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Two Years Without Coffee: How to Resist Temptation

Self-motivation examples

A little over a year ago I posted “Going a Year Without Coffee,” in which I talk about how my physiology seems to encounter a lot more trouble with caffeine than most people even though I really enjoy coffee. So while I had largely steered away from coffee for some time, it wasn’t until two years ago that I stopped drinking it at all (and stopped having chocolate, tea, and other sources of caffeine along with it).

And while I’m sure I’ll have coffee again from time to time in the future, last week marked two years without, and I thought it might be worth sharing the tactics I use to steer clear, because they’re the same kind of tactics a person can use to avoid other kinds of temptation.

Changing What We Desire
The ideal thing would be to simply not want whatever it is we’re trying to avoid. Surprisingly, this turns out to be a practical approach. Many of us are used to thinking of our desires as being out of our control, that if we’re being drawn to some french fries or to someone who’s a bad influence or to an irresponsible drink, we have the choice of fighting or giving in (or often, both). Yet there’s a different, much more powerful choice available to us: using thinking to redirect our desires.

The Wrong Kind of Attention
When I start thinking about having a cup of coffee, I’m generally thinking about one of two things: how enjoyable the coffee itself is or how I would like to feel more energy. In both cases, my conscious mental processes are directed toward things that will make the idea of having coffee more appealing. On reflection, it seems obvious that if I’m thinking about how much I like the taste of coffee or how energetic I might feel if I had some that I’d be much more likely to actually have some.

It’s easy to imagine that everything we know about a choice feeds into how we make that choice, but in reality, the things we consciously focus on play a much bigger role than everything else, which is one reason we might know exactly the same things from one day to the next but choose to work hard or eat smart the first day yet procrastinate or eat junk the second.

Thinking That Makes Good Choices More Appealing
So my usual habit when I start thinking about a cup of coffee is to jot down a few thoughts about what will happen if I do have some. One of the first things I usually think of is the grinding, day-long headache I’ll get sooner or later from the caffeine. While this isn’t my body’s only negative reaction to the stuff, and while it’s always delayed at least a couple of days, it’s a miserable time.

Not surprisingly, the more I think “coffee=terrible, day-long headache,” the less appealing that cup of coffee gets. This effect builds as I remember that while coffee gives me energy, it also makes it easier to feel jumpy or anxious. Having energy isn’t much good if I’m not in a good enough mood to use it well. As I carefully think over what the real results of my actions will be, the temptation looks progressively more shabby and unappealing.

Having a Little Time Makes All the Difference
The problem with this approach is that it takes time and attention. However, it doesn’t take a lot of time and attention, and if we have enough time and attention to be tempted by something, we probably have enough time and attention to reflect on what will happen if we let ourselves be sucked in by that temptation. It only takes a few minutes, and while it works best if you can write or talk about the things that will make you less attracted to that choice, even just careful thought can bring you there. The worst thing is to be tied up so thoroughly with something else that it’s difficult or unworkable to focus on good choices for a few minutes instead, although planning can help get us through these times (see “How Preparation Enables Stronger Willpower“).

Ultimately, not making a bad choice is easiest if we help ourselves dislike that choice. Focusing on the reasons the choice is bad in the first place help change our perspective so that we stop wanting things we don’t really want for more than momentary pleasure (see “The difference between pleasure and happiness“). To put it another way, the best way to resist temptation is to let ourselves be tempted instead by the things that will truly make us happy.

Photo by Beatriz AG

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Guest Post: Tricia Sullivan – Butthead and Butthead

Guest posts

Tricia Sullivan is an American science fiction writer living in Britain. Her latest novel, Lightborn, will be published by Orbit Books UK in October 2010.  Her website is www.triciasullivan.com and she also administers the martial arts site www.morrisnoholdsbarred.com.

From Luc: The following is a post recommended by a friend last week; it does a great job of capturing the frustrations of competing priorities and competing parts of life. Having read and enjoyed it, I asked for (and received) permission to reproduce it here. You can see the original at http://triciasullivan.livejournal.com/97143.html.


One of the big frictions in my life arises from the antipathy between the damn Buttheads.  Butthead #1 is the creative bit and Butthead #2 is the bit that actually gets me by in the world.   These two posts, poles, blockheads, cannot seem to be in the same place at the same time.  They butt heads.  They’re Buttheads.  Either/both, as needed.

When Butthead #1 is in charge, I’m writing well.  There is cotton wool between me and the world.  I go glassy-eyed.  I cease to care about trivia like laundry, the bank balance, the calendar, anyone else’s problems, world affairs, or the clock.  If a thought about any of these things intrudes, I push it away, because thinking about anything real is a sign that Butthead #2 is gaining control.  Butthead #2 is always trying to steal my writing mojo so that my family can have clean socks.

Before I had a family, when in deadline mode I’d accumulate masses of laundry.  I’d eat whatever I could find, usually toast and canned soup and chocolate (of course) and I’d put everything else on hold while I wandered around in a thinking fog.  It was wonderful!

Now I’m responsible for a family of five.  Laundry, dishes, cleaning, meals, all have to be done every day without fail as an absolute minimum.  Business stuff with Steve goes on in the background constantly.  So Butthead #2 threatens to take over my life every day.  I keep her in her place in two ways.  First,  I do all the routine household work that I can on autopilot, in zombie-mode.  Second, I procrastinate.  Anything I can put off until school holidays, I put off.  Because during school holidays, I’m not going to be able to write much anyway.

When I’m writing, procrastination is my friend.  During the school year, I let Butthead #2 note down things that need doing on a list.  This list becomes the Epic List.  I save it up all year, and then in the summer I execute it.  This is quite brutal.

Butthead #1 pretty much gets executed for this time, too.  She’s shoved underground and told to be quiet.  Theoretically she is resting, but it never feels restful in my life because Butthead #2 has me running around doing the Epic List.

The interesting thing about the List is how every item on it glows with the energy of procrastination.  This year, some of the items were very minor tasks, but because I’d treated them like radioactive waste and refused to touch them while Butthead #1 was playing artiste, they began to acquire a creepy sort of power.  You know, they loomed.

And there develops an over-riding sensation that casts parenthetical arms around the whole list, an ozone smell.  It’s the humming power of procrastination.  With every act of procrastination, the List and every task on it become bigger, more difficult to surmount.  The List begins to whisper evil things.

I’ve been doing battle with this bloody list all summer.  At first I’d look at it and feel tired, faintly sick.  The items ranged from physical chores to administrivia to phone calls to big projects to shopping, and because its fields of control ranged from Steve’s business to my own to our household affairs to our kids, I felt like my entire life was somehow trapped in the power of this List.  Stuff seemed to be coming at me from all directions.

Every long-deferrred chore that I confronted provoked some kind of anxiety.  Resistance.  But then, when I started pushing through and seeing that I could get this stuff done and struck off the list, there came one zing after another: the release of trapped energy.  The list became like a video game.  Each task was another opponent, with energy crystal rewards.  Once she gets going, Butthead #2 loves this shit.  She’s been going medieval on the List all summer.  I think she’s a bit swollen with power, actually.

And that’s the problem with Butthead #2.  She doesn’t know when to stop.  I don’t like the person I become when my life centers on getting this stuff done.  I don’t like how I think or feel.  It’s all too…organized and efficient.

The writing has suffered, too.  Butthead #1 is getting bored and weepy, underground.  So, in a week, when the kids go back to school, I’ll start building a new list of stuff that I’ll refuse to do because it kills my work.

Being an artist is a lot like being a janitor.  Make a mess; clean it up; make a mess.  Procrastination is my friend in one part of this cycle, and my enemy in the other.  But the upside is that, once Butthead #1 gets back in the driver’s seat, she will be the procrastinated-upon one.  She will have the pent-up power.  Or so I hope.  Because September’s coming, and I’m getting increasingly agitated as I realize I’ve been procrastinating on my writing for several weeks now.

How about you?  What kinds of things make you procrastinate?


Some Willpower Engine articles that touch on  subjects in Tricia’s post:

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Practice versus Deliberate Practice

Strategies and goals

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell says, “Researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.”  For reference, 10,000 hours would translate into (for example) 20 hours a week for ten years.

What 10,000 hours gets you
The bar for “true expertise” here is pretty high: Gladwell and the researchers he’s referring to are talking about being not just really good at something, but world-class–a Meryl Streep, an Arnold Palmer, a Yo Yo Ma, a Marie Curie. To put this in perspective, earning my first dan black belt in Taekwondo Chung Do Kwan at a rigorous Taekwondo school took me something on the order of 600 hours of practice, a far cry from 10,000 hours. The difference between 600 hours and 10,000 hours is the difference between me and Jackie Chan.

By the way, if you’re thinking “Practice is fine, but it’s no substitute for natural talent,” I direct you to my article “Do you have enough talent to become great at it?” The value of “talent” is surprisingly limited.

Beyond just practicing
Gladwell’s point is fascinating, especially when we realize how much research supports it, but Geoffrey Colvin offers a further insight in his book Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. In that book, he gives some of the same kinds of evidence Gladwell discusses for practice, not “inborn talent,” being the key to world-class performance, but goes further to say that not all practice is created equal. After all, if it just took 10,000 hours of doing something to become truly great at it, why isn’t every accountant who’s been working full-time for at least 5 years phenomenally wonderful at accounting? The key is what Gladwell and others refer to as “deliberate practice.”

[Deliberate practice] definitely isn’t what most of us do on the job every day, which begins to explain the great mystery of the workplace–why we’re surrounded by so many people who have worked hard for decades but have never approached greatness. Deliberate practice is also not what most of us do when we think we’re practicing golf or the oboe or any of our other interests. Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance.

In other words, if you want to become great it’s not enough to show up and do what you’re supposed to, whether we’re talking about hitting golf balls, reconciling accounts, or teaching seven-year-olds. To become great, we have to push ourselves, to seek out great teachers or sources of learning, constantly create new challenges, and pay close attention to what results we get. Colvin describes deliberate practice by example: “Hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day.”

Examples of practice vs. deliberate practice
I can feel the difference when I try deliberate practice in my own life. When I’m studying Taekwondo, it’s the difference between just trying to get through a sequence of moves and pushing myself to concentrate on specific aspects of every single motion, like stance, breath control, or reaction force. For an example in writing, several years ago I joined The Daily Cabal, a group that requires me to create entirely new stories in less than 400 words, often on a weekly basis. For some of these I’ve pushed myself, practiced very deliberately–for instance, “A Is For Authority” took serious effort, concentration, and sweat–while “The Plot Against Barbie’s Life” practically wrote itself as soon as I came up with the title. (By the way, for writers who may be reading this post, as of July 27, 2010 we’re accepting applications for new Cabal members.)

Is deliberate practice always productive?
Note that deliberate practice doesn’t necessarily make a better immediate result. My short story “A Ship that Bends” was rewritten numerous times and eventually became a published finalist (but not a winner) in the Writers of the Future contest, by far the largest English language speculative fiction contest in the world. My novelette “Bottomless” (about villages on ledges deep inside a bottomless pit) won second place in the contest the following year and was another of those pieces that came out fairly easily. It’s probably worth noting that by the time I wrote those stories, I suspect I already had at least a thousand hours of writing practice.

The upshot is simply this: practice–even deliberate practice–may produce either good or lousy immediate results, but only long-term, deliberate practice produces the skills to consistently deliver great results.

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How Are Your Friends’ Habits Changing You?

Habits

One of the books I’m reading at the moment is  Tom Rath and Jim Harter’s Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, which summarizes the findings of ongoing research by Gallup over a number of years on the subject of wellbeing and happiness. In the section on social wellbeing, Rath and Harter point out an important influence on our lives that’s often ignored: our friends’ habits.

Habits of friends have a profound effect on us, often even more than habits of parents or spouses. For example, when I was much younger (and more foolish), I smoked, though not heavily. When I moved to a new town where I’d be spending time constantly with friends who didn’t smoke–and who didn’t like smoking–I stopped. I literally smoked right up until the day I moved, then quit cold turkey and never picked up the habit again.

There are some useful ideas that emerge from understanding the power of friends’ habits, ones that impact our own self-motivation and give us more tools to help people who are close to us.

1. Buddying up makes habit change easier
Working together with a friend who wants to make some of the same improvements you do helps encourage habit change in at least three ways: first, any kind of social support makes us more likely to follow through with the changes we want to make in our lives. Second, any gains our friends makes help encourage and influence our own improvements. And third, changing habits together with someone whose company is enjoyable makes the change and the new habits more attractive, which makes it easier for the new behavior to become permanent.

2. Improvements in your life can help improve your friends’ lives
If you want to help make your friends’ lives happier, more successful, healthier, or more fulfilling, one of the best possible things you can do is acquire a good habit yourself. The change in you has a good chance of being noticed and admired by your friends, and it’s possible some of them will make improvements in their own lives inspired by your example. Additionally, making a positive change in part for the benefit of friends offers you an additional, very meaningful kind of inspiration to succeed.

3. Pick your friends carefully
If you spend time with people who are stuck and unhappy with their lives or who have bad habits you don’t want to pick up, your own quality of life is more likely to worsen unless you have so much support from other parts of your life that you’re a much stronger influence on your friends than they are on you.

Simply being aware of the impact friends can have on our habits and wellbeing can help bring out problems that were hidden and offer new possibilities for making things better.

Photo provided by freeparking

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Telling Bad Advice from Good Advice

States of mind

The photographer gave free advice to strangers for 4 hours here on a particular dayEncouragement Without Information
A writer I know had joined a critique group and finished a novel. She was pretty sure that the novel wasn’t ready to send out yet, but this particular critique group was all about encouragement, and they told her she was just not feeling confident enough, that the novel was great, that any problems would be easy to fix, and that she should start querying agents about it right away. Reluctantly she did, and some of the agents were interested, and one asked for a partial (a small number of chapters–requests for partials usually mean there’s a chance the agent might be interested).

But the writer still felt that the remainder of the book was profoundly broken, and none of the friends in the critique group had any suggestions for improving the book.

“Almost immediately after I sent the partial,” she says, “I learned that most of the people who had read my novel and pushed me to submit it–whose opinions of the novel had given me the confidence to submit it at all–had never actually read what I had sent them. None of it, in some cases.” The book really wasn’t ready.

When Opinion Is Misunderstood As Fact
The same writer joined another critique group, one member of which had a published novel out and some other writing success. After getting some encouraging feedback on a particular story from some members, she got this critique from the published novelist: “You’re hiding behind your [air quotes] ‘beautiful prose’ because you don’t know how to write a decent story.”

That same story later got some very positive feedback from good markets where it almost made the cut. Another of the writer’s short stories sold recently, after a mix of critiques from people who in some cases loved and in other cases hated the piece.

I’m not suggesting that critique groups are bad, though of course they can be. Critique groups have been key in improving my writing, and in fact in practically any area of life–writing, parenting, relationships, cooking, finances–I can point to advice I’ve gotten that has been absolutely invaluable. But there were also pieces of advice or feedback that I carried around and replayed in my head for decades, only to eventually discover that they were not good advice and were leading me the wrong way.

Some Ways to Test Advice
Here are some key things to watch out for when getting advice, regardless of how kind the intention is. (And despite these examples being about writing, the ideas apply to any kind of feedback or suggestion.)

  • Does the advice feel wrong to you? If so, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is wrong, but it suggests there’s some kind of important question to resolve. Talk with someone about your gut reaction to the advice, or write journal-style about it. The result will often tell you whether 1) your reaction is the real problem that the advice is going to help you overcome, 2) there’s a legitimate difference of opinion between you and the advice-giver, or 3) the advice-giver has an issue or concern that doesn’t have much to do with you. Treasure the first kind of advice, consider the second kind, and throw away the third.
  • Is the advice specific? Generalized advice is the advice-giver theorizing about how the world works, while specific advice is likely to be more closely based on a reaction they’re having and therefore more useful as information. I wouldn’t say that all generalized advice is bad (for one thing, that would be contradicting myself), but I will say that advice like “I didn’t get into your story very much because there was a lot about dogs, and it wasn’t interesting to me” is much more useful than “Nobody wants to read a novel about dogs.” After all, I gave up on The Story of Edgar Sawtelle after 100 pages from of lack of interest, but many thousands of people loved the book.
  • Just because someone succeeded one way doesn’t mean that they know the only way for people to succeed. Stephen King says he tends to chop out about 10% of his first draft writing while editing, but many other successful writers find their later drafts expand instead. Someone who has accomplished something will often feel that they know the one way that thing has to be done, but really all that can be said confidently about successful people is that they’ve done something that worked–not that they always understand what worked, nor that their ways are the only ways to succeed.
  • Your emotional reaction to the advice does not necessarily reflect how important the advice is. If someone tells me that I dress like a clown, I might feel very distressed about it or completely unconcerned, but neither feeling would make it any more or less true than it would be otherwise. Believing that how we feel about something necessarily tells us something true about how things are is a broken idea called “emotional reasoning.” It can be the source of a lot of trouble, and is worth working through. For more information on broken ideas, follow the preceding link, or click here to see some examples.
  • Disregard anyone who pronounces that “You don’t have any talent for this.” Talent comes from deliberate practice–the research on this subject is very substantial–with little dependency on basic traits. I won’t belabor the subject here, but follow the link for more details. Most of our culture seems to buy into the false assumption that talent is mainly inborn, so even highly respectable authorities can fall into the trap of assuming that talent is the reason behind someone doing well or not in a given field.

Photo by laughlin

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A Solution to Depression?

Guest posts

Today’s guest post is from Kari Wolfe, whose blog Imperfect Clarity passes on everything she’s learning as she works toward building a writing career, interviews fascinating people, parents her daughter in ways she never expected, and forges her own habits of success.


For years, I complained of back and knee pain.

For years, I received the same advice from lots of well-meaning friends and family: go on a diet, lose weight, breast reduction surgery, walk more.

I ignored the advice.  And my muscle pain became worse.

In April 2010, I started a 12-week-long session of physical therapy.

And everything began to change.

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My assignment, should I choose to accept it…

My physical therapist gave me exercises to do, every night, six nights a week.  And I did my exercises.

Begrudgingly.

I did my exercises, focusing on the point where they would not only be done.  I stretched all the muscles that I needed to stretch, worked all the muscle groups I needed to work.

I’m still doing my exercises.

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Well, while I’m working on this, I want to do this too…

Strangely enough, (I thought at the time, anyway) once I started focusing on my physical problems, I started paying more attention to my life.

I started focusing on an idea for a business.  My writing, both fiction and non-fiction.  I started looking for motivational material, books< and blogs, to read, to get my spirits up and centered on what I wanted to do.

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Is there a solution to depression?

The solution to depression isn’t always a pill.  While medication can be helpful, it’s honestly not the “end-all, be-all” wonder cure for depression.

The downward spiral of depression can convince you there is nothing out there.  If you take a walk, you’ll just end up walking back.  If you exercise, you’ll look funny and people will laugh at you (my very own problem).  If you try to solve the problem, you’re going to fail.

Or if you have back and neck problems, what you really need is a drug to numb the pain.

I’ve been there.

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My solution, thus far.

The solution to depression can be as simple as getting up and going for a walk.  Or starting an exercise routine.  Or tackling a long-existing problem and working toward it’s solution.  It’s not so much exactly what you do, but what you focus on.

Oddly enough, I think I like exercising when I wake up in the morning.  Yep, first thing.  Just don’t tell anyone.  Please–I don’t want to ruin my reputation.

Once my heart begins to pump faster and my physical needs (shhhh…) are met, I’m ready to rest for a few minutes and then start to take on the day.

Kari Wolfe is a stay-at-home mother of a very curious three-year-old daughter who happens to be autistic. She is a writer and maintains her own blog, Imperfect Clarity where her focus is becoming the best writer (and person) she can be by living her life to the fullest 🙂

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The 5 Stages of Grief for a Parent

Guest posts

Today’s guest post is from Kari Wolfe, whose blog Imperfect Clarity passes on everything she’s learning as she works toward building a writing career, interviews fascinating people, parents her daughter in ways she never expected, and forges her own habits of success.


When you’re pregnant (or your significant other is), you spend a lot of your time thinking about the baby. You think about what he/she is going to look like. Will he/she look more like her father or her mother?

You think about what he/she will be like as a baby, how you will treat him/her. Are you going to co-sleep or have a bassinet and/or a crib? Are you going to nurse or use formula? What kind of diapers are you going to use?

I dreamt of giving my baby the type of education I wished I had. The best day cares, the best schools, the best teachers. The best programs. I wanted to give my daughter every opportunity in the world.

When you’re a mother, you can’t help but have these dreams and aspirations for your child. It’s part of your nature.

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When Natasha was 18 months old, her father, Tom, and I started to worry. She hadn’t said her first word. When she played, she played in “her own little world,” paying no attention to the kids or adults around her. She batted and flapped her hands at toys she liked. She didn’t pay any attention to us–we could call her name, but she wouldn’t usually react.

Her doctor said for us to sit back, not to worry–this could be just a normal delay in her development. Not a big deal at this age.

He had her tested for autism at 2. We patiently waited a year, going to every therapy we could think of, hoping and praying maybe she was simply developmentally delayed.

She was diagnosed as having autism at 3.

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In Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief, the original first stage is denial. In the expanded stages, the first effect is shock.

In my case, my husband and I suspected there was something different about Natasha. We had seen it when we went to the playground or visited neighbors–there was a difference in the children.

I was at Starbucks, having a cup of coffee with a behavioral therapist, when she told me that Natasha might be autistic. Here was someone else, outside of the family, who noticed something wasn’t quite right. She didn’t have the education to diagnose; what we wanted was an educated opinion.

I was calm; after all, I knew what she was going to say. Mentally, I had prepared myself; however, my heart broke into pieces.

Watching as she went over the therapies Natasha should receive to help her with her social and communication skills, I froze, a black pit in my stomach growing with every thought and every dollar amount she mentioned.

I saw my dreams for my daughter, my hopes and wishes and desires, vanish into thin air.

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When Natasha was evaluated at two-years old, the behavioral pediatrician spoke candidly about the likelihood of Natasha being autistic and the possibility of her symptoms being only a developmental delay. She gave us the option to have Natasha diagnosed as having a global developmental delay rather than autism then having her evaluated again in a year, and we took it.

I made appointments for Natasha’s occupational therapy and arranged evaluations for her to be seen by the early intervention people to be evaluated for state and federal programs for developmentally delayed and autistic children from birth to three-years of age.

She stopped going to day care because I realized the teacher-student ratio may have been great for typically developing children, but Natasha needed someone to guide her activities rather than to let her wander for herself. Not long afterward, I left school so I could focus on her.

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The second stage of Dr. Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief is anger.

It’s not fair. Why did this happen to us? Why did God allow this to happen?

I was angry at life. When I was alone, I screamed my anger out in the car with extremely loud guitars and a fast beat coming out of the speakers.  Sometimes I would rant and rave in the shower.

I was angry at myself because it was always possible that I could have done something wrong. Babies don’t come with instruction manuals–what if this was all my fault for not doing something I should have done? What if I didn’t spend enough time with her?

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Bargaining is the third stage.

While Dr. Kubler-Ross lists anger and bargaining (“I’ll do anything if ___ wasn’t so.”) as different sections, it’s very difficult in my mind to separate the two. Mentally, I bargained with everyone. I would have made a deal with the devil, had I thought it might have worked.

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The fourth stage is depression.

After I gave birth to Natasha, I suffered from post-partum depression. My OB/GYN prescribed an anti-depressant and told me to consult with my family doctor.

Due to Natasha’s developmental delay and subsequent diagnosis, my family doctor would increase that dosage twice in three years.

For me, this was a much-needed part of the solution.

Throughout my entire life, I have had problems with depression. The anti-depressant helped me have the willpower to overcome the despair and the apathy I felt when in a stage of deep depression. Six months ago, my doctor lowered the dose after I felt that I didn’t need quite as much anymore.

Of the stages of grief, I believe this is the one that can be the most harmful. You can stagnate. Depression can lead to inaction–in my case, that was the last thing I could do.

** NOTE: Please don’t think I’m advocating a particular method of dealing with or working through depression. This is what worked for me. The best way to determine what is right for you is to discuss your options with a therapist or your doctor.

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The first year of Natasha’s occupational therapy was my redemption.

Weekly, Natasha and I would go to the clinic where our therapist, L., would take us to the sensory gym. She would show Natasha how to take her shoes and socks off and we would go play on the trampoline, in the ball pit, or on the swings.

My mother tells me that teachers would talk to her during parent-teacher meetings and tell her she needed to get me to play. I didn’t play–from the time I could read, I’ve had my nose in a book.

L. taught me to play while teaching me how to help Natasha get the sensory information she craves. Not only was L. Natasha’s therapist, but she counseled me when I came to the appointments heart-broken and lost.

During this time, we saw all sorts of kids, some with autism, some with other problems, of varying ages and abilities. I watched the kids as they played and the therapists as they interacted with the kids and the other therapists. Some of the kids had problems that seemed to me much worse than Natasha’s–kids with feeding issues, sensory avoidance, physical disabilities. Watching them gave me hope.

Sometimes I talked with the parents of these kids. We would share stories and progress reports. It was nice to know I wasn’t alone.

Through this year, we played games, bounced on the trampoline, jumped or swung into the foam pit, and surfed in the ball pit.  Slowly but surely, Natasha began to progress.  She started to sign “more,” “open” and “all done.” After a year of what felt like no progress whatsoever, she started to communicate with us.

My heart began to mend.

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The final stage of grief is acceptance.

It’s been a very long, rough road, but I’m mostly there. Sure, I have my moments of sadness that Natasha is autistic–but I’m realizing more and more that being autistic isn’t the end of the world.  It felt like it in the beginning but, through listening to Natasha’s therapists and seeing Natasha making progress in things Tom and I questioned whether she would ever do, I’m learning that it’s not.

It’s still hard.  I still have problems when I talk to mothers of children who are around the same age and they tell me their child never stops talking.  They inevitably always ask if Natasha does the same thing. Part of me knows it’s just making conversation, small talk–but it doesn’t stop a little pain going through my heart.

Natasha is in hippotherapy (therapy performed while on horseback) for occupational therapy, soon to be for speech therapy, and the stimulation she receives from riding a horse has been extremely beneficial to her. In the past few months, we have seen her go from not really wanting to pay attention to saying her alphabet and drawing smiley faces to actually beginning to mimic the words her father and I are saying. She’s beginning to understand we want to communicate with her and she’s beginning to want to communicate with us as well.

And acceptance seems a perfectly natural thing after all. This is who Natasha is and neither her father nor I want her to change into something she’s not.

Kari Wolfe is a stay-at-home mother of a very curious three-year-old daughter who happens to be autistic. She is a writer and maintains her own blog, Imperfect Clarity where her focus is becoming the best writer (and person) she can be by living her life to the fullest 🙂

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My Empty E-mail Inbox, 10 Weeks Later

Habits

Ten weeks ago I posted the article “How I’m Keeping My Inbox Empty,” in which I described a new strategy I was taking to keep on top of all of my e-mail and keep my inbox completely clear. Some of the key points of my approach, which owed much to Dave Allen and his book Getting Things Done, were

  • Make a set of special-purpose folders for e-mails that need follow-up, things to read, general information to keep, etc.
  • Make tasks out of any e-mails that cause you to need to do tasks and put those tasks in a task management system
  • If you can answer or deal with an e-mail within about two minutes, handle it immediately
  • Look at everything that comes in as it comes in. Don’t put off any e-mails to consider later. If it’s going to take a while to respond, put the e-mails in your Reply/Act folder.
  • Visit your Reply/Act folder often and deal with e-mails there, oldest first.

Of course there’s more to it (see the original post), but those are some highlights.

Ten weeks after I started, do I still have an empty inbox? Actually, yes! And this pertains to both a personal e-mail setup I have and a work-related one: the system has been working in both places equally well.

And have my inboxes been empty the whole time, or have I had to redo the cleanup? Amazingly, the system has worked consistently for me so far: I’ve never had to duplicate my initial effort (which wasn’t even so difficult: I outline how to pretty rapidly establish a clean inbox in the original post) and have had a clean inbox the whole time.

Have there been any unexpected snags? Yes, one: I sometimes get in the habit of watching my inbox like a hawk but neglecting my reply/act folder, which really needs to be addressed often. In online gamer slang (from my book Talk the Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures), I’m “camping the spawn point,” looking for monsters where they appear instead of going after the ones that are already in place. But once I realized I was doing this, I began working harder at going back to that reply/act folder, and I’ve seen better results since. What’s wonderful is that even with that problem, I was being much, much more responsive to e-mails than I had ever been before.

Have you tried out this method of keeping a clean inbox? If so, I’d love to hear how it went for you in comments.

Photo by mek22

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Where Are All the Other Beginners?

States of mind

When I first started exercising seriously and consistently, in 2005, I chose to run: it was free, convenient, and uncomplicated. I had recently moved to Jacksonville, Florida, a place where you can run practically every day of the year if you avoid the afternoon deluges in summer, and I lived in a quiet neighborhood near the river. Mercifully, this being Florida, my potential routes were dead flat. So everything was lined up in my favor, but one thing did make me nervous: the lack of fat people. There I was with my 75 extra pounds (down to 14 extra now, thank you very much), and there were all the runners, who collectively looked like they ate nothing but skinless chicken breast and celery-flavored air. Why were there no out-of-shape people out there running with me? Did that mean that it wasn’t possible to do it if you were out of shape, that I was doomed to be a failure as a runner?

Before these thoughts got too far, however, math came to the rescue, a particularly handy bit of math that explains why, whenever we start something, it’s often really hard to find anyone who looks as incompetent or ill-suited as we are.

Being a Beginner Who Sucks Is Normal
Part of that effect is just the fact that, when we begin at things, we’re generally bad or not well-suited for them, since as we progress, we become better and more well-suited. Being a beginner means not looking as cool as the other kids, whether we’re talking about playing violin, studying Taekwondo, running, programming computers, or raising children.

The rest is that math we talk about. Let’s compare beginners to veterans with some made-up numbers that nonetheless show real and useful information.

Quitters
First, how many people begin something and then soon give up? It varies a lot by area, but it’s a lot. Many of our fellow beginners are vanishing after just a few half-hearted attempts.

Veterans Do More of It
How much time do beginners spend at tasks compared to veterans? It’s unlikely that a beginning violin player will be able to spend six hours a day practicing like some advanced students and professionals. A beginning runner can’t run nearly as long a time, as quickly, or as far as a veteran runner. Beginners at the dojang (Taekwondo gym) where I study have access to up to 3 classes a week, while more advanced students have their pick of 8 of them (on average, I do about 4-5 classes per week).

Beginners Vanish
And what portion of a person’s total career at something are they a rank beginner? A person might run seriously for 10 years and only be a beginner for the first 6 months, and the numbers for many other activities are similar.

The Only Beginner In the Room
So beginners who stick with the activity they’re starting might on average do 1/4 to 1/2 of the amount of that activity each week that a veteran will do (let’s say 3/8 as an estimate), and they will spend perhaps 1/20 of their career as a beginner. All of which means that for every hour of a thing a beginner does, we might reasonably guess there are 53-1/3 veterans out there doing that same thing. If you walk into a gym as a beginner and there are 20 other people in that gym, by these odds it’s unlikely that any one of those 20 people will be as out-of-shape and inexperienced as you.

Although, of course …
With all that said, those numbers are just estimates, and there are complicating factors: for instance, a whole lot more people start going to a gym than keep going to the gym, so in fact the gym numbers may not be quite so daunting as 53-1/3 to 1.

Get ready to suck!
But the upshot of all this is that beginners stick out, look bad, and are often alone doing it–but this is all just a nerd gate (a term coined by cavers, who use it to describe an obstacle that only discourages people who aren’t committed–it’s one of the terms in my book Talk the Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures). While there are sometimes ways around standing out as a beginner (for instance, taking a beginners-only class), the fact of the matter is that beginners often look silly and may tend to feel they won’t belong.

This is just a phase to push through. However awkward or difficult something is at the beginning, the only way to get really good at anything is to keep working at it (and there’s good science to support that statement!). Some runners started out skinny, and some violinists started out as four-year olds, when playing a barely-recognizable, ear-torturing rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is considered proof of utter genius, but the rest of us poor slobs will just need to suck for a while whenever we start something. And then, magically, we’ll get better and not suck, and people will look at us and say “Man, they must have always been that great at it!”

Photo by Martineric

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How to enjoy the dullest tasks

States of mind

I’ve mentioned before in posts like Some Steps for Getting into a State of Flow how even as seemingly unappealing a job as doing the dishes can be not only easier, but in fact enjoyable under the right circumstances. Here are some specific ways to enjoy drudgery:

1. Get into flow. Flow is a highly focused state when we are working hard to do something exceptionally well, using all of our attention. Getting into a flow state requires knowing what you’re doing, having minimal interruption, having a specific (and challenging) goal in mind, and having some way to judge how well you’re doing. World-class violinists, writers, programmers, physicists, tennis players, and highly accomplished people with all kinds of other specialties get into it often, but it can be done as well with very humble tasks. How quickly can the dishes be washed, or how perfectly, or with how little wasted water, or how quietly? See Some Steps for Getting into a State of Flow for more information on this.

 2. If the task doesn’t require much attention, use the opportunity to focus your attention on something you really like. This was what I did today, listening intently on headphones to songs for which I wanted to learn the words. I was literally disappointed when I ran out of dishes to wash and had to stop. Some other activities I’ve done that have made dishwashing really enjoyable have been talking with a visiting friend, singing, helping with my son’s homework, talking on the phone (using a headset phone), and even watching movies on a laptop set up behind the sink.

3. Simultaneously do something else useful. Our brains are designed to pay attention to only one thing at a time, but if the chore in question doesn’t require much attention, it’s sometimes possible to get something else done as you’re cleaning dishes or dusting. An example of multitasking while doing the laundry comes up in my post How to Multitask, and When Not To.

3. Use the time to think. If your life tends toward the hectic, with few opportunities to reflect, allowing your mind to wander onto whatever subjects most interest you as you vacuum or clean dishes can provide a welcome respite. To do this, it’s necessary to give up on any kind of resentment about doing the dishes and to point your mind in useful directions if it gets caught up in unimportant details.

4. Meditate. Meditation means narrowing our attention to a very specific thought or experience. Focusing intently on just the sensory details of washing the dishes–the feel of the water, the splashing sounds, and so on–can provide a means of meditating that can aid relaxation, alertness, and serenity, and the same can be achieved with vacuuming or any other household chore that doesn’t require any significant amount of thought to accomplish. The trick with this is to get used to focusing the mind back on only the sensory details whenever it wanders onto another subject. As with flow, this isn’t a useful strategy in high-interruption situations.

Photo by Nicholas Smale

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