From Just Plain Stupid to Stupid Easy

foot prints in the sand

(Image from Pattysphotos at https://www.flickr.com/photos/34121831@N00/4592567496)

Lately, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time writing responses to posts on social media that either anger or disturb me. Sometimes, I carefully craft my response, being careful to choose words that are not intentionally incendiary, removing any accusatory or judgmental language. Other times I allow my fingers to type quickly, spewing forth the outraged reactive language running through my mind.

And then I erase them.

As I think about the swift passage of time, the ways my days run together and my weeks come to an end before I have time to blink, I realize that this has been stupidly wasteful of my time. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad I erased these comments before posting them. But if I tried to add up the minutes of precious time I’ve wasted writing/erasing/writing/erasing them…well, let’s just say there are better uses for my time.

What often happens when I finally face the inanity of one behavior, is that the absurdity of other things I do becomes impossible to ignore as well. For example, on Saturday I spent the better part of the morning taking an online IQ test, simply because a friend on Facebook had challenged others to do so. After something like seventy-five pattern-recognition questions burned out my retinas, I discovered that I would have to pay $9.95 to get my results. No thanks.

Not all of my bad habits are internet related (though most of my time-wasting ones are). If I were to create an exhaustive list it would include things like getting halfway through writing a letter or card, stopping, and never finishing it. Or (God help me!) watching “My Diet is Better Than Yours” instead of turning off the television and picking up a good book. Or staring at the still unpacked boxes in my apartment, thinking about where I will put the stuff they contain…when I actually get around to it.

Everyone has bad habits and self-indulgent time-wasters, I know. I am too old and, hopefully, too wise to strive for perfection in my own habits. On the other hand, experience has shown me that I can spend a lot of time spinning my wheels through inattention – that weeks and months and years of a life can disappear with little to show in terms of actually living in them. There’s the poem about how a man dreamed he was walking with God and saw his life as a set of footprints on a sandy beach. Often, there were two sets of footprints in the sand, but at the times in his life that were hardest, there appeared to be only one set. When he asks the Lord about this, suggesting that he had been abandoned in those times, he is told, “Those were the times I carried you.” My dreaming mind changed this story into a walk down the beach where, looking back, there were no footprints. Not because I was abandoned by God, but because I was abandoning my own life.

A week or so ago, I ran across a post on Break The Twitch, in which Anthony Ongaro shares his strategies for intentionally changing his habits. He talks about needing to establish good habits to replace the bad ones we wish to excise from our lives. Anthony says:

“I often refer to this quote from Annie Dillard when thinking about how to structure these specific actions:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

The hours of our days become the weeks of our months and so on. If I want to accomplish these goals, I have to do things that will get me closer to them every single day. To create these daily actions, here are the qualifications:

Stupid-easy. Each daily action needs to be stupid-easy, as in, so easy for me that I would feel absolutely ridiculous not doing it. Essentially, take a desired action and breaking it down to the no-possible-resistance level.

Focus on action, not the outcome. I focus on celebrating the successful completion of each daily task, not the outcome that it created. Some days, the outcome is great — other days, it’s crap. That’s why I’m focusing on the habit itself, so that I don’t get discouraged. If I complete it, I am #winning.

Establish early success. The two points above contribute to early success – establishing a habit of succeeding immediately. Quickly creating a successful chain of daily actions from the very start.

Start immediately. From there, I’d start immediately and refuse to wait for a new year or a certain day to get started. If I failed on any particular day I would not wait until a specific day of the week or turn of a year to start again.”

The very first qualification that Anthony shares, “stupid easy”, is a game changer for those of us who have difficulty establishing new, more proactive, daily habits. So many times, I’ve found myself setting expectations that, in execution, are too Herculean to actually accomplish: exercise for an hour a day; always wash the dish(es) I just used; 100 crunches as soon as I get out of bed in the morning; no sweets. (This gives you an idea of what passes for “impossible” for me, anyway, as beginning goals!)

But “stupid easy” – that’s something I think I can be really good at! After all, my time-wasters are already both stupid and easy! In order to begin, I’m going to pick one positive habit I want to establish: taking time at the end of each day for reflection and quieting of my mind. I’ve realized that taking some time to do this is a way for me to set aside the day’s anxieties while setting myself up for a more calm and peaceful sleep. If I just sit quietly, I tend to fall asleep – but not comfortably, nor having put to rest the worries of the day – which sets me up for restless sleep and middle-of-the-night wakefulness. And if I don’t make a ritual of it, I’m less likely to actually do it. So I need an activity that can become rote, while not also revving my brain up to further wakefulness. So here is my “stupid easy” habit, instituting today:

Habit: Daily, brief reflection before bed.

Stupid-Easy method: Write three short statements in my bedside journal each night – 1. Something I’m asking for help with; 2. Something I am grateful for; 3. Something “Wow” or awe-inspiring from my day. (Based on the premise of Anne Lamott’s book “Help, Thanks, Wow“)

I’ll let you know how it’s going. If this “stupid easy” habit gets established, I’ll add another. The idea is that positive daily habits, as they are established, crowd out the just plain stupid ones – the time-wasters and energy-suckers. I don’t know many things for sure, but I do know that life is too short not to inhabit each and every day. If I dream again that my life is a walk along a sandy beach, I want to look back at where I’ve been and see at least one set of deeply etched footprints.

 

Note: Will you join me (and Mr. Anthony Ongaro!) in trying your own highly beneficial daily activity(ies)? If so, I invite you to share in the comments!

 

 

From Half to Whole

People magazine’s annual “Half Their Size” issue is out (here). I noticed it while in line at the supermarket, then picked it up to take a closer look. The women who made it on the cover look good, having lost 137 and 126 pounds respectively. The subheadings read, “No surgery!” “No gimmicks!” I contemplated purchasing a copy, thinking, “Wow, I wonder how they did it?”

This question was not one of idle curiosity. The people being highlighted in the “Half Their Size” stories have accomplished something spectacular. I imagined reading their stories,  learning the secrets of their successes, and finding something useful that would rub off on me.

And that’s when I stopped myself.

What was I thinking? My own weight loss total is 154 pounds (give or take a couple pounds on any given day) – a bigger number than either of the cover women put up. And I did it without surgery or gimmicks, too. This doesn’t mean I should no longer be interested in or celebrate other people’s weight loss journeys. What brought me up short, though, was the realization that I had just been thinking of these other people as “successful” and myself as “not”.

The reasons for that are complex, and I’ve been trying to sort them out in my head. One time some young friends asked me to help them untangle the embroidery threads they were hoping to use to weave friendship bracelets. Unpacking my thoughts and reactions to the “Half Their Size” issue has been a lot like untangling the mass of threads those kids handed me. So far, I’ve managed to separate a few threads from the rest:

  • Comparisons are at the root of discontent. Looking at what someone else has/has accomplished is a sure-fire way to feel less satisfied with what you have/have done. Not only does the grass look greener over there, but we are not privy to whatever is lurking below the surface. This is very true for physical appearance issues like weight – the women on the cover of People look great. When I look in the mirror, I see rolls and flab and the pounds that still need to be shed. But it is also true for our inner selves. Many people appear happy, positive, well-adjusted and relatively problem-free – in comparison to us. When we look at our ourselves, we see the inner struggles, the warts and blemishes, the imperfect whole – and we end up feeling like an inferior mess. Comparing ourselves to others is a red-herring. It diverts our attention from our true focus, which is being our best selves.
  • Perfectionism derails a sense of accomplishment. Our culture regularly proclaims the importance of cultivating a relentless pursuit of excellence. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t strive for excellence. However, this push can cause us to denigrate “pretty damn good”, as if the only acceptable or worthy-of-cheering result is perfection. And if we do achieve something praiseworthy, we celebrate quickly and move on to the next challenge – “Woo hoo! What’s next?”
  • Failing to self-reflect keeps us in deficit-thinking. In our hurry to move on to the next thing, we don’t take the time to incorporate our new skills, achievements, recently discovered strengths into our self-definition. When we face a new hurdle, we forget that we have assets we worked hard to attain. Instead of seeing our real strength(s), we continue to operate from a sense of self that is outdated and underdeveloped.
  • Success and happiness are not the same thing. We often trip ourselves up by thinking that this thing or that accomplishment will make us happy. The truth is, we can be very successful at something that we don’t enjoy. We can also be very happy without meeting outward measures of success. The reason for this? Success is about what we do. Happiness resides in who we choose to be.

So, in the face of People’s “Half Their Size” issue, who am I choosing to be? I am choosing to be someone who can celebrate others’ success without downgrading my own. I’m choosing to remember that, regardless of what goals I have set for myself, I am already whole and valuable as I am. And I am choosing to find happiness inside my own heart and inside this present moment. I hope you are choosing well for yourselves, too!