Self Care

Mindful Working

meditation-428382_1280I have shared the story of my five-day mindfulness retreat in Petaluma with multiple people, and I’m still trying to figure out what happened. First of all, who gets to go on a five-day retreat, leaving family behind, spending a chunk of cash, and being that selfish? Me, that’s who. Wow, am I grateful. In fact, I spent a lot of time being grateful while I was there. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

My intentions in going were to take the next step in my MBSR training (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and to get some tools to cope with stress better. I’m often ‘stressed out’, and it affects how I treat people, especially my children. I may or may not become a certified MBSR teacher, but as Arianna Huffington said, “Meditation and mindfulness are no longer reserved for people who live in Berkeley. It’s mainstream now.” So I’m just following the trend. But unlike most trends, this one gives me hope.

For those who don’t know, No, seriously. Meditation too often seems like something reserved for “other people” or something we should do but never have the time for. Mindfulness gives those of us who suck at meditating a way to lower the water level of current and historic stressors in order to make better decisions in this now moment. Having a semi-regular practice of mindfully noticing, breathing, pausing, paying close attention, and being still, results in a state of mind that is more relaxed, focused, and adaptable. And all change, big or small, starts with noticing and acknowledging what is before you can ever hope to change it.

Trust me when I say that I am no paragon of virtue in this endeavor. Case in point was the retreat experience itself. The two facilitators, renowned experts in the field and trained by the Mindfulness Master himself, Jon Kabat-Zinn, irritated me from the get-go. There was no way they could be that mellow, grounded and centered no matter what anyone did or said. It was like Bob Ross was leading us with two heads, always mellow, sometimes hypnotic, and completely unflappable. (Ah, happy trees…) And they threw us in the deep end. Without remorse. I tried desperately to “trust the process”, but I went to bed Sunday night thinking, “I better feel more mindful soon.”

That first night was a warning. I didn’t know it then, but they were telling us that we were about to embark on a journey that would seriously mess with our heads, challenging the stories we have always held dear about ourselves, our histories and the world around us. How? By leaving us alone with our minds. I would be stuck in my own head, trying again and again to not attach to the thoughts that barge in. This isn’t the meditation style of “clear your mind completely”. Can anyone even do that? Like the guy on the top of the mountain after spending 7 years in Tibet. Can he do that? Or does even he suddenly think, “Did I leave the iron on? What am I going to say at the meeting? Am I happy?” My mind is never blank. Often the best I can do is force some of the thoughts into separate corners so I can just finish something. Like this post I started 3 weeks ago…

The first full day was sitting. And standing. And sitting. And walking. And then we learned how to sit better so our knees would forgive us later. (They could have said that earlier. Oh, hey, look! Judgement! sigh) More sitting. And we weren’t getting some guided imagery like walking through the woods into a cave, no. That would give us something to think about. We were focusing on our breath. Not changing it, just noticing it. (Who knew I was such a shallow breather? I’m sure I need more oxygen than that…) In and out. In and out. (Is anyone else having trouble with this? Be quiet!) In and out. In through the nose. Out through the mouth. (Is it better to breathe out through the nose? I thought that’s what they said in that yoga class I took with Mandypants. I wonder what she’s…Stop it!) In and out. (Wait, how much time did I lose in that last thought process? Did I…Knock it off!) In and out. Breathing. Breathing is good. (Oh, hell. It’s just now breakfast? I’m never going to survive 5 days of this…)  And on and on.

We did everything mindfully, with a huge focus on transitions. Normally I just stop doing one thing and start another. Or start another while I’m still doing the first thing. (I can multitask, you damn researchers, you!) And it was weird. It was like a really small ritual of saying goodbye to what I was just doing so I could go do something else. “And before we go to lunch, let’s take 3 breaths together.” Then I would walk mindfully to the lunch area, go through the buffet line, (I think I put more weight on my second tarsal bone. The air in the lobby feels different than the air in the ballroom.) and eat mindfully. Looking at, smelling, and thoroughly tasting everything I ate. I will forever be in love with roasted nuts. So amazing! And I ate a lot less, going slow and really getting into my food. Weird.

Then came Wednesday. The Silent Day. No taking, social media, or even eye contact. We heard only ambient noises and the facilitators gently telling us to transition to something else. I didn’t even make it to lunchtime. Something just swelled up inside of me. Not something. Anger. Pure, unbridled anger. Rage. I was so amazingly pissed off. I hated. I hated everyone and everything. That woman two yoga mats over doing advanced yoga moves when we were supposed to all be doing the same basic stuff. The facilitators and their smarmy calmness. The hotel and their stupid carpet pattern. All the people who have ever wronged or slighted me. All the people in power who were too dumb and/or selfish to be leaders. All the everything and everyone. Especially myself. All the things I woulda/coulda/shoulda done, my mistakes, my inaction, my fear. Ooooohhh, it sucked. Every time I tried to let go of a thought, it came back with a vengeance.

Being someone who would rather lose a finger than make a scene, (Can we say therapy?) I felt trapped. I had a wild urge to run out of the door. (They can’t keep me here!) I restrained myself only because I didn’t want to ruin everyone else’s experience — and because I had paid for this, dammit! So I did the only thing I could think of. I thought. I thought and thought and told myself stories and imagined myself starting a pie fight at lunch and running through the hotel screaming, “I am a fish!” I rebelled. I rebelled in my head, where I was in total control. I thought mean, absurd and naughty things. Because I could. So there. And then I walked to lunch, completely ignoring how I walked. I scarfed my food mindlessly. That will show them! But the anger didn’t dissipate. It seemed to get worse, and I still had almost two hours to kill before the next session. I was pacing in the hotel room. I had to do something. So I left.

The hotel is next to a wildlife preservation marsh with walking trails. I started running before I hit the trailhead. I ran like the Hounds of Hell were after me. I am so not a runner, but I didn’t stop. I kept running until my chest hurt and I was gasping for air. As I stopped to gasp for oxygen, I saw I was next to a pedestrian bridge. I decided to hide under the bridge. Like a troll. I’m sitting under the bridge, and an image of me jumping out in front of innocent passersby  booming, “I am the troll under the bridge! You cannot pass until you answer me a question!” just cracked me up. I sat there with a hand over my mouth trying not to stifle the laughter. I was being ridiculous. The whole thing was ridiculous. I crack me up. I went back.

After lunch we did a walking meditation with guided imagery, for the first time. It was called the Open Heart meditation. We were supposed to imagine our hearts opening up as we walked. Feeling like mine was already wide open and raw, I began to forgive. I forgave the yoga woman who was probably frustrated she couldn’t do her normal routine, all the people who may or may not have known they hurt me, and myself. I walked up and down a yoga mat naming every mistake, bad thing, and missed opportunity I could think of, and forgiving myself for them and being grateful. And I felt lighter, somehow. Like the anger was a stack of weights inside and I got rid of a few during my run. By the end I was smiling and crying. When they finally brought us out of the silence with a whispering activity, then talking, and finally sharing, I told everyone how hard it was and that I almost left. But that I had forgiven myself. The facilitators looked at each other, then at me, with those knowing smiles that told me they had heard this story before. Well, maybe they aren’t all that smarmy. Maybe my story just isn’t as original as I had thought.

But it is my story, and it continues. I unpack a bit more of what I uncovered at the retreat every day. I am definitely more committed to being mindful when I’m eating, walking, driving, and working. I have noticed hundreds of things in the past month that I didn’t before, mostly my own word choice, internal and external. (You know, I really am a decent cook.) I’ve started going to yoga classes, and I love it. I’m starting a new MBSR series next month. I’ve even managed to sit and meditate a few times. But most importantly, I’ve noticed a pause. Not a big one, but just a second or two has been added between when the kids do something that angers me and when I respond. I don’t feel like an amazing parent or anything, but I do feel like I have a bit more perspective and control over how I respond to things. Maybe that’s not much. But maybe it’s just the beginning.

Trigger Happiness

Hello, Community! You haven’t had a newsletter from me in over a month! I had the most amazing sabbatical/vacation of my life, which I will tell you about as soon as I close the loop on this series. In this final installment on Behavior Change, we talk about the ignition spark, or change trigger. Triggers are critical to help initiate and reinforce new behaviors. So, without further ado…

When I hear the word “trigger”, it brings to mind the concept of being influenced to do or say something involuntarily. Or a gun. So my mental model of the word is mostly negative.

However, triggers can be a good thing when they are intentional and you are trying to wisely change or influence a behavior. You can actually design your environment and your day to include positive triggers to keep you on the path you desire.

First of all, there are obvious triggers like alarms and announcements. In this modern digital age, all the reminders, pop-ups, and banner ads can be really obnoxious. They are also ineffective most of the time.  For a trigger to work, it needs to have three key characteristics:

  1. Noticeable – Keeping your workout clothes in your passenger seat is a good trigger to get to the gym, but putting them in the trunk won’t work as well. Noticeable means it needs to be in front of your face.
  2. Associative – When something is associative, it always reminds you of the same thing. A broccoli sticker on your fridge will remind you to eat five servings of vegetables, but a picture of a puppy doesn’t, no matter how cute.
  3. Timely – Timeliness is the holy grail of the marketing industry. Activate the right trigger precisely when you are ready and able to respond, and you probably will. A note on the front door to remind you to grab the kids’ permission slip is helpful, but a note in the same spot reminding you to pay bills, not so much.

Without becoming Pavlov’s Dog, you can use triggers in your life to serve you and make your life easier.

BJ Fogg Behavior Model, Stanford University

BJ Fogg Behavior Model, Stanford University

Let’s say you want to remember to take stretch breaks at work. We know our posture gets worse as the day wears on, and how healthy it is to give our eyes a break and move our bodies, if even for 10 seconds. But who remembers? Well, if you set your phone or computer timer to play your favorite dance tune every half hour, it might motivate you to stand up and move!

Along the same lines, if you want to stop a behavior, you can remove a trigger. When my mom wanted to quit smoking, she had to remove her biggest trigger – her morning coffee and cigarette. Not able to give up her coffee at the same time, she made it in a travel mug to take with her so she couldn’t sit down next to the ashtray. Later, she removed the ashtray.

Use technology to your advantage, and trigger yourself for change!

This is the last installment in our series on the causal factors of behavior change, based on the Fogg Behavior Model (FBM). The FBM shows that three elements must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur: Motivation, Ability, and a Trigger. When a behavior does not occur, at least one of these three elements is missing.

I hope this series has given you a good basis for looking at behaviors that you want to stop, change, or adopt, and to begin designing your environment in support of that goal. Make it easier for you to do the right thing, and you can make change happen in your own life.

And hey, here’s a trigger right now! Click in the comment section below to share your ideas for positive triggers and to let me know what you think of this series. I’d love to hear from you!

Motivating Myself

My toolsGit ‘Er Done

With all this focus on getting things done, especially those big projects that have been weighing me down, I reached out to my tribe to solicit ideas. I wanted to know how people motivate themselves to do things they don’t necessarily want to do.  There are plenty of things that are important that need to be done (taxes come to mind), but getting up the gumption to sit down and complete them can sometimes seem impossible. Here are some of the things recommended by the people I know, as well as some uncommon things that have worked for me in the past:

My Anti-procrastination Toolbox

  • Set up my workspace: Clear the desk/table, get water/tea, put on music
  • Find “Accountability Buddies,” people who love you enough to help hold you accountable
  • If there’s no distraction-free space at home, schedule time on my calendar to go to a coffee shop
  • Turn off notifications on my phone and close my email programs
  • Chant, meditate or even take 5 deep breaths before starting work to set my intention/attention
  • Envision doing the task for someone I love
  • Ask for help from groups I belong to, friends, and/or my circles
  • Lean on what others appreciate about me to get the job done (strength, connection to others, achievement, vitality, etc.)
  • When stuck, do 20 jumping jacks (get heart rate up) and/or have weights nearby
  • Take breaks/do something else for 15-20 minutes instead of getting lost in email or social media
  • Procrastination is our emotional response to a task. Sit with the feeling and see what comes up.
  • Use a voice recording program to brainstorm ideas & get started on writing stuff. It’s easier to edit than create.

This list has really helped me stay focused on the mountain of writing I’ve committed to do, most notably my upcoming eBook! (Stay tuned for that!)  Do you have even more ideas? I’d love to hear them! Please share in the comments section below.

Superhero Self Care – Part 3

Ask, Tell and Let Gowoman running frantically

Have you ever found yourself totally overbooked, running from place to place, frenetically addressing your to-do lists and/or calendar obligations? How do you feel when that’s happening? Personally, I get very anxious, less likely to make thoughtful decisions, and more likely to be short with my loved ones. I’m also more likely to compromise my immune system, and during flu season this can be the nail in the coffin.

Even if you’re faster than a speeding bullet or can fly to your next appointment, every superhero needs to be realistic on how much they can do on any given day. One of the ways you can do this is to set boundaries for yourself and others.

We all have limits.

Even if you time travel, we all have just 24 hours in each day. The good news is that you get to choose what you’re going to do for every single minute of those 24 hours. You get to make sure that you have the work/life balance you want. You get to set aside enough time to move your projects forward. You get to learn just how long things take, how much travel time is necessary and how much thinking and planning time you need to achieve your goals. Prioritize your commitments to not over-extend yourself, and you will get better at allocating your time.

And of course, you don’t work in a bubble. You interface and interact with others, and as you coordinate your schedules and efforts, you may come across situations where a teammate has small children, a huge project due or a stressful situation in their life. And you? You want to help. So when these people reach out, of course you say yes.

There are ramifications to being a Yes-aholic.

If you are one of those people who always say yes, I bet you saw yourself when you started reading this post. You know how it feels to be pulled many different directions at once, trying to do it all, and being hard on yourself when you fail.

Saying yes all the time is a recipe for self-destruction. Not only are you making it more difficult to give your best to each obligation, but you’re setting yourself up for constant stress, which is a huge drain on your body and a known factor in most major illnesses. Are you really helping people when you are killing yourself?

Set realistic boundaries.

First, recognize that other people need you to set boundaries. No one wants to abuse you, stress you out or build resentment. You are doing them a favor by being realistic. If you can’t do everything for them, they will figure it out. That doesn’t mean you can’t be gentle, it just means you will be compassionate to yourself at the same time.

  • Communicate your needs and limitations without blame or guilt.

    • “I really need to make sure I get everything done this week, so I only have 2 hours on Wednesday where I could help.”

  • State how a request feels to you using your communication tools like “I statements” and “rephrasing”.

    • “It sounds like you’re really having trouble coordinating all the logistics for this event. I feel very sympathetic for what you’re going through, and I’d like to work with you to find a time that works for us both.”

  • And if it gets personal, stick to describing where you’re coming from and how you’re reacting.

    • “I don’t like how I feel when I can’t help people, but I know that taking this on right now could cause me to underperform or overexert myself.”

  • If you are able to, try to offer other solutions.

    • “If it helps, I’d be willing to spend the next 15 minutes helping you brainstorm other solutions.”

  • At the end of the story, stick to your “no”. You aren’t doing anyone a favor by doing what you don’t want to do.

    • “I’m sorry I can’t help you right now. I hope there is another opportunity in the future to show I value working with you.”

Be proud of taking care of yourself

To be honest, setting boundaries can be hard at first and something I continue to work on constantly. Thinking that superheroes should be able to do more than the average person has taught me the lesson of boundaries the hard way. I would like to support you in being present and focused on what you’re doing 100%, each and every time. The first step is to ensure you are not distracted and stressing yourself out by overcommitting.

It does get easier with practice. I promise.

I challenge you to say “No” to one thing in the coming week. When you are doing it from a place of self-care and honesty, you honor both yourself and others. And you make it more likely you will be able to save the day another day!

Share your experience of successfully setting a boundary in the comments section below. Can’t wait to hear from you!