Fit Life Essentials for Real Life

Before Starting that New Diet, Consider This (Future Shock Part III)

Before starting that new diet or workout plan, consider how much change, churn, or other commotion you have in your life already.  Could it affect your goals?

This is the third of a three-part series about change and the sneaky ways it can shape our lives.  Yes, sneaky.  A touch of agitation is a good thing, but too much churn can undercut the best of intentions.

And this is the time of year for intentions, isn’t it?  Getting in shape.  Finally losing those pesky extra pounds.  Or maybe you’re working on my personal favorite, since I have a long history of emotional eating – not using food as comfort when stress knocks on the door.

Take just a moment to consider your personal environment – both your physical surroundings and your emotional energy. Do you have peace and stability, or is your world constantly in flux?  Do your surroundings help, or hinder, your fitness goals?  Most importantly, how can you cultivate a healthy environment that supports you and your goals?

If you want to jump right into tools you can use to shape your personal environment, feel free to skip to the tools discussion below.  Otherwise, read on for the background.

Think Back

Think back to a time you were someplace so beautiful that you feel a sense of peace just being there.  Maybe it was a hike or a restaurant with a beautiful view.  It could be a stroll along the beach or scuba diving.

Just as our surroundings can soothe and inspire, they can challenge us.  Push our buttons and make just about anything we want to do a little more difficult.

The amount of change we see is a big factor in our personal environment.  Like a rushing river, it shapes our lives, little by little.

In Part 1 of this series, we examined the concept of Future Shock, which is fundamentally about change.  Future Shock is like culture shock, but at home.  The phrase was coined by Futurist Alvin Toffler in the 1960s, when he predicted that relentless change would become a significant daily challenge.  

Toffler worried that’d we’d feel increasingly unsteady as the future rushes people, places, things, and even ideas in and out of our lives at an unprecedented pace.  Much in life would effectively become disposable.

Part 2 reviewed the many ways that a daily overdose of change can shape our lives in sneaky ways.  It can lead to all kinds of stress we might not even be aware of.

Now, in Part 3, we get to the fun part.  If too much churn is undercutting our most precious fitness goals, what can we do to get to a better place? 

Tools to Manage Change and Churn

I’ve pulled three of the very best tools out of the Future Shock playbook – all excellent ways to help navigate change:

• Mindfulness

• Personal stability zones 

• Openness to learning

Although Toffler embraced these ideas more than fifty years ago, they are more relevant than ever today.  Let’s take a peek at each one.

Tool #1 – Mindfulness – Map Out Your Personal Environment

Mindfulness sounds a little woo-woo, but it’s really not.  It simply means seeing what’s around you without any filters or labels.  The idea is to first to get curious, and then really comfy.  Comfy doesn’t necessarily mean happy or satisfied with what you see – just accepting of “what is.”     

For as long as I can remember, anxiety has been a constant presence in my life.  I’m what you might call tightly wound.  Of all the strategies and tactics I’ve tried, mindfulness is absolutely the best, most soothing, most life changing tool I’ve found.  It’s all at once empowering and oddly comforting if you give it a shot.

There’s two ways to tap into the power of mindfulness. 

First, use mindfulness to map out your personal environment.  Take inventory of your surroundings, if you will, and use whatever insights you gain to design what you want.

How much commotion surrounds you? More importantly, how does it affect you?

I think about the first day I moved into my current office, which has an open space design.  I sit at a set of tables with five other people, surrounded by really bright pictures and a constant chatter.  Being an introvert, on that first morning I actually considered diving under the table to get a little quiet space.  Ha!  Of course I didn’t, but I thought about it.

Over time, I came to accept a few things. It’s noisy – there’s conversations, phones, and buzzing all around.  My coworkers who sit around me are warm, helpful, and funny.  The whole area smells really bad when someone cooks fish in the microwave.  Almost daily, there’s some period of time when I struggle to focus. The view of the Chicago skyline is stunning.

If there were such a thing as a sensory buffet, my office would be the midnight-feast-on-a-cruise version.  For me, this is overwhelming in both a good and bad way.

Add to that tons of changes in my personal life in the past few years, including a divorce, major shakeups at work, and the very natural – but still challenging – changes that come with living with a teenager.

The lesson: I need an extra helping of stability and peace in my life.  I’ve got to balance the hustle and bustle with something calming, so I make a conscious effort to manage change.

The second way to use mindfulness is to simply take a break by being fully present, no matter where you happen to be.

Again, being present just means you experience what’s around you instead of being lost in thought.  Consider two scenarios:

• I walk twenty minutes from the train to my office in Chicago.  I’m deep in thought, wondering how I’m going to manage a meeting that’s coming up.  I think about my daughter and realize I forgot to make her lunch, so I brainstorm ways to be better.  I arrive at the office without remembering anything from the journey along the way.

• I walk twenty minutes from the train to my office in Chicago.  As I step out of the train station, the scent of chocolate from the Blommer chocolate factory greets me.  I enjoy that for a moment.  I walk along, listening to the sounds of the city, including the roar of the “L” train as it speeds by overhead.  I note the cold wind and how it feels on my skin.  I practice resisting the urge to label it as uncomfortable, noticing how tempting it is to tense up in an effort to repel it somehow.  A thought of a meeting pops into my head; I acknowledge it but bring my attention back to the city scenes around me. 

In the first example, I’m lost in my head and experiencing my thoughts but not my surroundings.  In the second, I’m being mindful.  The mindful me gets a little escape and almost always arrives at the office feeling more at ease.

This little trick works in all kinds of settings.  For example, when doing dishes, instead of thinking of the next task that has to be done (laundry!), focus solely on the dishes themselves.  When eating, concentrate on each bite, chewing slowly.  Notice the flavors and textures of the meal.

Staying rooted in the physical – scents, sounds, sights, and so on – can have a tremendously calming, stabilizing effect. Of course the mind will wander, and that’s ok. Just guide it back to whatever you were doing. 

 Tool #2 – Personal Stability Zones

If change is a choppy sea that aims to throw you off balance, personal stability zones are little islands of steadiness.  We can create these wonderful places of refuge by tapping into our natural desire to form habits, enjoying simple rituals like holiday celebrations, or making any decision that reduces change and stimulation.  

Habits – Train Your Brain 

Habit science has exploded in the past decade, emerging as one of the most significant healthy living trends around.  If you’re struggling with any kind of goal, it’s worth your time to understand how to tap into your brain’s natural preferences for predictability.

What’s not much talked about is how habits don’t just help you reach goals – they also create little pockets of stability in your life.  The world may change all around you, but a solid collection of habits is always there to keep you steady.

For example, say I have a habit of reading in bed at night.  That’s a soothing place I can always go to help blunt the commotion and upheaval I may see throughout the day.  Jobs may change; friends may move; my car may finally give up (this could actually happen any day now) – but my nighttime routine is stable.

Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit does a wonderful job of explaining what habits are, why they matter, and how solid habits can be created.  The book is well worth the read, but you can give his ideas a test drive via the free resources on his website, charlesduhigg.com.

Rituals

A behavior doesn’t have to be a habit to create stability – any enjoyable ritual can do the trick.  Birthdays, holidays, or even daily pleasures like leisure walking or a hot cup of tea are all great ways to add stability to a world full of churn.

It’s so easy to underestimate the power of rituals, especially if you don’t have that holiday gene.  The Christmas following my divorce, Stella and I were celebrating the holiday with friends in Arizona.  Always the practical one, I thought we really didn’t need a tree at home, because we were taking such a nice trip and we wouldn’t be home on Christmas day.  We did indeed have a wonderful time that year.

That was a serious miscalculation on my part.  Several months later, very upset about something else, Stella later told me she was heartbroken to not have a tree in 2015.  Looking back at it, I realize it was so much change to ask her to manage – the family splitting up, and then no tree in the house.  The tree would have been a gentle refuge for her in a changing world.

Change Management

A third way to create stability is to actively manage the change we experience on a daily basis, where possible.  This is all about finding the right amount of stimulation and saying no when it makes sense.  

Many changes will be outside of our control, but there’s still a lot we can do to shape our daily environment.  Consider:

• If you work in a noisy environment, as I do, take extra steps for peace at home.  Limit television and other unnecessary noises.  Create technology-free zones (times and/or spaces). 

• Greet “new news” on your own terms.  One of the best things I ever did was to review incoming mail at home once a week instead of daily.  It used to agitate me so much to spend even part of my evening going through bills and other unpleasant “news” at the end of the day, but now I take 30 minutes on a weekend and plow through it.

• Look for opportunities to minimize travel you don’t need.  A few years ago, I let go of the idea that every work trip I might benefit from was a “must do”.  Now I balance the hassle of travel against the benefits, and I stay home more.

• Consider keeping the same car, house, or other major purchase a bit longer.  Newness can be wonderful, of course – it’s all a matter of balance and timing.  

Tool #3 – Learning Mindset 

In a disposable world, even information has a shelf life.  We’ve seen this time and again, right?  Some new development means the old ways of thinking about diet and health, technology, or numerous other topics no longer apply.  Eggs are discouraged one day, and exonerated the next.

It can be so frustrating to think you’ve got something down, but then need to put it aside – throw it out, if you will – because it’s grown stale. 

This is where a flexible mind comes in.  I think of it as Mental Yoga – being open and flexible to change, and able to learn and adapt.  Learning how to learn.

The image in my mind is my amazing Uncle Ed at age 99 (or so), learning how to use his new iPad. I try to remember this when I feel grumpy about some new program or development I need to learn.

Takeaways

Whew!  Here’s the bottom line to all of this:

We see tons of change every day, probably more than at any other time in human history.

Managing change is important for many.  Failing to realize its possible effects can create upheaval and undercut our most precious goals.

Luckily, there are many time-tested tools to help navigate change:

  • Learn mindfulness techniques, and use them both to figure out what you need and as a place of refuge.
  • Create “personal zones of stability” in your life through healthy habits, enjoyable rituals, or steps to greet change on your own terms.
  • Maintain a flexible mind and an openness to learning new things when information becomes disposable – as it probably will.

Here’s to a happy and healthy personal environment for you!

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