Thursday, June 30, 2011

How To Stop Procrastinating

I’ve never come across a single study showing that procrastination has benefits. But even thought it’s bad for us, we’ve all been guilty of it from time to time. "I don't feel like it today.  I'll do it this weekend,” we say. Then it becomes next weekend, and so on, until whatever it was slips away from consciousness altogether.

Procrastination is a choice you make, and it’s absolutely under your control. You make this choice for several reasons: aversion to the task you need to perform, preference for doing something else, and yes, sometimes plain laziness. The negative impact it has on your life depends on the degree to which you allow it.

When we allow our children to procrastinate, they may squander their true potential because they will almost certainly not do well in school. Poor study habits and inadequately done homework (if it’s done at all) will set the stage for a loss of confidence and a potentially lackluster future.

When homeowners procrastinate too much, they pay the price. I like watching home improvement shows, and there are several that teach homeowners what needs to be done before they can expect to sell their house. I am not talking about the "staging" aspect or the extra cleaning we all do when company comes - I am talking about the need to fix the evidence of poor maintenance habits such as water leaks, peeling paint and missing tiles. These homeowners were obviously content to live in a state of disrepair rather than calling the plumber or applying some elbow grease  - until it was time to sell.  Then they came to regret putting it all off for so long.

Procrastination affects us at work as well.  The hastily written report just before the deadline probably won’t contain the well thought-out new ideas that will impress the boss. Procrastinators spend too much time getting themselves out of hot water, and end up dealing with (completely unnecessary) stress and anxiety.

If you are tired of being stressed or embarrassed because you wait too long to get started, or to finish, important tasks, the answer may be to become more prevention focused.  This is a term psychologists use to describe what happens when you think about your goals in terms of what you might lose if you don’t succeed. Prevention-focused people believe that even with "the best laid plans of mice and men,” something may go wrong, and usually does.

For example, imagine you are working on a project, and you estimate it will take a certain amount of time.  To get into a prevention focus, you would then think about all the bad things that would happen if you couldn’t complete the project.  Yikes.  Immediately, your mind switches into a mode where you need to stop that from happening.  You realize that the project could take even longer than expected – what if there’s a delay in getting the parts?  What if someone gets sick?  What if the weather is bad, or if you get called away by a family emergency?  Suddenly, you feel the urge to get going, don’t you?

Study after study shows that when people think about their goals in terms of what would happen if things go wrong, they procrastinate less.  They feel a sense of urgency, and they are far more likely to get the job done.  If you are talking to your children and want to discourage procrastination, try focusing them on the consequences of failure they’ll want to avoid, rather than the benefits of success.  I know that, like so much of the advice I give, this doesn’t sound like much fun.  But it is really effective.

Good luck with your goal!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Why Parents Should Avoid Food Rewards, and What To Do Instead

I can't think of a single culture in which food hasn't been used as a way to comfort, console and reward. (I can, however, think of a few where food is more or less synonymous with comfort and love).  But we now know that there can be unhealthy, unintended consequences, both mental and physical, when we seek solace from what we eat.

People who eat for comfort or reward tend to gain too much weight, and often end up retreating from other activities and life experiences more than they otherwise would. Sadly, you see this same behavior in our overweight children as well. They self-consciously shy away from participating in sports and other outdoor activities with their peers, and are robbed of so many of the usual pleasures of childhood.

Good parental guidance is key in stopping this growing trend.  And we can do even more for our kids than serve healthy food in healthy portions.  We can chip away at the deceptive association between happiness and food, if we stop rewarding our kids with edible treats and give them something much, much better instead: our attention.

Decades of research on human happiness suggest that people have three fundamental needs:  autonomy, competence, and relatedness.  In other words, people derive lasting happiness and well-being when they do things that interest them, master skills and challenges, and feel close to others.  The great thing about rewarding and comforting your children with your attention, rather than food, is that you are giving them a chance to fulfill all three of their needs.

Treat them to a favorite game or read to them from a book they love. All children like making things with their hands, from coloring books to play dough, and they like it more when you join in.  Teach them a new craft if you are lucky enough to be good at one, or learn together from a magazine. You might take them for a walk in the park or to the playground.  The important thing is that they enjoy themselves and the reward you both have chosen.

As our children grow and mature, their favorite things will grow with them.  With your help, they will have learned to find their happiness and comfort in the right places – the places where their deepest needs will be met.

Good luck with your goal!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Getting Comfortable With “I Don’t Know”

When I’m talking to my five year-old daughter, she stops me here and there to explain the meaning of a word she is unfamiliar with.  I’m very happy that she does that.  (Sometimes she even challenges my explanation.  “A spatula looks like a big flat spoon, and you use it for flipping food in the pan, “ I say.  “Or maybe,” she counters, “it looks like….” followed by some fantastic color scheme and shape combinations, impossible to imagine.   The “big flat spoon” was way too boring.  We think it’s cute, but we don’t know were this is going.)

My nephew had a very different attitude when he was her age. “I already know that!” was his answer to everything we thought might need explaining. (When he told his grandfather that he already knew how to play chess, he was smart enough to sneak away while Grandpa set up the game.)

The desire to appear knowledgeable about whatever comes up in conversation is something most of us succumbed to when we were young. (I was actually much more like my nephew than my daughter.) Unfortunately, the fear of exposing our ignorance on any subject has followed many of us into adulthood. Certain topics, like knowledge of art, poetry, world history, and fine wine, leave us nervously wondering how much do I need to know about this to not look stupid?

The truth, of course, is that not being able to tell a Chardonnay from a Zinfandel isn’t about intelligence – it’s about interest.   If you don’t care about wine, then why should you know all about it?  Why should other people decide where your interests lie?

As a grad student and as a professor, I’ve found myself among some very smart people.  Scary smart. And I can tell you with certainty that nobody knows everything about everything. Actually, the opposite is often true. The more focused and devoted to a subject or profession someone is, the less likely she is to care and know about other things.

So if you’ve felt self conscious about your occasional ignorance in the past, it’s time to let yourself off the hook, and get comfortable with what you don’t know. Personally, I have always been drawn to people who find it easy to say, “I don’t know.” They seem more genuine, more comfortable with themselves, and I trust and admire them more.  Don’t we all?

Pursue your interests (I am all for education), and practice saying “I don’t know” when it comes to everything else.   Together, they are a recipe for being truly happy in your own skin.

Good luck with your goal!

Monday, June 20, 2011

How To Finish What You Start

Some of you may find this hard to believe, but there are many among us who never bring a project or chore to its final conclusion.  I call them the 80%-ers, because on average, that’s how far their efforts take them.  Almost finished, but not quite.

I know a young couple who own a gift/consignment shop, which offers one-of-a-kind art pieces from the “young and starving” artist community.  Among their suppliers is a middle-aged gentleman whom they have dubbed  “the magic carpenter.” He creates very elaborate dollhouses, birdcages and jewelry boxes that have been a favorite with the customers. The problem with most of these beautiful works of art is that they fall apart when handled, even in the most gentle way.

Just sitting on the store shelf they often “magically” collapse. The story goes that initially, the owners returned all the items that didn’t pass a gentle shaking test, with a very clear message:  More glue and nails, or don’t bother.

Assurances were given (“It won’t happen again,” etc.) Yet the “magic” continued at pretty much the same rate. This young couple, having exceptional patience, tried a few more times to convince the artist to completely finish his pieces before bringing them to the store. Nothing changed.   Liking him, and loving his creations, they now store tiny little nails and wood glue in the back room.

There is no known cure for this type of individual if they don’t want to be cured. I know, because I would have used it in my house years ago. My husband is also an 80%-er. Taking out the garbage, weeding, washing the dishes – I can’t think of a single chore that is ever really completed. For a woman who feels compelled to unpack everything from her suitcase and bags immediately upon arriving anywhere, living happily with a man like this is an act of sheer will.

So we can’t change anyone else if they don’t want to be changed, but if you are an 80%-er and want to defect to the 100%-er Team, science can help you.  It turns out that we become far less motivated when we think about how far we’ve come, rather than focusing on how far we have left to go.  This is what 80%-ers do – they say to themselves, “I got most of it finished.  Good for me. I deserve a break.”  In so doing, they end up feeling too satisfied with a job partly-done, and slack off. 

When you are doing any project at work or at home, don’t allow thoughts like “Look how far I’ve come.” Doing so will just take the wind out your sails before you finish! Instead tell yourself “I still have this much left to do, so I better get going!” This is the inner dialogue that makes the 100%-ers who they are. And while it isn’t necessarily fun to focus on how far you have left to go, it’s the surest way to end up getting there.

Good luck with your goal!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Occasionally Embarrassed By Those Close To You?

Well, you can teach your young children to behave in a manner that won’t embarrass you in public, but that is were your power over others ends. You can only request (very tactfully) that your partner, sister, brother, or friend, refrain from doing whatever it is that upsets you.  Some may comply, but odds are there will be times when you’ll be embarrassed by what someone does, says, or wears.

So many relationships have been built on the (false) belief that one person will be able to change the other’s bad habits, once there is a real commitment in place. And initially, when we see with the eyes of love, there is greater tolerance.  Traits get overlooked that may eventually cause friction.  

You really can’t change anyone else.  This is important to understand and accept. You may be able to influence them here and there, but real change is a very personal process within each of us, and you can’t force it from the outside.  So if the answer isn’t change them, it has to be change you. Specifically, change your thinking.  And start by asking yourself: Why should I feel embarrassed or judged by someone else’s words or actions?

My grandmother, who is all of 4’11’ and weighs less than 100 lbs, is the most peaceful, gentle soul you could ever meet. When she and Grandpa got married, she moved into his parental home, where his family had lived forever. Having grown up in the neighborhood, Grandpa knew everybody, and made it his business to know theirs. He fought with his neighbors often and passionately when (in his mind) their actions threatened the welfare of the community (i.e., real estate values).

My mother, his daughter, lived in a state of chronic mortification.  He would frequently  burst out of the house, waving his arms and threatening police and jail time, because the children’s ball game had drifted too close to his car, or because they were too loud. One day, after menacing the children over a harmless snowball fight, Mom ran crying up the stairs to complain to Grandma.  It wasn’t the first time. “How could you marry a man like that?” she asked accusingly. “Aren’t you embarrassed to step outside?  Don’t you care what people think of us?”

“No,” said Grandma, smiling a little. “I believe they think of me as ‘Oh, that poor woman.’  They have always been very kind to me, since the day I moved into this house.”

Grandma refused to identify with, or take responsibility for, her husband’s actions. . She knew she couldn’t change Grandpa, and that no one actually expected her too.  That part is really important – so often we believe that our friends and loved ones are a “reflection” on us, when that is rarely true.  

So the next time you feel uncomfortable because someone is acting the fool, remind yourself that it’s not about me, it’s about them.  Relax, don’t make a scene, and try to take your thoughts in different direction.  It may help to have a specific plan of action:  If he embarrasses me in the future, then I will ­­­­­_________.  Make it something you know will be comfortable for you and help you handle it with class. 

Remember my Grandma, and don’t own anyone else’s bad behavior.

Good luck with your goal!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Is It Generosity, Or Something Less Attractive?

Generosity with an ulterior motive looks something like this:

When my older brother (I was 9 years younger) was around twenty, his primary interests were sports, food and girls in that order. For quite a long time, one particular young lady used to come to our house laden with casseroles and enough Tupperware to require her to make two trips to the car. In the TV room, she would stuff her Pasha (my brother) with volumes of tasty morsels while he reclined on his comfy sofa and watched his favorite team or action movie.

All the while he was dating lots of other girls. My parents, thinking this was not fair to the “food lady,” voiced their concerns. They were assured by my brother that he and she were just friends, and that she was well aware that he was seeing other young women. It was not long after that when the Pasha was awakened from his delusion.

One evening when he was home entertaining a real date, the food lady - heavily burdened under freshly cooked and baked dishes for her “we’re just friends” guy - arrived slightly winded but smiling at the front door. It was my misfortune to have responded to the doorbell. Then there was quite a bit of screeching and yelling before she finally slammed the door on her way out, her dignity in tatters.

This is an obvious case of giving more than is appropriate to get something in return. We all know that there are even more extreme cases when outrageously expensive gifts have been given to impress or buy love. If you are still in denial about the hurt this behavior actually brings, this post won’t help you.

But if you have experienced some ambivalence about your gift-giving in the past, this post is for you.  On some level, you already know that too generous a gift will make most people uncomfortable. I remember once at mother’s birthday party some years ago, my previously mentioned brother brought a new girlfriend, carrying a birthday gift, to introduce to my mom. Instead of a handful of flowers or a box of chocolates (which would have been thoughtful and appropriate), the gift was way too expensive and seriously embarrassed my mom (who recovered quickly enough to give a hug and a gracious thank you, while feeling awful about it just the same.)

If you think you are guilty of being overly-generous, it’s helpful to start by being clear about what true generosity is: it is giving to make someone else happy. Period. If you are honest with yourself and find another reason, such as wanting to be liked or to gain some advantage, you’re not being generous, and you are doing yourself a great disservice. You are essentially telling yourself that you’re not likeable enough just as you are, and the receiver instinctively knows this as well.

So, to avoid feeling like the perennial fool, who always tips too much and buys inappropriately expensive presents, inform yourself by asking family and friends, and even neighbors, what they give in certain circumstances. When your child needs a present for another child’s birthday, check with other mothers you trust.  And do what they do.

If you have friends with an income substantially above yours and you have the custom of exchanging gifts, never go beyond your budget, and it is their job to make sure their gift never exceeds the value of yours. True friends don’t engage in showing off. If they do, say something about how it makes you feel.

So, stick with the “norm” when it comes to gift-giving, and let people like you for who you are, not what you give them.

Good luck with your goal!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Too Impulsive in Relationships?

Has any one ever driven you away because they called too frequently and left messages everywhere like pigeon droppings? How about the girl/guy who is always “accidentally” running into you? Do you find these things romantic, or do you feel stalked and grossed out?

You know it’s icky when it happens to you - but have you ever, acting on impulse, done something similar?

Are you currently with someone, or were you in the past, who’s e-mail you read when it was left unattended? Do you check up on him/her via Facebook? And of course there is the wallet or purse, object of snooping temptation through the ages. He or she is taking a shower, so it’s safe to look - do you?

I don’t think that there isn’t anyone alive who hasn’t committed an impulsive act when in love, and hasn’t regretted it later. We know instinctively that it demeans us, and if repeated often will do great damage to our self-image and esteem. We make ourselves pathetic in the eyes of the one person we want to impress.

We know (and they know) the truth, which is that people who feel secure and confident within themselves don’t chase after anyone or spy on them. We know that real liking, loving and faithfulness happen organically and in their own time, and that we should trust that process.

When I was 12 years old I liked a boy in school a little more than he evidently liked me. My mom noticed that I was making quite a few calls to his house, and I felt humiliated when she caught me doing it. I remember hating the anxious feelings that made me pick up the phone again and again. After the inevitable mom-talk, she gave me what was probably the best advice she ever gave me (I have a very generous amount to choose from here! Sorry Mom!)

She said, “The next time you feel you have to pick up the phone, call me instead, no explanations necessary.”  I gave it a try. From my own phone in my room, I remember calling downstairs - probably only a few times. The agitation I felt that made me pick up the phone in the first place was getting weaker and passed more quickly. Soon I just switched my attention to something else all by myself. It was over.

If you have repeatedly acted on an impulse in love, and promised yourself afterwards that you will never ever do it again, know that for most people that almost never works. On the bright side, you have come to Step 1: Realizing You Need To Stop, and that is big.

All you need now is to complete Step 2: Deciding Which ACTION You Will Take Instead.  Going back to 12-year old Heidi, the action I took instead was calling mom.
There is a lot of scientific evidence suggesting that replacing bad habits with good ones  is the most successful way to change impulsive behavior.

So, if calling and leaving too many messages is your impulse problem, call a good friend instead.  For running “accidentally” into someone, decide in advance where you will go, or what you will do to occupy yourself instead. When his/her e-mail, Facebook account, or wallet are tempting you, decide in advance that you will turn and walk away, and say to yourself proudly, “This is not who I am!”

You will find that these temptations and impulses will lessen more and more, and your self-esteem will noticeably grow. Eventually, you’ll feel like you’re just not “that” kind of person anymore, you’ll be free!

Good luck with your goal!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Take Control Of Your Closet (or Wherever Your Clutter Lurks)

An old friend of my childhood days is hands down one of the sharpest dressers I’ve ever known, and yet has always had the tiniest closet.  Her secret lies in keeping her look simple, so she doesn’t need that many pieces: clean lines, no frills, no prints and never wearing more than two colors at the same time. (Even in middle school! Style and neatness right out of the cradle.)

I wasn’t born with that fortunate trait. I liked clothes, and like most of my friends, the more choices I had the better. I wasn’t messy, but things were packed together a little too tightly. (My biggest problem was where to stuff the many sweaters that seemed to arrive at Christmas by the carload.  You know the ones I’m talking about.)

Many, many years later, I finally lived in a home with something I had always dreamed of, something that would (I thought) solve my closet problem – a walk-in closet.  I really can’t describe how exciting it was for me.  I could finally unpack every single item of clothing in my possession!  I would actually see everything I owned!

My new, big closet was jam-packed in no time. Ouch!

It’s not that I’m a shopaholic -  I just never threw anything away unless it was permanently stained or had a hole in it.   And sometimes, not even then.  When it came to clothes, I had the pack rat problem.  Some of the stuff was ancient. Having a sentimental soul, I had a reason (so I thought then) for hanging onto all of it: gifts from my parents and friends, something worn on a special occasion, etc.  

In no time at all, the state of my closet and drawers were depressing me.  But between the needs of an energetic toddler and my job, I simply had no time or motivation to tackle a challenge that big. Every day, looking for something to wear was like wrestling with a monster, and everything came out wrinkled and shabby-looking.

Then something happened when I was pregnant with my second child. I was opening the box containing my old maternity clothes and as I put them into the washer, I wondered WHERE IN THE WORLD I was going to put them when I was done. I felt a sudden rage (probably hormonal) and attacked my closet.

I threw all the old sweaters on the floor, and then went after the things I have owned since high school (for real).  That was a start. The next day, feeling more rational and very good about the little bit of space I had made, I vowed to continue - but with a smarter process. I made a rule: for every maternity outfit or new piece of clothing I would hang ready to wear, I would choose three items to give away or throw away. After a while, I changed it to a 2-to-1 rule, and now that my closet is more sane, it’s 1-to-1.

These days, I can choose at a glance what I want to wear, and the ironed tops and dresses stay that way.  I no longer buy something new for an event simply because I don’t actually know what I have – I can see it all.   If your closet (or your desk, or your garage, or your attic) is overwhelming you, try tackling it a little at a time, using a rule like 3-1 or 2-1.  Improvement will be slow, but it will happen – and you’ll be amazed by how good it makes you feel.

Good luck with your goal!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Power of a Checklist

Don’t worry, this is not another post about grocery lists.  This is about checklists – lists of actions you will take in order to do something new, hard, or complicated.  I am a strong believer that using checklists on certain occasions can make them go much more smoothly.

I made my first checklist in middle school, after my Mom caught me frantically
calling classmates to remind me of what our homework was. She told me then, “Never leave a class again without writing down what your assignments are and what you’ll need to do.” The list maker in me was born.

I trust nothing important or complicated to memory, and neither does anyone else in my family. (Maybe we are very conscientious, or maybe we all just have a lousy memory.  Take your pick.) For example, when I was in middle school my mom made a career shift from working for a family medicine practice to working for a single OB/GYN physician. It was obvious to all of us that she was stressed out – she spent most of her evenings going over notes and books. The in-office procedures at her new job were much more complicated, all were new to her, and there were many more of them.

We can all relate to the discomfort she felt at her new job  - it took a while before she knew where to find everything she needed and was accustomed to her new surroundings. To make a long story short, she tackled the problem by making notecards - she wrote down each step for each procedure, including where the required instruments and medications were stored, and where to stand for best assisting position. With her “recipe” box of checklists by her side, Mom relaxed and started to love her new job. All new  employees were subsequently trained from the box, and she was asked to leave it when she changed jobs again years later.

Most of us associate checklists with airline pilots and wedding planners, but I use checklists  around the house that I would never want to be without.  For instance, when my house became the place for the family Thanksgiving celebration, I took on the responsibilities of cooking most of the meal.  We are serious about our family traditions and all look forward to having our favorite things, cooked exactly the same way, each year.

In my recipe book, I have a checklist for all the holiday menus, from breakfast to dessert.  It includes what gets prepared the day before, when the turkey comes out of the freezer, when things go in or on top of the oven on Thanksgiving Day, at what temperature, and for how long.  I know that might sound ridiculously organized, but the truth is, it makes the whole thing easy and stress-free. (And it’s particularly helpful if you have family that likes to chat in the kitchen while you are trying to concentrate.)  I recommend checklists not only for new hosts and hostesses, but also for the established ones who’d like to give their nerves a break.

Checklists are really essential when you find you are intimidated by learning something new. A couple of years ago, one of my best friends gave her grandmother a computer while visiting her. She wanted to be able to send her daily messages and send pictures of her newborn baby’s progress. Grandma had never even touched a computer before and was reluctant to try, but with some lessons from her granddaughter and a checklist detailing each step from start to finish, she gets her daily updates without a hitch.

Think of the many ways a checklist could ease some things in your life:  packing for travel, new job routines, mastering new skills (Mom has one for putting air in her tires, which she recently learned to do), getting things ready during busy holiday times.  Anything complicated or unfamiliar can be made simple with this amazing tool.

Good luck with your goal!