One Small Step for Man…

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” – Neil Armstrong

When you really think about it, what a powerful statement that is! What a true and quite often unnoticed truth it is, too. Many scenarios rapidly come to mind when I think of practical examples of this and it’s been something flowing through the last few weeks of thoughts for me. I have been working with an ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) therapist over the last year and a half and this recently came up in conversation. When we are experiencing big feelings or what feels like overwhelming tasks or life circumstances, it is very often a small choice that can, over time, make a big difference. For example, with ACT therapy, there’s significant focus on one’s personal values and learning to make decisions based upon those values. Over my time in therapy and as I really began to highlight my values and what that looked like in my little life, they often led to rather small shifts in my everyday choices. I struggled and felt silly when I found myself discussing with a therapist something as insignificant as the snooze button on my alarm, but now more clearly than ever am I really seeing what “small steps” can do for my purposeful living.

Let me explain the snoozing and how a delightful domino effect can happen. As I spent time reflecting on my personal values, a particular area that landed at the top was my parenting and being as present as possible for my children. Digging a little deeper, that leads to practical examples such as creating more opportunities to be able to actually look them in the eye, giving them my undistracted attention when I’m not washing dishes, on my phone, rushing to get myself dressed, etc. This led to the very simple, but oh so difficult for me choice dating back to circa 1990, which is waking up in the morning to an alarm at a reasonable hour that allows for dressing and eating in a civilized manner. This may sound foreign to those of you who are actual grown-ups and don’t still act like a 13-year-old in the morning, but that damn snooze button is my arch enemy and causes me to wear my hair in a ponytail 362 days of the year, bark at my children to get up and find their other shoe, do a lot of sweating getting loaded up in the car and possibly tempt speeding to school. I am not present on those mornings. However, when I PRACTICE making a simple shift in my choices and drag myself from the bed to the bathroom when the alarm goes off, I then have the option of having a cup of coffee in quiet, matching my socks or accessories with my underwear, helping kids with breakfast and sitting down with them while they eat, and just plain feeling better and ready to face the day. I could go on and on with ways that the dominos continue throughout the day, but you can likely imagine that it leads to meeting other personal value goals like productivity, creativity, etc.

What led me to begin typing this morning is another small change I’ve been recently working on (and failing a lot on, too) is that dang social media habit! The brain and fingertip mindlessly tap on the app and suck me into a vortex of time-sucking, productivity-wasting, and guilt. That’s a bit dramatic, but something I despise nonetheless. It continues to come up in therapy as a frustration for me and at this last appointment, we set a very simple goal to try. I’m (supposed) to quickly set a 5-minute timer on my phone right before opening a social media app. When it goes off, I choose to take two slow breaths and then decide if I want to keep scrolling. It’s my choice at that point, of course, but it gives me a small window to assess whether I’m enjoying the scrolling as a mental break or if it’s mindless and unhelpful. Maybe this sounds silly, but this very small, seemingly insignificant choice, can potentially help me with living my life focused more on my values of productivity, mindfulness with my faith, self-care of my mental and physical health, being more present and available with my dear children, creativity projects, renewing my love of reading, etc.

This message and encouragement goes for big and small goals. Have a disaster of a mess in your house? Start with one thing. One thing at a time. Feeling the overwhelm of weight gain or emotional discomfort? You get to choose to start with one small thing. In the mental health world, the phrase used for helping those struggling with depression to find health and routine again is called Behavioral Activation. It was certainly one of the hardest pieces for me when my depression was heavy because you simply “don’t want to” to the nth degree because it feels almost painful to take the first step, but it is the first step that slowly leads to the feeling of hope that we desperately want. Wherever you are today, whether that be in the depths of frustration or simply aware of an annoying habit, set a tiny goal with realistic expectations of the classic “one step forward, two steps back” and keep going.

Warning: May Be Habit Forming

I have an ongoing list of habits I’d like to change in my life, but the list has been sitting stagnant for a while. I give it a go and then often very quickly it fades away and I’m back to my old ways. I’m sure you’ve heard a million times like I have that a habit needs at least 21 days to develop or stick. I’ve mastered a 3-5 day window pretty well! What are the habits you have that you’ve tried to change or positive habits you’d love to develop? I’m consistently reminded of healthy habits that I strongly believe would make a big difference in my physical and mental health, but doggone if they are tough to corral and keep going. 

My list likely looks similar to yours in that I’d really love to keep a regular habit of physical exercise; for me that is yoga. I absolutely love yoga. It challenges me; I sweat buckets and with the focus on breathing and toning, I feel great at the end. My word of 2020 was INTENTIONAL. I want to be wiser with how I spend my time. I spend entirely too much time on social media or other well-intended apps. I’ve found that although not really obvious, I pick up my phone to skim Pinterest or slide through Instagram or Facebook as avoidance. There’s certainly nothing wrong with social media and even using it as an escape or break. It’s all about the balance! That’s the tricky part for me. I’ve written on this a few years ago, which proves my point that it’s an ongoing irritation for me. 

One thing I am very thankful for is that I’ve been working with an ACT therapist over the last few months and it’s been very helpful to address this issue. ACT stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. As I’ve written before, I was thankfully diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder after over a decade of traditional therapy and not knowing what was wrong with me. I was able to receive ERP (Exposure and Response Prevention) Therapy, which is the gold-standard for OCD. After my ERP therapist and I felt I was at a solid place and could easily recognize where OCD plays and how to respond, she recommended ACT therapy as an encouraging place to spend some time. It’s been excellent and quite helpful. 

Similarly to ERP therapy for OCD, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy focuses on accepting thoughts and feelings as they come rather than tensing up to them or doing our darnedest to make them go away; unfortunately that never works and ends up feeding the “monster”. I tried that for years. One of the buzz words for ACT is VALUES. Here’s what I’ve been learning that has begun a shift with those pesky habits I want to kick and the ones I’d like to stick. 

There are a few ways to apply this idea of values, but I’ll stick with the habit forming goal. I’ve done a little experiment by tracking how I spend my time over a week. Not only have I jotted down a word or brief phrase to describe what I did during that hour or chunk of time, but I gave a 1-10 score on A. The importance of it B. The enjoyment of it and C. The difficulty of it. I already knew what time-sucking habits I disliked, but this gave me a visual of what that actually looks like and FEELS like in a typical day. After even a couple days of recording, I could more clearly see that I was able to recognize that I felt blah or yuck during an activity and it made me consider whether I wanted to keep doing that, I.e. skimming Facebook Marketplace. 

I believe I’m naturally bent toward procrastination, so setting a goal of being intentional about the things I value means I have to apply major self-control and discipline. This takes practice and lots of it. Some of my personal values focus on self-care, availability and quality time with my children and husband, arts and creativity, rest and faith focus. With those as my goals, I need less time spent on nonsense or non-productive time. 

Does it work to berate myself because I “can’t get my act together” and become “practically perfect in every way” like Mary Poppins? No. I’ve tried that, too. Another piece I’ve grabbed onto from therapy is how easy it is to beat myself up. I’m getting better at paying attention to that ugly, negative self-talk and shifting to self-compassion. Let’s go with an example: I’m currently sitting on my couch finishing up this post that I began a few weeks ago. If I reflect back on my Saturday so far, I tend to gravitate to the negative. I didn’t sleep well last night, had about 2 minutes of prayer/reflection time before quickly getting distracted by an idea I had for our new home and going to the computer. I haven’t exercised yet. I did have good intentions of starting a furniture painting project, but they didn’t have the right wax at the store so I gave up. I’ve been sitting after lunch skimming Facebook and eating chocolate covered almonds from the Costco-sized bag that keeps luring me in even though I have regretted eating them afterwards almost every time I do so because I’m trying to lose weight. Sigh. Stank. Ain’t nobody got time for that. 

ACT would encourage me to notice the stinky thoughts floating on down my metaphoric creek and then think, “what would be something I can do right now that would line up with one of my values?”, “what was something on my list of projects that I wanted to start this weekend?”, or “Let’s look at the clock and figure out how to better balance my afternoon.” Weave those into some self-compassion statements like, “I gave into the sweet treats, but I did a good job choosing a healthy lunch and I’ll be exercising later today”, “I didn’t get a great night’s sleep with all of that dreaming, but I was able to sleep in a bit and rest.”, or “I know I feel frustration over not making changes as quickly as I’d like, but I do notice that I’m catching myself quicker and I’ll keep at it to make progress.” 

Be kind and keep going, dear reader.

You’ll never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine. -John C. Maxwell