Staying Steady When Stressed

BoxesI don’t know about you, but when I’m stressed out I immediately start looking for the extraneous elements in my life. The expendables. The fungibles. I can cut that dinner date; I don’t really need to go shopping yet; that is just a pet project, not something that has to be done.

Take moving. I, unlike most people, hate moving. I cannot stand living out of boxes, or even the sight of boxes. It triggers my ADD and sends me into a never-ending spiral of fear and loathing. But it’s more than that: disruption causes me to give up on things I normally care about, like good eating, exercising and working on side projects.

To a certain extent this is normal. Something’s gotta give when life is turned upside down. But only to a certain extent: I still have time for the things I value, I just don’t really have the motivation. If you’ve read my other posts you know I’m completely obsessed with the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, which says that during times of upheaval, we are lower on glucose, the brain chemical that lends us motivation and follow-through.

So, fine. I should cut myself a break. But why do I also bail on things I still really have time for? Why do I lose faith in my work and life? Why do I start to consider the frailty of my hopes and dreams just because I’m a little discombobulated?

Well, I guess glucose is probably behind those questions as well. But one of my goals for this year, which includes an imminent move and a baby due in less than three months, is to figure out how to stay levelheaded when life is swirling around me. I’m not so great at it yet, but any suggestions you have will surely help.

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Tip Day: Easy Ways to Get a Hit of Willpower

400px-The_British_coach_giving_a_few_weight_lifting_hintsThis post is totally cribbed from my new fave book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. The essence of this book is that willpower is a “muscle” you can “strengthen” if you work at it, but how? Most people assume that means they must be perfect on their diets or go to the gym every day. Not only is this unlikely to pan out, it isn’t so. There are much easier ways to boost your self-control. A few of the best ideas, according to book authors Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney:

1. Try to stop cursing. It’s harder than you think.

2. Sit up straight.

3. Change a teeny habit.

So far I’ve had some good luck with these guys. We’ll continue to see how it goes!!

Abandon a Dream to Follow a Dream

677px-Model_ship_-_Das_Wappen_von_BremenBy now the idea that willpower is real, and that it is very much a limited resource, is widely accepted by science. Sure, you can count on your willpower to do things you don’t like, like drive to the dentist when you’d rather drive off a cliff, or do your situps when your entire body is screaming to eat a cake.

You can do as the New York Times suggests and boost your levels of self-restraint be eating healthy, protein-rich foods or laughing, but you’re still only working with so much. That makes it important to conserve your willpower for the times when you’ll really need it, so you don’t punch your boss in the nose or snap at your boyfriend. Easier said than done.

In my experience, you have a baseline of drive and determination, an inborn ratio of how much sucky work you’re willing to do before you just have to blow it all off. Sure, you can increase this ratio a bit by acting responsibly, thereby increasing your willpower, but only so much. Why, then, would you spend time using your willpower up on things you don’t really want to do?

You wouldn’t, you say. Yet so many of us do. Think about it: when was the last time you planned a workout routine that you just weren’t going to stick to, like an ambitious weight-training routine when you absolutely hate the gym? Or a work schedule that began at 6:30 though you can’t stand to open your eyes before the sun comes up? Or perhaps an ambitious craft project when you’d sooner put needles in your eye than through a sheet of fabric?

I know that I do a lot of ambitious planning for laughably hatable tasks (“This is the year of pine cone art!”). Then I end up clicking numbly through Pinterest, or cooking weird meals, or imagining the eulogies my friends will give for me when I die … anything, really, than the task at hand. Unfortunately, spending all this time avoiding what you’ve told yourself you’ll do depletes your energy too, and makes you feel bad about yourself on top.

Masochists read no further: you know how to spend your next Saturday. The rest of us, however, should take a memo: if you don’t want to do it, don’t plan on it. If you’ve told yourself forever that you want to learn to sew, but really actually don’t, quit telling yourself you’ll learn. Get rid of aspirational cooking devices that make you feel guilty. Stop talking about a business you won’t start. Cutting yourself a break will make it easier to pursue what really matters to you. Decluttering your fake dreams will give you the time, the energy and the mental space to pursue one you really want.