Resolutions, Goals, and Values

It’s that time of year again. The time when we examine our lives for all of the things we’re not doing or think we should be doing to make proclamations about how next year we’ll do things differently. And then we promptly forget about said resolutions. One statistic estimates that only about 8% of people who make New Year’s resolutions actually keep them. So why do we repeatedly set ourselves up for inevitable failure? And what are those people in the 8% doing differently? I have a few ideas…

First, resolutions usually aren’t the most helpful way to get started. While it’s great to identify areas for personal growth, it seems that resolutions often take the form of vague, broad ideas of things we’d like to accomplish. “I want to lose weight” (the most common resolution) is a starting point, but it can be difficult to progress past the goal identification. Without concrete plans for achieving the things we have resolved to do, we are unlikely to reach our aims.

I think the first step in successful self-improvement is identifying our values, the things that are really important to us, what we want our lives to be about. Values often underlie the things we set as goals. According to Russ Harris in The Happiness Trap, values are directions in which we move, things we can engage in daily, whereas goals are stops along the way on our values journey. So if weight loss is the goal, perhaps health is the value underlying it. And if health or physical well-being is the value, maybe there are other goals or valued activities that could be pursued in the service of that value. Values can be particularly helpful, as they allow us to constantly pursue or engage in something that is important to us.

Goals, then, can help us to identify the steps we take in pursuing a value. When used in this way, they can be fulfilling and ongoing. (I should note that I don’t love the idea of “bucket-list” type goals – checking items off a list can quickly lose its motivational factor.) When setting goals, it can be helpful to use the SMART format. Using physical fitness as the value, I might identify the following steps to reaching my goal:

S: Specific – state exactly what you hope to achieve (e.g., I want to go to the gym 4 days per week for 1 hour each time)

M: Measurable – identify how you will know when you’ve reached your goal (e.g., I might mark on my calendar the days I go to the gym)

A: Attainable – the goal should be something you can actually achieve, but isn’t so easy that you don’t get a sense of accomplishment from it (so going to the gym once per week may not be challenging enough and vowing to swim from Cuba to Florida may be overreaching, but some gym time a few days per week is just right)

R: Realistic – choose something that is sustainable (e.g., I probably can’t commit to two hours at the gym every single day, but 1 hour 4 days per week is feasible)

T: Timed – when do I want to check in on my progress? (Maybe after two months, I can reward myself with new workout clothes if I have stuck with my planned gym schedule.) Timing also can be key in setting short-term, intermediate-term, and long-term goals (points along the way of your journey).

I’ll write another post soon with additional ideas for reaching your goals.

Gifts that Give: Part II

I was disgusted last week to read about a certain PR rep’s ill-informed tweet about AIDS in Africa. After mulling over what would motivate someone to write something so insensitive, I decided (hoped) that it must be ignorance. And where there is ignorance, there is an opportunity to educate. Accurate information about HIV/AIDS isn’t on the radar for a lot of people who don’t have some type of contact with people infected or affected by it. So here’s a bonus gift – the gift of knowledge! One woman’s trash is another’s gift that gives.

Some basic HIV/AIDS facts, brought to you by aids.gov and unaids.org:

  • HIV and AIDS are not the same. HIV is a virus affecting the immune system; if not controlled, it can lead to AIDS, which is a combination of illnesses marking the last stage of HIV.
  • HIV is no longer a “death sentence.” Fortunately, fewer people are dying from AIDS due to advances in medical treatment. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to medications. In fact, only about 34% of people who need treatment have access to it.
  • HIV is passed on through bodily fluids, which may be shared most commonly during sexual contact, pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, and injection drug use. It is NOT passed on by hugging, kissing, shaking hands, or drinking after someone.
  • HIV is not a “black” disease or a “gay” disease. It is not ascribed to any one group in particular. Risk for HIV infection is increased through certain high-risk behaviors, such as unprotected sex or injection drug use. If you have had sexual or other high-risk contact with someone who may be infected with HIV, you can find local testing sites at hivtest.cdc.gov.
  • Blacks/African-Americans are the racial group most disproportionately affected by HIV. I present this statistic not to perpetuate an ugly stereotype but to encourage us to think about the other factors related to HIV risk and treatment that also disproportionately affect African Americans in the US. For example, there are economic inequalities that fall along racial lines, severely impacting access to medical care. Worldwide, 97% percent of people living with HIV are in low-or middle-income countries. And for really thought-provoking talks about ways to address the economic factors and policy related to HIV risk:

Gifts that Give

Since this is the time of year when many people are in the gift-giving spirit, I’d like to give a gift to my blog readers. Well, sort of. Following the lead of the Clinton Foundation, I’m participating in the Gifts that Give idea. This is such a cool idea because it’s something that is sustainable throughout the year. So, although I donated items to stuff a stocking for an underprivileged child this month, there is so much more I can do for months to come (and on a limited budget). Some of the ideas listed on the site are part of what I strive to do in my professional work (i.e., gifts of health and inspiration). Instead, what I’ve chosen to focus on and share with you is the Gift of Optimism. This gift is all about sharing positive stories about things happening in the world. I must admit, this is somewhat of a selfish choice, as I was drawn to it in part because I often find myself in need of a funny or uplifting story. I most recently found myself in serious need of some good news after watching the CNN documentary Blackfish and then shortly after hearing a particularly heartbreaking story from a client. This combination left me wondering if there was any human decency left, as we clearly are destroying the world. Luckily, life has a way of righting itself, and I found a few glimmers of hope for the future. For example, I was caught in a “pay it forward” chain at Starbucks (where each person pays for the order of the car in line behind). I later heard that chain went on for 72 cars. Then there are the stories of hope on the Good News Network (such as the man who used his lottery winnings to fund cancer research in honor of his late wife or the major reduction in homelessness in Utah via a rehousing program). And of course there are the Buzzfeed lists with various romantic or faith-restoring photos. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a little tear of happiness. With all the painful and tragic stories that plague the news, sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that it’s not all bad. So, if anyone would like to give a gift, please feel free to share any stories of optimism, inspiration, joy, sustainability, service, hope, life, etc. Maybe we can start another pay-it-forward trend?

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How should we talk about mental health?

Interesting perspectives to think about this week, particularly on the heels of the op-ed piece, “Psychotherapy’s Image Problem,” published in the NYTimes a few months ago. More evidence for ongoing research into the most effective and efficient ways to deliver mental health treatment.

TED Blog

Mental health suffers from a major image problem. One in every four people experiences mental health issues — yet more than 40 percent of countries worldwide have no mental health policy. Across the board it seems like we have no idea how to talk about it respectfully and responsibly.

Stigma and discrimination are the two biggest obstacles to a productive public dialogue about mental health; indeed, the problem seems to be largely one of communication. So we asked seven mental health experts: How should we talk about mental health? How can informed and sensitive people do it right – and how can the media do it responsibly?

End the stigma

Easier said than done, of course. Says journalist Andrew Solomon, whose tear-inducing talk about depression was published today: “People still think that it’s shameful if they have a mental illness. They think it shows personal weakness. They think…

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Mindful Eating

‘Tis the season to overindulge. It seemed as though everywhere I turned this week, I was faced with tempting sweets. Toffee & sea salt chocolate bars, red velvet cupcakes with cinnamon cream cheese frosting, four-layer chocolate cake with peppermint frosting, trays of Christmas cookies. It was like I had traveled to the Land of the Sweets a la The Nutcracker (which, actually, would be my dream world). I was more than halfway through a slice of the aforementioned mint chocolate cake (to be fair, I had cut a piece that was only 2 layers), when I realized I had long ago passed my satiation point for sweet, chocolatey satisfaction. Had I taken time to really savor what I was eating, I probably would have needed only a few bites of rich cake to be satisfied.

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Enter mindful eating.

Mindful eating is offered as one way to practice mindfulness. First, a word about mindfulness. At a very basic level, mindfulness is a state of present-moment awareness. As taught in Full Catastrophe Livingit involves cultivating several basic attitudes, including non-judging, non-striving, beginner’s mind, and present-moment focus. One exercise that many people practice when learning about mindfulness is the raisin exercise. It’s really amazing the things I never noticed about raisins before I did this exercise for the first time. In fact, we all probably have missed a lot about foods because we so seldom take time to sit and really enjoy them. Whether it’s eating lunch quickly at our desks (often while we continue to work on other things) or hastily inhaling some decadent food before we can feel too guilty about eating it, we are depriving ourselves of a chance to truly appreciate the experience of eating. When applied to mealtimes, mindfulness encourages us to slow down and be open to the entire experience, paying attention to the sights, smells, texture, and taste of food, as well as our bodies as we eat. Thus, it is eating mindfully rather than mindlessly.

This approach sometimes is used as a tool for weight loss, as it allows people to be more attuned to their feelings of hunger vs. satiation. However, it is not a dieting strategy. It is an approach to something we do every day and often take for granted. Eating mindfully allows for a much richer interaction with the food we eat. For many people, it can be another way to find pleasure in the small things in life. The next time you sit down for a meal or even just a cup of coffee, allow yourself to enjoy the experience for the first few bites or sips. Really take time to notice what you are putting into your body. Notice the complexity of aroma, texture, and taste. Maybe you’ll find it’s something you want to practice more often.

WHY SUNSETS ARE GOOD FOR THE SOUL

My best friend sent me a text this week about appreciating the small things in life, and it reminded me of a post I’ve been meaning to write. A few months ago, I started keeping a gratitude journal. I figured if I recommend it as part of therapy homework sometimes, I should give it a try, too. So, I started taking note of things I enjoyed throughout the day. Over the course of about a week and a half (which is as long as I managed to keep the journal), I came up with a list of 14 things that made my soul smile, ranging from nice weather to a good workout to the smell of garlic butter. Though I no longer physically keep track of these small daily pleasures, I have noticed myself noticing more, and it’s had a real impact on my sense of well-being. Now, on my drive to work, rather than getting frustrated with the person driving slowly in the left lane (ok, at least not as frustrated), I look forward to the moment when I cross over the bridge and can look at the sun rising over the river. As I leave work, I take a moment to notice all the colors in the sunset and how they fade into one another, letting the stresses of the day evaporate before I’ve even gotten into my car. Rainy fall days weren’t gloomy but an opportunity to enjoy how brightly the yellow leaves stood out against the gray sky. This kind of awareness isn’t about finding the silver lining or trying to force a positive attitude, it’s about taking a time out from my internal world, just for a moment, simply to notice the beauty that exists all around me.

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A few of my most memorable sunsets.

Get some ZZZZZZZ’s

A recent New York Times article highlighted the benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), a non-pharmacological treatment that can vastly improve chronic sleep problems. Many adults do not receive adequate sleep, according to this map from the CDC, though not all have been diagnosed with insomnia.

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If you have occasional difficulty falling or staying asleep, a  few sleep hygiene tips can help you get a better night’s sleep.

1. Think like a bear. If you want to hibernate (at least for the night), make your room dark, cold, quiet, and comfortable, like your own little bear cave. Note: Dark means no light- not from TV, cell phones, or alarm clocks. Even a small amount of light can trigger your brain to be more awake. So, turn off your electronic devices or cover them. Turning a digital alarm clock away from you can cut down on the light, as well as the temptation to engage in clock-watching/feats of mental math to calculate just how many minutes of sleep you can get if you manage to fall asleep right now.

2. Speaking of doing math in bed… don’t! Your bed should be used only for sleep and sex. If you find yourself doing anything else (reading books, watching TV, worrying, tossing and turning), get out of bed and return only when you are ready to fall asleep. You want your bed to be your sacred space.

3. Keep consistent sleep and wake times, within a reasonable window. While you might not want to rise with the sun on the weekends (unless, of course, you’re a morning person), keeping set times to get up and at ’em every day and to wind down for the night helps your body maintain it’s natural sleep-wake cycle.

4. Set yourself up for sleep, starting during the day. Try to avoid caffeine or long naps late in the afternoon. Make a relaxing evening routine that allows your body to wind down before hitting the sheets.

5. Take care of your body. Managing stress, eating well, and getting regular physical activity are beneficial for physical health and can help promote sleep. (A note on exercise – try not to engage in vigorous physical activity within 2-3 hours before you’ll be going to bed, as your body generally needs some time to cool down.)

Trying out some of these strategies may be what you need for better sleep. If problems persist, you may need to speak with a psychologist or medical professional who can evaluate your concerns and provide specific recommendations for treatment. The American Board of Sleep Medicine maintains a list of certified behavioral sleep medicine specialists. (Please note that this does not indicate my personal endorsement or referral for any of these providers.)

Sweet dreams!

Breathing Relaxation

I’ve been dreaming of Hawaii ever since my acai bowl yesterday. The waves on Oahu’s North Shore must be amazing this month. I don’t brave them, but just watching is enough for me. Actually, you can enjoy the waves from afar via one of Hawaii’s live surf cams:

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(The waves aren’t as impressive in July but beautiful nonetheless.)

While I was there, I took a short video of the surf one evening to use in my own relaxation practice (a similar video I found on YouTube is below). It can be helpful to have something to focus on when doing relaxation breathing, as our minds tend to wander when we are quiet. You can even close your eyes and just listen to the ebb and flow of the surf. A yoga teacher once suggested imagining the breath as a wave rising and receding in the body, which I particularly like. You can find what feels right for you. You just need the basics to get started – a quiet space, an open attitude, relaxed posture, and something to engender focused attention. Then, just breathe. It takes practice to achieve relaxation, so don’t give up if you don’t feel Zen-like after your first attempt.

The Wondrous Acai Bowl

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Acai bowl from Haleiwa Bowls

Ahh, the acai bowl. The most glorious healthy treat ever dreamed up. I had my first acai bowl experience in Hawaii this summer and have been longing for one ever since. Acai bowls typically consist of an acai puree topped with bananas and other fruit, granola, coconut, honey, and various other superfoods of your choosing (e.g., chia seeds, bee pollen, spirulina). Acai bowls are so much more than the sum of their parts, though, and listing the ingredients does not adequately convey the joy they bring to one’s mouth, not to mention the health benefits associated with eating a snack composed of antioxidant-rich fruits.  Since I’ve been battling a cold this week, I decided to concoct my own acai bowl. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find acai puree in my grocery store and didn’t feel like making another stop at the overpriced organic grocery store (where I lose hours ogling all the specialty foods), so instead I bought an acai-blueberry frozen fruit bar and layered on the bananas, coconut, chia, and honey. It wasn’t an exact substitute for the original, but it was still pretty tasty and did the trick in perking me up. Next time you have a craving for a sweet and/or healthy treat, try an acai bowl!

Here is a Huffington Post tutorial on making acai bowls: The Art of the Acai Bowl

Overcoming Doubt

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear but the triumph over it.
The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid but he who conquers that fear.”
-Nelson Mandela
 

Every person, great leaders included, at some time experiences that voice inside saying he or she can’t do something extraordinary. It is these challenging times and these doubts that show us the things that are most important to us and provide opportunities to grow and thrive. These TED talks have given me inspiration to use my doubts and vulnerability to pursue my passions, both great and small.