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Sunday, January 20, 2013

But what about self-discipline?

My stories run up and bite me on the leg - I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off. (Ray Bradbury)

This quote sums up how my writing happens. It basically... just happens. I don't decide that I'm gonna write a post. It's the post that imposes itself on me. As I said to D, this afternoon, before disappearing in the office: "Gotta go on the computer. My blog wants to be written."

When I ignore the inspiration, it either fades away (and then I'm frustrated that I lost the idea) or it snowballs in my mind until I feel so overwhelmed I have no choice but sit down and write. The fact is, most people who write on a regular basis will tell you they don't necessarily want to; but they have to.

So writing often/a lot is easy (that is, as long as you are afflicted with a writing addiction... which seems to be my case. I pity those people who, across times, have decided to exchange letters or emails with me. Soon enough they ended up drowned in pages and pages of my soliloquy).

But what about healthy habits, like exercising and eating clean? What if  "the need to eat spinach" or "the need to run 10K" never bites us on the leg?

Quite a few people have reacted to my posts about healthy lifestyle, and one of the most common questions I have been asked is "But what about discipline? What if I have no willpower? How do you do it?"

My spontaneous response would have been "But I don't have more willpower than anyone else!"; unfortunately, most people won't take that for an answer. They will point to all the writing/running/eating clean I have been doing and argue that those are proof that I am very disciplined.

Nothing could be further from the truth. When it comes to discipline and willpower, I am incredibly lacking. Just bring chocolate ice cream, cookies and pastries to my house, leave, and come back 48 hours later. You won't need any further demonstration. Or just give me a simple assignment without a clear deadline. Come back 2 years later (yep, still won't be done).

I don't quite know where this lack of discipline comes from, but lord, has it got me in trouble. In school it seemed like everyone was always on time with their homework... while I was the queen of last minute. Still nowadays, with official documents, bills and mail... I am allowed to look (and read), but not to touch... because most times I was left in charge of such important papers, I misplaced them or simply forgot to pay.

But clearly the area where my complete lack of willpower has hurt the most is my relationship to food. I have always had a sweet tooth; in fact, I think my whole mouth is filled with sweet teeth, plus a sweet tongue, a sweet palate, and sweet lips. What I mean is I cannot resist sweets. I have eaten enough of them to last me a few lifetimes already. Innumerable times I gave myself a sore tummy or a headache. I'm telling you. No self-control. At all.

Regarding exercise. I will admit that I truly enjoy exercising... most of the time. But do you really think I ever feel like getting up at 5 am to go for a run in (pick an answer) a) the dark b) the rain c) the snow d) the middle of a pack of coyotes or bears e) all of the above. Seriously? Who in their right mind would pick an early workout over sleeping or even eating a leisurely breakfast? No one. Yet I do it: I get up and go.

So what's the trick?

The trick, to put it simply, is to stop wishing for discipline and willpower. No one has them. The trick is to equip yourself with tools. They might not be the same for everyone, but here are a few suggestions:

1) Think in terms of habit

The law of inertia doesn't lie: if you've been doing things a certain way for years, you will keep doing them the same way... unless a significant (and usually painful) effort is put in. Did you know that the best predictor of future behavior is... past behavior? You cannot simply decide that you're gonna change, and hope for the best. You have to be ready to suffer a little bit. Moreover, you have to commit to making the habit permanent. Otherwise, you're just wasting your time. How many people do you know have been on diets repeatedly, only to remain at the same exact weight for years on? Clearly, short-term solutions don't work.

As for exercise, it is demanding in its own way. First of all, it's tiresome. Second of all, it's time-consuming. Most of us are already tired and busy. How do you fit exercise in all that? The facts are there, though: all kinds of extremely busy people find time to exercise. How do they do it? Do they feel like it more than ordinary mortals? Probably not. When they first started they probably didn't feel like it at all. But they put it in their schedule, and they did not allow themselves to depart from it. I, for example, have decided that early Sunday mornings for the rest of my life, I will be at the gym. It's a simple commitment. It works. I leave when everyone else is still asleep. When I come back, exercised and showered, everyone else's day is just beginning.

The beauty of this is that if you keep a habit for long enough, it will become a second nature. It will feel easier. Pleasant, even. My yoga instructor, L, used to say "If you walk the same route often enough  in a forest, you will eventually create a path". (Something else she said was that exercising, eating clean and doing yoga/meditating should not be seen as a painful chore, but rather as a gift you give yourself. She certainly knew what she was talking about since she was a recovered nicotine and caffeine addict who at some point had had suicidal tendencies. When I met her a few years into her "yoga conversion", she was one of the happiest, healthiest people ever.)

The habit I am the most proud of having formed is the habit of resisting sweets. I can now serve dessert to the kids without drooling all over the table, becoming extremely cranky or starting to hyperventilate! How wonderful is that? It took a good 8 months, but here I am, a sober ex-sweet tooth! If you've known me in my younger years, you know this is nothing short of a miracle. Interestingly, just as I let go of the sugar, I was also able to let go of the regular use of Ibuprofen... hmm... food for thought.

In any case, when you decide to create a new habit, start slow. It's too easy to get carried away and do great... for a week. I am certainly a pro at that. But what about persistence and consistency? Those are the magic words that will bring lasting results. Let's borrow from Chinese philosophy for a moment:

Lay plans for the accomplishment of the difficult while it is still easy; make something big by starting with it when small. The difficult in the world must of necessity have its beginning in the easy; the big in the world must of necessity have its beginning in the small. Hence it is because the sage never attempts to be great that he succeeds in becoming great. (Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching)

2) Throw excuses to the curb

Lack of time is a common but invalid excuse for not exercising. The people I know who exercise regularly either wake up at 4:30-5 am to do so, or use their lunch time for it, or go in the evening once the kids are in bed. The people I know who don't exercise regularly seem to magically find time for TV or other time wasting activities. To those who say exercise is time-consuming, I respond "yes, and so is sleep, but you sleep anyways!" Exercise is just one of those things you cannot sacrifice. I like what Catherine DeVrye says about it in her book Hot Lemon & Honey:

We seldom think to place a value on our greatest asset - our own health, which can never be replaced. It's something we generally take for granted until, for some reason, we no longer have it. Only then do we fully realize that without good health it's almost impossible to fully enjoy anything else, including the other valuable assets of friends and family.

We're often so busy accumulating physical goods that we feel we're too busy to look after our own physical well-being. People often ask how I find time in my busy travel schedule to fit in exercise. I admit that it's not easy but I know, and remind them, that if we're too busy to look after our own health, we're too busy - period! And, if you don't take care of your physical body, where else do you plan to live?

They ask how I can afford the time to exercise daily. I reply that I can't afford not to take the time. Admittedly, it's sometimes difficult to get up on a cold winter morning and getting started is usually the hardest part. But I also know that I feel so rejuvenated after exercise that I often wonder why it was such a struggle to get going in the first place.

When it comes to a healthy lifestyle, the only acceptable excuses are those you make to do more of what's good for you. For example, I will use a 2 cm snowfall as an excuse to go shovel, even when the forecast calls for rain and it will most likely melt in the next 12 hours, on its own. I also carry less stuff downstairs/upstairs at a time, an excuse to do more "cardio trips" in the house.

3) Get help

From a friend. From a family member. From a professional. I know, it's not easy. It means admitting "I can't do it on my own." It sucks that we would need someone else to accomplish something that seems so basic. But it's just the way it works. I used to work as a copy editor for a smoking cessation campaign, and the first thing that people who registered were asked to do was to find a partner or "mentor". This is someone you can call when you have a craving. Someone who will support you, encourage you, check on you. In brief, someone you will be accountable to. If it works for smoking cessation, it works for any other healthy habit you want to create. I can attest that having a running partner for early morning runs makes a HUGE difference.

I hesitated a very long time before hiring a personal trainer. It seemed so expensive. Plus, I knew what I had to do. I didn't need to pay someone to tell me! Yet I was failing. I was just not reaching my goals. Finally I decided to invest the money. And suddenly the results started to show.

You don't necessarily need a trainer (or a nutritionist, a coach, a psychologist, name it). (Although paying someone might give you the extra motivation to get something accomplished... and usually proves to work faster.) But you need someone. Your social media network could do the trick: I have some friends who regularly post their food or fitness challenges on Facebook. Making it "official" is a great way to force yourself to do it (registering for a race is, too).

Find a supportive friend or family member, and tell them about your goal. It works for long term, medium term, and even short term goals. For example: I had been planning to do a big cleanup of my office for several weeks. It was not happening. So one morning I woke up and told D: today I'm cleaning up my office. Please make sure I do it. By the end of the day, the office was completely done, and D didn't even have to say anything. The single fact that I knew that he knew forced me to do it. I was accountable.

Another example: A client recently sent me a massive translation contract with a blurry deadline. The first few days I procrastinated and basically did not get much done. Exasperated at myself, I wrote to the client, and announced that from now on, I was planning to send them 1000 words a day of translated text (I can do more but I have other clients), with a final complete delivery on a specified date. After that I had no choice; I had made a commitment, and I had to honor it. (The client was delighted.)

4) Prepare coping strategies

Changing a habit will not be a smooth ride. Forget it. It won't. What are you gonna do when you get a crazy craving? (I got so many of those I stopped counting them.) Or when you're placed in an extremely tempting situation? For the former (cravings), I bought chocolate-flavored whey protein bars. When I crave carbs, I grab one. The only carbs it contains are mostly fiber, and the rest is protein. For the latter (temptations), I make sure I plan in advance. For example, there was a birthday party today. I knew there would be chips, pizza, pop/juice and cake. I decided beforehand that I would have one slice of pizza and either chips or cake (small portion), not both. Since drinks have a way of ruining an otherwise healthy diet, I brought my own bottle of water (with a wedge of lemon in it). Coming prepared was the only way I was gonna be able to do this right. And I did.

Similarly, you can lay out your workout clothes in advance, prepare your meals and snacks in advance, write a food/exercise journal, use smaller plates, etc. Strategies abound, it's up to you to select a few that make a difference in your life.

5) Have your own personalized plan

Some tricks and ideas I have shared here will work for you. Some won't. You will have to test and try. Once you've identified a winning strategy, stick to it!

6) If you have kids... teach them self-discipline

Children do not magically learn self-discipline overnight. They do not suddenly wake up one morning a new, mature person. This is something that is learned on an everyday basis. Help your kids develop this ever-important skill... today.

I am worried that the new generation is being overprotected more than it is being raised. Do we want our children to experience no annoyances now, or do we want them to grow into mentally sturdy adults? How are they gonna fend for themselves once we're not around to monitor, supervise and "kiss and make it better" ? That time will come sooner than we think! A mother I was talking to yesterday said to me that whenever she or her husband feel like "babying" their daughter, they remind themselves that they are creating "the adult of tomorrow". Will this adult be equipped to deal with life's difficulties, or will s/he have been so sheltered that the smallest challenge will seem insurmountable?

Doing things you don't like when you don't feel like it, taking responsibility for your own actions (as long it doesn't pose a threat to your psychological or physical integrity) while you're still a kid prepares you for "real life". I am very thankful that my parents never prepared a separate meal for me, and always asked me to at least try, and try again, new foods/foods I didn't like. They didn't feed me "kid food". They served me food... period. Including Brussel sprouts and other weird tasting stuff. I will admit that it wasn't always pleasant. But today, as an adult, I can eat pretty much anything, and I am always willing to try new flavors. When I see how complicated and painful eating can be for adult picky eaters, I feel deep gratitude. Really.

(If we fed the children "grown-up food" instead of "kid food", we might be very surprised by the results. When we were little, some of the foods my brother and I loved included blue cheese, sour kraut and raw oysters. Nowadays, my own kids ask for seconds of bok choy. I once heard myself tell R "Finish your chocolate cake if you want more fruit" and "Will you please leave some broccoli for the others!" We should never assume that children will only appreciate bland foods.)

At the end of the day, none of us should feel helpless, slave to a bad habit. All of us deserve to take good care of ourselves. You can do it! Starting now!

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