Do or do not? Procrastination’s grip.

The ancient Greeks had a word, “akrasia,” that meant doing something against one’s better judgment. To put it another way, akrasia is a failure to do what one has intended to do and what one ought to do. Our modern word for this is procrastination.

Here are the things I do when I’m procrastinating about doing something else:

  • Check my email
  • Tell myself I can read one (just one!) chapter of a book
  • Call someone
  • Do some laundry
  • Do the crossword puzzle or Sudoko
  • Organize my desk

Here are some of the things that I should be doing instead:

  • Grading my students’ homework
  • Writing for this blog
  • Catching up on work projects
  • Scanning the documents that have been sitting in a box for 3 years

Why is it so hard to get started on these tasks? I know that I can’t really relax with the book or the puzzle while these other things are hovering in the background, yet even that unsettled feeling can’t always move me to begin.

Having just finished teaching a unit on time management to my students, I know that  researchers characterize people like me as either avoidance or arousal procrastinators. Avoidance procrastinators tend to be self-critical, often have a maladaptive sense of perfectionism, and possess irrational beliefs about the outcome that would result from actually doing the thing they avoid. Arousal procrastinators, on the other hand, claim to work best under pressure (which is usually not true) and seek the thrill that comes from doing things at the last minute.

I’m pretty sure that I’m an avoidance procrastinator, although I do have to admit that I get a little adrenaline rush when I’m working up against a deadline. We avoidance procrastinators often believe that unless our work is absolutely perfect and liked by everyone, our self-esteem will be threatened. On other tasks, we switch into avoidance mode because they require us to do something that is out of our comfort zone, and we question our ability to even accomplish them.2016-04-02 12.50.04

Those of us who struggle with procrastination could try jolting ourselves out of it with the Nike motto, “Just do it.” Or we could use Brian Tracy’s metaphor, “Eat That Frog!” which comes from a Mark Twain quote: “If the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.” In other words, get the tough stuff done first and then it’s out of the way.

Those tricks might work for some of us some of the time, but it’s important to realize that procrastination isn’t just laziness or lack of willpower. For some people it can have lifelong consequences, such as an inability to make and achieve career or financial goals, a tendency to anxiety and depression, and poorer physical health. Fortunately, procrastination can be treated with cognitive behavior therapies such as REBT (rational emotive behavior therapy). REBT asks you to imagine doing the thing you’ve been avoiding, and then predict and label the emotion that you would experience with it. It’s like a trial run for the real thing.

Practicing mindfulness might also help. A study done by Sirois and Tosti showed that higher mindfulness scores were associated with lower levels of procrastination and with more unconditional self-acceptance. It may seem counter-intuitive that the present-moment awareness of mindfulness would be beneficial to procrastinators who already have difficulty being future-oriented and goal-directed. It’s true that many procrastinators are too focused on short-term pleasure and current rewards, but that’s not the same thing as mindfulness. When we practice mindful acceptance of our present experience, we can accept the discomfort of the difficult task and also generate more self-compassion while we do it.

As Thich Nhat Hanh has written,

“When fear manifests, we want to have the seed of mindfulness also manifest to embrace it. So we have two energies present — the first is the energy of fear, and the second is the energy of mindfulness. The fear receives a bath of mindfulness and becomes a little bit weaker before it drops back down to  the depths of our consciousness in the form of a seed.”

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Do you believe in miracles?

“We need to recognize that there is no age at which we lose our ability to be miracle workers,” writes  Darren Main in “Spiritual Journeys Along the Yellow Brick Road.”  Leave your comfort zone, he says, take risks and rediscover a sense of creativity and exploration – because in doing so, you can accomplish great things.

IMG_0086Are you feeling like it might take a miracle to get through the next four years? Do you doubt how much control you have over what happens to you? If so, it might be a good time to take stock of your physical, emotional and psychological “bank account”. What resources do you have and how can you best put them to use?

It is widely recognized that resilient people are more able to recover quickly from stressful events, and to utilize a variety of coping skills and strengths in doing so. Resilient people have generally built up these resources ahead of time (i.e. the bank account) by engaging in practices that enhance their physical and psychological well-being.  So when tough times hit, they have a more positive view of themselves, can make plans, and are clear-eyed about what’s needed. Most importantly, resilient people tend to have what’s called an internal locus of control.

Locus of control is a term that refers to the degree to which individuals believe that they can control the events that affect them. Are outcomes based on your ability and effort, or are they the result of outside forces and luck? If you believe that you can control yourself and influence the world around you, you are said to have an internal locus of control. If, on the other hand, you think that everything is decided outside of your control, and many events are just fated to happen, you probably have an external locus of control. While most people don’t fall at one extreme or another, we do have tendencies in one direction.

People who have a high internal locus of control tend to be happier, less depressed, and to suffer less stress. People who have a higher external locus of control often don’t seek solutions for problems because they don’t believe they can effect any change. It is possible to develop a more internal locus of control, however, by monitoring your self-talk. Check to see if you are speaking in absolutes (never, always, must, have to), and try substituting other words. Instead of saying, “I can’t”, say “I won’t” or “I choose not to”. The important thing is to remind yourself that you do have choices.

The more you can leave your comfort zone and have some success making small changes, the more you will believe in your capabilities, and the greater sense of agency you will have. Or, as Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it, “Your confidence in your ability to grow influences your ability to grow.”

This is more important than ever for people who are unhappy about the direction of the new U.S. administration. During a recent talk at American University, DeRay Mckesson of the Black Lives Matter movement said that progressive activists need to do more than just oppose everything for the next four years. They need to be creative, ambitious, and to “fight for real things, too, in this moment.  I worry sometimes because I’ve seen people get so defeated that they forget to dream about what the world can be.”

Miracle workers are the resilient, dedicated people who leave their comfort zones every day to dream and enact what the world can be. They are the teachers who show their students how to be critical thinkers. They are the people I volunteer with, who provide food, clothing and opportunity (with dignity) to those who need a helping hand. They are the lawyers who went to airports to represent immigrants. They are the women who are deciding to run for office in their local communities.

Amelia Earhart once said that, “The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.” We can all be miracle workers if we set aside fear, make the decision to act, and fight for real, positive change.

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Can 25 words describe a friend?

My first best friend left my life so long ago that I can barely remember her face. Strawberry blond hair, some freckles, a vague recollection of her smile, and that’s it. But a writing prompt from my Wellness & Writing Connections group has had me trying to conjure memories of her all week.  “Write 25 words that describe a childhood friend.” Can I find 25 words that fully capture Susie and what she meant to me?

yin yangShe was the yang to my yin, bold where I was shy, fearless where I was cautious, loud where I was quiet. With Susie, I tasted independence for the first time, earned my first money, ran away from home, and learned about sex. From the age of 4 until 11, we were inseparable, the sidewalk that ran between our houses a well-worn path.

From Susie, I also learned about loss, not when she died, but when our friendship broke up. I spent a summer mourning her, just as surely as if she had died. I know now that I was just as responsible for the end of our friendship as she was, though I didn’t see it that way back then. It was devastating to me.

Having Susie for a friend taught me to leave my comfort zone in two ways. When we were together, she was often challenging me to do things I wouldn’t ordinarily do. And when we weren’t together anymore, I had to forge bonds with new people outside the comfort zone of her friendship.

Social scientists believe that we tend to seek out friendships with people of similar personalities (the “similarity effect”), but Susie taught me to appreciate a friend who is the opposite of me, one who stretches my view of the world and pushes me toward new possibilities. As Henry Ford once said, “My best friend is the one who brings out the best in me.”

I see glimmers of my first best friend in several close friends who came along later: The ones who were from very different backgrounds; the ones who were bold and outspoken; the ones who were just a little bit wild. I’m grateful to all of them for where they’ve taken me and how they have enriched my life. But I will never be able to thank Susie in person for what she taught me; there will be no re-connection on Facebook, no school reunions, no chance meetings. She died young, and true to form, doing something a little bit dangerous.

So let these 400+ words that describe my childhood friend be my letter of gratitude, my valentine to her.Valentine2

A new balance

I thought I had stress management under control until I decided to move. I was maybe even a little bit smug, staying calm when others fell apart, stepping in to support my friends and family through their crises. Now I’m realizing just how easily the balance can be disturbed, life can feel chaotic and turmoil can take over.

In most stressful situations, there are both emotional coping responses and practical, problem-focused responses that will help ease the feeling of discomfort. For me, it’s easier to focus on the practical steps, so I make the to-do lists; I schedule the cleaning, the repairing and the painting; I go through the closets; I sort things to keep or get rid of.

The problem is that focusing solely on the action steps is making me more than a little anxious and kind of obsessive. I literally can’t stop thinking about what needs to be done next. I can spend half a morning organizing my Craig’s list posts and Freecycle emails. I can spend half an afternoon organizing bags of castoffs for Goodwill. Meantime, all semblance of normal life is lost.image

Larry David once quipped, “I don’t like to be out my comfort zone, which is about a half inch wide.” Getting ready to move has been forcing me to see the limits of my own comfort zone.  I keep thinking that if I can just clear the clutter out of my house, I’ll feel calmer. But really what I need to do is clear the clutter out of my mind. It’s time for some emotion-focused stress management steps.

Emotion-focused coping means using techniques that help change how I’m looking at the stressor of moving. According to Richard Blonna, one such emotion-focused method comes from Morita therapy — accepting the strong feelings that I have right now, and turning my attention instead to productive work (like writing a blog post!) Another thing I could do is examine whether any of my thinking around the move is illogical. For instance, am I setting arbitrary deadlines for myself? Am I catastrophizing any aspects (if I don’t do this today, the move won’t happen)? If that’s the case, I can try substituting more positive statements for the negative ones.

I realize also that I’m making a classic mistake of people who have too much to do. I’m sacrificing some of the very activities that could make me feel better. While I’m continuing to do yoga regularly, its benefits would last longer if I also added some meditation or breathing breaks on the days in between classes. I could also be turning to my friends more for social support — a night out is okay, even when there’s a lot to do. And, in spite of the cold, a walk in the park would be calming.

Most of all I need to be mindful of spinning my wheels. As Robert Anthony has said, “Moving fast is not the same as going somewhere.” Maybe there are days when the best preparation for moving is not to pack, clean or organize anything.

Expanding my circle of comfort

“Change is gonna do me good,” goes the lyric of Elton John’s song “Honky Cat”. I’m one of those people who has to say things like that to myself, to force myself to stretch a little. No matter how much there is to gain outside what’s familiar and comfortable, most of us have to be convinced and cajoled, or forced by circumstance, out of our comfort zones.

 Because I’m traveling this week, I tried a yoga class at an out-of-town yoga studio yesterday. It was a good class, and I’m glad I went, but there was still the point in class when the teacher told me to do something in a way completely opposite to what I’ve been taught.Was her way right or wrong? Is there a right way? Does it matter? Those were the questions I asked myself as I mentally resisted what she was telling me. My comfort zone was definitely being challenged.
Six months ago, my two favorite yoga teachers shut down their studio and stopped teaching. The studio, my yoga “home”, was gone, forcing me to change whether I wanted to or not. It hasn’t been easy. Sometimes I can take a class  with one of the teachers I liked from the old place, but mostly I was forced to try new teachers. Some I’ve enjoyed and some I haven’t. But I have learned to appreciate at least a few things about each of them. I realize now that in leaving, my former teachers gave me a great gift —a lesson in practicing yoga off the mat. Staying focused. Breathing through change and uncertainty. Accepting what I cannot change. Expanding my circle of comfort.
Often when I see friends from the old yoga studio, we talk about which teachers we are practicing with now, but we always finish by saying, “It’s not the same as…” And it’s not, it can never be, the “same”. Nothing stays the same, everything changes.  And luckily, we humans have an amazing ability to adapt to new conditions; the question is do you adapt with resistance, or adapt with acceptance? How much energy do you expend denying and complaining before you acknowledge the new reality?
Like the mice in the fable, Who Moved my Cheese?, we can either respond to unwelcome change by spending our time looking for someone to blame, hoping that everything is going to go back to “normal,” or we can go look for new opportunities. Relatively small changes, like finding new yoga teachers, train us for the bigger life events. If you learn to keep your balance in the shifting sands of everyday life, it’s easier to embrace the idea that  “change is gonna do you good.”

Getting to someplace safe

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.

Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.

Wouldn’t you like to get away?

Sometimes you want to go

Where everybody knows your name

And they’re always glad you came.

The theme song from “Cheers” is the first thing that popped into my head when I started contemplating the idea of having a safe space. A place where “everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came,” appeals to me, and may have had something to do with the popularity of the show during the eleven years it aired on TV.

The studio where I practice yoga is called “Sacred Space”, but I often think of it as a “safe space” for that exact reason. Everyone there makes a point of learning, remembering and saying people’s names. It’s an incredibly simple, yet powerful, way to make people feel welcome and known. Well, of course, you might say, it’s a yoga studio; they’re going to make that effort. Unfortunately, my experience tells me that it is the exception rather than the norm.

What makes a place a safe space? The safety we seek could be physical, mental or emotional. For some, a safe space might simply be a place they feel protected from physical harm. For others, it’s the place where they feel comfortable enough to speak freely. Or it’s the place where they feel accepted and loved unconditionally, just as they are.

Once, when talking with a landscape designer, she told me that people don’t like to sit outdoors with their backs exposed. So she would plan a row of trees or shrubs behind a seating area. In the same way, we feel safe emotionally when we know that someone “has our backs”, supporting us, not leaving us exposed. Who has your back? Is it your family, a friend, a community? How does knowing you have backup change how you go through life?

Sometimes the safe space is where we go when we need to get away from our own negative emotions. The term “breathing room” often refers to a break, or respite, from work or other stressors that are weighing on us. Thich Nhat Hanh, however, recommends that people have an actual breathing room in their homes, a designated place to go when feeling overwhelmed by anger or other strong emotions. He writes, “That little room should be regarded as an Embassy of the Kingdom of Peace. It should be respected, and not violated by anger, shouting, or things like that. When a child is about to be shouted at, she can take refuge in that room. Neither the father nor the mother can shout at her anymore. She is safe within the grounds of the Embassy. Parents sometimes will need to take refuge in that room, also, to sit down, breathe, smile, and restore themselves. Therefore, that room is for the benefit of the whole family.”

A safe space is where people are valued, and have values in common. It’s the place where we are free of judging and being judged, the place where the masks come off and we can be our truest selves. It can be outdoors or indoors, a physical space or a room in our minds; it can be found in the covers of a book or the warmth of a hug, the darkness of a theatre or the stillness of a church, in a community of people or the solitude of nature.

Growth comes from leaving our comfort zones, but it shouldn’t mean leaving them behind for good. I don’t think growth would be possible if we didn’t know we could return to that part of the comfort zone that holds our safe space. When we fail, when we feel rejected, even when we’re just plain tired, we need a refuge. When we’re overwhelmed by life’s ups and downs, we need shelter. Where is your safe space?

In the zone

Comfort zone, time zone, twilight zone, euro zone, green zone, in the zone? As we traverse in and out of various kinds of zones, how can we keep as balanced and true to ourselves as possible?

I just came back from a trip to three different countries in 11 days. While this trip sets no kind of record for whirlwind travel, it still demanded an expenditure of energy in both mind and body to find some kind of equilibrium each day. Stepping into another country takes me to the borders of my comfort zone, at least at first. Then I add crossing time zones, and life definitely takes on a twilight zone feel!

While the body can be helped by following good travel advice like refraining from caffeine and alcohol, drinking plenty of water, and exposing oneself to sunlight every day, how do we handle the mental stress?

I love having new experiences, seeing unfamiliar places, learning new things – but such growth doesn’t happen in my comfort zone. So I had to think about how best to navigate the challenges of meeting a lot of new people, learning my way around strange cities and communicating in places where I don’t speak the language.

On my trip, I happened to be reading Search Inside Yourself, a new book by Chade-Meng Tan about the mindfulness-based emotional intelligence curriculum he started at Google. In the book, Meng describes the emotional competencies that (according to Daniel Goleman) make up self-awareness: emotional awareness, accurate self-assessment and self-confidence.

Meng, who describes himself as a shy person, discussed how he prepared for a speech to a large audience by using these competencies of self-awareness. He made his ego “small enough that my ‘self’ did not matter,” and big enough that he “felt perfectly comfortable speaking alongside” the luminaries at the event. He also kept in mind his strengths and limitations so that he could focus “on adding value where [he] could contribute most.”

I realized that by bringing mindfulness and self-awareness to my experiences on my trip, I was better able to deal with the challenges and turn them into positive events. I’m not the bravest or most out-going person in the world, but by staying present and paying attention to people and situations, I was able to increase my self-confidence and to use my strengths to my advantage. For instance, as a spouse at a dinner with people in an industry in which I do not work, sometimes I might feel inadequate or not “high-powered” enough. But by focusing on my strengths in my own field of stress management, and being mindfully engaged with each person I met, I found that I had plenty to contribute to conversations.

In a similar way, as I navigated streets and neighborhoods, I relied on my strong sense of direction, my curiosity and my desire to see everything to give me the confidence to explore on my own. But I tried to stay emotionally aware so that I would know when I needed a break in the “comfort” zone of my hotel room.

The British writer Lawrence Durrell once said, “Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection.” In that spirit, I’m still tapping into Search Inside Yourself at home now. I plan to use some of the book’s tools, such as journaling and body scanning, to build even greater self-awareness. After all, we never know when the next trip outside our comfort zone will happen.