Achieve Your Goals With Two Brilliant (and Slightly Insane) Tricks to Boost Self Control

Call me paranoid, but I suspect the comfy couch, TV and high-speed internet access in our living rooms are deliberate safeguards of the status quo. Why worry about changing anything when you can sink into the cushions and ignore your true desires?

The downside is that when you think a goal is worth pursuing or a bad habit is worth changing, then you feel guilty and wistful when you ignore it. You find yourself wondering, “What if I could beat myself into submission long enough to achieve this? How would my life be better, and what am I missing?”

Bottom line: It’s frustrating to lust after a goal when the willpower to persevere doesn’t materialize.

Let’s stop wishing and get down to business. I use my own weight loss efforts as the main example in this article, but you can have any goal whatsoever in mind, and the rules still apply.

Introducing the Motivating Tricks and Tools

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the steely willpower of a robot. If you’re reading this, then you’re not a robot either. To change a habit or achieve a goal, it requires the self discipline and motivation to make tough decisions consistently over time. Tricks and tools keep me motivated when forever stretches ahead of me and I just want to sink back into that couch.

To stick to your goal, all you have to do is 1) focus on “four day wins” and 2) track your long-term progress.

I’ve read about both of these concepts before, and separately, I couldn’t get them to work for me. Combined simultaneously, operating together, they do. It worked for me this week, and as a result, I’ve lost four pounds.

Let me be clear – for me to stick to a healthy diet for a full week is a miracle. Once I can get over that hump, I feel the benefits and I don’t want to go back to eating and feeling like garbage. Don’t discount the value of a full week on your plan towards your goal, whatever it may be. I you do slip up (and you will) you’ll have a weeklong model of success you can turn to and make repeatable.

My Torture This Week

I was only a smidge into my diet this past week, but it felt like I had been dieting fooooorrrreeeeever. All of those minute-by-minute decisions were making me crazy and wearing me down. From my cup of coffee in the morning (you can’t have the vanilla creamer, there’s sugar in that) to my lunch (no, you can’t have a tortilla the size of your torso) to snack landmines and dinner booby traps, I felt like I’d been saying “no” to myself constantly. It was exhausting.

I won’t lie. I was eyeballing the Ben & Jerry’s. I didn’t touch it, but I certainly considered it. I thought to myself, “This is hopeless. I’ll never lose the weight. I’ve been dieting for a million years with no results! I might as well give up. I have no self control anyway.”  How many times do we choose that as a self-fulfilling prophecy?

I was ready to give up, but tracking my progress combined with four day wins saved my heinie.

Step One: Decide What to Track

In Tim Ferris’ book The Four Hour Body, he gets pretty excited about how tracking weight loss results over time works wonders for a lot of people. So I figured, what the heck. I have OCD. This is right up my alley. I am going to track myself out the wazoo with several tracking methods.

Tim’s excitement got me to download this Excel spreadsheet that a man used to track his own weight loss that I customized to use for myself, which I keep open on my computer. I also track inches lost and my body fat percentage.

Of course, depending on your goal, you can track whatever you want. It could be how many days in a row you stuck to a habit, or a weekly or monthly representation depending on what it is you want to achieve and how often you need to take steps to get there.

Step Two: Decide How to Track it, and Make it Fun

I followed Tim’s advice and took my measurements. I made a graph so that I can measure myself each week and ooh and aah over a graphical representation of the inches melting away. I printed out the chart and taped it to my bathroom mirror.

Then I made another chart to track my weight and body fat percentage and taped that up next to my inches chart. I pulled out some pretty pink and green markers so that each day I can fill in the square that represents my current weight and body fat percentage.

Choose any physical representation of the steps you’ll take to reach your goal, but make it something fun that you’ll look forward to playing with. Once I made a paper chain out of construction paper – the kind that kids use to count down the days until a special event. I wrote one step on each part of the chain and got a thrill out of removing each link when I completed a step. When my goal was completed, the chain was gone. It was an amusing way to watch my progress.

I’ve heard of people using charm bracelets and adding a charm for each milestone. You can take two vases and move poker chips, coins or wads of colorful tissue paper from one to the other to mark achieved objectives. Try more than one method to see what’s more entertaining.

Step Three: Decide How and Where to Display it

This part is key: Display your tracking method so that you will see it and be reminded of your goal throughout the day. Exhibiting your tracking in a visible location will not only make other people afraid of your serial killer behavior, it will help you stay on track for longer, and help you get back on track after slip-ups.  Being able to see my progress at a glance keeps me feeling in charge, even after I make a mistake. A mistake becomes a mere blip on the big picture, rather than a reason to trash the whole project.

How Did all this Freaky-Deaky Tracking Come in Handy?

When I was going to lose my mind this week and attack the ice cream like a comet was heading for Earth, I was able to pull back for a moment when I caught sight of my crazy charts in the bathroom. I noticed two things upon witnessing my madness. First of all, yes, my weight was headed in a downward trajectory … and second, I had only been dieting for two days. TWO DAYS!? Why did I think it was an eternity? Why was I being such a wimp?

When I saw that I’d hardly put myself through the ringer with a mere two days of restraint, and that I was actually making progress, my mindset changed. I thought, “I can do this. I just have to get to four days, and it will get easier.”

Why Four Days? What the Heck Is a Four Day Win?

In Martha Beck’s book The Four Day Win: End Your Diet War and Achieve Thinner Peace, she writes that people who have lost a ton of weight and kept it off said the hardest part for them lasted about four days. Beck says four days is about the length of time it takes for the body to adjust to new habits that affect circadian rhythms (such as sleeping and eating. Logically, this four-day theory could extend to caffeine intake, sweets and exercise.)

Beck urges that four days of victory can break a barrier for any type of goal whatsoever, not just dieting. After four days, changes stop feeling torturous. If you can stick with a habit that long, it will begin to feel natural and the momentum will pull you forward, if you let it.

If you’re white knuckling it past four days or you fail completely, then you might need to take a step back and commit to a smaller change for your first four day win. If you continue to flounder, then keep committing to smaller goals until you achieve a four day win. Then proceed with a slightly larger goal for the next win, and so on.

The Four Day Win and the Lure of Short-Term Focus

The four day win strategy by itself in the absence of long-term tracking didn’t work for me in past. The smallness of four days didn’t thrill me. I loooooove to focus on the big picture, the finish line, the major triumph. Focusing on the big picture is fun because that’s where the juiciest payoff lies. The smaller butt, the pile of money, the fancy ladies or whatever the heck your goal is.

However, while we’re focused on the end zone, we’re not present in the moment-to-moment to decide how to tackle the very next obstacle that’s right in front of us. When we’re staring so far ahead into the future, it’s easy to ignore the impact of the small decisions that are right in front of us.

It’s those small decisions, strung together moment to moment and day after day, that actually make a difference and pave the road to our success or failure. A four day win helps bring the short-term into focus so that we can take pleasure in the smaller accomplishments.

Using a four day win, I resisted the Ben & Jerry’s, which confirms once and for all that I actually do possess self control after all. Success begets success. If I resisted the ice cream, that means I can also resist the chocolate. If I can beat that craving, then I sure as heck can pass on the mashed potatoes at dinner.  And so on and so forth. I’m not even thinking about the size of my butt in a month. I’m thinking about the unfortunate size of my butt right now when I’m good at the very next meal.

Combine Long-Term Tracking With Four Day Wins for Max Effect

Even though I appreciate the benefits of focusing on the short-term, still, there’s a delicious allure for me to daydream about my final goal of weighing less than 120 pounds. The energy I have, the way my clothes fit, how much better I feel about myself…there’s no doubt that my final goal holds a certain sway over me. It’s why I decided to diet in the first place.

However, I don’t want to start thinking about how far away my goal is or how much work I have to do to get there. That’s not productive. Besides, I want my diet and exercise routine to be sustainable forever. This isn’t a crash diet or some crazy race to get skinny. This is a lifestyle I’m after, so bemoaning the time it will take to lose weight is counterproductive. All I need to know is that I will get there eventually, as long as I continue to be consistent.

So that’s where my four day wins come in, although they aren’t always four days long. This week, as I gleefully stepped across my first four day win finish line, it occurred to me that I only needed to go three more days to get to my cheat day. Every Saturday is a free day where I get to indulge all of the cravings I’ve had all week, should I choose to do so. I consider it the pressure release valve. I don’t have to think, “I can never have ice cream again.” I can just think, “No biggie. I can’t have ice cream on Saturday, if I still want it.”

Small Choices Over Time Add up to Big Results

Motivation to achieve a goal involves constant focusing and refocusing between the long-term payoff and short-term decisions. When you look at your tracking method, you will be able to see the long-term trajectory of your big picture, and the minutiae of your day-to-day and how that’s affecting your outcome.

At the end of the day, all I ever need to do is to make smart choices at the next meal. That’s all I need to think about. In moments of weakness, at times of mental conflict, when I refer to my nutty tracking documents, I’m clearly reminded where I’ve been and where I’m going so that I don’t lose the plot.

When I wonder why I’m avoiding vanilla creamer, I can think of my long-term goal for inspiration. And I can also think about how Saturday, my cheat day, is never more than a week away.

How Ditching Technology Helped Me Get Things Done

I’m now blogging for TLC’s Parentables! I will blog the post introductions here at swell easy living so you can keep updated on new content as it becomes available. Just click through to read the full post on parentables.

When I had my baby and went on maternity leave, my new existence initially felt off-kilter, like I was missing a limb. For my whole adult life, I’d sat at a desk with a keyboard and a monitor for a minimum of five days a week in the fluorescent-lit offices of large, brand name global corporations. I struck big deals with slick negotiations, I managed global technical and editorial teams and I orchestrated some fairly complicated operations in my day. I was like, kind of a big deal, I thought.

I felt lucky to be employed in such a comfortable way, and I didn’t understand how anyone could be satisfied differently. Oddly, the one thing of my old life I’d missed while on maternity leave was the familiar stance of sitting in front of a computer all day.

I anticipated my return to work as if it would solve everything and life would return to normal. The house would be neat and I would be well-rested and everything and everyone would be back on schedule, tucked neatly within the realm of calendars and obligations.

It would just have to work out that way for me, because women work and they have babies, and they have to function in an orderly manner, right? Isn’t that the way working moms exist, comfortably on schedule, well-organized, methodical and tidy and relaxed and happy?

Ha ha ha. I know. That whole charade. I’d like to know who started that rumor. It’s something, isn’t it?

And then, less than a month after I returned to work from maternity leave, I was laid off.

Life Is Messy :: keep reading …

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Create a Relaxing Evening Routine

Having a relaxing nighttime routine not only helps you feel calm and ready for sleep, it helps make your mornings run smoother too.

I’d been resisting setting up an evening routine because that’s the one time of my day that I get to be unstructured and spontaneous. However, I realized that if I create a relaxing evening routine that I enjoy, then I’ll want to stick to it because it reduces stress and helps me sleep better at night. Then I can wake up refreshed and benefit from a calming morning routine.

There are five components to a relaxing evening routine.

1. Dinner: Recharge and unwind over a healthy meal. [Eating the right amount of food is helpful when you want to truly relax, since eating too little or too much is going to leave you uncomfortable. ]

2. Clean up: Spend just 10 or 15 minutes putting everything away. It’s hard to relax completely when you’re in a messy room. In only a few minutes a day, your home stays neat and decluttered with minimal effort. No more marathon weekend pick-ups or panicking at the thought of guests coming over.

3. Bathe and Put on Jammies: Your level of “bathing” might vary over the next guy’s, but this is some variation of brushing your teeth, washing your face, or full on getting into the shower or tub and having an all-out scrub fest before changing into your PJs.

4. Relaxation Time: This is the fun part where you get to focus on yourself. Here are some options. Pick your poison:

Reading. Personally, I love to read before I go to sleep. It controls my thoughts and keeps my mind from racing while I unwind.

TV. I sometimes find TV too mentally stimulating when I’m getting ready for bed, but I know it helps a lot of people tune out.

Internet. Plenty of people like to surf the web and listen to music.

Write. If you don’t want to escape in some form of media, then maybe you want to create your own. Reflect on your day, what you’re grateful for, or create a to do list for the next day to clear your mind. I will often take notes on what I’m reading to save ideas for things I want to do or think about.

Meditate or Do Nothing.  Maybe you don’t want to do anything but sit, close your eyes and breathe.

Happy Place. If you’re really wound up and need some immediate relief, close your eyes and imagine your Happy Place. My happy place is on a tropical beach with the sun beating down on my perfectly tanned and taut bod (not the pregnant bod I currently have, a different one that probably never actually existed) with the ocean lapping the shore gently about 20 feet away. There may or may not be a daiquiri in the picture depending on how much I need to relax.

I strongly encourage you to create your own Happy Place. It’s been a wonderful tool for me over the years when I seriously need to untwist my knickers or I’m just having an impossible time readying myself for sleep.

5. Time for Sleep: Choose a bedtime that will afford you somewhere between 7 and 9 hours of sleep, since that’s what the average person requires. I enjoy the 9-hour range myself, but I know some people proclaim (usually proudly for some reason) that they only need 5 or 6 hours of sleep. Good for them. Don’t try to compete; let them have their glory.

How do you put all of this together? I figured out my ideal bedtime first, and then figured out what time I get home from work to know how many hours I have to play with. Since my office tends to work late, I get about 3 hours between arriving home and getting to sleep. I wrote down approximately what times I should be doing what so that I make sure there’s time for each step. If you plan out your evening, you can maximize whatever amount of time you have so that you’ve had a nice dinner, your home is neat and you feel calm and ready for sleep at the end of the evening.

Nighty night!

Recharge Your Fitness Goals: Get Swimsuit Ready With a New Fitness Routine

Bathing suit season is around the corner and it’s time to shed that layer of cold-weather chub. My chub will continue to grow until this baby is born, but I will live vicariously through all you hot studs and studettes. Spring is the perfect time to start a new fitness routine or revamp your old one, so make Mama proud.

I’m pasty after a long winter of working out in a gym and I am dying to get outside into the sunshine. It’s time to plan some exercise that will allow me to enjoy the newly fabulous weather. Plus my fitness goals are different now that I’m preggo, so I need to shake things up.

Here are four steps we can take to create a new fitness habit:

1. Set your fitness goals. Is your goal to lose fat? Gain muscle? Improve your cardio or run a race? Burn off steam and have fun?

My goals are to get stronger and to gain more endurance. Carrying around extra weight means my back and legs get tired faster than they used to. I would like to have energy that takes me all the way to bedtime every day. As a bonus, my doctor told me that women who exercise during pregnancy gain less excess weight, have smaller babies and therefore tend to have fewer complications during delivery. Sweet.

Think about how fitness can improve your life to help form your aspirations, whether that means more confidence on the pool deck, feeling good in your shorts and knowing your lawn chair will survive another summer, or having more energy, better sleep and improved moods.

2. Choose your activities. Based on your goals, it’s time to choose your activities.

Fat Loss: If you want to lose fat, consider a combination of cardio and strength activities. Cardio combined with dieting can cause a loss of muscle tissue, which results in a slower metabolism. What does this mean? If you blow your diet for a night and hit up the all-you-can-eat-and-drink-margarita-and-nacho-madness happy hour, you’ll store more fat from your transgression than if you had some muscles to burn through the excess food.

Preserve muscle and boost your calorie-burning by adding some strengthening moves to your work-out. Lunges and squats are compound exercises, meaning they work many muscle groups at once for greater strength gains. Squats and lunges also work the largest muscles in your body (your booty!) making these exercises an efficient way to build muscle and amp your fat loss.

Gain Muscle: Obviously weight training is the way to go. Remember that to show off those muscles, you need to have a fairly low body-fat percentage. Many bodybuilders swear by high intensity interval training (HIIT) for their cardio. You can do this in a quick 20-minute cardio workout that alternates a heart-pumping, wind-sucking pace with a recovery pace.

Improve Your Cardio: If you’re bored by the treadmill, then find a race to train for and a running club to join at Running in the USA (apologies to my non-USA readers). If you can’t handle the high-impact of running, then swimming and water aerobics are a relaxing alternative. Search for a pool near you — anywhere in the world — using Swimmers Guide.

Blow off Steam and Have Fun: If you prefer to get your exercise in a social environment, then find a group with Meet Up. Find friends to hike or walk with. If you enjoy team sports, find groups that play kickball or softball. From bootcamp to badminton, Meet Up has you covered.

As for my own workout, I’ve hung up my running shoes for the foreseeable future as I’m soon to be a champion waddler. I’m taking up walking and swimming instead, and I’ll continue weight training.

3. Decide when you will exercise. How many days per week do you want to exercise? What time of day works best for you? This seems like a “duh” kind of step to add, but if you don’t look at your calendar and schedule an appointment with yourself to workout, there isn’t a huge likelihood of it happening. Deciding when signals true commitment.

An important note about this step: do not fall prey to an “all or nothing” attitude. If you look at your schedule and you can only comfortably commit to a day or two per week for now, then that’s great! It’s a day or two of exercise you weren’t getting before. Enjoy the activity that you get, and don’t let the guilties bug you.

A second important note about this step: most people favor either cardio or strength training, but it’s rare to find somebody who loves them both equally. If you find yourself thinking in terms of “should” do this or that, there is a possibility that you won’t do anything at all when it comes time to choking down the “should” part of your workout. Commit to what you love doing for as many days as you can realistically handle, and don’t look back. Get out there and do it.

4. Follow through. Each day, think ahead to what you will need and when. If I’m serious about taking a brisk walk on my lunch break, then I should put my sneakers by the door with my work bag so I don’t have an excuse to bail. Look at the weather. Is rain forecast? What alternate plans do you need to make? I might decide to walk the halls at work or the nearby mall. Or maybe I just want to suck it up and make sure I wear a rain jacket and bring an umbrella and take my walk outside anyway. Ask what you need to do to get it done, and don’t get tripped up by the unexpected.

Before you know it, you’ll be sucking in your nicely toned gut when that cutie walks by and you’ll be happy you can. Trust me, this comes from someone who is sucking-it-in impaired.

Create a Simple and Relaxing Morning Routine

soothing cup of tea

I used to be chronically late. I say “used to be” because I am now learning to break that habit. This is one of those habits that’s always been a problem for me and I’ve tried many tricks over the years to overcome it. Setting my clocks fast has been a long-time favorite, but that only works until I do the math to figure out what time it actually is.

I’ve tried setting up a morning routine with start and end times for each activity, but my mistake was making the routine way too detailed. Since the schedule was too complicated for morning brain, I never learned to follow it.

Steve made a comment recently that made me laugh, but it was entirely true. I will paraphrase, but it went something like this,  “I’ll be in charge of teaching our child how to be on time because obviously you can’t.”

Born to Be Late
Steve’s comment brought to mind some childhood memories of mornings in my parents’ household: the frenzied pace we all kept from waking up to fighting each other for shower time, to scarfing down a home-cooked breakfast. Then at the sound of the school bus rounding the corner, we would run wildly out the door. The bus had to stop in front of our yard as we ran screaming from the house because we were never waiting patiently at the bus stop with the rest of the prompt neighborhood kids. I have wonderful parents, but punctual is not a word that comes to mind when I describe them.

Mike over at Refocuser says, “…some of us just weren’t born with an ability to gauge elapsed or remaining time.  We consistently think we have more time than we actually do…” He calls it “time denial,” a state when one is caught up in the moment rather than moving on to the next thing.

Although he says time denial happens to everyone sometimes, holy crap, that is me most of the time. Mike has some great tips so I won’t duplicate his list, but I have a couple to add. If you don’t struggle with punctuality, but you are looking for a way to make your mornings simple and stress-free, then this is also a good exercise for you.

1. Create a morning routine on paper. Look at it with a critical eye and see what you can move to the night before or the weekend. Can you prep your lunches on Sunday? Load the coffee pot the night before and set a timer? Pack your bag and set it by the door? Edit your list accordingly once you have these other activities moved off your morning agenda.

2. Add realistic times next to each item. Once you have your routine pared down to the bare essentials it should be a pretty short list, certainly fewer than 10 items. [People who already have children: feel free to laugh at me and offer guidance.] Add what time you need to start each activity to keep your morning on schedule.

My morning routine looks like this:

7:10  Empty the dishwasher while you cook breakfast.

7:20  Eat.

7:30  Clean up and load the dishwasher.

7:35  Shower.

7:45  Dress, make-up, hair.

8:15  To the automobile!

3. Adjust your routine so that it works for you, not so that you are working for it. I had to experiment with my routine to pare it down. After a few practice runs, I adjusted the timings so that they are reasonable and easier to achieve. I had to remind myself that this ritual isn’t called “The Morning How Fast Can You Get Ready Challenge.” Try to include an activity in your routine that makes you happy. For example, I like to enjoy a cup of coffee while I cook and eat breakfast. You might have to change your routine a few times until you’re comfortable and feel good about it.

4. Try using a timer. I used a timer and kept the list in front of me and crossed off items as I went while I learned what time I should be doing which item. Aside from the geeky satisfaction I get while checking items off a list, the beep of the timer would keep me moving towards the next task so I didn’t get trapped in time denial. Sometimes when I’m in the mood for a more involved breakfast or a longer shower I bust out the timer so that I can be flexible, but I don’t completely lose the plot and fall back into old habits.

Voila! After taking these steps, you should have a predictable and relaxing flow to your morning.

Now if I can just master my evening routine… I’m working on it.