“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a
single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep
physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path,
we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to
dominate our lives.”
~ Henry David Thoreau

A lot of the best lessons that I’ve learned about life, I’ve learned from rockclimbing. When I first got into indoor rock climbing, it was through six classes, meeting every Tuesday, at Planet Granite, and our instructor was Kris, in case she’s still teaching there. She is an incredible instructor. She’s a young rock climber, and she climbs wonderfully. Our class was six women, and the best part about it is that we worked on one new technique every week.

That’s it. One new technique. This means that we learned six new techniques. All those are still the basics of what I use to climb today. It is my favorite way to learn anything: one habit at a time.

You could try to learn two at a time, but then one of the things your mind becomes engaged in is monitoring the transitions, “Am I climbing close enough to the wall? Oh, I forgot – am I using quiet hands? Oh, close enough to the wall? … Quiet hands?” Just the mental switching from thought to thought can make you less effective in addressing either new habit.

Like I was telling a friend recently in an email, the best thing I can do for myself when I’m going for a run is to think only about the running (the running, my breathing, the road, but really only about the run itself). Once my mind starts to wander and think about work or friends, I physically find myself slowing down and sometimes stopping! One thing at a time.

Daniel Gilbert in his Stumbling on Happiness says a similar thing – the mind can either imagine something visually or it can observe something visually – it does not do both at the same time because the brain uses the same wiring to IMAGINE seeing as something as it uses in actually SEEING something. So, if you’re running, and start to picture an issue at work that you’re working on resolving, then your mind starts to IMAGINE the work issue in all its details, and STOPS SEEING IN YOUR MIND the road, seeing your lungs getting healthier, seeing your fast-paced stride.

The mind is a powerful motivator of the body. This is one of the benefits many people that meditate regularly give about their meditation – that just learning to focus on one thing is initially difficult and incredibly rewarding as a feeling.

Finally, Ben Franklin in his life worked on changing fifteen of his habits, including temperance (moderation in food and drink), laziness, organization, etc. Franklin addressed one habit per week. His goal was to be impeccable in that habit in that week, and to ignore the other habits during that week. he succeeded in going through all fifteen habits in fifteen weeks, and then he started them right up again for the following fifteen weeks. But again, one at a time. Focus.

One thing at a time. Simplicity. Making it easy. Making winning easy. If I were Mr. Miyagi, I would end this post with “wax on, wax off.”

Given this article Stress Can Shrink Your Brain that we talked about here, if stress may damage the brain, then how can people diminish the effects of stress on their brains?

EXERCISE! is mentioned frequently in the article as an important way to diminsh the effects of stress. Additionally, the Forbes article says, ‘ “Everything we already know about fighting off chronic disease, like getting sufficient sleep, staying active throughout life, and having a healthy diet” may stave off premature aging of the immune system….’

Also, please see this marvelous article by Marian Diamond that includes thoughts on exercise being great for the brain. Here are a few parts of the article:

    “Very important about exercise is that it is essential for bringing oxygen to all parts of the body, and, as I will explore now, especially to the brain. One particular brain structure is most vulnerable to a lack of oxygen, and that is the hippocampus. Early anatomists thought that the hippocampus resembled a seahorse.

    The hippocampus deals with the processing of recent memory and visual spatial processing. As we age and our blood vessels become less efficient, it is very important to get the oxygen through the vascular system up to the hippocampus, as well as to the rest of the brain and body.”

So, to relieve stress, consider getting more oxygen to the brain.

Also, check out the Change or Die article that I mentioned a couple of days ago about the importance of lifestyle. This article takes the view that people should stop blaming genetics or thier environment, and in fact, should start diligently exercising and eating well.

I’m sitting on my couch reading a fiction book a friend of mine gave me when I look over at my plant and realize… it’s time to water it. I figure, well, ok, when I get up for a glass of water, or maybe just after I finish this chapter, or just later, or maybe tomorrow. After I read a little longer, I look back up – again, I remember the plant, and that it needs water right about now – today or tomorrow. So I tell myself I’ll water it for sure if not tonight then tomorrow. Then I get up to get something from the kitchen, and when I come back, I realize the plant is right there.

Finally, and only after reminding myself that “doing something can be easier than not doing!,” do I go into the kitchen, get some water and water the plant, and the one in the next room too.

When you recognize that something needs to be done, and then you put off doing it, you start to occupy the brain with an extra thought. Yes, you can write it down, and then you occupy the brain less. (You’ll only occupy the brain when you return to the list and see “water the plant” on it and then schedule that activity into your day.) But think about it! How long does it take to water the plant? How long does it take to write down “water the plant” and then schedule the time when you’ll do it? EXACTLY!!! :)

This is one of David Allen‘s biggest points: you want to get organized so that your brain has more free time! Less stress on the brain, less minute things to remember and to juggle.

This is like Dave Seah says in describing his father visiting him: “If you clean up after yourself constantly, you will have a clean house! When he walks around the house, he automatically sees things that need to be arranged better or cleaned.”

Maybe it’s starting to sound pretty appealing to just do something at the moment you think of doing it? Maybe it’s starting to sound like an easier way to live? …But what if you start an action (like going through your mail for example) and it turns into too big a project, and then you get behind on your other obligations? That’s a valid concern. David Allen suggests that if something is going to take two minutes – that’s right, two minutes – then do it now. If more, then write it down and plan it.

And the biggest reason to do things rather than putting them off? You can reduce stress on yourself. Trying to remember is occupying your brain. Trying to remember too much may be stressing your brain. In the latest Forbes issue is the article Stress Can Shrink Your Brain. There’s been research on rats that stress physically shrinks parts of the brain. So give your brain a break – don’t burden it with unnecessary stress! Do something rather than remember another ‘todo’ item.

James Pawelski, Philosopher and Positive Psychologist, has put an acronym to William James‘ four steps to creating a habit. I mentioned this in passing before, and now I’ll introduce you to the handy acronym: SNAP

1) S: Start Strong – Launch the new habit decisively.
2) N: No exceptions – Never make an exception to the new habit.
3) A: Act when promted – Act “on every emotional prompting,” i.e. whenever you want to act on the new habit, be sure to do so!
4) P: Practice! – Do it every day. Exercise the new habit every day.

At the same time, I’ll be posting later about Changing for Good, which is a super book about the psychology of changing a habit. And the main point of that book is that you can’t take a step you’re not ready for. And James and James’ SNAP training is for the action phase of taking on a new habit or breaking an old one. There are several stages before the action phase which involve getting ready to and convincing yourself that you need to create the new habit.

But, surely if you are in the action phase, if you are ready to change something, then ask yourself every day, am I doing it? Am I doing SNAP? These are four fun questions just in order to have a structure. Enjoy!

Update: James Pawelski reminds me that the P in SNAP refers to not only daily practice of the particular habit, but more importantly to the general practice of using the will. It is focus, discipline, self-regulation. William James believed that “we need to do something strenuous every once in a while – even if it’s not directly related to the habit we are trying to create. This, he believes, will keep our wills strong and in good shape,” says James Pawelski.


I read the above quote in this book today. And, having read this phrase, I’m reminded of a line in this book, “Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have. Make the Now the primary focus of your life. … Always say “yes” to the present moment.”

How you do anything is how you do everything.

What if you decided to start paying deep attention and deep respect to each action you take? What would that feel like? And deep attention and deep respect to each person you interact with – even if it’s the five-second eye contact while crossing the street or a phone call from someone when you’re too busy to relax and give full attention, but what if you did anyway?

Today is today. Today is alive. How you do anything in your life at any point today shows the attitude you have to everything in your life. Respect yourself, your boundaries, your possibilities. How you do anything shows how much you respect yourself.

Take-Away: How you do anything shows your attitude towards doing the other things in your life.

Here it is, simple and real:

When you say something good to someone, DO NOT put in anything bad.

That’s it. That simple. When you’re saying good things, keep them good! That’s all. How simple is that?

It frustrates me to no end to hear…
… in the office, “What you did was superb, wonderful, but I just wish you did it all the time.”
…as a couple, “You really matter so much to me, and what you did by coming to my graduation instead of to that conference really matters. I don’t even mind it so much that you’ve missed my last two chamber performances. Thank you.”
…to a friend, “That outfit looks really good on you. And much better than that thing you wore to the charity gala, remember that?”
…with children, “You make me really proud of you. Two A+’s in one week, and a great note from your math teacher! You really should just straighten up in your room a little more.”

There is no high! There is no benefit when you mix the message. What am I saying? That the messenger should be killed? Well, no, ok, I’m not going that far. I’m just pointing out that good combined with bad is semi-good/semi-bad. Here’s the math:
1) good + good + good = good (three pieces of great news or three compliments… together the result is good)
2) bad + bad + bad = bad (three insults…together make a large insult)
3) good + bad = bad (good and bad… together that’s bad)
4) good + good + good + good + good + good + good + bad = bad (n number of good things and one bad thing … together the result is somewhat bad)

Why do I feel so strongly about this? Because the brain remembers bad things more easily than it remembers good things. In the fourth example, the brain overweights the bad. That’s just how brains work. It has to do with being on the lookout for danger in the caveman era. If you don’t see the dangerous animal once, you’re gone. If you don’t always observe the butterflies in the sunshine, you’re still ok, you live. Continue reading

There’s a set of questions that I heard about today for the first time. They could be useful as questions to ask yourself when you’re goal-setting and planning to create a new habit or change an old habit.

Ken Blanchard created this system, and it’s called SMART Goals. The idea is that when you’re planning, here are the areas you can ask yourself about:

* Specific: What specifically are you going to do? What do you ultimately want to accomplish? How? What are the steps?
* Measurable: What will you keep track of? How will you keep track?
* Accountable: To whom will you be accountable? Who else knows that you’re doing this and can share in your small or large successes?
* Realistic: What are your concerns about achieving this plan? How does this differ from when you may have tried something similar before? How can you ensure that the goal is attainable? Is the timeframe realistic?
* Timely: When do you expect to see results? Are there intermediate milestones?

What’s nice is that it’s a simple acronym, and using it can make sure that you cover a lot of the bases of setting a goal. You’ve probably come across Ken Blanchard with the One Minute Manager.

Wouldn’t it be strange if you learned that yes, you can make brand new habits, and that the brand new habits can stick, and yet . . . that the old habits are still somewhere deep in your brain, and given an old triggering environment, the old habits may return?! That seems like the exact opposite of what you would want to hear on Jan 2, getting ready for the New Year and for new habits.

There’s actually valuable information in this – it’s the information of ‘be careful.’ Be careful not to fall into your old habits and old environments in which those habits fester.

Bob Condor of a Seattle newspaper writes, “What [Ann Graybiel] has found is that the brain never completely deletes old patterns, say, smoking, eating junk foods or, yes, riding a bicycle, from the basal ganglia region deep in the brain’s neural structure. Instead, those habitual patterns “retain memory of context,” such as a cocktail and conversation for an ex-smoker or potato chips in the pantry for the junk-food snacker.”

Ann Graybiel

Ann Graybiel is a Neuroscientist and Professor at MIT. Her latest researach about the basal ganglia brain region appeared in the journal Nature in October, 2005. In short, Connors argues that you can beat yourself at the same old game. By keeping the resolution and the new habits at the forefront of your mind, you can act successfully towards creating new habits and setting aside old ones. Connors suggests several verified techniques: do the new habit consistently, write your goals down, and do not put yourself into environments in which old habits are easily triggered (“Just the sight of a piece of chocolate can reset all of those good intentions,” says Graybiel).

This echoes the thoughts of philosophers from Aristotle to William James. Aristotle says, “We are what we repeatedly do.” Continue reading