Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Downward Spiral - or "This Is What Happens In My Head"

I fully realize that I want the focus of my writing to be on the positive: what is working well for me, strategies that sometimes work well, and other optimistic possibilities. I believe that what you pay attention to increases, and I truly want to focus on optimistic life strategies. I recently read a statistic that after controlling for all other factors, “up ending” movies make more money than “down ending movies” – which just goes to show you that people want to be entertained by positive stories.

But some days I just can’t find my way from where I am to the positive upbeat ending. Sometimes I just can’t get from here to there. Today was one of those days.

I had the alarm set for 5:00 am so we could get up and leave the house by 5:30 am for the Sunday morning golf round. The weather report predicted ridiculously cold morning temps in the 40’s, with a high of 56 degrees. So I had picked out several layers of clothing, along with ear muffs and gloves.
At 3:30 am, I awoke from a bad dream. I was anxious, my heart was racing and I could not get back to sleep. Instead, I lie there and stressed out over several different issues; my anxiety just kept circling between two primary issues that kept me wide awake. Finally around 4:45 I drifted off and awoke late – at 5:30. So I rushed to dress, make coffee, feed the dog and get out the door. Mike and I managed to leave by 5:50.

At the golf course, it was cold and dark – the lights weren’t even on yet. The grass was cold and crunchy and I bought tea to try to warm myself up. Then I went to the driving range, where I discovered that it was truly going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Everything about my golf swing was off – and several bad habits had set in. That was a premonition of the bad round ahead.

From the first swing of the first hole, nothing was working right. Part of the problem was that I had taken a golf lesson yesterday, so I had several things in my head that I was trying work on. Problem was – I had TOO MANY things I was trying to work on, and I had several bad habits I was trying to correct. My mind was too full of too many corrections and in my state of overwhelm, nothing worked right. I was golfing worse than I did during my first ever round of golf. I had regressed past the point that I thought was possible.

The first hole was a disaster, followed by an equivalent disaster on the second hole. By the third hole I wanted to cry and by the fourth hole I wanted to quit.

By the fifth hole, I had lost all ability to think rationally about my golf swing, and by the sixth hole, I had lost all ability to think rationally about my life. Because by then, the downward spiral had set in. The downward spiral is not pretty, but it’s a fact of my life. The downward spiral is what I call it, but psychologists would call it “cognitive distortion.” Whatever you call it, this is what it looks like:

1. Wow – my golf swing really sucks.
2. Wow – whatever I try to do to improve my golf swing ends up making it worse.
3. Wow – none of the drills I usually try are helping.
4. Wow – I didn’t know that it was possible for my golf swing to be this bad.
5. Wow – this is really embarrassing – I spent money on golf clubs and golf lessons and this is how I am golfing? This is hugely embarrassing. I can't even hit the ball.
6. Wow – nothing I have tried is working, I guess nothing is ever going to help me improve. I am just hopeless.
7. Wow – this is beyond embarrassing, now I am really slowing down the other guys I am golfing with – this must be getting annoying for them. They are being really polite to allow me to keep golfing with them.
8. Wow – this must be frustrating for Mike – he’s been so patient teaching me how to golf, and I have regressed so much so quickly. He must be really disappointed in me.
9. Ok now I really feel bad for disappointing Mike so much and being so lame. I can’t even follow the simple advice he is trying to give me.
10. I’m not just a bad golfer, I’m a bad girlfriend. He’s being patient and supportive, and I’m over here having a pity party for myself. I’m so ridiculous.
11. I’m not just a bad golfer, I’m a total failure. I can’t do anything right.
12. Now I’m not just a failure, I’m not even good company, I’m no fun to be around, I take myself too seriously and I can’t even snap out of this bad mood. Why am I even out here?
13. Come to think of it, I’ve never really been good at any sport I’ve tried, and I don’t know why I even bother to try. Why have I wasted so much time on this?
14. Actually, it’s not just sports I’m bad at – I’m no good at my job, I’m a lousy friend, and I don’t know why Mike even puts up with me.
15. I’m so self-absorbed that a stupid thing like my golf swing can set me off into this bad mood – this just demonstrates what a bad companion I am. I wouldn’t blame Mike for breaking up with me, because I am no fun to be around.
16. I wish there was just one thing in my life that I was good at – I seem to be bad at every sport I try, but I’m just too stubborn to quit them – I guess I should just stop being stubborn and let myself quit, because I’ve certainly not improved at any of them.
17. I wouldn’t blame Mike for breaking up with me, because I have so many ridiculous issues, and I can’t even think logically about sports, or my life.
18. Come to think of it, why does Mike even spend time with me? How does he manage to put up with me?

This isn’t exactly the end of the downward spiral, but I think this is a sufficient description. The point is - it’s unpleasant, it’s illogical, and it’s circular. It just feeds on itself and once you are in the spiral you can’t break out of it.

Now that I have this incredibly useful masters degree in psychology, I can label my downward spiral as a “cognitive distortion.” Specifically, my thinking is distorted in four primary ways:

1. Magnification. In my mind, my golf swing becomes INCREDIBLY BAD and terrible. My terribleness becomes intensified and I emphasize the badness, and I what is sort of bad becomes REALLY REALLY BAD. The badness becomes intense and magnified. Today I even started figuring out exactly how bad my drives were, according to my average yardage.

2. All-or-nothing. I lose sight of anything good about my golfing. For example, I ignored the fact that my putting has been awesome. ALL of my golf is ALL bad, ALL of the time, and there is no room for anything good to enter my thinking.

3. Generalizing. My badness and poor ability crosses over from golf, to everything else in my life. I’m a bad friend, bad girlfriend, etc. I’m just generally bad at everything in my life, and I start seeing this pattern everywhere in my life.

4. Jumping to conclusions. Because I’m golfing bad today, I will always golf badly, and I will never improve. Furthermore, Mike will continue to be disappointed in me, and he won’t have any fun being around me, and then the next thing you know, I’ll be living alone in a studio apartment without any friends or a job.

The real fact of the matter is this: Mike was patient with me, he was supportive and he did try to help me. Even after he split a huge hole in the seat of his pants, he tried to make me laugh about it, to distract me from my own misery. But when I’m in the downward spiral, all I can do is wallow in my pity party and keep going around and around in the circle of distortions. 

As I discovered today, recognizing the distorted thinking is just not enough to change it.

So what did I do? I got quiet, I stopped talking to anyone, and I just suffered through the rest of the round of golf. I didn’t quit, but I wasn’t having any fun. But I avoided any arguments with Mike, and I tried to keep my misery to myself. For today, that was enough of a victory.

When I got home after bunch I decided that I needed a nap – because I recognized that having only about 4 hours of sleep might have been part of my problem. And I recognized that just like a person trapped in quick sand – sometimes the best thing you can do is just stop moving. Sometimes the only thing I can do is to stop making the problem worse.

So I took a long nap and now I’m writing this horrible self-indictment in an attempt to purge the downward spiral from my very being.

The downward spiral is a not something that I ever want to repeat.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


“Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler.”

- Albert Einstein

Typically if you want to change something in your life, you will start by deciding to add something new. A new goal, a new process, a new exercise routine, or a new diet. These are all additions to daily life. If you want to get fit, you might join a new gym or hire a new trainer. These are all new additions in your life. You might establish a new daily meditation habit, or you might start going to a new church.

If your goals are business oriented or financially focused, you might hire a business coach, or a financial planner. You might establish a new savings account, or join an investment club.

These are all comfortable, typical steps for you to take, and they are likely to have a positive impact.

However, there is another approach to take to personal change, the opposite approach. Instead of adding something new to your life, you can start by getting rid of something. By getting rid of something in your life, you create more space in your life. Space for something new.

There are so many things in our lives that take up space and energy and attention. And so many of these things just waste our time and energy. These can be physical things or non-physical things.

So my advice for personal change is to start by getting rid of clutter. Find the clutter and get rid of it. Be rigorous and be thorough.

In my house, there are many forms of clutter, of which I am the prime owner and offender. I have books taking up space in almost every room of the house. Not just individual books but stacks of books. Yes, I have stacks of books in multiple rooms. Then there is the paperwork. Receipts, invoices, warranties, confirmations, and other various types of paper. HOW do these things multiply so quickly? Then there are the magazines and catalogs that NEVER stop being delivered.

Then I have all the clothes and shoes, for various sports and climates. I think I have currently have exercise clothes in five rooms of our house. I am not proud of this fact, but this is a fact. Don’t even ask me about how many types of socks I have, but at least they are semi-organized according to sport.

Now let’s talk about electronic clutter. My hard drive is nowhere near organized, and I have photos still to be downloaded from 3 separate cameras. These are just electronic version of clutter, because they are not organized. Oh, and actually I still have files on two separate laptops, one of which needs to go away sometime soon.

So let’s review my house: books, paperwork, catalogs, magazines, shoes, exercise clothes, laptops, digital photos. This is nowhere near a complete list, but just a decent start.

These are the things that get in the way of what I want most in my life. These are the things that keep my energy blocked, that keep me distracted from what I really want to focus on.

If I were to practice what I preach, I would focus all my free time over the next days and weeks to GET RID OF THE CLUTTER. So this is what I shall do.

If you would like to join me on this journey, there are numerous online resources that can provide organization ideas and tools. But don’t clutter up your thinking by googling “clutter.” Just decide to get started.

Make a list of what you are going to tackle and give yourself a deadline to get rid of the clutter. Pick a room or a closet or a cabinet. Then go purge. And you will find out how amazingly free you can feel.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Energy of Indecision

“Decisions are more difficult than actions. Decisions paralyze people. Actions are easy. Decisions paralyze people because decisions require change.”

-- Robert McKee

Sometimes in our lives we get stuck. Sometimes we find ourselves in a rut, unable to move forward or turn right. Sometimes we find ourselves awake at 2:00 am, analyzing the options, imagining the different possibilities. There are many important choices that keep us awake at night. These could include any of the following:

- Job A or job B
- House A or house B
- Career A or career B
- Retire or work
- Relationship or divorce
- Move or stay
- Drive or fly

Every time in my life when I find myself stuck, it is because I have not yet made a decision. When I find myself awake at 2:00 am, it is because I have not yet analyzed my way to a decision; I am still in limbo and I don’t yet know the right path forward. Every time this happens I have the exact same dream: I am driving a car and I cannot keep my eyes open - they are incredibly heavy and remain closed - so I'm absolutely panicked as I try to drive my car with my eyes closed.

During the past two years, I have had to make several challenging decisions, challenging because there was no obvious right answer and I had to feel my way to the best outcome. But in each of the different situations I found myself anxious, stressed out and tired, UP UNTIL THE POINT OF DECISION. After the decision was made I immediately became energized, excited, and motivated.

I am comfortable with action, I enjoy implementing action, making phone calls, doing online research, scheduling reservations, or movers or dogsitters. Action is great – I love action. But action only comes AFTER the decision. And it can take a lot of extra wasted energy to get to the decision.

Which is why it is very smart to reduce the amount of indecision in our lives. Indecision drains us and keeps us stuck. Decisions move us into the future.
This is why I encourage people who want to become fit to sign up for a training class at a regular day and time. This is why I advise triathletes to plan their training schedule for the entire week or month ahead. Because then you are only making ONE decision instead of thirty separate decisions.

I read a statistic that people who plan to exercise 7 days a week are far more consistent with their training sessions, as compared to people who plan to exercise 4 or 5 days per week. This is counterintuitive – you would think the more frequently you exercise, the harder it would be to fit in that many training sessions, and the greater the opportunity for scheduling conflicts. You would think that people who plan to exercise 7 days per week would have some margin for slacking off built into their training plan – those are the people who could afford to skip a few sessions.

Instead, the reverse is true. People who plan to exercise 7 days a week actually do exercise 7 days per week. But the people who plan to exercise 4 or 5 days per week actually only exercise 2 or 3 days per week.

The reason is because the 7 day a week people only had to make ONE decision. They decided ONE TIME that they would exercise every day. However, the 4-5 times a week people had to wake up and decide EVERY DAY if they would exercise that day or not. So they had to make 7 decisions per week. And every decision provided them an opportunity for laziness and slacking off. Every individual decision increased the risk to their plan.

When I was active with the Tucson Tri Girls triathlon club, I organized an annual December “runathon” challenge. During the month of December, the participants would agree to run at least 2 miles EVERY single day of the month. Most people would typically run 3-6 miles per day, but 2 miles was the absolute minimum. Of the people who signed up, between 60-80% completed the challenge. What this challenge did was it changed people’s daily decision from “Will I run today?” to instead become “When will I run today?” And that simple shift helped people train far more consistently. They made one decision about their December running, instead of 30 separate decisions.

What’s the lesson in all of this? Reduce the number of decisions necessary in your life. Reduce the energy you waste before making decisions. Then you can move forward with action and action will get you the results you really want. Analysis never will.

Realtors have a phrase to describe desirable properties: Location, location, location.

My new motto is going to be this: Decide, decide, decide.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Who's In Your Pace Line?

Frequently when people talk about the skills of leadership, they talk about vision, courage, alignment, execution, and other important aspects of leadership.  Seldom do experts talk about the energy that leadership requires. Please note that when I talk about leadership, I’m not just referring to leadership in the traditional business world.  I’m really talking about any type of leadership, business, community, or social leadership, including the fundamental leadership that is required to create and lead your own intentional life. 

I find it interesting and ironic that we rarely talk about the energy of leadership, although leadership is such a physically and emotionally draining activity.  To state the obvious, leading requires much more energy than following.

In this way, leadership is similar to cycling.  In the world of cycling energy management is extremely critical.  Which is why cyclists frequently ride in packs, and most serious cyclists become skilled at drafting behind other cyclists.  It’s no secret that when you are on a bike, it’s much easier to ride behind someone as compared to riding in front of someone.  When you are drafting, the ride can be between 20-40% easier in terms of energy required.  And that’s just physical energy.

Let’s pretend that you and 5 of your closest friends are going out for a long bike ride, and you all want to be as fast and efficient as possible.  You would all form a pace line and each of you would ride single file, about 12-24 inches behind each other.  Being this close together means that only the first rider is paying attention to the road, while all the other riders are hyper focused on just the person in front of them.  Because when there’s only 18 inches between your front tire and your friend’s back tire, you need to pay close attention to what they are doing.  Crashing in a pack on a bike is generally a bad thing.  As a group you will determine a fairly fast pace that everyone can maintain over a long distance.  Let’s pick a speed like 22 mph.  In order to maintain this pace you will all have to take turn pulling the line.  When you are pulling, you are really working hard -- you are doing the hardest effort.  But because you are doing such a hard effort, you’ll only pull for a short period of time, let’s pretend it’s 2 minutes.  So for 2 minutes, you are hauling ass, pulling the line to keep the speed of the whole line at 22 mph.  Then after 2 minutes, you will drop back to the very back of the line, inside the draft zone, where it’s 20-40% easier, and you’ll recover.  The next person who was behind you will pull the line for 2 minutes, and then fall back to the tail of the line.  And so on.  If you have 6 people in your line, you’ll end up pulling hard for 2 minutes, recovering for 10 minutes, and then repeating this pattern over and over again.  This will enable the entire group to average 22 mph.  By comparison, if you were riding alone and doing all your own pulling, you might only average 17 mph.  By following such a consistent pattern you will maximize your recovery time, and conserve your energy in order to ride farther and faster than you could alone.

When I used to do long training rides in pace lines, I found it interesting that when I became tired, I ‘d still have the physical energy necessary to pull the line, but I no longer had the emotional energy required to pull the line.  Pulling the line required many different leadership skills, beyond just brute energy and willpower. 

First, when you pulled the line you had to be hyper vigilant about moving cars, traffic lights, potential pedestrians, animals and any other moving obstacles.  Anything that was moving could potentially interfere with your pace line.  Traffic lights that changed suddenly could require a sudden stop in the pace line.  Potholes could create havoc for the line, as could puddles, branches, and the worst possible obstacle – sand.  Sand could make wheels spin out of control and sand was just always bad news.  Second, you had to be super focused on maintaining an even and consistent pace.  If the goal pace for your line was 22 mph, you didn’t want to range between 19 and 25 mph, you wanted to stay right at 22 mph.  Changes in speed could also create crashes and irritated riders, so maintaining a very even pace was important for everyone.  Third, you needed to be able to quickly use a hand signals to warn the person behind you of any debris in the road.  You needed to be able to swerve quickly to miss debris, but also signal to the person behind you to tell them you were going to be swerving.  In summary, when you pulled the line, you had to constantly scan your surroundings for risks and challenges, you had to respond quickly, and then immediately warn everyone about your response.  To behave otherwise would result in irritated and or injured riders behind you.

When I was training for Ironman and doing 80 mile, 90 mile and 100 mile training rides, it was always easier to ride in a line with my friends.  Not only was it more efficient, but it also made the time pass faster because I was constantly changing position in the line.  I enjoyed riding in a line except when I was toast.  When I was toast, I just couldn’t summon the emotional energy necessary to pull.  When I was toast, I just wanted to hang my head in defeat, I just wanted to wiggle my nose and be home already.  I also witnessed this same phenomenon in my friends.  Some days someone would just burn out, and they wouldn’t be able to do any more pulling at all.  Even the strongest riders I rode with had days when they burnt out and we’d have to pull them on home.  It happened to everyone eventually.  The benefit of riding in a group was that you knew if it happened to you, you’d always have others who could pull you in to home; you’d always have someone else you could follow.  No rider was ever left behind.

Which brings me back to leadership.  Most leadership roles are not as well organized as a pace line.  Leadership doesn’t always rotate on 2 minute intervals and it doesn’t require 18 inches of space between tires.  Leadership isn’t about dodging stray dogs or snakes in the road. 

But leadership does require more physical and emotional energy than following.  Leadership does require you to scan your environment, decide how to respond, and communicate your direction.  Leadership requires you to pull others behind you, others who are perfectly happy to cruise inside your draft zone.  Leadership is more physically demanding than following. 

And so when I speak with people about leading more effectively, I want to know how they are managing their time and energy to build in recovery time.  I want to know how they have selected their target pace, and how well they are sticking to their target pace. 

More importantly, I want to know about their pace line.  Who are they riding with, and do they trust the other riders in their pace line?  I want to know if they are riding with people they feel comfortable following.  I want to know if they are riding with the right group, a group that will also maintain the target pace, avoid obstacles and eliminate crashes. 

I want to know if they are riding with people who will carry them home when they burn out and their head is hanging down on their handlebars and they are too tired to talk.  I want to know that the pace line has their back.

Every cyclist has bad days.  Every leader burns out.  These are guaranteed occurrences.  So I ask you, who’s in your pace line?  Do you trust them enough to follow them?  Will they help you perform better than you would have done alone?

If you want to be a strong leader, either to lead yourself or others, then follow Lance Armstrong's example and make sure you have a strong pace line.  

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

What's Your Anchor?

How do you know what you are capable of? I’m wondering about specific skills – like running or lifting weights, or other specific tactical skills. If you are trying something brand new for the first time – how do you know your starting point? Take for example, running. If someone asked you “How far can you run in 10 minutes without stopping?” -- How would you know how to guesstimate your answer? Would you guess how far you used to run 10 years ago? Would you ask how far your coworker or neighbor ran in 10 minutes and base your answer off of that? Would you ask how far the fastest person ran? Or perhaps you’d ask about the slowest person. This is what psychologists and economists call anchoring. Your starting reference point is the anchor that you start with, that you compare things against. Economists LOVE to conduct experiments where they manipulate your anchors in order to change your behavior.

What I’m really curious about is this -- what is your default frame of reference when something is new to you? On what anchor do you base your estimate of your own capabilities? Are you aggressive or conservative? Ambitious or cautious? Do you start out with high expectations or low expectations for yourself?

If you understand these things about yourself, you will better be able to understand how to motivate yourself to take action. By knowing this, you can better structure your life and tasks in order to accomplish your goals. If you know you are competitive, you can set up situations to compete. If you are easily intimated, you can allow yourself to practice in private. If you need to build confidence, you can schedule lessons with a trainer to learn a new skill. If you have very little fear, you can go sign up for a 10k race and just run it. No matter your personality type and your approach, knowing your personality type will help you manage your own strengths and limitations in a constructive way. In other words, you can use yourself to help yourself. But first you have to know yourself.

I have to confess that I am a competitive person. I really really don’t like this about myself and I wish this quality of myself was different. But this competition thing keeps showing up, in several different areas of my life. My starting anchor tends to be “Whatever the other person accomplished.” Whatever she did, I can do better. Or longer.  Or faster.  Even when I started learning to golf for the first time last year, I immediately wanted to golf as well as my family and friends. My anchor was how well other people golfed.  Whatever their score was, I thought that should be my score.  Golf doesn't work that way however, much to my continuous frustration.

This morning, I was traveling for work and visited a CrossFit gym in Houston. This was a brand new gym I was unfamiliar with, and I got lost on the Houston freeways two times trying to find it. But I found it, and after I arrived I saw there were 20 people who showed up for the 6:00 AM class. Yes, I was intimidated, since everyone else knew each other and I was used to much smaller classes. No matter though – the class immediately began and soon we were all throwing heavy weighted balls high against the wall. After 50 throws of the weighted ball, we ran around the block and then stretched and then did the main workout: 4 rounds of the rowing machine (500 meters) + 10 pushups, as fast as possible. After 15 minutes I was hot and sweaty and tired and ready to fall over. I thought the class was over, but no such luck. After a three minute rest, then came the informal competition: handstands against the wall. There were 10 people in my group, and once we were all doing handstands against the wall, the clock started. The challenge was to hold your handstand longer than everyone else.

Now if you had asked me before class how long I could do a handstand, I would have had NO IDEA. I really had no possible frame of reference, I had no anchor. I had never tried to do an endurance handstand before. As soon as we started, I kicked my feet up to the wall and waited. Almost immediately, a couple people had fallen over. Within 20 seconds, another couple people were down. Then another few people were down. By the one minute mark, there were only 2 of us left. Me and another woman in a green shirt. She was about 10 yards away from me, but I could turn my head sideways to see her. And if you had asked me at that point, how long I could hold a handstand, here’s how I would have answered: “I have no idea how long I can do a handstand, but I guarantee you it’s at least 3 seconds longer than she can do.” With only one other woman left, there was NO WAY I was going to fall over first. I was just that stubborn. Even though my arms and shoulders were in major pain and I could no longer feel my hands, I was not going to give in, I was not going to get beat. After another ten seconds, I was in agony. I wanted to come down, but I refused. I saw all the guys standing around watching us, and there were only the two of us left. I wondered if it was possible for my arms to simply collapse on their own.

Finally, the woman in green fell over. Immediately, the trainer came over to me, to encourage me to keep going. But I was done. Within about five seconds of the other woman quitting I came down. I had no more reason to stay up and I was in pain, so I came down. My stubbornness only lasted as long as there was someone else to beat. As soon as I was the only one left, I had no reason to keep on enduring the pain. As soon as I outlasted the competition, I could quit.

Now I know with 100% certainty – I need other people to motivate me. I need other people to challenge me. I need to train with people who are faster and stronger than me. I will push myself more when surrounded by others, than I will when I’m alone. I may not like this fact about myself, but this is the truth. And by knowing the truth about myself, I can use this truth to organize my training in order to get stronger.

No more working out alone in my garage gym. No more solitary runs or bike rides. If I really want to get fitter, I need to train with people who are faster than me. I might not be able to hang with them all the time, and I might be the one who falls over first, but by training with stronger people, I can put my stubborn nature to good use. Even the things I don’t like about myself can be used for positive benefit.