Monday, February 21, 2011

Walking on Water

One of the things that I've got the knack of is following through on resolutions. If I decide to change my diet, I do. Working out every day, no problem. Losing weight to avoid alterations in a Sharkskin suit, got it handled. Breaking an hour to run ten miles, sure thing. As I talked the other day with friends who were struggling a bit with those resolutions that were all bright and shiny at the beginning of January, I thought about an old joke my dad told me about the Finn, the Swede and the Norwegian whose way had been blocked by a wide river.
After an hour sitting along the river bank pondering the situation, the Finn stood up and with an air of authority announced, "The solution is simple and it has been staring me in the face all this time. I am a after all a Finn. I shall simply walk across the river."

And with that, he strode forward and to the amazement of his companions stepped blithely onto the river walking easily to the other side where he sat to await them.

The Norwegian and Swede stared at him in wonder as he beckoned them to cross as he had. They looked to each other for an explanation and then both sat to ponder.

Twenty minutes later, the Norwegian announced, if a Finn can walk across a river, certainly a Norwegian can. He stood up and without hesitation marched up to the river and straight on across where he high-fived his Finnish buddy as they both turned to look at the Swede.

The Swede now felt a sense of desperation as he stared at his friends who seemed so happy on the other side. He'd been taught at school that people can't just walk on water and yet he'd just seen his friends do it. Finally, he resolved that walking on water cannot be simply a matter of national heritage, but instead must involve strength of will and determination, something that Swedes had plenty of. He would will himself to walk across the river!

With Churchillian determination he put one foot before the other walking down the river bank and onto the river where to his amazement, he did not sink. His eyes focused steadfastly on his friends, he took another step and then another and then... kerplunk... gurgle... gurgle... gurgle... he dropped into the water and was swept away by the current.

As they turned to walk downstream to fetch their friend, the Finn said to the Norwegian, "Do you think we should have told him where the stepping stones were?"

Stepping Stones
I think that for most of us, keeping resolutions is a matter of will power, determination and dedication. It may be in some instances, but I've never seen them work for long. In my experience, transforming a resolution into something that is easy, fun and rewarding works a whole lot better.

Here's an example. Over the last couple of months, I've reduced my consumption of simple sugars to near zero and I gotta say that if you were going to take just one step to completely change how you feel every day, it would be this: don't eat sugar... nada... none... zippo... finito.

By sugar I mean all processed foods (except those specifically created to contain no sugars), fruit juices, candies, pastries, ice cream, flavored yogurt, white rice, white bread, regular pasta, pizza, sweetened granola... well, you get the picture. And don't fool yourself with things like maple syrup or honey or agave . Sure, these sugars come with better nutrients than refined cain sugar or corn syrup, but they're still sugar.

I guarantee that if you do this, you will develop a level of energy and clarity that will be sustained all day long, no down time, no dips.

However, if you're like most, you're probably thinking something like: How can I do that? Everything has sugar in it! I've been eating sugar all my life. I'm addicted to the stuff. Surely, there's got to be some other way? What if I substitute honey for cain sugar? What if I cut back?

These thoughts and others like them are sure to land you with the Swede somewhere down stream and certainly not across the river. So, here are some stepping stones.

Take One Step at A Time
When you're hot with resolve it's easy to take on more than you can handle. So, the first step is to take just one step. For example, if you're cutting out sugar, don't also decide to diet or to start an exercise program. Although this may appear to be suboptimal at first, the best thing to do is deny yourself nothing, but sugar.

Eat all that you want that is not sugar: veggies, meat, whole grains, plain yogurt, etc. Don't count calories. Don't count fat grams. Just don't eat sugar.

After about a week or so, your sugar cravings will pass and you can take a second step by cutting back on consumption generally or cutting back on specific foods.

This principle can be applied to exercise, developing a new skill, or any number of resolutions. Start simply by taking one step at a time. Don't take the next step until you're really completed the first.

Stack the Deck
Nature abhors a vacuum and so do our bodies. Other than the addiction-like attraction, your body craves sugar because it's missing something nutritive. Although you could spend thousands of dollars identifying the specific nutrients that your body is missing, I've found an easier solution is to simply flood your body with all the nutrients you might need and the best way to do this is fun: make juice!

I wrote last week that You Should Be Juicing. One of the benefits of juicing is that it helps stay if not completely eliminate cravings for sugar by flooding your body with all sorts of nutrients. And while you might be tempted to go all esoteric on which vegetables and supplements to use, I've found that all you really need to do is start juicing with basics: carrots, celery, broccoli, asparagus, spinach, cucumber, tomato, brussel sprouts, etc. Your... ummm... garden variety vegetables.

Leave the dialed-in refinements for later. Just start juicing and you'll stack the deck in your favor.

Stacking the deck can be applied to many scenarios. Want to start running in the dead of winter, then buy yourself some good warm running clothes. Want to learn to play trumpet, then get yourself a good one that plays easily. Want to write more often, then create a place in the house that's yours and that's ready for you to write.

Instant Reset
One of the most common causes for failure is the belief that goes something like, "Well, now that I broke my diet, I might as well enjoy the rest of this pie", or, "Oh well, I'll try again tomorrow."

If you find yourself having violated you sugar embargo, stop right away; don't try again tomorrow, try again right now! It's what you do after the violation that matters most. Sugar is incredibly powerful. Although it takes about a week to get rid of the cravings, you can easily get them back with just one piece of pie or bowl of pasta. So, don't kid yourself with the "Oh well..." or "I might as well..." Reset immediately.

Every Day
A close cousin of the immediate reset is to do whatever it is you've resolved to do every day. Every time I hear someone say, "Well, I read that you don't want to push yourself to hard, that you want to start with just three days a week", I think, "OK, there's someone who's not going to make it."

Guidance such as, "You only need to do it three times a week" was designed by marketeers who don't want advertising to be off-putting to reluctant resolvers. If you want to do something, do it every day. We humans are intrinsically tied to patterns. The quicker and more strongly we establish patterns of behavior, the more likely it is that we will persist in them.

To start something new means doing it every day. In the case of sugar, take no holidays. In the case of juicing (or working out or writing or playing music or programming software), juice every day. If you find yourself ready for bed and think, "Shit, I forgot to juice (or write or program or play or read or study) today!", get up and do it, even if just for a few minutes.

If you stick with everydayness, before you know it, you'll have established such a strong pattern that forgetting to do something will become nearly impossible.

I Don't Feel Like It
I'm always amazed at how many adults say things like, "I just didn't feel like doing thus-and-such today" when thus-and-such is a resolution. Sure, there are creative pursuits where how you feel can dramatically influence who well you do and your level of energy can dramatically impact your capacity for exercise. However, how you feel has much more to do with whether or not you start, than how well you'll do once you've started.

In support of doing things every day, it's important to abandon the notion that how you feel has anything to do with whether or not you should do something. Drop that belief and you'll be amazed at the results. I've had my best experiences writing after having previously decided that I just don't feel like writing today. I've had the most wonderful workouts, ones that left me feeling brand new, on days where I didn't feel I had the energy to even start.

I don't feel like is transient at best and it's a terrible reason not to do something.

Walk On Water
OK, so forget about strength of will, determination and resolve and start by taking simple steps.
  1. Do one thing at a time.
  2. Stack the deck in your favor
  3. Hit the reset button right away when you fail
  4. Whatever you choose to pursue, do it every day, even if it's just for a while, even if it's not very good.
  5. Once you resolve to do something every day, don't even consider how you feel about it.
  6. One more that is optional. The worst thing that you can do for a creative person is to provide her a blank slate and all the time in the world.

    Creativity thrives when there are constraints: contraints in resources, constraints in the medium, constraints in time. Similarly, we tend to do better with resolutions when we schedule them, e.g., signing up for a class or hiring a trainer or joining a club. If you have a hard time maintaining a resolution, tighten the constraints.

Happy Monday!

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