Here’s the thing about stress: it sometimes helps people accomplish amazing things. I’m not just talking about the proverbial mother lifting a truck off their child; I’m talking about the parent who stumbles down the basement stairs to put the sheets in the laundry at 3am after their sick child has finally gone to sleep; the lover who holds their dear ones hand during a funeral; the delicious meal created out of an almost-bare pantry by an elder sibling while the parents work late.
These are skills that people aren’t born with, and usually aren’t even trained into; instead, they are called upon to do them in times of stress and scarcity, and they rise to the challenge out of necessity.
If you’re lucky, the stress eases, and it becomes a treasured story, like my memories of seeing my twins’ faces by moonlight as I held their bottles at night. Sleep was not really something I did back then, like many parents.
The Stress-Filled Life
But not everyone is lucky enough to have a choice. Some people are stuck in their superhero mode by constant stress, and I’m not just talking about refugees. We can inadvertently let our environments turn into stress-filled states, whether that’s from the responsibilities we take on or (these days) just watching too much news.
And make no mistake: the things that relate to stress – poor diet, sleep deprivation, elevated blood pressure – are actually killing you in slow motion:
Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, contribute to infertility, and speed up the aging process. Long-term stress can even rewire the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to anxiety and depression. – Stress Symptoms, Signs, and Causes.
Need more convincing? Here’s a whole video on the subject from ASAPScience.
Ha! You thought you were stressed before? Now you can be stressed about stress! Luckily, there’s a lot most people can do to alleviate their stress, starting with evaluating where their stress factors are and what they can change about them.
Problem is that most people, short of some big warning like a stroke or a divorce, don’t bother.
Why is that?
I have a theory.
Your Secret Identity
We forget what it’s like to not be stressed, and the state of being stressed feels normal. It’s as if you were a superhero who normally only puts on their costume and uses their powers when there’s an emergency – but the emergencies happen so much that you forget that you have a secret identity, that you can wear normal clothes instead of the costume.
Of course, there can be a lot of reasons for stress in your life, some of which you can control, some of which you can’t. However, there is one thing that sometimes keeps people from acting to alleviate the stress in their life: fear of dulling their edge.
If you have a lot of those stories to tell about how you overcame adversity, then it can become part of your core identity. I do it with finances; I’ve been near-broke or worse so many times, and always managed to pull through somehow. “Robbing Peter to Pay Paul” is just the tip of the iceberg – I am a veritable Odysseus of creative money generation and distribution.
Problem is, I never really got the skill of fiscal preservation. Or planning. And as a result I stumbled from financial disaster to disaster, each time congratulating myself on narrow escapes and clever money hacks. Even worse, when I finally started figuring out how to create some financial slack, it felt wrong; I wasn’t used to money in my bank account, and that led to a tendency of self-sabotage.
Here’s the secret: You can always put your costume back on. Especially if your super-power was developed out of necessity, you don’t lose that skill. It will be there for you when you need it. And meanwhile, you can try enjoying life in your secret identity, well-rested and with abundant resources, knowing that when you need to don that cape and spandex it will be waiting for you.
Remember the Five-Minute Journal? I love the thing; I extolled its virtues, I recommended you buy the fancy one if you like that kind of thing, I even formatted one for my daughter to try and help her get more centered as she prepares for her boards.
However, if you look in my colorful little Field Notes book, you’ll see a bit of a discrepancy. There’s May 8, when my mantra was “Centered”, then May 13th , when I was thankful for Spring, a day to work on my busines, and a good night’s sleepThen there’s two blank pages, and the next date is March 18, which doesn’t make any sense except that it was early in the morning and I probably meant May 18. On that day I planned three things to make the day rock:
- I will sketch
- I will think
- I will relax
…and I must have done them a little too well, because guess what? Not only did I neglect to fill out the remainder of the day, the next entry doesn’t happen until June 18 – a full month of no Five-Minute Journal. In fact, there is only one other day in June that I did it – June 23rd.
Let’s jump past the simple self-recrimination of Bad Personal Development Blogger! No biscuit! Instead, let’s ask the more pertinent question: during that month of no-five-minute-journal practice, did my life fall apart? Was I unhappier?
And if not, perhaps the initial joy of the Five-Minute Journal was less about the efficacy of the journal and more about the Shiny New Technique to Make Life Grand?
There’s No Magic Bullet. Except for…
No, I wasn’t unhappy during the month of June. In fact, I had a lot of great things happen, things that are still happening. The Five-Minute Journal could have made things happier – maybe – but they didn’t make things unhappier. It’s one of many tools that you can keep in your Personal Maintenance Toolbox, and just like a torque wrench isn’t going to be the only thing you need to fix your car – in fact, you could get by without it and just use a socket or adjustable wrench and guess – it’s a nice tool to have. When it comes to doing that one precision thing, having the right tool feels great.
Almost everything I write about in this blog falls into that category. I love reading articles like “100 Things You Should Be Doing to Increase Productivity” for the same reason gearheads like to browse tool shops: not that you want to buy all the things, but because you appreciate the myriad possible ways of doing all the things.
(Let’s face it, there’s also the inherent joy of realizing that the tool you already have works as well or better as the shiny new ones, but that’s a guilty pleasure we won’t dwell on.)
The one exception – the one thing that is a magic bullet, and for which there is no substitute tool, is sleep. As my fellow blogger Karl (who is on that most civilized of breaks called “paternity leave”) mentioned to me last week: “It’s amazing what getting enough sleep can do for your stress levels.” But this blog post isn’t about sleep, so I’ll simply point you towards another good post if you’re interested in that.
Getting Back on Your Habit Horse
What do you do when you fall off a horse? Dust yourself off and get back on. I’m happy to say that my 5-minute Journal is on a 4-day streak that started on the 10th with mantras of “ease”, “happy”, “joy”, and “forward”. I’m considering downloading the app Chris Brogan recommended, “Streak”, which will help me celebrate this (and other) practices (though I’m trying out the free “Productive” first). I’m pleased to say that I’ve even managed to mostly avoid that typical “Why bother? You’ll only quit again…” voice in my head.
What was it that got me back in the saddle for 5 minutes a day? Not some epiphany. Not some great resurgence of will or resolution. No, it was a simple request from one of my patrons for some “custom content” (that’s right, if you’re my patron, you get that kind of access to Love Life Practice! What a deal!).
Specifically she wanted to see how I laid out the book I made for my daughter. So I made this little video:
In the process, I was reminded of how much fun the 5-Minute Journal was to do. I was reminded of how easy it was to do if I set up an Environment of Win. Next thing I knew, I was making sure the pen and the book were next to my bed, and poof the practice is reborn.
The lesson I got from this is that if you’re having trouble maintaining a practice, maybe talking yourself into it or trying to create peer pressure aren’t the best strategies. Maybe it’s as simple as this: tell your friend why you want to do the practice. Maybe they want to try it out too (or, for your sake, could pretend to) and you get to show them how to do it. Heck, use this blog for some techniques; I grant you permission to steal liberally.
It’s not about being happy. It’s about being happier. It’s not about being perfect, or even about being better. It’s about being authentic. Some practices help you with that, some don’t. The nice thing is, they may come and go, but your authentic self?
It’s always there.
I mentioned in a past post that I really need to work on my practice of sleeping.
Later I got a very friendly email from a bloke named Wally, telling me that he had read the article, liked it, and thought that you (my erstwhile readers) might benefit from a smorgasbord of sleep tips he’d created on his site. I read his post – “50 Ways to Beat Insomnia” – and he’s right. There’s a lot of really useful tips, which I’ve read in many different places, all compiled in one easy place. What makes it even more appealing was that he backs up his tips with the scientific sources where possible – something that appeals to my inner skeptic.
I Almost Didn’t Post It
Why? Because the URL, if you look at it, is “whatisthebest-mattress.com.” Which on a certain level offends my purist blogger sensitivities, because it’s a URL designed to grab search engine traffic. It’s the grandfather of clickbait, back when people were trying to game Google and other search engines (yes, at one time there were actually other search engines) into sending traffic their way.
Google is a lot of things, and dumb is not one of them. A lot of the techniques people used back then at the turn of the millenium to try and “trick” the algorithms were quickly discovered and blocked, often with severe penalties (I once had to talk a client out of trying a technique he’d read about online because if he’d done it, Google would have blacklisted his site.
Now it’s gotten to the point where a person can actually make money helping companies find good, easy, and memorable site names (such as, ahem, LoveLifePractice.com). Not because they are hoping that Google will find them; no, you want a name that is easy to remember and type into a browser so that people can easily talk about you. Think about the problem that Wally has: how does he easily tell people his site? “whatisthebest (all one word) hyphen mattress dot com” doesn’t roll trippingly from the tongue.
It’s Not About Links. It’s About People.
Instead, though, Wally found my blog – probably from a Google search engine auto-notifier that saw the word “tired” – and reached out to me directly. Yes, it may have been a form letter – but he’s right, you know, there are some good things in there. In fact, here’s five practices (yes, this is actually a blog about practice) that I’m going to be working on to improve my sleep:
- Chamomile Tea – One of the many benefits of living with Natasha is that she knows her teas. More to the point, she probably knows how to make a tea that will help me sleep and taste ok.
- Meditation – While I already do meditation in the morning, for a while Natasha and I were also doing a meditation before bed. Renewing that practice may help both of us sleep better.
- Avoid TV – We are notorious for the “Well, we have to get up in 7 hours, but we can handle one more episode” kind of binge-watching that shows like Longmire and Justified tend to inspire. Cutting off TV emphatically 8 hours before we have to get up is a start.
- Avoid Late Night Snacking – It’s kind of a catch-22 – often, in order to stay awake through the aforementioned “one more episode“, we will snack. It’s not terrible snacks – often carrots and hummus – but still, maybe we could listen to our bodies when they say “sleepy” and not hear “hungry“.
- Nighttime Ritual – This one will be both the easiest and the hardest, I think. I already have a good set of morning protocols, so I’m not unfamiliar with the process. And we already have some bedtime customs that will fit into the “ritual” idea pretty easily. But we don’t have a terribly regular schedule, and it will be hard to keep events from interrupting. Wally recommends “Repeat the routine for at least a week to get into the habit before you allow changes in schedule to interfere with it.” A week? That I can do.
That’s why I’m suggesting that you do actually visit WhatIsTheBest-Mattress.com. Because even though it is designed to make money, it’s designed to make money by giving people what they need. I had already decided that I needed better sleep (based a bit on James Altucher’s work) and he gave me a head start on how to work on that.
A while back a friend complained about podcasts that talk about other podcasts. He couldn’t understand why they had to do that. I don’t think I really was able to explain it well enough to convince him, but it’s another part of this: the big failure of the internet is that old marketing doesn’t work. The new marketing is about people talking to people they trust and helping them find the things they need.
That’s why, on Wednesday, you’re going to read my review of the Stash Belt, and it won’t be about security or emergency cash or even anything that they expect their customers to write about. It’s going to be about how my StashBelt helped me feel very happy about myself, make another person’s day, and in general contributed to an Abundance Mindset.
If that’s the economic model of the digital age – at least this particular corner of it – I’m ok with that.
Tired is OK
The last week has been a busy one – two open-space conferences facilitated in two different cities, two interviews for podcasts I produce and one where I was the person being interviewed, all the regular client work plus some emotional situations in personal relationships. At the end, though, everything ended up in a satisfactory place, and on the day I was supposed to fly home from Rochester my host noticed that I looked a little worn out.
“You ok?” she asked.
“Oh, I’m just operating on momentum right now.” We were on our way to a social gathering with the board members of her local community group – not something we really had the energy for, but protocol and politeness dictated that we pay our respects.
“Yeah, you look pretty tired,” she agreed. “Is there anything I can do to help that? Caffeine? Food?”
I smiled and said “Nope. I’m ok being tired. I’ve earned it.”
The Fight Against Fatigue
I had. It’s funny that we will often talk about how good “the burn” is from exercise, or use one of the many repetition-to-failure regimens, but don’t tend to look at it from the bigger-picture perspective.
Remember that muscles don’t grow during a workout, only during rest periods following exercise. If you don’t allow your body to recover, you won’t see the benefits of your workouts. – ACE Fitness
Why don’t we allow the same type of philosophy to apply to the rest of our lives? Instead we have things like Red Bull Gives Us Wings! and articles like ”How to survive the workday when youre completely exhausted.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with that kind of pick-me-up now and again. The problem is when you (and by “you” I of course mean “me”) see these as long-term strategies instead of emergency measures.
My own achilles heel is in the realm of sleep: I tend to minimize the effects of very little sleep, even though I know better. I want to think that I can be fine with six hours of sleep; I wish I could go down to four; I’ve even played around with the idea of doing a polyphasic sleep schedule due in large part to the writings of Nancy Kress.
Luckily for my partner Natasha, I have done enough research to see that there is far more promise in the idea of improving my sleep than there is in the idea of doing without it. Kind of like diet: if you’re eating bad food, the solution is not to eat no food, it’s to eat better.
Life is tiring; it requires energy, and it uses up energy, and if you find yourself nodding off or longing for your bed, instead of fighting the urge, listen to what your body – and your life – are telling you. Maybe it’s Hey, good workout! on a macro scale. Or maybe it’s Hey, this really isn’t sustainable and it’s time to look at what you can change.
Me, I’m looking hard at sleep, and how I can get better at it. Supposedly there’s a lot of ways to make that work; got any suggestions?
I aim to misbehave…
I confess, I’m a sucker for marketing. I’ve taken the plunge into the world of the quantifiable self and purchased a wearable activity tracker.
After doing a lot of research, I ended up going with the Misfit Shine. The reasons for my choice, in no particular order:
- Doesn’t need regular charging – just a battery every few months.
- Elegant look.
- Multiple wearing options (wristband, necklace, or magnetic clip, or just in my pocket).
- Functions as a space-agey analog dial watch (more on that later)
- Tracks sleep as well as activity
- Tracks multiple activities
Here were the things I thought might bother me about it:
- Doesn’t play nice with other software such as Runkeeper or MyFitnessPal.
- Looked like it needed to be placed on the phone to sync (this turned out not to be the case).
- The software that it does use is a little opaque – uses a “point system” instead of actually counting steps or calories, although you can find out those metrics at the touch of a finger.
- Many reviewers complained about having trouble with the “tapping” mechanism to show time and/or switch activity tracking.
- The marketing is hipster to the point of ridiculousness.
Early Results are In!
I struggled a bit at first. Telling the time is a little different – it shows you the hour first with a bright light, and then blinks the minute past whatever the last multiple of five was (that is a lot less complex in practice than it was writing it). It also doesn’t show up too well in bright sunlight.
The way the software works is also a bit opaque – I have myself on the “pretty active” goal of 1000 points, and on days like today when I only did a Pilates workout, it says I’ve only gotten a third of the way. On the other hand, last week when I ran three miles in the morning it gave me the happy “Yay-You-Got-Your-Goal” lightshow right after…which motivated me towards being a couch potato the rest of the day. I’ve been active enough, see, the Shine tells me so!
And don’t get me started on it not being cross-compatible with other apps. You’d think in this day and age new software/hardware companies would figure out that thing about a rising tide. S’ok, I figure either they’ll figure it out or else there’ll be a hack at some point.
I did have some trouble at first with the tapping. Not to switch activities (it automatically tracks running, and none of the other available options are things I do. Misfit, add yoga, pilates, and Grandpa-ing to the list, ok?). But to just make it show the time, I had problems.
Triumph Through Perseverance
Thing is, it was user error – I was using the pad of my finger, not the tip, to do a double-tap. Now that I’ve got it figured out, it works fine. And I really, really like the fact that it’s basically an analog dial watch – no bells, whistles, or any other distractions.
I also found that it was very nicely unobtrusive – it works well on my wrist, and when I used the magnetic clip instead on my shoe that also was both functional and unnoticeable. It looks stylish (yes, I may even cave and buy the leather band for it) and it’s unusual enough to make me feel like a trendsetter (and yes, I’m quite aware that is a totally subjective feeling).
The sleep monitoring function is a real winner for me. I can wear it to bed with no problem, and it’s showing me all the fun data about my sleep cycles that I’ve been curious about. In fact, it’s showing me that I’m doing much better in terms of deep sleep. There is also an alarm function that will supposedly wake me when I’m in “light sleep”, but I tend to either wake up when my partner does or else sleep in til whenever. In short, haven’t had much use for the alarm – but it’s there.
Yeah, But Does It Do the Job?
That’s what it all comes down to, right? Does it actually motivate me to be more active?
The answer is a definite yes. Proof of concept: the last two days I’ve been taking it very easy on my knee, which has not liked the running I’ve been doing. At the same time, I need excuses to be more active just so I can make more lights come on my wrist. So I created excuses to walk to the store, and then took the long way home just so that I’d get more activity.
That, to me, is what makes this a winner. It both satisfies the stylish geek in me and also does the job of making me want to be more active. Yeah, I may complain that it doesn’t seem to count Pilates as active, yet, but really the end game is not some data point – it’s the question of “does it make me want to move.“
It does. The Misfit changes my behavior in exactly the way I want it to.
Got one? Or considering buying one? Got other questions about the quantified self? Leave a comment!
While reading the blog of the king of lifehacking, Tim Ferriss, I came across a phrase that hadn’t really registered with my conscious mind yet. I’ve been aware of the phenomenon, and of the movement, and even been a part of it here and there. This blog, really, could count as an incarnation of this particular trend. It is the “Quantified Self” movement, and it’s about “self knowledge through numbers.”
Started by Gary Wolf in 2008, the movement is not new – there are many journals where people have monitored their moods, their body functions, etc. However, it’s going through a renaissance, spurred my many factors such as the miniaturization of GPS trackers, 3D accelerometers, biometric trackers, and “always-on apps” that transmit the data to the Cloud. Once it’s there, an entire cottage industry of apps turns the data into graphs, bars, and pie charts that the QSers use to…well…play with themselves.
I mean that mostly in a positive way: they use the data to get a different perspective of some part of their lives – money, sleep, weight, food intake, whatever – and then, hopefully, use that perspective to make the changes they want in their lives. To make their lives happier.