagine yourself emailing that you have a conflicting meeting and turn it down.  You’re running late to your child’s concert and the only choice is fast food: imagine yourself ordering a salad and bottle of water.  Visualizing “the higher path” will help you actually follow through.

6. Compassion.  Forgiving yourself for any slip ups is critical.  Assume before you start that you will.  Because you will.  There are vacations, snowstorms, fires to put out and sick babysitters.  Showing yourself compassion is critical.  If you know that you can forgive yourself, you are much more likely to be successful in the long term.  Take care of your inner dictator.

All these steps involve taking the long view.  Pick the leaf that is most important (don’t pick a whole pile) and pull your full attention to it.  Imagine your future self. Make decisions based on their best interest. When you don’t–and there will be times when you don’t–practice forgiveness.  When you are successful with the first leaf, there will be will be others to take on.

Soothe your Inner Dictator

It’s difficult to control our inner dictator.  Most of us are trying to work on something.  Exercising more, spending less money, eating more fruits and vegetable, stopping procrastination…pick your poison.  The minute we derail, we beat ourselves up.  “Cathy, you lazy wench, why did you sleep in and not go for a run this morning?”, “Why did you go out to dinner when you said you would save money this month?”, “Dummy, you spent 2 hours on Facebook when you could have been doing homework.” “What is wrong with you?” Sound familiar?  Your dictator has taken over.

According to Dr. Kelly McGonigal and her book “The Willpower Instinct,” carrying around this guilt and reprimanding ourselves with this self talk is actually going to encourage more self defeating behaviors.  What?  Is she crazy?  I would be completely out of control if I didn’t reprimand myself.  My dictator is doing a great job of keeping me under wraps.  Really?

One of the studies in the book took place at Carlton University in Ottawa, Canada.  They tracked the procrastination habits of students over the course of the semester.  The ones who were self critical for the way they performed on the first exam were much more likely to make it a habit and procrastinate on subsequent exams.  Those who forgave themselves for procrastinating on the first exam, did far better and  improved their study habits.  Doesn’t it seem so much easier to have some self compassion and to soothe your inner dictator?

Here are some ways to calm your dictator:

1. Forgive.  Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.”  Let go of your grudges towards others.  If you can’t forgive them and their failures, how can you possible forgive yourself.  I was tormented by resentment of an ex for years.  It got me nowhere but more stressed out, paranoid and resentful (as I recounted all his sins against me and mankind).  It wasn’t hurting him, it was hurting me.  Release it and move on.

2. Self Compassion.  Once you have forgiven others, it should be easier to forgive yourself and your failures.  Try to imagine if you would say any of the things that you say to yourself, to a close friend or your child.  Imagine your best friend getting on a scale and you say to them “Hey fatso, that’s what you get for eating all that cake last night.”  Why would you talk to yourself with any less compassion as you would a friend.  Forgive yourself.

3. Escape.  Anticipate the feeling of giving in when you are stressed out and plan your escape.  So if I’m used to grabbing a glass of wine when I get home from a stressed out day at work, have an alternative escape plan.  A healthier option.  A walk, some yoga, praying, crotchet, reading, gardening, P90X.  What ever you enjoy that is counter to your normal unhealthy default escape. This will trip up your inner dictator.

4. Envision.  Envision being successful with a few bumps along the way.  This is what kills most New Year’s resolutions.  You join a gym and say you will go every day and then when the first bump in the road comes along (such as I couldn’t get a babysitter) you abandon the plan.  Resolution over.  Realize you are going to have set backs and keep on keeping on.  In the story of the tortoise and the hare, the tortoise always wins.

5. Awareness.  Watch how you talk about yourself to others.  I know several colleagues who constantly put themselves down or are down on life.  “I’m having a bad hair day.” “I’m overloaded.” “I’m tired.” “I’m sick.” First of all, do you want to be around someone who is such a downer?  Second, how can you possible have a good day when you are saying this out loud?  If you are feeling a little tired, say “I’m feeling great.” And add a smile.  It will turn your day around and others will be attracted to your energy.

This is a difficult process and it isn’t easily changed over night.  Your dictator has been in control for a long time so don’t plan a coup d’état.  Slowly but surely pacify your dictator’s power by reflecting on how you are viewing things and what you are letting your dictator control (and say).  Soothe your inner dictator.

What is your dictator saying?

Communication Chasm

Have you been in a communication chasm?  You need an immediate answer from your boss, your partner or your friend and they don’t respond.  Ugh.  It’s almost like in today’s day and age of immediate communication and overload of technology that communication comes to a stand still.  Some people respond to email.  Some people will only instant message or text (hello, anyone under 30) or something really old school: a face-to-face meeting.  How often does that happen?  Well, if the Millenials only want to text and Gen X only wants to email, the Boomers want a phone call and the Traditionals want to be eye ball to eye ball, how are we all going to all get along?

Sometimes you need to be Sherlock Holmes to try and figure out the “sweet spot” for a response.  Hm, I sent an email last week, left a voice mail yesterday…I wonder how I will get the response I need to reach an important decision before this project deadline.  We have all this technology and yet we can’t seem to get on the same page.  We have a communication chasm.

So how do we jump the divide and start exchanging information and make some decisions? Here are a few tips and ideas:

1. Open Mind. You’re going to need to start with one.  We all have our preferences.  I would love to email every person in my life and think that it will serve all my purposes.  It won’t.  Sometimes I need to call.  Sometimes I need to be face to face.  Get out from behind your PC or smart phone and test the waters.

2. Embrace. If you have a child with a cell phone. Scratch that.  If you have a child, they have a cell phone.  You will need to learn to text.  There is no other way.  Embrace the change.  My sister-in-law told me that her 80 year old mother can text because that was the only way her twenty-something granddaughters would communicate.  It’s never too late to embrace change.

3. Learn. About a year ago at an executive meeting, a colleague brought up that his daughter was traveling over seas.  I asked if he had “Skyped” with her.   Most of the gentlemen at the meeting were Boomers with laptops and camera phones.  They looked at me like I had said a dirty word.  They need to dust off their cameras and learn some new methods.  Technology is changing at such a rapid pace that you need to stay ahead of the wave.

4. Adapt.  Take some of your new found techno intelligence and start using it.  Scan your audience and try some different methods.  If you notice that someone always leaves a voice mail in response to your email, then call them back.  If your child texts a response to your voice mail, text them back.  Don’t be tied to your normal communication channel. To be more effective, you are going to need to adapt.

5. Relax. Obviously this is tough for someone impatient like myself.  Take a breath…actually a couple of deep breaths as advised by the book, The Willpower Instinct by Dr. Kelly McGonigal.  Slowing your breath for about 5 minutes can really take the edge off of the anxiety.  Just because information is flooding by doesn’t mean you need to jump into the flow.  Unless you are in a fire or earthquake, it will all work out.

6. Give. The Golden Rule.  Sometimes it pays to be the one who steps forward with communication.  Stay away from building silos in your life because someone has not been communicating as frequently as you would like.  Take the first step to reaching out to them.  Try using their chosen communication channel as a first step.

7. Assumptions.  Check your assumptions.  If your husband didn’t return an urgent text, do not assume he has been in a car accident.  If your child hasn’t acknowledged a money transfer into his account, do not assume he’s been robbed.  If your client hasn’t returned your email, do not assume that the deal is dead or, worse yet, they don’t want to work with you.   Assumptions are a dangerous barrier to communication.

Communication channels are an ever-changing landscape of possibilities.  You may not stay ahead of the curve or be an early adopter, but if you want to span the divide of the chasm, you’ll need to start taking some steps.

How do you jump the divide?

Be the Lizard Tamer

Breaking habits is tough work.  Whether you want to quit smoking, stop procrastinating or get off the couch, it’s tough row to hoe.   Your amygdala is frequently referred to as your lizard brain and it’s standing in your way.  It’s the oldest part of your brain and where your fear lives.  When you get on a bike for the first time in ten, er, twenty years, your amygdala kicks in and remembers how to ride the bike.  It also brings along all the emotions that go with it.   I remember when I broke my arm at age 13 while riding my bike down Majestic Court with my friend Wendy.  It’s all there – one pedal at a time, balancing, the asphalt, the road rash, the trip to the ER, and the cast on my arm – one big sloppy sack of memory.  And my amygdala is happy to bring it up every time I think about riding a bike.

So every time you try to start a new habit like riding a bike, eating less, or working on projects first thing in the morning, your lizard brain wakes up and tries to put the kabosh on the new habit.  When you wake up the lizard brain, it sends out the fear signals.  Ride a bike? Don’t you remember going to the ER that time? Skip the Krispy Kremes at the breakfast meeting? But I always get a glazed cream filled donut at the finance meeting.  We are on auto pilot and our lizard is leading us down the path.

The good news is there are ways to unplug your auto pilot, tame your lizard and get on the road to renewal:

1. Meditate. Studies have shown that just 5 minutes of meditation a day can increase neuroplasticity and blood flow to your prefrontal cortex in just 8 weeks. This creates greater connections in the brain and improves brain function, especially your prefrontal cortex (where your best work is done!).   The best part is that it decreases the size your amygdala which lowers your stress level.  When your stress is lower, you make better decisions; like skipping the donut and riding the bike instead.

2. Lucky 7.  That is the sweet spot on sleep.  No more, no less.  For optimum cognitive function, you need 7 hours of sleep.  More than 8, and your brain function declines.  Less than 6 and a half and it declines as well.  For better concentration and control of your decision making, it’s best to get seven hours of sleep.  Have you ever had to have a conversation with a teenager after an all nighter?  Nuf said.  Get your lucky 7.

3. HRV.  You want to increase your Heart Rate Variability.  In the book, “The Willpower Instinct” by Dr. Kelly McGonigal, studies have shown that those with a higher HRV can handle anxiety and stress more easily.  They bounce back and get back on track easier.  It’s difficult to change your HRV but quitting smoking, eating a plant based diet, meditation and regular exercise are four proven ways to increase it.  Slow your breathing down to 4 to 6 breaths per minute.  If you can exhale slowly before facing a stressful situation, you will be more resilient.  Angry customer?  Slow your breathing.  Need to resist that cream filled donut?  Slow your breathing.  Take back control.

4. AlcoholEvery time I started smoking again, I was in a bar.  Hmmm.  I wonder why?  Maybe it’s because alcohol was involved.  Alcohol lowers your inhibitions and, of course, lowers your self control.  So if you are working on a new set of habits and want to bolster your self control, put down the martini glass.

5. Exercise.  It just takes 15 minutes a day.  It can take any form you like: window shopping, gardening, walking, p90x, or yoga.  As Dr. McGonigal says all that’s required is that you are able to “answer no to the following two questions: 1. Are you sitting, standing still, or lying down? 2. Are you eating junk food while you do it?”.  Easy.

6. Plan.  Think and plan your habits.  Put your sneakers by the foot of your bed.  Don’t power up your PC until you’ve planned your day.  Schedule your meals for the day in advance.  When you’ve planned it out ahead of time, the new habit becomes a default. I guess I have to run this morning because my sneakers are waiting for me.

7. NoAll willpower starts and ends with No.  You will need to push away from the table, turn down the dessert, shut down your devices, and walk away from facebook.  Start with steps 1 through 6 and your prefrontal cortex will be there to support you when the going gets tough.

It’s also a good idea to take one small step at a time.  Start with the meditating and then build from there.  It takes time and patience to take control of your lizard.  Be the Lizard Tamer.

How have you tamed your lizard?