Category Archives: changing behavior

Three Real Ways To Change A Dysfunctional Behavior

One of the most challenging things that we humans do is to change dysfunctional behavior. Yet, it’s something that successful people must accomplish regularly. If you want to move forward, it is imperative to recognize problems in your life, address them, and fix them.

I believe that most of us know this, but many contemplate the need to change without ever acting on making a change. Others force themselves onto a radical path of change, and like a flash fire, they burn brightly, and then they flame out. An example of this is the classic New Year’s exercise resolution, “I need to exercise more.” Drive by any gym during the first week of January, and you see that the parking lot is bursting at its seams. If you want to get a good parking spot, just wait a few weeks for the resolutioners to fall back on their old behaviors.

As a therapist, I often saw patients who claimed that they wanted to change. In some instances, what they wanted was for other people to adapt to them so they could continue their dysfunctional actions. They wanted the world to change for them (good luck to that). However, I also treated individuals who sincerely wanted to take responsibility for their lives and were willing to put forth the effort to make change. It was then my job to teach them the tools to accomplish their goals. Naturally, there are many ways to elicit change so that I would customize my approach based on the person’s needs, personality, and behavioral style.  

Today I would like to share with three “generic” change approaches that you might consider. I’m going to do this by citing some examples from my own life.  

Method 1

Pairing a new behavior with things that you enjoy.

I hated exercise. When I was morbidly overweight, I sought the help of a weight-loss specialist. She was a thin wisp of a young girl who appeared to be very physically fit. I wondered if she could relate to me and understand the plight of an old fat man. 

She did some quick calculations of my weight and BMI and then scribbled a few numbers onto a pad of paper. Her approach was to talk to me about my need to exercise. Of course, I knew that exercise was important, but any past attempts on my part quickly failed, and I explained that to her.

She was unmoved and told me that I needed to exercise for an hour and a half a day vigorously.  By vigorous exercise, she was referring to a cardiovascular gym routine. She didn’t stop there; she also wanted me to do non-vigorous exercise for several hours a day. The non-vigorous activity would include things like walking, swimming, and biking. I tried to explain to her that I had difficulty climbing even a single flight of stairs. I told her that I knew that I needed to exercise, but I hated it and just couldn’t get myself to do it. I told her that I was working 60-80 hours a week, and didn’t have hours to spare during my day. She was unmoved, and instead of understanding me, she told me an “inspirational” story of a client of her’s (a former athlete) who had adopted her strategy and lost weight.

If you are or have been a fat person, you will understand what I am about to say next. I listened to her and felt even more hopeless about my plight; I gave up. On the surface, it appeared that I was paying attention as I nodded in false agreement. I left the appointment feeling worse than when I went in. I never adopted her exercised advice.

Fast forward to 5 years ago. My friend Tom was on his fitness journey and mentioned to me that he would buy me a coffee if I walked to the local Starbucks the next morning. I liked spending time with Tom, and so I was motivated to attempt this request. Further, one of the few exercises that I did like to do was to walk. With that said, I was uncertain if I could withstand the trip, and so I walked the route the night before, just to make sure.

That was five years ago, and I now exercise on (almost) a daily basis. That exercise has varied over time, and for the last several years, I have resumed my early morning walk to Starbucks. I look forward to talking this 3.5 mile round trip for several reasons. First, I love walking in the quiet of the early morning. I think, pray, meditate, and problem solve during that time. It isn’t uncommon for Tom to surprise me with a Starbucks visit, and of course, I enjoy that. However, I now know other regulars at the shop who greet and chat with me, as do the baristas. I bring along a computer on my walks, and I write most of these blogs at Starbucks. Starbucks is where I also write letters and emails to friends and family. By combining exercise with several other things that I like to do, I have transformed a negative into a positive. I certainly can now climb a flight of stairs without feeling like I need to call 911.

Writing a blog post after walking to Starbucks.

Method 2

Learning from past mistakes.

If you read my last post, you know that I’m currently on a spiritual fast. I have been on many restrictive weight-loss diets, and I have also tried a couple of spiritual fasts in the past, and so I had quite a bit of data to draw on to explore what kind of a fast that I could do that would have the greatest success of completion.  

Before I started this fast, I did a mental review of what worked, and just as importantly, what didn’t work with prior attempts to modify my eating. Based on this information, I devised a fasting plan that I thought would be challenging but doable. I’m now at the midpoint of this fast, and so far, I’m reasonably on target. 

This technique goes beyond personal growth; it can be applied to all levels of a human’s life. Does it always seem that you are getting the short stick when it comes to relationships? Look at the data. Is your career not moving the way you want it? Look at the data. Are you feeling like others are always taking advantage of you? Look at the data… and so on.

Explore the weaknesses in your behavioral patterns and find workable solutions to change them. If plan A doesn’t work, find a plan B. Reassess both your behavior and progress regularly, and modify as indicated.  

My plan is to have only bread and non-caloric drinks for two of my meals.

Method 3

Eating the elephant

One of my favorite sayings is, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!”  

The home that I have lived in for thirty years has both a basement and crawl space. Both have become “junk magnets” over the decades, with the crawl space being the more pathological of the two. Any object that we no longer used but still seemed useful was buried there. The only things that we did need to store there were our Christmas decorations, and these items occupied a small portion of that vast space. The rest was filled to the brim with boxes, bags, and loose items.  

It is difficult to get into the crawl space, and once inside, you have to stoop down and crawl on very rough concrete. The idea of cleaning the area out was not only overwhelming to me but also my wife. It was just easier to pretend that it didn’t exist.

However, now that I’m retired I have the time to tackle such a project, but I didn’t want to do it. I don’t like the feeling that I have something hanging over my head, and I don’t like feeling guilty. With that said, it seemed like an impossible task.

What I needed to do is to come up with a plan. What could I do to solve this problem? I wasn’t dealing with a deadline; I had as much time as I needed. My idea was to remove three significant objects from the crawl space every week. An object could be a big box, a large item, or a garbage bag filled with loose pieces. To make it easier for me to navigate the crawl space, I found my old knee pads and my headlight. I place these items by the entrance to the crawl space, so they were at the ready, making my explorations easier.

The purging process went on for months, but doing it was simple — one box per trip, three boxes per week. Since I only had three weekly items, it didn’t even add a lot of work to my “garbage night” haulings.  

Instead of thinking about how much more I had to do, I would celebrate that one less box was in the crawl space. I would pat myself on the back for accomplishing my job, which often only took a few minutes. Each “bite of the elephant” seemed trivial, but eventually, I ate the whole elephant.

Some changes in life must be done immediately and wholly. If you want to stop smoking, you need to apply total abstinence to increase your chance of success. However, many changes can be made gradually. Just have a real plan and direction. 

The crawl space finally cleaned out…one bite at a time.

So there you have it — three ways to change behavior. There are more ways that I may share with you in another post.

Cheers!

Mike

The Crawl Space

I moved into my home on Sunnybrook Drive in 1989, over thirty years ago. I purchased it for one sole purpose to give my daughter a stable and secure environment. I bought a four-bedroom, two and one-half bath dwelling for myself and my daughter, who visited me every other weekend. Overkill, you ask? I’m am a person who gets confused in chaos, and in my home, I had more than enough space to have a place for everything and to put everything in its place. 

In 1993 I married Julie, and we decided that we would start our married life together in my house. This made the most sense as she was busy getting her Ph.D., and my house was move-in ready. Julie brought to the marriage the contents of her old apartment, including a few boxes of things that we had no use for but were too “good” to throw out. These boxes served as the nidus of growth in the hidden part of our home, known as the crawlspace.

You enter the crawlspace from our basement, climbing into it from the furnace/utility room. It is a large, hollow area situated directly below the family room. The floor of the crawlspace is a hunk of very rough concrete and the short height of the room forces exploration on your hands and knees. This uncomfortable experience is made worse by looming joists and ventilation ducts that seem to be pleasured when you bang your head on their hard surfaces. The crawlspace tends to be more humid than the rest of the basement. Dark, dank, and dusty; its only redeeming value is that it is hidden from view. 

Over time boxes entered the crawl space, and once in, they never left. Our family grew from three to six, and with each child, there were clothes to save, and toys to box. Both Julie and I stored full sets of old heavy outdated luggage. I had a complete set of china that found a home there when our wedding dishes replaced it. Boxes of school notes, old textbooks, VHS tapes, and personal journals were tossed there. An end table, an electric “wonder oven,” a deconstructed shelving unit, kids Halloween costumes, broken tools, and an endless sea of Christmas decorations.

The Christmas decorations deserve special mention. For many years I would buy Julie a special Christmassy gift at Christmas. Porceline villages, giant snow globes, fancy nativity sets, and more. I also had a habit of purchasing super tacky animated Christmas novelties to surprise the kids. There was the talking Chrismas tree, the Jazzy Santa, and the dancing snowman, to name a few. All of these items found their way to the crawl space keeping company with boxes of ornaments, wreaths, lights, and our bulky fake Christmas tree. Julie didn’t like or display my Christmassy surprises, which achieved permanent residency in the crawl space. The kids did enjoy the Christmas novelties, but their poor construction combined with the damp crawl space warranted their quick deaths. Once in the crawl space, they joined other useless items creating our very own island of misfit toys. After thirty years, the island was bursting at its metaphorical seams.

My coping strategy was simple; I pretended that the crawl space didn’t exist. However, every time I replaced the furnace’s filter, I had to confront this delusion. I would glance at the area and quickly turn away, ashamed. However, even a glance would force a feeling of urgency in me that I needed to do something, anything, about the mess. I countered that urgency with the reality that I didn’t have the time to tackle such a project. I was working two jobs while trying to be a good husband and parent. That was what I could do. 

In 2019 I retired; I no longer had two jobs. In 2019 our youngest child entered college; our kids were grown. It was time to deal with the crawl space.

Julie had no interest in being a co-cleaner, and I can’t say that I blamed her. The thought of spending countless hours crawling on hands and knees was not my jam either. I knew that I needed to approach the problem differently. Those boxes, bags, and loose items had been squatting in the crawl space for years; they didn’t need immediate eviction. 

I developed a simple and nearly painless strategy. Three times a week, I would go down into the crawl space, and each time I would remove one item. That item could be a garbage bag of loose things, a storage box, or a single larger item. Each session would last (at most) 10 minutes, and once I completed my goal, I made a conscious effort to pat myself on the back. This also meant that I only had three additional items to take out in the trash every week, making Julie, the sanitation worker, and me happy.

I started this process several months ago, and I have been faithful in its execution. Initially, it seemed like I was making no progress, then the chaos of my actions made the space look worse. I knew that this would be the case, and I pushed forward. Now, several months later, I still have a way to go, but I can see progress. I hope that I will regain crawl space order in the first quarter of 2020. With that reality, there is also the awareness that the empty spaces could serve as a magnet for future clutter. I will need to be vigilant to continue to keep the crawl space clutter-free.

Life can be like my crawl space, chaotic, and full of unwanted things. Full of habits that no longer serve a purpose, but you can’t seem to discard. Packed with relationships that hamper you and hold you back instead of propelling you forward. When life is full of such clutter, there is no room for progress as all energy is used to maintain the status quo.

When humans face severe problems, most want rapid and easy solutions. We buy silly potions that promise miracle results or go on radical exercise programs that are abandoned as enthusiastically as when they were initiated. We quit unrewarding jobs without a back-up plan. We run from one relationship to another, seeking someone to make us feel complete only to find that we take ourselves with us. 

Most significant problems are not solved quickly or easily. It can be overwhelming to contemplate making a change when dealing with a substantial issue. However, it is often possible to make small changes in a dedicated and consistent fashion. Initially, it may seem like your efforts have no impact, then things may even seem a bit worse, but eventually, you will see the fruit of your labor. Just as in my crawl space, it is essential to remain ever vigilant to not fall back. 

Accept responsibility and approach change with a discerning eye. Your best life is ahead.

I hope to have the crawl space cleaned out by the first quarter of 2020.

A Frying Pan Teaches Dr. Mike A Lesson

I looked in the sink, and it caught my eye. I had observed it many times before, but I had ignored it. Now, I felt different. I wanted to do something.

There, among the suds and water, was our ten-inch frying pan. The pan that I bought over ten years ago when we switched to induction cooking. The pot that we purchased because our old cookware wouldn’t work on a stovetop that used an oscillating magnetic field instead of one that heated by a gas flame or an electric coil. 

The pan had been shiny stainless steel the first time that I used it. It performed its job flawlessly, and I gave it little thought. It is easy to take for granted something that does its job well and without complaint. I suppose that is what I did with this pan.

Its interior was spotless, almost new looking. However, the pan’s exterior was an unsightly mess. After thousands of uses, its outer surface was covered in little spatters of burnt oil that had built up on its shiny surface, causing it to gain a streaky bronze-like appearance. Beyond this bronzing, there were significant blackish marks on the base of the pan that appeared like someone had drawn them with a fat black permanent marker.  

The pan’s thousands of cooking cycles each took their toll. Each cycle adding another droplet or two of burnt oil to its surface. Each cycle further bonding the older stains into the metal. A soapy sponge or scrubby did not eradicate these blemishes. Our dishwasher’s efforts were folly. The pan was wholly functional beyond its ugly exterior. The only options were to live with its unsightliness or to replace it.  

I was moved to clean it. I adjusted the water to a scalding hot, and I squirted more dish soap into the sink. I pressed the scrubbing side of a sponge against the tarnished metal, and with all of my might, I moved the sponge in concentric circles over the base of the pan. Over and over, I continued my efforts pressing so hard that my biceps ached. I agitated the surface of the pan to the point that thick creamy soap suds obfuscated it. I felt that surely I had made an impact. I rinsed the pan, and to my astonishment, it looked exactly as it did when I started. I double my efforts, and then tripled them, but to no avail. It seemed like the stains were there to stay. 

I paused and thought. It appeared that I was approaching this problem like I had approached many issues in my life, with brute force. During my pre-retirement life, I had little time to ponder, and I had to solve problems in as an expedient way as possible. I aggressively gave 100% of my time to get a job done. I thought that I had to do things this way as there were always ten other tasks waiting. When you work like this, you can never celebrate what you have done; the work that you are doing on one task serves only as a delay from starting the next job.

Perhaps it was time to approach this problem differently. I reached under the kitchen counter and grabbed an old can of Bar Keepers Friend and a pillow of steel wool. I then sprinkled the Bar Keepers Friend on the stained surface and made a paste by adding a few drops of water. I walked away. After a bit, I returned with the steel wool and scrubbed the pan’s surface. When I found myself pressing with a painful force, I backed off with a deliberate effort and used a light circular motion instead. My arms didn’t hurt, and the movement felt meditative. I found myself humming in rhythm as I continued my slow and deliberate actions. A quick rinse showed some progress. I repeated my steps of letting the paste sit and then lightly scrubbing the surface, and with each repeating cycle, more of the decade-old grime disappeared. 

Instead of continuing a pattern of actions that gave me a negative outcome, I approached the problem with thought and consideration. A gentler approach achieved my goal and left me energized instead of tired and frustrated. Understanding trumped aggression. 

And with that, dear readers, I end this week’s post.

Ten years of grime gone.