Friday Fun

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Brushing up for Tuesday.

“Friday Fun” isn’t a very compelling title for these posts…I’ll have to come up with something better. Unless someone else can, which would be even better…ideas?

Quote of the Week

“It’s a fantastic and terrifying liberation. The reason it is terrifying is because it makes you once and for all responsible to no one but yourself. Not to God the Father, not to Satan, not to anybody. Just you. If you think it’s right, then you’ve got to do it. If you think it’s wrong, then you mustn’t do it.” -James Baldwin

OK, maybe not a “fun” quote, but it’s one that everyone should consider – what it means to trust your own inner moral compass. What if no one is responsible for your decisions but you? No one to blame but yourself? It burns off a lot of the smoke we tend to generate around the decisions we make. I think sometimes we do that to shield ourselves from our own flawed logic. I should rephrase that – I think sometimes that’s why I do it. I don’t take this quote to necessarily only apply to atheists; it really is about taking radical responsibility for one’s own actions.

Fave links from around the interwebs

I hope this piece, entitled Dirtbag Winston Churchill, sucks you into the same Mallory Ortberg comedy vortex I’ve been in for the past two days (she has a book that just came out, Texts from Jane Eyre, which may be why the internet is flooded with Ortberg – and I couldn’t be more pleased, personally). You’ll be the better for it, I say. Here are a few of my favorites to get you started: Two Monks Invent Denominations, Dirtbag Athena, Women Listening to Men in Western Art HistoryThe Toast’s Mallory Ortberg on Death, Faith, and Why It’s So Easy to Make Fun of Christians.

I love her honesty about her doubt/faith and spiritual journey in that last interview and can identify a lot with it – we have weirdly similar backgrounds, actually. I love how she says, “Prayer was not something that made a lot of sense to me. Because it seems really clear to me that outcomes in the world are fairly inconsistent … But [another] sort of prayer is, ‘Given that anything can happen to me, given that life is sometimes cruel and sometimes beautiful and I don’t know what’s coming next, how can I handle what happens next best? How can I ask God to be with me in whatever shit goes down?’ And that is the kind of prayer makes a lot of sense to me.”

I also read this older essay of hers this week. I could have written a lot of that essay myself after college. This is still relevant today for me: “I had a copy of the Old Testament that was illustrated like a graphic novel, and I also had every novel published under the Star Wars Expanded Universe imprint published before the year 2000. I learned that every moment of my life, however trivial it seemed at the time, carried in it a potential charge that could draw me either closer to God or further away. I learned that God loved me, much as Mara Jade came to love Luke Skywalker after she was able to shake off the training she had received from Palpatine during her tenure as the Emperor’s Hand. I had at least three friends at any given time.”

OT: Mara Jade had a very important influence on my life, guys. And most people will never know her, now that the Expanded Universe has been unceremoniously chucked out the window by our dear friends at Disney (more OT: at the link, I disagree with the AV Club mourning the Yuuzhan Vong. I hated them and I never read another EU book after R.A. Salvatore introduced them and had them kill off Chewbacca). Anyway, it’s lovely to see that the Emperor’s Hand will not be forgotten. Let’s take a moment to grieve together.

Moving on.

Biking lanes! Maybe you wish you had them as much as I do. Wired recommends cities take an affordable approach, testing best practices before making more expensive, permanent changes. This could be the best way to get quick traction and momentum behind the idea in most cities, AND it’s been successfully implemented elsewhere! Could be a win-win for most city managers and cyclists.

Warning: if you’ve ever made an effort to support local farms, this article on the deceptive practices of some farm-to-table restaurants may infuriate you.

After last year’s demonstrations and student activism on the subject, my alma mater, Georgetown University, is sorting through the best way to make amends for the sale of 272 slaves in 1838. This could be important precedent among private institutions who owe their existence to the slave trade.

An interesting take on a possible cause that may explain the correlation between well-adjusted kids and regular family dinners.

Listened to this great podcast this week: Danielle LaPorte and Linda Sivertsen interview Brené Brown for their Beautiful Writers podcast. There are a ton of gems in this interview! I know a lot of my friends love Brené as much as I do, and you guys will probably enjoy this interview a lot.

Game plan

OK, we’re coming up on the day here very shortly – I’m scheduled for next Tuesday! I think I ought to do a bit of planning. I promise not to throw any Excel documents at you, even if I use them for myself. (Ooooh, I’m going to make so many charts at the end of this! Maybe I’ll even find a way to work a pie chart in there. I love charts and graphs.)

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Image credit: Chris Gladis

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Rituals

I’ve been fascinated for some time with morning rituals – how early do people get up? Do they have kids? What do they do? Do they exercise? It’s really interesting to see the variety (Here are three of my favorite links about this, if you’re interested: here, here, and here). A lot of really productive and creative people get up super early and advise everyone else to do the same, but just as many do not and insist on doing their most creative work in the middle of the night. I am selfishly most interested in parents’ routines, because there are some realities of being a working parent that you just have to take into consideration when you’re choosing a wake up time. You can’t sleep later than your kids, as a rule. And once they’re up, well – let’s just say if you wanted to meditate or hit the gym, you’ve already missed the boat. So if you want to do anything “for yourself” (lol), you’ve got to wake up before them, like Toni Morrison talks about here (tons of good interviews in that archive, too). She is quite inspiring for me, personally, not just because she’s one of the best writers of our day, but because she also started writing when she had small children. It feels quite rare, especially among the accomplished writers you hear about, mostly because most people who put themselves through that may be disturbed. I’m not saying Toni Morrison is disturbed. Little kids really take a lot out of you, is all I’m saying.

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I woke up this one time for sunrise, above, because baby. Ouch. Great #nofilter for Insta, though.

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Know Thyself

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Image credit: Jan Lakota

I wrote a bit on Wednesday about shifting my perspective from employing willpower to setting myself up for success by reducing the number of decisions I have to make substantially. Doing this required a change in thinking – beyond a simple shift, it required a change in how I think about myself. Like many, if not most, people, I like to think of myself as disciplined and in control of my behavior; this whole paradigm sort of changes the script. With this approach, I’m kind of creating fences around my behavior, like I might for a toddler or untrained dog. I’m taking away my own choices. This is not an easy thing for me to accept! It feels a bit undignified.

The key skill that I’m using here is self-monitoring – another executive function, by the way. I’m becoming aware of my own self-talk and the unique type of resistance that my mind puts up against change. Everyone is slightly different in how they resist change, but I do think that the fact that we resist it is universal.

The Strategy of Distinctions

Ultimately, I think that to change a behavior or habit, you have to know yourself. One of my favorite books about habit change is Better Than Beforeby Gretchen Rubin (she also wrote The Happiness Project, which you might be familiar with). In it, she shares 21 strategies for habit change – I highly recommend the book. But the one I’m going to focus on today is one that I know she happens to be writing another book on currently – the strategy of distinctions, and particularly, her “Four Tendencies” framework. She presents a lot of good questions to ask about yourself when trying to figure out the best strategy for changing a habit in the book. Her Four Tendencies framework is the first and perhaps most helpful in understanding our psychology as it relates to habit change: namely, how do you respond to inner and outer expectations? Continue reading

Friday Fun

Food for thought: “Different ways of presenting the same information often evoke different emotions…cold cuts described as ‘90% fat-free’ are more attractive than when they are described as ‘10% fat.’ The equivalence of the alternative formulations is transparent, but an individual normally sees only one formulation, and what she sees is all there is.” -Daniel Kahneman, from Thinking, Fast and Slow

Weight loss-related study I found interesting:

Lower home temperature in winter is associated with lower waist measurement. Cold exposure is a really interesting area of study with lots of applications in fat loss and mental health. Will explore in greater detail in the future.

Top 5 favorite links of the week:

Adam Grant’s Ted Talk on Originals: “It’s about being the kind of person who takes the initiative to doubt the default and look for a better option.” 

How to tell if your friend would make a good traveling companion, via Gretchen Rubin – #3: “Do you have the same sense of ‘time urgency’? In other words, does one person want to make a plan and stick to it, while another person wants to keep things loose?” Ahem.

How to calm an angry child, from Janet Lansbury. Basically, don’t.

Podcast: “The Man Who Studied 1,000 Deaths to Learn How to Live,” on The Tim Ferriss Show podcast. Ferriss interviews BJ Miller, a palliative care physician who advocates making empathetic end-of-life care available for all.

The politics of land management may not be interesting to everyone, but if we want to preserve outdoor spaces, this is really important precedent, as the Access Fund points out. For a more entertaining take, here’s Brendan Leonard of Semi-Rad with some “Fun Federal Land Transfer ideas.”

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Seneca Rocks, in the Monongahela National Forest, WV. Image credit: me and my cell phone

The Psychology of Weight Loss

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I’m sure you’ll all recognize this common tidbit of weight loss advice: “Eat less, move more.” I hate it. It may be true, but it’s also pretty useless. Eat how much less? If I’m hungry after I eat my reduced, pre-planned portion size, should I or should I not eat again? How often can I have dessert? If I have dessert once a week, should it be today or tomorrow? How do I decide? And that doesn’t even begin to cover exercise: how much should I exercise? Is there such a thing as too much? What kind of exercise is best? How many days per week, and how much time per session?

Basically, how do I structure my lifestyle, food rules, exercise schedule, and habits so that they stick? How can I keep from giving up and throwing myself on the couch with a pint of Half Baked and the new season of Daredevil? (Aside: DO NOT spoil Daredevil for me, I’m saving it for my maternity leave!)

There’s this construct that healthy eating and exercise – and ultimately, the outcome of “being in shape” – come from making good choices – “being good,” as many of us say (i.e., “I’m trying to be good”). How and why to make good choices, increase willpower, and motivate oneself every day are the subjects of memes, mantras, articles, books, and posters. It also translates to this fascinating paradigm of “virtuous foods” and “bad foods” that always makes me feel bad for pizza. While everyone seems to have a different idea of what specific foods are virtuous (gluten, anyone?), society implicitly agrees that you can tell if a person has “self-control” or “good judgement” – virtue, essentially – by their visible fitness.

But regardless of who you are, the majority of the actions we as humans take every day are actually not conscious choices. Our brains prefer to run on automatic. In the back of our minds, we’re constantly filtering and interpreting stimuli and running automatic scripts that make those decisions for us. (I’m reading Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, which goes into great detail about the successes, biases, and errors in judgement that result from our automatic thinking. Highly recommend.) This morning, I didn’t decide whether or not to drop my son off at daycare and start working – it’s Wednesday, so that’s what we do. Have you ever set out to go to the bank and found yourself turning into your favorite coffee shop, which just happens to be on the way? You make that turn so routinely that it’s an automatic thought pattern.

If you’ve ever tried to change a habit – whether to break an old one or create a new one – you know how deeply ingrained those automatic scripts become. As it turns out, the best predictor of someone’s weight, happiness levels, or economic class is her current weight, happiness level, or economic class. People often overestimate future happiness and are not very good at anticipating what they will want in the future.

It’s tempting to feel defeatist, faced with this aspect of human nature. But in reality, this keeps happening because we keep trying to override the unconscious, automatic cognitive processes that have taken root over years with “willpower.”

Willpower – passing up a cookie at the office, for instance, or eating only one slice of bread from the bread basket, or somehow eating one serving of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream – is driven by the executive function of inhibitory control. The award for most entertaining study on inhibitory control goes to Walter Mischel’s classic and cruel Marshmallow Test, in which poor unfortunate four-year-olds are told that they may eat the marshmallow in front of them, but if they wait, they can have two. (The video shows an example of the test being run more recently; the original experiment is over 40 years old.)

I won’t get too far into inhibitory control in this post, but it does appear to be correlated with success in academics and other life skills down the line, and it seems that it may be improved with training. Mind In the Making, by Ellen Galinsky, includes exercises and strategies that can improve inhibitory control and other executive function in children. Perhaps worth a try for adults, if you’re concerned with your inhibitory control.

But ultimately, the bulk of our decisions, especially in connection with our goals, cannot be made as an override to established automatic patterns of thought and habit, because inhibitory control – willpower – is a limited resource, even if it can be improved over time. The answer, then, is to invest the time upfront to automate our choices. Align automatic thought patterns and behaviors with the goals we want to achieve, and we won’t have to suffer ego depletion or “decision fatigue” by the end of the first week.

So, for example, I wanted to journal each night, but as soon as I would get into bed, I always immediately popped open the browser on my phone and would lie in bed for 45-60 minutes on Facebook, until I was exhausted and ready to fall asleep. “OK, after this last article I’ll put my phone down. Ah, one more scroll through the old news feed. How cute is that video! Oh, that article looks interesting, too…is that true about superdelegates? Gotta check Wikipedia…” Finally, I moved my phone charger to the living room and began turning my phone off each night before lying down to start journaling. At first, I tried turning it off and leaving it on my nightstand, but then a question would occur to me, and I would turn it back on to start Googling…with, perhaps, a quick stop by Facebook – you know, while the browser is open. It’s incredible how much resistance I felt to making that change! “I can just put my phone down,” I told myself. “Really, I can. It’s not that hard! It’s just Facebook. That’s too far away! Anyway, how will I know what time it is when I wake up?” This is actually a more ridiculous reason than it even sounds like, because we have a clock in our room.

Reading on my phone was such an ingrained habit that I required the physical inconvenience of actually moving the phone into another room in order to break it. I also had to overcome the internal, psychological barrier that I should be able to just put the phone down myself without requiring such drastic measures. I had to shift my self-talk to get past this: instead of, “I should be able to do this,” I had to ask myself, “What will make me most likely to do this?” I had to recognize that a quirk of pride and shame were getting in the way of my success. Now, my undesired habit is broken, freeing up my time to read and journal when I set out to do so. As an added bonus, I also no longer read Facebook in the morning while I’m lying in bed – if I get up before my son, I have a bit of time to make a cup of coffee and write, instead.

So when it comes to weight loss, the question that I’m asking myself is, “What habits do I need to automate that will set me up for success? And what is my current self-talk that could get in my way?” I have two weeks before the baby comes to really start to work through that question and come up with a strategy…so here we go!

For background on this experiment, see my introduction and ground rules posts where I explain what I’m up to.

Image credit: poppet with a camera