Mini-Kaizen Plan: Easing Into a New Fitness Routine

Last week, we went through a 7-step process for transitioning into new eating habits, so this week I’d like to follow up with the other big “should” we often neglect: exercise.

We’ve talked about setting exercise goals (here and here), but it’s not enough to set the goal. You also need a concrete plan for achieving it.

Whether you want to train for a specific activity–like tennis or martial arts–or you just want to make sure you’re moving enough to stay healthy, you can break any fitness routine down into small steps and gradually incorporate them into your day.

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Five Techniques for Cultivating Self-Discipline

What do you think of when you hear the word “discipline”?

For me, it has negative connotations: punishment for bad behavior, being denied the things I want, rigid rules and an inflexible schedule, and worst of all, the certainty that as hard as I try to “be good,” I’m probably going to mess up.

As you might guess, up until recently, I haven’t been a big believer in self-discipline.

But as a result of my recent readings on willpower and productivity, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to change my definition of the word.

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Mini-Kaizen Plan: Easing Into a New Diet

So you want to start a new diet–maybe your goal is to lose a few pounds, or maybe your doctor has recommended you change your eating habits for better health.

How can you use kaizen to ease yourself into a different way of eating? Here’s a mini-kaizen plan for transitioning to a new way of eating that can be used with any diet plan.

(Downloadable PDF worksheet: Ease Into A New Diet Worksheet)

1. Identify the rules of the diet.

Is your goal to keep your sugar or sodium or saturated fat intake below a certain level? Do you need to stay within a certain number of calories or “points”? Is the goal to avoid certain foods?

If you’re dieting by calories, your only rule might be: Eat less than 1500 calories per day.

If you’re diabetic, your rules might be: Eat less than 15 g of sugar per day and eat only whole grains.

If you’re eating to get healthier, your rule might be: Eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day.

2. Start a food journal, where you write down everything you eat and track the relevant elements.

Don’t try to change the way you eat for at least a week or two. It’s crucial to get a complete picture of what you’re already eating, so you know where you’re starting.

3. Once you’ve got a complete picture of your usual diet, compare it to your goal.

What do you need to change to turn your current diet into your ideal diet?

  • Cut out 25 g of sugar?
  • Eat 800 calories less than usual?
  • Add three more servings of fruits and veggies?

4. Evaluate your current diet.

Which of your usual foods already meet the requirements of the diet you want to adopt? Are you already having a salad every day for lunch, or eating sugar-free marinara sauce on your spaghetti?

For the foods that don’t meet the requirements of your diet, could any of them be modified to fit?

  • Could you make your favorite sandwich lower in calories by substituting low-fat cheese and reducing or skipping the mayo?
  • Could you add raisins and dried apricots to your trail mix, to sneak in a little extra fruit?
  • Could you find a salad dressing you like that doesn’t have 6 g of sugar per tablespoon or, instead of eating blueberry yogurt with added sugar, add fresh blueberries and a touch of honey to plain yogurt?
  • Instead of ordering Dominos, what about a mini-pizza made with a whole grain English muffin, sugar-free red sauce or pesto, and low-fat cheese?

For the foods that you can’t find a way to modify, are there any dishes or foods that have a similar flavor?

  • Maybe you need to give up chili dogs at your favorite diner, but you could be almost as happy eating a bowl of homemade chili with a healthier version of a hot dog cut up in it.
  • If you’re addicted to peanut M&Ms, could you train yourself to enjoy snacking on peanuts and chocolate chips, skipping the artificially-colored candy coating?
  • Instead of eating a ham sandwich, could you add a slice of prosciutto to your chicken breast sandwich, to give you a bit of ham flavor without nearly as much salt and sugar?

5. Start with one meal.

Now that you’ve come up with some healthier versions of your favorite foods, take a look at one meal. What could you eat for that meal that fit into the diet you want to adopt?

If the rule you’re following is “stay under 1500 calories per day,” you could split that into three 400-calorie meals and three 100-calorie snacks.

Which of the things you normally eat could be 400-calorie meals or 100-calorie snacks?

If your rule is that you need to add three servings of fruits or veggies, how could you incorporate one serving into each of the meals you usually eat?

Make a list, and start eating off that list. Go easy on yourself–it’s okay to focus on getting breakfast under control for a couple of weeks before you move on to lunch. That way you won’t get overwhelmed with having to make a ton of changes and learn to cook a bunch of new recipes all at once.

Remember, the goal of this is to ease yourself into a new way of eating, not to go cold turkey on all your usual foods!

6. If the gap between your rule and the way you currently eat is too big, cut back in stages.

If you’re eating 200 g of sugar per day now, switching to a 15 g per day diet is going to put you into withdrawal and you’re unlikely to stick to it. Modify your meals to cut out the sugar in stages. Cut 20 g of sugar per meal to start. Give your body a chance to get used to that before you cut another 20 g per meal.

Same with cutting calories: if your body’s used to getting 3000 calories per day and you suddenly cut that in half, your body’s going to panic and switch to fat-hoarding starvation mode. Plus you’re going to feel miserable. Change your meals to remove 100-200 calories per day and give your metabolism a chance to adjust before you eliminate another 100-200 next week.

7. Add new foods and new recipes gradually.

If you can find time to search for one new recipe that fits your dietary requirements each week, you’re doing fantastic. One or two new recipes a month may be enough to keep you happy with your new way of eating.

As you search for new dishes you might like, think about the flavors and textures you enjoy the most. Do you have a sweet tooth? Adding new fruit-heavy recipes might be the way to go. Love creamy foods? How about smoothies with Greek yogurt, or dishes that include avocado? Look for ways to satisfy the cravings you regularly have that fit within the rules of your diet.

It’s true that you’re not going to lose 5 pounds in a week with this approach. But it’s also true that if you ease into new eating habits, you’re far more likely to stick with them in the long-term. Plus, we know from a myriad of studies that weight lost quickly tends to get regained quickly.

Slow and steady wins the diet race.

Want to eat healthier but feel too overwhelmed to get started? The Kaizen Plan for Healthy Eating is full of small, simple suggestions to ease you into eating better!

Barnes & Noble:

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Don’t Let That Camel Stick Its Nose In Your Tent!

“If the camel once gets his nose in the tent, his body will soon follow.” –Arabian Proverb

I came across this proverb while researching How Horseshoe Nails Are Ruining Your Life. My first thought was, “Wow, do I have a lot of camel noses!”

In fact, ignoring Camel Noses is probably one of the top three ways I sabotage myself.

A Camel Nose can be a person–someone in your life who doesn’t respect boundaries. The coworker who needs you to cover for them just once…and then just once more…and the next thing you know, she’s somehow delegated part of her job to you (and probably taken credit for it).

But that kind of Camel Nose is the easiest to identify and say no to. The worst ones are the ones we create for ourselves, because the so-called camel is actually a bad habit or a belief.

Let’s take dieting, for example. You make yourself a healthy bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, but you guesstimate rather than measure the chopped walnuts, raisins, and dollop of honey you add for flavor. You don’t worry about it, though, because you’re probably not off by more than 50 calories. No big deal, right? You can walk that off by taking the stairs instead of the elevator on your way up to the office.

Mid-morning, one of your co-workers is eating peanut M&Ms and offers you one. One peanut M&M–that can’t be more than 15 or 20 calories right?

But after you get back to your desk, you can’t stop thinking about peanut M&Ms. And you’ve got exactly the right amount of change at the bottom of your purse. A bag of peanut M&Ms is only 250 calories. You can make that up by having a salad for lunch, or by limiting dinner to a bowl of soup.

You go with the salad, feeling virtuous because you resisted the temptation to add cheese and ham, and you chose vinaigrette dressing instead of creamy ranch.

You’re back on track, right?

Except…mid-afternoon rolls around, and you didn’t eat your usual balanced lunch. Now you’re having an energy crisis. You eat the handful of almonds you brought with you to snack on, but they’re not enough.

So you get up for coffee, and on the way back to your desk, you stop at the vending machine to buy a protein bar. That’s healthy, right? The protein will keep you satisfied until dinner, and it’s fortified with a bunch of vitamins.

You go back to work and the next thing you know, it’s 6 p.m.–you lost track of time finishing up a project for your boss, and now you’ve missed your usual bus. By the time you get home at 6:45, you’re ravenous, but you can only eat 300 calories for dinner if you want to make up for the protein bar.

An hour after you finish your soup, your stomach is growling again. Plus, you’re low on willpower as a result of all those course-correcting decisions you had to make today to compensate for one peanut M&M.

So you have a snack. And since the snack is going to take you over your calorie limit for the day anyway, you say “What the heck!” and make a big bowl of popcorn with butter.

Have you guessed the camel’s name yet? He’s called: “It’s okay if I get a little off track now, I can make up for it later.”

Here’s another one…

You notice that the dishwasher is louder than it used to be, but the dishes are still getting clean. It might be nothing, and calling a repairman is going to cost you at least $100, even if he doesn’t find anything wrong with it. So you decide to wait and see if it gets worse. Eventually you get used to it being loud, and forget about it altogether.

The toilet’s been running periodically, but if you jiggle the handle, it stops. Toilet parts are cheap, and you can probably google instructions on how to fix it–you make a mental note to do that soon. But it’s not really an emergency, and your next few weekends are packed, so you keep jiggling.

Occasionally you have trouble starting your car, but it’s an intermittent problem, and you’re usually able to get it going on the second try. You’ve had a tight couple of months and paying the mechanic would require you to dip into savings, so you put up with the minor inconvenience, promising yourself that you’ll make that appointment as soon as you get your next paycheck.

Then one day, the dying alternator in your car finally gives out, forcing you to have the car towed and pay for a taxi home…

…when you get home, you discover your dishwasher has flooded the kitchen…

…and waiting in your mailbox is a water bill that’s 20% higher than usual, thanks to that running toilet.

Have you guessed this camel’s name yet? You got it: “I don’t have time to deal with little problems, because I’ve got so many big problems on my plate.”

But guess how those big problems got started?

Whenever you…

  • rationalize that a small problem isn’t really a problem
  • decide to ignore small problems until they become emergencies

…you’re letting the camel stick its nose into your tent.

It’s not like you enjoy living with those camels. If you weren’t so tired, stressed, busy and just plain overwhelmed, you’d swat it on the nose as soon as it butted in.

Kaizen, anyone?

Which camels tend to stick their noses into your tents?

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Mini-Kaizen Plan: Simplify Your Morning

In last month’s reader poll, you expressed an interest in “mini-kaizen plans.” Here’s an easy step-by-step evening routine for simplifying your morning and starting the day off right. You’ll need:

1. Check your calendar. Do you have any appointments, and if so, do you need to bring anything that you wouldn’t normally have on you in your pockets or purse? Make a note of those items, and where you could put them (in the car, in your purse, by the front door) so you won’t forget them.

2. Check your to-do list for tomorrow (or make one, if you don’t already have one written up). What are your top 3 priorities? What could wait until later? If there’s anything you need to do to prepare for those top 3 tasks (for example, remembering to bring your flash drive to work so you can use your lunch hour to work on your novel), make a note of that as well.

3. Decide what you’re going to have for breakfast tomorrow. Here are a few fast ideas:

  • Steel cut oats that you can start tonight in the crockpot, so they’ll be ready to eat when you wake up (Recipe:
  • Microwave oatmeal (if you measure the oats, some raisins or other dried fruit, and seasonings like cinnamon into a microwavable glass container tonight, tomorrow morning all you’ll have to do is add water and stick it in the microwave)
  • High fiber cereal mixed with yogurt (no prep needed)
  • Scrambled eggs with veggies (if you chop the veggies tonight, you’ll only need to spend a few minutes in the kitchen tomorrow)
  • Leftover meat and veggies wrapped in a tortilla with salsa or salad dressing (depending on what meat and veggies you’ve got on hand)
  • A smoothie made with pre-chopped frozen fruit, plain yogurt, and whey powder

Make a note of any prep you could do tonight to reduce tomorrow’s cooking time, even if that’s just making sure the right pot or pan is clean or verifying that all the ingredients you need are on hand.

4. Decide what you’re going to wear tomorrow, including accessories. Make a note to lay it out or hang it all together in your closet, so you don’t have to think when you get out of the shower, you can just get dressed.

5. Decide what time you need to get up, and choose a bedtime that will give you a good night’s sleep. Plan to start getting ready for bed half an hour before bedtime, and don’t forget to check your alarm clock to be sure it’s set correctly.

6. Shift your mindset to the positive. Make a list of five good things about today, and five things you’re grateful for in your life.

Now you’re in a better frame of mind, you’re mentally prepared for tomorrow’s work, and you’ve got a quick list of tasks that should only take a few minutes, but will save you time and stress in the morning if you do them now.

Does this seem like too much? Just pick one item off the list–the thing that addresses your biggest source of stress during a normal day–and start doing that in the evenings. Once that thing becomes a habit, you can add a second one later.

It takes some effort to start the habit, but once a habit is established, it carries you.

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Are You Asking the Wrong Decluttering Question? (or, The Emotional Foundations of Clutter)

The decluttering continues! I’ve been working my way through the house, and as I pick up each item, asking myself: “Why should I get rid of this?”

But recently I had a revelation. I’ve been asking the wrong question.

I ought to ask myself: “Why should I keep this?”

It’s a subtle shift of perspective, but an important one. When I ask why I should get rid of an object, I’m requiring myself to come up with a good justification for discarding it. This means decluttering is an exhausting process that leaves me emotionally drained after an hour or so.

But when I ask myself why I should keep each item, I’m making it easier to get rid of things. I only have to come up with a good justification for the items I really want. And it becomes really obvious how many things I’m keeping for bad reasons.

Here are some of the bad reasons I’ve been hanging onto things I don’t need:

The item represents something I used to be. This stems from me needing to update my self image. Yes, I used to love beading, but I haven’t done it in almost a decade, because I realized that I had too many hobbies, and the beading wasn’t as much fun as my other hobbies. And yet, I still have a craft box full of beads that aren’t being put to good use and craft books with patterns I’m never going to make.

The item represents something I want to be. This is a harder one to let go of. I could give away all my martial arts books, which I haven’t read since my twenties, when I was healthy enough to withstand the rigorous training sessions and to quickly heal from the myriad of inevitable minor injuries. But what if next year I decide I’m in good enough shape to go back? I’m having to be selective, and just keep the ones I might genuinely want to refer to.

The item was a gift I didn’t want, but I didn’t want to hurt the giver’s feelings. This seems like a harmless category of possessions. A knicknack here, a never-worn sweater there–because these things are spread out through the house, it’s easy to think of them as inconsequential. But when I put all those unwanted things in a pile, I realized that they add up. By keeping them, I’m basically agreeing to let someone else decide what I should own.

I’m pretending I’ll have more time in the future. Psychological studies show it’s a general human tendency to be overly optimistic about how much free time we’ll have later. In fact, the assumption of more free future time practically guarantees that we’ll have less time due to all the tasks we’ve put off.

If I don’t have time today to become a bellydancer, what am I going to do to make room for dance classes in next year’s schedule? If the answer is “nothing”, maybe it’s time donate my bellydance dvds to the local dance school.

It feels wasteful to get rid of something that isn’t broken. And yet, isn’t it also wasteful to keep something in a closet gathering dust, depriving of others of the opportunity to use it?

It’s broken, but I intend to fix it. I’ve got a space heater in the garage that doesn’t work, but that my husband is convinced he’ll be able to fix if he can just find the time. In the meantime, we’ve already bought a replacement heater that works.

I’m keeping the item “just in case.” This isn’t an entirely bad reason for keeping an object if I can describe a likely scenario where the item will be useful. The crucial word in that sentence is “likely.”

For example, an extra screwdriver in the junk drawer–I can almost guarantee there will be a time when one of us has forgotten to return the main screwdriver to the toolkit and isn’t around to retrace their steps.

But how many things am I keeping “just in case” that I’m never going to need? Even if those old magazines have an article on a topic that I become interested in next year, will that outdated information be better than what I can find on the internet or at the library? Is it possible I’m suffering from the illusion that these “just in case” items are protecting me from future problems that I may not even experience?

The item is tied to a memory that I want to relive. There’s nothing wrong with keeping a few mementos, of course. But surrounding myself with too many reminders of the past makes it harder for me to live in the present. One of the common suggestions for dealing with this kind of clutter is to keep the most important items and take photos of the rest before giving them away.

The item represents an emotional issue I haven’t resolved. This isn’t an uncommon thing, keeping mementos that are tied to past events which evoke mixed or negative feelings. Logically, I know that keeping the vase my brother gave me years ago isn’t going to make it easier for me to work out my differences with him. In fact, it’s possible that eliminating that reminder of our troubled relationship from my environment might even help me let go of some of my negative emotions, making it easier for me to work things out with him.

The item is part of an unfinished project. This is my most-often used reason for keeping things I no longer need. College notes and textbooks that I might someday want to reread, in part to recapture the excitement I felt during that intellectually-stimulating time in my life and in part because I feel as if there’s more to learn on the subject.

But there’s a reason college textbooks get updated regularly, and it’s not just so that the publishers can make more money. The world’s changing quickly, and if I want to learn more about, say the anthropology of gender, I’d be better off checking out a current text from the local university library than going through my two decades old notes.

I bought the item with the expectation that it was going to change me, and it hasn’t yet. Self-help books, for example: how many do I have on the shelves that I’ve kept after reading them because I felt that they hadn’t solved the problem I was struggling with?

Owning a book on public speaking isn’t going to cause me to magically wake up one morning and discover that I’m a good public speaker. If I’m not going to re-read the book and apply it in real life, there’s no point in keeping it. And the fact that I didn’t learn what I needed the first time I read it suggests that a second reading would probably be a waste of time.

This also applies to exercise equipment that didn’t make me thin because I didn’t use it consistently and kitchen gadgets that did not transform me into a master chef.

I don’t want the money I spent on it to go to waste. Ahem. If I bought an item and I’m not using it, the money is already wasted regardless of whether I store the object in my closet or donate it to Goodwill.

It’s painful to admit that I wasted that money, but do I need to compound that pain by also letting the unwanted item clutter up my house?

Of course, there are a couple good reasons for keeping an object:

  • I actually use it.
  • Seeing it every day makes me happy.

What types of clutter are you clinging to? Can you identify the emotional reasons that might be preventing you from letting go of these objects?

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The “Imagine It” Test – A Quick Diagnostic for Goal-Setting

Want to know how likely it is that you’re going to achieve a particular goal?

Take the “imagine it” test: spend a few moments imagining yourself doing the things that would get you closer to your goal.

Can you see yourself jumping out of bed at 5am, gulping down a protein smoothie, and going jogging?

Can you see yourself coming home from work and cooking a healthy gourmet meal instead of plopping down on the couch with frozen food or takeout?

Can you see yourself putting the kids to bed and then foregoing your favorite television shows to write another chapter of your novel before bed?

More importantly, can you see yourself doing these things every day, for months or years?

So often we set lofty goals for ourselves (the what). We dig down deep inside and discover our motivation for working toward those goals (the why). We think about how we’ll be different once we’ve achieved those goals (the who).

But we completely ignore the how and the when. How are we going to work toward our goals today? What specific action will we be taking? And when are we going to take it?

If you can’t clearly see yourself working toward your goal in a way that’s integrated with your everyday life, that goal fails the “imagine it” test. The fact that you can’t see yourself doing it indicates that you haven’t broken your goal into steps that are realistic for you.

Without a clear, realistic how and when, you’re not going to reach that goal.

So let’s try the test again, but this time, with a how and when that you can realistically see yourself doing today.

Can you see yourself taking a ten minute walk after lunch?

Can you see yourself steaming a bag of frozen veggies in the microwave or making a salad from a bag of pre-washed greens and eating that as your first course?

Can you see yourself writing a few paragraphs of your novel on the bus ride home, and a couple pages more after dinner?

Once your goal passes the “imagine it” test, don’t stop imagining. As I’ve mentioned before (Three Minute Success Technique-Do It Right, Get Results), studies show that people who take a couple minutes each day to imagine themselves working toward their goals are much more likely to reach them. Keep seeing yourself taking those small steps that push you forward on the path to your dreams.

Writers, does your space support your personal creative process? Or do you waste valuable energy struggling to write in spite of external distractions? If you want to optimize your working space for your unique way of writing, The Kaizen Plan for Organized Authors can help!

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How Horseshoe Nails Are Ruining Your Life

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

This 14th-century proverb is usually quoted to illustrate the importance of logistics in warfare, but it’s just as applicable to everyday life. We’ve all fallen prey to the loss of a metaphorical horseshoe nail, and been tormented by a big problem that could have been solved if we’d paid attention to a small but crucial detail earlier.

That detail could be an object, a person, a place, a habit or routine, an idea, or a plan. It could be an action taken or not taken.

One of my horseshoe nails used to be meal planning. I’d go to the grocery store with good intentions, but without any clear plan for what I was going to eat the following week. I’d buy things that looked good…but then get home and realize, for example, that I didn’t have soy sauce for the broccoli stir-fry I was contemplating in the produce aisle. I don’t like broccoli enough to eat it plain, so I’d resolve to find another recipe and cook it “tomorrow.”

In the meantime, I had to come up with something fast for dinner, and since improvising delicious meals while I’m suffering from low blood sugar is not one of my talents, I’d order takeout or snack on junk food.

But the hassle of finding another recipe for broccoli that a) I actually wanted to eat and b) I had all the ingredients for meant that it wasn’t a quick task. Even when I got around to it, I wasn’t usually successful, and would give up after a few minutes of googling.

So the broccoli would sit in the crisper drawer all week, going bad, and by the time I went grocery shopping again and bought soy sauce, it was too late: I’d have to throw the broccoli away and use the soy sauce for something else.

I wasted food and sabotaged my own health for years because I believed I was too busy to spend 15 minutes on Friday night planning the next week’s meals and making sure that all the necessary ingredients were on my grocery list.

When I finally bit the bullet and started doing it, I discovered that not only did it save me hours of time in the evenings during the week, it also cut my grocery spending by almost 30%. That extra 30% went to snacks I didn’t need and takeout that wasn’t good for me.

Another horseshoe nail I lacked was an evening routine to help me get enough sleep. When I was a kid, my parents told me when to brush my teeth and go to bed. I dispensed with the idea of “bedtime” as soon as I moved out on my own, and in my early twenties, when I had the resilience of youth on my side, it wasn’t that hard to bounce back after a late night. That’s what caffeine is for, right?

But over the years, the lack of sleep took its toll on my health (exacerbated by my less-than ideal eating habits). I got caught up in a cycle where I’d stay up late because I never felt like I got enough done during the day. Then I’d oversleep and haul myself out of bed, barely making it to work on time. I was always rushing, so I never had time to eat breakfast or plan ahead, and I blamed my inability to get things done on my exhaustion.

And yet, I kept perpetuating that exhaustion by staying up late to “get things done.”

In retrospect, it seems insane, but when I was caught up in it, I wasn’t thinking clearly enough to realize that I didn’t need more time, I needed more sleep.

And when it was pointed out to me that going to bed earlier would solve many of my problems, I agreed that I would do that…as soon as I caught up on everything.

I can’t believe it took me a couple of decades to reinstitute the idea of “bedtime.”

Many of life’s big problems can be avoided with a bit of forethought. Taking a few minutes to balance your checkbook every week can save you from those hideous $35 overdraft charges. Setting up automatic bill pay for your regular bills can eliminate late fees, keep “late payment” notices from ruining your credit score, and ensure that you don’t come home one evening and realize that your electricity’s off. Spending ten minutes every evening tidying up the house can be the difference between hating your home and loving it.

So here’s my challenge to you: make a list of the five biggest sources of stress in your life.

Then identify the “horseshoe nail” that’s at the root of each one.

  • Do you need to set aside a few minutes each week for planning this aspect of your life?
  • Is there a habit you need to establish or break?
  • Are you doing things the way you always have, even though your situation has changed?
  • Is there a decision you’ve been procrastinating on making?
  • Could you fix this problem by communicating more clearly with another person?

It’s possible that some of your problems are the result of more than one “horseshoe nail.” That’s okay, pick the one that’s easiest and deal with it now.

It’s like Mark Twain said, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”

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Posted in Get Organized, Planning, Self-Sabotage | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Is This Logical Fallacy the Source of Your Self-Sabotage?

I couldn’t resist having a cookie at lunch today…the diet’s blown, so I might as well have pizza for dinner.

I woke up too late to do my usual two-mile morning walk…so I’ll skip the workout completely and stop for coffee on my way to work.

I had to take my cat to the vet Saturday morning, and now there’s only had half an hour of writing time left before I’m supposed to pick up the kids from soccer…so I’ll check email rather than work on my novel.

Can you name the cognitive distortion behind all three of these excuses?

It’s called “all-or-nothing” thinking–a logical fallacy that involves the creation of a false dichotomy. All-or-nothing thinking is based on the assumption that you only have two options to choose between.

When we think this way, we’re pretending that everything is either black or white, when in fact the universe contains not only many shades of gray, but a whole spectrum of other colors.

Either I stick to my diet perfectly, or it doesn’t matter what I eat. Diets are abandoned and eating binges are begun on the basis of this faulty reasoning all the time. Yes, eating that cookie may very well have been a mistake. But even if one cookie puts me over my calorie count, it does matter what I eat next. Eating sensibly for the rest of the day minimizes the amount of damage done to my weight loss efforts. Maybe I won’t lose weight today, but at least I won’t gain any that I’ll then have to lose tomorrow.

Either I get up in time to do the full workout, or I don’t exercise at all. Deciding that I’m not going to try if I can’t be sure I’ll hit my goal is a form of self-sabotage. Even a quick half-mile walk (a brisk ten minutes) gets my blood circulating, oxygenates my brain, stimulates the production of mood-improving neurotransmitters, and elevates my metabolism for at least an hour afterward.

Either I have a big block of time to work on my novel, or I don’t bother to write. It’s so satisfying to sit down for several hours and pound out a whole chapter. It feels fabulous to get 2500 words closer to a completed manuscript. But even 250 words–one double-spaced page–moves the story forward. If I write 250 words every day, I’ll finish my 90,000-word novel in just under a year.

All-or-nothing thinking is so obviously flawed, but we give into the temptation to reason this way because it makes things easier. Studies have shown that the more choices we’re presented with, the more stressful it is to make a decision and the more willpower we use when choosing. Narrowing the available options to two makes the choice so much simpler.

Worse, we seldom narrow the options to two reasonable choices: a false dichotomy is almost always framed as a choice between extremes. Either conditions are perfect and we are 100% successful, or conditions are abysmal and we fail completely.

Why do we prefer these extremes?

Insisting on an all-or-nothing choice gives us an easy out when it comes to things we didn’t want to do anyway.

If my dieting rule is that a small deviation means the entire diet is blown, then it only takes a moment of weakness and I’ve got permission to eat whatever I want.

If my exercise rule is that I have to walk two miles before work or I don’t exercise, then all I have to do is “forget” to set the alarm clock and I don’t have to exercise.

If my writing rule is that I only do it when I have at least three hours to myself, who’s going to blame me for being so busy that I didn’t get around to working on the novel all week?

Often the kind of self-sabotage that results from seeing life as a series of false dichotomies isn’t even conscious. Even worse, every time I choose “nothing,” I’m training myself to believe that the only way to achieve my goals is to be perfect, and that anything less than perfection is failure.

So how do I keep myself from engaging in this pervasive form of self-sabotage?

First, I can identify the types of situations where I’ve limited myself to two extremes. (Hint: they’re all the things I “should” be doing but don’t want to.)

Second, I can introduce a third option, in the form of a contingency plan.

If I deviate from my diet at breakfast or lunch, then for dinner I will have a low-calorie, high-fiber meal, like soup and salad.

If I wake up too late to do my usual workout, I still have to do whatever workout I can in the time I have, and I’ll commit to finding ten minutes later in the day to go for a short but brisk walk.

If I don’t have three hours to write today, I’ll find a way to squeeze in at least fifteen minutes and write a few paragraphs.

Third, I can set the bar lower.

A 1200-calorie/day, sugar-free diet might be too strict for me. I’d lose weight more slowly on a 1500-calorie/day plan that includes a few treats, but at least I’d be able to stick to it.

My ideal might be a daily two-mile walk, but life isn’t ideal. So maybe I’ll be happy if I can manage a long walk 3 times each week, and settle for squeezing in shorter walks the other days.

Sure I’d love to lose myself for hours in the creative rush of writing. But if I’ve got other things to do today, I can meet my 250-word minimum by writing while I eat lunch. Any other writing I manage to squeeze in on a busy day is bonus.

And fourth, I need to keep reminding myself that any progress is better than no progress at all.

Are there any areas of your life where you tend to get stuck in all-or-nothing thinking?

What do you do when you realize you’ve been grappling with a false dichotomy?

Thanks to everyone who took the time to respond to my survey about where you’d like to see this blog go! I’m touched by your encouragement, and I appreciate your thoughts on how I can make this site more helpful to you. I’ll be using your comments as a foundation for expanding into 2 posts per week and adding more resources.

Posted in Excuses, Goal setting, Procrastination, Self-Sabotage | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments