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.

Looking back on 42

42. That is the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. At least according to Deep Thought, the supercomputer in Douglas Adams’ seminal work, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it is. Those who have read The Hitchhiker’s Guide… will already be snickering with this reminder. Those who have not, should. Having recently completed my 42nd trip around the sun on this tiny blue planet, I’ve decided to have a look back on my Ultimate Year.

  • It was my first full year without my Dad. He died in 2016, and looking back, his death has had a huge impact on me. Most notably, the circumstances of his death had a profound influence on my mindfulness practice.
  • A year of seniors. My son is now a senior in college, my daughter a senior in high school. My, how time flies.
  • I ran my first marathon. And my second, and my third, and my fourth. I can be obsessive.
  • My first full year of eating a plant-based diet. Inspired by Scott Jurek and Rich Roll, I’ve got better health numbers now than I did in most of my 20’s and all of my 30’s.
  • It was a good year for my career too. I want to keep my career separate from this blog, but it was a good year following a promotion to a leadership position. I have a fantastic team full of amazing individuals. I wouldn’t trade a single one.
  • My mindfulness practice tipped – in a good way. I read several insightful books this past year, but two of the best were The Power of Now by Eckart Tolle and Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Gaining insights and simply fumbling my way through it, I have taken control of my emotions and want for almost nothing. I would by no means call myself enlightened, but it is a fascinating state of being.
  • I supportted my wife as she pursues her passion: a Master’s of Psychology from Harvard University.
  • I fell in love with trail running. Previously, I had only pounded the pavement. In my 42nd year, I ran several trail races locally and, perhaps most life-altering, I got the chance to run the petit balcon in the French Alps near Chamonix. This is where I took the lead picture of this post.
  • I was able to go whale watching. Surprisingly, this was the highlight of our trip to the Massachusetts beach house in Marshfield. I expected to like seeing whales. I didn’t expect to be mystified.
  • We finally took the trip to Montserrat. After years of traveling to Barcelona and always thinking about it, we finally took the day trip to Montserrat. The monastery houses the Black Madonna and my Mom was speechless. The views from the mountain are stunning.

As I wrap up this short post, I find myself in a state of complete gratitude. My wife and I both hail from small towns (I’m not even sure “town” is the right word for these places) in the Appalachian Ohio Valley, home of economic backwaters and the opioid crisis. Sometimes we look at each other and just shake our heads in awe of what the Universe has provided. The views at 42 were pretty grand.

The view from the Marshfield, MA beach house:

Whale Watching on Cape Cod

James and me (right) in Chamonix before heading up into the Alps

My homemade veggie paella

Looking down from Montserrat

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.