Making your resolutions reality

Debbie Ford wrote that “New Year’s resolutions often fail because toxic emotions and experiences from our past can sabotage us or keep us stuck with the same old thoughts, patterns and regrets.” It can be scary to look closely at ourselves, to acknowledge some of our fears and emotions. That’s why having a plan for dealing with those negative voices boosts the staying power of your resolutions. Here’s part 2 of stress management as a foundation for resolutions:

Live purposefully — What drives you? What are you passionate about? When you combine  your values with the gifts and strengths you offer to others, that synergy helps you feel engaged, connected, and part of something larger than yourself. If, as Sean Johnson suggests, you ask yourself every day, “What is worth my time, attention, prana, love?”, and then follow that path, your actions will bring you an authentic feeling of happiness, rather than anxiety.

Move more — This advice doesn’t have anything to do with a resolution you might have about exercising more. This is movement for the joy of motion. Just move more, even when you don’t exercise. Walk somewhere that you usually drive – you’ll notice different things! Dance when you’re cleaning the house. Go ice-skating. Take the stairs instead of the elevator at least once a day. Movement is what our bodies crave when we are overloaded with the products of stress. It just feels good to move, so do it!Skaters

Practice compassion — starting with yourself! This is probably the most helpful thing you can do for yourself if you are trying to stick to resolutions. Don’t beat yourself up when things aren’t going as planned. Observe your own struggles, and those of others, with compassion. Try this meditation from Jack Kornfeld: “May I be held in compassion. May I be free from pain and sorrow. May I be at peace.” After you have directed these thoughts toward yourself for a while, turn them to others you know.

Learn something new everyday — Knowledge is power. Are you trying to have a healthier diet? Instead of following the latest fads, read some reputable nutrition literature and educate yourself in a way that will make your actions more successful. Try a different source for the news of the day to get another perspective. Read a book about something you know nothing about — it may be a great distraction from the focusing obsessively on what you are trying to change.Laughing woman

Laugh – then laugh again, and again. The other day I found a little collection of comic strips that I’ve cut out of newspapers. Even though I’ve read them many times, they still make me laugh every time I see them. We laugh for all sorts of reasons – sometimes it’s because things are genuinely funny, other times we laugh because a situation is so absurd, often we laugh just so we don’t cry. Like movement, laughter helps us rid the body of stress hormones. It also helps shift perspective, realize that we are not alone, and take the mind off of problems. Remember that your resolutions are supposed to make your life better, so don’t take them so seriously – resolve to laugh more in 2016!

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Step away from the edge

When did we become such an extremist culture? If the word extremist sounds, well, extreme, consider the word moderate and you’ll know what I mean. No one wants to be moderate anymore, or to do anything in moderation. As a culture, we seek out the biggest, the newest, the richest, the edgiest, the most dangerous experience or position we can find.

On reality TV, we see people competing to lose the most weight or be the best chef. Marketers tell us we’ll be left behind if we don’t have the newest phone, and we line up to buy it. College students accept binge drinking as the norm, putting their health, safety and studies in danger. Congressmen put the nation at risk to score points and avoid compromise at all costs. And in our daily lives, our fear of not having every bit of the latest information makes us obsessively check texts and email.

Isn’t the competition exhausting, though? We often talk about managing our time, but not so much about managing our energy. In fact, our energy is a finite commodity too, and we would do well to think about how we want to use it. It’s very stressful be constantly competing, or fighting, or worrying about the meaning of a text message, or subjecting our bodies to excessive amounts of food, drink or even exercise.

Most of us are naturally somewhat competitive, and of course it’s nice to be the best at something, or to set goals for ourselves. But I’m reminded of the saying, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” In some areas of our lives, maybe we’d be happier to not have the best or be the best. Bruno Bettelheim’s famous book, A Good Enough Parent, espoused this philosophy. Instead of striving to be the perfect parent of the perfect child, he advised that parents should be more attuned emotionally to their children so they could understand their relational needs. Instead of trying to mold a child into the one we want, help the child develop into the person he or she wants to be.

A focus on emotional awareness can serve us too, as we try to manage our energy. What do you need for yourself, in body, mind and spirit? Is it the newest phone or the most principled stance on an issue? Or are those things that you could let go? Do you need to lose more weight than your co-worker, or would losing a smaller amount be sufficient for you?

A recent study conducted at the University of Copenhagen showed that moderate exercise was actually more motivating than hard training was. The people who did 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise lost more weight than those who did 60 minutes of hard fitness training. The moderate group said they had more energy and were more motivated to make other healthy lifestyle changes, but those in the vigorous group were exhausted after their workout and less open to altering other habits. They had drained the energy they had for changing.

“Moderate” doesn’t have to mean boring or mediocre. It could just mean that you are using your energy within reasonable limits, for you, at this moment. At some other time, or in some other space, the choice might be different. How can you feel your best right now? Not the best of something or the best at something, but just the best and most content you?

Benjamin Disraeli once said that, “The choicest pleasures of life lie within the ring of moderation.” They’re not always at the edge.

Take it outside

There is joy in motion. It’s that simple. That feeling hit me today when I saw a photo in the paper of people doing Zumba outdoors. Their expressions are exuberant, their energy is contagious.

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Outdoor exercise has a more free feeling than working out in a gym. Without the confines of walls and machines, something loosens inside. We take more chances, express ourselves more openly, lose some of our inhibitions. There’s also more of a sense of community, because we are physically in the community. And in some cases, the workouts are literally free – free yoga at the farmers’ market, free Zumba on the plaza and free Pilates in the parks.

Besides the individual benefits of outdoor, community exercise, public group workouts can demystify the practices for people who are unfamiliar with them. “Zumba”, “yoga”, “Pilates” – what do those words mean to someone who has never set foot in a gym or yoga studio? They sound like mysterious, esoteric practices that might be difficult and extreme. But when you see other people who look like you doing the moves, you begin to believe that you can do them too.

Americans are full of contradictions. We’re living longer than we did 20 years ago, but with more chronic conditions. Some of us are exercising more, but it’s not enough to keep the rates of obesity from rising. We’re not dying in accidents as much, but many more of us have diabetes. Complicated problems that require complex solutions, right? But while scientists are busy looking for treatments and technologies, we have the power to change our own trajectory. Rediscovering the joy in motion and the freedom of the outdoors can be part of that change.

My mother used to lock us out of the house sometimes when I was a kid. That wasn’t as bad as it sounds. In good weather, we were expected to play outside with other kids in the neighborhood; and if one of us came back in with dirty hands and feet, she wanted to know about it. Playing outside got me out of my head and out of my books for a while. It was during those summertime lockouts that I learned to take risks, like riding downhill on my bike without hands, and to play sports with the boys, and to see just how high we could get the playground swings to go.IMG

What childhood activity brought you that freewheeling joy? Summer might be an ideal time to find the feeling again, either as a way to get a fitness routine going, or to get out of a fitness rut. Look around you – those people dancing in the streets and posing like warriors in the farmers’ market are smiling for a reason.

Three “meals” a day for the soul

It makes sense that a healthy diet and plenty of exercise can help us sleep better at night and be more resilient in the face of stress. But consider the flip side: managing stress and sleeping well can support efforts to eat better and move more.

I recently spent a day counseling people on healthy eating, but I found myself more often than not talking with them about how much sleep they got, and what their stress levels were like. They invariably said that their jobs were stressful and the hours were long. They got home later than they would like, and found it challenging to think about preparing a healthy meal. The stressful day made them feel like they “deserved” the calorie-laden dinner. And by the time they ate, and spent a couple of hours winding down, they got to bed too late to get enough sleep. They often felt fatigued and low in energy.

Most of the people I talked to were relatively young and pretty healthy. But they were struggling with maintaining healthy behaviors in the face of increasingly demanding jobs and hectic lifestyles. Suggesting complicated or time-consuming changes won’t work for them. But what about something that takes only 5 minutes?

Spending 5 minutes once, twice or three times a day doing something that brings you back to the present moment, refreshes your mind, or relaxes your body, can be incredibly restorative. Most of all, in those few minutes, you’re engaged in caring for yourself. While the idea that you deserve care seems like it should be a no-brainer, many people have a hard time embracing it. But a practice that affirms your love and care for self can be the foundation for other health behaviors.

These 5-minute fortifiers come from many sources, including my own practice. Some are adapted from a little book called Five Good Minutes by Jeffrey Brantley and Wendy Millstine. I have divided them into morning, day and evening practices:

Morning

  • Resist the urge to jump right out of bed. Stay still for a moment. Listen to the sounds outside and in your home. Smile. Set an intention for the day, such as being kinder to the people who challenge you.
  • Sing in the shower. As Brantley & Millstine say, “Music and song can make you feel giddy, bubbly, euphoric, and joyful.”
  • Slow down. Ever notice how when you rush, you are more likely to drop things, spill things, and make mistakes; and less likely to find things you need? Taking the extra two minutes to get ready with care will not make you later.

Daytime

  • Breathe at the traffic lights. Too often when we’re rushing to get somewhere, especially in traffic, we chafe at the time spent waiting. Turn it into an opportunity to notice your breath. Inhale deeply and exhale slowly. You will feel calmer when the cars start to move again.
  • Take a break to look at nature. Whether it’s the view out your office window, or a picture on the wall, this practice will rest your eyes and your brain, and shift your perspective.IMG_0117
  • Eat lunch mindfully. Stop working for the time it takes to eat. Chew slowly, really taste the food and think of how it nourishes you.
  • Spend 5 minutes talking with a friend or family member outside of your work. Hearing the voice of someone who loves and cares for you helps ease the stress of the day.

Evening

Relaxing rituals in the evening help separate day from night and work from rest:

  • Make yourself a cup of herbal tea to warm and soothe you before bed.
  • Listen to some mellow music.
  • Give yourself a foot massage.
  • Read a favorite poem.
  • If you find yourself anxious with thoughts about work, imagine writing them down on pieces of paper. Then picture yourself walking to a nearby river and dropping each thought into the water, letting it drift away.

By tackling stress and sleep first, we put ourselves in a better place to make choices about eating and exercise. We change our habitual ways of thinking about ourselves, make caring for ourselves a routine, and have the energy to stick to a plan.

As Soren Kirkegaard said, “Don’t forget to love yourself.”

5 Intentions for a Happy Thanksgiving

Six days and counting until Thanksgiving…what will your holiday look like? Calm or frantic? Happy or conflicted? Holidays can be stressful, often bringing out the worst in us if we let them. In yoga class, our teacher sometimes asks us to “set an intention” for the practice: something that we would like to focus on or work toward. In that spirit, here are my intentions for the next few days; maybe they will work for you too:

1. Spend time each day planning for the next one.

Time management gurus like Brian Tracy say that each minute spent planning will save 5 to 10 minutes in carrying out the task. This can be accomplished by sitting down each evening for 5 minutes to make lists, check the next day’s calendar, and block out time for priority tasks. Focusing on the most important tasks for each day, dividing them up to correspond with blocks of free time, and eliminating unnecessary tasks will help each day be more productive.

2. Ask for and accept help; take shortcuts when they serve me.

No one can do it all. So let go of the perfectionist tendencies and controlling instincts. Graciously allow others to help with the shopping, cook part of the meal, or set the table. Most likely they will be glad to be asked. Buy some foods already-prepared, especially the ones you don’t excel at or find tedious to prepare (gravy comes to mind!)

3. Take care of myself.

When people feel better, they can be more present for those they care about. During stressful holiday times, it is more important than ever to make health a priority. Exercising will give you more energy. Drinking plenty of water will help fight fatigue and improve appearance. Eating healthy in the days leading up to Thanksgiving feels good and allows for guilt-free splurging on the big day. And if stress catches up with you anyway, take five minutes just to sit and breathe.

4. Have fun each day.

Scheduling time for play or recreation is part of time management too. We all deserve a break to watch a funny movie or play a game with the family. These shared experiences will become part of everyone’s memories of the holiday.

5. Remember to be thankful.

Voltaire once said that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”, and the Thanksgiving holiday is a good time to think about what that means. Don’t strive for a perfect meal worthy of Martha Stewart, but one that will be joyfully eaten with family and friends. If your home isn’t perfectly cleaned and decorated, be glad that it is full of warmth and good cheer. Replace criticism of loved ones with appreciation, even with all of their quirks and imperfections.

As I celebrate Thanksgiving, I will keep these words of Thornton Wilder in mind: “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”