Can Lasting Improvement Stem From Commitment to a Process?

snowCan lasting improvement stem from commitment to a process? We’re swiftly approaching the time we traditionally look back to review our progress of the past year and set goals for the upcoming one. We’re also swiftly approaching the time when we fail to meet those goals and give up on them. Perhaps that’s because we commit to goals in the first place. This year, rather than resolving to meet some goal, perhaps it is better to commit to a process of improvement that can be broken down into easily repeatable steps.

For example, rather than resolving to go to the gym more, commit to dedicating 30 minutes per day, 5 days per week to doing something that raises your heart rate. One day you might walk to a neighborhood restaurant for coffee. One day, you might take race your children in the pool. One day you might take the stairs at the office. One day, you might walk the dog in a hilly neighborhood. You could join a rowing team. Or you might go to the gym, walk on the treadmill, or play basketball with your friends. Whatever you do can be different each day, and it can be part of your daily life. Just make sure it makes you feel good.

After years of buying gym memberships to go to gyms I didn’t like to change in locker rooms I hated in order to share a lane in the pool with someone who ruined my swimming experience, I finally allowed myself to start working out at home. I wish I could say, I finally built a saltwater lap pool in the back yard, but alas I have not progressed that far. After some experimentation with walking, stair climbing, yoga, and weight lifting, I finally landed on a combination of yoga and weight lifting that makes me feel great and want to come back for more. I do 3 days on, alternating lifting and yoga, then a day off, then 3 days on. That means I’m working out 6 days a week. If it happens to turn into 5 days on a specific week, I don’t worry about it because I know I’m stronger than I was last year. My heart resting heart rate has dropped, and any soreness I experience now is from overdoing, not underdoing.

Another example of lasting improvement would be to commit to shopping differently to save money. Rather than denying yourself any new clothes, commit to only buying things that solve a problem. If your feet get wet each time it snows, buying some boots can solve the problem. If your hip hurts every time you wear your current boots, buying new boots may solve the problem. If you already have a couple of pairs of well functioning boots, then say no to the cute pair you want because buying them will not solve a problem. Unless, of course, your problem is that you’re depressed because your well functioning boots are ugly. If that’s the case, then donate the ugly boots before you purchase a new pair. This will slow you down enough to make sure you are making a wise decision.

I started reducing the number of things I own a couple of years ago. I didn’t go crazy. My house is still full, but I reduced the number of things sitting on shelves, the number of books in my bookcase, the amount of clothes in my closet. Now when I buy something new, it’s to solve a problem. And when I buy it, I also get rid of something. It makes me feel better to have fewer things. Too many possessions make me feel weighed down.

Eating healthier can look like a commitment to eating 5 vegetables or fruits each day 5 days per week. This is easily accomplished by adding berries to yogurt or cereal in the morning, having some carrot sticks as a morning snack, eating a side salad for lunch, having an apple in the afternoon, and eating a vegetable at dinner. Done.
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Eating healthier can also look like a commitment to choosing less packaged food and more fresh food in the supermarket every other week. After a while, your palate will taste the subtle flavors in fresh food and artificial flavoring will become less pleasing leaving you wanting the fresh food you are regularly buying. Choosing fresh food at home may also lead to a change in your restaurant preferences. I find myself staying home for more meals or being very selective about where I eat. Average restaurant food just doesn’t appeal to me. I’m happier with leftover chicken and rice and blackened Brussels sprouts than I am with many restaurant meals.

Reducing stress can look like a commitment to saying no more often. Many of us are stretched too thin trying to please too many people. With some practice, saying no will become easier and easier.

Increasing happiness can look like a commitment to saying yes more often. Some of us say no because we’re afraid to try something new. With practice, you may discover that fun moments can result from stretching your wings a little.

If you take a look at all the commitments we’ve explored, you can see they’re easily sustainable. You’re simply following a process rather than attempting to achieve a specific result. Because of this, there’s no reason to ever feel as though you’ve failed. If you miss a day, you just pick the process back up the next day. Day after day after day of lifting weights and you’ll get stronger. Day after day after day of eating fruits and vegetables will cause your body to respond positively to the nutrients you’re receiving. Day after day after day of purchasing to solve problems will curtail impulse spending and leave you with less problems.

It seems obvious. Sticking with a process can lead to lasting improvement! I think it’s time to get started…

One Step Toward Joy

The look of sheer joy on her face was priceless! My sister had just shot her first flying clay pigeon. It wasn’t the first time she shot a gun, or the first time she hit a target. It was the first time she let herself TRY to shoot a target that wasn’t stationary. Prior to yesterday, she referred to herself as the shooting challenged. She’d organize outings in the country for everyone to shoot, but limit herself to aiming at objects held by target holders.

Okay, before you get upset by the specifics of this post, please understand. We grew up on a farm in the South. Our father hunted quail on our farm. He taught us about gun safety because there were always guns in the house. In spite of this, neither of us ever shot a gun until we were adults. We were never included in the hunting because we were girls. Nonetheless, it feels perfectly normal to us to handle a 20 gauge or 12 gauge shotgun. We don’t have blood lust or killer instinct or a militant view about bearing arms. We’re just country girls who use guns the same way other athletes use a bat, a racquet, a golf club, or a hockey stick.

And guns and shooting really have nothing to do with the point of this post anyway. The point is derived from my observation of the joy of accomplishment I saw on my sister’s face and the process that led to that moment.

My sister just turned 43 and our cousin just turned 93. Both deserved a celebration, so yesterday Ben & I traveled a few hours to my mom’s house on the farm where I grew up. The weather was beautiful – clear, breezy, and about 70º. It was the perfect day to be outside.

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Thinking I was only joining my sister & her guests for a ride around the farm, I ended up at a makeshift shooting range carved out of the tall grass while Ben & I were making the drive. In the clearing, there was a basic target thrower, biodegradable targets, a single-shot 410 shotgun, a 12 gauge shotgun, and when we arrived 3 women, and one man. The competition began. When it was my sister’s turn, she easily broke some nearby stationary targets with the 410.

We switched to the 12 gauge. She was happy to shoot at the same target locations with this gun as well. I encouraged her to take a shot at a flying target. Her response was, “I can’t hit those. Haven’t you ever seen me try to hit a softball? It’s the same thing.” I’m not sure she’s tried to hit a softball in more than 20 years so I was struck by the statement. I pushed; she repeated that she couldn’t do it.

I recognized that she really believed what she was saying in spite of the fact that she’d never even TRIED. I took a few shots and missed on every single throw. I enticed her again to take a shot. As I reminded her, she couldn’t do any worse than I had just done. We started by having her leave the safety on and follow the target with the gun.

410On the first throw, she stood absolutely still. I assume she moved her eyes along with the movement of the bright orange disk, but her body did not move. It was almost as if she was frozen. I stepped in and gently reminded her that she would have to move her body along with her eyes for the sight on the gun to follow the target and I told her that I would give the “pull” command.

I said, “pull”. She followed the target’s movement with her upper body. One more time and she relaxed a bit. Now it was time to turn off the safety. Breathe, relax, follow, shoot. On the second round, she obliterated a target. It was a perfect shot. The look of joy and pride that washed across her was priceless!

And the effects lingered. She stood taller, excitedly told everybody when she got back to the house. And never again will she be able to say, “I can’t do that.” because she can, and she always could.

She had been preventing herself from the joy of experiencing the process by focusing on the end goal and projecting how bad she’d feel if she didn’t perform well. She imagined she’d feel the same way she felt on the softball field when she was a kid. This projection was preventing her from progressing from stationary to moving targets.

She couldn’t even see that there were steps in the process. She believed she had to pull the trigger as soon as she said, “pull”. This paralyzed her. She never realized she could just move her body in relation to the moving object or allow someone else to determine when the target was released. In fact, she was unable to see any options at all.

My sister is not alone. How often have you prevented yourself from joining a yoga class because you’re afraid you won’t be able to master every pose the first hour? How many times have you avoided a commitment to being gluten-free because you just can’t imagine NEVER eating another yeasty dinner roll?

However many times we choose the status quo rather than trying something different, we guarantee we’ll miss the sheer joy that can result from taking the first step in the process. Will every process result in joy? Maybe not immediately, but each step forward fills our internal bank with the courage, resilience, and confidence that makes the next step easier, and yes, I believe that ultimately it is the participating that brings us joy. And our joy brings others joy. Seeing that look on my sister’s face was my favorite moment of the day!

Have you ever experienced joy or exhilaration when you tried something you thought you couldn’t do? Would you encourage someone else to take that first step?

The Benefits of Cooking – Part 3: The Lessons

When I was in junior high school, all girls were required to take a class called Home Economics and all boys were required to take Wood Shop. Well, to be truthful, I never took Home Ec because I opted to take an extra science course instead.

What did I need Home Ec for? I was told that what they did in that class was learn to cook and sew. I already knew how to do those things. My grandmother taught me to sew when I was 9. My mother was delegating her baking to me even before that. I was ready to learn something new. I was off to take a new science class in which I excelled. Why? I was well prepared. All those lessons I learned in the kitchen had prepared me for science, math, and process thinking.

As we watch our kids become less and less skilled in these three areas, I often wonder how closely related it is to the fact that many of us no longer cook. Perhaps we should consider getting the kids back in the kitchen so they’ll be better prepared for school.

Double a recipe and your daughter will quickly come to understand why adding and multiplying fractions are critical skills. Without understanding common denominators, how can she know that 1 1/4 cups plus 1 1/4 cups equals 2 1/2 cups?  But once she has learned these conversions while cooking, there will be no need to resist expanding on that knowledge in math class. Certainly the familiar – “Why do I need to learn this, I’ll never use it in real life?” – argument will be nullified. Want to help her even more, have her make one and a half recipes of cookies. The division required provides an opportunity to use even more advanced math skills.

Throw some salt in a pot of water that you need to hurry up and boil. Your son just learned that you can lower the boiling point of water by adding salt. Put some baking soda in lemon juice and let him watch a frothing chemical reaction that doesn’t threaten to destroy your house or poison its occupants.

There are endless chemistry and physics lessons inherent in cooking. You can point them out, or just let your children learn without knowing they’re learning as they watch solid fats melt into liquids, lemon juice curdle cream, or heat cause baking soda to release carbon dioxide and make a cupcake rise. Even if you don’t specifically discuss the science behind these reactions while you’re cooking, you are creating a repository of knowledge that will make these concepts seem familiar when it’s time to take a chemistry class. This knowledge will help remove the fear of being in the lab and lay the foundation of curiosity for a formula that explains how the acids in baking powder react to create carbon dioxide.

If you have a child who wants all the food to look pretty, you can focus on the art and design lessons in cooking. Mix red and yellow food coloring and the kids can immediately see the resulting orange color. Explore scale and proportion by layering cakes. Experiment with different piping tips, brushes, or “found” tools to create texture in frosting, cookies, or crackers. Build houses, make dough people, or create an entire edible village. For this lesson, innovation and creativity are your guides. Let the ideas flow freely. Feel the excitement that collaboration brings when one idea sparks another.

No matter what lesson you’re attempting to learn in the kitchen, you will learn about process, procedure, and order of operations. If you begin without any plan and ignore a certain order of operations, you will not get the results you expect or want. That doesn’t mean you have to follow every recipe to the letter, or that you must know exactly what you’re going to cook for dinner before you walk into the kitchen. It means you must think through and understand the process. Process thinking helps you to recognize that what you do now should be determined by what you want to happen next, and next, and next…until the end of the process – a finished dish or a coordinated meal. Of course this type of thinking is beneficial in all areas of life. We reach a specified goal with much greater ease when we understand that today’s decision can be determined by our priorities for what will happen next, and next, and next, then allow the process to support us.

My grandmother didn’t talk about process, she just instructed me to always read through an entire recipe before I ever started to get out ingredients, pans, or bowls. There were several reasons for this. One was to make sure that all the ingredients were available in the kitchen. One was so I would only get out what I needed and make less of a mess in her kitchen. One was so that I wouldn’t dump dry ingredients and liquids together until it was time to do so and create a batter that had to be thrown away. She couldn’t stand to waste food. She also wanted to make sure I would properly preheat the oven and prepare the proper baking dish in advance. She didn’t like to waste time either. Once I was competent to prepare individual dishes, I carried this same process thinking into creating a timeline that allowed me to create a coordinated meal in which my all dishes were ready for the dining table at the same time and piping hot.

As a project manager, I have used the reverse timeline to great success when handling complex, detailed, and deadline driven assignments. Communicating instructions based on what must happen one or two steps past that specific instruction streamlines the process and narrows the margin for error. Understanding the process also allows me to be more swift and flexible in finding solutions to problems because I have a clear understanding of what is critical and what is not in achieving a desired result. These are skills I desire in all employees. These are skills I developed in the kitchen before I reached junior high. I simply built on them in secondary school, college, and at work.

I suspect the boys in my junior high were learning a great deal about process thinking in Wood Shop too. If they failed to allow for the thickness of a piece of wood in their overall measurements, they would not cut boards to the proper length when building a cabinet. If they didn’t understand how the equipment worked, they could lose an appendage. I’m certain that these skills serve them well whether they became bankers, writers, carpenters, or electricians.

We worry so much about declining standardized test scores and how to fix the schools. In spite of much discussion, we have made little headway. Perhaps the solution to improvement is quite simple, and possibly delicious. Get the kids in the kitchen and get things cooking!