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Wednesday
Jul232014

Milestones

Last week, I called a friend for a big birthday—one of those pesky decade markers—and she wondered whether she had to stop all silliness, now that she’s reached an age of gravitas.

I argued to the contrary: Knowing yourself can easily go down as one of the biggest benefits of getting older. And sometimes, knowing yourself means admitting goofiness. (At least, it does for me.)

Besides, we decided, numerical ages—decades or no—don’t count as milestones requiring seismic mental and behavioral shifts. Yes, the years advance, bringing physical and psychological changes. Yet specific numbers have less validity than how we feel, which can vary widely no matter our chronological ages.

And so what, we mused, count as actual milestones? After all, careers, jobs, growing up, growing older, goals, friendships, romantic relationships, and more all have milestones.

Milestones mark progress.

My friend and I met while traveling, but many people would consider the first tandem vacation a milestone in friendship—one some people wouldn’t even attempt to reach—and travel definitely marks progress in a romantic relationship—one that could even call a halt to further progression.

Some of my most vivid memories mark my turn toward adulthood: The moments that taught me parents aren’t infallible, pedestal-vaulted gods but simply people. My first car accident, which happened in a distant city before the era of cell phones and the Internet. The latter experience launched me on a lifetime of confident self-reliance. The former lessons freed me to show my parents more compassion.

In careers and jobs, people mention the first time they managed someone in a task or as a direct report. Some talk about the first time they oversaw a full project with budget responsibility. And many people mark ninety-day, year, and five-year tenures.

And everyone ever in a romantic relationship will hark meeting the family as a big milestone. My friend—the one with the birthday—said you never really know about a man’s long-term potential until you’ve seen how he behaves when sick. Personally, I think you have to see how someone fights to know about a possible future together.

Seems like, in life, milestones abound. And so, curious, I’ll take a poll:

What do you consider your big milestones in life so far?

Monday
Jul212014

The Lure of the Break

I’d posted a new item on this site every other day for a year and seven months. Before then, I’d taken only two days from posting on schedule. Even an objective observer would consider this level of regular activity a habit.

Recently, a combination of unexpected franticness at work combined with a nasty head cold and scratchy throat threw me off the schedule. I cried “uncle.” I took a break.

The break didn’t even last a week. I skipped two scheduled posts. Yet when it came time to get back on track, the little devil on my shoulder poked its pitchfork into my ear and whispered,

“What does it matter, this blog and this posting schedule? Few people read what you write. And for the amount of effort? This can’t seem worthwhile to you. The time off sure felt nice, didn’t it? Wouldn’t a longer break feel even more fantastic?”

I won’t lie: I listened to the little devil.

And I realized that if I didn’t get back on schedule, I’d never return.

Tragic, the death of this blog? Hardly. However, the expiration of an impetus to create, think through topics I wouldn’t otherwise, improve my craft, start dialogue—the aspects of this blog that make it worthwhile—would prove unfortunate. Not for the world at large, but for me.

I pushed myself back to the keyboard. And I felt better. Energized. Analytic and curious about my world anew. I remembered why I love writing.

Good stuff.

Yet what does my experience say about all the “power of habit” rigmarole?

We’ve heard that the difficulty of breaking habits means cultivating routines around good activities will stitch them permanently into our lives—that positive-habit formation can provide routes to health and happiness and wellbeing.

Hmm.

Sure, I struggled before taking a few days away from writing. Yet once I broke the routine, the lure of the hiatus threatened to turn into a new habit all too easily.

So how valuable can we consider habits if they so easily fall away? Or do only certain habits so easily get shuttled? Do positive habits—with long-term payouts in terms of health, achievement, happiness—more easily break than habits with immediate physiological rewards?

After all, writing can seem like a chore in the moment—and a break feels good straightaway. Staying healthful in eating and exercise can feel like a trial when faced with a cupcake and a 5 a.m. alarm—and food indulgences and sleeping in feel amazing immediately.

If so, this doesn’t bode well for habits—at least the positive ones—proving all that valuable in changing our lives. Instead, it seems that the fragility of good habits requires constant vigilance. (One more thing for us to monitor.) A positive habit provides the benefits of a routine—you experience less of a willpower struggle when you regularly do something—yet you must stay top-of-mind aware that once you pop the routine’s bubble, you’ll nearly need to start anew.

What do you think?

Saturday
Jul192014

When the Body and Mind Disagree on What We Love Most

My friend Sarah wants to chase storms someday. Thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes—the gamut. She interviews storm chasers on her blog, watches storm-chasing programs, and participates in storm-chasing forums. When she hasn’t had a storm come through her area in a while, she gets antsy.

But storms make Sarah sick.

The changes in barometric pressure that precede dramatic weather events give Sarah headaches. Sometimes they throw her stomach off-kilter.

Similarly, I love boxing. Sparring beats the heavy bag, double-end bag, and mitt work when it comes to training for the sport. After all, none of the other options quite compare to calculating another person’s movements and actions, playing defense and offense at the same time, and learning how to take a hit.

Knowing I’ll spar on a given day gets my adrenaline going well before I get in the ring. Gearing up wakes my body from conscious slumber: I can feel joints and muscles, blood pumping in veins, air moving through windpipe and lungs.

Yet while I look forward to sparring, I dread the aftermath.

Thanks to the adrenaline, I don’t feel pain in the moment. Hours later, I notice the scrapes on my arms from my opponent’s gloves and the bruises on my shoulders, face, and body from her punches. By evening, my neck and back feel a little stiff. The following day, I can sense every muscle I worked and my body revisits every wrong move I made. (And yes, many times wrong moves took me straight into a punch—or many.)

I don’t get it.

I can find articles about people hurting the ones they love. Likewise, I can find information about people who get sexual pleasure from pain.

Yet I can’t find research on the reasons some people enjoy hobbies that cause pain and discomfort—other than interviews with extreme athletes about the thrill of human will triumphing over human body. The mind-over-matter rationale, while valid during an intense activity, doesn’t quite address how a person's body and mind often don’t agree in general—at any given time before and after an event—on what she loves the most.

My mind says, “Boxing! Yes!” My body says, “Boxing? Ouch!” For Sarah, the intellectual thrill of a massive storm system can’t overcome the physical effects of haywire atmospheric changes.

But why? And so I ask you, dear readers:

Why do you think we sometimes love what causes us pain?

Sunday
Jul132014

Communal Living

The New York Times article about shared living arrangements arrived at my gate at a time when I’d had the topic of quality time versus quantity time top of mind.

The article, “Looking for a Housemate, Not a Mate, in Later Life,” covers adult women who find roommates to share a house or large living space. Economics plays a role—sharing living expenses provides breathing room for people on fixed incomes, which can help older adults stay in their communities—as does the pull of companionship and the sense of increased safety.

I love it. How “Golden Girls.”

Why should the twenties set alone have roommates to share the costs and chores of keeping house? Why not find partnership, community, and even “family”—and all the support and nurturing they provide—without going the routine routes of marriage or romantic cohabitation?

One problem:

I never found having a roommate appealing, even in my younger days. I’ve contemplated sharing the extra space in my house with one in recent years, but my memory of past shared living experiences shuts down the possibility when it crops up anew. I’ve always enjoyed living alone. I like my space. As an introvert, I find interaction draining—even when close to the person with whom I spend time.

Oh, I like people. I just prefer quality over quantity. I’d rather focus intently on a person over feeling obligated to chat casually with someone who has entered the room, lest she perceive me rude. I don’t find hanging around another person relaxing. The sense that someone lingers nearby and may intrude at any moment causes me a modicum of low-grade, on-going stress.

Living in a close-knit, dense urban neighborhood gives me a strong sense of community and safety, though by no means does it help me with the expenses and hassles of keeping house. I’ll call it a good compromise (though if any of you would like to donate to my living expenses, drop me a line).

In contrast to me, my brother has always had a large set of friends. Often, he has a group in tow. His friends all know each other, mainly because he combines them so often. Though he has a beautiful family and doesn’t need platonic shared living arrangements, he might like them otherwise. At the very least, he’d take the life-of-the-party role in the retirement community.

I most certainly wouldn’t.

Would you go in for communal living?

Friday
Jul112014

Scheduling Spontaneity

Can you call it “spontaneity” if you schedule it?

During our conversation about work-life balance, a colleague asked if my life had room for spontaneity—for doing something completely unplanned or jettisoning a scheduled activity in favor of something else.

Most definitely it does. Priorities shift sometimes, requiring me to forego something I’d scheduled in favor of something else. I’d call that spontaneous—although not always in the “fun” sense of the term. Further, I actively ensure I have completely unfettered time on my calendar at least once a week.

Yes, that means I schedule spontaneity. I schedule relaxing.

Because if I don’t, it won’t happen.

Worse, when it did happen, I’d feel a slight anxiety that I’d foregone critical things—chores, errands, work, even playing with my dog or checking in with a friend or family member—for frivolity or disorganization. The time would feel purposeless. Wasted.

Yet spontaneity has deep purpose. Play keeps us vital. Downtime decreases stress. Without it, we wither. “Free time” has as much importance as all the other critical must-do life requirements, from buying groceries to washing the car to paying the bills. Even brushing your teeth.

Each week, I plan spontaneous time—blocking at least five hours on my calendar to do nothing scheduled other than the nothing I’ve scheduled. When something comes up that could interfere with the scheduled nothing, I remember the reasons I’ve blocked the time and the importance of maintaining it. Spontaneity ties to my goals. It keeps me healthy.

Do you plan for spontaneity? Do you practice spontaneity?