Consistency and Taking Small Steps

“We tend to see success as an event versus this series of small steps that are taken day after day, or a series of choice points that are made over and over.” – Eric Zimmer

small steps

Eric Zimmer, host of The One You Feed podcast recently posted a mini-episode entitled “Essential Concepts: Consistency and Taking Small Steps.” He covers principles that he uses in his Transformation Program. Mr. Zimmer has personal experience with cultivating positive habits to overcome addiction, but the importance of consistency and small steps applies to depression, too.

Mistakenly Seeing Success as an Event

One sunny day on my way from the parking lot to my advertising job, I noticed an unfamiliar sense of well-being. I felt that the fog of my depression had lifted. The birds were singing, sunshine warmed my cheeks and a gentle breeze caressed its heat away. The meds had kicked in.

I thought my depression was cured. I saw this as the end of my journey, not a place to begin.

“It’s so easy,” says Mr. Zimmer, “to overestimate one defining moment but underestimate how important it is to keep making small improvements. In the beginning, and day by day, there’s not a huge difference between making a choice that’s a little bit better or a little bit worse. But, if you follow that over a period of time, big gains or big losses occur.”

That mistake cost me: in weight gain, rage, relationships, withdrawal, and years of cyclical misery.

Treating the Effect Instead of the Cause

I didn’t understand (nor did the medical community at the time) that an “imbalance” in my brain chemistry was an effect of depression, not the cause. No one was thinking of the brain as an organ that was constantly forming new neural connections based on our experience. Doctors didn’t associate a chemical imbalance in those same neural pathways as the physical manifestation of consistently taking small steps reinforcing depression-producing habit patterns.

No one told me that fine-tuning my brain chemistry without addressing the mental and behavioral habits that created it was comparable to:

  • Sticking my hand in a fire.
  • Anesthetizing my hand to numb the pain.
  • Sticking my hand in the fire again.
Misguided Values

“What we’re after,” says Mr. Zimmer, “is continuing to make small changes in the direction of what matters to us.”

What mattered to me at the time was beating depression with as little effort (taking a pill) as possible.

The drug helped restore the energy I needed to keep doing what mattered to me. But doing the things the media and my peers told me I needed to do to be happy led me to depression instead.

Doubting Well-Being

“The problem that a lot of us have is when we don’t see success quickly we tend to give up,” Mr. Zimmer continues. “We hear about the value of meditation, so we might meditate a few times and suddenly we don’t feel different, our life isn’t different, and so we stop. Or, we hear deep breathing sounds like it could really help me with my anxiety. So, we try and take a couple deep breaths a couple times, we don’t see any big difference, we stop.”

I had read enough about the new (at the time) class of antidepressants to overcome my doubt and put in the minimal effort for me to take them for three weeks. The drug manufacturer’s narrative was simple to accept. Depressed brains were vacuuming up serotonin too quickly. “Normal” (happy) brains allowed serotonin to hand around longer. The drug helped the serotonin hang around.

I had also dabbled with meditation and breath work, but not even Jon Kabat-Zinn could provide a simple enough narrative to assuage my doubts in them.

Science Versus the Supernatural

It’s a shame that the people who taught me gratitude and compassion also taught me about Noah’s Ark. The parents who taught me to take deep breaths and count to ten when I was angry also told me that Santa Claus visited every child on the planet in one night.

Donald Hebb’s 1949 assertion that “Neurons that fire together, wire together” might have been a less confusing teaching meme than “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It was, in any case, my reality.

With each set of neurons firing to produce a baby step that kept me vertical, neurons wired together and I remembered how to walk. The same thing happened when I associated a winged creature with the sound created when b-i-r-d is pronounced, and later wiring the neurons associating the letters with the sound.

It took time for the science to catch up, but, thanks to brain scans, we now know that consistent meditation, even in small doses, can grow the brain region associated with mood regulation and shrinks the region associated with volatile mood swings.

The science of intentional breathing is so effective at engaging the parasympathetic nervous system and easing anxiety that the US Military teaches it.

And it turns out that consistent small steps wiring together the neurons associated with social connection, cooperation, compassion, generosity, and gratitude all build a brain’s sense of balance and even contribute to longevity.

Self Compassion and Acceptance

“In the same way that we realize that small steps lead us toward a good thing,” reminds Mr. Zimmer, “we also realize that a couple of steps that aren’t taken, or a couple of steps in the wrong direction do not spell disaster. It just means we take the next step as soon as we can.”

As I noted in the post “Shame, Blame, and Self-Acceptance,” recovering from our stumbles begins with our admission that we’re not perfect. We never will be nor do we need to be. There’s no reason to blame ourselves or be ashamed of our lapses.

Even the manufacturers of my antidepressant included instructions for what to do when I accidentally skipped or doubled up on my dosage.

If I had accepted that taking an antidepressant was the beginning of my journey from depression to well-being and not the end, I could have lived many more depression-free or at least depression-resistant years. But nobody’s perfect.

Ten Minute Exercise

Listen to Mr. Zimmer’s mini episode (just shy of 10 minutes at 9:48) “Essential Concepts: Consistency and Taking Small Steps

Extra credit: subscribe to The One You Feed podcast.

Shame, Blame, and Self-Acceptance

A couple weeks ago someone requested that I explore shame. And, while I’m finally writing a post with shame in the title, I wasn’t shamed into writing it. I accepted that author, thinker, life-enthusiast Mark Manson got to it (and nailed it) before I did.

shame and self acceptance
I screwed up. And that’s okay. I’ll do better next time.
Puritanical Shame

In “If Self-Discipline Feels Difficult, Then You’re Doing it Wrong,” Manson lays out the whole conundrum of human behavior. We are instinctively wired to crave pleasure and avoid pain. For the sake of preventing societal chaos, western religious teachings shame individuals into thinking their cravings are sinful and pain is moral based on the principle that once we are saddled with a sufficient amount of shame about all the things that give us pleasure, we’ll be so self-loathing and terrified of our own desires that we’ll just fall in line and do what we’re told.   

Drawbacks of Shame

While shame works to create societal order, it has its drawbacks for the individual. Manson continues:

Disciplining people through shame works for a while, but in the long-run, it backfires. As an example, let’s use perhaps the most common source of shame on the planet: sex.

The brain likes sex. That’s because 

  1. sex feels awesome 
  2. we’re biologically evolved to crave it…

Now, if you grew up like most people—and especially if you’re a woman—there’s a good chance that you were taught that sex was this evil, lecherous thing that corrupted you and makes you a horrible, icky person. You were punished for wanting it, and therefore, have a lot of conflicted feelings around sex: it sounds amazing but is also scary; it feels right but also somehow so, so wrong. As a result, you still want sex, but you also drag around a lot of guilt and anxiety and doubt about yourself.

This mixture of feelings generates an unpleasant tension within a person. And as time goes on, that tension grows. Because the desire for sex never goes away. And as the desire continues, the shame grows.

Responding to Shame

When the emotional tension becomes unbearable, Manson writes, we must resolve it in one of three ways.

  1. Overindulgence works for a while. Then shame and guilt come back with a vengeance.
  2. Numbing it: alcohol, drugs, binge-watching TV, emotional eating, etc.
  3. Self-denial: running ultra-marathons or working 100-hour work weeks. That’s why the most uncompromising people are often the most compromised. 
I’m a Horrible Person

Manson analyzes how the voice in our heads takes the raw material of shame and refines it into self-judgment. 

Thoughts are constantly streaming through our heads and without even realizing it, we’re tacking on ‘because I’m a horrible person’ to the end of a lot of them…

• ‘Other people are good at this, but I’m not, because I’m a horrible person…’

• ‘Everyone probably thinks I’m an idiot, because I’m a horrible person…’ 

Here’s the thing: there’s a sick sort of comfort that comes from these self-judgments. That’s because they relieve us of the responsibility for our own actions. If I decide that I can’t give up ice cream because I’m a horrible person—that ‘horrible person-ness’ precludes my ability to change or improve in the future—therefore, it’s technically out of my hands, isn’t it? It implies that there’s nothing I can do about my cravings or compulsions…

Responsibility is Scary

There’s a kind of fear and anxiety that comes when we relinquish our belief in our own horribleness. We actually resist accepting ourselves because the responsibility is scary. Because it suggests that not only are we capable of change in the future (and change is always scary) but that we have perhaps wasted much of our past. And that never feels good either. In fact, another little trap is when people accept that they’re not a horrible person—but then decide that they are a horrible person for not realizing that years ago!

De-Coupling Shame

Manson’s proposed solution to shame is self-acceptance. This begins with the practice of de-coupling our intense, uncomfortable emotions from our moral judgments. 

Once we’ve de-coupled our emotions from our moral judgments—once we’ve decided that just because something makes us feel bad doesn’t mean we are bad—this opens us up to some new perspectives.

Without the moral judgment, occasional over-indulgence, numbing, or self-denial can simply be viewed as a slip-up. It’s a cue to get better at spotting the early warning signs of the underlying emotional stress that activated it.

Once we accept that we’re not “morally” perfect and never will be. We stop feeling that we’re a horrible person. And when that happens:

  1. There’s nothing to numb anymore…  
  2. You see no reason to punish yourself. On the contrary, you like yourself, so you want to take care of yourself. More importantly, it feels good to take care of yourself.
Right vs. Skillful

Manson’s post reminds me that there are two common translations of the eight-step program for well-being by the authors of the original mindfulness manual.

They both include: understanding, intention, action, speech, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. But they take a different approach to translating the adjective that precedes them. 

Native western language speakers commonly choose the word “right” (right understanding, right intention, etc.) implying that there is a morally “wrong” understanding.

Native eastern language speakers commonly choose the adjective “wise” or “skillful.”

This may seem like an academic distinction until we screw-up. 

Then it means choosing between: 

• remorse (guilt for a wrong committed “because we’re a horrible person”) 

• regret (disappointment at an unskillful action)

We may grudgingly to what is right out of shame. 

We may enthusiastically choose to do what is wise or skillful out of self -acceptance.

Ten Minute Exercise

Self Compassion Variation

1. One minute.

Next time you do something that you perceive as wrong or unwise, make an objective note of what happened.

I (did or didn’t ) _____________________.

2. Set a timer for two minutes. 

Think to yourself:  I (did or didn’t ) _____________________ because I’m a (weak | lazy | incompetent | stupid | spineless | worthless | bad) person.

Closely observe the subsequent thoughts and feelings in your mind and body until time is up.

3. Set a timer for two minutes.

Think to yourself: I’m ashamed that I (did or didn’t) ______________.

Closely observe the subsequent thoughts and feelings in your mind and body until time is up. 

4. Set a timer for two minutes. 

Think to yourself: I (mistakenly | unintentionally | absent-mindedly)  (did or didn’t) _______________. 

Closely observe the subsequent thoughts and feelings in your mind and body until time is up.  

5. Set a timer for two minutes. 

Think to yourself: I regret that I (did or didn’t) _______________. 

Closely observe the subsequent thoughts and feelings in your mind and body until time is up.  

6. Take one final minute to sit with the realization that all of us do unwise or unskillful things (pretty much on a daily basis). Accepting this in ourselves allows us to learn and grow.

Compassion Variation

1. One minute.

Next time someone else does something that you perceive as wrong or unwise, make an objective note of what happened.

He/she/they (did or didn’t) _______________.

2. Set a timer for two minutes.

Think to yourself:  (He/she/they did or didn’t ) _____________________ because they’re a (weak | lazy | incompetent | stupid | spineless | worthless | bad) person.

Closely observe the subsequent thoughts and feelings in your mind and body until time is up.  

3. Set a timer for two minutes.

Think to yourself: (He/she/they) should be ashamed that they (did or didn’t) ______________. 

Closely observe the subsequent thoughts and feelings in your mind and body until time is up.  

4. Set a timer for two minutes.

Think to yourself: (He/she/they) mistakenly (did or didn’t) _______________. 

Closely observe the subsequent thoughts and feelings in your mind and body until time is up.  

5. Set a timer for two minutes.

Think to yourself: He/she/they regret(s) that they (did or didn’t) _______________.

Closely observe the subsequent thoughts and feelings in your mind and body until time is up.  

6. Take one final minute to sit with the realization that all of us do unwise or unskillful things (pretty much on a daily basis). Accepting this in others allows us to forgive and to grow. 

Bonus exercise: For working with emotional regulation, try the exercise from Digesting Emotional Eating.

Text Anxiety

One Saturday afternoon I checked my texts and emails to find a message that couldn’t have been better engineered to evoke social anxiety!

Text Anxiety
Activating Ingredients

It informed me that:

• Things were being said on a private social media platform I’m not on.

• People were being misled and getting caught up in drama. 

• I was involved.

• It was my job to get filled in on what was being said to help correct things.

Risky Business  

I haven’t completely abandoned the Facebook account that was a go-to strategy for authors before Facebook changed the algorithm. But, Jon Ronson’s cautionary book So, You’ve Been Publicly Shamed alerted me early on that my sense of humor (deadpan/ironic) didn’t travel well online, even with winking emojis. It’s why I have always taken great care to avoid being controversial with my online posts.

In an NPR interview with Steve Inskeep, Ronson shares the consequences of an innocent jest gone wrong.

Hank was in the audience at a tech conference when he whispered a “Beavis & Butthead”-type joke to his friend about big dongles. 

(This is exactly the kind of lame joke I might attempt.) 

Adria, a woman sitting in front of him turned around and took a photograph. Ten minutes later, Hank was called into an office and told that there had been a complaint about sexual comments. He apologized, and that was that. 

But Adria had communicated her complaint to the conference organizers in the form of a public tweet. She published her photograph of Hank and his friend on twitter.com saying, “Not cool, jokes about big dongles right behind me.”

The next day, Hank was fired, and he posted a message saying “I was fired today. I’m sorry for what I did, and I’m sorry that my comments upset Adria. But I was let go from work today, and I’ve got three children, and she just turned around and smiled and sealed my fate.”

Internet trolls decided to involve themselves in this story. People were saying a father of three is out of a job because of some innocuous comment overheard by this woman with more power than sense. Let’s crucify her. 

Adria was inundated with death threats. Every aspect of her life was being discussed by strangers. Her company’s servers were attacked. And she was fired from her job.

Which Joke Did I Tell?

In my case, the message didn’t specify which irreverent statement I’d made had been deemed offensive, or by whom.

Based on the identity of the person who sent it, I knew that the drama was related to one of my social circles, not my livelihood. 

Since the social media platform was private, I knew that damage to my reputation would be restricted to that group. If I needed to, I could leave the group and hang out with other people.

Reason vs. Emotion

Despite the modern, reasoning part of my brain reassuring me that everything would be okay, the ancient (fight or flight) part of my brain feared expulsion from the tribe. My reason gave me every reason to be calm. My body was scared to death.

The next day, my partner and I drove out to a suburban store to find a dedicated task light for her knitting and take a hike through a natural area we’d never visited. 

During the hike, every cue from my external environment was soothingly pastoral. But something my stomach was still clenched. Whenever I recognized this, I started laughing to myself.

“What’s so funny?” my partner asked.

“Social media,” I said. 

“Just opt out,” she said. She’s not even on Facebook.  

Forgive and Forget

In Search Inside Yourself, Chade-Meng Tan offers some reasons to forgive and forget emotional text communications and online posts.

When we talk to another person face-to-face, most of the emotions we communicate with each other are done nonverbally, usually with our facial expressions, tone of voice, postures, and gestures.

When the brain receives insufficient data about others’ feelings, it just makes stuff up. The brain makes assumptions about the emotional context of the message and then fabricates the missing information accordingly. It does not just fabricate information, however. It also automatically believes those fabrications to be true. Worse still, those fabrications usually have a strong negative bias—we usually assume people to have more negative intentions than they actually do.

Ten Minute Exercise

Though my deadpan humor will continue to get me in trouble in real life, this Mindful Emailing exercise adapted from Search Inside Yourself is more effective than a winking emoji at keeping me from screwing up via text and social media posts.

1.​ Begin by taking one conscious breath. If this is a particularly sensitive situation, calm your mind by paying attention to your breathing, noting whether it’s peaceful or agitated. If there is tension, try some slow, conscious walking meditation to ground yourself in the body.  

(1 minute)

2.​ Mindfully reflect that on the receiving end, there are one or more human beings. Human beings just like you. If this is a particularly difficult situation, it may be useful to visualize the receiver or receivers in your mind and to engage in a few minutes recalling that just like you they want to be happy, just like you they don’t want suffering or stress. Take a moment to cultivate friendly intentions toward them. May you be well in body thoughts and feelings. May you face and cope with life’s inevitable stresses. May you work productively to benefit yourself and others. May your actions contribute to your community.

(1 minute) 

3. ​Write your e-mail.

(5 minutes)

4.​ Before sending, mindfully reflect on the insight that if the emotional context of your message is unclear, the receiver’s brain will just make something up that is likely more negative than you intended. Put yourself in the receiver’s shoes, pretend you know nothing about the sender’s (your) emotional context, pretend also that you have a negative bias, and read your e-mail. Revise your e-mail if necessary. 

(2 minutes)

5. ​Take one conscious breath before pressing Send. If this is a particularly delicate situation—for example if you are writing an angry e-mail to your boss or your subordinate—take three slow, conscious breaths before pressing Send. Feel free to change your mind about pressing Send. Ask yourself whether this information would be better conveyed in a face to face meeting, over video conferencing, or a phone call. 

(1 minute)

This ten-second reality check offers additional tips for our texting and social media posting age. 

Why Am I Distracted?

The inability to focus is common to many forms of depression. But, even when we’re not depressed, more and more of us are finding ourselves distracted due to a 24/7 barrage of information strategically engineered to capture our attention.

distracted
Default Mode Locked to On

A common factor linked to every form of depression is constant activation of the default mode network. This is the area of the brain where the story of “self” is created. When the network is locked to the “on” position, it becomes challenging for us to process any information that doesn’t directly relate to us. That makes it difficult to connect with others, and it can get exhausting.

In an economy where the scarce resource that market forces are competing for is our time, the default mode for every device and app we use to manage that resource is “on” as well. And almost every ping from every message and every push notification is scientifically personalized to induce a dopamine hit in our brain and exaggerate our sense of self-importance.

Always in Touch

Will Schoder offers some problematic bullet points in his thoughtful video “The Attention Economy: How They Addict Us.” I would stop writing and ask you to watch it right now, but since it runs almost eleven minutes, I’ll share a couple bullet points instead.

• It takes us on average 23 minutes to resume focus after any interruption. Even worse, we do two different tasks before coming back to our original project.

I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but I know that it’s true for me. This is why I turn off all notifications on my computer.

But, there’s another statistic that Schoder presents that scares me more than any leaky duct dystopian sci-fi film I’ve ever seen.

• We check our phones an average of 221 times a day, or every 4.3 minutes.  

It’s enough to make me want to chuck the digital world and return to the days of analog.

Turning Down the Noise

In the days before digital sound, Dolby Laboratories specialized in noise reduction, which meant removing tape hiss in the recording studio and in consumer cassette decks. One of the specs audiophiles paid attention to was  signal-to-noise ratio. That meant the ratio of wanted signal (usually music) to unwanted noise (tape hiss). 

I remember that minimizing tape hiss made me happy, but I was surprised to learn from Shawn Achor’s book Before Happiness, that boosting the signal    to noise ratio in your life is one of his key strategies for 

  • Achieving Success
  • Spreading Happiness
  • Sustaining Positive Change

Achor notes that our brain has only so much processing power in a given day, and, if we want to concentrate on signal (what’s important to us) we have to turn down the noise.

Turning Up Signal

A time and attention management system that I use from the computer programmer community is the Pomodoro Technique. Its inventor had a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato (pomodoro) that he set to focus exclusively on a given task for 25 minutes at a time, which he interspersed with short breaks.

This allows the brain to focus, rest, and focus again.

Whatever task one focuses on during those 25 minutes is signal.

Instead of filling up the needed mental breaks by checking my devices, I answer email, social media, and text messages twice a day: at 11:00 a.m. (hopefully I’ve accomplished something by then) and at 4:00 p.m. to make sure I set the most important task for the following morning. I owe this productivity tip to Tim Ferriss and the 4-Hour Work Week.

But, in order to focus even for those precious twenty-five minutes, it’s important to keep my brain on a noise-reduced information diet during the rest of the day. 

Sean Achor offers the following criteria for identifying noise.

If it’s hypothetical, untimely, distracting, or unusable, it’s noise.

I remember these with the acronym HUDU as in “HUDU I think I’m fooling by wasting time on this?”

Hypothetical

Information is hypothetical “if it is based on what someone believes ‘could be’ instead of ‘what is.'” 

Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight blog was the most accurate pollster during the 2014 election cycle. Because of my interest in politics, his podcast was part of my feed in 2016.

His final call: Hillary Clinton had a 78% chance of beating Donald Trump. 

I hope he Mr. Silver better in the 2018 election, but I had turned down the noise by eliminating his podcast from my feed.

Untimely

Information is untimely, says Achor, “If you are not going to use that information imminently, and it could change by the time you use it.”

The noisiest untimely information in my life was the e-book How I Sold 1 Million e-Books in Five Months by John Locke.

The book was published on June 15, 2011. I purchased it on June 20, 2011. But, I didn’t have a book, let alone a series of books featuring the same central character, ready to publish on that date. 

By the time I was ready to join the fray with a first novel (in a mystery series) in late 2014, Locke’s strategy of outselling traditionally published $9.99 Kindle books by offering his at $0.99 had revolutionized the industry. The promotional price point of $0.99 became so universal for first books in a series that the new competitive price point was FREE.

The million Kindle books that had grossed Locke $330,000 at $0.99 would gross me $0 and put me in the red for Amazon server costs at the low low price of FREE.

Distracting

Information is noise if “it distracts you from your goals.”

distracting posts
Actual post from one of my Facebook friends that reached my feed by virtue of its high “like” and “share” statistics.

I’ll admit that because of my untimely entry into book writing, I have far more Facebook friends than actual friends.

One morning (at 11:08 a.m.) I noticed that several of my author Facebook friends (including an actual author friend) had been mentioned by a book review periodical for writing the “Best Books of 2018.” I re-posted the news on my feed and wrote: Yay (insert name) for each Facebook friend in the comments.

When one of them clicked “Like” by the comment with her name, I thought, “That name seems familiar. Do I actually know this person?” Turns out I had met her at a book launch two years ago.

Long story short, I had completely forgotten why I had gone on Facebook in the first place: to post something related to this blog. D’oh! 

Unusable

Achor writes that information is unusable “If your behavior will not be altered by the information or if the information won’t spur behavior change.”

The area where I confront the most unusable information is news. 

On the morning I’m writing this (01/28/19) it’s humbling to think how little I can do to ease Federal employees’ fear of another government shutdown, increase the supply of scarce Sweet Heart candies, influence who chooses to run for president, care for victims of a dam collapse in Southern Brazil, or weigh in on Venezuela’s power struggle.

There’s a news story on naming anger to tame it, but that’s basic mindfulness, not news.

So, though I’ve trimmed my noisy news consumption over the past few years, I can afford to turn it down even more.

Ten Minute Exercise

The exercise I discussed in “A Curious Path to Improved Concentration” can be tweaked to help you notice which distractions are the noisiest for you.

1. Find a place where you won’t be interrupted for ten minutes.

2. Set a timer to remind you when you’re done.

3. Pay non-judgmental attention to the inhale and exhale of the breath. Follow each breath from beginning to end noting as much detail as possible.

4. With each breath, extend your non-judgmental attention to your entire body.

5. As attention strays from the breath, follow it with curiosity to its next object: a sight, sound, smell, taste, tactile sensation, or thought.

6. When a thought arises, note whether it’s Hypothetical, Untimely, Distracting, or Unusable.

7. Maintaining non-judgmental attention, remain curious to see whether there’s a sense of peace when the thought subsides.

8. Repeat the process with the next object or return to the breath until a new object arises.

When you start to get a sense for what kind of noise distracts you, experiment with cutting back on the source of that noise in your life.

Some suggestions are to leave the radio in your car off for ten minutes of your commute or set your smartphone to airplane mode for ten minutes.

Whatever you do, don’t try to eliminate all noise at once. Silence can be scary. Just dial it back ten minutes at a time.