Friday, March 30, 2012

the power of habits

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about habits. Yes, habits. Gosh, just typing that word I can feel all of its negative connotations jumping off the screen.

So often we're trained to think of habits in such a negative way. Bad habits (biting your nails.) Drug habits (dark chocolate.) Unproductive habits. (watching YouTube videos of Ryan Gosling until your eyes burn... This one is new but frankly I'm in no particular rush to kick it.)

The point is, the word habit is negative because it usually renders people completely helpless to certain behaviors that are destructive. Know why? Because habits are powerful. Why does someone continue to buy cigarettes knowing good and well that they cause cancer? Okay, besides the fact that nicotine is addictive, it's because that behavior is so deeply wired into their routine, their life, even their psyche, that stopping seems nearly impossible.

So then I started to think. Why not use the power of habits for good and not evil. (And YES this does have to be a heroic battle of good vs. evil. I just saw Hunger Games last night and I'm in a bit of an epic-y, everything is a battle to the death kind of dramatic mood. Let's just go with it.)

For some context, let me describe to you my night tonight. I stepped away from my computer at about 5:00 to go workout with Jason at the basketball court. (Sidenote: Tonight it was what Jason likes to call a "last chance workout." For those of you out there that aren't Biggest Loser fans, this is the workout right before the weekly weigh-in where the trainers pretty much all but leave the contestants dead on the gym floor. I continue to try and convince Jason that we are NOT at the Ranch and I am NOT actually working out to literally save my life as many of those contestants are. In return, he continues to pretend he's Dolvett and hands out burpees like it's his job. [Click that link back there and you'll see why I'm cool with the pretending he's Dolvett part.] Okay, don't tell him, but secretly I'm glad he pushes me. If only because I'd never be able to willingly bring about that much pain on myself. Here's to hoping it pays off.) So we finished working out and stopped by the Fresh Market on the way home to get some groceries for dinner. When we got home, he went upstairs to edit his daily video, and I started making dinner to the sound of my Michael Buble Pandora station.

As I'm standing there, chopping up my fresh garlic for the roasted cauliflower and tapping my foot to Mr. Buble, I have a moment where I'm suddenly acutely aware of what I'm actually doing and I think, How in the world did this happen? I then sense the soreness in my quads. I, I feel achey all over... like I was using my muscles or something. I look down at the cutting board. And I'm COOKING! Like from a recipe. And it's CAULIFLOWER. How in the world did this happen??!

I don't know if this has ever happened to you, but something changes so slowly over time that you don't even realize it's becoming a habit.

Working out has always been tough for me, getting out there at least. But now that it's a part of my day, I no longer loathe it, because I expect it. I'm not a domestic person by nature. I've never been great in a kitchen, and I have a lot to learn, but somehow cooking has now become fun for me. Because it's that time after working out that I'm not sitting in front of my computer (which I am for most hours in the day) and I get to just try something new and see how it turns out. That too, has become programmed into my routine, and it's almost... a habit. Yes, there you have it, it's a habit.

The thing I have come to realize is that if you do something enough times, your psyche starts to do all the work for you. You're programming yourself in a way, and each time the effort on your part diminishes just a touch because it begins to feel more and more comfortable. Habits take hard things and make them easier!

So what's the point and why is this important? I think that this super simple lesson is something that everyone can keep in their back pocket when they want to change something about their lives but it seems too hard.

Want to workout more? Want to become a cook? Want to get better at something? Just start. And when you start, keep going. And when you want to stop, don't. Because slowly but surely, over time, the habitual nature of your mind will start helping you out, and pretty soon you'll look around and think How in the world did this happen? and you'll smile. Because you did it.

**Photo credit: This photo was used under Creative Commons license from Flickr user MrB-MMX. It has been altered. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

act how you want to feel

The past six weeks have been a bit of a blur - two visits from our couplemate, Brittany and Sean, a week spent in Vancouver and a week spent in Austin at SXSW. In the back of my head I've been plotting my return to the blog armed with hilarious and charming tales of my travels, complete with gratuitous Instagram photos of food and my copious documented photos of the cold and rainy view of downtown Vancouver from our hotel room. Exciting, right?!

Well, to those of you looking forward to said tales, I'm painfully sorry but I have to disappoint you. Through these hectic weeks, I've simultaneously been doing a lot of thinking and soul-searching (big surprise, I know... I'm like one episode of Oprah after another over here...) and funny enough, in the past few days I've had a pretty impactful revelation. It's that revelation that finally gave me the spark I needed to return to my beloved blog and share my thoughts with you all!

(Sidenote: I find it both funny and telling that my two trips to fabulous cities I've never been to before were not compelling enough to finally push me to write posts about them, yet a simple exercise in personal growth had me literally writing bits of this post in my head all day. Lesson there: It's important to pay attention to the things that inspire/excite you. I suppose it's why I decided to start a lifestyle/happiness blog rather than a travel blog, huh? Gold star for the day goes to my former self for having such foresight.)

So what's the revelation?

Well, to be completely honest with you guys, 2012 has been off to kind of a blah start for me. Yeah... I said it, BLAH.

Now please don't get me wrong. This doesn't mean I've been unhappy. (You hear that mom? I know you are one milisecond away from picking up the phone and coming to my rescue, but step away from the ledge! Keep reading - it turns out okay, I promise.) Maybe it's been all of the travel or my new job role but I've just been SO BUSY that I haven't had time to slow down and think (Oh how I love to think! It's critical to my sanity and I miss it so.) For how scatterbrained I can be, I actually really enjoy order and routine sometimes. (Maybe my scatterbrained ways are WHY I like routine... but alas, a psychoanalysis for another day.) Anyway, like I said, I haven't had time to do the things that give me sanity - crafting, keeping in better touch with friends, relaxing. As a result, I think without realizing it, slowly by slowly I've been getting worn down. I've been crankier, complaining more, and just feeling drained (not all the time, but still, definitely more than before.)

Here's something else that won't come as a surprise to you. When you're a crankier, complainy, tired version of your happy-go-lucky self, it's not very attractive. Jason and I found ourselves getting annoyed with each other more often and I know we both noticed that our relationship was feeling strained. With any couple that lives together, works together and travels together, I think this is pretty typical (especially heading into almost two years together), but still, I knew we could do better and the last thing I wanted was for us to be okay with things being less awesome than we both knew they could be. So we talked about it. And what did he say? Something along the lines of "you seem cranky, complainy, and tired."

Well naturally I did what any rational, mature woman does in those pivotal conversations - denied any sort of validity to all of his statements and went super-defensive-woman on his ass. Yeah, isn't it cute how we do that? All I could think about was the stupid stuff like Well why don't you just show me more affection, then I'd be happier. Or... you're letting all the negative moments far outweigh all the positive moments. And okay, that's how I felt, but then it hit me... maybe he was right. Maybe I wasn't taking enough responsibility for the blahness of my current state. I had been thinking that everything around me was the problem, when really I was part of the problem.

This past Sunday, I started really letting this thought bounce around in my head. I decided to finally force myself to fit that precious "thinking time" in, so I grabbed a book and headed to our neighborhood pool, thinking I probably wouldn't even read, I'd just lay joyfully under the sun and soak in the quiet. Coincidentally, I had swiped a book from my shelf that I purchased on a whim about six months ago called The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.

Now I know what you're thinking, The Happiness Project?? Oh gosh, you weren't kidding, it really is Oprah 24/7 in there, huh? Well I admit the title is a bit self-help-y for my taste, but I remember the bright colors of the cover caught my eye in Target and something told me to buy it. As it turns out, it's about a woman who embarks on a journey over the course of a year to see if she can make small changes in her everyday life to improve her overall happiness. She focuses on a different "theme" each month, and then kind of applies different tactics under that theme to see how it affects her mood. Think Eat, Pray, Love but less abstract/spiritual and more almost empirical and task-oriented. Everything she tries is something so simple that you can try to implement in your own life - tackling a nagging to-do list, cleaning your closet, having more fun. I highly recommend it. But anyway, back to my sun-bathing...

So I'm laying there and decide to pick up where I last left off in the book, the end of Chapter 1 - January: Boost Energy (Theme: Vitality). Uhhh... hello universe! Cranky, complainy Carol here and I could sure use some vitality! There were five different tactics she tried to boost her energy (I won't name them all for those of you that want to pick up the book), but one really caught my attention: Act more energetic.

In that section, she talked about how in her happiness research (yes, apparently there is such a thing) she read about how we think that the way we act is often a result of how we feel (which can be true), but that we also often feel a certain way because of the way that we act. It's a two way street. By simply acting more energetic, before long she actually felt like she had more energy. This idea was fascinating to me, and as I began to think about it, I realized why.

This was simply another way of stating one of my personal mantras, words that I decided to live by a long time ago: happiness is a choice. I truly believe that we may not be able to control what happens to us in life, but we can control how we react to it. We can decide to get up in the morning and simply be happy. Well as it turns out, I really wasn't doing a great job of living my own mantra.

Act the way you want to feel... happiness is a choice... all those sayings are basically communicating the same truth: the one solitary gift that each of us has is to control our own thoughts and attitude. What's that saying, we cannot control the wind, but we can direct the sail? (Oh yeah - who doesn't love a good sea-related metaphor. I mean if there was a prize for all-time-most-interpretable-and-applicable-abstract-entity-good-for-metahporing, it would definitely go to the sea. And no, there would not be a trophy for said award - there's no way that would fit on a plaque.) Point is - we are in control of our mood. Bottom line.

So before I knew it, I started trying to put this into practice. If I wanted to feel more energetic, I would act like I had a ton of energy. If I wanted to feel motivated, I'd act the way I would if I really felt motivated. Really at the heart of this exercise it's just focus and mindfulness. If you're aware of how you feel and you actively try to change it, you simply can. It's crazy, I know!

One of my favorite new applications of this simple idea came last night during our usual daily workout. I really didn't feel stellar going into our basketball workout (a more accurate description, by the way, would be "our run up and down a court doing push ups or squats with some shooting drills mixed in workout") but I was determined to see if my new jedi-mind tricks would work when it came to how much I hate exercise. Within the first couple drills I felt the burning in my legs from running around the court, the shaking of my arms from the several sets of push-ups (yeah, my trainer/boyfriend knows no mercy) and just completely tuckered out.

But then my new mantra whispered softly but sternly in my inner mind - You want to feel strong? Act strong. (Yeah I know, she can be a real b-word sometimes.) And I know it sounds absolutely crazy but suddenly I found myself in a completely different frame of mind. I was focused. I was following through on every shot, every drill, every push-up. The pain didn't go away and I didn't feel any less tired, but it was all in how I approached each exercise. I wanted to feel strong so I pushed through every motion as if I felt that way. Literally faking it until I was making it.

And when we finished the hour's worth of hem, pardon me, exercise... I walked away from the court, sweat pouring down my face, huffing and puffing, but with an inner smile the size of Texas because, holy crap, I. FELT. STRONG.

You guys - it's freaking magic. I seriously feel like I have discovered magic.

The other day I had a great conversation with my friend Margaret (you can check out her blog here) and she said something very wise. The most peaceful, joyful, amazing place you can be in your life is when you realize you can be happy literally anywhere, doing anything. And I truly believe that is possible for every person. But it won't come to you. You have to work for it. It takes focus, committment, and self-awareness to identify when your mind wants the world to bend to its will. And that's when you decide that if you wait for the world to make you happy, it won't. Only you can do that.

Things have been awesome the past few days. I've gotten more done, I feel re-energized, and I feel Jason and I feeling more like "us" again, thank goodness. More than that, I just feel proud. Proud of taking my happiness into my own hands and wanting more for myself.

So here's to my newest magic trick and hoping that the next three months are a lot less blah. I plan to keep reading The Happiness Project and I'll let you know when I find tidbits that I actually want to integrate into my life. And for those of you bummed out that my post had nothing to do with my travel adventures, here's a quick summary: Vancouver was cold and clean. Austin was equal parts hipsters and cowboy boots. The end.