New Year’s Resolutions

The winter holidays and beginning of the new year are a good time for reflection. Many people choose to make a New Year’s resolution, something that they want to do differently or better in the coming year. Losing weight and paying down debt are common choices. I have a few things I want to work on. One goal for the coming year will be to live more purposefully, being more mindful of how I spend my time.

Oftentimes I get most of the way through the workday and look at the clock in surprise, not realizing where the time has gone. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Our lives are so full of demands for our time and attention that it’s easy to lose track of things, to get drawn off our path. I don’t have data to back this up, but I have a hunch that one reason we (well, some of us) get pulled off task so easily is that we need moments to decompress. We need to have short mindless breaks to just breathe and not keep hammering away on the NEXTBIGTHING, so we pull up Facebook or some other thing like a video game or YouTube clip.

This is not to say that I think we need to completely eliminate these distractions from our lives. In fact, I think we need them. My hope is that I can schedule these moments a bit, and try to be purposeful about when I take these breaks. There is good evidence that a similar approach can work for scheduling “worry time” (instead of just worrying intermittently throughout the day) or rewarding ourselves for completing difficult projects (instead of just miserably grinding away). It may also be useful to take little “distraction” breaks between tasks as a bit of a transition.

Iain Thomas - “And every day, the world will drag you by the hand, yelling, “This is important! And this is important! And this is important! You need to worry about this! And this! And this!” And each day, it’s up to you to yank your hand back, put it on your heart and say, “No. This is what’s important.”

There are different ways that I think I could implement this new approach: to-do lists, reminders, even asking for more accountability from others. In addition to planning out little breaks during my day, I think I’m going to try to practice mindfulness on a more regular basis. I want to improve my ability to know what I’ve been doing, when, and why. Mindfulness is intentional, conscious attention to the current moment. It’s not being on autopilot. Mindfulness can be helpful for a wide range of things, from chronic pain to depression, to addiction and ADHD. We’ll have more on this in the future, but for now, wish me luck on my resolution.

Opposite Action

“Sorry Doc, I was too stressed out to make it in last week.” This sentence was said to me by a therapy client, letting me know why they’d missed the previous session. Often times in life, we experience periods of increased stress. Times when we aren’t sleeping as well, or when we’re in a funk at work. Or maybe having frequent arguments with a spouse. Sometimes when we are dealing with greater stress, we feel an urge to withdraw, to pull into ourselves, and stop doing the things that have helped us in the past–like going to therapy and talking about what’s stressing us out, and getting some help with it.

Recently a friend of mine, who has been meditating and using mindfulness regularly, experienced a health scare. This left him with a lot of unknowns and unanswered questions. As I spoke to him about how he is handling it and how he’s feeling, I mentioned that this would be a great opportunity for him to take advantage of all the work he has been doing on his ability to accept his emotions and really use the skills he’s developed. His reaction to my suggestion wasn’t super positive. And I have to say, I’m not that surprised.

Emotions have accompanying “action tendencies” and when we are feeling anxious or feeling like life is uncertain, one common tendency is to go back to what is familiar and what has been comforting in the past. For him, it’s (I’m making an assumption here) worrying. For someone who is feeling overwhelmed by life in general, the action urge might be to stay in bed and pull the covers up. But one thing we know from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) (a cognitive-behavioral treatment developed by Marsha Linehan, PhD, and heavily influenced by mindfulness and acceptance approaches) is that “Opposite Action” can be what’s most effective. So that, for example, when you have the urge to give up and stay in bed, what might be most helpful is get out there and interact with the world. Will it be hard? Certainly. But it can really help to combat those feelings. It can also give you a sense of mastery for being able to set a goal and accomplish it.

To my friend I would suggest that even though the anxiety about this unknown in his life might be justified, he should do what’s most effective, what will bring him closer to his goals. And so rather than allow his worries to pile up and dominate his thoughts, and then spend effort trying to fight those worries, he should take a nice deep, slow breath, and remember that he can only control what he can control. And that might not be his thoughts, or necessarily what happens with this health issue. But he can control how he reacts to those thoughts: whether he gets stuck on them, or whether he notices them, labels them, and lets them go.