Browsing the archives for the death tag.
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Finding the Perfect Attitude for Willpower: Part I

States of mind

Since I started this blog more than two and a half years ago–actually, no, since long before that–I’ve been quietly searching for the perfect state of mind, the way of thinking or being that would make willpower simple. It always struck me that people sometimes go through experiences that affect them so much that their actions are completely different from that time forward, even though all that changed was their thoughts.

I was talking to an acquaintance the other day about her father. He’s been a diabetic for decades, but he never really got into the habit of checking his blood sugar regularly. It’s hard to blame him: who wants to draw their own blood twice a day for life? A few days ago, though, he called his daughter on the phone and told her something was wrong. His speech was slurred, he couldn’t stand up, and his daughter feared he was having a stroke. She called an ambulance.

The paramedics were able to rule out a stroke, and it turned out that the problem was just that the amount of insulin her father was taking was off. He should have been testing his blood sugar so that his doctor would know if it was getting too low (in this case it was much too low–a little lower and it would have sent him into a coma) and be able to adjust things accordingly.

You might not be surprised to know that my friend’s father is now checking his insulin religiously. Poking yourself with something sharp every once in a while suddenly stops feeling like so much of a nuisance if it’s going to prevent you from collapsing on the floor and going into a coma.

What does this have to do with willpower? Well, I’ve always wondered. On the one hand, I’ve thought, maybe it’s possible to jar ourselves into that state of complete dedication to making the smart choice, over and over again, in the same way my friend’s father was jarred. On the other, maybe that only applies to really traumatic experiences.

A little more background we’ll need to make sense of this topic: I’ve never had a friendly relationship with food. I’m one of four kids, raised in a household where the food budget was sometimes very tight. The kinds of food we liked weren’t always easy to come by, so if something was served that we considered especially good, we’d scarf down our first portion to get seconds before it was all gone. In this and other ways, we all learned some bad ways of dealing with and thinking about food, and for me this has been an issue into adulthood. I was unhappily overweight for years, gradually gaining mass, until about seven years ago, when I finally understood about exercise. I’d always thought it was something that you tried to put up with: I had never realized that exercise could be something you crave, and yet regular exercise made that transformation for me, and with that change along with some hard work to eat better, I eventually lost more than 60 pounds.

Over the past six months or a year, though, I hadn’t been bothering as much about fitness, having family matters to deal with that were a more important place to put my time and attention, and recently I realized I had started putting weight back on. The idea was very unappealing to me, as you can probably imagine, and I focused on the problem to piece together what I knew about willpower so that I could find a state of mind where I didn’t just eat well, but craved eating well–just like I crave exercise. I may have found it, but it’s not as simple as I once imagined it might be. I wasn’t scared into changing my life. Instead, I began looking at things in a different way. In my next post, I’ll talk about what that change of attitude was and how to get to it.

Photo by Chris Rimmer


Please, Please Don’t Avoid Doctors

Just generally interesting

Dr. Grasshopper has a marvelous blog about starting out as a young doctor (no, it’s not exactly like Scrubs) and about helping writers understanding medicine, health, and the human body: it’s called “How to Kill Your Imaginary Friends.”

In today’s post, Dr. Grasshopper reminds us to please, please not be a dumba**: see a doctor if your body is acting funny. Alternatively, the post could be considered to be an explanation of how to die unnecessarily at the age of 46 (just a few years older than me). Please read it, for yourself or for a dumba** you love: “Still Alive. I Am, At Least.“.

Men (latrophobes particularly), Dr. Grasshopper is particularly talking to us.

Photo by musical photo man

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Hidden urgency: goals and the ticking clock

States of mind


In writing, there’s a useful suspense technique called the “ticking clock.” You’re probably familiar with it: the hero has some desperately important thing that she or he has to accomplish, and suddenly it’s made much worse because it turns out there’s only a short time to get it done before all is lost. We have ticking clocks of our own, at least for little things, in our own lives: work that has to be done before a deadline to grab an opportunity or stave off disaster, a place you have to get before it closes, a medical emergency … and in all of these cases, we naturally become much more engaged and focused in doing what needs to be done.

This is going to seem like a completely different subject for a moment, but let’s turn our attention to people who expect to die and miraculously survive–people whose inoperable cancer goes into remission, or people who through incredible luck live through accidents or disasters that they expected to be fatal. It seems to be common for people like this to come away with specific revelations: that our lives are precious, that little problems don’t mean that much, and that it’s important to make the most of what time we have. Yawning yet? This is kind of standard inspirational fare. “Yes, life is miraculous, we’re alive, isn’t it amazing? Sure, we should make our lives meaningful, enjoy every day, yadda yadda yadda …”

So let’s bring together that ticking clock technique and that boring old “our time is precious” saw. The way they fit together is this: we have a limited lifespan; eventually we’ll die. We have an even more limited window of enjoyment or benefit for certain things, like learning to be better parents (once the kids have grown up and moved on, the most important parts of parenting are over) or enjoying an activity or opportunity that might not be available forever.

That means that for most things of importance, every day we delay in reaching a goal is a day less that reaching that goal can benefit us. If you’re working on good financial management, the longer it takes you to get around to really focusing on it, the shorter the portion of your life where you have your finances really under control will be. If you want to write and direct your own movie, every delay in doing that shortens your total time as a maker of movies, which determines how many projects you can do, how good you’ll get, and how much enjoyment you’ll experience.

If this kind of talk makes you feel a little anxious, that’s good, because you can harness that to drive yourself energetically toward your goals–but hold onto it for a moment before you go very far with it. We need to distinguish between unnecessary delays on the one hand and the amount of time it realistically takes to do things well on the other. If you’re not making movies because you’re busy focusing on making yourself healthier, and if health is a higher priority for you, the movies can wait: it’s hard enough to really focus on one major goal at a time, and two or more is usually enough to cause crashing and burning of all of the goals. We have a limited amount of time and attention in our lives. It’s not only OK to use it on just one major project at once, it’s downright clever.

And reaching goals–especially goals that require changing habits–takes time. You have to do a lot of writing to become a really good writer, and to turn down a lot of bags of chips to become the kind of person who automatically and enthusiastically eats a healthy diet. Our brains do change and rewire themselves, but it always takes time, whether we’re talking about good quality practice to acquire a new skill or changing our habits to modify our outlook and behavior.

The exception to the “single goal” approach is our day-to-day decisions. We can always try to keep in mind how beneficial it is to make better choices, so if each time a meaningful decision comes up we take an extra moment to see if we can’t get ourselves to take the high road, that’s a moment well spent.

So you may want to take a moment right now to think about your goal–not all of your goals, but the one most important current goal in your life–and apply that ticking clock. Are you working on that goal with focus, every day, or are you putting it off, telling yourself it’s not urgent, that there’s plenty of time? If it doesn’t feel urgent, you could spend a little time thinking about what you might be losing by your delay. How much more could be gained by doing it today instead of tomorrow? One less day of having to wait for the wonderful results you want to achieve? One day of increased income before retirement? One day of being better at relationships, and therefore one more day of greater happiness for other people in your life?

And if you are applying yourself every day, I hope you can take a moment to pat yourself on the back. There are a lot of things that can make the important goals in our lives look like they can wait, so if you’re pushing ahead despite all that, you’re in an uncommon and enviable class of people, even if the pushing ahead itself is difficult or unpleasant. Keep on keeping on!

And if you’re not applying yourself every day, please come back to this post next week when you are and read yourself that congratulatory paragraph. You will have earned it.

Photo by gnijil_lijing.

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