Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Leg...arm...clock...heavy eyes...warm...

I've never been a morning person. So, it hasn't surprised me over the years that I've struggled with the common recommendation to start the day with meditation. 

I knew that I certainly could use some mindfulness in the morning. All night long, my mind runs around like a bratty child, and I often wake up with a very unfocused, random-access kind of mental experience: an old song playing in my head, mentally rehearsing for the day, spinning off on some distant memory, obsessing about some detail about my bathroom routine, telling myself jokes, and so on.

This morning, I tried a technique that worked fairly well. While still in bed, just after waking but before I had to get up, I applied one-word labels to whatever drew my attention. If I noticed that I was feeling warm under the covers, I'd think, Warm. If I was drawn to the sensation of rubbing my feet together, I'd think, Feet.

Heavy eyes
Face [against the pillow]

When I was ready to get up, I sat on the edge of the bed, and I continued to observe and label in this way. After a few minutes, I began my bathroom routine.

As a result, I started my morning in a more peaceful, meditative way. Also, I found that I didn't ruminatethink a lot, think rapidly, dwell on thingsas much during my morning routine. It may not have been a formal meditation, but it really made a difference in how I felt starting my day.

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I'd like to tip my hat to the Dan Harris article in the August issue of Mindful magazine, which was an excerpt from his book 10% Happier. The article includes a very funny description of himself as a skeptical, regular guy attending a 10-day meditation retreat. His description of how he resisted and overly complicated the meditation for days and then how he lapsed into a peaceful observational stance was amazing writing, and I can't recommend it highly enough for anyone who has ever "struggled to meditate."

In that article, he describes his breakthrough by describing how his inner thoughts had become much simpler and observational:

Neck pain
Knee pain
Airplane overhead
Sizzle of rustling leaves
Breeze on my forearm
I'm really enjoying putting cashews and raisins in my oatmeal at breakfast
Neck. Knee. Neck, Knee. Hands numb. Bird. Knee.
Hunger pang. Neck. Knee. Hands numb. Bird. Knee.
Bird, bird, bird. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Book Review: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg, is wonderfully entertaining and illuminating. It informs some of my personal change efforts, and it's already transformed my life & career coaching approaches. It's been a long, long time since I've been this impressed and personally affected by a book.

As a life & career coach, I help people to take potentially long-term goals that I call personal projects (such as I'd like to find a life partner, I'd like to make more money, I'd like to change careers), break them into smaller goals, prioritize them, and complete them in order week by week until you complete the larger goal. I've built a successful practice based on my expertise with helping clients to get unstuck, and much of that work involves helping people to avoid bad habits that threaten to pull them off track and undermine their larger aims.

I'm currently writing a book tightly focused on tactics you can use to avoid bad habits and swing into new, more helpful behaviors. As I was writing the initial drafts, I noticed that my focus kept drifting away from achieving the overall goal and more toward the development of what I call mini-habitsDuhigg refers to this as a routine in his book—that go into completing a long-term goal. For example, if someone decides to lose 30 pounds in 6 months, imagine all of the minor adjustments to daily routine needed to complete that goal: for example, mini-habits in the areas of food shopping, snacking, placement of snacks, activity, frequency of activity, perhaps clothes to wear for that activity, location of activity, scheduling the activity, managing expectations of friends and family, and so on. Successfully completing the larger goal is completely based on the ability to install these new routines and keep them going long enough until they become automatic habits.

Given that, I decided that I needed to learn more about habits. So, I turned to Duhigg's book. 

I recommend the book highly. Duhigg is an investigative reporter for the New York Times. As you might guess, he's very thorough. The best part of the book, however, is that he's also a great story teller. He does a terrific job of hooking you with a fascinating story before delivering some of the more academic information. Then, as he transitions into another point he wants to make, he circles back to one of the stories and tells you more. It seamlessly moves between entertainment and teaching and back again.

The book has three parts: The Habits of Individuals, The Habits of Successful Organizations, and The Habits of Societies. His stories provide examples from science, industry, and American History, including companies and individuals with whom and with which you may be very familiar but may have never considered before in terms of habit formation.

I won't try to produce a book report at this point, but I'll give you some random points from the book that I found to be fascinating. My focus is on helping individuals to target helpful habit change, but I also recommend this book for people looking to make business, organizational, or social change happen. Please do consider buying this excellent book!

*       *       *

  •  Habits, as much as memory or reason, are at the root of how we behave.
  • Habits appear to be controlled in the brain independently from memory, in a more primitive part of the brain called the basal ganglia. In other words, you take the action because it's a habit, not because you remember to do something.
  • When a habit engages, we are cued (the thinking parts of our brain are very active as we process what the cue means), we determine that a habit is called for and we launch into a habitual routine (the thinking part of our brain shuts down and allows us to go on automatic pilot), and we receive an expected reward for completing our routine.
  • Over time, we begin to anticipate or crave the reward. Studies have shown that, after animals are conditioned to crave a cue, a routine, and a reward, then withholding or altering the reward can cause significant depression and stress in the animal. (If you consider that a major symptom of depression is hopelessness, then it appears as if losing faith that your actions can result in an expected reward would facilitate depression and a refusal to take further action.)
  •  Habits tend to break down under high stress unless you add in the component of belief or faith. A key aspect of faith is a belief that none of us individually have 100% control over any situation. Given that, we seek connection to power beyond ourselves. Following from that, strong engagement and connection with a group of people who share your belief can strengthen the habit and make it more likely that it will persist during times of high stress. This is why many self-help programs emphasize group participation.
  • To create a new habit, clearly identify the cue (are your teeth gritty or cloudy?), create a craving for a routine (try new Acme toothpaste...you'll love the tingly, fresh feeling!), and clearly identify the reward (for a beautiful, sexy smile). The book contains a number of examples showing that identifying a cue and a reward can be challenging and can take some experimentation and thought.
  • Old habits never go away (they can reappear during high-stress situations); new habits must become stronger than the old habits. Our brains make no distinction between "good" and "bad' habits.
  • To stop a bad habit, keep the cue and reward in place, and swap out the "bad" routine for a "good" one. For example, if you often smoke (routine) when you get bored mid-morning at work (cue) and want some stimulation (reward), then substitute a cup of coffee (new routine) for the cigarette. The book emphasizes the importance of deciding to change the bad habit and accepting that this is a long-term project requiring effort.
  • Because we are creatures of habit, we are naturally drawn to the familiar. The book includes a fascinating example of how a catchy-but-quirky pop song was marketed so that listeners would give it more time to sound familiar; the song eventually became a huge hit in the early 2000s.  
  • The book defines the concept of keystone habits, which are habits that appear to be connected to many other habits; make a change to that one keystone habit, and a ripple effect of habit change often occurs. Keystone habits tend to work because of a dynamic called small wins; get traction in one manageable area, and it feels more do-able to make changes in more challenging areas.

    Keystone habits affect individuals, and different people have different keystone habits; it can be tricky to identify your keystone habits.

    As examples of keystone habits, studies show that families that eat dinner together tend to include children with greater homework skills, better grades, a better ability to manage their emotions, and more confidence. Making your bed every morning is correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget.

    Organizations can also have keystone habits; create a focused effort to change that one organizational keystone habit, and you can transform an organization. The book includes several fascinating stories of companies that made this kind of transformation.
  • In the Organization section, there's a fascinating discussion of habits that form truces between competing individuals or departments. Part of transforming organizations involves identifying when truces become dysfunctional and need to be modified to address new challenges.
  •  Willpower is a skill you can develop and strengthen; it's a keystone habit.
  • Studies have shown that willpower is like a muscle that can be strengthened by exercise and that can be weakened by being overly taxed. In one particular study, kindness and respect shown to people increased their ability to use willpower in a subsequent task. The kind approach gave people a sense of control, invoked a sense that they would enjoy doing the task for themselves, or engendered enough goodwill so that they wanted to do the task well for the person requesting it. Those who were treated brusquely didn't have enough willpower reserves left to complete the subsequent task very well.
  • People and organizations face inflection points, which are painful times when they feel like abandoning a habit or forming a new one; this is very similar to the crisis equals opportunity maxim. Marketing professionals understand that people are more willing to shift to a new way of doing things—to buy new productsduring personal transitions (getting married, having a baby, getting divorced, being laid off, starting a new job). Organizational change agents may take advantage of inflection points to modify a truce or introduce a new habit.
  • Social change is often facilitated by friendship (people do something to support their friends), social peer pressure (sometimes called the power of weak ties), and a way for the behavior to become self perpetuating (individuals take ownership of the issue and lead instead of just follow). Regarding the power of weak ties, a study showed that people are not very willing to help strangers (not surprising), they are willing to help friends (not surprising), and they are almost equally willing to help friends of friends (surprising until you think about it). When confronted with someone who knows your friend, you are hesitant to behave badly in a way that could get back to your friend.

Experiencing IS instead of SHOULD

I was preparing to sit down to do some writing, and I wanted to shake off the residual foggy feeling after surfing Facebook, Twitter, and a few blogs. I needed to turn my attention to doing some new writing of my own, but I was distracted and my eyes felt tired. So, I decided that I would  walk outside into this beautiful Baltimore morning, feel the sun on my face, clear my mind, breathe, and do a mini-meditation to re-engergize myself.

On the way out the back door, I noticed some plastic bottles and metal cans by the door that needed to be deposited in the bin in our back yard. So, I gathered together the recycling, I exited the house and I tossed the items into the bin. On the way back, I noticed that some cement-like casing on our steps was beginning to crumble and fall off onto the grass. Yet another thing that the previous owners cheaped out on and that we're going to have to pay for and repair. I felt mild irritation, "fast," and my mind was occupied. 

After walking back in the back door, I dimly recalled that there was something that I'd neglected.

Oh, yeah. I was going to do a mini-meditation.

I walked back out onto the porch, cleared my mind, breathed deeply, refocused on how the sun felt, tuned into what I was seeing around me, and thought gently, I am. Tension melted away, and I felt sooo great, sooo quickly.

When I returned to my computer, I felt ready to begin my work.

*       *       *

What stays with me is the stark contrast between how I felt when initially in the backyard (irritable, preoccupied, wrapped up in what "must be done") as compared to the second time I was there (warm, peaceful, quiet, relaxed, just "being"). Night and day.

The more quickly and frequently we can exit from SHOULD mode and enter into BE mode, the better we'll be able to maintain our health and our sense of connection to others and to life.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Weight-loss project: High-intensity aerobics

I was doing my aerobics on the elliptical machine when a personal trainer chatted me up. He asked if I'd tried doing my intervals "going as hard as you can." I hadn't, but the idea intrigued me.

I ran the idea by a client who is a health & wellness coach, and she verified that research shows this type of aerobic workout produces good weight-loss and endurance results. She said that it has allowed her to cut her workouts to 30 minutes in length; she said, "It's totally transformed the way I work out."

This technique falls under the category of High Intensity Training or HIT. This past month, I've been experimenting with HIT intervals, and I'll give you some of my impressions. At the end of this post, I'll share my exact method. 

Here are my overall impressions.

On the positive side, it indeed allows you to get in and out of the gym very quickly. I give myself 20 minutes to complete three sets of HIT intervals, and I'm exhausted and ready to shower at the end of that time. Also, I have noticed a significant, quicker improvement in my endurance. (This method reminds me of the techniques our high school basketball coaches used in the first few weeks of the season to get us into shape quickly.) I haven't been able to tell whether it's better or worse for weight loss, though my waist line continues to go down slowly.

On the negative side, I find that I enjoy my workouts far less. The one-hour routine I do on the elliptical feels so much more peaceful and fun; when I do that exercise, I moderately exert myself on the tough intervals (instead of "going as hard as I can"), and I meditate during them, as well. In addition to making my workouts very enjoyable, I'm seeing some remarkable mindfulness results outside of the gym as a result of blending aerobics with meditation. 

Also, I find that I'm groggier after doing the HIT intervals than I am when I do my regular routine. (They take more out of me.) There is the fact that, in due time, getting into better shape will reduce the groggy after effect. However, I work at a job in which I really need to be mentally sharp.

So,there's a tension between the benefit of faster results and getting out of the gym quicker, versus enjoying the workouts themselves and being more mentally alert as you get into shape. To address this tension, I've decided on a compromise: I'll do my regular routine during the work week, and I'll add one HIT interval session on the weekend. That way, I can stay alert during the work week, and I can get in and out of the gym faster during a weekend session, allowing more time with my family.

*     *     *

Here are specifics about how I do my HIT intervals.

I use an elliptical machine that allows for adjusting the incline and resistance. I set the machine so that I can move fairly easily; for me, that would be an incline of 6 and a resistance of 8. Finally, I set the timer for 20 minutes.

For my first HIT interval set, I go as hard and fast as I can for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, and repeat 5 times. Then, I move at a restful pace for a few minutes until I'm no longer winded. For my second set, I do 15 seconds as hard and fast as I can, rest for 10 seconds, repeat 5 times, and then rest. For my third set, I do 10 seconds as hard and fast as I can, rest for 10 seconds, repeat 5 times, and then move slowly and restfully for whatever time remains on the machine. I'm done in 20 minutes. 

The other day, I attempted 4 sets instead of 3, and I felt a dizziness and slight nausea that didn't go away until I got into the locker room and took a cool shower. I'd pushed myself too hard, too soon. Later that day, I took a 2-hour nap. (In the interest of full disclosure, I'm 53 years old.)

Once I dialed it back to 3 sets, I was able to do these HIT intervals without the severe after effects. Listen to your body, and adjust as you go. Of course, hiring a personal trainer can help you to structure your workouts so that they don't get too hard too quickly.


Friday, August 1, 2014

Weight-loss project: Tips for losing belly fat

I'm at a strange phase of my weight-loss project in that I'm in between the fast, big results that come at the beginning of the effort, and I'm not yet to the point at which I have a small-to-non-existent belly. I guess I'm a weight-loss Tweener. :-)

Considering adjustments to my workouts and nutrition, I found this article providing tips for reducing belly fat.

On the one hand, the advice seems right in line with just about everything else I've read on the subject (nutrition and activity level matter most, do intervals, do high-intensity intervals, eat nuts, avoid low-fiber carbs, especially limit the potatoes and white bread, and so on).

However, I really like that the article gives you so many approaches with which to experiment. I recommend picking a few techniques that seem interesting, and take them for a test spin. Some suggestions may really appeal to you, and others may not (for example, I'm not crazy about the "weigh yourself every day" suggestion).

I think I want to try to do the elliptical with my eyes closed and without holding the handles (giving my core a more intense workout), adjusting the interval times in my once-weekly high-intensity intervals, drinking two glasses of water before dinner, and getting on board more with flossing my teeth (seriously, that was one of the suggestions).