July 6, 2010

Tips for Taking Action!

No matter what issue you’re struggling with—whether it relates to completing tasks around the home, or pulling yourself out of a period of negative emotions—the antidote will relate to action.  I have met with patients convinced that their depression was insurmountable, and I’ve talked with students who thought that the responsibilities of work, school and home were irreconcilable.  In both cases, they were surprised to find that life got more manageable as soon as they actually got started.

For some of us, getting started feels like a mental thing.  The “thinking stage” of making changes.  Planning.  Getting conceptually organized, and so forth.  These are valuable aspects of moving ahead, but not really quite what I mean in this case: actual movement is what’s needed.  There are a few strategies you might try for getting a bit of traction on forward momentum.  I present these as a few to “get you started.”

Make a deal with yourself: I remember a patient from years ago.  She had just been through a devastating divorce and the resulting loss of family support, living standards, and a home she loved left her feeling entirely bereft.  She felt no control over what life might throw at her, and to prevent things from getting any worse, she felt it best to just do nothing.  In our discussions, I gave her my “getting started” pep talk and wondered whether she could get past her hurt feelings enough to even take it in, but she surprised me.  The next week, she came in having “made a deal” with herself: she decided she was spending too much time crying over her losses and not nearly enough time reaching out to gain control over her life.  To regain that control, she decided to walk whenever her crying spells lasted longer than 10 minutes.  She set a timer when tears set in, and at the end of her allotted minutes, her “deal” meant that if she was still crying she had to walk the circle around her neighborhood lake—a distance of 2.5 miles.  Any time of day or night, if she couldn’t control the tears, she found she could control her feet.  She walked the circle several times a day at first with the result that her weight began to normalize.  Further, she began to see her community in a new light, and then to see herself with new eyes.  Taking action, for this woman, meant making a deal with herself, and that led to increased sense of control over other areas of her life.

Take a left turn: We all tend to move along in predictable ruts, and that can often result in feelings of stagnation, negativity, and even some symptoms that relate to depression.  Call a friend you haven’t talked to in a long time, test drive a car that you obviously would never purchase, or get your hair cut, beard shaved off, or some other visible sign of your decision to make changes.  This may seem superficial at first, but research bears out that larger changes may stem from the energy generated by less consequential actions.

Try something tough:  If you’ve ever taken on a project that looked quite impossible, and finished it faster than you thought it could be done, you know what a boost can be gained by such action.  Taking on something tough might mean enrolling in a class or building a shed or even cleaning the garage.  The trick with this one is to keep focused on movement, and the immediate task that is right in front of you—not the Big Picture of all that needs doing.  Continuing to put one foot in front of the other to make progress will help you avoid a sense of being overwhelmed.  At the conclusion of your goal, there is satisfaction and a feeling of momentum achieved.

If you can’t face doing something tough, try something so simple that it can’t go wrong:  Each action you take is a step toward a greater sense of effectiveness.  For example, I remember a patient who seemed never to have time for breakfast, which was important for him as a diabetic needing to control his food intake carefully.  Even though failure to eat breakfast had significant negative consequences for him, he struggled with having the energy to make it happen.  As we talked about it, he decided it would be possible to take one small action–he would boil an egg and refrigerate it in the evening for use in the morning.   The first week, he found that even boiling an egg was too much for him, so a couple of evenings he just spooned yogurt into a covered bowl and refrigerated that for his breakfast next day.  By week two, he found that the evening activity of breakfast-making got him thinking about other options, and soon he was making a list of approved breakfast items that could be picked up in regular shopping trips.  He took one easy action that was supportive of overall changes he wanted to make, and that gave him enough momentum to move onto another positive change.

Again, try something different: Routines can leave us with a sense of staleness and even passivity about life.  Doing something outside your normal routine, maybe even something you’ve never done, can spark greater change.  Try a food you’ve never eaten, a hairstyle you have never considered or attend a workshop topic you know nothing about.

Go for FLOW:  If you haven’t already done so, take a little time to learn about the concept of “flow”.  This idea comes from research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi fully described in his books Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life  and  Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Choosing activities that deeply absorb your interest will reduce concentration on your problems or concerns.  Time spent in flow is both challenging and satisfying, and leaves you feeling pleasantly energized.  The best research shows that individuals who frequently spend time in states of flow benefit in the same ways as those who meditate.

In a future article, I will add to these strategies for getting started and taking steps that build momentum.  If you have examples of your own efforts along these lines, be sure to send them to me.  I’d love to hear what has worked for you!