Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Breaking a Few Crayons

I once had an elementary school art teacher who made us break all of our new crayons in half and take the protective paper off. As a proud owner of my very first 64 pack of Crayolas with a built-in sharpener, I was not enamored with this instruction.

To this day, I believe that particular teaching moment, which launched the school year and all of our upcoming art classes together, could have been handled much more gracefully. But at least as an adult I better understand the point my teacher was attempting to make.

Trying to keep things "just so" can severely inhibit creativity and exploration. My art teacher didn't want us being overly careful not to press too hard when coloring or distracted by the specific names of all the colors. She wanted us to actively experiment, making our art boldly rather than timidly and using the sides of our crayons as well as the points. She knew that--in the long run--breaking our crayons would actually be freeing. She may also have been mindful of the students who didn't have brand new boxes of crayons to use and who might have felt diminished by comparison. Brokenness can be an equalizer.

The broken crayon concept carries over into other areas of life. If you've ever driven a brand new car or invested in a new paint job on an old vehicle, you know how cautiously you drive and park at first, wanting to keep it shiny and pristine for as long as possible. Eventually, though, you will encounter a mud puddle or a shopping cart.

A fresh manicure also requires extra caution. (Ever paint your nails too close to bed time and end up with sheet marks?)

I'm certainly not arguing against taking appropriate care in what we do, but the fear of messing up is not a very satisfying motivator. Besides, let's face it. Sometimes you have to get your hands dirty or be willing to sweat a little bit.

I've been using a free website called SparkPeople.com in my recent weight loss efforts. There are lots of resources on the site: recipes, food and exercise trackers, health-related articles, exercise information, social networking, motivational tools, and more. You can use as few or as many as you like.

One of the clever little things you can do there is to collect "SparkPoints" by using the various tools on the site to make progress toward your goals. You earn points from reading health articles, drinking 8 cups of water in a day, taking a Spark poll or quiz, exercising, trying a new Spark recipe, creating a blog post, reading a Spark email, or a host of other helps. The site also tracks your "SparkStreaks" which record how long you have stuck with particular goals that you have set up, such as logging into the site every day, drinking enough water, journaling 3 days a week, or walking 5 days a week.

I have to admit that SparkPoints are the very kind of thing I often roll my eyes at, but, once I tried it, I found that tracking these points was actually kind of fun and did offer some welcome motivation, so I decided to stick with it.

I had logged on to SparkPeople.com to track my points every single day since I signed up to participate in early July of this year. Some days there wasn't much to record, and I was only on the site for a minute or two. Other days I took the time to read a few articles or watch a 5 minute exercise video. But at the very least, I logged on every day...

Until last Sunday.

I thought about logging on to SparkPeople a couple of different times. I even reminded my husband to be sure to track his SparkPoints. But I got distracted with something and remembered at 10 minutes past midnight that I had not tracked any points that day. By then, it was too late. I had broken my streak.

I am embarrassed to admit how disappointing I initially found this realization to be. Mind you, these points and streaks have no monetary value but are simply an invented incentive to stick with your program and progress through various levels. Still, I was pretty bummed.

It felt almost like discovering the first ding in my car door in the Kroger parking lot or breaking the first Crayola in my 64 pack. It was no longer perfect.

Yes, here we go again. Yet another appearance from my insidious little friend, perfectionism and her all-or-nothing thinking.

And here's the really silly part: Having now broken the spell of this magical "streak," I've been mucking around in oh-why-bother-ville ever since... as though accidentally not logging on to a website one day suddenly gave me license to overeat and procrastinate about exercise again!

Since Sunday night, I've decided that breaking that little streak was probably a good thing. I was getting just a wee bit obsessive about my SparkPoints, to the degree that they may have been more of a distraction than an aid. I'm back to using the site again, but without as much attention to points or streaks and with more focus on making use of information which can directly assist me in achieving my healthy living goals.

I've said before that I believe the way we think about eating and moving is at least as important as the actual food we eat and exercise we do, because thinking has a profound effect on doing.

Hitting this little snag helped me notice another area where my thinking needed some attention. Having now considered what happened when I ran off the rails momentarily, it's time to get back on board. I had a wonderful healthy salad at lunch today, and I'm headed back to the gym tonight.

How about you? Are there any "crayons" you need to break so they won't hold you back?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Keeping Promises

I'm challenging myself to write a fairly brief blog post this time.

It's related to the whole perfectionism/procrastination thing.

Even though I often think of things I'd like to blog about, I tend to put off writing until I've had time to expand on those thoughts for a while.

Then (being an inexperienced blogger) I don't always narrow down my topic enough; I want to be thorough; I lose sight of the fact that I can always write more on the same topic later; and almost before I know it I've written an EPISTLE.

So, what does all this have to do with health or fitness?

I have similar tendencies with eating and exercise.

I will put off exercise until I can do "my whole routine" or "a longer walk," but once I finally make it to the gym, I frequently stay later than I had planned.

I may skip breakfast (yes, I know better!) but once I start eating, I may find it hard to stop, even when I know I've had enough.

I've noticed that we recovering perfectionists sometimes have difficulty with the concept of *enough.*

I'll probably write more about "enoughness" one day.

But, not today...

Because I've written enough for the moment, and I'm learning to do a better job of keeping promises to myself.

What promise to yourself will you keep today?

(I'd love to hear about it in the comments below.)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Time for Tuesday Tips!

It's Tuesday again! Please take a moment to share a healthy living tip in the comments below.

It doesn't have to be original or exciting, just something you've found helpful.

Here's my tip for this week:

Spoil your appetite!

Did your mom ever tell you not to eat something right before dinner because it would, "spoil your appetite"?

Put this principle to good use by having a healthy snack shortly before any meal at which you might be tempted to overeat. Or begin your meal with a low-cal salad. Then take your time and eat slowly throughout your meal, chewing each bite thoroughly and putting your eating utensils down between bites.

Remember that it takes about 20 minutes after ingesting food for your brain to begin to register feelings of satiety or "fullness." So give your brain time to catch up with your belly.

Similarly, it's a good idea to have something healthy to eat before going to a party--especially if you suspect that wise choices may be limited once you get there.

Drinking plenty of water also helps you feel satisfied with less food and (other) drink.

Now it's your turn...

Just leave your Tuesday Tip in the comments below.  No idea is too small!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The 'C & R Brothers

Perfectionism sometimes rears its ugly head for me in all-or-nothing thinking.

I get an idea in my mind, a goal I want to achieve--maybe making a big splash at an upcoming reunion by showing up 30 pounds lighter.

So far, so good. A vision is a wonderful thing.

My idea is big enough to require considerable time and effort to pull off. I think it's do-able, but not easily. It will require multiple steps to achieve.

I want the whole picture, though--the full effect. If I "only" lose 10 or 15 pounds, I'll still weigh more than I did the last time most of them saw me.

I know that to lose 30 pounds in the 4 months until the reunion will be a challenge. I'll really have to pull out all the stops and make this a top priority.

Then I begin to consider all the other things I also need to attend to in the next few months...

Enter my old friend Procrastination with his sidekick, Rationalization.

'Cras and Rash, we'll call them.

'Cras points out that I can't possibly make the lifestyle shift required without purging my kitchen of all unhealthy junk and restocking it with only fresh, whole foods and maybe even installing a state-of-the art water filtration system. In other words, a major project before I can even begin. Ugh.

Rash reminds me that it is Thursday, and NO ONE starts a diet on a Thursday. Besides, it would be wasteful to just throw out all the unhealthy food currently in the kitchen, so I have until Monday to eat it all (by which time I will have more than 30 pounds to lose).

'Cras also explains that since I let my gym membership lapse years ago, it's become more expensive to join, so I'll have to wait for them to run a special before I try to sign up again.

Before I can think through any viable alternatives, Rash tells me that what little I can do in the way of exercise at home in the meantime isn't going to be enough to make a dent in the amount of weight I have to lose, so there's no need to even consider it.

I'm sure you already know that the ending to this tale does NOT include a grand entrance at the reunion in a size 6. More likely, I'll be sitting at home that night in sweats instead, eating donuts and berating myself again for my lack of willpower.

When it comes to visits from the 'C & R brothers, it doesn't matter whether you want to lose 30 pounds or 300. They are equal-opportunity uninvited guests. But you don't have to let procrastination and rationalization in just because they have knocked on your door with their all-or-nothing sales pitch. There is plenty of middle ground to be explored instead.

Yes, sometimes long-held dreams or a bold vision will inspire sweeping changes that catapult us to achieve lofty goals in record time. It's wonderful when we have those dramatic WOW experiences, but it's not the only way important things get done.

If a show-stopping 180-degree turn-around doesn't look promising for any reason, we aren't out of options. We needn't give up or wait for another grand inspiration, which may or may not arrive.

The conventional wisdom is that we have to double down, get tough with ourselves, step up our game, make it all happen. But there are times when a kinder, gentler approach is more appropriate. The results may not be as dramatic, but neither is there a high crash-and-burn potential when we make adjustments gradually. 

We can choose to proceed imperfectly, knowing that we aren't necessarily positioned for an impressive showing but also recognizing that something is almost always better than nothing. 

If you can't fit 30 minutes of exercise into your day, start with 10...

Or 5...

Even ONE.

If you aren't ready to commit to all aspects of a healthy eating plan, start by drinking more water and reducing your food intake only slightly. Begin to make a few healthy substitutions.

Even if you can't slip into that little black dress in time for the reunion, you can be healthier than you are now, and that's enough to matter.

How we think is every bit as important as how we eat or how we move.

The act of simply taking whatever small steps we reasonably can at the moment is such an obvious concept, but when we are caught in a downward spiral of poor choices and self-loathing we convince ourselves that the idea of doing so little is worthless in the face of the task ahead.

Or maybe life is actually going pretty well, so we are not groping around in some emotional black hole, but perfectionism still convinces us that it's not worth doing anything until we can do it "right."

The last time I lost a significant amount of weight, I did so in a determined and disciplined way. After a long period of procrastination I finally bit the bullet, joined Weight Watchers, and followed the plan religiously. I could tell you how many "points" were in almost anything. I could also tell you the date I joined, the date I reached my goal and shifted to "maintenance," and the date I became a "Lifetime Member." Although mine was not one of those incredible weight loss stories you sometimes see on television or in magazines, my friends and family knew I was on a mission, and it was indeed life-changing for me, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally.

This time it's far sloppier, but no less important.

I knew I had let some of my good habits slide and needed to get back on track, but frankly I had other things on my mind and wasn't entirely in the mood to deal with it. I reluctantly got started on the food part of things before I felt ready to exercise, and I'm still experimenting with various approaches to eating, uncertain about whether or not I want to count Weight Watchers points again. Even now that I'm in full gear with both healthier eating and regular exercise, the excess weight is coming off more slowly than before.

At one point, I began to ask myself, "Why bother?"

Why am I putting myself through all this effort for such incremental results?

My answers...
  • Slowly feeling better and better beats the hell out of slowly feeling worse and worse. 
  • Doing something imperfectly is still better than doing nothing at all. 
  • Being well enough to live the kind of life I want to live is important to me, even if slow progress is all I can manage right now. 
  • And I suspect that these less dramatic changes may actually be more realistic for me to maintain, long-term, than strict adherence to a more formal weight-loss program.

Once 'Cras & Rash have been ushered out, what initially seemed impossible becomes easier and easier. Now that I've finally gotten started on my imperfect path, it isn't the dreary undertaking I had convinced myself it would be, and my slow progress has actually begun to speed up. 

When you hit a bump in the road--and you will--that's okay. It doesn't erase every good thing you've done. Nor does it mean you can't move forward again. Just take the next little step.