On January fourth of this year, I entered into an extended Lenten challenge with the help of a support group. I put in place a regimen of exercise and diet that took away my acid-reflux-induced asthma, as well as twenty pounds of road-bike-slowing weight. Come Easter, I celebrated all of this achievement by going back to all the things that I had foresworn. Guess what else came back? Acid reflux, asthma, and twenty pounds of weight.
Here in the middle of our cultural vaccine-enabled slingshot out into the light, my fellow SMC travelers and I have been reflecting upon ways to initiate a virtuous cycle of one good thing leading to another good thing. If you missed that opportunity at New Years, Lent, Passover, Ramadan, or Easter, I have good news for you. Some timely research indicates that the back side of a pandemic is an excellent time to initiate positive life changes (Dr. Katy Milkman’s How to Change, 2021). This week, for obvious reasons, I am asking myself a slightly different question: “Once you have landed on a change you would like to make, what is the cognitive mindset to hold that change in place over time?” That question takes me back to a couple of important books that the best-selling author, Michael Pollan, wrote over dozen years ago.
Pollan is that rare journalist who combines rigorous research with the poetic turn of phrase that can make a documentary read like a page turner. His 2006 best seller, Omnivore’s Dilemma, examined America’s food industry, and its impact upon American’s health. That book changed the way that I shop, cook, and serve my family food. In his 2009 bestseller, Food Rules, he employed a methodology familiar to practitioners of effective cognitive behavioral psychology (CBT).
Cognitive psychology has long noticed that our workaday mind does not operate in well-reasoned, organized paragraphs. Want to see how your mind works? Run this little experiment. At any given moment in your day, pause, and take stock of what is occupying your mind. What you will notice is the equivalent of an interior conversation made up of short sentences or phrases (as opposed to well-organized, thought-out chapters). Operating from this foundational insight about how the mind works, counselors, coaches, educators, even firemen understand the power of rehearsing a short phrase that resonates with one’s intention. For example, the fireman who visited my 1970’s grade school told me to “Stop…Drop…and…Roll” if I should ever happen to catch fire. There is nothing like a power phrase or mantra to focus the mind, even in an emergency.
Pollan’s Food Rules (2009) is nothing more than a collection of sound bites or rules that can be remembered and acted upon even when your lizard brain is on fire with a food addiction in a grocery store. Here are two of his examples to avoid highly addictive, processed foods: “Shop the perimeter, avoid the middle of the grocery store.” “Don’t buy food from a gas station.” Based upon the experience of my Fireballâ addicted clients, I might amend that to, “Always pay at the pump.” Or… “Never go inside the gas station.”
For many years, my family has unconsciously operated according to a methodology similar to Michael Pollan’s book. To avoid a common mistake in an argument we remind ourselves (and sometimes one another in a less than helpful tone) “When you say, ‘always or never,’ you are almost always wrong.’” In a heated conflict, this rule has tended to keep us away from that tendency to fling absolutizing descriptions at our opponent-parent, opponent-child, opponent-sibling, or opponent-spouse. When offered a forced choice between two good things, our family rule goes like this: “Instead of “either…or” see if you can pick “both…and.” Over the last twenty-seven years, this has worked out surprisingly well in big ways (as in, starting a family and working on graduate degrees) and small ways (as in getting a little bit of two side dishes instead of the menu’s advertised “only one side dish”). Along the same lines we have tried to raise our kids and ourselves with this motto: “Make someone else tell you, “No.” Don’t tell yourself that.’” That worked out pretty well in my daughter’s graduate school admission into the university that was the greatest stretch for her.
During my successful pre-Easter ninety days, there were two power statements that provided me the cognitive framework for behavioral change: “Just for today,” and “Just enough.” The former was short for, “God, with your help, I can avoid this beer (or fill in the blank) just for today.” The latter was short for, “God, give me just enough grace to (fill in the blank here). Those of my readers who know 12-Step methodology will recognize both the avoidance of a self-sabotaging life-time commitment in these phrases as well as the use of a higher power to achieve my daily goal.
Where are you thinking of investing your newfound immunity here on the eve of Post-Pandemic life? What is the change for the better that you are thinking of initiating or maintaining? Have you selected your power statement(s) to accompany you through the first several weeks of your new habit, and perhaps even beyond? As every fireman knows, when it feels like something’s burning, keep your power phrases short, and impactful. Rehearse them frequently. With the help of God’s grace, and the right cognitive frame work, I hope to be getting back with you on this journey.