When self-care becomes non-negotiable

Perhaps surprisingly, self-care is not super easy for me. Most of the time, I manage to follow the priorities I set for myself, so my life feels like it’s in accordance with what I want. This may be relatively easy for me because I’m an Upholder according to Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies framework, which means that I meet my own expectations as easily as I meet other people’s expectations. But that doesn’t apply with equal strength to everything.

One major point of difficulty is self-care. Self-care is a popular topic right now, being discussed by life coaches, health professionals, and writers. You might think that, as an Upholder, I wouldn’t struggle with this, but that’s not the case. I admit that I find it easier to do things for myself (such as find time to exercise or set aside me-time) than some other people, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely easy.

Lie down!

A week ago, I had a funky experience. I was doing my thing around the house, getting ready for work, when I got a sudden, sharp pain in my belly. Not a great thing when you’re pregnant. A few seconds later it went away, so I continued going about my business, but then it came back again. I thought it might be something, so I lay down and called my obstetrician. She told me to lie down for 20-30 minutes or until it goes away. She said it’s not super worrisome, but I should try to prevent it from happening.

After speaking to her, the first thing that crossed my mind was, “Lie down for 30 minutes?! But I have a plan for today, I have work to do!” My mind was in go-go-go mode, and I didn’t want to lie down, but apparently my body needed me to pause. When self-care became non-negotiable, I obliged, but it would have never happened otherwise.

Take breaks (again…)

Along the same line, I’ve known for a long time that I should take frequent breaks from sitting for the health of my back. Did I do this regularly in the past? Not really. I’d set a timer for 25 minutes and mean to get up and walk around when it went off, but it was so much easier to keep working–it’s just unpleasant to be interrupted. So I’d end up ignoring the timer and only getting up when I got stiff.

As I described in a post last week, pregnancy has forced me to change this behavior. Since my back is getting much more tired now, I really do get up when that timer goes off (okay, most of the time I do…) and walk around. But I’m only doing this because of the real possibility that I may get a trapped nerve in my back if I continue sitting all day without breaks. Again, the circumstances have made it unavoidable that I have to take care of my back.

Get more sleep (finally)

Big surprise: I’ve been needing more sleep since I got pregnant. I sleep 8.5-9 hours a night, and if I sleep any less, I wake up tired and groggy. This is crazy! 7.5-8 hours of sleep used to be fine, but that just doesn’t cut it anymore.

At first, I tried to make it through the day with my usual amount of sleep and maybe catch a little snooze for 15 minutes after lunch. Nope, that didn’t work; I was just irritable and tired.

So now I’m making sure I get more sleep. I start my bedtime routine at 21:00, get in bed at 22:00 (or 22:30 at the latest), put on my sleep mask and earplugs, and sleep until 7:00! I feel like a boring person for going to bed so early, but it makes such a big difference to wake up rested. I decided to enjoy good sleep for now while I still have the opportunity.

Is self-care selfish?

I keep wondering why it is so difficult to take care of ourselves even when we know we should. We all know we should make time for our own needs and health, but it feels harder to do that than to work, clean the house, or help a friend, for example.

I think it’s because we feel that we are the only ones benefiting from our self-care, and we’ve been taught not to be selfish. Technically, we’re not the only ones benefiting because we’re much better able to do our work or take care of others when we’ve taken care of ourselves, but this is often difficult to see because the benefits for other people are not immediately obvious.

Pregnancy has been a good reminder for me that taking care of myself means simultaneously taking care of someone else. Having this reason has made it easier for me to rest more, although I still feel guilty and like I should be doing more.

I recently came across a post from Molly Galbraith where she says that every woman has the right to take care of herself not because that makes her a better caretaker but just because she is worth it. This struck me. It applies to any human being: we shouldn’t need a reason to take care of ourselves; we should just do so because we inherently deserve it.

How to ensure we take care of ourselves

I think many of us are not quite there yet, although it would be great if we were. For all of us who struggle with self-care, it may be best to:

  • Find a good reason (a strong ‘why’) which leads us to engage in self-care (as pregnancy is for me right now);
  • Find an effective accountability system: join a group that will keep you accountable, find a buddy for a certain activity, or get a coach (in my case, it works when my husband says, “You’ve been standing for a long time, you need to sit down (or lie down) for five minutes” or “You’re tired, you need to go to bed”);
  • Find a system that works for you (such as my timer that tells me to get up and walk around).

While it would be great if we could take care of ourselves simply because we’re worth it, I believe that anyway we can get ourselves to engage in self-care is achieving the goal.

How do you take care of yourself? What do you struggle with? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Photo by Min An on Pexels

The Art of Doing Nothing

We’re very good at being busy and running around, but do we ever manage to stop and truly do nothing?

I recently came across a cool idea: the Art of Nothing by Dr. Alessandra Wall. It’s the simple suggestion to take some time every day to do nothing. Yes, yes, I thought, I know that’s important. But I don’t have time to do nothing.

Most days, we’re running around from thing to thing, rushing and not stopping until the end of the day when, finally, we plop down on the sofa, exhausted. When we do take a break in the evening, we watch TV, check the messages on our phone, scroll through social media, or read a book. We rarely take the time to really and truly do nothing.

Dr. Alessandra Wall argues that having time to do nothing allows our thoughts to wander and make connections, so eventually we can make sense of what is happening in our lives and realize where we’d like to go from here. She makes the point that without such time to gain clarity, we are mostly floating along and may end up in a situation (e.g., job, relationship, etc.) that we wouldn’t have necessarily chosen for ourselves. The feeling of, “This is not the life I wanted,” “How did it come to this?!” or “This is not who I am!” may be resolved if we sometimes let our minds wander, so we can reflect and make sense of the events in our lives.

How to practice the Art of Nothing?

Since I’ve been meditating for years, this idea immediately reminded me of meditation. The similarity is that both meditation and the Art of Nothing provide a way to observe your thoughts and reflect on them. Also, both approaches emphasize sitting down and taking a moment to be present and notice what’s going on.

The difference is that meditation is much more structured and feels goal-oriented (even though ideally it shouldn’t be). When meditating, there is a certain technique we’re using or instructions we’re following. It’s difficult to feel like we’re having a good meditation session because thoughts inevitably come up and distract us from the focus of attention or, in other techniques, the open awareness we’re maintaining. Even if our meditation teacher has told us multiple times that it’s okay and perfectly normal for the mind to wander, we still often feel that we’re supposed to avoid thoughts.

It struck me how different the Art of Nothing felt in that respect. Basically, you plop down on the sofa and let go. Many thoughts will come to mind, and that’s the whole point. You’re not telling your mind to be still or to focus on the present moment; some days it may do so, and other days it may not. That’s okay. You’re just providing space for your mind to do its thing.

Some meditators will point out that this is a type of meditation, and indeed it is. I view it as a more unstructured rest for the mind, or an opportunity to set the mind free for a little while.

Interestingly, for someone like me who is generally quite structured, some unstructured mind space really comes in handy. I practice Doing Nothing (as I call it) 2-3 times a day for 5-10 minutes, and I feel refreshed every time after I’ve done it and better able to engage in the next activity.

It’s difficult not to be goal-oriented

As much as I enjoy this being an unstructured activity, I also struggle with it. If there’s no goal to it, then why am I doing it? How do I know it’s having an effect if I’m not intentional with how I’m doing it? Am I just wasting my time?

With meditation, I used to enjoy having a meditation course or pack to complete or some technique to focus on. However, over the last couple of months, I was feeling like meditation was a burden, one more obligation I had to fulfill. It was difficult to get myself to meditate because I simply didn’t want to. I started getting strangely rebellious against the meditation instructions (“You can’t tell me to take a deep breath! I’ll take a breath if I want to! I’ll do what I want!”), which probably wasn’t a good sign.

For this reason, I’m now enjoying a less structured approach. I literally enjoy plopping down on the sofa, looking outside, and doing nothing. It’s a bit tricky because I can’t quite quiet thoughts like, “Why am I doing this? This is a waste of time,” but I lie there anyway. I put my phone and any books away and let my mind do its thing. Lying there often allows me to notice my body releasing tension, which is such a pleasant feeling. Slowly, my mind also releases a bit, and when I get up, I feel refreshed. It also makes a difference that I feel like I’m doing this because I want to and not because I have to.

I have to say I genuinely enjoy doing nothing! When Jacob tries to tell me something but I’m practicing the Art of Nothing (i.e., chilling on the couch), I simply respond with, “Mmm.” He asks, “Oh, are you doing nothing?” and I say, “Yeah,” with a wide smile on my face. Once, I caught him chuckling. It must be funny seeing me, the one who’s always running around with a to-do list in mind, lounging about and doing nothing.

Have you tried Doing Nothing? How do you like it? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Photo from Matheus Bertelli (Creative Commons license)

How my husband and I decided to have a baby

We asked ourselves so many questions: “Are we ready to have kids? When is the right time to have a baby?” And perhaps the most difficult of all: “How do we know when we’re ready?”

“Kids are wonderful, but they also completely change your life.” At least that’s what I’ve heard–I have no experience myself, but that’s what people say. If having kids really is such a big life change, how do we decide when the right time is?

As you may have noticed, I like planning. Ironically, having kids is one of the most difficult things to plan in life. Does this mean we shouldn’t plan for it? I don’t think so. We can still create a draft plan and then adapt from there as life happens. One of the most important benefits of creating a plan is that it forces you to clarify to yourself what you want and why.

Early conversations

For Jacob (my husband) and me, talking about kids early on was very helpful. In the beginning of our relationship, we both mentioned that we’d like to have children one day, which was good to know.

A year later, we revisited the topic and decided we didn’t want to wait too long. It was 2017 at the time, so we said we’d probably start trying in 2019. That seemed a long while away, so we were relaxed.

Needless to say, I created three different timetables to visualize how starting at different times may develop over time. If we started trying in January 2019, assuming no complications or issues arose, we could be pregnant by July 2019. That meant the baby would be born by March 2020, and after that I’d take maternity leave (probably around 6 months). Afterwards, I’d resume my PhD by September 2020 and complete it (hopefully!) by the end of 2021. I created a table with the different time periods and also put them on a blank calendar with a yearly overview.

Then I did the same for two other starting dates. If we started trying six months later, everything would get shifted by half a year. In this case, especially if things didn’t happen too quickly, I was coming quite close to the end of my PhD, and being unemployed and pregnant seemed scary to me. And if we started trying once I was close to the end of my PhD, things would get shifted by about a year and a half. While that seemed less stressful (also because it was further away in time), it felt like too long from the present moment.

Is it really time?!

Towards the summer of 2018, we started thinking about it seriously. “Are we really going to start trying for a baby in 6 months?! That’s so soon!” Having a baby had always seemed like a huge deal to me, so it felt like the Earth should stop turning or something. But life was continuing around us at its usual speed: I was in the third year of my PhD, Jacob had started his own chiropractic practice, and we had scheduled our wedding for June 2019. Was it really the right time to have a baby?

At first, I told Jacob, “I think we should wait. I don’t think this is a good time for us to have a child.” He appeared a bit disappointed but conceded that we should start trying only when I was ready.

But then I remembered something a college professor of mine said to me one day: “It’s never the perfect time to have a baby. Don’t wait for the perfect time because it will never come.”

Remembering this stopped me in my tracks. What was I waiting for? We had a roof over our heads (a wonderful apartment, in fact), we were bringing in a decent income, we loved each other, and both of us were emotionally ready to have children. What more did I need?

Would it be better if we waited until after I finished my PhD? Maybe, but then I’d be looking for other jobs, so that would be stressful too. (Also, you can never know how long it will take to complete a PhD, so that’s a risky thing to bet on.) Would it be better if we waited until Jacob had been working at his practice for longer? Maybe, but we weren’t sure if that mattered so much.

Would it be a problem if I were pregnant at our wedding? (Spoiler alert: that was indeed the case.) I thought about this one long and hard. One of the main arguments against being pregnant at your wedding is that you can’t drink alcohol, but that didn’t bother me because I don’t drink alcohol anyway. My biggest issue was whether my wedding dress would look good. I can write much more about how I resolved this, but in the end I think it worked out well. And, finally, I was concerned that people would think we got married only because I was pregnant and not because we truly loved each other. Well, I had to let that go and accept that people would think whatever they want anyway.

Let’s go ahead…

In the end, we decided that the beginning of 2019 was as good a time as any to start trying for a baby. It wasn’t ideal, but it didn’t seem like we were going to find a more perfect moment. So we started, and here I am now, writing this blog post, and our tiny son is kicking excitedly in my belly. Yes, I’m writing about you, little one.

What do you think, how would you know (or how did you know) when you are ready to have kids? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Why I can be annoying on vacations

To be honest, I can sometimes be annoying on vacations. Most people like to let loose and relax when they’re on holiday. I also like to relax, but I can do that best if I have a tentative schedule.

Schedule on vacation

I like to know what we’re going to do: when we will wake up, where we will eat breakfast, what we will do afterwards, for how long, etc. Having that type of clarity allows me to relax and also to anticipate the joy of the upcoming day with excitement. As Gretchen Rubin says, looking forward to a pleasant experience is a great way to get happiness from it.

Of course, it’s fine if things change. It’s just that I like having an idea of how things might go. It also means that I get to discuss what I’d like to do and when with the other people, and they get to share what they want to do as well. So we can all, hopefully, be happy.

Wake up!

I also like to wake up early on vacation. I prefer not to have an alarm clock, but I still wake up relatively early–usually between 7 and 8 am. That’s why I like skiing and hiking holidays: everybody implicitly agrees that you need to get up somewhat early, be active during the day, and relax in the afternoon and evening.

I can trace this back to when I was a child. One summer when I was probably 7 or 8 years old, we went to the seaside with my parents’ friends. After dinner, the adults went out to party, but I was tired and went to sleep. In the morning, I woke up earlier than my parents, so I’d just go downstairs to the cafe and order pancakes. I’d eat my pancakes and read a book until my parents woke up and came to join me an hour or two later.

How funny it must have been for the waiters at the cafe: early in the morning, a kid eating pancakes and reading a book with a serious expression on her face. And when her parents show up, probably yawning, she scolds them, “What took you so long?”

“Come on, let’s go, what are you waiting for?”
And yes, this is actually me.

Time to relax

But I also get grumpy if a vacation is too packed. I like to be active, but I also like to relax. That’s why I don’t go on organized tours: they pack the schedule so full of stuff to do that there’s no time to relax anymore. How is that a vacation?

For the same reason, I don’t like doing hikes that are too long. When I was younger, we did hikes that were 10 or 12 hours long. That’s not my thing. I like to be active for a couple of hours, and then I like to chill. For me, that’s the best combination.

Last week at our honeymoon, Jacob and I made sure to combine being active and relaxing. On one of the days, he wanted to do a longer hike, which would have meant we missed our afternoon relaxing time in the spa area. I retaliated! I knew it was just one day, but I still wanted my relaxing time. In the end, we found a compromise, so all was good.

Be warned!

Sometimes, some people may think I’m a bit annoying to go on vacation with. (Okay, maybe it happens often, and it’s most people.) Apparently, not everyone wants to have a plan for the next day, to wake up early and be active, or to relax each day. To me, these things seem perfectly reasonable for a good vacation, so all I need to do is find people who share my preferences. But if you were considering going on vacation with me, be warned! 😉

What are your peculiar vacation traits? What annoys you that other people do when you’re on vacation together? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

What I did to truly relax on my honeymoon

Last week, Jacob and I went on our honeymoon. It was an amazing trip, truly a dream come true. A few months before we got married, we started thinking about where we’d like to go, and I had this vision of a cottage in the Austrian Alps. I pictured a cozy, wooden house with flowers on the balcony, cuddled up in a valley between two mountains. Green grass in the valley, white snow on the mountains, and blue sky above.

This is what we saw when we stepped outside of our cottage.

And this was exactly what we got. Everything was wonderful, and we managed to enjoy it thoroughly. But how did we do that?

Sometimes when we go on vacation, we have trouble letting go and relaxing. We keep thinking about work, about unfinished business in the office or at home, or about something that is stressing us out. This time, we could have also slipped into that trap. I could have thought, “Will I have enough time to finish editing my paper? When will I start my new experiment? I have so much work to do!” Jacob could have worried about how his practice is doing or about the content he needs to write for his website. There are always plenty of things to worry about.

This is what we did to get our peace of mind.

Disconnect

I didn’t check my work email or Slack. Not even once. Woohoo! I knew that if I checked them, I’d be sucked in, and I’d feel as though I urgently had to respond to a request or a question. Fortunately, my job has very few urgent things in general, so even when I did check my email the following Monday, there was absolutely nothing urgent. How nice!

Now, Jacob’s situation is different. He works with patients, and he needs to be somewhat accessible in case someone needs a timely response, so he couldn’t not open email. What he did was that he only checked his phone (email, messages, etc.) twice a day: once in the morning and once in the evening. If somebody required an immediate response, he answered briefly, giving them the information they needed but also letting them know that he would provide a thorough response as soon as he got back.

We even took a break off of social media. That was quite nice because being more disconnected from the world in general made us more connected to the present experience, to the wilderness, and to each other. We even told each other stories from our lives that had never come up before! Who knew there were any stories left untold! (Let’s check again in 20 years…)

This was one of our favorite paths, winding among the trees.

Find other engaging things to do

I know for myself that if I’m doing nothing all day, my mind wanders to some unpleasant things, and then I start worrying. If my mind is left to its own devices, it would probably drift back to what it’s used to thinking about: work and questions about the future. To avoid that, I need to give my mind something engaging to think about.

Since we were in the mountains, we went hiking every day. There were many routes we could take and many places we could visit. So, each evening we checked the weather for the following day, the available routes, the open lodges/huts, the difficulty and length of the routes, etc. We also took into account how tired we were from the day’s hike and decided on which route to do. It was a lot of fun, and we did many cool routes.

In the morning, we’d get up, have a delicious breakfast (my absolutely favorite meal of the day!!!), and head out for the day’s hike. It was exciting to do a new route each day and reach a different hut.

Also, once we arrived and wanted to have lunch, we had to figure out what the Austrian names for the different dishes actually meant. On the first few days, we had some surprising food experiences (such as ham-and-cheese salad which is not a salad at all!), but that also kept things interesting. In the end, we found some truly delicious soups, such as frittata soup and bacon-noodle soup. And, naturally, we had lots and lots of sauerkraut.

I also did quite a bit of reading. In the afternoons after we came back from hiking, we went to the spa area to relax properly. My favorite part was the relax zone, a quiet area with big, tall windows, letting the sunlight in and allowing a gorgeous view of the snowy mountains. There were these wooden swing lounging chairs (that’s my best attempt at an explanation) where you could lie, enjoy the sun and the view, and read. Also, I was reading a very exciting novel, so I didn’t want to leave at all. That was my favorite part of the day.

The gorgeous view from a peak that was very steep and slippery but so worth it!

Dive in

I think this is the key to why I managed to relax and let go on this holiday: I took steps to (1) disconnect from my everyday world and (2) actively engage with the world around me at that moment. And it worked! So much so that we didn’t want to leave… One more honeymoon, maybe? Hmm.

How do you relax when you’re on vacation? Or do you find it difficult to stop thinking about your regular life? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

My efforts were recognized even though I didn’t expect it

Yesterday, I won the PhD Award of the Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging (DCCN) for 2018. The prize recognizes someone who has contributed to the DCCN to make it a more vibrant, pleasant, and inspiring place. I was surprised and very, very happy.

Me after receiving the award and a beautiful bouquet of tulips. Yay!

Two days ago, on Wednesday, I received an email from Tildie Stijns, the secret organizational force behind the DCCN: “Are you coming to the DCCN centre meeting tomorrow?”

I was confused. Why did she care if I’d be at the centre meeting? I responded that I couldn’t go because I had a writing course at that time.

“But you must go! It’s important.” said Tildie. Well, if Tildie says something, you do it. So I went to the centre meeting on Thursday.

Receiving the award

My friends Lieke and Patricia were convinced that I’d get the DCCN PhD award. I didn’t dare believe it because I’d be disappointed if it turned out that wasn’t the case. They spent the whole lunch break making fun of how cautious I was.

At the centre meeting, I realized I was getting the award when Peter Hagoort said, “The person we’re giving the award to this year has done a number of things, among which organizing a time management course.” There is no other way, I thought, it’s me!

From then on I was just happy. It felt so good to receive the award, and my friends and colleagues congratulated me afterwards, clearly happy for me. Coincidentally, my supervisors, Eelke Spaak and Floris de Lange, were sitting next to me during the meeting and also expressed their congratulations. I was beaming the whole time, my face warm and flushed.

Appreciated and surprised

The truth is that I was genuinely surprised that I received the award. What had I done to be of service to the centre? Peter Hagoort mentioned the Organization Bootcamp (which is starting today! more on that soon), contributing to Donders Wonders and leading it during the summer, and performing a monologue about ethics in science (you can read it here).

But I had done all those things simply because I thought it would be cool to do them. I hadn’t done them thinking, “Hmm, this would be good to do, so I can get the DCCN PhD award.” I guess that’s exactly the point.

I hadn’t expected people to appreciate the things I did. It wasn’t necessary; I did what I did because I enjoyed it. And then it was even sweeter when the recognition came, and I really appreciated it.

Thanks to many people

When I told my mom about the award in the evening, she said, “Wow, this Donders place is such a great place to work. They even pay attention to these things.”

And she’s right. I’d like to thank many people: the DCCN directorate for giving me the award, the award committee for picking me, and the colleagues who nominated me for, well, nominating me. And my friends and family for being by my side and sharing my nervousness as well as my joy. The Donders is such a great place to work (and live 😉 )!

Excitement

I’m off now, today’s a big day… I barely slept last night because the first session of the bootcamp is taking place in the afternoon, and I still need to practice my talk (never believe me if I say I always stick to my schedule!).

Then in the evening, we have the Donders Karaoke!!! Oh, I can’t wait! I was warming up my vocal cords in the shower this morning, so hopefully the neighbors enjoyed the performance. As the lady living below me once said, “I really enjoy your singing. Are you a soprano?” Oh, the embarrassment in that moment… 😀

And in the weekend, I’ll plan how to enjoy my prize! The award is a fancy dinner in a restaurant of my choice, so I’ll be checking out all the cool restaurants in the area. Woohoo!

The simple secret of discipline: Avoid tempting situations

We are often told that discipline is the answer to our problems. With a little more discipline, we can achieve our goals and avoid temptations. Just try a little bit harder, have a little bit more willpower, have a little more self control. But that’s not how it works.

We grossly overestimate the contribution of willpower. Willpower is not a constant; it may be strong at one moment and then wane when we’re tired or stressed. If we leave our actions up to willpower, we will at some point disappoint ourselves.

I often hear the assumption that disciplined people have more willpower and somehow have the superhuman ability to stick to their values or priorities. I don’t think that’s true and, if anything, it only contributes a tiny bit to what discipline actually is.

In reality, disciplined people know themselves and know when their willpower fails. If they are tired, they will spend a long time on social media, unable to look away. If they go to a fast food restaurant, they will end up ordering fast food. They are aware of their tendencies and don’t leave it up to willpower to make the choice they consider “better” or “right.”

By choosing the situation you place yourself in, you choose the possible actions.
Photo by Tyler Lastovich from Pexels

Disciplined people often avoid putting themselves in tempting situations. They know that the only way to resist is to avoid the setting altogether, so they avoid the tempting situation. If they want to spend less time on social media, they use a website blocker. If they want to eat less fast food, they go to restaurants that don’t serve fast food. It’s so much easier to avoid an unwanted action if the immediate environment prevents it.

I’m not saying that you should always avoid tempting situations. It all comes back to the mindful choice: if you consciously and purposefully choose to do something, by all means, go ahead. Just don’t let the situation decide for you.

When you want to avoid an action and you know your willpower may fail, it is so much easier to avoid the tempting situation altogether. This is the secret that disciplined people know.

Not all tempting actions lend themselves to simple solutions. But if you identify such a solution, then make sure you implement it. It will save you lots of frustration over inevitable lapses in willpower.

What kinds of tempting activities do you avoid? What actions would you like to prevent? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn. 

Discipline = making a mindful choice

We may think that disciplined people lack or suppress their desires. In fact, they still experience strong cravings, but they make a mindful choice.

When someone offers me cake at work and I decline, I usually get one of two typical reactions:

“Oh, live a little. Nothing bad will happen if you eat a piece of cake!”

I usually respond to this with:

“It’s not about living a little. It’s about what feels better to me and my body, and right now I’d feel better if I don’t eat the cake.”

And the other reaction is:

“Wow, how are you so disciplined? Do you never eat sweets? Do you not like sweets?”

These questions make me smile. In fact, I have a huge sweet tooth. I can eat way more cake, baklava, and chocolate than most people. When most people say, “Ah, this is too sweet for me, it’s making me sick,” that’s my favorite level of sweetness.

We often think that disciplined people don’t feel desires or cravings, or perhaps we think they suppress them. Disciplined people may appear cold inside, as though they’re more like robots who don’t know what it’s like to feel a strong human craving.

But, in fact, disciplined people do have desires and cravings, sometimes even more strongly than other people. Because these people’s cravings are so strong, they need to keep them in check.

When facing a desire or craving, the important thing is to make a clear, conscious choice about what we do next.
Image credit: JESHOOTS.com (Pexels license)

For instance, Philip, a friend of mine, comes from a family with a history of alcoholism. Philip doesn’t drink any alcohol. He told me that people often ask him how he’s able to have such self-control. He responds that it’s the opposite: he knows he doesn’t have the self-control to stop once he starts. That’s why he avoids alcohol altogether.

So is the only solution to abstain altogether? Avoid all tempting situations and things we desire?

For some people, abstaining from some substances (such as alcohol in the case of my friend Philip) works well. But that doesn’t have to be the case for all of us. (See the distinction between abstainers and moderators raised by Gretchen Rubin.)

I have a different solution in relation to my desire for sweets. I create specific implementation intentions: When X happens, I will do Y. When I am at work, I do not eat sweets. But on Friday evening, when I’m having dinner with a friend, I will have dessert. Or, on Saturday afternoon, when I go for tea with a friend, I will have a piece of cake.

These are planned exceptions. It means that I have thought about them in advance and decided what I’d like to do in that situation. When I do eat something sweet, I’m not reinforcing a mindless craving but rather I’m making a mindful choice. And I get more enjoyment out of it because it’s a conscious choice instead of an absent-minded reaction to a situation.

The characteristic that makes people disciplined is that they make a conscious, purposeful choice. It doesn’t actually matter which action they choose; whether they eat the cake or don’t eat the cake is not important. The crucial point is to make the choice with clarity and to be aware of the reasons that lead you to that choice.

Is there an area in your life where you purposefully choose what to do? Is there an area where you’d like to make more mindful choices? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Intention setting: Does it actually work?

“Before you go into a difficult situation, set an intention. How would you like to behave in that situation? How would you like to come across? Just put the intention out there, and it will happen.”

I’ve heard this type of advice many times, but the skeptic in me retaliates. “What do you mean that putting the intention out there will make it happen?” I agree that if I think about how I’d like to act, I’m more likely to behave that way. But that doesn’t seem particularly powerful. Surely it’s not such a big deal whether you take 10 seconds to think about how you’d like to approach a situation.

To set intentions or not to set intentions

Paradoxically, over the last few months, I felt like I was lacking intent in my actions. I would go from one activity to the next because I knew it had to be done, but I didn’t connect to why I was doing it.

This led me to think that I should try this intention setting thing. I tried it a couple of times but quickly forgot about it. After all, who has time to set intentions when there are things to do?!

The wake up call came when my husband tried setting intentions. I didn’t think he’d really do it, but apparently my love for structure is rubbing off on him, so he stuck with it! After a week of setting intentions, he said, “This intention thing really works!”

He usually does this three times a day: at the beginning of the work day, after lunch, and before dinner. First, he notes his current attitude. Then, he thinks about the thing he’s going to do next and sets an intention for how he’d like it to go. He says he’s able to focus much better and, as he works with people, that he’s able to serve people better.

By setting intentions, we gain clarity about why we’re doing something.
Image credit: Pixabay (License CC0)

I started setting intentions

Well, once I heard this, I had to catch up! If my husband was setting intentions, I had to be able to do it too!!

I decided to combine it with my hourly breaks: once I sit down at my desk after my break, I take a few deep breaths and notice how my body feels. Am I anxious or excited? Tired? Thinking?

Then, I think about what I’ll be working on for the next hour. What would I like the outcome to be? How would I like the work process to go? This whole check-in takes about a minute, and then I start working.

I mostly do this at work but not only. I also aim to do it at the start of each meal and also at the beginning of my workout. It really changes how I feel during the activity because instead of just going through the motions, I connect to my priorities, i.e., the “why” behind my actions.

The pros and cons of setting intentions

I really enjoy it when I set an intention for a block of time. When I sat down to write this blog post, I thought, “I’d like to write on a topic I’m passionate about, and I’d like to convey information well. Also, I’d like to have a calm, thoughtful writing process.” With such a clear intention in mind, getting to work is easy and pleasant.

The trouble is that I often forget to set an intention. Especially if my schedule is a bit irregular or I have limited time, intentions go out the window. There’s suddenly no space in my mind to take a step back and think about why I’m doing something. Instead, I need to do, do, do.

In essence, that’s the problem itself. I’d like to set intentions to avoid being mindless. It doesn’t work if I’m already mindless (because I’m stressed, for instance), so I don’t remember to set an intention, which means I don’t get clarity and don’t connect to my “why.” It’s a vicious cycle, and I don’t see how to break it besides to remember to set an intention.

This is my main question with relation to setting intentions: is it actually helpful, or is it just wishful thinking? Is it possible to also remember to set intentions when things are not going smoothly? And in those cases, does it help?

I will try it out for a month and then report back. I will track how consistently I set intentions on different days and see how that influences my mood and my work output. I’ll let you know in about a month, so stay tuned! 🙂

More info about setting intentions

I got the idea of setting intentions in this way from Brendon Burchard and his book High Performance Habits (the audiobook is available to listen to for free as episodes in his podcast). He discusses setting intentions as a way to improve Habit #1, Clarity.

If you also try setting intentions, let me know how it goes! Or are you doing something similar already? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Set an intention for the holidays

The holidays are an awesome time for fun and excitement, but they can also be stressful and frustrating. Think about what you want out of this holiday season and discuss it with the people you’re spending the holidays with to make it happen.

Many of us look forward to the winter holidays each year, while yet others detest the December period. Whatever your attitude towards the season, you can get the most out of it if you know what you want.

What do you want for Christmas?

At the beginning of the holiday season (which is right about now), think about what’s important to you at this time of the year. You can write about this in your journal, ponder it while going for a walk, or reluctantly think about it while being tortured by Christmas music in the supermarket.

Do you want to…

  • Spend time with family?
  • Avoid getting annoyed with your partner/mother/father/aunt/parents-in-law/insert random relative here?
  • Eat your favorite Christmas-themed food?
  • Eat food that is aligned with certain health goals?
  • Get some movement?
  • Get enough sleep and rest?
  • Give nice gifts to people?
  • Do voluntary work?
  • Be left alone to watch movies?
  • Complete a reading challenge before December 31?
  • Take time to reflect on the past year?

Once you have identified what is most important to you during this holiday season, you can condense it to a phrase. In this way, it’s easy to remember. When you start to get pulled by someone else’s idea for what you should be doing, you can remind yourself of your intention and decide how to act.

Clarify in your own mind what you’d like this holiday season.

Image credits: Pexels (License CC0)

Ask the people close to you about their intentions

If you’re spending the holidays with other people, it would also be useful if you know what their intentions are. By knowing what each of you would like for the holiday season, you make it much easier for everybody to get what they want and for people to be less grumpy. In the end, that means that everyone enjoys the holidays more!

For instance, my mother and my brother will be visiting my boyfriend and me for the holidays. My intentions for this time are: spend time with my close people, get some rest, do some fun things (but not too many), and read. I know that my mom shares these interests, but I don’t think my brother does. He probably wants to stay up late and sleep late, which doesn’t match our intentions. And my boyfriend doesn’t like Christmas and also has to work during the holidays, so I don’t think he wants to do lots of fun things. Mostly he’d just like to rest.

So the way I see to combine everyone’s preferences is to, primarily, have enough time for rest (which also gives me time to read). We can do some fun things, but I shouldn’t try to pack too many activities into a few days. And I should also accept it if my brother and/or my boyfriend don’t want to join and not take it personally.

It really helps when everyone is honest about what they want. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, I proposed that my mom, my brother, and I go to a Christmas concert during their stay. I didn’t really want to go but thought it might be nice and fun for my mom. My brother didn’t really want to go. And then my mom also said that she’s been going to plenty of concerts recently, so she’d rather go for walks in nature parks. Perfect! That’s what I prefer as well.

Then I realized I’d really like to watch the new Fantastic Beasts movie in the cinema, and I asked the others whether they wanted to go. It turned out that everyone was up for it, so now we’re doing a simple, easy, fun thing together. What a nice outcome.

It really helps to first clarify in your own mind what you’d like out of the holiday season and then discuss that with the people you’ll be spending that time with. If everybody is clear about what they’d like, it’s much easier to find a way to make people happy.

What is your intention for the holidays? Do those align with how your close people want to spend this time? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.