You don't have to be a profoundly intuitive person to understand the link between emotional problems and physical pain. You only have to think back to that bad day you had at work in your recent past and the stress headache you experienced as a result. Dr. John E. Sarno takes this basic premise to make a bold claim in his books, Healing Back Pain and The MindBody Prescription. His claim is that most (not all) back pain is caused by a syndrome he calls TMS or tension myositis syndrome. According to his books, he argues that most back pain can be attributed to this excruciating, yet harmless condition. 80% of Americans will experience back pain at some point in their life, and I have experienced my share. (Disclaimer: I do not offer any medical advice, have no medical background, and the purpose of this writing is for entertainment purposes only. Please go to the doctor if you are in pain or have a medical condition. This is not an anti-medical establishment article.)
The author argues that if most back pain were due to aging, as most people believe, it would decrease significantly in the elderly. However, according to his data, this actually declines after retirement - when daily responsibilities decrease. He writes that the majority of back pain occurs during the ages when responsibility is greatest (approximately between ages 30 and 65).
Furthermore, he argues that TMS is a harmless, yet extremely painful condition that arises as a defense mechanism so that the mind does not experience overwhelmingly painful emotions such as grief, anger, rage, or memories of past trauma. The pain of TMS is a highly effective distraction from emotions we may fear would be destabilizing. Sarno argues that once you do the important psychological work of looking into those repressed emotions, the TMS will disappear, sometimes quite quickly, sometimes quite slowly. Sometimes, it will move its location, from the neck to shoulder or knee. This is proof that you are making progress and you should continue looking closely at those repressed emotions. Because, Sarno contends, once you are paying attention to those uncomfortable and overwhelming emotions, your defense mechanism is no longer needed, and according to Sarno, the pain will disappear when you treat the underlying psychological (emotional) reasons for the discomfort.
So next time you are reaching for the heating pad, you may just want to dim the lights and sit quietly in the arm chair instead; to ponder those situations that are wreaking havoc on your unconscious, and not just your back.
DISCLAIMER: This blog is not intended to substitute professional medical or psychological advice. Please see a professional if you think you may need help.
There is a lot of wisdom in the old advice to "start small". Stephen Guise has revolutionized this concept in his application of it to habit formation. After reading research on willpower by Baumiester & Tierney, he decided that willpower was the problem in his constant struggle to form positive life-changing habits. He decided to make willpower his ally by making his goals exceedingly small. Instead of working out for an hour at the gym everyday, Guise tried a one push-up challenge. He challenged himself to do only one push-up per day, with no secret goals of doing more. The clincher was that most often, he ended up doing more. And, in the end, after a significant amount of time passed, the habit evolved into a full-blown gym routine. He coined the term "mini-habits" to describe the abysmally humble goals and titled his book after this signature brand of micro habits.
Mini-habits is a short and accessible book describing the process, thinking, and method behind instituting minuscule habits such as adding one glass of water, eating one bite of an apple, changing into your workout clothes (not actually working out), flossing one tooth, throwing out one pair of socks and other seemingly ridiculously infinitesimal goals that pale in comparison to the common objectives such as eating clean, working out 6 days a week, flossing two times a day, or decluttering the entire house.
The logic stems from solid psychological and scientific research into the nature of habits. 40% of our activity is repeated from day to day. Therefore, habits drive much of our pursuits and not our higher executive functioning, but the basal ganglia at the base of the brain. This might be why you plop down on the couch and watch 4 hours of shows every night despite your best intention to start a habit of daily walking. Habits drive our daily actions. However, they are very good servants (if they serve you well) but very poor masters. Guise's thinking on willpower and habits naturally progresses from the question: if willpower is not on our side, then what is? His answer: make habit on your side. By making your goal exceptionally small, it is impossible to fail. Once the habit takes formation, the habit will run on its own and you will have an automatic action that is positive and like a reflex. He advises that you may eventually increase your mini-habit, for example, from one push-up to 10 or 20. But be careful to not do too much. You will talk yourself out of your next workout session or fruit salad if it is too large a goal.
My favorite quote from the book is, "Be the person with embarrassing goals and impressive results instead of one of the many people with impressive goals and embarrassing results.” This proverb rang remarkably true as I added three mini-habits these past few months as I read the book. I had a mini-habit of 2 minutes on the treadmill, 10 bicep curls, and one yoga posture a day. So far, I have formed habits of using the treadmill in the morning and lifting weights with the help of Stephen Guise's ideas on habit formation and willpower. Nonetheless, I did fail at my yoga posture mini-habit as I was seduced by the idea of larger sessions (30-60 minutes) or taking a yoga class at the studio, and instead talked myself out of the practice all together. Furthermore, I believe I should have heeded his advice of starting with 1-2 mini-habits at a time. In short, I believe I started too many mini-habits at once. I will revisit the yoga mini-habit of one posture in the future. For that reason, I will let my two successful mini-habits drive my morning workouts. To that end, my new mini-habits have served me well. I typically workout anywhere from 5-45 minutes each morning.
So if you are looking to make a positive change in your life, maybe it has nothing to do with scheduling hours at the gym or a four-day juice cleanse. Maybe you just need to start with that walk around the block and that slice of apple...it just might be a slice of heaven!
Thanks for sharing in my journey.
- Betty Lynn
There are many ways people think of themselves when you mention the word "willpower" - either you have it or you don't. This is something that Kelly McGonigal proves to be untrue in her revelatory book, The Willpower Instinct. She maintains, through careful examination and presentation of current and past research, that willpower is like a muscle. It can be fatigued or strengthened. Not only that, you may have a reserve of willpower that is limited. Similar in fashion to how you may be unable (hypothetically) to walk more than 5 miles in one day. Everyone has a limit.
But the good news is is that limit is moveable. Yes, you can strengthen willpower. And she proves this to be true. She cites studies in Australia where people were given a free gym membership. Not only did their physical health improve when they changed this keystone habit, but all other bad habits seemed to decrease (people smoked less, drank less, ate less junk food) and they had other good habits increase such being conservative in their finances. Thus proving that a daily gym habit strengthens your willpower and has a reinforcing effect on the rest of the activities that require willpower.
I recognized this domino effect when I started practicing meditation. Known to increase qualities like compassion and mindfulness, meditation is also an activity that can strengthen your willpower. Essentially because it is an exercise in focusing the mind. This keystone habit bled into every area of my life. My bad habits started dropping like flies. I stopped sleeping late and arriving everywhere perpetually late and my good habits started flourishing. I took up an exercise regimen, I started praying again, I worked longer hours at work, I read more, I produced more artwork...you get the picture. Basically, if you start small with the right thing - a keystone habit like quitting smoking, going to talk therapy, exercising or yoga; you will find that positivity kind of grows like a fungus - it gets all over everything.
This book proves that the more you exercise willpower, the easier it becomes to do just that. In the same way that doing ten pushups makes it easier to do 12, then 14, then 16. But how does one exercise willpower? Kelly McGonigal identifies three basic tenets of willpower: saying "I will" to positive activities, saying "I won't" to negative activities, and saying "I want" to longer-term goals. The trick is to start small. Try saying "I will" to drinking one extra glass of water a day, "I won't" to an afternoon gossip fest, slowly shifting the focus of the conversation to more uplifting topics, and "I want" to longer-term goals such as physical and mental health and well-being. Small changes such as these suggestions might just take their toll after the weeks roll by. You may just find yourself turning down that offer for happy hour and hitting the gym instead...miracles do happen!
Mindset by Carol Dweck is an informally written and insightful text which will shed light on your thinking through anecdotes and research on the differences between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. In a fixed mindset, one believes their qualities, talent, and intelligence are fixed and cannot be changed. In a a growth mindset, the person believes that their output and performance is a result of effort and dedication. Their thinking is process-oriented: focused on the learning and growth as opposed to reaching some final ultimate state.
This has obvious implications for parenting, business, school, and relationships; each of which Dweck explores through story telling and actual research on how a fixed mindset or a growth mindset may operate, express themselves, or what the end results of these types of thinking may be in each area of life. For parents, educators, and coaches, she points out that the type of praise we use with children, and the examples we set through verbalizing our thoughts, and being an example; will either cultivate or discourage a growth mindset in children, students, and athletes. Praising the process as opposed to the end result is her suggestion for imparting this important mindset. For example, instead of praising a student for being so smart while writing an essay, you may ask them about their process of writing and their decision making during it, or what was difficult about writing the essay, or simply what they learned. "Wow, you must have learned so much about hydroelectricity through your research. What was your approach in evaluating resources for your paper?" Instead of, "This is a brilliant essay! You are one of my brightest students!" This will orient the student towards seeing themselves as progressing in the process of lifelong learning as opposed to being satisfied to rest on their laurels. Of course, Dweck provides ample research on how this works with data and studies in education to make her point more valid and time tested.
Of course, Dweck emphasizes the importance of changing our narratives on successful people from narratives of wild genius to narratives on their extensive failures, and their long years of trial and error before achieving worldly successful such as Edison. While listening to an education expert on a show one night on TV, I listened as she quoted research that showed that certain cultures and countries are naturally more growth oriented in their textbooks such as Asian countries who often start narratives with long descriptions of the person's failures before success; while American textbooks will often start with sentences such as "Darwin is one of the greatest scientific thinkers of our time." You can imagine how a small child might think, "Well, I am never going to be a scientific genius," but a child reading a growth-oriented textbook might identify with the scientist's failures by thinking something like, "I have had many failures also."
I trained my fellow colleagues on this type of thinking through our exploration of the text, an online quiz through Dweck's website mindsetonline.com and her TED talk on ted.com. I believe that this is a really pivotal stance to take in life, especially as you may be inclined towards generativity as a parent, educator, mentor, or coach. In addition to coaching others on how to use this type of thinking to expand opportunities for English Language Learners, I believe this is an important text to use to analyze our own thinking. Although when I took the quiz, the results confirmed that I was in a growth mindset, I took the quiz after reading the book and felt my results were possibly skewed. I definitely feel that, before reading the text, I was very prone to fixed mindset thinking. I thought of myself as "smart" with fixed qualities such as a "good work ethic", "curiosity" and "compassion". I could see how transforming the way I think of myself could lead to further growth in these areas.
Recent research in neuroscience proves how malleable intelligence is. Therefore, we cannot believe we are one way or the other, if simply put, there is room for growth and improvement in every human on earth, no matter who they are! This has helped me approach life from a growth mindset, looking at setbacks as temporary bumps in the road of progress and successes as markers of strong effort and dedication.
Finally, I feel that exploring the themes in this book has helped me not be satisfied with things as they are. This has renewed my efforts to take on more and varied roles in every area of my life as I seek to cultivate previously undone experiences such as illustrating (I am a fine artist), and blogging (I always wanted to be a writer). This has helped me view myself as someone whose work is not yet finished, someone who may fail - but that is just part of the journey towards success, and someone who will see fantastic, phenomenal results with process-oriented thinking in approaching her life's work. I believe that everyone would benefit and be inspired by reading this book and teasing out the nuances of their thinking and self evaluation. Changing from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset may just open you up to a life you never imagined!
Arguably one of the most gifted wordsmiths and thinkers of our time, David Allen's writing on organization and productivity for the modern person reverberates with resounding clarity of purpose and intention. His focused method, aptly named "GTD" for getting things done, and its accompanying practices and principles spell out for the average person how to tame the chaos in our lives due to the overwhelming amount of information streaming at us through emails, colleagues, supervisors, devices, reading materials, voicemails, phone conferences, bills, appointments, and the million other "to do's" we have to conquer over the course of our days, weeks, and lives.
David Allen makes a distinction between a simple "to do" list into "next action" lists and asks us to integrate the question into our lives, "What's the next action?" This action-oriented thinking makes us close open loops, defining our work, eliminating vague non-decisions that may plague us at later times, like when we are trying to enjoy the sunset (or sunrise if you're a lark like me). He separates these next actions into discrete lists in separate contexts and functions in low-tech fashion (looseleaf planner or notebook) or high-tech fashion such as a list organizer like OmniFocus offers.
Once these lists are in order you ask yourself to go through five stages of control: capture (what do you want to accomplish? change? do?), process (decide what to do), organize (put on the correct list), review (in the weekly review), and engage - just do it! The type of activity you engage in is determined by four considerations: context, time, energy, and priority. These methods are compounded by a few add-ons which he considers crucial: email inbox to zero every week, a filing system that is fun and easy (completed with a labelmaker), project folders, a master project list, a someday/maybe list, the 2-minute rule (if it can be done in less than two minutes - do it now), and finally the oft-referenced weekly review!
The weekly review is something which he considers pivotal to high performance. It is a time, once a week, when you check in with your lists, review your calendar from last two weeks to next two months, capture, process, and organize any next actions coming up, park reminders in your tickler system, and any other actions that are relevant to your specific role or job.
The result of a full and complete implementation of his suggestions would result in what David Allen refers to as "mind like water". A karate master before turning organization and productivity guru, David Allen all but guarantees that you will experience a relaxation and clarity of focus unlike ever before with your newfound control as "captain and commander" of your life and work. I have found this to be expressly true and I will clearly delineate how using this system has affected my life.
I started to implement the GTD method in May of 2016 at the end of the last school year. I spent about 6-8 hours emptying my four email inboxes over the course of 2 days, I used a labelmaker to typeset all of my tabs for my files (home and work), purged my files (home and work), set up an independent workspace in my art studio (as opposed to using my husband's workspace), made project folders and collected reference materials for current projects, captured everything at home and work that wasn't up to my standards, made decisions on what I was going to do about it, organized those decisions onto next action lists, started using a looseleaf notebook for my lists, and much more! I continued to refine and implement the system as I read his next two books over and over: Ready for Anything and Making It All Work. These were crucial to the refinement and understanding of these practices and principles. Finally, I believe I keep rereading these books because I have never (aside from spiritual texts) read someone who wrote with such astounding clarity on life and it's many facets and opportunities for growth.
The benefits I have seen in implementing such a method in my life have been: increased relaxation, increased productivity, a higher level of engagement with life, being clear about everything in my life, being straightforward with myself and with the agreements I make with myself and others, reconsidering commitments due to the shifting nature of my life situations and work demands in a relaxed and focused manner, coping with emergencies and health issues in a clearer and more astute manner, better interpersonal relationships due to fulfilling expectations and clearly stating expectations, pursuing long-lost dreams and hobbies (playing the guitar and becoming a yoga teacher, being realistic with myself, i.e. actually pursuing writing versus being resolved to "someday being a writer" and much, much more!
Overall, alongside my marriage, meditation, and my exercise regimen; I consider using the GTD method to be one of the most profoundly positive things I have integrated into my life and practice in my entire adult life. I cannot sing its praises enough - sometimes to the chagrin of my friends and family who do not share my penchant for organization and GTD - and I am overjoyed at looking to my future with one more tool in my toolbox to approach my life's work, both personal and professional with new purpose, clarity, intention, engagement, and organization! I highly recommend it!
For more information, check out David Allen's website at gtdconnect.com.
Below I have shared some photos of various elements of GTD: my home workspace, my typeset (labelmaker files), my labelmaker, my typeset curriculum binders, my GTD weekly review checklist, and my GTD planner (list holder) and calendar. (I'm totally low-tech - I love paper!)
Disclaimer: this method is meant to strengthen, inspire and collaborate with you to build the life you envision within the parameters of your standards and ideals for operations. This is not meant to be a universal prescription for everyone to behave in the same identical manner. In fact, if done correctly, there would be numerous facets of the method which are unique to you only. Take what works for you, leave what doesn't behind. It's your journey. But whatever you do, as my art mentor and great teacher used to say before every session: MAKE IT COUNT!
I took tremendously helpful tips from this strategically analytical book based on the writings of a time management expert, Laura Vanderkam. Her ideas were surprisingly elegant in their simplicity. The basic premise is that the morning is a quiet time with few distractions that is underutilized by most people. However, not by most successful people. She finds, through extensive interviewing, that most successful people have some type of morning ritual that adds a significant amount of value to either their relationships, their careers or their self (their soul). Morning time is not only carved out by highly effective and productive people but fiercely protected and guarded.
While some may find the morning a time to cultivate relationships - children, spouse, or other relatives over coffee, breakfast or books, some spend their time nurturing their careers; finding the early morning a secret weapon in their arsenal against constant interruptions and barrages of emails and meetings. Finally, the part that really resonated with me was her suggestion to use the morning time to add value to yourself. I have found that activities such as creative expression (in any form), working out (physical fitness), spirituality (prayer and meditation), yoga, reading inspirational texts, and other enriching activities for the individual is how my morning routine best serves me.
Taking inspiration from the book, I started a morning routine this week that included 30-45 minutes of physical fitness - mostly walking on the treadmill and short fitness videos on YouTube - and 20-30 minutes of my already longstanding habit of prayer and meditation. This revived my normally rushed morning and created a sacred space in which I invest in nurturing myself; mind, body, and spirit.
I've heard various little soundbites through the years about famously and wildly successful people who claim they couldn't start their day without their morning training session or simply arriving at the office before anyone else (as I read our former mayor of NYC Mike Bloomberg did in his early career).
There are numerous beneficial effects to exercise which I will review when I revisit the book, Spark by John J. Ratey (a bevy of the latest research on neuroscience and exercise); but the benefit of a morning exercise regimen is one which was not lost on me this week as I went through my day more alert, more focused, more confident, and less troubled by anxiety and workplace stress.
One of the things that helped make this possible is advice I read in one of David Allen's books. He said that if you want to exercise put on your workout clothes, and if you want to write a novel, sit down at the computer, boot the word processor and come up with a title. In other words, action follows form and preparedness. Before this past winter break, the spare bedroom in my home was a place for a guest bed and a treadmill. I hated the art, the color on the walls, and the general "vibe" of the room. However, a fresh coat of paint on the walls and dressers, some new coordinated art, and (most importantly) an exercise mat with successively increasing sets of weights placed along the wall for easy access was the equivalent of "getting in my exercise clothes". For if I didn't have a dedicated space, how and when was this morning ritual going to take place? Needless to say, my exercise regimen was immediately amped up after the dedication of the space to exercise; and the addition of a morning ritual (rising early and strapping on my running shoes) to my already existing exercise regimen was a very cataclysmic combination for my physical fitness.
In case you were wondering why you might need to get up early to squeeze in a morning run before the kids or hubby wakes up, check out this recent excerpt from an article from nbcnews.com:
"British researchers studied about 200 workers at three sites: a university, a computer company and a life insurance firm. Workers were asked to complete questionnaires about their job performance and mood on days when they exercised at work and days when they didn't.
Participants were free to engage in the physical activity of their choice. Most of them spent 30 to 60 minutes at lunch doing everything from yoga and aerobics to strength training and playing pick-up games of basketball.
Six out of 10 workers said their time management skills, mental performance and ability to meet deadlines improved on days when they exercised. The amount of the overall performance boost was about 15 percent, according to the findings, which were presented this month at a meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in Nashville, Tenn." - nbcnews.com
Documentation on increased focus, decreased levels of depression, ADHD, dementia, and other detriments to well-being are well documented in the book, Spark by John J. Ratey, which will be blogged about at a later date. In the meantime, ask yourself, what do I want to add value to and nurture: myself, my relationships, or my career, or a combination of those? And skip that last episode of late time tv, go to bed an hour earlier, set the alarm, and rise and shine! You will not regret it!