Blog

A Simple System to Increase Productivity and Freedom

I have long valued organization in my life—whether of my time or of my space. I feel better when structure is present in my calendar and in my environment.

One of the practices I use to stay organized in my personal life is a running to-do list, which I call my Weekly General Task Plan. I keep this in an Excel spreadsheet on my personal laptop and like this format because it is easily modifiable and allows for columns. My list contains four columns: Task, Date, Priority and Notes. I’m sure there are more sophisticated strategies out there, but this is simple, and it works for me.

I keep a list of tasks. Some items on the list may only appear once. For example, a list last weekend included assembling my new 6-cube organizer. This is likely to be the only time this particular task will appear on my list. Other items are perpetually on the list because they are done regularly or periodically, and I simply update the date column to reflect the next time I will work on those tasks. Tasks in this category include organizing the weekly calendar and sending it to my family or managing my finances each payday.

I like having this list because there are things that I want and/or need to do, but I may not be ready or able to do them right away. By capturing them on my list, I don’t have to spend mental energy trying not to forget. I know they are on the list, and I have assigned a date for tackling each project. Once it is on my list, I can let it go until the assigned date.

This basic system has worked well for me for years. In the past, my list has looked somewhat different. For several years, I kept it on paper and just transcribed it to a new sheet in the notebook each week. This worked okay, but it was more cumbersome and less efficient for capturing future projects. I have used the spreadsheet method for a couple years now.

Late last year, I started to notice that I felt a sense of fatigue each time I looked at my list, like a heavy, hopeless weight was dragging me down. I felt more anxious and less productive because of it. I decided to make a simple change that has made a surprising difference for me.

“Nothing is more exhausting than the task that is never started.”—Gretchen Rubin

I decided to limit the number of tasks that I assigned to and prioritized on a given day. As a general rule, I will assign no more than three tasks to a work day with no evening activities, one task to a work day with an evening activity and five tasks to a weekend.

This is not a foolproof strategy, nor is it an exact science, for several reasons. First, not all tasks are equal. For instance, updating my website takes considerably longer than planning the calendar for the week. Not all days are equal either. A night with a haircut leaves more time than a night with a Scholars Bowl meet. However, this small adjustment in my strategy has been tremendously helpful.

Immediately upon implementing this new approach, I felt a lightness come over me. Before paying attention to how many tasks were on a given day (A weekend day might have a list of 13 items!), although I had no real expectation that they would all get done, they all felt like obligations hanging over me. Not completing them all felt like some level of failure. Now, not only did I have the possibility of the success of completing all my tasks in a given day, but I also had the possibility of something amazing—free time!

It had been a very long time since I really allowed myself free time. Since my daily lists seemed endless, I felt like I always had to be working on the items on the list. Taking time away from them, except for exercise and family obligations, felt like slacking off.

Suddenly, although the total number of items on the list may be similar to what it was previously, they are spaced out more realistically, and each day appears much more manageable. And, once I complete the tasks on my daily list, rather than start on tomorrow’s list, I give myself permission to read, watch a movie with my husband and son or do something else for enjoyment.

This may not seem like an earth-shaking idea—putting a realistic number of tasks on the day’s to-to list—but it has been transformative for me. It has led me to consider the importance of time and space and of creating space in time in our lives. Being organized and getting things done does not require being busy every moment of every day. And, putting an achievable number of projects on the list for the day does not mean that I am lazy. It means that I value my time, and I value the items on my list enough to work on them in a span of time that allows the reasonable possibility of accomplishing them.

Sometimes, items still get pushed to the next day or to the next week, depending on their urgency, but I work on them in order of priority, so this is not usually a big deal. They are still on my list, and they will still get done. I am respecting the fullness of my life, while still moving forward with activities and projects that are meaningful to me.

It has been surprising that something so simple has made such a big difference, but I am getting more done, and I feel less stressed and weighed down by the things that need to be completed.

It is easy to implement a system like this for yourself.

  1. Use your favorite method to create your list. The modifiability of an electronic system appeals to me, but you might like something else.
  2. Make a list of all the recurring, short-term, and long-term tasks that are on your mind or on other lists. For me, the order doesn’t matter because I prioritize them in another column.
  3. Assign a date that you will work on each task.
  4. Each evening, prior to going to bed, assign a priority ranking for the next day’s projects, from one to five on weekends, one to three on work days without additional activities and just one for workdays with other activities happening.
  5. If you find that a day has more than the appropriate number of items–five, three or one—depending on the type of day, choose other days for the lowest-priority tasks.
  6. Work on your projects each day, but have a cutoff for bedtime because sleep and self-care are important, too.
  7. Whatever is not done at that time gets moved to the next, or another, day.
  8. Check-in nightly to prepare for the next day.

I think you will be surprised—both at how liberating it is to limit the number of to-do items each day and at how your productivity increases.

Certain projects may be more involved and require multiple steps. The steps can represent items on your list. If it is really important or a very big project—for instance, a course proposal that I recently put together—I break the project into steps and then block out a certain amount of time each week to work on it. On the given day, the project functions as one of my task items, possibly the only one if it is a work day evening.

While I may tweak my system over time, I am happy with the changes I have made and have seen a noticeable improvement in both productivity and quality of life. It is incredible what creating a little space in my schedule can do.

Sankalpa

When I awoke around 3 a.m. a couple weeks ago and couldn’t go back to sleep, I decided to use Insight Timer for a guided meditation to try to quiet my mind. I chose a yoga nidra meditation for rest & sleep, by Diana Warlick.  In the meditation, Warlick introduced the concept of “sankalpa.” I was intrigued by what she said about it—probably too intrigued, given that I was trying to go back to sleep. While the meditation was relaxing, hearing about sankalpa for the first time was energizing, rather than sleep-inducing. I wanted to know more. So, immediately upon rising, after my alarm sounded at 5 a.m., I looked up the concept of sankalpa and found an excellent article by Kelly McGonigal, in Yoga International.

In my first reading, I learned enough to understand that sankalpa is somewhere between a life purpose and an intention. This reminded me of an idea from Deepak Chopra and Rudy Tanzi’s  Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-Being—that of an overarching umbrella goal, or theme, that each of us needs in our lives as a guiding aspiration that informs every choice. After reading McGonigal’s article and several other sources, I certainly don’t consider myself an expert, but I feel like I have a better understanding of sankalpa and how it differs from a theme, purpose, mission or goal.

I benefit from having discerned how all these concepts, as well as my deepest values, inform my life. Over the past week, sankalpa has become a meaningful addition to my regular reflections.

I haven’t been able to identify the primary source, but I found Richard Miller quoted in several articles (including McGongial’s) as saying, “A sankalpa isn’t a petition or a prayer. It is a statement of deeply held fact, and a vow that is true in the present moment.”

According to McGonigal, Miller also teaches that sankalpa involves three types of listening: 1) having the courage to hear the message behind our deep desires, 2) welcoming and honestly reflecting on the message and 3) being willing to act in accordance with the message we receive. All these stages of listening are best accomplished from a place of mindfulness, such as can be achieved in meditation. Personally, I also find the bike to be an outstanding place to hear the true callings of my heart and spirit.

As I have learned to do with intentions over the years, it is important to state the sankalpa in the present tense. Just like intentions, when we use the present tense, we operate from a place of abundance and trust that we already have all that we need. This is far more empowering than operating from a place of lack and need.

One of my favorite concepts in the reading I did about sankalpa is Rod Stryker’s teaching that we are all both being and becoming, universal and unique. He explains that there are two parts to our soul or spirit, called atman in the Vedic tradition. Atman means “essence.” The two parts are para atman—“supreme, highest or culmination”—and jiva atman—“individual or personal.” So, the para atman is the part of our spirit that is being—who we already are. It is universal. The jiva atman is who we are becoming—our unique destiny. I love Stryker’s exhortation to “Live as contentedly as possible in between the goal and realizing the goal.”

I think this is a wonderful aspiration—to live contentedly in the knowledge that we already have all that we need to fully live our deepest calling, while we take the actions and put in the work that will allow us to live that calling. It is a very comforting and encouraging idea to me.

So, my reading of the teachings about sankalpa lead me to aspire to a sankalpa that takes into consideration both states—the being and the becoming, the universal and the unique. Because there is an element of becoming, I must remember that my sankalpa will likely be a dynamic, evolving truth.

As I pondered my sankalpa on the bike last weekend, I felt called to this truth: “I am a unique expression of the Divine Mystery, contributing to the creation of a healthier, more compassionate world with every thought, word and action I choose.” I will sit with this in my mindfulness practice and on the bike regularly to discern if and/or when my sankalpa needs to evolve.

I am excited and energized by new ideas that cause me to think. Sankalpa is one of those ideas, and I am grateful for my nocturnal introduction to it. Despite the sleep disruption to which it contributed by igniting my mind, learning about sankalpa is a gift because it is a new instrument to assist my aspiration to live my Highest Good, Greatest Self and Grandest Life.

Sankalpa will be an additional centering tool for me. My core values—compassion, excellence, integrity and fitness—underlie everything I do. Sankalpa helps to remind me where those values initiate—from my para atman, the universal part of me that is being—and to what action those values call me—my jiva atman, the part of me that is becoming, living my unique destiny.

In addition to my core values and theme, my purpose, mission and priorities guide my decisions and my actions. Sankalpa is related to all these, providing a deep, solid foundation, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to employ it to enhance my growth and guide my evolution.

My Favorite Books in 2018

Happy New Year!

Reading continues to be one of my passions, right up there with cycling, so I am excited to share my annual blog post listing the best books I read during the year.

“Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.” –John Locke

As usual, these are the books that I rated four or five stars on Goodreads during 2018. They are in alphabetical order by category.

Biography

 The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, by Michael Finkel—I found this account of Christopher Knight’s solitary, 27-year stay deep in the Maine woods fascinating. Knight simply chose to vanish into the woods at age 20. He stayed there for 27 years, until his arrest for burglary. He relied on breaking into unoccupied cabins for his food and supplies. While I wouldn’t choose a path that entirely alienated me from society, required sleeping in dangerously cold conditions or necessitated theft for survival, I could relate to his desire for solitude. That aspect certainly holds an appeal for me and left me craving more solitude in my own life.

Health


The Secret Life of Fat: The Science Behind the Body’s Least Understood Organ and What It Means for You
, by Sylvia Tara—Tara presents fascinating biochemical information about fat. I learned a great deal. For instance, I had no idea that body fat is now considered an organ. She presented information about the individual nature of fat from one person to another, depending on a range of factors, including genetics, gender, age, microbiome and exposure to viruses. I did find Tara’s description, toward the end of the book, of her own strategy for keeping her weight manageable to be rather extreme, but she presents it as her own commitment, not as a prescription for anyone else. All in all, this was a very interesting and educational book.

Memoir

The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls—I loved this book! I read it as part of the WSU Reads book selection committee, and I am always a little apprehensive when someone else “chooses” a book for me because reading is such an important part of my life and such a treasured escape. This one fully met my needs. Walls’ captivating narrative of her unbelievable childhood in a family with an alcoholic father and unmotivated mother contains so many lessons and could be an excellent selection for college students. It is a reminder that we have no idea what challenges and hardships other people are facing. Much like Ruth Wariner in The Sound of Gravel, Walls included her siblings in her escape plan. Despite the incredible disadvantages she faced as a child, she became a successful journalist and author. Great book!

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance—I read this book for the WSU Reads Book Selection committee and wasn’t too excited about it, but it turned out to be great. Using a combination of sociological analysis, storytelling and personal reflection, Vance illuminates the struggles of the Appalachian and Rust Belt poor. His deep love for his family—especially his grandparents—is obvious, and so is his honest acknowledgement of the personal responsibility the people in these regions must accept for their circumstances. He recognizes the complexity of the relationship between circumstances and personal choice. Although telling his story from “the other side,” as a lawyer, he clearly still identifies as a hillbilly. He tells his story with courage.


Rusch to Glory: Making the Journey from Ordinary to Extraordinary
, by Rebecca Rusch–Rebecca Rusch is a woman of remarkable athletic achievement. In her memoir of her long professional athletic career, which encompasses rock climbing, paddling, adventure racing and mountain biking, Rusch shares the lessons and wisdom endurance sports have taught her. Despite her incredible record of success, she comes across as relatable and humble. She is a multi-year winner of the Dirty Kanza. Although I am a road cyclist and haven’t ridden that, it was cool to see a home-state event described in her book.

The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France, by Tyler Hamilton—This book grew on me as I read it. At first, I thought it was going to be interesting, but not great. By the time I got several chapters into it, however, I really liked it. Tyler Hamilton and his co-author, David Coyle, provide the most detailed account of doping in professional cycling that I have ever read. Tyler fully admits to his own role in the problem, while he shares his personal experience on Lance Armstrong’s team and, later, as Lance Armstrong’s enemy, when Tyler told the truth.

She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, by Jennifer Boylan—This is the courageous story of how James Boylan became Jennifer Boylan. From the time he was a small child, Jim identified as female. Jenny Boylan shares the story of her personal struggle, her transgender journey and her family’s love.


Sometimes Amazing Things Happen: Heartbreak and Hope on the Bellevue Hospital Psychiatric Prison Ward
, by Elizabeth Ford—Touching memoir of Ford’s devotion to the most unwanted psychiatric patients in NYC—those incarcerated in the NYC jail system, before sentencing. Ford sees them as humans, when many do not.

The Sound of Gravel, by Ruth Wariner—Ruth Wariner tells her amazing story of growing up in a polygamist cult. It is both tragic and hopeful and demonstrates the tremendous courage that was necessary for Wariner to escape the clutches of the cult and her abusive stepfather and to save her younger siblings. Hers is a powerful story that needs to be told.

Straight Pepper Diet: A Memoir, by Joseph W. Naus—Excellent memoir of Naus’ childhood, alcohol and sex addictions and incarceration. He is honest and shares what he learned. It was both informative and intimidating.

Surfacing: From the Depths of Self-Doubt to Winning Big and Living Fearlessly, by Siri Lindley—I found a lot of great quotes—inspirational nuggets of wisdom—in this book. Beyond simply sharing her fascinating story of her neglectful childhood and her discovery of triathlon, Lindley bravely tells her story of self-discovery and acceptance of all parts of herself, including her sexual orientation. Her book is a pretty quick read and left me with some nice motivation.

Performance


The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance
, by David Epstein—This fascinating book taught me quite a bit I didn’t know about genetics, in general, but especially about the influence of genetics on athletic performance. Epstein does an excellent job of sorting out and explaining the relative contributions of nature and nurture in athletic performance. It was captivating from beginning to end, and I have shared it with my son to read because of his growing interest in running and his endurance background and exposure through our family. There is much to learn within these pages about individual athletes, cultures and ourselves.

Personal Development

Can You Be Happy for 100 Days in a Row?: The #100HappyDays Challenge, by Dimitry Golubnichy—I read this book because I enjoyed the online challenge so much and was preparing to implement the challenge again in my Facebook group. The book is a very quick, easy read, if you read it straight through. It contains lots of simple, useful happiness-building strategies. Light and pleasant.

Some Nerve: Lessons Learned While Becoming Brave, by Patty Chang Anker—I needed this book because I was struggling with my concern that I was being held back and limited by fear. I was feeling fear in areas of my life where I have not previously and/or to a degree much greater than in the past. Patty shares her own fears and her journey to overcome them. One of the things I liked the best about this book was that Patty did a lot of research and used other people’s ideas to help convey her message. I learned from them, as well as from Patty.


Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds
, by Carmine Gallo—This is an excellent guide to delivering powerful presentations, whether on major stages, like TED, or in smaller, more intimate settings. Gallo has researched extensively the methods used by the best, most popular, most effective TED presenters. He shares their strategies here, in a way that is engaging, memorable and useful.

TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, by Chris J. Anderson—This is another really good book about giving talks that make an impact. Many of the same examples of excellent speeches were given in this book as were given in Talk Like TED. I guess that is because they are truly exemplary presentations. This book gives different details, however, about crafting your presentation. It is not conflicting information, just focusing on different aspects of great talks. Both books were useful, and this one is written by the current owner of TED, which adds an interesting twist.

The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It, by Kelly McGonigal—This is a potentially life-changing book for me. McGonigal presents a “mindset intervention” aimed at helping the reader rethink stress—which it did for me. I admit that I was a hard sell, and I still need to process some of the ideas she explains. However, she was convincing, and I have come to view stress differently. I think the most powerful idea for me was this: “A meaningful life is a stressful life.” I realized that she is correct. Almost everything that has meaning in life is also a source of stress, on some level. I have begun talking myself through stressful situations by noticing the benefits of my body’s physiological stress response. The book was full of a lot of great research, including studies showing that it is how stress is viewed, rather than stress itself, that creates health risks. I think this is a book that will affect me for a long time, in a lot of different ways.

Wait, What?: And Life’s Other Essential Questions, by James E. Ryan—This short book carries some good advice and interesting ideas for introspection. It is not so much the specific questions Ryan suggests, but the ideas he shares around those questions, that inspired reflection.

You Are a Badass®: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life, by Jen Sincero—I can’t even remember how or why, but I got this book as a free audiobook. Typically, I do not listen to books, but it felt like a particular gift to listen to this one, read by the author. I started the book and then stopped listening for several months. I started again after I made a firm and clear decision that I was on the right path with my coaching practice. This time, it was exactly what I needed to hear. The book is amazing! The author delivers her message with humor and passion and convincing, no-nonsense firmness. I was disappointed when it was finished. I felt lonely for her voice and the inspiration in her words. Read this book when you are ready to take big steps forward in your life.

You Are a Badass at Making Money: Master the Mindset of Wealth, by Jen Sincero—I just LOVE Jen Sincero. This was another terrific book. I liked the first one so much as an audio book, that I got this one as an audio book, too. Her description of her time house-, horse- and goat-sitting while writing the book made me laugh so hard, and her message is consistently inspirational, encouraging and motivating, while hilariously delivered. I will listen to this and her other book again and again.

Productivity


Profit First: Transform Your Business from a Cash-Eating Monster to a Money-Making Machine
, by Michael Michalowicz—I learned about this book in the Wellness Business Podcast, and I felt like the presenter was speaking to me. I’ll be honest. I don’t fully understand why, but money scares me. The financial aspect of my coaching business was causing me great anxiety and befuddlement. I ordered this book on Kindle as soon as I learned about it. Again, being honest, I have made some modifications in the system (which Michalowicz recommends against), but just the part that I have implemented so far has greatly alleviated my stress and increased my confidence around managing my business finances.


The Prosperous Coach: Increase Income and Impact for You and Your Clients
, by Steve Chandler & Rich Litvin—There is so much to consider in this book, so many areas to examine how I can implement their ideas. In one of my business mentorship groups, there has been a lot of discussion and excitement about Rich Litvin’s work. After watching some of his videos, this book quickly rose to the top of my to-read list. I was surprised at how difficult it was to obtain a copy. It doesn’t seem to be available for Kindle, and the paperback and hardback versions are quite pricey. I listened to the audio book, which was a great way to get exposed to their concepts quickly. I really enjoyed that, but I want a reference copy, so I ordered one through interlibrary loan and ultimately purchased a paperback copy. Chandler and Litvn teach building a coaching practice through referral and invitation only. It is an interesting concept that appeals to me.

Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg—In this excellent book, Charles Duhigg put to good use his experience as a journalist for the New York Times to uncover fascinating stories and situations that illustrate his research findings on the science of productivity. The thing that most impressed me was the level of originality in the ideas and recommendations in this book. He drew on research from gerontology, aviation and education, among other areas. It made for interesting reading and thought-provoking inspiration.

Social Justice

The Vagina Monologues, by Eve Ensler—For many years I have heard about the performance of the Monologues, but I had never seen it. I decided that the 20th Anniversary book a good opportunity to read them. I felt like I was carried back to my days as a Women’s Studies minor as an undergrad. The Monologues themselves are powerful, but what impressed me most is how they have become a social movement, embodied in several forms. A great deal of money has been raised through the movement, funding a wide variety of efforts to protect women  from victims of sexual and physical violence and to help women worldwide who have been victimized.

 Work-Life Fit

Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family, by Anne-Marie Slaughter—This is a very well-written book that addresses the important issue of work-life fit, specifically the need for the US to give equal value to caregiving and making money, for both women and men. Slaughter draws on her personal experience making the decision to step down as Director of Policy Planning for the US Department of State to return home to Princeton to spend more time with her teenage sons, as well as her expertise in public policy, to draw a complete picture—from personal to policy—of how this value might be more equally distributed.

No Regrets

What does it mean to live with no regrets? How would committing to doing so change my decisions daily and over the long term?

As I have reviewed 2018 and thought ahead to 2019 over the past several weeks, I have decided that my theme for 2019 is “No regrets.”

I will turn 50 in June 2019. That number seems both impossible and momentous. It feels like it is time to get serious about the things that truly matter to me—to be clear on what those are and to take concrete steps toward achieving them, with tangible results. So, I will start 2019 thinking about where I want to be when I turn 50 and then use that base as a springboard to keep moving in the direction of no regrets.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.”

(often attributed to Mark Twain, but not verified)

My recent review of 2018 revealed too many disappointments—mostly in myself over decisions I have made, inaction, stalled progress or indecision. I want to reach the end of 2019 and look back with satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment and hope for the future.

Toward this end, I have written a “No Regrets Manifesto,” detailing the actions I will take to make 2019 a year of no regrets and one that propels me forward in a life of no regrets.

I have already started asking myself two questions in my journal each night:

  • Do I have any regrets about my choices today?
  • How will I live with no regrets tomorrow?

I will also review my manifesto at least monthly to make sure I am on still on the right track, and I will be willing to adjust if I am not.

My manifesto articulates what living with no regrets will look like this time next year, identifying three priorities. In my daily mindfulness practice, I will hold in my mind and heart the vision of a life of no regrets, with these priorities in the forefront. As I am faced with decisions, big and small, throughout the year, I will ask myself, “Does this serve my three most important priorities? Will it help me to live with no regrets?”

“Things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least.”

–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Truly committing to living with no regrets is scary, as important pledges probably should be. For me, it means little room for error. Others may be more forgiving in a plan to live with no regrets (and it might be healthier to be), but I know myself, and I have low tolerance for my own missteps. Of course, that can be counterproductive because it may also cause me to avoid risks that could help me live with no regrets, so it will be a constant effort to make sure I am really choosing the best path. Truly committing to no regrets also means committing to live boldly. It is a fine line between living boldly and minimizing error. I think my biggest errors are likely to be choosing not to take a risk in situations where doing so could help me live with no regrets.

An important factor in living with no regrets is to start living NOW as though I already own those behaviors, characteristics and lifestyles I want to achieve. By living as though I already do those things and live that way, they feel more real, more attainable and less frightening.

“A goal is a place to come from, not a place to get to.”

–Rich Litvin

As I mentioned in my last post, The Comfort Conundrum, when I apply Cantril’s ladder exercise to certain aspects of my life, it is clear that I will have regret if I don’t take action to make changes. Life is short and uncertain, so my approaching 50th birthday shines as a clear indicator that the time is now to steer my life in the direction that leads to a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.

On the cusp of 2019, I am ready to jump into the new year with power and purpose, as I work with coaching clients to do. It will take daily reflection to stay on the path of no regrets, but I am excited and hopeful and wish those feelings for you.

What will you choose as your theme for 2019? How could committing to living with no regrets make a difference for you?

The Comfort Conundrum

For a long time, I have believed that it was nobler to choose a direction based on moving toward a desired destination than on moving away from a current condition. Recently, as I have thought about this idea, I have recognized what I am calling “the comfort conundrum.”

I have become aware that I sometimes have difficulty taking meaningful action toward a change because my current situation is comfortable. It is not always clear to me if inertia or a deep longing for stability is behind the pull of the comfort of the known. Maybe, it is a little of both. I have a strong fear of being mired in inertia, but I acknowledge that it is possible that inertia plays into the equation. As I get older, I am also aware of a longing for stability with relationships, with career and with habits.

Stability feels honorable. Inertia feels repugnant. Where is the line between them?

When pondering taking a risk to move in a new direction, as I have said in another post, I sometimes find myself thinking, “It would be easier not to . . ..” That is not a good enough reason for me, though.

As Michael Bungay Stanier says,

“You need to get clear on the payoff for changing something as familiar and efficient . . . as an old behavior.”

Or, as Simon Sinek would say, we must be clear on our “why.”

I realize that comfort is a blessing, a gift, something that so many people in the world do not have, in even the most basic ways. I am grateful for my comfort, but I am also troubled by the comfortable state of “good enough” because I am often just comfortable enough that I am not compelled to make a change. My pull to stay put can be a cyclical thing, varying with my current level of comfort or discomfort in a given situation.

This conundrum presents itself as ambivalence—a constant tug-of-war between the comfort of stability and the excitement of possibility.

Shortly before I left on a recent bike ride, I came across a simple method for quantifying happiness. I was reading the book The Upside to Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self—Not Just Your “Good” Self—Drives Success and Fulfillment, by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener. The book, as a whole, did not resonate with me, but it mentions a 1965 study by Dr. Hadley Cantril, which used a simple image of a ladder to quantify happiness. Dr. Cantril asked study participants to visualize the ladder with numbers from zero to ten on each ascending rung. With the lowest rung being the worst possible life, and the highest being the best possible life, participants rated both where they currently placed themselves on the ladder and where they expected to be in five years. I used my time on that bike ride to consider this ladder exercise for myself. It was revelatory for me to this, and I came to the conclusion that there is a tipping point in the conundrum. It is easier to recognize this, if I look at different aspects of my life, rather than at my life, as a whole. Quantified, the conundrum zone seems to be five to seven. In this zone, I am “comfortable enough.” Stability is appealing here because it is known and safe, and there are things I really like about it. The tipping point, where it becomes too uncomfortable to remain, seems to be four or lower. As Anais Nin said,

“The day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Picturing my placement on the ladder in five years was an instructive wake-up call. It would be easy to remain in the zone of the comfortable known, around a six in certain areas of my life. But, when I consider that I would be in exactly the same situation in five years, without having moved the dial on certain things that I really do want to change or goals that I really do want to meet, I realize that I will have regret and disappointment.

Because the conundrum zone is comfortable enough, this recognition came with some sadness and even a little dread, but the fear of regret and disappointment in myself is even more persuasive than the draw of stability.

In certain areas, stability wins. In others, I know that I must dig deep for the courage to move out of the comfortable status quo, in order to avoid being in the same place (or possibly lower, due to regret and disappointment) on the ladder.

I also found it interesting to use this exercise retrospectively. It seems even more difficult than projecting into the future, but, looking back, where was I on the ladder—as a whole and in various aspects of my life—five years ago?

I haven’t solved the challenge of the comfort conundrum, but I have new insight on it, and on the necessity of overcoming it, after doing this exercise.

Although I don’t think this was the application that Dr. Cantril intended, the ladder exercise seems a useful tool for any of us who find ourselves struggling to achieve a goal or make a change that, on the surface, we believe we want. Paired with the idea of the comfort conundrum, we can recognize why we may not be following through on our goal, change or habits and ask ourselves how we would feel about being on the same rung in five years.

I encourage you to try it. You may want to look first at where you currently would be on the ladder, from the perspective of your whole life. Then, where do you expect to be on the ladder in five years? Why? How do you feel about that? Where do you want to be? What would need to change, in order for you to move up to that rung?

Then, if there is a specific change you have been considering—a habit, a relationship, a career move, weight loss, something else—but have not made any real progress, apply the exercise to that change. Where are you on the ladder currently? Do you find yourself in the zone of the comfort conundrum—five to seven? If so, are you okay with still being there in five years? If you are, maybe it is time to let go of that goal and adopt one that is more compelling for you. If not, what needs to happen to put you on track to climb up the ladder to where you want to be?

After my ride and this thought exercise, I had a clearer picture that, although I am comfortable enough in certain areas of my life, the idea of remaining on the same rung in five years is heavy with the dread of disappointment and regret. With this recognition, I realize that I have the responsibility to take the necessary steps to climb to my desired rung on the happiness ladder.

How about you? Are you satisfied with where you expect to find yourself on the ladder in five years?

“You must want change more than you want the status quo.” Marcia Ramsland

The Bike Is Where I Remember Who I Am

“My workout is my obligation to life. It’s my tranquilizer. It’s part of the way I tell the truth . . ..” –Jack LaLane

The work week and the heaviness of the world can weigh on me to the point where I feel like I don’t have the time, mental space or the emotional capacity to process my higher-level goals or work on the things that matter most to me.

The bike is where I remember who I am.

Part of this is just the gift of the ride. Out on the road—usually alone—my head clears, and space is created for inspiration and introspection. On the bike, whether for one hour or several, I can release the worries, stressors, deadlines and obligations of the rest of life. Although it is temporary, and I am under no illusions that it is otherwise, it is a true gift that has allowed me to find solutions to problems and answers to troubling questions. Often these answers may elude me when I give thought to the questions or issues off the bike. But, setting out on the road opens doors to possibilities that I have not been able to pry ajar during the rest of life.

Alone on the bike, I am free from noise and distractions, and my focus can be given to deeper thought and clearer thinking.

In an article in Scientific American, psychology professor Justin Rhodes explores some of the physiological and neurochemical reasons that exercise enhances thinking. One explanation is the increased blood flow—to the brain and elsewhere—induced by physical activity. Our hyperoxygenated brain is more effective at solving problems and thinking deeply.

Rhodes discusses the role of the hippocampus in exercise. I find this particularly interesting and plan to explore further how the hippocampus may be responsible for much of the mental and emotional benefit I experience during exercise. Memory, emotions and motivation—all factors in the heightened state I feel on the bike—are influenced by the function of the hippocampus.

There is some speculation that the evolutionary explanation for the exercise effect on brain function is that it was beneficial for our ancient ancestors to think more clearly and encode memories more deeply when exerting to fight or flee a danger. While there very well may be some truth to this, I also experience a sense of peace and happiness on the bike that feels inconsistent with a fight-or-flight response.

However, neurochemically, there is basis for this explanation. Albeit volitional and generally positive, exercise is a form of physical stress (which is why it needs to be balanced with rest and nutrition), resulting in physiological adaptations to stress. The brain releases Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), a protein that protects and repairs neurons throughout the brain and body. Endorphins, hormones which act as a natural analgesic, are produced when we exercise, both minimizing physical discomfort and elevating emotions. This produces the experience known as “runner’s high.” As internally produced opioids, endorphins help form the exercise habit and keep the movers coming back for more.

Those are some of the physical explanations for the emotional benefits of exercise.

It is even deeper than that for me, tough. I feel a strong spiritual connection to the Universe, both that which is tangible in nature and that which is intangible.

This connection goes beyond recognizing the natural beauty around me, as I ride on quiet, rural roads. I do recognize it, and it plays a part in my well-being. I also feel more open, though, to receiving guidance and wisdom from the Universe, and I have found that I can beckon the Universal guidance through a process that I have refined, but that may continue to evolve.

It used to be that ideas and solutions would simply come to me on the bike, fairly infrequently, but powerfully, when they did. As I have nurtured increased mindfulness in my life and have felt an acceleration in personal growth since doing so, I have sought the guidance of the road more consciously. By opening myself to the gifts of the Universe, I have found myself more often the beneficiary of this guidance. While I don’t claim to understand fully (or even at all) its Source, I do have a renewed belief in its existence. And, the bike is where it very often finds me. Or, I find it. I am not sure which it is. I just know that the bike is where I remember (or am reminded) who I am.

Importantly, although it is the bike for me, it might be a run or a walk (I have glimpsed it on both.) for you. Or, if you are an extrovert (I am not.), maybe it is in a group dance or exercise class. Maybe it is in a game. Wichita State University basketball player Ricky Torres was recently quoted as saying, “If there was ever a lot going on in my life, I’d go get in the gym. When I’m on the court, I feel nothing else.” (The Sunflower, Issue 21, Volume 123, November 5, 2018) I believe he is referring to the same phenomenon I encounter on the bike.

So, the first step is finding the physical activity that reminds you who you are by helping you shed the layers of stress and heaviness and worries that daily life can pile upon you. This may take some experimenting, or, if you are lucky, you already know what it is. Maybe it is not just one form of movement, but there is likely one that stands out more than others as most consistently eliciting positive physiological and psychological responses. Commit to incorporating it into your life on a regular basis.

Here is my current practice for prompting the benefit in my life:

  1. I choose a quote from my vast collection. I do it randomly, but move on to another if the one on which I land does not speak to me in the moment. I want a quote that evokes thought and invites pondering and/or serves as affirmation. I may paraphrase it to make it easier to recall or more personal. I commit it to my short-term memory for easy retrieval.
  2. Before I get on the bike, I take three “4-2-6” breaths. This means that I inhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of 2 and exhale for a count of 6. While there are many beneficial breathing patterns that can be used, and that I use personally, I can’t remember where I first heard this one suggested as a pattern to use when you want to be “on.” (I also use this one before presentations or other times where my performance is important.) In general, controlled breathing patterns stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, or the relaxation response. I have not been able to find documentation about why 4-2-6 works to increase focus and is beneficial before performance. I think it may be as much the act of the ritual as anything, but it is effective for me, so I do it.
  3. I think of my quote as I center my mind.
  4. I have found the addition of an evocative question to be particularly effective at inducing great thinking and inviting inspiration on the bike. On my most recent emotionally and spiritually powerful ride, I used four questions that Rich Litvin asked some of his coaching clients: 1. What are your three biggest gifts? 2. What are your top three professional successes? 3. What holds you back the most—and always has? 4. What is the dark side of each of your gifts? Wow! What I learned about myself by asking these questions was incredible and led me to some clear conclusions about where my energy and priorities should be focused. More often, it is just one question, frequently inspired by the quote I choose as my mantra.
  5. I set an intention for my ride. This usually includes the all-important “staying safe,” but my most introspective, insightful and impactful rides are the ones where I set an intention to have questions answered, problems solved, to be open to the best the Universe has to offer or to find peace around a concern. The more specific I am, the better.
  6. Then, I ride. I usually settle into the ride for a few minutes and get out of town before recalling my mantra. I will often visualize around the mantra and may even recite it out loud.
  7. I reiterate my intention and my openness to receive.
  8. I ask myself the question or questions and ponder them.
  9. My mind opens, and I pay attention to the wisdom and guidance that comes my way. When this happens, I find myself feeling lighter, happier, more excited and stronger on the bike. I often notice that I am smiling. I may want the ride to go on and on.
  10. Eventually, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, I must return home. I have recently become more consistent about reflecting as quickly as I can—maybe just after my shower—on what I have learned on the bike. This is best done in my journal, or, occasionally, in a document on my laptop. Much like waking from a dream, I find that I am more likely to be able to remember and use the insight from the ride by capturing it as soon as possible.
  11. I decide where to take action. This is key. Without action, if the insight calls for it, I squander the wisdom the Universe has offered. I have learned to act, if only by taking a tiny first step. It is a way of appreciating what I have been given.

This blog post is one of the actions I am taking after a particularly insightful, if short and cold, ride I had last weekend. I sense that there is much more to come from what I learned on this ride. I am grateful and look forward to creating possibilities, based on my guidance on Saturday’s ride.

The bike is where I remember who I am. It is where I reclaim my power after work and daily life and stressors have eroded my belief in it and loosened my grasp of it. It is where, even more than in my daily meditation, I find myself to be the most open vessel to collect the best wisdom the Universe has to offer. It is a gift to know this about myself, and it is a gift that I want to give you—the awareness of mindful movement as a tool for growing into your Highest Good, Greatest Self and Grandest Life. I have not reached any of those yet, but I know that my bike rides propel me more quickly down the long, winding, head- and crosswind-riddled road of my journey to realizing these things in my own life. I believe the intentional pursuit of them is my responsibility, as well as my gift, even if it is painful and challenging at many junctures, not unlike some bike rides.

“Say ‘meditation’ to someone, and they usually picture someone sitting in a quiet, dark room. But you can just as easily meditate, relaxing yourself and visualizing, while your body is in motion during a Moving Meditation. It’s where the real you pops out. It’s when your true integrity, drive, passion, perseverance, tenacity, grace, and patience start to show and shine.” –Stacey Griffith

What Limits Would Create More Freedom in Your Life?

Gretchen Rubin is one of my favorite authors. She writes about happiness and habits, two topics of interest to me. She has developed a collection of what she calls her “Secrets of Adulthood,” lessons she has learned over the years that help her to navigate life on a day-to-day basis.

I recently pondered one of these on my bike, and I decided I would pose the question it generated for me to you.

Rubin says, “Give yourself limits to give yourself freedom.”

While this may seem contradictory at first, it is not.

The question I encourage you to ask yourself is, “What limits can you give yourself to create more freedom in your life?”

You can start by considering whether there is something from which you would like to be free. Is there a habit you would like to eliminate? Do you long to be free from a negative self-image? Would you like to shed some physical or emotional weight? Is financial debt weighing you down? Is it the heaviness of regret or disappointment? Is there someone you need to forgive? Do you need to forgive yourself?

The sources of bondage are endless. Freedom requires proactive action. Rubin’s secret of adulthood is one of the keys to the kind of proactive action that can free you from whatever bondage has its hold on you.

During that introspective bike ride, I was considering where I could add limits to create freedom in my own life. One area that came to mind was my relationship with chocolate. Periodically, I can fall into the trap of using chocolate as a crutch. I have to catch myself, acknowledge it and be willing to impose limits, in order to free myself from its clutches and consequences. While different issues will call for variations on these ideas, using chocolate dependence as an example, here are the steps I recommend for setting limits to create freedom:

  1. Check in with yourself. A mindfulness practice is a great way to do this. Taking time each day to stop, quiet your mind and notice if there is anything that has you feeling unsettled can help you catch issues that are preventing you from being truly free.
  2. If there is a pattern that creates anxiety or raises negative feelings or something that you wish were different in our life, recognize it and acknowledge it for yourself. This might just be in your head, but it might be helpful to journal or talk to someone about it.
  3. Decide what limits you need to create freedom. I have treated my tendency toward dependence on chocolate in different ways at different times. When it was severe, 12 years ago when we moved to a new home with a toddler, I eliminated the option of chocolate consumption in any form. This felt necessary at the time. I did not allow myself any chocolate for three years. While difficult at first, it was very freeing. Once I had other safeguards in place, it felt safe to allow it back into my life in controlled situations. Overall, that served me for many years, but, in the past several weeks, I loosened my limits to compensate for perceived lack in other areas of life (That could be another whole blog post.), and I recently recognized and acknowledged to myself that I was disappointed with my lack of control (even though it is nothing like it was in 2006), and I wanted to do something about it. On my bike, when I was reflecting on Rubin’s secret of adulthood, I considered eliminating all chocolate again. That doesn’t feel necessary. I decided that I would allow myself chocolate in two situations (in addition to cocoa and cacao in my smoothies): one square of at least 70% cacao dark chocolate after dinner and infrequent dark chocolate chips when I have what I call a “comfort bowl.” This is something I do only about once a week, and it consists of some combination of the following items: raw oatmeal, berries or cherries, vegan yogurt, nuts and/or seeds, cacao nibs, cocoa, nut butter and dark chocolate chips. This feels like a comforting and decadent treat. That’s it. On a daily basis, I will not eat chocolate in other situations.
  4. Know yourself. Do you need the added accountability of acknowledging the problem to someone else, like a trusted friend, counselor or coach? Determine what support you need to remain within your self-imposed limits and seek it.
  5. Affirm your daily success. Each day that you remain within your limits, honor yourself and celebrate in a way that is aligned with your goals.
  6. Relish the freedom. Notice how much lighter and happier and FREER you feel.
  7. Build on the freedom and success. What is your next project? Where can you gain even more freedom by giving yourself limits?

I think the first time I read about this concept of freedom through limits, it was framed as freedom through discipline by Maia Duerr. It resonated with me at the time in a profound way. I could recognize periods in my life where the idea had been true, but it was the first time I had seen it named.

My hope is that by bringing your attention to this idea, you may be motivated to acknowledge an area where you could free yourself by limiting yourself and that you will find the courage to do so.

“The price of discipline is always less than the pain of regret.”
–Peter Clemons