Thursday, November 14, 2013

HOW could they believe THAT?!

I love my Facebook friends. They are all over the spectrum, politically and religiously. One of the wonderful things about social media is how it can educate us on the beliefs of others, helping us better understand why someone might believe something that seems so wrong to us.

I've learned some things through the years.

  • My pro-life friends want to save the lives of babies because they love children and believe protecting them should be one of our top responsibilities.
  • My pro-choice friends love children. They believe that outlawing abortion isn't the best way to save babies and mothers; they want better education, easy access to birth control, and effective social services.
  • My friends who support certain war actions want to see greater safety and freedom throughout the world.
  • My friends who are against certain war actions want to see greater safety and freedom throughout the world.
  • My friends who support gun rights are deeply committed to the ideals of individual freedom, responsibility, and safety.
  • My friends who support gun control are deeply committed to the ideals of community responsibility and safety.
Need I go on? 

It can be all too easy for us to attribute terrible motives to those we disagree with. The result tends to be conspiracy theories and "straw man" arguments that don't really address the topic of debate. I'm sure you've read emails and Facebook posts that suggest that the government is trying to poison our kids through immunizations; so-and-so who started such-and-such movement was actually a racist; and genetically-modified foods are (purposefully) killing us.

Sometimes it takes a lot more effort to believe that the person on the other side of the computer screen really has very valid reasons for believing something you vehemently disagree with.

But it's worth the effort. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Before we leave the house...

I get tired of repeating myself.
I get tired of repeating myself.
I get tired of repeating myself.
I get tired of repeating myself.

And I bet my kids get tired of it too. (Didn't you?)

So this sign is going on the door that leads into our garage:

I'm excited. I can just imagine the glorious conversations:

"Are you ready to go?"


"Are you sure? Go check the list."

I may never say, "Go put on your shoes" again!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Honest talk

We were at the museum today, and I took both kids into the ladies' restroom. We had it all to ourselves. As we were getting ready to leave, Zoodle pointed at the dispenser on the wall and said, "What does T-A-M-P-O-N-S spell?" I told him, and then explained what tampons and pads are used for.

I'd previously told him a little about women's menstrual cycles, and he accepted my simple explanation today with no embarrassment or awkwardness. It was just a conversation about something he didn't know about, and he didn't react any differently than he would have if we'd been discussing China, or spiders, or toenails.

I found myself so glad that we've been open about "taboo" subjects from early on. We haven't gone into detail on everything; we try to give age-appropriate explanations. (They've heard from me that a little bit of daddy and a little bit of mommy join to make a baby, but they don't yet know exactly how that's accomplished!) Because I try to answer their questions without embarrassment, they don't think there's any reason to be uncomfortable with sensitive topics.

I don't always navigate these difficult waters with ease! Recently the word "s-ex" came out of Zoodle's mouth in a way that was totally inappropriate for a five-year-old, because I hadn't adequately monitored his media. (I'd put an app on my tablet that I thought just had innocent sound effects on it, not realizing it had clips of very adult songs on it too.) I felt like a terrible mom, overreacted, and made way too big of a deal about it. Now I'm trying to fix that by being open (in an age-appropriate way) about the word s-ex, so that he doesn't think it's a bad word and isn't scared to use it around me. (Pardon the hyphen inside that word; I'm trying to avoid being found in certain Google searches!)

In general, my kids seem to feel very comfortable asking me questions that I want them to ask me (because I'd prefer they get the information from me rather than someone else!) I sure hope it stays that way as they get older.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Willpower Update

Remember that series on willpower that I did early this year? I've continued to see the ways that my life has been changed by the principles in the book The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, PhD.

When I decided to take on the willpower challenge of decluttering my house, I had no idea what a big challenge it would be. Because I'm doing just a little bit a day (usually four days a week), it's taking a long time. I've been working consistently on it since January, and I still have a lot of areas to tackle!

But I like the slow, steady pace. It means I'm changing my way of life instead of just doing a one-time project and then going back to my old ways. Some days, I tackle areas I'd already decluttered, to once again get them looking nice. (Some spots attract clutter like magnets attract paperclips!) But most days I work on areas that have become disorganized through the six years we've lived here, like this closet that I finished today:

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Isn't it pretty?

I love that my house is a more pleasant place to live! And that's my motivation. I can't stress enough what a huge deal positive motivation has become in my life. I'm doing things I thought I didn't want to do, and it's not because I have to. It's because I have realized I do indeed want to do these things (like getting & staying more organized) because I like the results so much. Moving from have to towards want to has been so freeing (and effective) for me!

Now I'm trying to find a balance. Clutter bothers me more than it used to. And when I take into account my temperament and my season of life (homeschooling mom of young children), I realize I need to have some tolerance for some clutter and mess. Things will not stay looking perfect all the time. What I want is to learn to tolerate temporary messes better, so that when it's time to relax, I can really do that. I guess I need to figure out a positive motivation for those relaxation times, just as I've found positive motivation for cleanup times!

I don't read a lot of self help books. But The Willpower Instinct has made a long-term difference in how I live my life, and I continue to place it on my list of very highly recommended books!

I was originally provided with a free copy of this book for review; however, this post is uncompensated.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Kids and money, plus a review of Olay Fresh Effects BB Cream

I've been teaching my kids how to do more chores around the house, and I've started paying them 25 cents per chore. (Some chores, like cleaning up their toys, are unpaid!)

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My stash of chore quarters

We went to the mall Saturday, and both kids brought some money with them. Zoodle only had a little change, and he was quite disappointed that he couldn't find anything at all for under $1! I considered making up the difference so at least he could buy a $1 package of silly putty or something, but I wanted him to learn about the value of money. So instead I told him, "This is a good reason for you to do more chores around the house!"

Today, he was determined to earn some money and repeatedly asked me for chores. My dishwasher is emptied; towels have been put away in the kitchen; the tile has been cleaned with the little sweeper, and my bathroom countertops are wiped down. What a guy!

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Zoodle is thrilled to watch his money grow! (He's also learning to count money, which is a nice bonus!)

Speaking of the value of money, I love getting fun stuff for free. I received the Sun-Kissed Vox Box from Influenster recently. It's a box with free items in it that I'm invited to try and honestly review. The item I've been using daily is Olay FreshEffects BB Cream.

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According to the Olay website, Fresh Effects BB Cream has six benefits:
• Refreshes skin instantly
• Brightens for a radiant glow
• Evens tone with a splash of sheer color
• Hydrates for 24 hours
• Smoothes for softer feeling skin
• Protects against UV damage with SPF 15

I had never tried a BB (Beauty Balm) Cream, and I really like it. It's an easy way to get a layer of sun protection. Being 35 years old with imperfect skin, a tinted moisturizer doesn't offer quite the coverage I want, so most days I layer the BB Cream with powdered mineral makeup, and I am loving the combination of the two. My skin isn't breaking out (which is a problem I always had with liquid foundation), and it moisturizes really nicely. I tend to get patches of dry skin and haven't noticed that happening since I started using this product. Like many liquid foundations, this has a slight odor I'm not crazy about, but it's not enough to stop me from using it.

Olay FreshEffects BB Cream can be purchased at the Olay Fresh Effects website or at Amazon.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Hey, that's not why I homeschool!

Homeschoolers are fundamentalist Christians, wearing ankle-length skirts and long, outdated hair. They have tons of kids (the more the better!), and they have few friends. Homeschooling parents want to shelter their kids from a long list of evils in the world. They hate the school system. And if you don't homeschool, then when they smile at you, it's an Oh, bless your heart; I hope your kids turn out okay, but they probably won't smile.


Homeschoolers are radical freethinkers who want their kids to take the lead in all areas of education. If that means a whole semester of staring at a dead ladybug, fantastic! (Except that they wouldn't use the word "semester" since that implies forcing potentially unwanted structure on the child.) They choose to "unschool," and they believe that the school system is deeply flawed because it ties up students with unnecessary rules and restrictions.

Do either of those fit your view of homeschoolers? Or do you have a slightly different stereotype in your head?

I'll admit, I am a homeschooler, and I still have stereotypes in my head of what "other" homeschoolers are like! But one thing I've learned in this process is that people homeschool for many different reasons, and we certainly can't all be lumped into one category. So below are a few reasons that I homeschool...and a few reasons that don't fit me at all.

Reasons I Homeschool
  • My overarching reason, which pretty much sums it up for me, is that I want more time with my kids. I like that I can work so much with them on character and behavioral issues. And I'm finding I enjoy them so much more than I used to.
  • I like being able to include our family's religious beliefs in our schooling. I don't want or expect that from the public school system, and it's a treat to be able to offer it at home.
  • It's fun! I love taking educational field trips and pursuing interesting topics together. I love going to the library when few others are there. I even enjoy taking them to the grocery store with me during the day.
  • I like the creative aspect of homeschooling--pulling together various resources, and creating my own.
Reasons I DON'T Have for Homeschooling
  • I don't homeschool because I think the public school system is evil. In fact, we have a great school system, and we had a great experience when Chickie went to our local school for kindergarten. I think public school is one of the cornerstones of our society, and I'm glad to pay property taxes to support it. There's a very good chance that sooner or later our kids will switch to public school.
  • I don't homeschool because I have deep concerns about the curriculum my kids would be taught at school. I love that experts have come up with good standards for the public schools, and I use those to guide my homeschooling too. I believe that Christian beliefs can coincide with contemporary, mainstream scientific teachings (such as evolution.)
  • I don't homeschool because I think that kids need absolute freedom in what they learn. Many "unschooling" families have well-educated kids, but it's not a method that I'm attracted to. I'm organized with what I teach. I am trying to find a balance between making sure they learn what they should be learning, and letting them have enough freedom to pursue their own interests. (That part is hard!)
  • I don't homeschool because I believe school is too unsafe for kids. It's not perfectly safe, but neither is homeschooling. (My kids spend a heck of a lot of time driving around with me when they'd otherwise be in school, and I know cars aren't the safest place for any of us to be.)
Homeschooling families fall on all places on all sorts of spectrums (or spectra)! Usually we're just normal families who have made a decision that feels right. In my case, it's a decision I very frequently reevaluate. As long as we continue doing it, I hope we keep enjoying it as we are now!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Yummy Chicken Noodle Soup (A recipe. Sort of.)

Yesterday I made this:
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And it is super-yummy!

I like making meals that don't require a bunch of measuring. So this "recipe" won't include measurements. Think of it as more of a list of suggestions! It includes two Secret Tips that elevated this soup's flavor.

Beth's Chicken Noodle Soup


Chopped veggies (I used carrots, celery, onion, and frozen corn)
Chicken Broth*
Cooked chicken*
Liquid Smoke
Salt & pepper

*I made this the day after I'd made a whole chicken. The chicken in the soup is left over from the night before; and the chicken broth was made from the chicken carcass/skin from the night before. Google it if you've never made broth before. It's very simple.

1. In the pot you're going to use (I used the Ninja Cooking System, stovetop setting), heat up some oil on medium. Put your veggies in. (If you have any that don't need to be cooked, like frozen corn, leave those out.) Cook for several minutes until they start to soften.

2. Secret Tip Number One: Add some flour, salt, and pepper to the veggies, and stir it all up. I probably used about 1/3 cup of flour. This helps thicken the soup a bit!
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3. Add a bunch of broth. How much? Depends how brothy you like your soup. A bunch of the broth will be soaked up by the noodles, so use quite a bit! Bring to a boil on high, and cook for awhile until the veggies are almost tender enough, stirring occasionally. (You can either boil it the whole time, if you're in a hurry like I was, or simmer it for a longer time.)

4. Add noodles and return to a boil. Egg noodles are good for this, though regular pasta works too. (I used rotini just because I forgot that egg noodles are generally used in chicken noodle soup. The rotini tastes good, but it did soak up a TON of extra broth as the the soup simmered after we ate....)

5. When the noodles are almost done, add chicken and any veggies that just need to be heated up (such as frozen corn, which I preheated in the microwave so it didn't cool off the soup too much.) Also...and this is Secret Tip Number Two...add a couple of good squirts of Liquid Smoke.
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6. When everything is heated through, taste it, and add salt and pepper as needed. It's ready to eat!

I just love the flavor that Liquid Smoke adds to soup, and by putting some flour in with the veggies, the broth has just a little more thickness. This soup turned out GREAT!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Nag, nag, nag

Recently The Engineer took the morning off work, and we went to lunch as a family before he headed into the office. Nothing fancy, just Del Taco. What a nice way to spend the middle of the day, right?

Except it wasn't.

As we sat there, he brought up something that bugged me. It doesn't really matter what it was; it wasn't that big of a deal. But it pressed one of "my buttons," and I really got on his case about it.

I explained why I disagreed with him. Why he should have handled things differently. I'm sure my blood pressure and heart rate went up. And I probably didn't fully appreciate my gourmet taco meal.

After that lunch, it hit me.

I don't want to nag my husband.

Not Nagging my husband is bad.

Not I'm a horrible wife when I nag.

But I don't want to nag my husband.

See, I'd put a big black cloud over a perfectly nice family lunch date, by making an issue out of something that didn't really matter much at all in the long run. And I realized, I don't really like how that makes me feel, and how it makes my husband feel, and what it does in our marriage.

So I decided I wanted to mostly stop nagging. I say "mostly" because if we stay healthy, we have several more decades of marriage in front of us, and there's no way I'm making a promise to myself to never nag again. I'd break that promise.

But I just decided I really didn't want to do it anymore. Nagging doesn't work.

So I've mostly stopped nagging. Not out of some sense of guilt or obligation, but because I don't want to do it anymore.

And it really does feel so good. I've let go of the responsibility of changing things in him that bug me, a responsibility that shouldn't have been mine in the first place. I have plenty of other jobs; it's really nice that I've got that whole nagging thing off my to-do list.

And best of all, ever since then, Del Taco has been a lot more fun.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Miss Chickie, the teacher

Well, ladies and gentlemen, our first homeschooling "year" is officially over, and the kids have promoted to their new grades!

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We're still doing a little schoolwork over the summer, but not too much. One subject Chickie is working on is math. It doesn't come naturally to her like other subjects do, and so I'm trying to make sure she has a really good foundation for second grade by continuing to work this summer.

Because math can be challenging for her, Chickie tends to get very frustrated. We recently started using a curriculum called Math-U-See, and I love it! It utilizes video lessons and manipulative blocks. I sit and work with her on each lesson.

Math-U-See suggests that once the child has learned something, it's good to ask them to teach it back to you. I tried that one day, and suddenly realized I'd found an amazing, fun way to teach Chickie. When Miss Chickie is the teacher and I'm the student, she suddenly perks up. Math becomes fun! I am still able to guide our "class time," even though I'm the student. I'll ask her things like, "Miss Chickie, can you please show me how to subtract nine minus four?"

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And Miss Chickie happily picks up her manipulative blocks and shows me, the student, how to do the problem. I've also found this works great for word problems. ("Miss Chickie, I have six pieces of chocolate and my little sister wants me to give her four of them! But I don't know how many I'll have left!")

When Miss Chickie makes mistakes, she doesn't get frustrated like Chickie does. As the student, I act confused as I point out the error, and she cheerfully figures out how to fix it.

I can't be the student all the time, and this hasn't solved all our math woes. But it's a huge discovery for me, and I want to find more ways to utilize it. Maybe the best way for Chickie to be a good student is for Miss Chickie to be a teacher!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

I'm hanging on to this clutter spot

I am so happy to report that my decluttering efforts have continued, even though Sonnet and I finished our Willpower Experiment almost two months ago. I've settled into a three- or four-day-a-week routine of tackling clutter spots. Sometimes I'm even tackling one that I've tackled before. (That's usually the kitchen countertops or the school room, areas that just build up clutter so easily.)

I'm almost done with the downstairs and am a little nervous about what's waiting for me upstairs! But I'm loving the difference that my small efforts, compounded over time, are making. It's far from perfect, but it's so much better than it was before!

I've noticed something interesting. My mom is very organized, and she has been kind enough to organize some of my cabinets, etc., on her trips here. But I have never been motivated to keep most of those spots organized. However, now that I'm the one putting in the time and effort, I am so much more motivated to keep my spaces looking nice!

But there is one spot I have decided is going to stay cluttered most of the time, and that's okay. It's my refrigerator, covered with kid stuff.

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Occasionally I go through the artwork and other memorabilia hanging on my fridge. I toss some of it and save some of it, and enjoy the sight of an "empty canvas" for a short time.

Soon, though, one of the kids brings me some sort of piece of art, and they are so proud of it, and I am so proud of it...and on the fridge it goes.

And you know what? That's okay. Keeping my house less-cluttered isn't about some sort of moral or ethical requirement. It's about being happier. A less-cluttered house makes me happier. But my kids' artwork, displayed for me and others to see--well, that makes me happy too. Even as my house becomes more organized, my messy fridge still belongs here!

Friday, April 26, 2013

When being social is a learned skill

Did you feel socially awkward as a kid?

I did. I felt different. And sometimes I felt lonely.

You know what's crazy? As I talk to fellow adults now, I realize that many (maybe even most?) of us felt socially awkward as we grew up. And if lots and lots of us felt that way, I guess we really weren't as "different" as we thought we were.

But the fact remains, it's hard when you don't feel like you fit in. I have so badly wanted to protect my kids from that feeling. I want them to naturally make friends. I want them to be well-liked.

I don't want my kid to be too hyper, or too awkward, or too intense, so that another child rolls their eyes and pulls away. It hurts me when I see one of my little ones, flesh of my flesh, struggling to fit in.

But there are some truths I'm learning, and I need to remind myself of them. Frequently. Here they are:
  • It's okay to be different. It's okay to not be liked by everyone. I'm just now learning this as an adult, and I'd love for my kids to learn it earlier.
  • If my kids are finding other children they do relate to, I probably shouldn't be so concerned. They don't have to be the most popular kids on the block as long as they have some good friends they can count on.
  • Many of us have to learn how to be social. It doesn't always come naturally. It certainly didn't for me--but as I grew, I learned it! Sometimes I still feel socially insecure. Most of us do. But in general, as an adult, I feel good about who I am, and about my ability to relate to others. If I can learn it, my kids can too. It's okay for them to stumble along the way--it's called trial and error!
My kids are learning to swim. It's proving to be a long, challenging process for Zoodle. And that's okay.

Chickie has to work hard to understand math concepts. Sometimes it's really hard for her, but I know that it's okay.

See, my kids have plenty of talents; they just don't have every talent.

When I look at a child who is a natural swimmer, I don't expect Zoodle to be like that. And when I see kids who are math whizzes, I don't expect Chickie to learn that quickly.

So when I see kids who are naturally social butterflies, why should I expect my kids to "measure up"?

Socializing is a learned skill, just like swimming or math! And some kids get it more easily than others! But that doesn't mean there's something wrong with one of my kids if he or she has to work harder at it.

So I want to accept my kids just as they are. If I see some social awkwardness here or there, I don't want to panic. I want my kids to feel totally accepted by me (even if they are acting "different") so they can be confident enough to just be themselves around their peers.

This one is hard for me, but, like my kids...I'm learning.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Green time

Last weekend I went on an overnight women's retreat with others from our new church. It was so nice to get to know new people, and to spend time with an old friend whom I was rooming with.

By the time an hour of free time rolled around on Day 2, however, I was ready to recharge with some time alone. So I took a walk on the lovely retreat grounds, enjoying the gorgeous spring. This "green time" was just what I needed.

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I brought a little journal and did some writing under a tree. How can you not be peaceful and inspired, surrounded by such beauty?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Two milestones

Just over a week ago, we were at church on a Sunday morning. Church had just ended. "Kids," I said, "We're going to a baptism."

"Can I get baptized?" Chickie asked.

Before I move on with the story, I'll explain what our family believes about baptism. We see baptism as a step that someone takes after they've decided to give their life to Jesus. (That's a decision Chickie made a long time ago.) By being immersed fully in the water, and then lifted back out of the water, the person being baptized is symbolizing Jesus' death and resurrection. It is also a symbol of that Christian's "new life" in Christ. Baptism is a way to tell others, "I am a Christian."

We want our kids to make faith decisions themselves, without ever feeling coerced. And we want to make sure that they really understand when they take a big step like baptism. I was so glad that Chickie had asked on her own, but I wanted to make sure she was ready! So I talked to her, and discussed talked to the leader of the elementary-aged kids at church. She understood the significance of what she was doing, and was certain it was something she wanted to do.

So about an hour later, we were at the river with others from our church (many of whom were also being baptized), and Chickie got dunked!

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A little later in the afternoon, she said, "Daddy, can I get my ears pierced?" Daddy and I agreed she could, so we took her to the mall, where she chose Hello Kitty earrings. She was nervous but didn't cry!

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I am loving life with my kids these days. I've fallen into the habit of not posting on my blog--something I thought I'd avoid! But recently I've been thinking about how many of these big milestones--and how many every day happenings--I'm not recording. I post them on Facebook, but that's not the most easily-accessible record for posterity! So I'm not making any promises, but I hope I sit down to write a little more often. It's such a sweet time of life, and I never want to forget it.

Monday, April 1, 2013

A little birdie told me...

Cool thing about come across stuff you hadn't seen in years. Sometimes that's cool because you get the thrill of throwing it away. And sometimes it's cool because the item is full of sweet memories.

When I was a girl, someone carved this little pendant for me. He made one for my twin sister Becki too. Before birds were popular, I might add! I forgot who made it.... Maybe my mom will chime in with that information.

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I enjoyed wearing it then, and I love that I can wear it again.

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And this time I have a little girl of my own to share it with too.

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Monday, March 25, 2013

The Willpower Experiment: The Final Chapter (Week Ten!)

My friend Sonnet and I are on Week Ten--the last week--of our Willpower Experiment, based on the book The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. To read the previous posts from this series, click here. The last chapter of the book is just a short summary/conclusion, so Sonnet and I will use this post to sum up what we've learned through this Experiment.

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My big eye-opener? Willpower is about figuring out what I really want in the long term, and making more decisions to support what I want. It is NOT about having a miserable life that replaces joy and spontaneity with strict discipline and structure. It's about figuring out how to actually be happier. Willpower is, surprisingly, very, very freeing! I love that I'm making more choices based on what will make me happy in the long run, because I'm finding it makes me happier in the short run too.

My Willpower Experiment has centered around decluttering my house. I love the progress I'm making. I'm quite surprised about the extent of clutter I still have to tackle. It was worse than I'd realized, but I'm headed in the right direction. And I've learned that instead of patting myself on the back for my progress (and giving myself an excuse to let go of my goal), I need to keep reminding myself that every day I declutter a small area, I'm proving my commitment to this long-term life change. I want to stay committed, because my house is becoming a more and more pleasant place to live, and I want to continue that.

But remember way back when we talked about willpower being like a muscle? It gets stronger as you train it. I'm seeing that happen! I'm finding that it's easier for me to say no to sweets. (I tend to have quite a sweet tooth!) I'm procrastinating less on some things. Yes, I focused on decluttering as my willpower challenge, but I love that I'm seeing willpower increases in other areas of my life.

I have not become some sort of Willpower Superhero! I still have days when I sleep too late, or eat too much junk food, or create more clutter. But another thing I've learned is that I need to let go of the shame that comes with making mistakes. It's part of being human. I can learn from it instead of beating myself up. That's not always easy for me, but I'm trying!

This is one of those books that has truly been life-changing, and I recommend it to anyone who wants really practical advice about how to create more of the life you really want. Here it is on Amazon. It just may be the best $16.50 or so (a little more for Kindle, gah) that you can spend!

One more time...heeeeeeeeere's Sonnet!

Wow! Ten weeks and we have finished the entire book! This week falls right after I faced a particular challenge with my parents being in town and the difference in the way we approach food, so that was a great case study for me to try out so of the stuff I had learned.

So, what were some highlights for me from this book? I’d say that for me, the most mind-blowing and insightful concept was the understanding about how dopamine works, and how it is tied to high-sugar, high-fat foods. That dopamine triggers not only pleasure but an anxiety response, and that I was in essence self-medicating my anxiety by creating a dopamine rush by encountering high sugar foods, then “washing it away” with the pleasure and relief of eating them. Yes, I had heard people use the phrase ‘self-medicating’ when they talked about food before but never had I heard it elaborated on so well. It really made sense for me in this context, and I saw the emotional component of it so clearly. Ever since reading that one chapter, I have had so much more control over my tendency to binge eat when I am anxious.

I also love the new understanding I have about the way willpower works in our brain. That we have, in a sense, two brains that have evolved differently, and both are valuable. When we’re functioning optimally our self-control brain can make choices for the long term; but when we’re threatened or stressed emotionally or physically our impulse brain kicks in and makes survival choices for the short term. When we say willpower we usually are referring to making choices that have long-term benefits. In order to make those choices we need to support our bodies and brains so they know what to choose.

So how did this all play out in my ‘real-life’ willpower challenge? Well, let me set the stage for you. I have wonderful parents who are amazing grandparents. They are kind, generous, and fun and they love their grandkids fiercely. They live on the opposite coast, and I am blessed that they come and visit every 6 – 8 weeks. However, we disagree on what constitutes a healthy diet, both for us adults and for my kids. So my willpower challenge during this last visit of theirs was to resist the junk food temptations and maybe even hold my kids to a normal, healthier eating standard. Conveniently, March is “March Into Fitness” month at the kid’s school, and the girls are filling out charts where they try to eat 5 fruits and vegetables a day - a great tool to help navigate the food dilemma. I spoke to my mom about it the first day, and she asked me to drive her to the grocery store so she could pick up some fresh produce for the kids to eat. I kept the receipt from her trip. Want to know what was purchased?
  • Bananas and grapes – great!
  • Fruit juice with HFC (“Does juice count for their 5 a day?” “No…”)
  • Ice cream
  • Cookies
  • Lunchables
  • Cupcakes
  • Sausages
  • Coke
  • Potato Chips
  • Beef Sticks
  • Green Food Coloring
  • Whipped Cream
  • Sugared Cereal / Mini-Boxes

So this is what I was up against. Mom also arrived with two batches of homemade cookies in her carry-on, and we ate out several times during their visit, almost always including dessert. It was a LOT of temptation!

To help fortify my willpower, I used the techniques I learned in Chapter 8 that related to “immunization:” spending time each morning thinking about my goals (eating a nutritious diet) and considering what kinds of enticements might come up during the day. I made plans for how I would handle them, and thought about how proud I would feel for making good choices. I brought to mind a quote from my ‘role model,’ Michael Pollan. I also used a technique from early on in the book where I reminded myself that I was committed to my goals.

The results: Well, I was not able to stop my kids from eating junk all weekend. The food was in front of them and they ate it. I also found I was not able to say ‘NO’ firmly enough sometimes. I would say, “I don’t want my kids to eat that,” and I would be ignored or discounted. My mom eventually resorted to guilt trips, telling the kids, “Your mother wants me to feed you nothing but celery!” Argh. That was really frustrating.

On the other hand, when it came to my own choices about myself, I did fantastic! I was not even tempted to eat the cookies that were set out the first day. I made a conscious choice to eat pancakes and sausages one morning with everyone for breakfast, and didn’t feel bad about it. One night we all went out to eat. While everyone else ate large bowls of pasta or enormous plates, I ordered a small salad off the diet menu (which was still enormous, not to mention very good!) In the past, I know if I had done this I would have felt deprived and would have possibly eaten something later to ‘make up for it.’ But this time I felt full and happy with my choice. Willpower success!

Food became my willpower challenge by Week Ten, but I started off with a willpower challenge of writing just 15 minutes a day. I’m proud to report I have more than exceeded that (some days by several hours!) every day since about Chapter 2. Meditation helped, and finding the right triggers and motivators to get me to stop procrastinating. This really works!

My conclusion: It comes down to understanding, “What is willpower?” I had a skewed view of willpower before reading this book. Willpower is NOT, as I previously understood it to be, a kind of steely resolve, denying yourself happiness, making hard choices and suffering. Who would choose it then? And to what end? Willpower IS reframing the way you think. It’s not letting myself be fooled by my surroundings, and remaining true to my inner voice. Then I am able to care for myself and make good decisions.

I’m so grateful that Beth talked me into going through this book with her. It’s been one of the most educational experiences I have had in a long time! I’d recommend the journey to anyone looking to gain a better understanding of their decision-making process.

This is so, so cool to read, Sonnet. I'm thrilled that the book ended up affecting your life in profound, positive ways, just as it did mine. Thank you so much for joining me--it was way more fun and motivational to do this with someone else!

I was given a complimentary copy of this book and paid for my initial review; however, this in-depth series is uncompensated.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Willpower Experiment: Week Nine!

My friend Sonnet and I are on Week Nine of our Willpower Experiment, based on the book The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. To read the previous posts from this series, click here. This week we're covering Chapter Nine, "Don't Read This Chapter." This chapter (which I did read!) has proven to be one of the most-helpful chapters in the book for me, and reading it again, I think I'll be able to use the techniques even more effectively.

To start this week's post, I want to show you my New and Improved Linen Closet! (A decluttering project that took 5 days deserves some upper-case letters, don't you think?)
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I'm not sure what I'll do with that nearly-empty shelf, but it sure looks better empty than it did crammed with stuff. Again, I have no Before pic--and I might have been too embarrassed to share it if I had taken one!

And, this is what I've been dealing with today:
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That's my poor Zoodle, who fell asleep watching TV today (multiple times.) He is really sick. Vomiting, fever, lethargy, the whole works. This picture proves that there are valid reasons for not doing decluttering (which I probably won't get done today.) I sure hope my little guy feels better soon. And I'm committed to continuing my decluttering, even when I do take a day off (very) occasionally.

I'd like Sonnet to give her input on this chapter first, and then I'll explain why it's been so helpful to me.

My oldest daughter is nine years old, and has ADD (and is normally extremely well behaved.) As I mentioned last week, my parents have been here and have been spoiling the girls rotten in wonderful grandparent fashion. So on Sunday evening, we headed home from their place and my daughter had to sit at the kitchen table and put in some time with her homework before bed. She was overstimulated, exhausted, and homework was the last thing she wanted to be doing right at that moment.

“I’m too tired to be doing this,” she whined. Then a few minutes later she got up and went looking for a snack. Maybe two minutes later, after eating it, she started crying that her tummy hurt too much to face homework. Then her head was hurting. She kicked her feet, slumped over in her chair, flicked pencils across the table, and chewed on her hair. She started yelling that she hated school and was never going to go to school again and definitely not on Mondays. After a while she bolted from the table, ran downstairs “just to change into pj’s so she could work better,” and we heard the TV turn on.

If you’re a parent, have you ever faced this battle? Kids can just pull every excuse in the book out of thin air in order to avoid doing something they don’t want to be doing; ranging from the likely (I’m too tired) to the impossible (I’m never going to school again.) Well guess what? We adults do it too, and we add our own layer of self-destructive impulse behaviors onto our avoidance. That’s what Chapter Nine deals with: How we use and abuse impulse behaviors to avoid feelings, cravings and compulsions we’d rather not be dealing with… and how that doesn’t work.

My daughter tried pretty hard to get out of doing her homework this weekend, but in the end she still had to do it. In just the same way, no matter what method we try and use to dodge our uncomfortable feelings and thoughts, they’re going to come back and force the issue. They’re going to insist that we deal with them one way or the other. I’m pretty sure everyone has heard of the famous psychological experiment where subjects are asked not to think of white bears (or white elephants, or a pink rhinoceros?) Well once you try to control your thoughts, once you try to shove something away from you and suppress it, it comes back ten times stronger, doesn’t it. If you’re dieting and try tell yourself you don’t want chocolate cake, guess what you will dream of all day long. A recovering alcoholic will fantasize about the forbidden martinis. Tell yourself you can’t check email until your work is done for the day and you’ll spend a good portion of the day wondering what’s in your inbox.

We can’t just pretend like impulses, cravings and strong feelings aren’t there. If we avoid them, they demand our attention by becoming stronger. The trick is to recognize them and the place they have in our lives without giving them too much power, and without becoming afraid of them. If you can face a negative feeling head-on, and just be with it, you learn that you don’t have to give in to impulse behavior to handle it. It’s just a feeling, it doesn’t have any special meaning, it is just a part of life and it happens. You learn that you are a strong enough person to handle hard feelings. Cravings and compulsions lose their power.

This all sounds very zen, but I also think it’s extremely powerful. What are so many of our unwanted behaviors if not our unconscious ways of trying to handle uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that frighten or upset us? Learning that we can let our emotions flow through us instead of master us is remarkable stuff and opens up so many possibilities.

I do have to say that this chapter really only applies to I WON’T challenges. Try as I might, I could not find a way to make these theories work for I WILL challenges like the one I am working on. Still useful stuff, but unlike so much of the rest of the book, this info can’t be simply flip-flopped backwards and forwards to work either way. You can’t ‘ride your physical craving sensations’ and come out the other side motivated to do something.

We convinced my daughter to get moving Sunday night by acknowledging her discomfort, (“I’m sorry you’re tired and headachy. It’s been a busy weekend.”) providing her some means of physical support (snacks, hugs) and working together with her so she had the emotional support she needed to face her I WON’T fear and get her job done. I think the same techniques can work for all of us when we’re struggling. Listening to those feelings and recognizing them, along with paying attention to our bodily needs and a healthy dose of love and support from others, can get you pretty far in life.

All right, it's time for me to open up a bit.

My biggest and most-destructive willpower challenge is not the clutter in my house, though that's the main thing I've focused on through this Willpower Experiment. The bigger challenge I'm talking about it something I'd started working through a few months before I read this book. And I don't even think I realized it was a willpower challenge until I came to Chapter Nine.

My Big Huge Challenge? WORRY. Since I was very young (early grade school) I've struggled with worry. We all worry about different things. My major source of worry tends to be tied to my desire to please people (and God). When I'm afraid I've disappointed someone, made them angry, or had some sort of relational break, I can get positively torn up inside about it. Little tiny things--interpreting (possibly misinterpreting) someone's text, or lack of response to a text, or tone of voice--can put a big cloud over my day, and that's just not cool. And when it's bigger stuff, when someone is actually upset with me, I can have trouble focusing on anything else.

So I tend to reach out to people and try to smooth things over, even apologizing for things that really weren't my fault. I feel I have to do something, but doing something isn't always the best plan. Because by the fact is, I worry about relationships waaaaaaay too much. That means I apologize and try to make things right waaaaaaay too much. While jumping straight into action gives me a temporary reprieve from my anxiety, it doesn't ever teach me to actually deal with other people's negative feelings towards me (or my perception of their possible negative feelings). So that anxiety ("Did I make that person upset???") returns, over and over.

Chapter Nine teaches some very powerful things to help worrywarts.
  • Don't try to shove that worry away, or think about something else. You may be able to temporarily, but it will come back. (White bear/purple elephant, anybody?)
  • When a worry comes up, acknowledge it. Describe it to yourself. ("I am worried that this person might be upset at me because she (fill in the blank).")
  • Think about how that worry feels, physically. Does it put a sinking feeling in my stomach? Am I breathing faster? (I've been forgetting this aspect of acknowledging worry and am so glad I reread this chapter.)
  • Breathe deeply. Man, deep breathing comes up over and over, doesn't it? Focus on what that breathing feels like. Think about the worry dissolving as you exhale.
  • Know that you don't have to act on the worry. It's okay to feel worried, and if I acknowledge the feeling and DON'T act on it, it will run its cycle. I am finally learning this, and it is so freeing to realize I don't have to do what my worry tells me to do! Eventually my mind comes to a point of greater peace, without me taking that action that I always thought was necessary but was actually perpetuating the cycle!
There is so much more amazing stuff in this chapter. For someone who tends to fixate on a problem or potential problem, and worry about it, this chapter could be worth the price of the whole book.

But of course there are other books that deal specifically with anxiety and with other negative thoughts, and I'd like to recommend a couple that have been helping me.

The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques by Margaret Wehrenberg (Written from a secular perspective but easy to adapt to a faith-based framework)

Living Beyond Your Feelings by Joyce Meyer (Deals with negative feelings in general, not just anxiety. Christian book.)

This book in willpower is helping me in a way I never expected. I'm so excited to be seeing changes (sometimes itty bitty baby steps, sometimes two steps forward, one step back) in something that has held me back for so long--unnecessary worries!

Next week is Chapter Ten, the final chapter! It's really short. I think Sonnet and I will just recap how we're doing and sum up what we've learned. See you then!

I was given a complimentary copy of this book and paid for my initial review; however, this in-depth series is uncompensated.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Willpower Experiment: Week Eight

My friend Sonnet and I are on Week Eight of our Willpower Experiment, based on the book The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. To read the previous posts from this series, click here. This week we're covering Chapter Eight, "Infected! Why Willpower is Contagious."

First I want to make something very clear to you.

Daylight Savings Time is stupid.

Now, my future self may disagree, when I gain an hour of (potential) sleep in the fall. But today, one day after losing an hour, I stand on my premise that Daylight Savings Time is stupid.

Clearly I'm tired today. And I think it's a good time to talk about what I'm learning about succeeding in my willpower challenges when life is extra, well, challenging...when I'm tired, blue, stressed, etc. Then we'll jump into the new content from this week's chapter.

Last week I wrote about a mini-challenge I've taken on: getting up with my alarm each morning. I did great last week with my double motivators (moving my alarm further from my bed, and telling myself that if I slept in, I'd have to take a day off Facebook.) But then we had the time change, and last night I went to bed about an hour "later" than usual. So this morning when that alarm went off at 6:30, my body told me it was 5:30, and I really wanted to stay in bed!

I spent almost 15 minutes arguing with myself, but I did eventually get up, which I counted as a willpower win! How did I convince myself? I asked myself what would make me feel better later today--getting up and walking (which I normally do on Mondays), or sleeping an extra hour. I knew I was more likely to benefit from getting up and exercising, and, sure enough, I was very glad I'd walked today. Yes, I'm extra-tired now...but that should help me go to bed at an earlier time tonight, which will help me adjust more quickly to this time change.

Thinking about what's good for my future self...that's a skill that I am building, thanks to this book! It was really cool to see it "work" in a practical way.

But that leaves me with this extra-tired feeling, which means that my motivation to do anything productive today tends to be lessened. So when it came to my main willpower challenge, decluttering, I gave myself permission to do only a very small spot. Specifically, I reorganized one very small plastic bin in my linen closet (a multi-day project I'm currently working on.) It took about 5-7 minutes. I proved to myself that I was still committed to my goal, and 5-7 minutes worth of work is better than none. I like this strategy of doing a little of an "I will" challenge, instead of doing none, when my resources are in some way depleted.

On to Chapter Eight. I'm going to let Sonnet take the lead, and I'll chime in occasionally with my thoughts. As always, Sonnet's words are in bold.

When it comes down to it, we all just want to be liked and accepted as a part of our social group. That’s it – this truth is the message behind Chapter Eight in our Willpower series. Humans are social animals, and being accepted and valued by our society is probably one of the biggest motivators we have.

What does this mean for willpower? Well first, we tend to do what everyone else is doing. Group think at its finest! It’s not always a bad thing, and even if it was, it is our instinct – we can’t always escape it. Don’t believe me? Then why do political poll numbers sway the undecided? Why do we click on the “most read stories” link on news websites? Why do we read bestsellers and see box office hits instead of bombs? Because everyone else is doing it. Second, we can use this instinct to motivate ourselves. If we think we will lose social standing by making poor choices, we’ll be less likely to make those choices. Or alternately, if we can attach a feeling of pride or being upwardly social mobile to making positive willpower choices, we’ll almost certainly stick with the good choices. Put another way, in a modern world where everything is open for social media scrutiny, we’re all hoping for ‘likes’ on our actions.

One thing that interests me is that sincerely-held religious belief can help us in our willpower challenges. When Christians are asked to think about Bible passages that encourage health "such as 'do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat' (Proverbs 23:30, NIV)" (p. 198) and then to consider whether or not their lives line up to the Bible they believe in, it helps motivate them to make better choices. I like this type of motivation, if it stays positive. In other words, I want to think, "Wow, it feels great to live my life in a way that is pleasing to God and that matches my beliefs!" rather than, "Ooh, I don't want to displease God by making hypocritical choices."

I have a pet peeve about this chapter. When a negative behavior is reinforced by a social group, the term ‘epidemic’ gets used because of the way actions can spread like a virus. I confess, I hate this term, especially because it so often gets applied to obesity. I’m pretty darn fat thanks to a variety of endocrine disorders, and I have spent a lifetime trying to reassure people that hugging me will not give them ‘the fat.’ That I am not contagious. I’m not saying this tongue in cheek – there are people, many people, who will outright refuse to touch me because of my size. I’ve been refused services from professionals such as massage therapists and doctors before because of it. Look, touching my body isn’t going to spread obesity germs onto you, I promise. And talking about it this way doesn’t help. In this chapter Dr. McGonigal even refers to other contagious willpower challenges…. like depression. Since when is depression a willpower challenge? It was a disease last I checked, and treating it like something you can will yourself out of is aggravating.

I agree with this, Sonnet, now that you point it out! I think it would have been more effective to talk about how specific behaviors (such as overeating or having a negative attitude) are contagious, rather than conditions (obesity, depression) being contagious. On the flip side, eating healthy food and having a positive attitude can be contagious too.

My issues with wording aside, I decided to take a look at the experiments for this week. My challenge is to stop procrastinating and write just 15 minutes a day, every day. Now, this week’s challenges focus on your social group, and with writing I don’t have a very social group. It’s kind of just me and my laptop. So I am changing things up a bit for this week, changing my challenge and my time frame. This weekend my parents are coming to visit, which is wonderful – they are incredible grandparents and it will be fun to have them here! When they are here visiting, however, I know I always adopt their laid-back attitude about junk food, and I usually gain several pounds every long weekend they visit. The candy flows free, and I notice even my young daughters gain weight. We have a great time together, but this is a good example of social behavior impacting a willpower challenge.

So, my plan is to use some of the ideas presented in this chapter to mitigate the issue, and I’ll check back in next week on how it went.

First off Chapter Eight suggests creating an ‘immune response’ to social contagion by spending some time at the start of every day to simply think about your goal and how temptation might happen during the day. Make a plan. I can do that. Goal: stick to healthier, whole foods and minimal processed foods and sugar over the weekend.

Part two of having a plan is to help my kids with the goal. Conveniently, March is “March Into Fitness” month at their school and they are filling out daily charts where they are trying to eat 5 fruits and vegetables a day and to get one hour of physical activity a day. I can use the charts to remind my kids of their goals, and if they are eating their 5-A-Day they won’t be as tempted to overdo it on sugar.

Finally another technique from the book is to bring to mind a role model when you are in need of a willpower boost. It’s funny, but as I was thinking through my friends I was surprised to consider how few of my friends I eat regularly enough with to really know their food habits – closely enough to consider them role models anyway. Obviously my girlfriends and I need to go out more! In the meantime, I’m choosing author Michael Pollan as my role model, of the famous dieting quote, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” I think that’s so reasonable, it inspires me.

Alright, that’s my plan. Everyone will be here through next Tuesday so on week 10, I’ll let you know how it worked out!

I think it's really cool that you found a specific way to put this chapter into practice, Sonnet, and I'm really looking forward to hearing how this week goes for you!

I had some trouble relating my specific willpower challenge (decluttering my house) to many of the principles in this chapter. I don't know anyone else who is currently tackling this willpower challenge, and I'm not even sure I want a role model. I tend to look at people who are naturally clean and organized, and I feel ashamed and guilty, so I don't want to focus on them! It's been so helpful to me to focus on myself, and how much this new way of living affects me positively.

However, I appreciate McGonigal's point that we can be positively affected by others who are tackling different willpower challenges than we are. She also points out the benefit of making our goals public. Sonnet and I have both been staying consistent with reading and reviewing this book--and maybe more consistent with our challenges too--because we know the other person is counting on us, and because we've made our commitments public!

A couple of other things that caught my attention in this chapter...
  • When McGonigal is discussing how likely we are to "follow the herd," she points out, "In the classroom, I find that just about every student believes that he or she is the exception" (p. 197). Guilty!! In fact, when I read that, I'd just been thinking, "Maybe this chapter isn't really 'hitting' me because I'm really not that affected by what others do!" But McGonigal points out that "we cannot separate ourselves from our social instincts" (p. 197). In other words, I'm not the exception, and neither are you! So I'm going to try to be more aware of how I'm being positively and negatively affected by the actions and attitudes of those around me.
  • After reading Sonnet's comments (above), this quote rang so true to me: "Willpower 'failures' like addiction, obesity, and bankruptcy often come with a stigma in our society. We may wrongly assume that a person is weak, lazy, stupid, or selfish, and convince ourselves that they deserve to be shamed or excluded from the tribe. But we should be especially aware of shunning people who do not control their behavior in the way we would like. Besides being a pretty cruel way to treat people, it is a lousy strategy for change" (p. 205). What a great reminder!! Not only do I not know the whole story behind what appears to me to be someone else's willpower failure; I also have plenty of true willpower failures of my own! While I might occasionally need to separate myself from someone who is influencing me badly, I want so much to interact with others in a nonjudgmental way and to support those around me.
Next week's chapter is one that was immensely helpful to me the first time I read it! It's called "Don't Read This Chapter: The Limits of  'I Won't' Power." It's a great one. See you next week!

I was given a complimentary copy of this book and paid for my initial review; however, this in-depth series is uncompensated.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Willpower Experiment: Week Seven

My friend Sonnet and I are on Week Seven of our Willpower Experiment, based on the book The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. To read the previous posts from this series, click here. This week we're covering Chapter Seven, "Putting the Future on Sale: The Economics of Instant Gratification."

Decluttering has lost some of its lustre, but I'm continuing to do it, because I'm committed and I know its worth it. Here's a cabinet I tackled over a period of three days last week:

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There's extra space in there now--what a concept!!

McGonigal opens Chapter 7 with an interesting story (pp. 156-157). In 2007 a study was published that compared how much self control humans and chimps have. The human or chimp subject was presented with two treats (grapes for the chimps, and various bite-sized snack foods for humans.) They were allowed to eat those two treats right away, or they could have six treats if they waited just two minutes.

Chimps are self-controlled creatures! Seventy-two percent of them waited for the larger reward (six treats.) But guess how many humans waited? Only 19 percent! And they were students from Harvard, people we'd expect to have a lot of self-control! I'm going to let Sonnet explain this phenomenon as she introduces the chapter to us.

It’s time for Chapter Seven, and we’re going Back to the Future! (That was a great movie, by the way.) The theme of this chapter is all about how we view our future: incorrectly. So, how is that screwing up our willpower?

The basic problem is this: we have this huge disconnect between our experience of now and our ideas about what the future might be. The future just doesn’t seem real to us, it is hard to imagine. When we think about our future, even our future 20 minutes from now, we like to predict that we’re going to have more free time, and more money, and more ability to resist cheesecake. We like to think the world will be a better and easier place free of temptation or fears or obnoxious bosses or jeans that are too tight. And in this magical world, our future self (who is amazingly NOT us) will conquer all this stuff that’s been piling up. So let’s let her deal with it. Sound good?

This was one of the most interesting concepts to me in Chapter Seven. We think of our future selves as different people entirely! McGonigal calls your future self You 2.0. "You 2.0 is future you," she writes. "Future you is the person you imagine when you wonder whether you should clean the closet today or leave it to your future self. Future you is the person who will be much more enthusiastic about exercising than you are right now.... We think about our fututre selves like different people. We often idealize them, expecting our future selves to do what our present selves cannot manage" (pp. 171-172).

This was so eye-opening to me. (I keep saying that, don't I?!) I know I have fallen into this trap more times than I can count. I see a cluttered spot and know that someday, future me will take care of it. I won't be so busy in the future, or I'll be more motivated. In reading this book for the first time a couple of months ago, I faced the truth: My house was becoming more and more cluttered, because present me never turned into the idealized version of future me. And if I want a house that is more pleasant to live in, present me has to step in and take responsibility.

McGonigal does a great job giving options for how to motivate our present selves to do what we've always expected our future selves to do. Sonnet does a great job explaining these techniques.

One of the suggestions in this chapter is called precommitting, and is basically comes down to creating situations ahead of time that build in carrots and sticks for your willpower goal. Such as, for example, taking bets on whether or not you will lose weight. Or, say, setting up a plan to donate money to a charity you find repellant every time you don’t meet your goals. You plan ahead to make life easier for your future self to do the right thing when temptation hits. I’m sure this is really motivating for some people. You know what it makes me feel? Stress. Big time stress, almost panic-level stress. I could feel my heart racing and my breath coming faster just reading about it. And stress makes me want to run for comfort, which makes me want to act impulsively, which makes me want to do things like curl up on the couch with a pint of ice cream and do nothing until it goes away. There is no way this is going to work for me. Even the thought makes me want to avoid any activity associated with this ‘motivator.’ So… next.

Clearly precommitment isn't a strategy that works for everyone! But one of McGonigal's precommitment suggestions hit home with me. "Put your alarm clock across the room so you'll have to get out of bed to turn it off" (p. 169). While decluttering is still my primary willpower challenge, I have had a strong desire lately to get back on track with getting up early so I can spend quiet time alone with God. This is a mini-challenge I want to take on! So last night I put my alarm on the far side of my bedside table, with books and a lamp in between me and it. I had to get out of bed to reach it.

But I needed more motivation than that. It's far too easy to get back in bed! So I also followed McGonigal's advice to "make immediate gratification more painful if you give in" (p. 169). I decided that if I don't get up on time, I'll have to take a day off Facebook. I really don't want to do that! Maybe that's a problem in and of itself, but for now, it's a motivator for me. I got out of bed at 6:30 this morning, and I'm excited to see if these techniques continue to work. But let's get back to Sonnet, who needed to find a technique that works for her!

An interesting one suggested was the “wait ten minutes” strategy. The idea is, if you are faced with an ‘I Won’t’ willpower challenge (such as having a cigarette or eating a doughnut) tell yourself you can have it… after you wait 10 minutes. If you place the temptation into the future, alongside the concept of the future rewards, you take away the short-term impulse appeal and are able to manage it much better. For I Won’t challenges, I think this has enormous potential. I can see myself using this one quite often when I have the impulse to binge eat when I am angry or upset.

On the other hand. The book also claims you can use this for I Will challenges by turning it around, saying “do X for 10 minutes, then you can quit.” So let me be honest. I procrastinated on writing this summary like a crazy woman. I read the chapter on Monday and I am writing this almost a full week later, late Sunday night. I messed around doing anything but writing all day today. I finally tried the “do it for 10 minutes” trick to see if I could get it done, and you know what happened? Nothing. Not a thing. I didn’t write a single word. I wasn’t motivated at all by it. I suppose because I like writing, it’s not that I didn’t want to do it. I was fine with doing it. I just felt like taking the short term reward more. So for I Will challenges, at least for me? No dice.

What finally did motivate me, for the record, was using the dopamine reward trick. I made a large mug of my favorite tea, got a small bowl of chocolate eggs, and set both on my work desk by my laptop. There. I can have them if I am writing, I told myself. Sold! It wasn’t even a difficult decision, I was happy to get cozy in my office and get to work. So, now I know what motivates me!

I love that this book gives so many suggestions--so when one doesn't make sense, we can find another that does! And it's interesting to me is that Sonnet and I have both managed to find the motivation, every single week, to read this book and write the blog posts--even if we had to fight for that motivation. This is the type of thing I tend to have good intentions for, but I often don't follow through.

So why have Sonnet and I kept up with this? Because for the last seven weeks, we've both followed another of McGonigal's suggestions from this chapter: Find someone who will support you and hold you accountable to your goals. Honestly, I've procrastinated on these blog posts every single week. The earliest I've written any of my Monday posts has been Sunday--and a couple of my "Monday" posts have been written later in the week! Sonnet admits she procrastinated this week too.

But we've both kept up with it, because we are depending on each other. I think this is a huge key! Ann and I usually have our kids learn about one particular topic each week (in addition to our regular schoolwork), and we do lapbook projects on those topics most weeks. Why do I make sure my kids keep up with it? Because I know that we'll be getting together with Ann so all the kids can present their projects. Knowing someone else is counting on me is huge motivation!

Back to Sonnet...

Alright, other good ideas for connecting with the nebulous, intangible future do come up in this chapter. If we can really grasp that the ‘future self’ is going to be our self, the same person instead of a stranger, then we are more likely to make wise long term decisions. The chapter has some great suggestions for reconciling the two that are simple, effective, and even fun. Think about what you’re going to be doing next week. Just next week. Grocery shopping? Going to the board meeting? Really picture yourself in those situations. That’s it – those few moments of imagery will cause you to think twice about putting off cleaning the carpets until next week. You can write a letter to your future self. There are even services who will mail or email them to you.

Note from Beth: McGonigal suggests the site for sending an email to yourself in the future. Here is the one I am sending to myself in one year:

 photo Lettertofutureself_zpscd5c7f2d.png

Talking about your hopes and dreams, deciding what you think your future self would thank your present self for – those concepts make the future real. Finally, taking the time to daydream about possibilities, imagining future outcomes from your choices, also solidifies the future. Who is next year’s best possible you? Who is next year’s you who is struggling because of bad decisions? Thinking through the ins and outs of what your actions mean leads to taking care of yourself long term, and being more mindful of your choices over time instead of in the right now.

To me, I think this is really a key part of willpower. This is what it is all about: making the future as valuable as the present. We’re not wired to think that way, but if we can, planning ahead pays off in big ways.

Thinking in specific ways about future me has been an important part of my decluttering willpower challenge. I'm a real estate agent. When I am helping a client prepare their home for sale, I hire a home stager to come and give them specific suggestions to get the house ready. So many times, I've thought to myself, "Whew, whenever we decide to sell this house, I'm going to have a lot of work to do, getting this place decluttered." Not wanting to deal with that stressful concept, I've shoved the thought aside, figuring that future me would find a way to handle it!

Now, I think about how good it will feel if and when we want to get our house ready for sale. Because I'm committed to continuing to declutter, my closets and drawers will already look good! I'll need to do some prep work, of course, but it won't be so overwhelming. My home stager will come in and compliment me on my bathroom countertop already looking nice (instead of being crammed full of bottles and things as it was a few weeks ago.) And I know that on all the days in between today and that day, I will enjoy my home more because I'm making it a more peaceful and pleasant place to live! I'm thinking about what future me wants, and it's making present me happier too!

If you're trying to find motivation to tackle a willpower challenge, use some of the techniques from this chapter to connect with your future self. Our future selves ARE US! When we make that connection, we can start making more decisions that will benefit us in the long run!

I was given a complimentary copy of this book and paid for my initial review; however, this in-depth series is uncompensated.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Willpower Experiment: Week Six

My friend Sonnet and I are on Week Six of our Willpower Experiment, based on the book The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. To read the previous posts from this series, click here. Pardon my language, but Chapter Six is called "What the Hell: How Feeling Bad Leads to Giving In." I'll let Sonnet starts us off this week!

“Our stresses, anxieties, pains, and problems arise because we do not see the world, others, or even ourselves as worthy of love. (9)”
Prem Prakash, The Yoga of Spiritual Devotion A Modern Translation of the Narada Bhakti Sutras

I decided to lead with this beautiful quote by Prem Prakash because it captures so much of what Chapter Six is about. The world is a stressful place, driving us to seek out comfort in our actions. When we react to these choices in ways that aren’t loving and supportive of our selves, we end up hurting; and the unhappy person within us makes repeatedly worse decisions as we seek even greater comfort. The only way out, the only way to make good willpower choices, is to act in love.

Stress is all around us, affecting every one, every day. Work, family responsibilities, financial struggles, health issues. Loud noises and traffic can cause stress. This chapter showed how just watching the news can be a source of stress as we subconsciously note all of the terror attacks, earthquakes, floods, car accidents, kidnappings and school shootings in our world. Our brains are driven to seek relief, to find comfort in any manner available. And what is the obvious choice? Dopamine rushes, just like we talked about in Chapter Five. These hit our reward center in just the right way and promise us happiness, calm, relief. So we turn to food, sex, money, spending hours on the internet, and other impulsive or even harmful behaviors because they promise to make us feel better.

Beth chiming in here! It's fascinating that "according to the American Psychological Association (APA), the most commonly used strategies for dealing with stress are those that activate the brain's reward system: eating, drinking, shopping, watching television, surfing the Web, and playing video games.... The most commonly used strategies were also rated as highly ineffective by the same people who reported using them" (p. 134).

We're back to my confession last week about repeatedly checking Facebook, being convinced I'll somehow find pleasure there. And I can definitely see the stress connection. When I'm stressed out, sometimes my brain rebels against doing anything that requires more focus or energy than clicking "Like" and "Comment"! Hearing an expert tell me that this is an ineffective way of dealing with stress is making a difference. It's making me think twice before I spend long periods of time scrolling through my News Feed! Why do we automatically return to behaviors that aren't helpful, and may be harmful, when we're stressed? Sonnet explains it here:

Stress triggers your fight-or-flight response, and it will always favor the short-term over the long term. So as stress and anxiety in your environment increase, so do impulsive behaviors. Willpower goes right out the door.

What’s funny is we know what behaviors work to reduce stress. This chapter has a great list of them...

...and I'm going to put that whole list here, because I found it so insightful. These behaviors genuinely work to reduce stress (quoted from p. 137):
  • exercising or playing  sports
  • praying or attending a religious service
  • reading
  • listening to music
  • spending time with friends or family
  • getting a massage
  • going outside for a walk
  • meditating or doing yoga
  • spending time with a creative hobby
When I watch TV, I usually want to be doing something else. I used to sit there on my computer, on Facebook or blogs, as if combining two ineffective stress relief activities would help. (All it did was annoy my husband, who knew I was only half-watching the TV!) But since I started crocheting a couple of years ago, that's usually my go-to television activity. And when I see the list above, I realize that's a great thing to do! Television itself doesn't reduce my stress. But crocheting is relaxing. I can spend time with my husband watching a show we enjoy, while I practice my "creative hobby." To me it feels so much better than just zoning off in front of what the "boob tube."

Those activities have all been well studied and always come through to dramatically make us really feel better, when chocolate binges won’t. But we don’t choose them. Why not? Because they don’t have an associated dopamine rush. They don’t feel heady, they don’t have that “rush” to them, so we underestimate the effect they will have. We assume activities need to feel “dopamine-y” to make us feel better, when that’s not the case.

"Rather than releasing dopamine and relying on the promise of reward," McGonigal explains, "the real stress relievers boost mood-enhancing brain chemicals like serotonin and GABA, as well as the feel-good hormone oxytocin" (p. 137).

Both last night and this morning, I was feeling stressed out, not quite prepared to take on what I expected to be a busy Monday. And I knew I needed to exercise, but I didn't want to. Last night, there was certainly no dopamine promising me pleasure if I got off the couch. And this morning not only was there a lack of dopamine telling me to exercise; I was also being begged to stay in bed by my warm covers, who can be very convincing.

McGonigal suggests that you find "a way to remind your stressed-out self what actually makes you feel better"( p. 139). Both last night and this morning, I just reminded myself that I would feel better if I got up and moved. I know that's true from personal experience. It was late last night--too late for a full workout--but I took a few minutes to get up and just move a bit, in my living room. I felt so much better! And this morning I (eventually!) convinced myself to get out of bed, and sure enough, a brisk walk was just what I needed to start my busy day on a positive note. When dopamine isn't telling us that a positive action is rewarding, we have to depend on what we know is truly rewarding instead.

So let's talk about how guilt keeps us from meeting our goals. If you're "good at guilt" like me, you need to read this part! Here's Sonnet:

Making poor choices can be a vicious cycle. You begin by being worried about one thing, which leads you to make a negative willpower choice, and then your guilt about that choice makes you feel bad, so you seek relief from that feeling and you make another poor choice. How often have you been tempted by “just a bite” of a rich dessert, felt bad about giving in, and ended up eating the entire thing? (I know I have!) The idea that guilt over a lapse in willpower makes us feel bad, so we are driven to make more unhealthy choices, is a well-known one.

Says Dr. McGonigal, “‘I’ve already broken my [diet, budget, sobriety, resolution], so what the hell, I might as well really enjoy myself.’ Crucially it’s not the first giving-in that guarantees the bigger relapse. It’s the feelings of shame, guilt, loss of control, and loss of hope that follow the first relapse. Once you’re stuck in the cycle, it can seem like there’s no way out except to keep going.” When we talk to ourselves in a critical way, like an angry parent scolding a child, we make this cycle worse. We deepen our feelings of shame and make it more likely that we will have little choice but to continue making bad decisions.

The way out, as Prem Prakash said, is love. Treating ourselves gently and kindly, with respect and compassion, stops this cycle. Reminding ourselves that everyone makes mistakes, or indulges once in a while, or struggles to always make the ‘right’ decisions, means we don’t feel the shame and guilt so acutely. Then we aren’t as driven to seek further dopamine comfort. We’re also more willing to face our lapses and really examine what went on, and make changes so we can do better in the future.

"As soon as I mention self-forgiveness in class," Dr. McGonigal writes (p. 147), "the arguments start pouring in. You would think I had just suggested that the secret to more willpower was throwing kittens in front of speeding buses.... To many people, self forgiveness sounds like excuse-making that will only lead to greater self-indulgence."

Do you relate? I do! However, "Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. It is also one of the single biggest predictors of depression, which drains both 'I will' power and 'I want' power" (p. 148).

If I believe in a God who forgives my sins, then that begs the question, would He really want me to beat myself up over my mistakes and bad choices? Yes, God wants me to become more like him--but surely that includes being a forgiver...even forgiving myself.

In addition to remembering that mistakes are part of being human, McGonigal also suggests thinking about how you'd talk to a friend who'd made the same mistake, and then talking to yourself that way. These perspectives help us to move past the guilt feelings, which actually get in the way of learning from our bad choices. And what a relief to live in grace instead of guilt!

I'll let Sonnet close our discussion for this week.

When we hear the word “WILLPOWER” we so often associate it with cold hard strength. With being able to shut off emotions and get the job done, powering through the temptations of physical comforts. This chapter turns all that on its head. This chapter shows the true power of kindness and gentleness, especially towards our selves. It’s impressive!

I was given a complimentary copy of this book and paid for my initial review; however, this in-depth series is uncompensated.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Willpower Experiment: Week Five

My friend Sonnet and I are on Week Five of our Willpower Experiment, based on the book The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. To read the previous posts from this series, click here.

Whew, what a week it's been for me! My husband has been sick, and just as he was starting to feel better, I came down with it. I've been sick since Monday, but today I'm starting to feel much better. I haven't done any decluttering this week--I've been doing well just to get through each day! I may be able to take on a decluttering project today or tomorrow, and I'm committed to continuing toward my goal!

Let's start with Sonnet's recap of Chapter Five, "The Brain's Big Lie: Why We Mistake Wanting for Happiness."

Five weeks in, and this chapter takes on one of the most powerful forces that affect how we respond to temptations. You probably have heard the slang term dope, which comes from dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls the reward system in our brain. There’s a reason something as bizarre as a neurotransmitter has made it into our everyday lexicon: a dopamine rush is a very, very potent force; one we all will happily turn our bodies (and homes, marriages, or wallets) over to given half a chance.

What causes dopamine to start flowing? Anything that gives us the promise of reward. This can be anything from food to sex to money to technology to an alcohol buzz to leveling up in your video game. Images or scents of good food do it. The sound of your aroused mate purring in your ear does it. The icon on your phone that says you have a new text message does it. There’s a rush to your reward center, and your brain starts telling you to act now - that this immediate gratification is absolutely what you are after, and bugger everything else.

Notice though, that dopamine works on the reward center of the brain, and not the pleasure center. It produces intense feelings of desire and motivation, not gratification. Dopamine can also cause a significant stress response when we think about not being able to act on our desire. Dr. McGonigal talks about a study where researchers showed women simple images of chocolate while monitoring their brains. The women all showed a ‘startle response,’ reacting with alarm. The women reported feeling pleasure when they saw the chocolate, but also anxiety and a sense of being out of control.

This one observation (that a dopamine rush produces anxiety as well as pleasure) was the biggest “ah-ha” moment for me so far in the book. All of a sudden, I saw with distinct clarity the pattern that has plagued and confused me for years with binge eating. I normally have very little appetite, but when I am anxious and frustrated, sometimes I binge on junk. I have never understood why – it’s not like I am hungry. The explanation of ‘emotional eating’ never really made much sense for me either. But this does, completely. My pattern goes like this:
  • I feel anxiety, and I don’t know how to deal with it.
  • In desperation, I create more anxiety by starting a dopamine rush, looking at or thinking about high-sugar food. I feel huge amounts of tension until I can eat it.
  • I eat it, and whoosh, there is an enormous sense of relief
  • I mistake this for relief about the anxiety I couldn’t solve before
This was huge for me. In the days since understanding this process, my whole relationship with food and with my stress levels has changed. It has only been a few days, and I need to work on finding more healthy ways of relieving anxiety and anger without “doping,” but I think that can be done. This is mind-blowing, life changing stuff!

Speaking of life changing, this chapter had another fantastic suggestion that really reframes the way I look at chores. Dopamine is one of the most effective marketing strategies ever utilized. Businesses use sexy models, half-off sales, scents and sounds to lure you in all the time. The lottery wants you to just imagine what you would do with $1 million. There’s a prize in every box. And we fall for it, all of it – we can’t help it. Dopamine is that strong. So if it works for selling junk we don’t need, why not make it work for the stuff we actually need to do?

Seriously. Imagine a world where instead of blowing your last $2 on a lottery ticket, you were entered in a million dollar prize drawing every time you made a savings deposit or filed your taxes on time. People would totally do that, wouldn’t they? You can use dopamine the same way for a “I WILL” challenge. Having trouble getting motivated to exercise? Try going for a run with the hot guy from across the street. Doing homework? It’s always easier with a supreme pizza. And, in the best example from the book: Hate decluttering? Hide scratch-off lottery tickets in your piles. You’ll be sorting through them in no time!

This chapter was so compelling for me. This was the chapter where I really saw my own reactions laid out, and found resources that are actually going to work for me and changing how I react to temptations. It’s amazing!

What an awesome recap, Sonnet! I love hearing about how this is changing the way you understand yourself, and helping you to change your actions!

This chapter helped me understand why sometimes I compulsively check Facebook. It used to be email. And then blogs. And then Twitter. "Because we know there's a chance we'll have a new message, or because the very next YouTube video may be the one that makes us laugh, we keep hitting refresh, clicking the next link, and checking our devices compuslively" (p. 114).

My brain's reward system (fueled by dopamine) promises me that if I see one more Like or Comment on the photo I posted on Facebook, I'll feel pleasure. But rarely do those online responses provide me with the amount of pleasure dopamine has promised--and, as Sonnet pointed out, there is a considerable amount of anxiety that comes along with my compulsive clicking! I think that just being aware of that trap--of the lies dopamine tells me--has helped me to be a little less compulsive about "checking my devices"--sometimes. Honestly, I have a ways to go on fighting this battle, but at least now I understand the battle better!

And do you know anyone who plays video games for hours upon hours? If so, you may find this just as eye-opening as I did: "Computer and video game designers intentionally manipulate the reward system to keep players hooked. The promise that the next level or big win could happen at any time is what makes a game compelling. It's also what makes a game hard to quit. One study found that playing a video game led to dopamine increases equivalent to amphetamine use--and it's this dopamine rush that makes both so addictive" (pp. 114-115). Wow!

Clearly Facebook and video games aren't actually the best ways to relax. Chapter Six, which we'll review next week, goes into more detail about what activities really do bring us stress relief, since the prompting of dopamine so often steers us in the wrong direction.

McGonigal makes it clear that dopamine isn't evil, though. When people don't have enough dopamine, "the result isn't so much total contentment as it is apathy" (p. 131). Seeking rewards is a very important part of being a healthy human. But, as Sonnet said, we can use dopamine to work for us.

I was intrigued by what McGonigal calls "the power of an unpredictable reward" (p.123). Some drug and alcohol recovery programs use a "fish bowl" reward system. The fish bowl holds slips of paper, half of which have rewards on them, from $1 to $20, with one $100 prize. The other half are printed with the message, "Keep up the good work." Patients who test negative on their drug tests are allowed to pick from the fish bowl. One study showed that patients who get fish bowl rewards are far more successful in staying off drugs or alcohol than those who don't get a reward. In fact, the fish bowl (which, as you'll recall, only gives monetary rewards half the time) even works better than guaranteed payments for passing drug tests. "Our reward system gets much more excited about a possible big win than a guaranteed smaller reward," McGonigal explains.

So I've put this into practice with my kids. For the last several weeks, we've been using an "unpredictable reward" system. When my kids are extra-helpful, or do a great job cleaning up their rooms, they get to dip their little hands into a canister that has rewards ranging from "One episode of television" to "Special date with Daddy." They love the new reward system and are so motivated to earn the right to choose one! And it's giving me the motivation to spend more time doing special things with them. When one of them gets the "Be Mommy's Assistant Chef" reward, I know I need to take the time to let that child help me in the kitchen.

Next week we'll talk about how GUILT and STRESS make it much more difficult to reach our goals. Get ready to hear scientific reasons to stop beating yourself up when you mess up! See you next week!

I was given a complimentary copy of this book and paid for my initial review; however, this in-depth series is uncompensated.