Bagels and the Science of Self-Discipline

It had become a ritual for me to begin my day in a coffee shop writing blog posts like this. I would buy a bottomless cup of coffee along with a bagel and cream cheese. The staff at several different shops knew me by name. It was a deeply ingrained habit if there ever was one. Of course, a bagel with cream cheese 250 times a year catches up with you. If you’ve been doing this for more than 30 years, like I have, your metabolism starts to punish you by draining your energy and focus by 10AM.

This is not unlike the other habits we all develop over time, out of convenience, desire, or wanting to belong. (“Everybody else does it.”) The brain, of course, develops a well ingrained neuropathway for each one of these habits that reminds you to do it every day at a particular time and in a particular way. In fact, it creates a sense of discomfort if you don’t complete this task. Develop enough of these neuropathways, and you become a victim of this jumble of habits, most of which cost money, drain energy and waste time.

So how do you break this costly momentum? By doing three essential things: 1) Replace the old with the new, 2) Change your self-talk and 3) Change your surroundings. Ironically, in my case, it was the third strategy that came first. When every coffee shop in the world shut down abruptly this year, I had no choice but to change my surroundings. I didn’t eliminate bagels from my diet, but I did eliminate cream cheese. Did you know a dry bagel’s not bad once you’ve had a few. I also started telling friends and colleagues that I limit myself to a dry bagel and a banana between breakfast and lunch. When you say something like that enough, you begin to reprogram your thinking and, as a result, your habits. (This worked well with, “I love salads,” a number of years ago.)

Now, you might be thinking, “I know all this. I can change if I want to.” Okay, I’ll stipulate that. But what costly habits have you actually succeeded in changing? Go ahead, I’ll wait for you to list them. Lest you think I’m being preachy, I face the same challenge. Like you, I can be really good at listing the reasons why I should be doing this or that right now. But then time slips away and it’s suddenly the next year.

So, what’s one habit you can replace over the next thirty days with something more productive? Remember, limit your plan to one habit at a time, otherwise the stress of doing so will defeat your efforts. Anticipate the initial discomfort you’ll experience and reframe it. It will diminish over time. And change your surroundings. It is environmental cues that subtly remind us of these destructive routines. Finally, spread the word. Tell your friends and family what you’re doing and ask them to hold you accountable. Offer to do the same for them some time. We all need the support.

Save Energy by Managing Your Appoplexy

It is so easy to find an app for every little convenience these days. Whether you’re looking for travel short-cuts, recipes, or simply games to pass the time. Search any topic on Apple or Android and you’ll find millions of them, most free or less than five dollars. Installing them is as easy as clicking on “open,” authorizing installation with your thumb and waiting a few seconds for it to load. Voilà, instant convenience and fun.

In many ways, however, apps have become a crutch as everyone reaches for their smart phone seeking assistance with everything under the sun. But there is a more insidious cost of having an app for every need imaginable. All these apps can be a source of decision fatigue. Imagine trying to save a bit of money by using the app you’re positive you’ve downloaded to save a couple of bucks on Bar-B-Que. As you page through each screen, your brain has to examine each app’s icon ever-so-briefly to determine whether or not that’s the one you’re looking for. Each one of these neural transactions consumes a bit of the sugar energy your brain depends upon to focus and function.

Too many apps can clog up the system. There’s the conference app you downloaded for that meeting in Detroit back in 2016. There’s the Sit or Squat app you downloaded to help your aging parents find the closest public toilet on last year’s vacation. There’s that car seat helper app you used seven years ago, except now your kids are in middle school. If you can’t remember the exact name of the Bar-B-Que app or what it looks like, you could spend five minutes looking for something that will only save you two bucks. And once you’ve found it, you’ll probably spend another couple of minutes updating it, depending on the speed of the local internet.

Sometimes in seminars, I’ll ask those attending to pull out their smart phones and count the number of apps they have downloaded. The record so far on one device is 241. That’s ten full screens of 24 apps each. Here’s the bottom line. When it comes to apps, the more convenience you have, the less convenience you have.

Decision fatigue is caused by making too many unproductive decisions. Looking for that “needle-in-a-haystack” app is a great example of why we feel tired halfway through the day. This is a phenomenon I call appoplexy. So here’s a quick solution. Take out your smart phone right now and delete an app you really don’t use. Then make a practice of doing so whenever you’re on line at the grocery store, waiting to get your car washed, or waiting for the movie to begin. Eliminating little decisions will conserve the energy you need for the bigger decisions throughout the day.

Working Through Decision Discomfort

For the past 30 years, I have been asking people to tell me exactly why they’re working the career they’re in. Most times, they’ll chuckle and want to tell me a story about how one thing led to another. Roke (ro-key) is one of those people. Last week, my furnace needed fixing and Roke arrived to make the repairs. As he worked, I asked him how he got into the business.

“Twenty years ago,” he explained, “I graduated with a degree in computer science and went to work for a firm that hosts on-line conferences. But after a while, I got tired of sitting behind a desk. Besides, they were laying people off because of the recession. So, I started thinking about what I really wanted to do. I enjoy working with my hands and the local community college was offering courses in heating and cooling repair. It took me about a year to get trained. But now I make an even better living and the job is more secure. People may not need conferencing. But they will always need furnace repairs.”

What can we take away from this story? First, very few people are strategic in their initial career decisions. (Think about yourself, for instance.) Second, a good portion of the workforce are in positions they don’t enjoy. Gallup puts that number at more than 60%. Third, most of us are open to a better opportunity if someone persuades us in the right way. Fourth, the big thing that keeps us from taking this leap is our self-talk about stepping to the unknown.

In every decision of significance, we have to manage our emotional discomfort as we take action. Changing where we work and what we do is a great example of this. Whether it’s choosing a career, committing to a long-term relationship, making a large purchase, or making a job change, fear of the unknown will always have to be overcome.

Those who make the best decisions take time to clarify the objective, collect their resources, consider their options, choose the best of those options and then reflect on the outcome. That way, they’ve learned how to manage the discomfort when making the next big decision. Someone should write about book about this. Wait! Someone already has. It’s called Figure It Out! and you can get your copy by clicking on the link.

Are You Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

You know the feeling . . . the nervousness, the cold sweats, the clammy hands, maybe even an eye twitch . . . when you have to making one of THOSE decisions. Maybe it’s approaching someone you find intimidating. Perhaps it’s a presentation in front of your boss and peers. Maybe it’s committing to a new job when there’s the possibility of something better coming along. (You can probably think of 50 other variations of this.) Then there’s all the other thoughts of worry, failure, even catastrophe that can flood your mind.

Believe it or not, your brain is looking after your best interests when it does this to you, although it doesn’t feel like it at the time. You see, the brain can’t tell the difference between physical threats, like a ball coming at your head, and emotional threats, like the rejection you might feel after approaching a stranger. So, anytime it senses uncertainty, your brain jumps into action by doing two things.

First, it introduces two hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, into your nervous system. These stress-producing chemicals boost your attention and make you aware of potential danger.  Second, the brain uses pattern recognition to fill your mind with thoughts about similar situations where the outcome was uncomfortable. If you’ve been rejected by one or more strangers in the past, it will bring forth the most relevant memory. If you’re thinking of joining an intermural team, it reminds you of the time the teacher laughed when you dropped the football in middle school. Allow these thoughts to dominate your thinking can discourage you from trying anything outside of your comfort zone.

So how do effective decision makers deal with these feelings and thoughts? They acknowledge them. In some cases, they even laugh, just to keep them in perspective. These individuals have learned these worries and emotions can’t be eradicated. But it is possible to manage them. In addition, they fix their focus on the outcome or reward for taking the risk. Approaching the stranger may result in the sale or a new friendship. Joining the intramural team will result in new relationships, provide some fun and keep you healthy. Finally, the seek the support of others to encourage them. There’s nothing like a trusted friend or colleague to lean on when you feel like you’re facing an uncomfortable situation. So, where are you on the journey to becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable?