In the Groove

Having managed to survive what just might have been the worst month I’ve ever had, I have a couple of things to report about habits and knowing what you want. (To fill in the blanks first, I was over-prescribed an antiarrhythmic medication that has a number of debilitating side-effects and a half-life of 58 days—which means that although I stopped taking it five and a half weeks ago, I still have a few more weeks to go before half of it is out of my system.)

Here’s what I’ve observed during the past couple of months.

The Value of a Compelling Habit

Last year, I wrote about the two sets of four things that I aim to do every day—things I want to do. They can’t be strung together into a routine, so for quite a while I attempted to get them done by putting them on my to-do list. But, as I wrote:

In the moment, at any given time, the unconscious part of the brain, which is focused on immediate gratification, can almost always find something more interesting or enjoyable for me to do.

I solved the problem by rewarding myself with a small star sticker on the calendar in my bathroom each time I completed the four things. My goal was to earn both stars every day. I see this calendar whenever I leave the bathroom, since it hangs above the light switch. Observing the day-by-day accumulation of stars was very satisfying.  And I found that my self-talk, which had been encouraging me to delay or blow off one or more of the activities, turned into a cheerleader encouraging me to do them so I could get the star sticker.

This system has been in place for a while and had been quite successful until this past September, when I stopped being physically able to do two of the things (walking and stretching) twice a day. For a while I just lowered my sights and aimed for one star sticker a day. But more often than not, I couldn’t even aim that high.

But I have been very gradually feeling better and stronger the longer I’m off the medication. And I noticed that the calendar—with or without star stickers—has become a cue for me to resume those activities, which I have now been able to do for 10 consecutive days.

It doesn’t matter whether I look at each of the four things as a separate habit or at the group of them as a single habit. They are united by the star stickers on the calendar as well as in my mind. And not only does doing them make me feel better, resuming doing them is an indicator—in multiple ways—that I am better.

Although I hadn’t been doing the four things regularly for two and a half months, as soon as I was able to do so I got right back on track and my self-talk got right back in line. That’s because this set of habits is very compelling for me. I really, really want to do them. And I did them long enough in the past to create a well-defined track or groove that was easy for me to find and get back into.

The takeaway is that creating a groove is the most important part of developing a habit. If there’s something you want to do every day, first create a groove for doing it once or twice a week. If there’s something you want to do multiple times a day, first create a groove for doing it once a day.

If you try to be perfect out of the gate and fail (which is the most likely outcome), you’ll never gain any traction. You’ll have to continually keep starting over. But if you have a groove, even if it isn’t all you want it to be, it will be so much easier for you to find your place when you lose it. And you will lose it. That’s the nature of things.

The Value of Identifying What’s Most Important to You

There’s a little bit of irony in the fact that I identified vitality as the thing that’s most important to me two months before I was diagnosed last year with multiple heart conditions, including one that results in fatigue and decreased energy. On top of that, one of the most prominent side effects of the antiarrhythmic drug I took recently is insomnia. This is not a recipe for vitality.

But the fact that I can’t have the level of vitality I used to have and that I would much prefer to have doesn’t mean it isn’t still important to me. I haven’t decided to replace it with something else because my circumstances have changed. I’m clear that no matter what, vitality is still what I’m aiming for. That means I have to determine the best actions to take so I can achieve the highest level of vitality possible at any given time.

That makes it hard to feel defeated or powerless. My personal agency may be limited, but I can identify the agency I do have, the actions I can take, the difference I can make. In fact, aiming for as much vitality as I can get makes decision-making a breeze. Instead of basing decisions on what I should do or what I would prefer to do, I simply ask myself if doing or not doing something is likely to increase or decrease my vitality.

The takeaway here is that you may not be in a position to achieve as much of what’s important to you as you would like to achieve. That doesn’t mean you should write it off. (It doesn’t actually mean anything at all.) Don’t sell out. Don’t give up. Don’t let it go. Go after as much of it as you can get at this particular point in time!

My Heart: The Practical Value of Knowing What You Want


I teach a course called What Do You Want? that’s based on a process I developed to help me create a more consistently satisfying and meaningful life. It didn’t become part of my program curriculum until I recognized that without knowing what they really want my clients can’t make effective use of the tools I teach them.

The purpose of the course is to identify what I call Big Picture Wants. There’s a psychological term for this, higher order wants, but the concept seems to be a well-kept secret. I do a lot of reading and researching in this area, and I didn’t come across a reference to higher order wants until after I started teaching the What Do You Want? course.

There’s a belief out there in the world that it’s OK—even necessary—to get your needs met, but getting what you want is optional. (Do you really need it or is it just something you want?) It may seem as if trying to get a need met or satisfied is less self-centered or narcissistic than pursuing something you want, but that isn’t the case. It’s simply more underhanded, and it actually keeps your attention focused on you.

There aren’t that many things we need from a survival standpoint: food, water, shelter, and social connections cover most of them. Nearly everything else is optional.

But, as David DiSalvo says, “We have a big brain capable of greatness,” so we’re not satisfied with merely surviving. We want more. We’re actually wired to want more. But we can go either way with that. System 1, the unconscious part of the brain that runs us most of the time, is focused on the short-term, on immediate gratification, on feeling good. System 2, the conscious part of the brain is focused on the long-term, on the bigger picture, on plans, goals, and dreams.

If we don’t know what we really want—meaning what leads to a satisfying and meaningful life as we define it—we’re likely to succumb to what feels good or what’s easiest in the moment. What we’re chasing over the long-term has to be compelling enough to keep us focused and not susceptible to immediate gratification.

I’ve never been clearer about how important this is than I am right now.

Roadwork Ahead

This past December I developed a process for reassessing and prioritizing my own Big Picture Wants for 2016. As I went through the exercises, I realized that one of them—vitality—was a keystone for the others. I want vitality for its own sake, but vitality also positively impacts every one of my other BPWs. Being aware of how important vitality is to me allows me to focus more attention on it, which has a cascade effect on the rest of them.

Armed with this awareness, I set out in January to increase my level of physical exercise and pay more attention to what I eat. And through the first six weeks of the year, I felt fantastic—full of vitality and very productive, focused, and energetic. Then came the crash.

I had an incident while I was using the treadmill one day in February that was somewhat alarming but didn’t stop me from completing my workout. I had a similar, though milder, incident the following day. But the next time I used the treadmill, everything felt normal. About a week after that, I started having chest congestion and trouble breathing. I’d been having some sinus congestion on and off, so I thought the chest congestion was related. I kept up most of my scheduled activities, but it became more and more difficult to do that. I facilitated a four-hour workshop the last Saturday in February and had to have someone else carry my materials from my car into the building.

The following Monday, a friend took me to the ER, where over the course of the day and numerous tests, it was determined that I was in heart failure as a result of undiagnosed mitral valve stenosis and atrial fibrillation and/or flutter. I was transferred to another hospital where I remained for the next seven days.

Three cardiologists are convinced I had rheumatic fever as a child, which is the usual cause of mitral valve stenosis. My general cardiologist claims it is “remarkable” I had no symptoms prior to February because the stenosis is moderately severe.

Lost and Found

This was definitely a life-changing experience, but primarily because I was quite aware I had lost—at least temporarily and possibly permanently—the thing that mattered most to me. Shortly after leaving the hospital, I resumed walking every day, but it was a slog and I wasn’t clear why. I kept up most of my activities but I tired much more easily and although I enjoyed facilitating my classes as much as ever, life was not nearly as invigorating as it had been before.

Then my general cardiologist decided that all of my EKG results indicated I had an atrial flutter, not fibrillation. He referred me to a heart rhythm specialist to be evaluated for a catheter ablation, a procedure that had the potential for eliminating the atrial flutter by destroying the parts of the heart that are causing it. The rhythm specialist explained that my heart was beating 240 times per minute, but due to a conversion (2:1) within the electrical circuit, my pulse measured 120. It was 120 when I was sleeping and 120 when I was exerting myself. It never changed, which was why I was having so much difficulty walking and why I was so tired.

The day the procedure was supposed to happen, it was discovered that my flutter is on the left side (atypical) rather than the right side, so I didn’t get the ablation. Instead they did cardioversion to shock my heart into a normal rhythm. That almost always works but it’s temporary (5 minutes, 5 weeks, 5 years…you never know). So I was put on a medication to maintain the normal rhythm.

It took a few days after this procedure for me to notice the difference. My pulse rate was back to increasing and decreasing the way it’s supposed to. Walking suddenly became much easier and much more enjoyable. Within a few more days I was back to walking at my usual pace for the usual amount of time. And I had energy. I had focus. I had enthusiasm. My vitality was back!

Having had it, lost it, and regained it confirmed its value and importance to me. It’s what I want. It’s what I really want. I now have numerous inconvenient dietary restrictions, which means I have to spend more time preparing my own meals, but if I do that I’m more likely to maintain vitality. I’ve recently been cleared for any and all forms of exercise, which I enjoy doing anyway, but if I do them regularly I’m more likely to maintain vitality. I have way too many medical appointments (11 this month) that eat up a lot of time. But being monitored is something that can help me keep on the right track and maintain vitality.

So I don’t have any internal dialogue about whether or not I’m going to do any of these things because I’m very clear what doing them gets me. I don’t do them because I’m “supposed to” or “have to.” And no will power is involved. I’m not remotely tempted to slack off because vitality is much more compelling to me than any short-term gratification. That simplifies decision-making and makes doing what I need to do easy. (I wrote this post before the major disruption, so there’s some irony in what followed. But my attitude hasn’t changed.)

That’s really the point of identifying Big Picture Wants. When you know what you really want—and you know what it takes to get it—the path ahead is clear. You don’t need to motivate yourself or talk yourself into doing those things because why wouldn’t you do them?


At the moment, my heart is in a normal rhythm and my heart failure is “well under control.” At some point there will need to be an intervention in regard to the mitral valve, but I don’t have another appointment with the valve specialist for six months. And I’m now down from three cardiologists to two. As Dr. S said the last time I saw him, “Who needs three cardiologists? You’re not that sick.” Cue the theme from “Rocky.”

What Do You Want? redux

What do YOU want?
What do YOU want? (Photo credit: MaestroBen)

Right now. Right this moment. What do you really want?

It sounds like a simple question, but it’s often a difficult one to answer. So instead of answering the question what do I want? we answer a different question, an easier one, such as

  • What do I need?
  • What do I want that I think I’m capable of getting?
  • What do I want that’s practical?

Some of those might seem like reasonable approaches, but they sidestep the actual question.

Identifying what you want isn’t an excursion into narcissism. The fact that so many of us are unable to answer this question with any degree of conviction doesn’t indicate  we’re selfless beings who aren’t concerned with our own wants and desires. To the contrary, the less clarity we have about what we really want in life, the likelier we are to settle for—even grab at—whatever gratifies our immediate, short-term desires.

But it’s impossible to be truly satisfied if you don’t know what you really want.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman talks about this phenomenon of answering an easier question than the one that was asked.

If a satisfactory answer to a hard question is not found quickly, System 1 [the unconscious] will find a related question that is easier and will answer it. I call the operation of answering one question in place of another “substitution.”

Substituting an easier question for the question, what do I want? has consequences that can be deadly—or at least deadening. If you can’t allow yourself to identify what you want in life, you diminish your possibilities dramatically. You lose touch with yourself. Your view of the world becomes narrower. You settle for less. And maybe every once in a while you’re kind of unpleasant to be around.

Could you want something that’s impossible (or seems impossible) to have? Of course! Wanting isn’t synonymous with having. The act of wanting something won’t somehow magically bring it into being, no matter how hard you wish for it. On the other hand, if you don’t even know what you want, then you’ve pretty much guaranteed you won’t go after it. It’s unlikely that everything you want will be impossible for you to have. So why not be honest with yourself and acknowledge what you want, whether or not you think you can have it?

When you ask yourself this question, throw reasonableness out the window and try answering the hard question instead of an easier one. If you keep doing that, the hard question actually becomes easier because you don’t have to keep censoring yourself. If it turns out that you want impossible, improbable, barely imaginable, or highly unlikely things, congratulations! You’re already a winner.

30 Days

Here’s a simple exercise to help you uncover what you want:

For 30 days, preferably consecutive, write “What I really want” at the top of a blank page and then list 15-20 things that you want right then and there. They can be small, medium, or large; material or ephemeral; practical or pie-in-the sky. Don’t put an inordinate amount of thought into creating your list. Write down whatever occurs to you. Repetition is the key. Date your list. At the end of 30 days, you’re likely to have a pretty good idea of what’s important to you and what you want. If not, do the exercise for 30 more days.Enhanced by Zemanta