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In the book Zig Zig: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, Keith Sawyer tells how the CEO of the Citrin Group, Jon Citrin assigns one person to be the “Blocker” in every meeting. “The Blocker’s job is to disagree with everything Citrin says. The result? Serious debate, and deep consideration of the issues. And best of all, it inhibits everyone’s natural instinct to always agree with the boss.”

Now, fortunately, I work in a division where people do not feel any natural instinct to always agree with me, so I’m safe on the job front. But I think it wouldn’t hurt to have a personal blocker. After all, it’s easy to get tied to an idea and not see all sides of it. And especially if we’re one of those who get a little huffy when contradicted, people may be hesitant to tell us the holes in our plans.

After all, we’re still in charge of our lives. If we decide our blocker is wrong, then we can proceed as planned. But I know in my life, a clear signal that I haven’t thought things through is my anger with someone who disagrees with me. But usually, I do end up listening and realize the concerns were also some of my own, just unvoiced and repressed deep into the darkest recesses of my brain.

Sure, it’s good to have cheerleaders urging us on, but it’s also useful to have someone who says, “Wait a minute. Have you considered . . .?”

I once didn’t change my air conditioner filter for almost two years. I know this because I write the date on the new one when I change them out.

I knew it needed changing because I often thought about it. I would be going up to bed when the heat switched on and think, “Gosh, it’s been a while since I’ve put in a filter. I should really do that.” Or I would see the new filter sitting in the closet and reprimand myself for not getting to it, but since I was about to go to the Y, I’d decide to wait until I returned from exercising. And, well, you get the picture. Day after day, week after week, month after month went by with my never changing that filter. And that’s how I removed the dirtiest filter in the history of air conditioning filters.

Last week, I started reading The Art of Taking Action: Lessons from Japanese Psychology by Gregg Krech. He reminded me that folks could get a lot done (and get rid of a lot of mental baggage)  if they simply did a task the moment they noticed it.

This weekend, I saw a stain on a tshirt in my closet. My first thought was to put it in a pile of clothes needing care. But wasn’t the pile itself an indication of my past failures? So I took the tshirt downstairs and rubbed stain remover on it.Then on coming home from the gym, I noticed my iPod needed charging. I immediately plugged it into my computer instead of tossing it on a table as usual. For the first time in a long time, I will not have to worry about my iPod dying when I’m on the track.

These are not revolutionary things, but both made my life a little easier. And I can see that if I keep it up, lots of little irritations will disappear from my life. And with those irritations gone, I will probably be less grumpy. And that’s always a good thing.

I recently downloaded MyFitnessPal onto my iPad. Now I regularly input the foods I eat in the hope that I will lose weight. I am going for twenty pounds but will be satisfied if I can wear my pants and still be able to breathe normally.

The thing about any of these calorie counters is that they simply make you face the truth about food and exercise. Here is what I’ve learned:

  • A hour’s worth of exercise (running and brisk walking) doesn’t even burn off the calories of a simple breakfast of cereal and a latte, let alone give one carte blanche to eat like a maniac the rest of the day.
  • The Sweet Tarts that I’ve been addicted to since third grade are not my friends when it comes to calories. Ten small Sweet Tart ducks (Easter version) have 50 calories. I can easily eat a hundred of them.
  • Wine has calories.
  • I can (and have done so) consume 3000 calories in a day.

Basically, despite the stories I’ve told myself about why I’ve gained weight (all which basically put the blame on anything but my eating and exercise habits), MyFitnessPal has made me face the ugly truth: On a regular basis, I eat more calories than I burn. (And my addiction to Sweetarts and French fries will have to be managed before I have a chance at losing weight.)

But if I can so completely deceive myself over something as straightforward as food and weight gain, I’m wondering if there are other areas of my life where I do so as well? And I’m going to do a self-inventory.

Right after I go through my Sweet Tart withdrawal.

As you may know, I  am taking piano lessons. Today my teacher, after listening to me play a song, suggested that I take a dance aerobics at the gym where we both belong.

Not because I’m chunky and out of shape (although I am). But because I apparently just don’t feel or hear the rhythm of the music. I can read the notes, but I can’t get the rhythm.

This is not how I imagined my foray into the world of music would be. I pictured sitting in class, learning the notes,and discovering that I am a natural player. I would amaze my friends and colleagues with my ability to pick up everything from Elton John to Mozart. At holiday gatherings, I’d sit at the piano and start a carol singalong.

Instead I am plugging away at “Down in the Valley” and have such bad rhythm that my teacher thinks I need a type of physical therapy.

Am I tempted to quit? Sure.

Am I going to? No.

For one reason, as bad as I am, I enjoy the piano.

But for another, it is good to struggle every so often. I have been working in the writing field so long that many of the skills seem natural to me; I don’t always understand how students can find essay writing or researching difficult. Being a failure at piano helps me be more sympathetic and understanding when students are frustrated in the research process.

And if you see a chunky girl out of step at aerobics at the Bellevue Y, do me a favor and just look away.

Plan b

Last week, like most of Nashville, I was stunned by the intensity of the ice storm that hit our city. I quickly realized that I had only one plan to deal with icy weather: that I would stay inside overnight until the ice melted. When the ice didn’t melt, I was in trouble.

Let me count the ways:

  • My shovel was iced in the storage room off my deck, and nothing was opening that door.
  • I was also sick and had only a quarter bottle of Nyquil left. When that ran out and ice was still firmly entrenched, I had to go scrape my car’s windshield.
  • Let’s just say that a car left outside to its own devices after an ice storm and two days of below-freezing weather requires more than the average scraping job. In the middle of the job, my ice scraper snapped in two.

You get the picture. Luckily, my neighbor loaned me her shovel to break the ice off my front step. I had filled my car up the week before, so I could keep it running to help melt the ice. And when I got to the drug store, there were still ice scrapers available.

But I have learned some valuable lessons:

  • Just because it has before, don’t assume the temperature will bounce up thirty degrees the day after an ice storm.
  • Even if you don’t have to go into work, don’t assume you won’t need your car and scrape the ice off it every so often.
  • Always have an extra bottle of Nyquil around because, no matter what the weather, when you’re sick you won’t feel like going out to get some more.
  • Be prepared for backup plans to go awry, and have a couple more up your sleeve.

And after seven days of almost continuous home confinement, I now give anyone permission to slap me if I’m heard complaining about the heat this summer.

In the first season of The Americans, the series about Russian spies living among us in the 1980s, when President Reagan is shot and Al Haig announces that he’s in control at the White House, the Russians freak out. In the Soviet Union, this sort of announcement would mean a coup. People start to act on their assumptions based on their misunderstanding of American culture.

We’re often like those Russians, I think. We look at events and judge them by our own standards of what’s right and normal, forgetting that there are other standards out there. We say things like, “I would never do that,” as if that is the only criterion for judging something as right or wrong.

Now I’m not saying we should let ourselves be beat down or let others take advantage of us. But I do think it would help if instead of automatically responding, we gave ourselves time to reflect on where other people are coming from and recognize that in their minds, they are behaving as naturally and normally as we think we are.

It might not cut down on all our disagreements, but it might make those disagreements more civil.

Many of us like to be called positive thinkers. And people do like to hang out with positive rather than negative people. But as a tool to achieving goals, research has shown that positive thinking is not terribly effective.

In her new book, Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, Gabrielle Oettingen describes a technique which is more effective:  WOOP.

How does it work?

  1. Wish. The first step is to define the goal. What is it that you want to do?
  2. Outcome. Imagine the best possible outcome.
  3. Obstacles. Then list all the obstacles that could get in the way of achieving that goal.
  4. Plan. Then make a plan for overcoming those obstacles using if/then statements.

For example, I have a very hard time getting up in the mornings. Getting up late causes me to rush, doesn’t allow me to indulge in my preferred morning routine of tea and newspapers, and makes me mad at myself. So this week, I’m going to try the WOOP technique.

Wish:  To get up when the alarm goes off.

Outcome: I am up and having a leisurely breakfast with enough time to go to the Y or practice piano.

Obstacles: I hate getting up. The alarms don’t seem to work. I stay up too late at night (being a natural night owl.) I stay in bed and check emails on my iPad.

Plan: I will keep the iPad downstairs. I will move the alarm clock into another room. If I’m tempted to stay up late to watch television, I’ll remind myself of how hard it is to get up in the mornings. If I do get up late, I will not change  my morning schedule so that I may have to go without breakfast, shower, makeup, etc.

We’ll see how this works :)


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