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Nicole Arnold's Adventures

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

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#positivepsychology

Just in time for Valentine’s Day – 15 minutes to Love

I admit that this is my most shameless click bait title yet. Although Puppies and Sex   ranks a close second. That being said, I stand by my 15-minute pledge to receive love.

I believe I’ve discovered a path to the most loving Valentine’s Day yet – no matter your relationship status or relationship state. I happened upon this when I conducted a casual experiment for the month of January. I think I’ve accidentally hit on the best love tool ever.  Nope, this isn’t an advertisement for Lelo – it’s all about self-compassion.

Experiment might be an exaggeration for what I did. In January, I read an article that directed me to the practice of self-compassion letter writing. (It’s awful – I can’t find the article – I’ll keep searching and update the blog with the link when I locate it.)

I can’t say exactly what drove me to practicing self-compassion weekly by writing a  letter to myself. It’s possible that particular day I was more aware than other days that I’m pretty hard on myself. It’s also possible that I had recently read about the strong positive connection between self-compassion and well-being. Last summer, I read (a lot of) Kristin Neff’s book Self-Compassion (which includes this self-compassion letter exercise). Maybe it had penetrated my consciousness in such a way that led me to prioritize this activity.

Whatever the case, I did what I now do when I want to start a new habit – I put the activity into my Streaks app. It took me some time to figure out how to create a weekly task, but I prevailed and then sat down to write my first self-compassion letter for January.

I challenged myself to think about an activity or aspect of myself that I feel THE WORST about. Something that causes me shame and that I find myself circling back to numerous times over the course of any day.

Then I wrote a letter to myself, where I imagined that I was someone who loved me and wanted to provide me comfort about my hard feelings.

selfcompassion

The whole thing took fifteen minutes.

After I wrote it, I felt warm – like the way I feel after my kids hug me and I take the time to smell their hair and feel the softness of their skin.

Over the course of the week, I found myself feeling more compassionate and loving – both about myself and others. When there was a choice to be generous (to myself or others) or be unkind – I was aware of a growing ease in choosing the kind choice.

I have noticed the impact of my increased compassion on my relationship with my husband in two big ways: 1) I’m not looking to him to validate my weaknesses (or me in general) as much. I don’t need to because I’m feeling compassionate about my weaknesses. I’m not looking for compensation (as often). 2) I’m also not as frustrated with his weaknesses. I’m more likely to see the bigger picture and understand that they’re part of his strengths. I’m also more likely to feel self-compassion for feeling irritated by them, without blaming him for having them.

This opens a lot of space for loving connection. It’s the space that opens up when I realize that I have what I need, giving me the opportunity to consider what I want. It’s the shift from survival to flourishing.

This is what I’m getting for 15 minutes of formal self-compassion practice each week. Way cheaper than Lelo… What could be more effective for feeling love than feeling good about yourself?

I hope these 15 minutes lead everyone to a Valentine’s Day filled with love!

Here’s the link for the self-compassion letter activity.

How to Gain Stability (or what I learned from Morpheus while holding Toppling Tree)

Calling a yoga pose “Toppling Tree” doesn’t suggest stability. Yet, stability is exactly what is required as I stand on one leg and bend my torso forward while kicking my other leg to the back of the room. At last Friday’s yoga class, our yoga instructor (Elliott Bettencourt, who inspired me and sounded like Morpheus from The Matrix) directed us to scan our bodies for weakness as we tried not to topple to the floor. What he said next was the best: he intoned (in Morpheus style) that we are easily distracted by the wobbling in our standing leg’s ankle – but that’s not where the weakness lies – that’s where the stress is focused. He told us that if we want more stability then we need to tighten another area. Once we did that, we would find that our ankle would stop wobbling. I scanned my body and found softness in my torso (no surprise there). When I tightened my back and my abs, lo and behold, my ankle stopped wobbling.

toppling tree

As I have made my way through the week, I have found this frame very useful in several situations.

Around 11am this morning, working through tasks felt like wading through molasses.  I started to question my desire to do the work in front of me – but that’s not where my weakness lay. I wanted to do the work, but I was still wobbling. I realized the weakness was in how much sleep I had last night. Anything less than 7 hours and I wobble my way through the day. As soon as I understood that, I resolved to be gentle to myself for the rest of the day and to go to bed in time to get 7 hours of sleep tonight.

Yesterday, I was writing a blog post and kept getting stuck. I initially worried that I was done with my 500 word/challenge – that I had exhausted my creativity. But that’s not where my weakness lay. When I scanned for weakness, I understood that I hadn’t scheduled enough time to write. It takes me at least an hour to write a blog post and I had left myself around forty-five minutes. I kept looking at the time and wobbling under the pressure.

I like this practice of scanning for weakness. Seeing weakness as a problem to solve, an area to strengthen, versus an indicator of failure is a perspective I want to practice as much as possible – in yoga, in my writing, in my business – in all areas of my life. I don’t want to be afraid to wobble and at the same time, I don’t want to focus on the wobbling site so much that I’m distracted from where the work really lies.

So far, I’ve learned that I need to tighten up my back and torso, get 7 hours of sleep each night and leave ample time for writing. Feels like more stability already.

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

 

 

 

 

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.

scientist

  • 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.

The Sweet Spot – Where Ambition, Joy & Meaning Meet

My friend Ian, unwittingly gave me the idea to start writing articles about books. We were in a meeting discussing fundraising and he referred to Anchoring – a social psychology concept describing the human tendency to mentally gravitate towards a specific starting point.  It could be used to explain why my husband says things like, “$1.50 for a pack of gum? That’s crazy.”  I first learned about Anchoring in Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, a book that, among other things, explains why humans are generally suckers for marketing. Even when we know we’re being suckers.  I got a little excited at the possibility of discussing Predictably Irrational with Ian, until he explained to me that he reads articles about these kinds of concepts, not books.

I walked away from the conversation with two new understandings: 1) I’m desperately looking for people to discuss the books I’ve read/am reading (my children and husband will wearily attest to this) and 2) What I’m learning in the books I’m reading could make for practical blogposts.  So, here we are.

I found the perfect book for my first book review blogpost on my night table (It helped that there are 10 books on my night table.) The Sweet Spot – How to Find your Groove at Home and Work (or How to Accomplish More by Doing Less) by Christine Carter, PhD. (Thank you Karen Elkin!) I have been trying to solve the problem of balancing all the roles I play in life for quite some time and gravitate toward books that offer a solution. The Sweet Spot offered many, many solutions.

Which brings me to my first problem: one of the hardest parts of discussing this book is distilling it into bite size ideas.

I was going to summarize the categorizes that Carter created, but that felt more like a book report and writing book reports isn’t very interesting to me (and probably not so much for you either). Instead, I’m going to share one of the concepts from the book that I incorporated in the past week and how it’s altered my experience. (Does that make this a reality blogpost?)

The first section of The Sweet Spot encourages everyone to take Recess.  Carter explains why our brains need breaks every 90 minutes or so. My son seems to have a handle on this, because when he crossed the stage at Grade Eight graduation this past June, Recess was named as his favourite subject.  I too have always loved Recess and breaks. So much so that much of my time at Earl Haig S.S. and McGill was more break than class.

Herein lies the problem regarding how I think about breaks as an adult.  Breaks = slacking.  I’ll take them, but not wholeheartedly.  They’re guilty pleasures. They come wrapped up in the belief that I’m taking a break from doing what I need to be doing (to be doing something less important and possibly self-indulgent).  Baked into that is the belief that if I was stronger, I wouldn’t take a break.

The Sweet Spot says that taking Recess is not a sign of a weakness – it’s a practice that strengthens us.  Studies have shown that people who take regular breaks are more productive.

So, this week, I started taking planned breaks.  I organized my work day into 90-120 intervals.  At the 90-120 minute mark, I get up from what I’m doing.  I find that I’m often flagging by then anyway – even if I was going strong for quite awhile. Carter teaches that my energy dip is in line with ultradian rhythms (like circadian rhythms but with different characteristics).   During my breaks, I’ve walked outside for 10 minutes, caught up on my texts, checked my email or hung out with the puppy.

The rule that Christine Carter lays out is that whatever you’re doing during your break, it can’t be advancing the progress of your to-do list.  The activity needs to be enjoyable. I believe that part of the goodness of this practice is to increase the frequency of asking yourself,

“What would I like to do right now that I would enjoy?”

Considering what that might be and then taking time to do it is a very empowering act.  Each time I have taken a break, I have returned to work energized, focused and generally feeling good.

I think Recess is a very well-constructed habit. The practice is self-reinforcing – it generates good feelings both in the moment that the action is taking place and also upon reflection when the positive effects are experienced (e.g. increased productivity, feeling good for an extended period).  Many habits become boring to us over time – a phenomenon called hedonic adaptation.  Hedonic adaptation’s kryptonite is variety. Thus, so long as I maintain variety in what I do with my 10 minute breaks, I’m not likely to get bored of the practice.  I’m already excited about the potential productivity and creativity that practicing Recess is going to bring me.

The Sweet Spot is full of constructions like Recess.  Carter tells good stories about the research that back up the practices and how she builds productive habits in her own life. The book was born out of a challenging time in Carter’s life when she felt so overwhelmed by her responsibilities, ambition and dissatisfaction that her body shut down on her. I can relate to those kinds of feelings and appreciate a book full of direction on how to live in a way where I cultivate ambition while also experiencing deep satisfaction and joy. One of the reasons that I really love reading books like this is that I learn about current scientific research that reveal the potential for change, resilience and happiness.  It’s so inspiring.

I think that’s what the Sweet Spot is – the understanding that we really can have it all.

Ambition, Meaning and Joy.

We don’t need to trade one for the other, instead we need to practice articulating our ambitions, making meaning and cultivating joy.  I like how Christine Carter delivers these practices.

Let me know if you read the book – we can work on some of it together!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stopping to Smell the Roses (or What I did this Summer)

 

Do you remember returning to school from summer break? The first question on everyone’s tongues was, “What did you do this summer?” Years of following that ritual have hard wired the habit in my brain. Last week, as I prepared for the summer to end, I automatically asked myself what I did this summer. The short answer is: I practiced mindfulness and that practice has transformed me – but short answers don’t make for much of a blog post.

I’m going to digress briefly, because I had a wonderful experience as I walked to Starbucks to write. I’m grateful to report that my walk to Starbucks always contains something lovely. I live in an old neighborhood and walk through a beautiful cemetery that could be set in Avonlea.  The path is framed by tall, stately trees and weatherworn headstones that tell many stories. In all seasons, it is an engaging walk – whether I am taken with the scenery or exchanging pleasantries with other walkers and their dogs. Today, as I was leaving the cemetery, I noticed a woman who I had seen a few days ago.  When I encountered her over the weekend, I saw her bending over the roses at the entrance. It seemed like she was retrieving a jacket or a sweater from the bushes and I wondered why she had stored it there.  It reminded me of the winters that I stashed my shoes on the side of the house in defiance of my mother decreeing that I must wear winter boots.

This time, I was closer to my mystery woman as she bent down so I learned what she was doing. She was stopping to smell the roses. I’m still smiling about it. Maybe she is too.

That’s what I did this summer. I stopped to smell the roses. I stopped to smell the roses for six days a week, at least 30 minutes a day, for eight weeks straight. I got so much out of it, that in a thirst for more, I attended a day-long silent mindful meditation retreat. Silent. Can you imagine? I might need to share this event with my Grade Eight teacher, Mrs. Harris.  She’ll be astounded. She used to beg me to at least stop taking for “O Canada”. I rarely complied. Mrs. Harris would support the notion that that choosing an all-day silent retreat represents a radical departure from my previous behviour.

My mindful practice was guided and partially inspired by the 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course.  I say inspired, because it was the research that Jon Kabat-Zinn designed and started evaluating over thirty years ago at the University Massachusetts Medical Centre that has been catching my attention for years. Both Kabat-Zinn’s research and the studies that Judson Brewer references in “The Craving Mind” build a compelling case for the benefits of mindfulness meditation practice.  It’s used for pain management; treatment of anxiety and depression; addiction treatment; insomnia relief and managing a host of other health conditions. From a positive psychology perspective, mindfulness meditation research is showing that practicing mindful meditation leads to higher levels of well-being all around. This means that as a result of practicing mindfulness meditation people often experience greater productivity, more happiness and an increase in satisfying meaningful moments. Seems appealing, right?

It was sufficient motivational fuel for me to commit to the eight week MBSR program. (If there are any Bourne addicts out there, you might now be thinking, “Will you commit to the program?” Or it might just be Pascal.  If so, this aside is just for him.)

I fully committed to prioritizing the 8-week program.  It was a big commitment. I needed to find at least 30-40 minutes, 6 days a week, for two months. I am always amazed at how easy it is to find the time to something once I feel firmly committed.

I finished up my 8th week on Sunday. Here’s my Top Five list of how the MBSR course transformed my world. After the list, I’ll explain my theory about the magic behind the curtain.

  1. I am no longer addicted to my phone. It’s not that I don’t use it anymore. It’s not that I’ve stopped texting. The difference is how much I put it down now. So much, that I have been accidentally leaving my phone at home. That can only mean that it’s not in my hand all the time anymore.
  2. I haven’t been as hard on myself. The judging, aggravated, frustrated or disappointed voice isn’t showing up as often. When it does, I often think, “Wow, I’m so hard on myself”. Side note: this hasn’t hindered my productivity in the slightest. I’ve had so much more energy and an increased ability to focus on individual tasks for extended periods of time.
  3. I haven’t been as critical/judgmental with others. Others include my husband, my children, my friends, person driving slowly in front of me; quickly behind me or the person who didn’t pick up after their dog. Instead of judging, I’m wondering what is distracting them, causing them to act the way they are, or I’m focused on something entirely different.
  4. I have been appreciating nature in a way feels new and yet also familiar, but out of practice. It feels like a child-like curiosity. I’m entranced by the movement of the trees with the wind. I get hypnotized looking at the different shades of green in my backyard. I enjoy taking the time to listen to the symphony of birds, squirrels and who knows what else, outside my bedroom window as I wake up in the morning. I feel like I’ve developed bionic senses.
  5. The realm of the possible has enlarged significantly. Instead of thinking that I can’t do something, I wonder what might be required to do it – whatever it is – learning something new, travelling somewhere, taking my business in new directions, making time for a new interest. I feel more courageous.

So, what is the magic behind all of this change?

I think it is this: what you practice in one area of your life automatically extends to the other areas of our lives. If you build biceps in the gym, those biceps will help lift many objects outside of the gym. Practicing thinking is like that too.  We practice in one place and then take that new strength into the world. The process is reinforcing, because practicing becomes easier with more practice and the better we get, we increase our sense of self-efficacy, so we enjoy the practice more. It’s no mistake that the last phrase referred to “practice” three times. I think practice sits at the centre of change. Mindfulness practice really maximizes our infrastructure because it encourages growth (through practice, of course) in the areas that align with key measures of wellness: curiosity, openness, patience and kindness.

The 8 weeks that I spent practicing curiosity; non-judgmental thinking; discipline and gentleness transformed my day to day (often hour to hour) experience by boosting my thinking capabilities. The regular practice increased my ability to observe with an open mind, judge less (or at least be aware when I am), focus for sustained periods of time and be kind to myself. I can only dream of what I will reap as I continue to sow the seeds of mindful meditation in the days to come.

I am so grateful for Jon Kabat-Zinn and the researchers at University of Massachusetts Medical Centre; Judson Brewer’s lab; Dave Potter and the Palouse Mindfulness community; Kristin Neff’s and Shawna Shapiro’s labs.  I’m inspired by the research and evaluation of mindfulness practicing that these researchers are delivering to us. I think they’re making the world is better for it. They’re motivating people to stop and smell the flowers, one person, one moment at a time.

 

 

 

How a mindfulness challenge led me to the USS Enterprise

I started a 30 day mindfulness challenge on Monday. My older (and periodically wiser) sister invited me to be her buddy for the challenge and I eagerly said yes. (Mindwell U’s 30 day mindfulness challenge)   Full disclosure: I’m a sucker for 30 day challenges. Clearly I’m not alone, since they’re everywhere. This particular challenge appealed to me for a) extra motivation to practice mindfulness, b) learning about a tool that I can bring into my coaching/consulting work and c) partnering with my older sister. Win-win-win.

I’m going to use my blog for the next four weeks to chronicle my physical and mental adventures as I increase my mindfulness. Three days in and I’m already reaping the benefits in comical and significant ways – some at the same time. Which brings me to my USS Enterprise encounter.

I was waiting in line at my neighbourhood Starbucks yesterday morning, as I do many mornings. Yesterday, I thought I would make the most of my few minutes in line and set myself up for successful work over the next few hours, so I used the tool called Take5 that I had learned the day before through the 30 day mindfulness challenge materials. The brief process involves 1) Identifying what I want the mindfulness break to bring me (e.g. engagement, focus, energy, etc.), 2) Grounding myself mentally by becoming aware of my surroundings, 3) Grounding myself physically by becoming aware of my feet and hands, 4) Regulating my breathing and then taking at least 5 breaths of approximately 10 seconds each and then 5) Opening my awareness up to the present moment.  Well, in that moment, as I looked around Starbucks, I found that the light fixture over the coffee bar bears a striking resemblance to the USS Enterprise.  (I don’t know which USS Enterprise, I’m geeky enough to see the USS Enterprise in light fixtures, but not geeky enough to be able to visualize all the USS Enterprise iterations.)  It was so fun when I realized that! I shared my insight with the nice guy who serves me coffee most mornings and we enjoyed the vision of it together. Then I turned myself to my work – energized and focused.

That kind of experience (minus the pop culture visions) has been replicated multiple times over the past two days. I have generated ideas that I’m really proud of. I’ve dialled into conversations in a more concentrated way than usual. I have met more of my encounters with intention than I remember ever doing before.  That is really the best part –  I am practicing thinking with intention and it is leading to productivity, lots of energy and very good feelings.

Stay tuned – who knows what I might find as I keep opening my eyes throughout the next 27 days.

Slumps (Toronto Blue Jays: Please Read – Time Sensitive)

It is tough to be in a slump.  The Jays know.  Painfully well.  I think of a slump as not performing to one’s regular capacity.  The Jays are thickly mired in a slump.  Collectively and individually.

I understand slumps all too well.  I have been in the middle of a writing slump for several weeks now.  I’ve sat down to write my blog post and then have walked away, for three weeks now,  without a blog post.  When I settled into my chair at Starbucks tonight, I encountered the same barrier that I have faced for the past few weeks.  Ideas came to mind, but then as I started to develop an article, a very critical voice started questioning how I had the authority to write about these ideas.  It suggested that people will think poor things about me as they read the post.  It asked me if maybe I would rather read a book or go shopping.   For the past three weeks, I chose to do something in response to that voice.  I decided to cut myself some slack.  Tonight, I feared that I was sliding into a deeper hole.  Then Dr. Harvey Skinner’s voice popped into my head.  (Let’s not spend too much time on the fact that I am contending with so many voices in my head.) When I worked with Dr. Skinner at York University’s Faculty of Health, he regularly asked, “Are we men or are we mice?”  This has been a tried and true slump buster for me over the years.  I need to get into a mice-enough like state to warrant it, but when I hear it, I snap to attention.  Sidestepping the sexist element of men/mice, I know that I do not want to be a mouse.  I want to be powerful.  I want to achieve.  I want to be productive.  Fuelled by the reminder of what I want and who I am, I started to type.  I knew that it was better to type than not type.  That whatever I wrote would be enough.  That’s because another voice that is regularly in my head is Brene Brown’s.  She tells me that shame is rooted in the thoughts “I’m not good enough” and “Who do you think you are?”  I don’t want to be blocked with shame.  So, here I am – still writing.  Slump broken.

I don’t know why slumps happen, but I do know that they ultimately serve me.  The kind of thinking that is required to move out of a slump is thinking that helps me perform at my highest levels.  It’s the thinking that leads me to dig in rather than shop or read.  It’s the thinking that leads me to understand that extra effort is required and that the extra effort will make a measurable difference.  There is not a lot of thinking that serves me more than this strain.   So, I’ll take the slump and reap the benefits for the next while.

What can the Blue Jays take from this?  Because, really, it’s all well and good that I’m writing my blog post, but what I would love the most is to give the Jays the help that they need.  I don’t pretend to be a sports psychologist, but I am a dedicated Blue Jay fan.   So, I will try to break the Jays’ slump and do my best to hit it out of the park (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Three Steps for the Jays to get Over Their Early Season Slump

  1. Think back to how you got out of a slump before – as individual players and as a team.  What strategies worked?  Know yourself.  Know what works.
  1. Think of your best self. Spend some time visualizing what it feels like – as an individual and as a team.  How do you think about yourself contributing?  Think about your technical strengths as well as your character strengths.  Are you an optimist?   Are you tenacious?  Build this picture of yourself.  Think about it as much as you can.  The more you practice thinking about it, the greater power it will have for you on the field.
  1. Support each other. As much as you can and then some more.  The power of what you can do together as a team is tremendous.  Barbara Fredrickson’s research has found that negative emotions narrow our outlook and positive emotions broaden our outlook.  There are few actions as powerful as helping someone to generate positive emotions.  A towering stack of research demonstrates that we perform at our best when we feel positive emotions.  So, support each other so you can all feel good and perform at your best.

I fear this might be the most presumptuous blog post I’ve written, but desperate times call for desperate measures – both from the perspective of breaking the Jays’ slump and crushing my own.  Really, the worst that can happen is that people think I’m really silly.  The best that can happen is that someone from the Blue Jays reads this, my method works and the Blue Jays hire me to help with thought management.  That has been my coaching dream from Day One, so this seems like as good a time to pursue it as any other.  Gibby, if you’re reading this, I’m happy to start working with the team as soon as you call.

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