Becoming Better During the Holidays

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

For those of us working on self-improvement, the holidays can be a treacherous time. Your routines get interrupted by travel or visiting family, making it much harder to maintain your good habits, and you’re confronted with all manner of temptations that you would normally keep to a minimum. Between all the parties, the sugar-filled goodies, and the general hustle and bustle, healthy eating and exercise are easily neglected.

To help you navigate the season, I’d like to offer some ways you can approach the holidays with additional strategy and helpful mindsets.

This is a good time of year to remind yourself of your values and the many reasons why you’re working on becoming better. If you consider how the choices you’re making will impact your future selves, you’ll be more likely to choose well. If, for example, you’d like to fortify your resolve to minimize sugar during this treat-laden season, you could read this article about all the ways sugar is harmful to brain health. Or if you want some extra motivation to stay active, read this article about the cognitive benefits of exercise.  

Stay committed to your morning routine, even if that means getting up earlier to make sure it gets done. Continue to take advantage of OTM’s, finding moments of mindfulness here and there and getting in bits of exercise whenever you can. Christmas lights are a lovely excuse to get up and go for a walk after dinner. And remember, you don’t have to be a perfectionist to continue making progress; every step in the right direction counts.

If there’s some behavior you know you need to change, you don’t have to wait until New Year’s. There’s nothing magical about January 1st that will make it easier to change, so the approaching new year isn’t a valid reason to procrastinate on what you know you should do right now or an excuse to overindulge in ways you’ll regret. And if you are playing that game with yourself, keep in mind the cardinal rule of making New Year’s resolutions that stick: picking just one thing, not a half-dozen.

If you’ve already made a change, and you’re really serious about sticking to your nutritional plan or your sobriety, be firmly, fully, 100% committed. View the many chances you’ll have to say “no thanks” to something unhealthy as opportunities to strengthen your willpower.

You don’t have to eat Christmas cookies or get drunk to enjoy yourself. There is so much to enjoy and appreciate during the holidays that any perceived “need” to enhance the situation with gluttony or debauchery isn’t really a need at all. Instead, turn your attention to the many chances this season offers to embrace generosity, gratitude, and interdependence. When you’re with your friends and family, put your phones away or at least stay in airplane mode as much as you can. It’s the simplest thing you can do to connect with each other more deeply.

Not that I’m saying you shouldn’t indulge if you really want to. I’m just saying you don’t have to if you know it’s not right for you. Don’t worry about being the only one not drinking or the only one who turns down dessert. Embrace being weird and do what’s right for you. Perhaps your leading by example will inspire others.

On the other hand, it’s also a good time of year to allow yourself to be more flexible than usual. My mother and my Aunt Cindy both make amazing cookies for the holidays, and I happily indulge when I’m visiting for Christmas, but I don’t take any home (despite their well-meaning insistence). I like to choose my willpower battles wisely. I’m not going to put any effort into resisting the treats during the two days of my visit because that would be an excessively difficult uphill battle. But I’m also not going to put myself in a position to have to resist them day after day by bringing them home.

Whatever you choose, remember that you have permission to be human and therefore permission to enjoy yourself. If you decide to let loose and indulge, embrace that choice wholeheartedly. Don’t judge yourself. Don’t feel ashamed. Don’t tell everyone how you’ll have to “make up for this” with additional workouts or an extra-strict diet after the holidays. And if you decide to continue making healthy choices despite all the temptations of the season, do it with a smile on your face, without judging others, satisfied in the knowledge that you’re doing what’s best for you.

 

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Posted by Chris Loper in Health and Fitness, Mental Health & Happiness

The Four Stages of Change

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

 

When it comes to behavioral change – quitting a bad habit or sustaining a good one – there are four stages that everyone goes through. Actually, only the people who succeed at changing go through all the stages.

Most people get stuck at Stage 2. And that’s bad news because Stage 2 is most definitely not a fun place to be. Trust me, I spent a loooong time there.

Understanding the four stages will help you recognize where you are and help you strategize about how to move forward.

Here are the four stages of behavioral change:

  1. Comfortable Ignorance
  2. Awareness Without Change
  3. Effortful Change
  4. The New Normal

In his book, A Complaint Free World, Will Bowen uses a similar framework for the process of quitting the bad habit of complaining all the time.1 I’ve changed the names of the categories because I don’t like the names he uses, but I do strongly recommend the book.

This framework applies to the quitting of any bad habit as well as the establishment of any good habit, so let’s break it down twice: first for bad habits and then for good habits. As you read, think about your own struggles with behavioral change, past and present, and try to use these stages to improve your understanding of the experiences.

Part One: Bad Habits

Stage 1: Comfortable Ignorance

I don’t even know I have a problem.

When I was a child, I ate sugar as often and as voraciously as my parents would allow. I did not think it was a problem. I loved it. I wasn’t overweight and rarely got cavities, so I figured there was nothing wrong with binging on Reese’s Pieces and Mt. Dew. Much later, I learned about all the cognitive costs of eating sugar, and I learned that “sugar is candy for cancer cells,”2 but as a child, I was happily ignorant.

And so it goes with nearly all bad habits from Twitter to tequila: You begin innocently enough, doing something that seems like harmless fun, and until you experience some sort of painful consequence or gain some critical knowledge, you remain unaware of your own bad habit.

Eventually, though, knowledge or consequences might come, and this leads to the next phase…

Stage 2: Awareness Without Change

I’ve recognized that I have a problem, but I’m not changing.

Here, perhaps, you’ve felt some kind of pain from your bad habit: the frustration of a pointless Twitter feud or the horrors of a tequila hangover. Or, as happened to me with sugar, you simply learned that whatever it is you’re doing isn’t good for you. In any case, you now see that you have a bad habit, and you know that you should change.

But you don’t. Perhaps you don’t feel ready. You think of all sorts of reasons (read: excuses) why now isn’t the right time. Perhaps you’re not fully convinced that it really is that bad. Or perhaps you desperately want to change, but you don’t know how. Perhaps you think change is impossible.

These, and probably a myriad of other reasons, explain why most people get stuck here. Stage 2 is where most people stop. In fact, it’s where most people live.

And this is a tragedy because Stage 2 is miserable. When you’re in stage two, you experience a painful discrepancy between your beliefs and your actions. This cognitive-behavioral dissonance results in guilt, poor self-esteem, and diminished self-efficacy. You know you’re not living up to your potential, so you feel ashamed of your choices and perpetually dissatisfied with your life.

Arriving at Stage 2 is important, though, because, as they say, admitting you have a problem is the first step toward recovery. For the “lucky” among us, the negative consequences continue piling up until a breaking point is reached – some sort of crisis or rock bottom – inspiring change. Such people are lucky because it’s best to move past Stage 2 as quickly as possible, or, as the old saying goes:

“When you’re going through hell … keep going.”3

Stage 3: Effortful Change

I’m actively working on quitting my bad habit.

This is where the hard work of change is done. Quitting a long-ingrained bad habit is very difficult.

Those who succeed at Stage 3 are those who seek out support – therapists, mentors, support groups, family, and friends. It is also critical to employ effective strategies here: carefully avoiding situations of temptation and relying on reminders, routines, and a well-crafted environment.

Your efforts in this phase will be more likely to succeed if they’re supported by helpful mindsets. You have to simultaneously believe that you can change and believe that it will be difficult. This realistic optimism gives you the faith to power through the difficult early days of quitting without deluding yourself into thinking it’s supposed to be easy.

Many people attempt Stage 3 and fail. They give up and fall back into Stage 2. Those who succeed at moving past Stage 3 often go through many failed attempts at change. Most people don’t succeed at quitting any addiction on their first try. I didn’t succeed at quitting marijuana until about my 10th try. And it’s actually helpful to know this. You’ll be more likely to get back on the horse after you fall off if you avoid the trap of perfectionism.

Stage 3 can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few years, depending on the magnitude of the change. As you work your way through it, your new lifestyle will gradually become easier and easier, leading to…

Stage 4: The New Normal

I’ve been off my bad habit for so long that I don’t even think about it.

This is the promised land – that place that lies beyond the light at the end of the tunnel. Here, you almost never think about your old ways. Your brain has created new neural pathways, your new lifestyle is well established, and your identity has shifted. Perhaps the phrase, “No thanks, I don’t drink anymore,” just rolls right off your tongue. Or perhaps you no longer feel the slightest temptation to scroll through your Facebook feed. Whatever the case, you now avoid your old problem behavior automatically.

As such, you’re no longer reliant on strategies, reminders, routines, and a well-crafted environment. And you can confidently face situations of temptation.

But be careful. There is a danger lurking here at Stage 4: overconfidence.

Your old bad habit – especially if it was an addiction – remains wired into your brain. Those deeply grooved neural pathways aren’t currently being used, but instead lie dormant, waiting for you to slip up and open the floodgates. I call this phenomenon “The River.” It’s common for people who reach Stage 4 in addiction recovery to mistakenly think they can now handle having a few drinks or the occasional cigarette. They can’t. They usually have a full-blown relapse after their first sip or their first puff. Beware of The River!

If you do relapse, you’ll have to go back through Stage 3. The good news is, the neural pathways formed during the months or years before your relapse will still be there, so you can work through Stage 3 more quickly this time and hopefully arrive at Stage 4 with a little more humility.

Part Two: Good Habits

Now, let’s quickly examine the same steps in terms of establishing a good habit, such as exercise, eating vegetables, meditating, practicing gratitude, or reading.

Stage 1: Comfortable Ignorance

I have no desire to start a new, healthy behavior.

For example, growing up, I had no idea what meditation was or what its benefits were, so it never occurred to me to develop a meditation practice. I wasn’t meditating, and I was completely fine with that.

Most of the time, there’s no harm in living at Stage 1. Unless you’re missing out on something really critical like eating vegetables or exercising, it’s okay to be happily ignorant of some healthy behavior.

But you probably won’t get to do that. With the current ubiquity of self-help advice, you’ll probably come to learn about many good habits that you could have, along with their benefits, and so be pushed into the next stage…

Stage 2: Awareness Without Change

I now feel like I should ______ (exercise, meditate, eat vegetables, read, etc.), but I don’t.

For at least some healthy behavior, if not several, most people live out the majority of their lives at Stage 2. Here, you know that you would benefit from performing certain behaviors, but you’re not doing them. As such, you must face the fact that you’re choosing not to do yourself the favor of establishing good habits. This again leads to an uncomfortable cognitive-behavioral dissonance. You’ll feel guilty about not doing what you know you should do, and you’ll routinely feel disappointed in yourself.

If this dissatisfaction gets loud enough, you might move to on to the next phase…

Stage 3: Effortful Change

I’m actively trying to establish a good habit.

Here, you do the difficult work of building a good habit. As with quitting a bad habit, the beginning is the hardest, and success is far more likely if you enlist the support of others – coaches, trainers, friends, and family. You’ll want to use reminders, routines, clever environmental design (see: The 20-Second Rule), and effort tracking (see: Calendar Chain). Having a growth mindset and believing that every step in the right direction counts will also help you get through Stage 3.

The more frequently and regularly you perform your new healthy behavior, the more it will shift toward an automatic habit, taking you to the final stage…

Stage 4: The New Normal

I don’t even think about it anymore; I just do it.

By now, your good habit runs on autopilot because your brain has rewired. Your new lifestyle is well established, and your identity has shifted. This good habit is now just a routine part of what you do and who you are. You’re less reliant on strategies, and you can confidently handle changes in your environment or schedule.

The River is still a danger here, but much less so than with bad habits. It’s uncommon to hear someone say, “I’d been exercising regularly for a few months, but then I had a full-blown relapse of being a coach-potato.” Those old behavioral patterns are still grooved into the brain, but they’re probably not as deeply ingrained as addictions are.

Conclusions

If you take just one thing away from this article, let it be this: Please don’t stop at Stage 2. The next stage is daunting, and working through it is difficult, but you’ll be happier struggling through the hard work of changing than you will be sitting around knowing that you’re not living up to your potential.

Stage 3 is hard because it’s hard. The problem is not you. Use effective strategies and helpful mindsets to get through it.

And when you finally make it to Stage 4, don’t fall into the trap of overconfidence because The River is always there, waiting to sweep you back to where you started.

 

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Works Cited

1 Bowen, Will. A Complaint Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Start Enjoying the Life You Always Wanted. Harmony, 2007.

2 Rath, Tom. Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes. Missionday, 2013.

3 https://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/09/14/keep-going/

Posted by Chris Loper in Behavioral Change

The Gift of Big Problems

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Five and a half years ago, I broke my left foot. At the time, my only sources of income were waiting tables and bartending, and my primary sources of fun were hiking and skiing, so having a broken foot was a big problem. To make matters worse, it didn’t heal very quickly. In fact, it’s still not completely healed. I have persistent pain and inflammation that limit what I can do. And yet, I’m grateful for my foot injury. This big problem gave me an even bigger gift.

I’ve spent the last five and a half years learning to live with this. I’ve had to figure out how to tolerate the pain and inconvenience it causes. I’ve had to develop the patience to let my foot heal at its own pace. I’ve learned to notice and celebrate the small improvements that accrete through time and effort. I found a new career and new ways to have fun. I exchanged the frustration I felt about what I can’t do for gratitude about what I can do. I came to accept my fate and found a sense of inner peace I’d never known before.

But this personal growth is not the gift I speak of, though I am deeply grateful for it. The most important gift this big problem game me was perspective. Dealing with a truly big problem helped me see that most of the other problems in my life were really insignificant. It’s now much easier to accept when minor things don’t go my way. If I can wait half a decade for my foot to heal, surely I can wait half an hour in bad traffic without issue. Because I’m big enough to handle a truly big problem, the small problems in my life have transformed: They used to seem like mountains; now I see them for the molehills they really are.

Well, most of the time anyway. I wish I could say that I always maintain a perfectly Zen, ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ attitude, but all I can really say is that my tendency to overreact to small setbacks and minor frustrations has diminished greatly, and that I have my broken foot to thank for it.

Before you’ve dealt with a major challenge, a serious setback, a catastrophic failure, or a genuine trauma, you’ll probably complain often about little bad things: minor grievances, annoyances inconveniences, mistakes, mishaps, rudeness, delays, etc. But once you’ve experienced and psychologically overcome a truly big bad thing, those little bad things hardly phase you at all. The gift of big problems is that you stop complaining so much about the little ones.

 

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Posted by Chris Loper in Mental Health & Happiness

My New Favorite Question

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

“Are you closer right now to where you want to be than you were a half-hour ago?” –Robert K. Cooper

The more often the answer to this question is yes, the further you’ll make it along the path of becoming better. And the answer to this question probably depends on your answer to another:

Did you spend the last half-hour with your eyes on the process?

In other words, were you engaging with actual work of moving forward rather than dreaming of the finish line?

For some objectives, “where you want to be” is a place you can actually get to: meeting a project deadline, finishing the article you’re writing, launching a website. But, for your most important objectives, you’ll never actually “get there.” If where you want to be is healthier, happier, or more professionally successful, there is no finish line. If you want to cultivate stronger relationships with the people you love, develop a deeper sense of gratitude, or improve your capacity for mindfulness, there is no point to reach where you would feel “done.” Instead, there are myriad ways to make incremental progress, and everything counts.

For short-term goals that can actually be reached, asking “Am I closer right now than I was 30 minutes ago?” helps me overcome procrastination. It reframes what a work session is about, taking the pressure off. Instead of thinking, I have to finish this today, I think, Let’s just make some progress on this today. Ironically, thinking the latter makes me far more likely to get it done. And for those perennially meaningful, long-term goals, asking this question helps me overcome perfectionism and gives me patience.

This question also helps me celebrate the progress I am making, even as my goals remain distant, even as I fall short of my ideals. It’s often disheartening to look ahead to where you want to be and see that it is dreadfully far away. I’m finding it helpful to regularly check in with myself using this question. As long as I’m moving in the right direction, I’m succeeding.

And having this question in your toolkit does not mean that you should spend every 30-minute block of time working. It’s okay to shorten the length of time, asking, for instance, “Am I closer right now to where I want to be than I was five minutes ago?” And it’s also okay if the answer is often “no.” Remember to give yourself permission to rest, permission to have fun, and, above all, permission to be human. Keep moving forward patiently and persistently, faithful that the effort is worthwhile.

 

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Posted by Chris Loper in Productivity