Nicole Arnold's Adventures

My impressions as I boldly go where I have not gone before.

What Does it Feel Like to Fall?

I had a eureka moment when I was thinking through this blog. I started out thinking about fear of failing. Usually, when I think about failing, the voice of Dave Gorham (who was my Frame of Mind Coaching coach) enters my head and prods my negative beliefs about failing. Today, the first voice I heard was that of Junior Diljohn, whose yoga classes I have been attending regularly at Moksha Yoga Thornhill.  As we test our strength and balance, Junior asks us, “What does it feel like to fall?” When I heard his voice this morning, I realized that my fears about falling and failing are interchangeable and that embracing both brings similar benefits.

Here’s what happens in my Moksha yoga class: first of all, it’s really hot. Not as hot as the Bikram classes that I attended, but hot enough that I’m sweating before I’m moving. Secondly, the class is social and anti-social at the same time. It’s social, because I’m there with other people. I like having people all around me. Sometimes they serve as a guide to what a pose can look like and sometimes they’re a reminder of what is left and what is right. It’s anti-social, because we don’t talk to each other.  At all. We don’t even meet each other’s eyes during the course of the class. It’s a respectful, non-verbal, supportive space. I can’t remember ever experiencing anything quite like it – where I felt both connected and alone at the same time.

It is in this environment that I am beginning to consciously explore what it might feel like to fall. I am no stranger to falling by accident. In fact, the fall that broke my knee when I was twenty-three continues to impact my life – both in terms of the impact on my physical structure as well the domino effect the experience had on my life, leading me to break off an engagement and pursue a relationship with the incredible man that I share my life and children with.

What does it feel like to fall?

It can hurt. It can be embarrassing. I often fall walking up the stairs at home.  Usually when I’m moving very quickly. Falling in this way often leads me to slow down for a while (until I forget) to prevent subsequent falls.

In yoga class, I am directed to find stability and then look for my edge. I love doing this most for the tipping poses that are on one leg. First, I root my foot into the ground. Then, I feel the strength and power in my standing leg. Once I feel solid, I begin to tip forward. I tighten every muscle that I can – my legs, my stomach, my back – and I simultaneously reach toward the mirror with the crown of my head and reach toward the back of the room with the foot that is in the air. When I begin to wobble, I tighten up more. Sometimes, I lose my concentration, or my balance and I fall out of the pose. When I fall and there’s still time, I move back into the pose, slowly making some adjustments – tightening up my back a little more, focusing on the quad in my standing leg and I find more balance, more stability. Sometimes it’s all I can do to maintain my wobbly stance.  Other times, I find more strength and get a little closer to the mirror and at the same time, a little closer to the back of the room. As the sweat pours off of me and I feel the presence of the people beside me who I don’t know, but still appreciate, I feel powerful.

What does it feel like to fall?

I associate falling with weakness – both the weakness that led me to fall (since I associate my klutziness with weakness) and the weakness that can follow an injury.  I associate falling with fragility. Yet, when I peel away my beliefs, I know that I also associate falling with strength. The strength it takes to heal. The strength required to take steps after falling. The courage to work through pain. More than anything, I associate falling with learning. In yoga, when I go back into the pose, I experiment with adjustments and see what impact they have. I learn what my capacity is and the scope of my power. I do the same thing in my life every day – through journaling, through taking responsibility in conversations, through generating ideas to develop my business.

When I reflect on my personal stories of pride and inspiration: leaving fundraising to go back to school and study Psychology; leaving the PhD program to be a coach; breaking off my first engagement; I realize that there were seeds of failure in all of these stories. I didn’t think my route to professional success was as a fundraiser; I didn’t think my route to success in the field of psychology was as an academic, I didn’t think my route to romantic success was with my first fiancé. I initially failed in all of these areas. I fell and fell hard.

What does it feel like to fall?

Falling feels scary.  Falling feels risky. Falling can be painful.

At the same time, falling (failing) is incredibly productive. It’s inspiring. I think it’s necessary. It motivates and changes me.

I was thinking about failing this morning because tomorrow marks an incredible beginning for me. I am testing a Kindness Challenge that I have designed. It has been my dream to take what I learn by studying psychology research and build programs that are accessible and effective for increasing people’s well-being. Over the next two weeks, about twenty-five of us will be testing this Kindness Challenge to learn if I have designed it in such a way that people are motivated to participate daily and equally, to learn if this practice increases their well-being.

What does it feel like to fall?

As I embark on these two weeks of testing, falling feels like reaching.  Reaching back to what I’ve learned and forward to what I’m dreaming about, with a focus on stability supporting me in between. Falling feels like embracing community, power and humility at the same time. It feels a little sweaty – but mostly amazing.


Giving Birth to a Writer

I’ve been having a lot of birth and baby dreams. This has been true for at least a year and the baby dreams out-number the birth dreams by far. Dreams, like Rorshach’s Inkblot, can be interpreted every which way. In fact, my enjoyment of conversations about my dreams can often be measured by how many interpretations are offered up by the person to whom I’ve described the dream.  The first person, who I ever have described as “my Rabbi” (thank you Rabbi Danny Gottlieb) told me that baby and birth dreams are a sign that there is something new that we’re trying to deliver or become. Given my age (44) and the state of my husband (post-vasectomy), this is a far more productive (excuse the pun) line of thinking for me than the interpretation that my body and mind are longing for another child.

I believe I am really longing to write and to write often.

Last night around 11pm, as I struggled to keep my eyes open, so I could finish the last few pages of Origin, I was also reflecting on the commitment I had made to myself earlier in the evening to wake up at 5am and write. I made this commitment in recognition of how good I feel when I am writing regularly and knowing that if I want to become a better writer (and I do), then I must write and write regularly. I know that committing to do something first thing in the morning and moving the needle on what “first thing” is to quiet time in my house, is my surest route to keeping my commitment.  Yet, I also knew that I have been fighting a cold virus all week long and that sleep would benefit me a lot. Thus, as I closed my book, I provided myself with some pre-sleep direction (in my head, so as not to wake my already sleeping husband and puppy) that sounded like this: “If you’re up to it, wake up at 5am to write. It’s okay if you’re not, it’s okay to sleep.” And with that, I closed my eyes and enjoyed a hot yoga induced deep sleep that included at least one baby/birth dream.

I opened my eyes, fully awake in the darkness. In late January, in this part of the world (Greater Toronto Area), amount of light gives no indication as to time of day.  Ditto for how alert I was – I can wake up at 1:30am lucid and energetic, as if I’ve had a full night’s sleep.  I knew that it could be 2:30am, 4am or my target of 5am.  I checked my trusty Fitbit Alta and learned that it was 5:38am.  Wow. My body knows what it wants.

Despite this, I lay in bed for about five minutes. While 2017 was a great year for me for early rising and getting a ton done before 6:30am, 2018 has, so far, been the year of snoozing. I wondered what I would write about. I felt some guilt for getting the puppy up for so early (no need – she’s currently passed out comfortably beside me on her back on the couch). Two things became clear in my head: I was definitely awake and if I want to write, it was a good idea to get up.

Then I gave birth to this blog post. (Okay, I let the puppy out first.)

Giving birth isn’t easy and taking care of babies isn’t either. I have given birth three times and while I look back to each birth with an incredible sense of pride and wonder, I also recall the pain, exhaustion and fear.

Becoming a writer feels similar – although less intense then I remember the effort required in pushing out my babies. Similarly, to how I felt about having children, I feel excited about wanting to write and compelled to commit, even when it feels hard. More than anything, I feel the love of creating. Creating is such a powerful and act – fully of mystery and joy. The power to do so, feels like an an honour and a gift.

I look forward to many more dawns like this one, as I give birth to myself.

Who do I put first – My Kids or Me?

Who do I put first – my kids or me?

We all know the answer, right? We’re supposed to put ourselves first (for the Freudian record, I originally typed “our kids” and then needed to go back and replace that with “ourselves”). I think it goes into the same category as: don’t go to work sick and try to achieve a work/life balance. In some ways, there’s admiration for the people who put themselves and their health first and at the same time there’s a fair amount of celebration for martyrdom. I’ve been to a ton of funerals where the practice of putting everyone else first and dedicating one’s life to their children and/or spouse was celebrated tremendously.

Social expectations aside, there’s also the guilt factor. Internal guilt, I mean – not guilt laid on by my children. Guilt of neglect.  Guilt that I’m not taking advantage of the limited time I have to enjoy my children’s youth by spending as many hours as possible with them. Guilt that my kids don’t know how much I love them because they have a sneaking belief that I love yoga or my latest novel more.

Well, I do love yoga and the new Dan Brown book is pretty good and the Sandford book that I read last week was even better.  And, who are we kidding, I DO love the puppy A LOT.

Which brings me to abundance versus scarcity. When I am focusing on scarcity: not enough time, not enough love, not enough… then I feel guilty and scared. If there’s not enough, then I need to grasp at what is in front of me. The very nature of grasp is quick and reactive. There’s no planning involved.

The alternative is to focus on abundance. When I believe there is enough love and enough time, then I start to plan. I think about what I want: time to build my business, time to write, time for yoga, time to be with the kids and yes, even time to be with my husband, and then I figure out when I can do all of those things.

The fatigue that comes from worrying about not being or having enough tends to drain my energy to plan effectively (or even plan at all). It’s always amazing to me to see how much time there actually is in a day and a week and how many things I can do – really, how many experiences I can have, when I take the time to dream and then plan. Thoughts of abundance are energizing, thoughts of scarcity are exhausting.

Which brings me back to the beginning – who do I put first? I think the very question is one that is based in scarcity. If there’s a ‘first’, there’s also a ‘last’. There’s a winner and there’s a loser.  Loser = loss. Asking who I put first is also asking, who loses? Instead, I want to ask the questions, “What do I want to bring?” and the related question, “What do I want to give?”  Determining what I want to bring and give takes time and attention to contemplate what it is that I appreciate most about myself and the value it has to myself, my family, my community and the world. Sounds weight, right? I find that it’s a process that both takes a lot of energy and also produces a ton of energy. Understanding what I want to bring and give takes time and focus; care and maintenance.

When I think about what I want to bring and give to my children, first and foremost, I want to inspire my family to understand what it is that they have to bring to the world and I want them to feel such a sense of abundance that they give what they have to bring generously. I believe that modelling is the birthplace of inspiration. I want to be that for my kids.

This blog is part of that. It is the first of a series of thirty-one blogs in thirty-one days. There is nothing quite like writing to light me up and make me feel connected to myself and the world. So, I committed to a 31 day/500 word writing challenge.

Here’s to learning more about what I bring and what I want to give and connecting with all of you along the way.

Think New Year’s Resolutions are a Waste of Time? I have the Answer (Nicole’s Fail-Proof New Year Resolution Guide)

I understand being cynical about New Year’s resolutions. I too have seen the heavy flow of eager, committed gym attendees in the first weeks of January diminish to the regulars by February 1st. I’ve felt the exhilaration of lofty plans for a year spent reading classics, eating food that doesn’t lead to stomach aches and daily meditating and stretching, quickly shift to same old, same old by January 7th.  

I think many people stop making New Year’s resolutions because it seems like such a far way to fall – lofty ambitions to a sense of failure. Why even bother? Aren’t New Year’s resolutions just setting ourselves up for disappointment? 

The answer is often yes.

But the problem isn’t New Year’s resolutions.  That’s like thinking that strategic plans for organizations are useless and a waste of time because so many organizations create them and then forget about them.

The keys are how we think about New Year’s resolutions and how we use them.

Effective New Year’s resolutions, like useful strategic plans, build on strengths and dreams and can be a compass and an inspiration for us throughout the year.  When done thoughtfully, it’s impossible to waste time on New Year’s resolutions because we’ve already realized the value of our time invested by the time we finish formulating them.   

It’s time to come clean now and confess that I LOVE New Year’s resolutions.  I gobble up scientific research about goal setting, habit formation and motivation like it’s candy (one of the many reasons my youngest daughter keeps calling me a loser).  As New Year’s Eve approaches each year, I’m eager to apply what I’ve learned to goals for the year.

Here’s my evidence-based, fail-proof guide to New Year’s Resolutions.  If you read “fail-proof” and are already cynical, here’s the key to the whole system and the reason why you can’t fail: the formula is based on learning.  There is no failing in learning (just like there is no crying in baseball). 

Nicole’s Fail-Proof New Year’s Resolution Guide 

  • Find a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted and set a timer for 15 minutes.
  • Take three deep breaths.
  • Take three more.
  • Think of the milestones that you reached in 2017 that fill you with pride.
  • Imagine it’s December 31, 2018 and you’re looking back on the year. What new milestones have you reached that fill you with pride?
  • List them all.
  • Review your list and identify the three milestones that you want to reach the most.
  • For each of your top three, identify one action that you can do in the next 24 hours that will get you closer to your milestone. This can be a VERY small action. The smaller the better.  The most important part is that it is something that you are very likely to do. There are no points for degree of difficulty.
  • Take a moment and think about yourself as a scientist. Setting these milestones is an experiment to learn in 2018 what methods work best and which methods are less effective in helping you achieve your goals. This is not an exercise to prove your value to the world or to yourself. It is an experiment to increase your understanding of how to perform at your greatest capacity.
  • Think of someone who will appreciate this guide and send it to them, inviting them to work with you towards reaching your milestones this year.

 I have often thought about New Year’s resolutions as areas that I am seeking greater amounts of resolve. This year, I am thinking about resolutions as problems to be solved. I am seeking solutions. This process will require trying methods that don’t work, evaluating what happened and then forming new hypotheses about what might be a better solution.  There’s no time wasted in that.  

If you try my guide, please let me know how you find the process.  I’ve included a list of some of my favourite goal setting resources below for those who want to read more.

I am looking forward to a New Year with all of you full of learning, hope and joy. 

Great Books about Motivation/Habit Forming/Goal Setting

The Power of Habit – Charles Duhigg 

Smarter, Faster, Better – Charles Duhigg 

The Sweet Spot – Christine Carter

Drive – Daniel H. Pink 

Mindset – Carol S. Dweck 

Flourish – Martin Seligman

Creating your Best Life – Caroline Adams Miller & Michael B. Frisch





Do You Want a Piece of This?

Last weekend I did something radical (for me). I turned off my phone at sundown and didn’t turn it on again until Saturday night. I started to write that I didn’t pick it up again until Saturday night, but then I remembered that isn’t true.  I picked it up automatically when I woke up in the morning.  I picked it up again when I was curious about the weather for the day.  Then another time when I was thinking about a friend and wanted to check in.  Each time I put it back down.

Here’s why: I was looking for peace. Also, I was looking for honesty. I made a conscious decision to prioritize both, believing passionately in the concept that I get better at what I practice.

The week before was The Shabbat Project.  For The Shabbat Project, Jews of all kinds practice observing Shabbat, paying attention to their practice in a more focused way then they do on other weeks. As a JWRP ‘graduate’ there was a fair amount about The Shabbat Project in my Facebook feed and in the What’sApp group text from my Israel trip group.  I decided it didn’t really have to do with me, because I’m already thoughtful about my Shabbat observance and don’t require outside direction and community support.

(There are many moments when I don’t seem to have left adolescence)

When my trip leader suggested that our group members take the opportunity to shut off our phones for Shabbat, I thought to myself, “I already do that, I don’t text on Shabbat.”.

Except for when I do.

I confess (I know – wrong religion, or at the very least wrong time of year) that I often get stuck in the commandedness of these things.  I don’t like to be bossed.  I don’t like to be told. (See adolescent comment above.)  I don’t react well.

But, I’m not 14 any more.  I’m 44.  I know things about myself that I might not have known as an adolescent. I know that while I don’t do well with being commanded, that my most powerful motivation comes from being inspired. I know that as a liberal Jew, that Judaism and my Jewish communities are exactly that for me – inspiration.

So, I let myself be inspired.  I turned off my phone.

Here’s what turning off my phone helped me practice:

Patience.  Every time I thought about something I wanted to search (up) on my phone, I thought that it could wait.

Awareness.  Since I wasn’t distracting myself with my phone, I could hear my thoughts. A lot of my thoughts were planning related thoughts.  Planning thoughts take me out of the moment ALL THE TIME.

I was also aware of just how much of a reflex turning to my phone has become in moments of boredom or discomfort. I don’t need a reason – I don’t need to be waiting for an email or text. I don’t need to look anything up. There is simply the desire to reach for my phone about every 10 minutes or so.

Connection.  As I had taken my principle tool for numbing and distraction away, I focused on what was in front of me – usually people, sometimes our puppy. I paid attention. I invested. I had time.  There was no text waiting to be responded to or sent.

Joy. There was something about opening up this space and time that led me to seek joy. I found myself thinking, what can I do that will feel good? What would be fun?

As the hours tick down to sundown, I’m looking forward to turning my phone off again.  I like the challenge. I like the sense of affiliation with every other Jew who is doing the same. I like modelling putting my phone down for my family. I like how I felt practicing seeking peace.

I love the idea of seeking peace. For me.  For the world. I think we all need more peace.

In September, I spent a day at the Centre for Mindfulness Studies in Toronto in silent meditation. I was acutely aware of the agitation of my body and mind.  It felt like both were shaking regularly. I have a tremendous amount of goodness and happiness in my life. Still, I feel a lot of agitation.  Until that day in September, I wasn’t aware of how much.

I want more peace.

I’m so aware of the agitation in the world – all around me, so much of the time. It’s everywhere. Agitation is a fantastic force for change, but I don’t think I need so much of it.  I don’t think our world needs so much of it.

Be the change you want to bring to the world.  I find those words so inspiring.  Thus, I practice seeking peace. I think peace is something that we can give.  I think that it is something that we can find. I love thinking about how peace is something that we can build.

So, when I turn my phone off in several hours, I’m going to build some more peace in my life.

Shabbat Shalom.

How I Met a Civil Engineer Playing Bridge or When a Blogpost doubles as an Anniversary Present

After over a year of blogging regularly, I’ve learned that my own life is the greatest source of inspiration for my writing. Thus, as today marks 18 years of marriage for Pascal and me, it seems like a worthy creative opportunity.

When I was contemplating this piece over the course of the morning, I wondered how many people would be interested to read a story about how I met Pascal. Then I remembered that I like to read about everyone else’s lives and I imagine that most people are the same.

Of course, writing this post is a self-serving exercise. Anyone who reads my blog regularly, knows this is often the case.  It’s self-serving because telling this story makes my marriage stronger.

I learned that from Sue Johnson when I read “Hold Me Tight – Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.”

The book is designed as a self-guided manual of Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples. Working through it significantly changed how I looked at relationships, by helping me see how much conversations are dances until both parties feel secure.

One of the exercises in the book is to think about the stories you tell yourself about your partner and your marriage.  If we understand stories as a way to organize our thoughts and beliefs (the Torah and the Koran come quickly to mind) then increasing our awareness of the stories we are telling ourselves helps us better understand the ways we are directing our thoughts and beliefs. For instance, if the story that I am telling about myself is that I quit things, perhaps remembering one particularly shameful episode, then I am more likely to remember other times that I have quit (cause reinforcing your beliefs with other beliefs feels good) and organize them together to help tell the larger story that I am a quitter.  This power also works for good – if I focus on stories where I persevered and assemble evidence of THAT over time, then I will think about myself as perseverant.

Once I understood how the stories I tell impact how I feel about myself and others, I started paying attention to the stories I tell myself about Pascal and our marriage.

When I took an inventory of the stories that readily came to mind, I realized that over the years, the stories of us meeting, moving in together, getting married, buying our first house and starting our lives together had been replaced by more recent stories that catalogued hurt, resentment and sadness.

The point of the exercise is not to erase the stories that feel negative and only tell positive stories.  The point is to bring awareness and intention to the stories I am telling most often.  The same stories that come to mind first when I did the exercise were the same stories that came to mind when we were arguing.

I wanted a better catalogue of stories, so, directed by the written word of Sue Johnson, I started telling them – to Pascal and to myself – so they could be a resource for us in hard moments.  I wanted stories that exemplify what I love about Pascal and the goodness of our partnership.  Just the same way that when my kids are feeling scared, I tell them how brave they are, I wanted a reserve of stories about Pascal for when I get scared to help remind me why I keep choosing him as my life partner.

Here’s the one of how Pascal and I began.

We met on a Thursday night, about 24 years ago at Gert’s – McGill’s campus pub.  If there had been course credit to be earned by playing pool, Tetris, cards and smoking ridiculous amounts of cigarettes, it would have been mine. I was teased regularly for how much time I spent there. Thus, it’s probably no surprise that Pascal and I met at Gert’s. I was out this particular Thursday night because a friend (who never showed up) had convinced me to join the newly formed Bridge Club with him. There I was, a 3rd year Political Science student who was arrogant about card play in general, but a total newbie at Bridge, surrounded by engineering students who laughed openly about my Arts degree. There were three other engineering outsiders in the group –  two guys who worked for Facilities and liked to drink a lot of beer, smoke cigarettes and play cards (exactly in that order) and the husband of an engineering grad student.

The second week of Bridge Club (I still cringe slightly when I read that) there were only seven people at Gert’s. Since you need multiples of 4 to play, we were scanning the room for a fourth (to be clear – the pub was packed and only seven people were actively putting up their hand to play Bridge). A few of the guys recognized Pascal from the Engineering world and called him over. (Being 6”4 helps when being scouted for a card game – the odds were in favour of my childrens’ (tall) future.)

Pascal took in the invitation, assessed his remaining beer and said, “I have a Chemistry midterm in an hour, but I still have half my beer left – so sure, I’ll play a game.”

Here’s what I (think) I remember:

He didn’t pass the midterm.

He played against me and won with clear ease (and a fair amount of glee).

It wasn’t love at first sight – but he did impress me with his card play – which was no easy feat.

Fast forward three months, many card games, beers and cigarettes later: I had fallen in love with Pascal and not even realized it. I did realize (a little) that I was jealous when he mentioned a girl that he was dating. Or when he asked me to help convince another girl to come out with us one night. Or when he sent a postcard during Reading Week to that same girl (same girl as cajoling to go out, not the same as his girlfriend) and not to me. It seems fair to mention that if Pascal was co-writing he would mention that I was engaged to someone else, so his options were limited. That’s a story for another time.

I realized I had fallen in love with him when I noticed I was watching the door each Friday for him to appear in his button-down shirt and tie (the Engineering students liked to fancy it up before drinking cheap beer on Friday afternoons).  Early into our Bridge Club days, he had started hanging out with my friends and me on Friday afternoons, happily learning Italian cards (even though he couldn’t adjust to counting a 40 card deck) and playing a wicked pool game that often made people’s jaws drop. I realized it when I started missing him when we weren’t together and when I found myself choosing my clothes based on imagining the look on Pascal’s face when I entered the room.

By mid-February 1995 I was totally in love.

Three weeks we had moved in together.

But, that’s a story for another day.

I’m not sure – by words alone – how this story represents what I love most about Pascal. I know that the very telling of it puts a smile on my face and a profound sense of gratitude for the forces of cards, slacking and joy that brought Pascal into my life.

Thanks for helping me celebrate.


How Puppies and Sex are Teaching me About Willpower

I realize that puppy training and sex don’t seem like they go together – but I bet anyone who has had a puppy and tried to have sex while caring for said puppy understands that they can have a negative impact on one’s sex life.  It’s a little like trying to have sex when you have a baby.  Except the baby doesn’t stand by the side of your bed barking.  Or jump on the bed. I don’t remember what our strategies were when my husband and I had our babies and our first puppy. Truthfully, so many of my memories are hazy from 2001-2010 (sorry, kids).  But now, with two Psychology degrees, countless psychology books and a growing number of train your puppy books (which really read like psychology books) under my belt, I have a keen sense of the power of training. That was really handy for Week Three of my The Science of Willpower course. It’s all about training. I’ll explain and then get back to what this has to do with sex and puppies.

In the book, The Willpower Instinct, How Self Control Works, Why it Matters and What You Can Do to Get More of It Kelly McGonigal, PhD. explains how our willpower is related to our resources. The bad news is that research has shown that when I apply my willpower strength in one area (like getting myself out the door to run) that I will have less strength for the next test of my willpower.  So, it wouldn’t be a good idea to come home from a run and open the fridge and contemplate what I could eat for dinner.  I’ll be less likely to make choices aligned with my current willpower goals of:

I won’t eat compulsively.

I will eat mindfully.

I want to have a healthy, strong body.

Willpower gets depleted.  Essentially because it requires resources from our brain and these resources are not infinite.  Furthermore, when our brain senses the depletion of resources, it puts up the equivalent of a blockade for giving up more resources – even when there are more to give. Pretty rough, right? It definitely explains a lot of choices I’ve made over time – like why resisting saying how I feel has often been followed by eating something that I swore that I wouldn’t touch.

The good news is that we can expand our willpower reserves – so even though they remain finite, we can increase the amount. Furthermore, if we practice pushing back against some mental resistance, our capacity to override our initial instinct to ignore our  goal increases. I first experienced this running. The first few (okay, way more than that) miles that I attempted, my body responded by crying out, begging for me to stop.  My legs felt heavy.  My lungs burned. Everything thing in me cried out for me to walk. But I was determined to train for my first 5km. I loved the idea of identifying as a runner and I had a fantasy of having a runner’s body. So, I pushed past the heaviness and the burning. I responded to the cries to stop with encouragement.  I developed many strategies to push through. Two decades and many, many miles later, I don’t exactly identify as a runner or have a runner’s body but I know that there is a difference between sharp pain or exhaustion and discomfort.  So, I push through the discomfort and experience the satisfaction and often euphoria of triumph. I’ve learned. I changed my thinking and increased my capacity to run.  I was able to take that thinking into Crossfit gyms and hot yoga studios. I believe that increased capacity to push through discomfort and pursue satisfaction and euphoria helped drive me to leave professional fundraising and go back to school full-time to study psychology seven years ago.

I think that Kelly McGonigal is teaching that the recipe is to articulate an intention (I want…I will…I won’t) for something that is important to us and then use that as fuel to override our initial discomfort and expand our capacity to pursue our goals. The key is, it needs to be salient enough (that’s psych-speak for REALLY matter) to shine a light on our thinking in critical moments and lead us to take the uncomfortable path.

Which brings me back to sex.  I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to make sure that sex is a central part of my marriage.  Easier said than done, right? Happily, I work from home and my husband works close to home, so sometimes we have non-working lunches.  Enter the puppy. This is a good time to confess that despite my training credentials, I’m a sucker for the puppy. Especially when she wants attention and for some reason especially when she wants to cuddle on our bed. However, when she stood on our bed earlier this week barking for attention, I knew what I wanted (uninterrupted time with my husband) and I knew that I needed to move through Lily’s and my discomfort and increase her capacity to self soothe.  So, I firmly (despite my husband’s useless laughter and serious skepticism) kicked her off the bed and directed her out of the room. It took some time, effort and muffling of my husband.  But it worked.  I’ll end that story there…

So, what have we learned (besides to ring the doorbell when visiting my house midday)? I’ve learned that willpower is a diminishing resource, so that I need to be mindful of my actions – particularly after I’ve expended a fair amount of willpower in one area. I think this can be managed with planning.  Thus, if I know that I’m going to be working on my website for the morning, which often takes a ton of will to start and then stay on task, that I will benefit from planning my lunch beforehand and even measuring out the portions before I get started, when I have an untapped amount of willpower.

I have also learned that the power part of willpower is expandable by practice and that my motivation to practice is rooted in how important my goal is to me. At the very least I need to articulate a goal – but I find that is usually not enough. I need to really think about why the goal is important to me, how it is aligned with my values and how pursuing it will benefit me.  It’s important for me to remember that it’s not the goal achievement that will benefit me (even if I think it will), it is the value of pursuing the goal that I need to understand. Then I will be far more likely to move past discomfort to get to the benefits.

Who knew that getting a puppy would teach me so much about willpower training?

What Happens When the Threat You’re Fighting is You? (Week 2 of The Science of Willpower Course)

I believe that many people can recite a fight/flight theory of emotional response, regardless of their background.  It comes up everywhere – at the doctor’s office when talking about stress, anxiety or weight gain or at your child’s school when learning about schoolyard behaviour or child/parent communications. The term is tossed around pretty casually.  Many know that fight/flight is a physiological fear response that could save our lives.  We understand that we’re seeing mortal threat in interactions that are not actually mortally threatening and that the regular cortisol production that come with lots of flight/fight reactions is bad for our health.  Many of us even know that our adrenal glands and amygdala are involved in this process.  We don’t even need to be arm chair psychologists to have this awareness – we can be teachers, high school students, parents, organizational leaders, you name it.

In my case, I read and talk about fight/flight responses daily (to the joy of my husband, kids and clients).  This might explain why I glossed over the critical fight/flight message in Week Two of Kelly McGonigal’s Willpower program. (See last week’s blog to understand why I’m talking about this at all.)

I glossed over the section where she compared resisting a slice of cheesecake to fighting a sabre tooth tiger and I focused on the part where she explained that our fight/flight responses suppress our impulse control. That was enough to bring to mind the past few conversations I had when I felt threatened and could almost watch the words come out of my mouth before I considered the damage they might do.

Thus, it wasn’t until later that I had a flash of understanding, when I was attempting to escape one of my thoughts.  You know how it goes: “I will put this cookie into my mouth before I contemplate whether I’m hungry, whether I need it or whether I’ll regret it later.  See – I’m eating it, what are you going to do now?? Eat another cookie, maybe?”

I got it!  The threat I’m facing is MY thoughts.  Not another person.  Or a saber tooth tiger.  Me.  My thoughts.  The ones that aren’t aligned with my goals and values.

When I’m wrestling with self-control, I’m often trying to flee from my thoughts. The very process makes me physically uncomfortable – my heart starts beating faster, my stomach feels uneasy, I feel unsafe. No wonder I seek numbing behaviour in those moments!

It’s a paradigm in which I am always the loser. Even if I have won, I have lost. Even if I have escaped, I have also been deserted – cause it’s all me. There is nothing about this kind of thinking that builds my will-power or self-control. When I position myself as threatening or something/someone I want to escape for, then it’s hard at the same time to believe I’m worth fighting for.  No wonder that kind of process is exhausting.  It’s also so divisive.  I feel best when I feel whole and this kind of thinking is the opposite of that.

The antidote to fighting/fleeing is pausing/planning. I find it energizing in the same way that I find the fighting/fleeing tiring. As soon as I start to ask questions, a smile automatically forms on my face.  It surprises me every time. As soon as I slow down, I suddenly am aware of my breathing and then I slow down even more. When I ask questions, I gain perspective. I remember what I planned.  I think about what I want. Everything feels manageable in a way it didn’t moments before.  I feel more acceptable in a way that I didn’t feel before. When I’m not fighting my thoughts then I can try to understand them. If I’m fighting them, then I’m just trying to annihilate them or run away from them.

The thing about changing habits is they come up every day! I can’t run away from them.  I need to problem solve my way out.  There’s nothing problem solving oriented about fighting or fleeing.  But pausing and planning is the essence of problem solving.

Kelly McGonigal has some clear direction about maximizing the potential for shifting from Fight/Flight to Pause/Plan.

First, I need to have the most important base resource: sleep. I am finding more and more that when I have less than 7 hours of sleep that I am more likely to be in a headspace where I don’t remember my current goals, my plans, why I like the people in my life or if I have every achieved anything of value, EVER.  It’s very hard to orient myself toward my aspirations in moments of fight/flight when I have no energy and can’t remember why I want to aspire at all.

McGonigal says that one way (besides sleep, which is critical) to get energy is to increase physical activity – by any amount at all. I have taken this seriously the past two weeks and have incorporated two 10 minute runs into my week. (Full disclosure: this was actually a Sweet Spot tip, but it has been reinforced by reading The Willpower Instinct.) I feel amazing after these runs and I’ve reduced the barrier for getting out the door, as it’s really hard to tell myself that I don’t have time or energy to run for TEN minutes.  It builds up my reserves in incredible ways – being outdoors, keeping my promise to run and exercising my heart and lungs.  McGonigal went out of her way to emphasize that research keeps showing that even the smallest intervals of exercise make significant differences in our physical health and our emotional resilience.

Another tip that McGonigal provided is to simply find time to relax.  The essence is to give my body a chance to do the opposite of what it does it Fight/Flight mode.  To practice being in relaxed mode.  In Fight/Flight mode I breathe quickly, zero in on something specific and tense my body for combat. Taking time to relax – even for 5 minutes – helps me practice breathing deeply and unclenching my mind and body. My body could use the training.

I love how much this course feels like training – training my mind and my body (as if they’re different entities) to help me do what’s best for me.  The more I train like this, the more I understand our minds/bodies as being designed for this kind of practice.  I understand it this way because the feedback loops are so powerful.  Doing this kind of work produces such strong results and good feelings.

Help! (and maybe it will help you too)


I’ll cut right to the chase. I’m at the lowest weight that I’ve been in twelve years or so, but I don’t want to stop losing weight – so much so that I’m looking for help to keep my momentum going.

I love the idea of ‘returning’ to the body that I had in university. Or at least my 44 year old, post three babies, version of it. I’m well on my way there – I’ve lost about 40lb. in the past year, 30lb. of that since I started following a ketogenic based food plan in July. Yet, while I feel wildly successful about this change and very happy about fitting into clothing that I had almost given up on every wearing comfortably again, I’m scared of stalling.  Worse than that, I’m worried about boomeranging back to my state before of feeling uncomfortable, out of shape (well, a rounder shape) and demoralized about my ‘inability’ to stay at a healthy weight in my adult life.

This past Saturday night, my friend Rachel inadvertently gave me a plan (she joins the ranks of Ian, who inspired me similarly last week). We were talking about eating and weight loss and she said that it is an area that she has little willpower.  Well, I have the book for that! (I have a lot of books and sometimes I even read them.) The book is called The Willpower Instinct, How Self Control Works, Why it Matters and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal, PhD.  She is trained as a Health Psychologist and her course, The Science of Willpower, at Stanford University has attracted thousands of people to change their thinking about willpower.  My biggest take home from McGonigal’s book is that willpower is like biceps. We all have them and if I want to have stronger willpower, I need to exercise the muscles involved (in this case, brain areas).

This is where you come in. Everyone knows that if you want to do something, it’s easier if you have other people to do it with (my husband is snickering when reading this, I’m sure of it).  So, join me by also pursuing a goal or simply by cheering me on.

Is there a goal that you have that you think requires willpower to achieve?  It could be weight loss, like me.  It could be preparing for a 10km race; reducing your phone addiction; increasing your workout time; spending more time with your family or spending more time by yourself.  Something that you have tried to do a few times and don’t feel that you’ve been successful at (yet).

Here’s my plan: I’m going to follow Kelly McGonigal’s 10-week Science of Willpower course. If all you do is read my blog each week and cheer me on, I’ll be very grateful. I believe that will be enough (for my own success and possibly as well to spark some motivation for you). However, if you also have a goal that you want to pursue over the next 10 weeks, hop on board and we’ll work on it together. If you’re keen to read the book, feel free to pick it up.  If you’re like my friend Ian and would rather read the article, then I’m going to provide the ‘Coles Notes’ version of the book in weekly segments, personalized to my own goal (this is a pretty selfish post, if you haven’t figured that out yet).

Week One Highlights

  • It is best to pick one specific challenge that you want to focus on. McGonigal divides willpower challenges into “I won’t”; “I will” or “I want”.  Being an overcompensater (a word I just made up), I have formulated my goal with all three:

I won’t eat compulsively

I will eat mindfully

I want to have a healthy, strong body

  • Take on this project as a scientist. It is not all or nothing. It is not about success or failure. I will be focusing on increasing my capacity to exercise my self-control when eating and try to uncover what my stumbling blocks are and where my strength already lies. Curiosity and openness are key.  Thinking in terms of success/failure are barriers.  Scientists set goals but are looking to discover and learn.  That’s what I want to do.


  • I am training my brain. I can’t expect to run a marathon just by setting the goal and having the desire. The same is true for willpower.

Here are the two brain training exercises for Week One of the course:

  1. Try this for one day: Increase your awareness of the decisions you’re making related to your goal. For example, if you want to spend more time doing physical activity, pay attention to the choices you’re making in that area for as you move through your day. Write them down or put them into your phone. You’re a scientist – collect data.
  2. Practice mindfulness meditation for 5 minutes each day. Mindfulness builds strength for a lot of heavy lifting in our brains. It gives us perspective and it gives us focus. Just the same way I need to increase my cardiovascular capacity and my quad strength to run long distances, I need to increase my perspective taking and focus abilities to gain more self-control (aka as willpower).  There are a ton of mindfulness practices all over the Internet.  Here is one of my favourites.

Thank you in advance!  See you next week for Week Two.

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