I was having dinner with a long time friend, and we were talking about the idea of setting a "guiding word" at the beginning of the year. He's done it a few years in a row, and I was asking about his experience for my upcoming workshop.
"Well, this year I picked integrity." He rolled his eyes a bit, smiled and laughed. "Wish I would've thought harder about the implications of that." After a thoughtful pause, he continued, "I am really surprised by how much it trickles into all the areas of my life. I mean, it doesn't show a lot of integrity to hit the snooze button five times when your alarm goes off." He paused to take a bite of food and we ate in silence for a few minutes. "It was really challenging. Maybe this year I'll choose a word like 'fun' or 'relaxation'!" And we laughed and toasted a little cheers to that idea.
My friend was poking fun at himself and his word choice, but make no mistake that he takes himself and his commitments seriously. He is a person of integrity, so when he chooses a word, he means to live by it and considers it as he makes decisions both big and small.
I love this idea because my work as a life coach is all about helping people live with intention. So many of us become victims of default. Our decisions (or indecision) of the past created the circumstances we now find ourselves in. While we don't control everything that befalls us, we do control how we think about each circumstance and that, in turn, controls how we react and move on (or fail to).
Only 8% of New Year's Resolutions are successful. Why? Because we can't compartmentalize one aspect of our lives. You want to eat better? Great. You want to get stronger? Wonderful. Better relationships, more success at work, quality time with your kids? All honorable goals. What do all these things have in common that we often fail to recognize?
They ALL require a change in your thinking. Let's say you want to eat better. This takes a major shift in your habits and your thinking. Why do you eat poorly in the first place? If you lack awareness around your own thinking about food, you won't be able to sustainably change your diet. Likewise, if you want to start working out more regularly, but continue to talk yourself out of exercising with the same excuses, you will not be able to create a new fitness habit. Unhappy with your partner? How are you thinking about that person? Are you caught up in a cycle of noticing all his/her failings? Are you letting expectations shut you off from real opportunities to grow and connect in your relationship? Are you even aware of how your pattern of thinking affects your interactions?
I admire any action that encourages positive change. However, I understand how cycles repeat themselves. I understand how our habits become so ingrained that we don't even recognize their power over us. If you truly want to work toward a better version of yourself, don't just make a resolution. You have to live with intention. It is never too late to take control of your mind so that you can design a life worth living. Here are some suggestions:
A few months ago, my sister-in-law sent out a text asking who wanted to go see Michelle Obama. I said I'd be interested, mainly because I like spending time with the women in my family and thought this would be a fun outing. The day came around and I was excited, but only moderately so. We met for dinner, walked in chilly, crisp air to the venue, waiting in a LONG and disorganized line to get in, and took our seats just as the lights dimmed to start the show.
I'm not one to get starstruck. If I saw a celebrity on the street, I would look with interest, but I wouldn't scream and swoon and beg for autographs. However, I will fully admit that I was taken aback by Michelle Obama. I can't even explain the extent of her kindness, passion, humor and authenticity. You cannot fake that. She is a truly lovely person.
Luckily, my mother in law had some notecards so that I could furiously scribble notes to share with you. Michelle's message was simple and to be honest, nothing new. However, her delivery and the parallels to what I'm finding in my coaching practice were powerful. Her book, Becoming, (which I have not yet read in its entirety), is about the continual journey to authentically become your best self. As a coach, I have honed in on the "Big A" words: Awareness, Authenticity, Action, Accountability, and Abundance. I truly believe that many people jump from awareness to action without spending enough time getting in touch with their authentic selves. People take action based on their observations of others and often end up right back where they started because that action is not in line with their true values or core selves. Michelle Obama's message centered around the importance of "reaching continually toward a better self"...in other words, on becoming who you are truly and uniquely capable of being.
Here are some of the biggest take aways from her talk:
I don't want this post to get too long, but she had so many gems, it's hard to pick the best ones. However, one last message resonated with me, and it relates to the first bullet point of hope versus fear. It's important to mention that she did not at any point say one nasty or cruel or insulting comment about anybody (except for teasingly calling Barack a few names when talking about challenging times in their marriage). While she has been dragged through the mud, she never stooped to the level of insults or name calling. In fact, she said, "when they go low, we go high." Furthermore, when talking about her very public time in the White House and all the interactions she had in her role as First Lady, she said the following: "At our core, I saw this country for all its beauty and tolerance and openness. It made me hopeful and it continues to make me hopeful." This speaks to the fact that our brain will find evidence to support our thinking. If she chose, she could easily find evidence of a closed off, hateful world. She's been called an "ape in heels," for goodness sakes. But she chooses to see the good and the hopeful. She also said, "It is our stories and our day to day connectedness that defines us. It's hard to hate up close." Ponder that, my friends.
Don't worry...this is not a political post. It's just that time of year and I've been seeing a lot of memes on this theme. As a life coach, I feel that people create a lot of unnecessary drama around this issue.
From my line of work, I come at this with two different basic principles:
1. Every thought is a choice.
2. Nobody can actually offend you.
(Btw, if you can truly accept and believe these two ideas, your life will change for the better!)
First of all, #1. We all have the power to choose how we think about something. If you need evidence of this, think about a person you don't really like--a person who offends you--who still manages to have friends. You don't like that person because of the way you think about him. His friends like him because they think differently about him.
Let's say you are in the "Merry Christmas" camp. You have an exchange with someone in the grocery line. "Merry Christmas," you say. "And happy holidays to you!" comes the reply. Now, how do you think about this exchange. Do you think, "Well, that was pleasant" or do you think "Happy holidays? It's Merry Christmas. Why are people always trying to take away the meaning of Christmas? Why do people care more about being politically correct than upholding tradition? IT'S MERRY CHRISTMAS, DARNIT!"
Likewise, if you are in the "Happy Holidays" camp and have the same exchange, are you thinking, "Well, that was pleasant" or are you thinking "Merry Christmas? How does she know that I celebrate Christmas? Maybe I'm Jewish. Why do people have to be so exclusive? Why does she have to push her beliefs on everyone else? IT'S HAPPY HOLIDAYS, DARNIT!"
Do you see how different thinking leads to different ways of feeling about the issue? This leads me to #2: Nobody can actually offend you. Say what?!? That's right. Nobody can actually offend you. Go back to the first example of the person you don't like. If he had the power to offend you, then he would have that power over everyone else. You are offended because you CHOOSE to be offended.
Now, I'm not condoning obnoxious or rude behavior. And I'm not saying that you shouldn't take up an issue when you feel a real wrong is being committed. However, little exchanges like this, little annoyances...c'mon...what does somebody else's greeting have to do with what the holidays me to you and your enjoyment of them?
Let's look at this from another angle. If every time somebody says the "wrong" greeting you get a little prickly, you are allowing that negativity in. That person in the check out line may or may not be offended by your choice of greeting, but in the end, it doesn't matter. Your annoyance (in most cases) only affects YOU. You are giving that person power to minimize your values. You can't ever really know another person's motivation, and you definitely can't control another's behavior. When your well-being hinges on the behavior of others, you are setting yourself up for a life of disappointment.
Do you see what I did there? I went from the specific to the general. The way we get worked up about how we express holiday greetings speaks to a universal truth about all kinds of behaviors. In other words, don't give somebody the power to affect how you feel. Live in your own power.
How do we do this? Here are some ideas to ponder:
A few months ago, my family (ahem...it was mostly me) decided to implement "Screen Free Sundays." No iPad, no video games, no shows or movies or youtube for a whole *gasp* day!
I made the decision to push for a screen free day for several reasons. The statistics, after all, are quite gloomy. The average 8-10 year old spends 6 hours a day in front of a screen. Yikes. It's even higher for older kids. My kids spend way less time than the *average* kid in front of a screen...we don't even have cable...but still, the desire for screen time and the fussing when transitioning from the screen back to real life were becoming an issue. And while I'm not a tech teetotaler--it's not going away, people, so we might as well learn how to coexist in a healthy way--I do believe that technology is hurting our personal skills and taking time away from more active and productive pastimes. I wanted a day to prove that not only a) we don't NEED technology, but also b) we can discover more about ourselves and each other without it...and thus, Screen Free Sunday was born.
The research is out there and I encourage you to educate yourselves about both the positive and negative aspects of technology. However, this post is not to advocate that you take on a similar practice. Your relationship with technology is personal, and I'm in no position to dictate how much screen time is right for you or your kids. And while I've seen positive effects on our family, I'm not here to talk about the evils of too much technology or even the benefits of cutting back. I'll just say that we all need to be thoughtful consumers in this brave new world.
What I want to talk about it this: my family's incorporation of a screen free day is actually a great metaphor for any kind of positive change you might attempt. First of all, it was a conscious decision. We didn't just default to a screen free day. It was fully by design that we got here.
Secondly, it was not the easier route. Let's be honest, the iPad is a great kid-sitter. While my kids are playing iPad, I don't have to worry about fights, I don't have to answer a million questions, and I can go GSD around the house. That was hard to give up.
Thirdly, this change was met with resistance. Sundays are weekend days, for goodness sakes. Shouldn't we be allowed to do whatever we want on Sundays? Can't we just relax in front of a movie? We've spent the whole week working hard and doing homework and going to karate, don't we deserve to play some video games? We don't like screen-free Sundays.
I'm imitating my kids here, but doesn't it kind of sound like your inner voice when you are trying to establish a healthy habit or new thought pattern? Our brains like to be efficient. We get addicted to the familiar, even if the familiar isn't the best for us. So we try to default back to what we know, back to the path of least resistance because change is HARD.
But here's the good news. If you really believe in the benefits of something, if you really want to make positive change, it does get easier. You start to see the payoff. What was new and hard becomes normal and familiar.
Let me tell you about yesterday. My oldest daughter was getting over the crud (fever, cough, general yuckiness), and I admit that I was tentatively planning on making an exception and allowing a movie. But alas, it wasn't necessary. My kids woke up, and immediately started playing with some of their legos. Later, they bundled up and started a really creative game of catch outside, followed by some chalk art on the driveway. My daughter felt good enough to go to a cute little Elf Academy that my town puts on, so they learned elf dances and played kazoos and decorated cupcakes there. When we got home, they wrote thank you notes to a family member, practiced piano voluntarily, made-up missed work from school, and asked to start board games as a family, which we did. Screen-free Sunday just happened. It had become our new normal.
I know this paints a very pretty picture and I'll be the first one to admit that it isn't as clean and easy as all that, but it is that simple. Change can happen if you don't give up when it gets hard. And if you push through, the fight in your brain diminishes. Soon, it takes just simple reminders to stay the course, and eventually, your brain will default to the new and better pattern.
At one point yesterday my youngest daughter, Cici, asked to see the "Christmas Fails" video we had watched earlier in the week. "It's so funny!" She said. "And it's short. Can't we watch it?"
"But it's Screen-Free Sunday," I reminded her.
"Oh right," she said, rolling her eyes a little (because she's 7 going on 17). I braced myself for begging or arguing, but she simply skipped away and rejoined her sister at whatever imaginative game they were currently playing, leaving me stunned and smiling.