Stop Kicking the Can Down the Road

Hi everyone. My name is Troy and it’s been five weeks since I’ve posted. I’m full of excuses. Busy at work, planning a trip, international travel, illness, different spring breaks for four kids, yada yada… But in reality, there’s a wealth of things on the list to write about and I haven’t made the time for it. If I’m honest, I haven’t had the inspiration. I have sat down multiple times to craft a post, and I haven’t finished one. So this is the marker I’m laying down. Write, or hang up the keyboard.

I have several posts planned. Here’s a quick list of what I’ll post in the coming weeks:

  • Travel:
    • A frequent visitor’s guide to Barcelona
    • Buying property in Catalunya
    • Attending El Clasico as a Barcelona fan in Madrid
  • Fitness:
    • Being a Beginner
    • Learning to Climb Part 2
    • Running – Continuing Return from Injury
  • Mindfulness:
    • Why Not Inner Peace through Christianity?

What Bad Habits Would You Like to Stop?

I’m blessed to have a great team at work who entertains my introverted need to connect on a more-than-small-talk level. I’ve explained in a previous post that my work team has “huddles” to bring each other up to speed on our work and that Friday’s are dedicated to a philosophical discussion prompt. This Friday’s prompt was: “What bad habits would you like to stop?”

Open the kimono

There’s a vulnerability with this prompt and I didn’t want anyone to be uncomfortable. So I kicked us off with a bad habit that I would very much like to cut out. Since my last marathon in December, I decided to take a short break from running and working out. I was burnt out. After taking a three week break, I have struggled since January to get back into any groove. It has essentially become a bad habit for me to sabotage my own routine. I explained to my team that after a few days in a row of the behavior I want, I’d come home from work and procrastinate getting changed for my run because of “paying the bills” or some other thing that could be done later. This would effectively destroy my 3 or 5 day streak and then disrupt the whole process of getting back into a fitness routine. I have had some success with using the scorecard I wrote about in a recent post, but I don’t consider myself out of the woods just yet.

Having “opened my own kimono,” my team felt more at ease with sharing. As we progressed around the table one person even said, “I’m so relieved to hear that I’m not the only one who struggles like this.” I’ve put the team members’ intentions in the following numbered list. Note that these are college educated professionals who range in age from 24 to 60+ and have their lives together. Here’s how it went around the table. Obviously, I’ve left out names.

  1. I want to crowd out (more on this later) things that I want to stop with reading more books.
  2. I need to stop procrastinating cleaning out my garage. I haven’t been able to park my car in there for years.
  3. I want to stop wasting time on my phone. I can lose up to an hour in the morning before work and up to an hour before bed. Some of the practices are good – like I’m working on foreign language skills, but some of it is just flat out, unproductive scrolling.
  4. I want to stop looking forward so much. While looking forward has helped me achieve a lot of goals, I find it hard to just live in the moment and appreciate what I have.
  5. I want to stop trying to form new habits “cold turkey.” Late last year, I tried to cut out caffeine and go vegan at the same time. I lasted four days. I think I was hallucinating.
  6. I want to stop wearing myself out at work so that I have no energy for family time. I sit on the couch and get lost in TV or something and then realize hours have gone by and I’ve missed out on time with my preschool daughter.
  7. I have made strides in this area over the years, but I find that I still get pulled in trying to help people who don’t want to help themselves.
  8. I want to do a better job of finishing off personal projects. I get excited about things and go full on for the first 90% and then I just can’t seem to get to the finish line with the last 10%.

Crowding out the bad with the good

Assuming you’re at least marginally interested in habits if you’ve read this far, there are a couple of concepts I’d like to highlight. First, the first Team Member shared the idea of crowding out undesirable behaviors with desirable behaviors. This is all the rage in wellness habits. Nutritionists are now routinely telling their clients to crowd out processed or deep fried foods and red meat with more fresh vegetables and fruits. It works because of positive psychology. We funny monkeys (thanks Nick Offerman) respond better to the affirmative “eat more of this” than we do the restrictive “cut out that.”

In this case, Team Member 1 wants to crowd out time lost going down internet rabbit holes with more time reading books – a noble endeavor indeed. This crowding out concept would also help Team Member 5 who has seen the abrupt “cold turkey” method fall flat, as well as Team Member 3 who wants to reduce wasted screen time. Speaking of screen time, I recently decided to delete a vacuous app that was sucking me into the never-ending scroll. I didn’t delete my account so I still get notified if someone connects directly with me, but the web browser version is much less satisfying than the app. So, I’ve crowded out senseless scrolling with book time.

Be in the present

The second concept is being present. I’m absolutely fascinated by Buddhism. The more I learn about it, the more I am blown away that these 2,500 year old concepts align so completely with modern psychology. For a deeper dig into this space, check out Robert Wright’s book, Why Buddhism is True. Team Member 4 mentioned a desire to enjoy the present in lieu of always looking to what’s next. This concept of being present is very much a part of Buddhist tradition. As His Holiness the Dalia Lama has been quoted, “There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done. One is called Yesterday and the other is called Tomorrow. Today is the right day to Love, Believe, Do and mostly Live.” Team Member 4 is almost 15 years younger than me, so in my book, he’s well ahead of the wellness game by recognizing this habit.

As I started down the path of my mindfulness journey a couple of years ago, I became aware of how much time I was mentally spending not in the present. I describe it this like this: Most of my mental time was either ruminating over past losses or in anxious anticipation of future losses. I don’t think that Team Member 4 is in loss mode like I was. I think he’s more in planning mode to achieve his next goal. But it can be equally detrimental to look forward to “one day.” As one achieves goal after goal, he or she often finds that the destination wasn’t quite as sweet as anticipated. Then what? The trick I’ve learned is to start on a mindfulness path and try to achieve quiet satisfaction with right now. If you’re interested, I highly recommend subscribing to Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits for a simple, free and unbelievably rich resource.

A nerd and his team

I’m a self-proclaimed wellness habit nerd so I had a blast with this conversation. I have somewhat expected these Friday philosophical discussions to become trite after a couple of months. But they haven’t. In my 40+ years, this is the first time I have found a group of people who keeps striving for self-development for any length of time. Every Friday, I count my lucky stars that I get to work with this amazing group of like-minded individuals.

Running Routine: Using a Scorecard to Get Back on Track

My dog is a very good dog. He’s loving, smart, obedient, careful with his 60 lbs size, and almost never makes a mistake. Today, he went out for his morning routine and found something new in the yard that was extremely smellyand then he rolled in it. The last time he did this a couple of years ago, it was a young bird that had fallen out of the nest and died. Now that he’s done this, I need to try to find the offending matter, remove it from the yard and then give him a bath so he doesn’t spread the stinky, mystery “juice” all around the house. This event now takes up the time that I had allotted to fix a healthy meal and then head out in my running gear for an already tight schedule. Oh Rusty, what have you gotten into?

Rusty post-bath
Rusty post-bath

The last several weeks have been a lot like this; our car was rear-ended by a person who has a complicated insurance situation, my wife had to have an unplanned surgery, add in a choir concert, a birthday, an awards ceremony, friends dropping in from out of town, and so on. In addition to disrupting my running schedule, I’ve also been eating “fast food,” opting for veggie burgers and fries instead of well balanced, whole food meals. My pants are tight, I’m grumpy, and I am out of my running routine. In less than 30 days, I need to run three legs of a 150 mile, 24 hour race. I’m the captain of the team so there’s no backing out. I’m not that far out of shape, and I can get there. But I honestly need some mechanism to help me get and stay on the path.

Self-Licensing

Why would a person who ran four marathons last year need a mechanism to get back on track? Moral Self-Licensing. Daniel Effron and his colleagues define this concept as follows: “past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic, behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral.” Of course, my issues are not so much moral or ethical in nature, but they certainly are problematic.

There’s a sort of mental accounting going on here. For example, we got rear-ended through no fault of ours. The guy who hit us gave us a bogus insurance card. Without getting into too many details, he has a pseudo-company car and is insured by someone else. So we’re taking extra time to track it all down so we can get our car fixed without legal escalations. We’re doing all the right things, being professional, jumping through the various hoops, but it is taxing. So in effect, I’ve been giving myself “credit” for doing the right thing in these other areas and then opting for a glass of wine instead of heading out into the cold for a training run. I recognized this Self-Licensing behavior a few days ago and realized that I needed to make a change.

Developing the Scorecard

If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. – Peter Drucker

I have used this principle countless times in business and in my personal life. In this case I knew that, at a minimum, I needed to get on track with my running. But there’s a balance here too. Run too much at the expense of other things and the wheels fall off. The obvious companion to running is my diet; I’ve got to cut back on the processed foods. I have also learned that I need to spend at least a little time on mediation as well as some creative outlet to help me feel balanced. So I developed a quick scorecard using Apple’s Numbers application that I can access from almost any device.

Designing the metrics takes a little thought too. I have done scorecards in the past where I simply assigned myself a 5 point rating, where 5 = “well done” and 1 = “ugh”. DANGER: Self-Licensing can come into play here too. For instance, I might assess my day thinking about all the toil and trouble I had and then give myself a bonus point because, really how much salt can be in that veggie burger and fries, anyway? Answer: A LOT, so I need to count it correctly. So I got specific. On first glance, the categories below might seem tedious. Well… I AM a Process Engineer, so I’ve timed it. It takes me no more than 5 minutes to complete the scorecard daily. Here are my scorecard categories I’m using for the 30 days’ preparation going into my team running event:

  • Diet: I eat a plant-based diet, so I’m simply breaking food into two categories: either came directly from a plant (raw spinach) or it was factory processed prior to me eating it (burrito shell). (e.g. 11 whole plant foods out of 20 total foods on the day = 55%)
  • Exercise: Expressed as a percentage of 60 minutes of activity that raises my heart rate (e.g. 30 min = 30/60 = 50%)
  • Meditation: Expressed as a percentage of 10 minutes of meditation (e.g. 7 min = 7/10 = 70%)
  • Gratitude: Expressed as a percentage of writing down 3 things that I’m grateful for (e.g. 2 items = 2/3 = 67%)
  • Creativity: Expressed as a percentage of 20 minutes of creativity: writing, photography, drawing, painting
  • The Feels: 5 point Likert scale where 5 is Amaze-balls, 3 is Meh, and 1 is the inside of a used Trash bag. I’ll use this to track how I’m feeling over each of the 30 days.
  • Notes: Very brief (10 words or less) observations or things I might want to work on tomorrow.

So… How’s it going?

Date Diet Exercise Meditation Gratitude Creativity The Feels Notes

Mar 14

55%

101%

170%

100%

200%

4

I felt great getting started with this!

Mar 15

50%

150%

120%

0%

0%

3

I had a good workout but feeling meh

Mar 16

42%

75%

150%

100%

0%

4

Too much processed food; but date night!

Mar 17

50%

113%

0%

100%

200%

4

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

I have run 4 days in a row and I’m feeling quite good about it! I can tell that I’m already bridging some of my fitness gaps while maintaining a good balance with the rest of my healthy habits. Even though I’m only holding myself accountable through a digital scorecard, it has completely given me the motivation I needed. I don’t like entering zeroes.

How about the other stuff?

We’re chipping away at it all. My wife has turned the corner from her surgery and is back on her feet. I took my lunch hour on Friday and made several important calls. I have also observed that now that I’m getting back into a fitness routine, my mood is lifting and so sitting down to figure out “life’s current challenges,” is actually getting easier.

Five Benefits from Five Years of Journaling

I first started journaling when I was going through a divorce several years ago. The stresses of separating from my spouse, figuring out finances, and helping the children adjust all while maintaining my focus at work was getting to me. I almost started journaling on a whim. I’m a bit of an introvert and I’m not prone to sharing details with others. So journaling was my way out; my way to organize my thoughts and to “say” the things that I didn’t want to actually verbalize to anyone else. I wrote somewhere around 200 pages over 18 months. When my divorce was complete, I purged the file and later started a new one. My second journal turned 5 years old two weeks ago. I’ve decided to start a new one. The file size was getting unwieldy and five years seems like a good cutover point. Starting anew, I reflected on the journaling process and realized how much I’ve learned from it. While there’s probably more, here are my top five benefits from five years of journaling.

1.) Problem solving

I solve problems for a living. Of course, I could argue that everyone who has a job is essentially being paid to solve problems that customers aren’t willing or able to do themselves. But problem-solving is my specialty. I have an engineering background, several technical certifications, and 20+ years of experience solving fairly sizable problems across various industries. With these credentials, one might think that I could solve just about any problem in my sleep. That would be wrong. While it certainly is my forte, sometimes I get stuck. I find that journaling is my unlocking mechanism. The free form of journaling helps me describe a problem from multiple angles or to refine what it is and what it isn’t. I find that spending time writing about a problem not only helps me find breakthrough solutions, but it also stops the swirling in my head. I also use it for household problem-solving. For instance, there was a particularly nasty head and chest cold going through our house from season to season and journaling about it over time helped me figure out how to 1.) avoid getting it and 2.) speed the recovery time from more than 3 weeks to about 5 days. 

2.) Procrastination buster

I’m not one for procrastinating. I’ve always been internally motivated, so when I recognize that something needs to be done, I generally get going. Therefore when I am actually procrastinating on something, I know it’s a special cause. I might not like what needs to be done and I might be waiting on a better solution. Or, it might be that I have too much to do and – if I’m honest – I’m too busy feeling sorry for myself that I won’t pick a direction and move. Bring on journaling! Writing about these situations helps me to be honest with myself about my lack of movement. It really might be that I’m overwhelmed. I’ve often heard the quote, “Sometimes when you don’t know what to do, the best thing to do is nothing.” (Unknown attribution) I wouldn’t say that I do nothing. But I certainly have learned that sitting down to the keyboard, which was no where on the list of things to do, helps me prioritize the work in front of me. When I’m procrastinating out of a sense of being overwhelmed, journaling is exactly what I need. If I’m just hung up on the task at hand or feeling sorry for myself, sometimes I go ahead and have a good complaint session. I write down all the crap that’s annoying me at the time. The act of reading it after I’ve written it helps me see how petty I’m being. Recognizing my pettiness then causes me to shift into gratitude for everything that’s great in my life. And gratitude is extremely motivating. The point is that while I don’t procrastinate often, it can be caused by a number of different factors, and writing helps me get to the bottom of it and get moving.

3.) Better communicator

Have I mentioned that I’m an introvert? One of the key characteristics of an introvert is that we have far, far more thoughts than what comes out of our mouths. A lot of times, I’m just not ready to speak. I might have 4 thoughts on the same topic and if I start speaking without organizing them, I’ll probably confuse myself, never mind the poor listener. Journaling helps me get my thoughts out of my swirling mind. When a topic is particularly complex, the only way to sort it out is to pick up the journal and simply start writing. I may write in circles – making the same point repeatedly with only slightly different angles. But writing it down helps me sort out my thoughts so that I can communicate in a cogent manner. 

4.) Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and exercise control over your emotions, which in turn helps you connect with others. Journaling has helped me in strides on this front by following a simple guide that I learned in college. I took a course on Personal Transformation, which was amazing. Among other techniques, I learned to break down interpretations of an event. I’ll use an example to illustrate. Let’s say I’m running late to work and on the commute, someone cuts me off in traffic. My brain might jump to a conclusion like, “She cut me off just to be a jerk because she could see I’m in a hurry.” In this class, we learned to separate what happened from our interpretations. What actually happened? A lady merged into traffic in front of me, maybe cutting it a little too close given local standards for traffic spacing. When I interpreted what happened, I assigned meaning to the event. She meant harm. She meant to do what she did to prove a point. When I journal about this event, I might rant and rave about it for a few sentences, but then I use the “what happened and what did I interpret” method to break it down. After journaling, I might realize that I created the tight space with my rushed driving. She might have thought she had ample time to pull into traffic had I been going with the flow of normal traffic. Or, maybe she was also in a hurry because she was on the way to the hospital to spend time with an ill child. I really can’t know what was going on with her and I may have had some input in the event. Over time, this practice has become like a muscle that I flex through journaling so that I’m able to process faster in real time, thus giving me more Emotional Intelligence.

5.) Mindfulness Step 1

I didn’t realize it, but when I started journaling on and off about 8 years ago during my divorce, I took my first steps toward a path of mindfulness. dictionary.com defines mindfulness as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.” I originally started journaling to sort out my thoughts and feelings during my divorce. I needed to address my concerns about the kids and money and the car and the laundry and the bills and the… you get the point. Through journaling, I was able to feel like I was doing something about my concerns. I could write them out to their logical conclusion and see that things would somehow be okay. I was learning to be present. It was a form of meditation for me. Having logged 300 pages in the last five years, I can easily say that journaling was a HUGE first step in my mindfulness journey. 

Getting Started

If these five benefits sound pretty awesome, there’s not really too much to getting started. You might start with a pen and paper. I personally use Pages on Apple products and simply password protect the file to help ensure that it doesn’t get opened or edited by others with whom I share devices. You can do the same with Google Docs and Microsoft products. Whatever you do, stick with it. You might not see the benefits on your first entry, but over time you’ll have your own top five list of benefits.