Category Archives: Beginnings

Not so fast!

How do you make a significant change in your day-to-day life?

We are all familiar with the “New Year’s resolution” syndrome. We get inspired to commit to some positive lifestyle change, like working out regularly. On January 2nd we enthusiastically join a gym, buy our workout gear, and we start doing our fitness routine religiously three times a week.
But life happens and something comes up; we miss here or there in February.
And then as March goes by we notice the gym outfit is languishing in the back of our closet.
In April we feel guilty every time we open the closet.
By May we reluctantly cancel the membership in realization that we’re not using it.

What happened?

To me, there is a constant tension between short-term impulses and long-term goals, and how we balance them is a life art. For example, I have my evening scheduled out with a concert I’ve looked forward to for weeks, and suddenly a friend calls in need. Do I miss my planned event to support my buddy?
Or  I have my new food plan in place but there’s a surprise office birthday party and my boss Heidi offers me some of her homemade cake; perhaps it would be rude to refuse?
Or  I’m on a budget regimen, but the latest iPhone goes on sale 30% off; should I set aside my budget and take advantage of the one-time offer?

Part of the equation here is delayed gratification: learning how to set my immediate desires aside in favor of my long-term goals. To be effective, I need those long-term goals constantly present in some tangible way, so I can balance them against the temptations of the moment.
(And there are many “systems” out there to help with this; one that I have appreciated, for example, is Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits.)

However, one of the things I have not seen addressed is the fact that our current “bad habits” are usually serving important psychological needs. The way that I satisfy those inner needs may well be counter-productive to my long-term goals, but I’m convinced that even “bad habits” develop for good psychological reasons. I ignore them at my peril.

If I try eliminate the a habit (aka “coping mechanism”) without taking those deeper needs into account, I am pushing my emotional life out of equilibrium. And, with an important need going unmet, it won’t be long until I find myself slipping back into the old habits.

For example, I may eat a lot of chocolate to push away feelings of depression and low self-esteem. (Er, I mean a friend might do that, right?!) If I suddenly stop eating chocolate for New Year’s, I may succeed for a few days or weeks, but unless I have developed other ways of coping, surely I will soon be overwhelmed with emotion. When that happens I’ll use the coping mechanism that I know works–and here comes the chocolate.
But now in addition to my existing underlying issues, I also feel like a failure for breaking my resolution!

What’s difficult is that my underlying motivation for the “bad habit” may be hidden from my conscious mind, or missing from the life story I tell about myself. Surely it’s hard to find other, more healthy ways of dealing with the inner needs when those needs are not even consciously acknowledged!

So how can we change successfully?

I think the answer is different for everyone, but there are probably common elements that work well for many people. For me, change is most effective when that change is:

  • small                                                                           (10 min a day, or an hour a week)
  • has a set time                                                           (although it “counts” if I do it later)
  • of limited duration                                                 (to avoid “rest of my life” issues)
  • accompanied by visual feedback                        (think “gold star” chart)
  • has incentives                                                          (little encouragements along the way)
  • includes time to see what obstacles arise       (“check-in” time)
  • has the support of those closest to me            (this one can be tricky, but very helpful)

So I’ve started doing what I call 40-day challenges. I pick some small change that takes about 10 minutes a day. For example, even if my eventual goal is to work out an hour a day, I would start with a ten-minute daily workout (or 20 minutes every other day).
Then I check in with my wife. She gives me feedback about whether this is a good idea (too much or too little, or perhaps she remembers a different change I’ve mentioned that might make more sense to try first). The fact that she knows means not only will she encourage me over the course of the 40 days, but there will be a sense of accountability in the back of my mind. Someone else will know if I just give up on it.
Then I make a chart (Google spreadsheet) to track my progress. I set it up to look like a calendar, with a start and end date. (For me, I always take off for the Sabbath, so my “40 days” generally spans 46 days or so.) I have percentage calculations by the week and overall, and when I complete my daily change, I color in the cell green and add a “1” for the day. (I find these visuals quite compelling!)
As for incentives, I would have them in place before I start. (Turns out that lately I haven’t felt the need for them; but I know that in the past they have been helpful.)

And then I start. I make my chart my home page for my browser, so it’s constantly in front of me. Each day I do the new behavior and record the results in my chart, which turns greener over time.
I watch myself carefully to see what comes up, and I check in with my wife to see if she notices anything. I may find some clues to underlying needs that require some other adjustments in my lifestyle, so I can meet those needs in a healthier way. But since the change I have introduced is relatively small, I’m usually able to accommodate it without a lot of internal upheaval.
And at the end of forty days… I decide if I want to try and continue with this small change that has become a habit, or whether I’ve learned something that causes me to change direction.

I have devised little systems like this in the past, but this one seems to have more promise than others so far. I’m on my second 40-day challenge as we speak — adding 15 minutes of meditation to my daily routine. So far, so good!

So there you have it. My answer to the “how do I change best” question.  For me (at least for now): baby steps, a little at a time.

My blessing for you, dear reader: may you find a change methodology that works for you, and may you find the courage and determination to use it to transform and refine your life in the ways that are deeply important to you. A little bit at a time.

And, if you are so inclined, I would love to hear of your experiences!


All beginnings are hard


So here we are, at the beginning.  The Talmud says all beginnings are hard.  And all beginnings mark the end of what went before.  So goodbye blog-less past.  Hello…  whatever the future holds.

I have found that in conversations with friends and strangers (“friends not yet met”), sharing my practices is often helpful (for both of us!).  So I am embracing the experiment of sharing them more widely.  My intention is to write the book Tools from the Shed: a Modern Mystic Shares His Spiritual Practices through blog posts.

I hope to avoid these snares:

(1) The One True Way.  Sometimes, when people find a path that works for them, they feel they have discovered the One True Way that will work for everyone.  Whether it’s seven habits or four questions or one quote a day, it’s suddenly the only way.  But here, I have no such outlook.  I intend to share practices that I find helpful in my life.  If you find one of them useful, feel free to incorporate it into your daily life however you like.  If not, not.  (And if you have a practice that works for you, please share it with me; I might find it useful.)

(2) Glittering Generalities.  I find myself impatient at times when I hear folks talking generically, exhorting me to “be more mindful” or “harness the power of positive thinking” or “just do it!”.  While there is truth and power in these ideas, when I’m looking for a practice I need something more concrete; I need more “how to”.  Without specifics, these ideas don’t pass the two tests I have for helpful advice: (a) how will this make my tomorrow different from my today? and (b) will this help me on a grumpy morning?

(3) Look at Me.  I don’t hold myself or my life up as ideals to aspire towards.  I have plenty of faults and bad habits, and have no desire to pretend otherwise.  Since the world already has a me, we really have no need for another one.  Rather, we have a need for you — the most authentic you that you can bring to each day, to each moment.  The you that, at the end of your life (may it be far in the future!), you look back on and smile with pleasure.  So if these practices (which, because of my ongoing imperfections, I have developed and am posting in this blog) help you to become more you, please use them.

So now that the formal stuff is out of the way, let’s start with lists.

I find it helpful to make a short list of things I want to accomplish the next day.  I find this is best done at night, before winding down for sleep.  A short list, usually 3-7 items.  I like to indicate the category of the item as well.  For example:

Relationships: call mom to catch up

Householder: stop by bank to sort out overdraft charges

Daily Maintenance: laundry

Householder: fix back screen door

At the top I write the date, and I order the items by priority.  (The next day, I start with the first one before going to the next.)

In making this list, I consult with the larger list of everything that I want to get done (by category), which I try to review once a month.  If I notice I’m not getting to items in a particular category, that’s a sign that I’m out of balance, and in the month ahead I try to incorporate more items from the neglected category.

In this way, the daily list moves forward my long-term goals, but the daily tasks aren’t overwhelming.  For me, the key to success here is to keep the daily list small and doable.  If I run out of items, I can always get more from the larger list (“backlog”).  So the “oh, yeah, that reminds me…” items go on the backlog; I keep the daily list as trim as possible.  And if there’s some task I dread and find myself putting off, I try to break that down into very small steps.  Really small.  Like “do a Google search of health insurance sites”.  Small is good.  Small is your friend.  Small is something that can actually happen.

So this is all very nice, you comment, but it’s hardly revolutionary and not really a spiritual practice.

And yet it is.

Because I think the fundamental spiritual challenge of this life is taking our large, long-term sense of what we want our life to be about and turning that into small, concrete steps that we actually do.  When in a calm, balanced place, we have lofty goals of what kind of person we want to be.  In the rushed moments that comprise much of our lives, however, we have impulses, intense emotions, and grumpy thoughts that generally undermine those goals.

This is the same problem for dieters, fitness folks, students trying to study, those battling addiction, and so on.  The long-term, soulful aspirations can be preempted by the immediate spikes of intense desire.  Over and over again.  And time flies by.

So a practice that takes the long-term desires and translates them into small concrete steps — steps that we can maintain focus on and actually do — that’s a spiritual practice.  At least in my book.  Or in my blog.

And that’s my musing for today.

May you find it easy to make your lists (if you decide to), and may that practice bring you closer to your goals.

And may the realization of your goals make the world a better place.