December 12, 2010

Another Look at Taking Action

“Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.” – Mark Twain

In a recent blog (July 6th, 2010), I focused my writing on “tips for taking action.” Because any lasting change requires some kind of action, I’m returning to this topic with more ideas.   “I’ve had the symptoms of depression (or anxiety, or problems in marriage, or whatever) for a long time now—I’m in a total rut and I don’t know how to get out of it.  How can I make changes when things have been going badly for so long?”

It’s true that the longer a problem has been in place, the more creative you have to be in dislodging it, but that’s only because humans are creatures of habit, and often don’t notice the potential benefits for changing.  For those of us who live in the Pacific Northwest, a good example can be seen in winter driving.  When the roads are icy, and a car gets stuck, it can become entrenched unless the driver uses a few skills to generate even small movements.  Snowbound on ice, a driver will need to get the vehicle to move forward, or backward, even inches at a time—the direction is not so important as the momentum built by simply generating movement.  Back and forth, back and forth, just a bit of motion overcomes the rut and the slippage that may occur in this kind of circumstance.  In just the same way, small movement, even in directions that seem unproductive at first, can build the momentum needed to get on track and moving in the right direction.

One skill worth learning is that of taking a paradoxical approach by doing the exact thing you dread the most.  For example, if your low mood has left you feeling completely unsociable, and it’s been days since you last spoke to anyone about anything but work, you might make it a point to go into the break room and join the conversation of colleagues.  You might phone a friend about getting together for coffee, or simply walk to a busy location and say, “Good morning” to the first few people you see.  The idea is not so much to get you engaged in social interaction, as it is to do something you’ve been resisting.  For some people, there are activities they dread—cleaning out the refrigerator, going in for an annual physical, or sitting down to balance the checkbook.  Doing something you generally dislike will give you an accomplishment to feel good about, and often lead to doing something easier from your list of things to do.

Something I’ve found useful in my own attempts to overcome the ruts in life is one I call “Do just a little bit”. I have to laugh at myself about this one—and it generally gets a laugh from my wife as well—because it often goes this way: The garage will grow more and more cluttered over the winter, with items being stacked and stowed there awaiting a proposed spring yard sale, or project.  For months at a time I might ignore the way it becomes more difficult to park the car in the appropriate space, and then all of a sudden, I NOTICE! But it seems like such a huge job that I don’t feel like I’ll ever have time for it.  I don’t even want to admit that I’ve seen it—I don’t want to face it!  So, I just tell myself, “I’ll just do a little bit out there.  I’ll spend ten minutes getting things a little more organized so they aren’t in the way…” and a half an hour later I enter the kitchen, smiling, happy and productive, saying, “give me another hour and I’ll really have it looking good!”  It’s the momentum of that “little bit” that propels me to keep going.  If I had looked into the garage and thought, “it’s going to take me an hour and a half to clean up that mess,” I never could have convinced myself to do it.  But the idea of ten minutes didn’t seem daunting or terrible, and the momentum was enough to get out of the rut.

This reminds me of another thing I sometimes do, and advise to others as well:  keep a record of successes as you’re overcoming a rut, or making a change.  Some people put a sticky note on their bathroom mirror to remind them of a goal reached, and others use a notepad on their bedside table.  Whatever means you use, it’s good to be able to remind yourself of the ways you’ve been successful.  Even if the success is a small one, making note of it will remind you that you had the skills, fortitude, energy, whatever it took, to do it.  And I’d also consider writing down things that didn’t end in complete success, but that were efforts made outside your comfort zone.  For example, as I mentioned previously about doing the thing you dread: even if you are not entirely able to do the opposite of what you’re inclined to do, it’s important to recognize that you took action toward that goal.  Maybe I wasn’t able to ask a friend out for coffee, but I wrote down their number by the phone, and put it on my list to call them tomorrow.  Okay, that’s a step.

I like the idea of rewarding yourself for the small miracles of momentum that you perform, too.  For example, it may surprise some people that I like to bring home fresh flowers to brighten a room.  In fact, when I first met my wife, she thought I had a girlfriend, or at least a secret admirer, because I often had a single red rose in a vase on the table.  Even as an impoverished student, I liked the scent and sight of having a flower in my home, however tiny or modest my accommodations might be.  It was a reward for working hard, as well as a reminder of the good things in life that I hoped to have more of.  Whatever reminds you of the changes you’re making to brighten your own life, try to find a way to symbolize that in a meaningful reward.

Remember the example of my garage?  That reminds me of another strategy that I offer in this matter of taking action or getting started: make it manageable.  Although the idea of doing a little bit will often lead to doing a whole lot more than I thought possible, it’s also a good idea to have a strategy for making a mountainous task more manageable.  For example, I worked with a couple that was planning their wedding.  Anyone who’s ever done it will tell you that planning a wedding is a monstrous undertaking!  And the details of it all began to fall mainly on the bride and her mother, which led to problems because the groom became less and less involved, finally to the point where he felt as if he would “just phone it in” which was not what either of them hoped it would be like.  They were bright enough to see that the enormity of the task they had set for themselves was so great that the desire to make a successful WEDDING was getting in the way of making a successful MARRIAGE!  At that point, they decided to break things down into much smaller events and tasks so that each part could be seen as something manageable to be done, or to delegate to others.  Their original ideas about the wedding looked like something worthy of Buckingham Palace, but the scale of that plan had them both feeling stressed, resentful and completely overwhelmed.  As they worked together on making it manageable, they realized that they wanted the wedding to represent their love for one another, and thus it was more natural to take small steps toward something simple, and more meaningful to them as a couple, rather than a ceremonial event for others to see.

And, a final strategy that I have used dozens, if not hundreds, of times in situations where I felt utterly out of my depth, comes from Shakespeare, who said, “Act well your part, there all the honor lies,” and sometimes it is the best advice of all.  There have been times when I did not feel like making a presentation, or meeting with a committee, or going for dinner with my in-laws, but sometimes we must act well the part.  Saying that, I’m pretty sure someone will imagine I’m suggesting that you be a phony, and that’s most certainly not the case.  Getting started, taking action, moving out of a rut—these are not things that human beings do without effort.  The effort it takes to simply “show up” is often the toughest part, but it’s important to know that we are always playing a role of some kind.  Not a phony role, but a real role.  Sometimes it takes a little imagination to figure out that your role is the person you most want to see in your mirror.  And only you can decide who you want that person to be.  But if you want to see a person who overcomes adversity rather than sits waiting for others to come to the rescue, and you want to see a person you admire and are proud of, then act that part.  Even when you’re feeling grouchy, or you’re in a low mood, or don’t really feel up to it.  Act the part of the person you want to be.  It’s who you are on the inside, so lead with that.