Saturday, January 16, 2021

From Resolution to Reality: Part II

Last week, I wrote about how "focus is the currency of resolve." Without focus, we cannot maintain resolve. In a sense, focus and resolve are similar. 

When we resolve we "settle on a solution" or "decide firmly on a course of action." 

Last week, I also wrote about notional boundaries, the beginnings of days, weeks, or months that often inspire so much enthusiasm. The new year is, perhaps, the ultimate notional boundary, the moment when so many of us, inspired by the very idea of beginning, resolve to change. 

I am reminded of the famous quote, often misattributed to Goethe:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.

Beyond the misattribution, the problem with this quote, however inspiring it may be, is its utter lack of specificity and practicality. 

A resolve to change, then, must be accompanied by a focus, "the center of interest or activity" or a "clear visual definition." It is no coincidence that visualization is associated with a host of benefits, including "confidence, courage, focus, concentration, and...resilience." 

In other words, you start with solution and you maintain your resolve with a clean vision of what you need to do, each and every day. Of course, I am using these words for my own purposes here. One could define the calculus of change in many ways. 

I like both words, resolve and focus, because they imply centeredness: a solution, a center of activity. 

However, in my experience, resolve and focus are also helpful because they speak to another key element of change.

To make a change, you must begin it now, yes, but you must also begin it the next hour, and the next hour, and the next day, forever focused on your goals. Even as you remain rooted with your "robust soul" you must venture out, and "level that life, to pass and continue beyond."

Momentum: The Key to Change

Momentum is "the quantity of motion of a moving body, measured as a product of its mass and velocity." This popular definition from physics is helpful because it speaks to the basic element of movement. 

For our purposes, we can simplify momentum into two parts: positive momentum and negative momentum.

Positive momentum: Good choices lead to more good choices. 

Negative momentum: Bad choices lead to more bad choices. 

We all cycle through both types of momentum, each and every day. This is life. On one day, you exercise, feel inspired to eat a healthy dinner, and then enjoy a beautiful night's sleep, which leads to a new day of good choices--at least the start of a new good day.  

On another day, you drink too much wine, sleep poorly, and wake up yearning for a donut. Incidentally, science tells us why we have this sort of craving. And we know, as Matthew Walker writes in Why We Sleep, that "too little sleep swells concentrations of a hormone that makes you hungry while suppressing a companion hormone that otherwise signals food satisfaction."

Most of us understand, intuitively, how our habits, good or bad, create their own sort of momentum. 

Despite this knowledge, many of us feel helpless to escape our cycles or good and bad; many of us feel stuck in our "rat race." As Bob Marley sings: "Don't forget your history/ Know your destiny/ In the abundance of water/ The fool is thirsty."

Happily, you don't need to be thirsty. You can escape the rat race quickly and easily, and once you've learned how to escape, you don't have to look back. 

The Autonomic Nervous System: The Root of Momentum 

How do you feel right now? To a large degree, your physical and emotional state at any given moment is defined by the relative balance of your autonomic nervous system.

The nervous system, which is comprised of the brain and spinal cord, is the body's communication network. When we receive sensory input, our brain sends messages to the rest of the body through nerves that branch off from the spine. Many these impulses govern our conscious actions, like getting out of bed, picking up the phone, and checking social media. 

The nervous system also communicates impulses with the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which governs unconscious actions. The ANS includes the enteric nervous system (responsible for digestion), and the sympathetic and the parasympathetic devious. 

These two divisions are often defined as antagonistic in nature because they often perform opposing actions in the body.

The sympathetic nervous system is our "flight or fight" response, which "directs the body's rapid involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations" (source). As Live Science notes:

A flash flood of hormones boosts the body's alertness and heart rate, sending extra blood to the muscles. Breathing quickens, delivering fresh oxygen to the brain, and an infusion of glucose is shot into the bloodstream for a quick energy boost. 

The parasympathetic nervous system is our "rest and relax" response. As Science Daily notes: "the parasympathetic system conserves energy as it slows the heart rate, increases intestinal and gland activity, and relaxes sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract."

Ideally, these two systems perform in concert, creating a harmonious balance, a condition few moderns humans enjoy. This fact that should be obvious to anyone who wakes up, picks up the phone, and checks social media, instigating an immediate sympathetic response. 

We may not have to fend for our lives like an ancient ancestors, in whom the fight or flight response developed as a response to threats. But our modern body cannot differentiate between a ferocious lion and a triggering social media post--and so, too often, we are thrown into a sympathetic mode in our day-to-day lives. 

Recently, Marcelo Campos noted on the Harvard Health Blog:

If we have persistent instigators such as stress, poor sleep, unhealthy diet, dysfunctional relationships, isolation or solitude, and lack of exercise, this balance may be disrupted, and your fight-or-flight response can shift into overdrive.

Essentially, this is the rat race, and this is the momentum of our stressful lives, which creates anxiety and depression, and ultimately distracts us from our resolves. 

Heart Rate Variability: A Key Metric 

To recover, we must shift our momentum. We must find balance. Balance can be quantified in a precise way. One recent determinant is heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of the variation between two heartbeats. 

As Jay T. Wiles recently noted on the Wild Health Podcast: "The heart does not operate like a metronome...There should be variability. More variability of the heart demonstrates more psychological and physiological resilience to outside and internal stressors."

As noted above, of course, most of us do not enjoy this resilience. As the data analytics company Firstbeat notes:

HRV level changes naturally from day to day, based on the level of activity and amount of, for example, work-related stress, but if a person is chronically stressed or overloaded – physically or mentally – the natural interplay between the two systems can be disrupted, and the body can get stuck in a sympathetically dominant fight state, with low HRV and high stress hormone levels, even when the person is resting. This is very consuming on the body and can result in various mental and physical health problems.

Sound familiar? 

Find Your Center: Breath

We have many, many options for halting the momentum of the sympathetic state and downshifting into the parasympathetic state. 

All of us have within us the power to try perhaps the easiest, most effective, and most time-honored of all healing techniques: breathing

In his recent book Breath, James Nestor argues that breathing exercises can change your life. As Nestor notes, up to 80% of us are breathing inadequately and 25% suffer from chronic over-breathing. We are meant to breath primarily through our noses, yet "up to a half of us habitually take in breath from our mouths" (source). 

Mouth breathing is terrible for our health. Thankfully, for those who wish to make a change, the wellness world is ready with legions of videos and apps. Nestor himself has a wonderful resource page on his blog

Some of my favorite breathing exercises include the 4,7,8 method (which influences the autonomic nervous system) and the Wim Hof Method.


Be Uncomfortable (For a Bit): Hormetic Stressors

Wim Hof is also famous for cold exposure, a form of hormesis: a moderate (and usually intermittent) stress that produces an adaptive, beneficial response in the cells. 

Hormesis is the very essence of resilience--by exposing ourselves to small stressors, we condition the body and mind to better handle the all-embracing stress of modern life. 

Beyond cold exposure, which can change your life too, common examples of hormetic stress include heat exposure, certain plant compounds (like sulforaphane), and exercise and fasting. 

Hormesis may have a significant influence on aging. As the popular aging researcher David Sinclair says, each day be a little bit out of breath and a little bit hungry. 

Of all the hormetic stressors, fasting may be the simplest and most straightforward way to develop emotional and physical resilience (or "metabolic flexibility").

I’ve followed a routine of "time-restricted eating" for a decade or more. Most people might do this inadvertently, but most of us also snack and nibble throughout the day between meals. My practice is quite simple: I skip breakfast. By skipping breakfast, I usually create about 16 hours (from about 8:30 PM the previous night to 12:30 PM that day) when I do not consume food.

More on Time-Restricted Eating Improving Healthspan

I also often stack my stressors, which may enhance benefits. Exercising on an empty stomach may increase fat oxidation

Recover: Sleep

Sleep is undoubtedly the single best tool for optimizing mental, emotional, and physical resilience. As the sleep researcher, Matthew Walker writes, "sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day."

Learning about the dynamics of sleep, including the various sleep stages, and the importance of different types of sleep, including REM sleep and "deep" slow wave sleep, has profoundly changed my life. 

Matthew Walker is a wonderful resource. I recommend his three-part podcast with Peter Attia: start here. I also recommend his book, Why We Sleep.

In concert with learning, by tracking my sleep on my Whoop strap, I have learned to associate certain behaviors with better sleep. 

I now pay attention to the deeply biological wisdom of my circadian rhythm, and I try to support my own rhythmicity with daily habits like morning sun exposure, avoiding blue light at night, and sleeping in total darkness. For several years now, our house has not had one single blue-light lightbulb. (We use amber bulbs instead). 

My nighttime ritual, which includes a magnesium tonic and CBD, is non-negotiable in much the same way Walker says that, for him, eight hours of sleep is non-negotiable. 

Learning about sleep and developing your own sleep-supportive ritual is, in my opinion, the best way to set yourself up to meet the challenge of your resolves on any single day, week, month, or season. 

Saturday, January 9, 2021

From Resolution to Reality: Part 1

A few months ago, I watched a video from my children's elementary school: The kid's principal, Mr. Mac, was announcing the week's "blue ticket" winners. A student earns a blue ticket for embodying the school pledge:

I am a positive, proud, productive, and patriotic member of the Fort Washington community. I will try my hardest. I will never give up. My heart believes it, and my actions show it!

When Mr. Mac announced the Kindergarten winners, I wasn't exactly holding my breath.  So when he said, "Owen Pollins," my reaction was genuine. I shouted, "Yes," pumping my fist. 

When Mr. Mac announced the third-grade winners, I couldn't help but feel expectant. Still, when he said, "Ella Pollins," I was startled. 

Two winners? "Yes," I said. Then I began to cry. 

I never know when I'll cry, though some moments are easy to predict: watching "Golden Buzzer" clips, listening to "Blackbird," or reading a poem like "The Bench." 

This moment was unexpected, in part, because it inspired a simple realization: Damn, this is hard. All of it. The quarantine. The isolation. The election. The twenty-four-seven life with the family. And the children have endured countless trials, from virtual learning to Camp Overlord, and day after day of loneliness and boredom. Owen's had four teachers this year! And Ella wrote a book called SADNESS. 

And yet, here they were, winning blue tickets. 

Since last March, I've attempted to defy everything with relentless self-improvement projects, forever selfish in my pursuit to emerge from this shitshow stronger and healthier, with stupendous hair.  If I'd stopped to look, though, I would've seen a true portrait of strength right in front of me. 

For Owen and Ella, this time has never been about the end. "When will this be over?" Ella often asks, but both Ella and Owen's concern are immediate: "Can we play now?" 

It was clear why my children had won the blue tickets: They had tried their hardest. They hadn't given up. Their hearts had believed it. And their actions had showed it. 

To me, this pledge suddenly seemed instructive. And I believe it can be instructive for anyone who resolves to thrive in 2021. 

Notional Boundaries: The Power (and Problems) of Beginnings 
Why do we feel so compelled to make resolutions? 

In a classic piece for the New Yorker, "Why We Make Resolutions (and Why They Fail)", Maria Konnikova writes about timing and optimism: 

"The beginning of a week, a month, or a year forms...a notational boundary." 

These "notional boundaries" inspire optimism, and the beginning of a new year inspires extreme optimism. Just witness the "resolutionists" at the local gym courageously weightlifting, cycling, and running their way to the new, healthy person they hope to be. 

Unfortunately, the optimism of a notional boundary is hard to sustain throughout the week, month, and year. Buoyed by our optimism, we set unreachable expectations and condemn ourselves to failure. 

In 2008, the time management firm, Franklin Covey, surveyed over 15,000 customers about their New Year's resolutions. One-third of the survey participants broke their resolutions before February and only 20% stuck with their resolutions (source). 

Why We Fail: Specificity and Practicality 

So why do we fail? 

As Tara Parker Pope writes for The New York Times: "Resolutions tend to be too big without any thought about whether they are practical or even possible." 

Specificity is key. Instead of resolving to "eat more healthy," you might resolve to limit your dinnertime portions (to one plate), or skip breakfast. I often tell wellness clients to start at the beginning of the day with a "morning elixir" (details here). 

The practicalities matter, too. If you fool yourself into believing making a change is merely a matter of will, you will likely fail. Change is hard. 

As Jerome Groopman notes in a New Yorker article, "Can Brain Science Help us Break Bad Habits": "A large majority of us lack the self-control required to succeed in life." 

The Importance of Habits

However, as Groopman notes, we can "hack" our habits by "finding ways to take will-power out of the equation." As far back as the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle cited habit as the as the root of virtue. 

Summarizing Aristotle's virtue ethics in his famous book, The Story of Philosophy, Will Durant offered a succinct quote often misattributed to Aristotle: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit."  

You know that famous marshmallow experiment--the one frequently cited to prove the power of delayed gratification, which leads to greater success later in life? Only a quarter of the participants--kids aged 4 to 6--succeeded in resisting the treat for a full 15 minutes. 

Groopman notes a nuance of the experiment:

The researchers compared the results of two situations: in one, children could see the marshmallow in front of them; in the other, they knew that it was there but couldn’t see it. On average, the children lasted only six minutes when presented with visible temptation but could manage ten minutes if the treat was hidden.

Perhaps the key is eliminating temptation. Groopman quotes a researcher who suggests creating friction--making our bad habits more inconvenient. 

A few years ago, I resolved to reduce my screen time, and I tried to support this resolution by deleting all social media apps. 

However, Groopman's article also describes another practical approach to changing habits: replace one habit with another and include rewards for the change. Instead of scrolling my social media feeds, I tried to read articles or books, or watch movies (in the evening). 

In the end, I failed. Lately, especially since the election, I've fallen head over heels back into my scrolling addiction. 

The Currency of Resolve: Focus 

Beyond specificity and practicality, Tara Parker Pope's advice speaks subtly to a more fundamental element of making a change. 

In my experience, the phrase, "without any thought," strikes much closer to the core problem. If you're like me, your attempts to change fail because you have not set your focus--your attention (and intention)--to being the change you want to see

As  Pedram Shojai recently said on the Bulletproof podcast

If you can't focus on what you say you want, and your focus gets pulled out into Instagram and into the Internet, and it gets pulled out into...the next crisis, you're never going to map out your life in a way that is going to be meaningful and going to nourish you because your priorities are being supplanted by the priorities put in front of you by social media or the news.

Obviously, this quote is specific to my failure, but it speaks to the essential nature of any failure. What Shojai is talking about here is integrity: Being your word. Focusing on what you say you want so you can be who you say you want to be. 

As Shojai notes: "We say we want something but our actions say otherwise." 

In other words, to succeed, my heart must believe it, and my actions must show it.  

In this sense, a true change requires an honest and clear assessment of how and where we spend our focus, and a corresponding resolve to shift that focus--and our actions--to what we want. This is not a nebulous concept. It is simple and straightforward: To change ask yourself, "How I am spending my time?"

The allure of social media and the "screen" is instructive, in this sense, because it is a distraction must people share. The famed researcher Adam Alter offers a bleak assessment of our screen time: 

Before the introduction of the iPhone, it was a couple of hours, and that was usually just in front of a TV. We only spent about 18 minutes looking at our phones. Once that device was...10 years later actually in 2017, we were spending about three or four hours a day looking at those screens; sometimes for kids, five or six hours a day. Personal time, exercising, hobbies, conversations with friends and loved ones used to be a couple of hours a day. It was now about half an hour or even slightly less than half an hour a day (source). 

The math here adds up to an unsettling conclusion: At our current rates, we are likely to spend 10-20 years of our lives (or more) on our phones.  

My Heart Believes It, And My Actions Show It!

To change, we must shift our focus. If you believe you want to change, your actions must reflect that change. Shojai looks at focus as a sort of capital. You reveal your priorities in your decisions to do one thing over another. 

One way to look a this is to honestly assess everything you believe you want to say "yes" to--your resolutions, so to speak. Your family and friends? Your projects? Cooking? Exercise? Mindfulness? 

Once you've added all of these together, ask yourself, as Shojai suggests, "How many hours of the day are left after all of those yeses." Inevitably, you will have to say "no" to other things. You will have to reconcile what you want with what you do. 

This year, I resolved to spend less time on the phone. So far, I have failed miserably. I was drawn into the news, to the insistent beat of the chaos, which has guided and directed so much of our recent attention. And as I have let my attention stray, I have let me emotions stray, from optimism to anger. 

This is unfortunate. The Buddhist quote says, "You are the first victim of your anger." And by saying, "Yes," to the phone, and the never ending chaos, I cringe to think of all that I have said, "No," to. My family and friends? My projects? Cooking? Exercise? Mindfulness?

Happily, today is a new day. And on any given day, I can resolve to change.