Much of the advice I dispense daily in my clinical practice involves guiding people beset by negative thoughts and feelings to respond to emotional discomfort in counterintuitive ways. Anxious? Approach your fears. Depressed? Get moving. Impulsive? Ride out your urges.
It all sounds rather simplistic. Yet changing behaviors in this fashion can improve your mood relatively quickly. Even more important, moving towards what feels scary or hard can help you build a protective core of confidence, making it easier to cope with the difficult times you’ll inevitably have to face in the future.
I won’t ask my patients to do anything I wouldn’t agree to do myself. Some of the “approach behaviors” I work on with them—touching a public toilet seat, say, or limiting themselves to only one glass of wine—don’t present personal challenges. But I certainly generate enough of my own worries to give me ample opportunity to practice what I preach.
Here’s an example: I just signed up for an eight-week course on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
Silly that a program designed to reduce stress should significantly increase mine, right? But just thinking about it makes my mouth dry up and my heart beat faster.
I’d been looking for an opportunity to deepen my meditation practice for some time now. Periodically I’d google “Mindfulness Meditation in DC.” The Insight Meditation Community of Washington (IMCW) always came up. I’d pore over the course offerings and then reject them because the timing wasn’t right or the center’s Buddhist orientation made me uncomfortable.
I had many of the same automatic thoughts and a few new ones yesterday when I found the listing for an MBSR course given through the Insight Meditation Community starting in just two weeks. “Maybe everyone will be a Buddhist. I hope they don’t expect me to practice Buddhism.” “I won’t know what to do.” “Will there be chairs or cushions? Should I bring my own cushion?” “Seven to nine-thirty on a Thursday night . . . I’ll be so tired after work, I won’t feel like going.” “I won’t have time to eat dinner and I’ll be starving.” “I won’t get home until after 10 and I’ll be so wound up I won’t be able to sleep.” “It might be lame, like that last mindfulness course I took.” “I might not be able to find parking.” “I won’t be able to walk the dogs or exercise on Thursdays.” “I don’t know what to wear. Should I wear yoga pants?” “I’’ll have to bring a change of clothes to work.” And even, embarrassing though it is to admit, “We’ll have to take off our shoes. I hope we can wear socks because I won’t have time to get a pedicure in the next two weeks.”
In the end, I recognized my reservations for what they were—excuses designed to avoid an unfamiliar situation causing me trepidation. I don’t like being a newbie, and this class raises all those old first-day-of-school insecurities (probably dating back to the start of kindergarten, when I wet my pants because I was too shy to ask my scary new teacher where the bathroom was and, humiliated, ran to hide in the coatroom when she asked the class who was responsible for the puddle on the floor).
So I did what I’d tell anyone else to do. I signed up.
To be continued . . .
Even though I don’t think New Year’s resolutions work, I’m still a sucker for the kinds of self-improvement lists popping up everywhere this time of year. “Five foods you should never eat!” “The only three exercises you’ll ever need!” “The ten best breakfasts for fat burn!” Even my own recommendations for modifying a morning routine turned up in the latest issue of Working Mother Magazine condensed by the journalist who interviewed me into three ways to “Change a Habit, Change Your Day.”
I’m clearly not the only one irresistably drawn to quick fixes. So here’s another list.
My Five Favorite Tips for Becoming More Productive
1) Don’t wait for motivation to strike.
You don’t have to feel motivated to start. Momentum builds from action, so do something. Anything. Once you take the first step, it gets easier.
2) Stop fooling yourself.
Think you’ll do it later? Think again. Get started now because it will never happen later.
3) Make a daily To Do list.
And then cut it by two-thirds. There’s nothing more daunting than a long list of tasks you’ll never finish. Pick a few items you know you can complete in one day. You can always add more if you have time.
4) Do the hard stuff first.
It’s tempting to get started on the easy, mindless tasks but by the time you get around to the more difficult ones, you’ll have run out of steam (see #2). Motivation researchers have shown we have limited stores of willpower. So jump in and tackle the big challenges first, before your willpower dwindles.
5) Reward yourself.
You may think your day is already front-loaded with too many pleasurable activities (watching cute kitty videos on YouTube, playing Candy Crush Saga, searching home design sites for the perfect ottoman, reading political blogs, making Fantasy Football trades, sneaking in an episode of your favorite TV series). But you’re probably using those as distractions, not rewards. Do the time-wasters after you’ve finished a task and they’ll become motivators instead of sources of guilt. You’ll either enjoy them more or discover the limitations of their appeal, thereby freeing up time to explore new (and possibly more meaningful) leisure pursuits.
So test out my suggestions. If they work, you may never need to make another New Year’s resolution again.
This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.