We have so many negative voices in our head. And 99% of the time they are wrong. Maybe, like many people, your voices tell you that you haven’t been able to exercise, eat, or sleep the way you would like to for your health because you are inherently disorganized, undisciplined, or unmotivated. But, they are wrong. You are not any of those things. There are just some things getting in your way of doing what you think is best for your health. They may be emotional obstacles or logistical obstacles, but whatever they are, you can overcome them.
Realizing that made it possible for me to successfully take on healing practices like a new diet, early bedtime, daily green juices, and regular exercise that gave me my health back. Once I started to see every failure of mine as simply a challenge to overcome, instead of an unchangeable personal flaw, things really started moving. Below are the steps that I mentioned in my last blog that I apply every time I am finding it hard to take on a new habit. In fact, this applies to anything, not just health habits. Right now, in my own life, I am applying these steps to figuring out why I am having a hard time blogging every other day and what I can do about it!
Step 1. Observation: Choose a specific healing habit or health-related task that you are having trouble working into your day (e.g.: an earlier bedtime, daily exercise, healthier meals or weekly research sessions into new treatments.) Observe the situation with an objective, non-judgmental, inquiring mind and notice what logistical obstacles are getting in the way of doing it.
Step 2. Analysis: Take a close look at how and why those obstacles are preventing you from creating better habits.
Step 3. Strategize: Study your routines and habits to see what could be re-ordered to support the change you are trying to make. Think creatively. Use some of the organizing ideas in this chapter or from other sources. Remember to look for ways to use support from others, when possible and useful.
Step 4. Change: Implement the systems and organizational changes that were identified through strategizing. This often requires significant trial and error and re-calibrating to get things right.
Here is a story of how I applied those steps to shift to an early bedtime – a key step in my healing efforts!
The main symptoms of my health challenge were intense, debilitating fatigue, muscle aches and weakness. Every health care provider with whom I consulted said that getting enough good quality sleep was an absolute necessity if I wanted to begin to feel better. Let me be clear – It was very possible for me to get great sleep for days on end and still feel completely sick, exhausted and ache-y. Getting sleep wasn’t going to reduce my symptoms much in the short term. But, my body had a lot of healing to do and, even if it didn’t make me feel better immediately, getting enough sleep was one of the main elements needed to support my immune system and give whatever treatment I tried the best chance to work. I had also found that the only way to consistently fit exercise into my day was to get it done first thing in the morning, before my sons needed my attention. So, getting to bed early was a twofer – I would get more sleep and be able to get up to exercise, which, depending on my symptoms, sometimes just meant walking around the block with rest stops.) A double bang for my buck – it sounded like an easy fix!
However, even though I intended to be in bed by 9:30pm, I never seemed to get there until 11pm or much, much later. So, I wasn’t sleeping enough or fitting in my exercise. That meant that I was extra tired and cranky all day, and felt bad about myself for not moving ahead in my healing goals. In short, getting to bed late was having a real negative impact on me. But, no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get to bed earlier more than a couple of times per week. It was very frustrating. Finally, I took a step back to try to improve the situation and applied the four steps outlined above:
My first step was to look at what was happening and try to make a non-judgmental determination of what was getting in the way of an earlier bedtime. A typical night went like this: I would read, chat and cuddle with our two sons at their bedtime at 8:30pm. Then, one of two things would happen. In scenario one I would pass out with my sons and sleep until 9:30 or 10pm. Then, I would wake up refreshed from my nap and not be able to fall asleep again until midnight or 1am. (I am like a toddler in this regard. If I nap too late in the day, it’s a bear to get me to sleep at bedtime.) In scenario two, I would manage to stay awake while putting the boys to sleep, but when I struggled out of their room at 9pm, I was so tired that I just couldn’t face the kitchen-cleaning, email-answering, and lunch-packing that needed to be done before I went to sleep. So, instead of getting it all done quickly and hopping in bed, I would think to myself, “I’ll just rest a bit with some reading, tv watching, or internet surfing, then I’ll do all that and get to bed.” Whoops! Before I knew it, it would be 10pm and I wanted to do all that work even less. Finally, I would bring myself to do it all (very slowly and lethargically) and fall into bed between 11pm and 1am.
Next, I identified exactly what logistical obstacles were getting in the way of going to bed. (I address the emotional obstacles to getting good sleep in the section on Emotions and talk a bit about insomnia in the section on Sleep, Diet and Exercise.) In this case, the main things tripping me up seemed to be all the tasks I had to do before bedtime. The fact was that, by 9pm, I was just too tired to do those things efficiently. So, I always put them off and stayed up too late, making it even worse. I decided that I needed to figure out a way to take those items off my plate at that hour so that I could be ready to go to bed immediately after my sons went to sleep.
After I identified what was causing the bedtime bottleneck I needed to figure out how to move those to-do items off my plate at 9pm. First, I made a commitment to myself that I was not going to open my email account after 8:30pm. If I got to sleep on time, I could get up earlier and take 15 minutes to check email in the morning, when I was fresher and able to move through my inbox more decisively.
Second, I looked at the lunch-making situation. It involved packing two snacks and a lunch for two hungry boys, who are both gluten-sensitive. So, sandwiches were not on the menu. It was quite a bit of food prep. The truth is that David had offered to take over lunch-making duty and I had not taken him up on it because I didn’t think his lunch choices were healthy enough. So, I did two things to enable me to hand over the lunch-making to David. I gave him a list of suggested meals and snacks; and then I did a few check-ins with friends (See chapter on Emotions for more on this.) to let go of my fears about my children’s health. I decided to trust that David would make decent lunches and that, even if they weren’t as healthful as mine, my kids would be better off with a healthy mother than two more grams of fiber in their lunchbox.
The last item I had to knock off my evening list was the dinner clean-up. We eat a home-cooked meal in our house almost every night. So, clean-up was pretty significant. David took care of dinner and clean-up three nights a week, but Monday through Thursday, when he was often out teaching in the evenings, I was on my own. When I was at my sickest, for a few years we had a college student living with us, who was responsible for the dinner dishes. At the point I am describing now, a few treatments I was doing had gotten me functioning well enough to handle the evening routine, but not too much more.
So, I did a handful of things to fix the system and get the dishes out of the way earlier. First, I made an effort to have dinner earlier so that there was more time for clean-up before bedtime. Second, I began focusing more on cleaning up as I cooked, which did not come naturally to me. That way there was less mess after dinner. Third, I instituted a new rule that my sons would stay in the kitchen and spend 15 minutes cleaning up immediately after dinner. Even though they were only five and seven at the time, having them put all their own dishes in the dishwasher, put away all the condiments and drinks in the fridge, and wipe down the table made a big difference (when they actually did it.) Fourth, I committed to staying in the kitchen immediately after dinner until I had finished all the clean-up. That way it was usually done by 7:30 or 8pm, instead of being left to 9pm.
Next I had to implement all those changes and see if I could get in bed on time. This step usually takes several tries and often requires going back through the previous few steps a couple more times to fine-tune the new systems. For example, letting go of night-time email and handing over the lunch-making to David were fairly simple. But, I had a much harder time sticking to my commitment to get the kitchen straightened up earlier.
It took me a while to realize that part of the reason that I was leaving the kitchen such a mess after making dinner every night was because I was always multi-tasking – checking email, talking on the phone, helping kids with their homework and more – while I was cooking, which made it difficult for me to clean up as I went along. Some of that multi-tasking was unavoidable, but I realized that I was doing a chunk of it because I felt that cooking was unimportant and didn’t deserve my undivided attention. I decided to make an effort to acknowledge how important cooking good-tasting, healthy food for my family and myself was, and to make it more pleasant so that I could focus on it better. Once I shifted my attitude and started playing good music while I cooked, it all became more pleasant and supported a more centered, clean-up-as-you-go cooking style. I cut down on the unnecessary multi-tasking, and the kitchen began to look less like a demolition zone after I finished cooking – most of the time.
Even after I had fine-tuned all of that, of course, there were still nights that all the systems in the world couldn’t get me to bed before 11pm. But, the difference was that I did eventually shift myself so that most nights I was in bed by 9:30pm and up by 6am. And, I stopped beating myself up when I strayed off the path because I knew that I was doing the best I could. This was a small victory, but a big step for me on my path to full health!