My Magic Bullet for Happiness

I have a secret to share with you. It’s been called a magic bullet. For someone who staunchly DOES NOT BELIEVE in the quick fix solution, for me it’s pretty darn close to one.

Wait for it…Gratitude.

gratitudeIf you’re interested in shifting your mindset from can’t to can, impossible to possible, or more simply negative to positive, establishing a daily ritual of counting your blessings works wonders.

It’s not just the occasional words of thanks, but a quick yet deep dive into your everyday world. It’s oh so easy to reel off the day’s mishaps and woes, and we all love to do it. But think, just for a minute, about what’s going right for you.

From my interest in positive psychology, I knew of the power of gratitude. I started a daily journal on my phone, but honestly that lasted less than a week. It wasn’t until last summer that I discovered The Five Minute Journal. Ever since then, I’ve somewhat religiously spent (more like) two minutes each morning on waking and each night as I get into bed, jotting down my little lists of threes. (By the way, I’m not getting any kickbacks for this blog post.)

In the morning I record three things I am grateful for, followed by three thoughts on what would make the day great. On the days I wake with an already open and positive mindset, I go broad with gratitude for my kids, my health, and my family. On days that begin less auspiciously, I stick to things like my cozy bed.

At night I record three amazing things that happened – from getting a break from driving carpool to witnessing an incredible sunset.

The point is, whether your record things large or small, having the intention to think positively about your life and taking the extra step of writing it down are incredibly powerful. As the creators, Alex Ikonn and UJ Ramdas, say, the journal “…instantly helps you shift your focus on the positive and short circuits negative thought loops.”

Why is expressing gratitude so powerful? By practicing gratitude daily, the reflex is strengthened and becomes more automatic in your daily thinking. There’s research to back this. For example, a 2003 study by Emmons and McCullough found that daily gratitude journals lead to a greater sense of well-being, better sleep, willingness to accept change, and lessen symptoms of physical pain. In a word, you feel happier.

It’s a minimal investment of your time for a pretty awesome reward. Did I mention there are pertinent quotes and even some personal challenges throughout?

I can’t recommend the daily practice of gratitude enough, and The Five Minute Journal ends up being the magic bullet for me. I’d love to hear what works for you in the gratitude department.

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5 Tips for Creating Successful New Year’s Resolutions

fireworksIt’s that time of year. Plenty of us make resolutions or set goals for the upcoming year, but among the makers, few of us follow through (about 12.5 %).

The good news is that compared to those that don’t make a resolution, you are TEN TIMES more likely to make a positive change in your life.

By all means, give it a go.

These tips are adapted from my upcoming online workshop, Happier & Healthier, Balancing Sleep, Food, Mood & Exercise for Optimal Living. Information on how to join is at the bottom of the post.

  • Make a REASONABLE resolution – If you’re starting from coach potato status, please don’t proclaim, “I want to lose 100 pounds” or “I will exercise every day.”
  • Be SPECIFIC when making a goal. Instead of “I will make more friends” try “I will join three groups this year with the aim of meeting new people with like interests. I aim to have at least three to four new friends by the end of the year.”
  • Is your resolution CHALLENGING? It’s okay to recommit to something you’re already making progress with, but you might want to add another goal that addresses a new area that needs improvement.
  • It helps to have a MEASURABLE goal. Throw a number in there, such as “I want to lose 10 pounds over the next 4 months by limiting my sugar intake to eating 1 sweet thing 2 days a week, with no sweets on the other 5 days.”
  • Keep the approach POSITIVE. Create an approach goal instead of an avoidance goal. For instance, “I will replace my daily candy intake with fruit,” rather than “I will stop eating candy.”

Compare your current goal against these suggestions. Can it be tightened up for a better chance at success? If you need help, share your resolution in the comment box, or email me for feedback. I’d love to help you.

Learn more about:

  • Setting smart goals and sharing them with a small group who will support your progress,
  • The role of stress hormones (those of us under chronic stress produce way too much cortisol), and how to maintain balance through sleep, food, mood and exercise,
  • The role of mindfulness and gratitude in creating a more positive and productive life,
  • What’s really behind willpower and how to improve yours,
  • Using your strengths to achieve more rather than attempting to fix your weaknesses.

Here what past participants have to say and sign up here.

Smarts and Stamina Online ProgramThe workshop’s content is based on Amazon’s Healthy Living Bestselling Book, Smarts & Stamina, The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance. The book, like the workshop, is chock full of research-based tools of positive psychology to help us increase health, happiness, and overall success.

Throughout the six-week workshop, I’ll be offering support, feedback and accountability. Space is limited to 20 participants and begins February 4, 2015.

Please join us! I’m glad to answer any questions (barclay@elemental-wellness.com).

What’s Your Favorite Justification When Giving into Temptation?

What goes through your mind when your give into the late night cookies? When you say yes to another cocktail? When you snag a donut from the platter at work? Or when you skip the spin class you’ve had on your calendar all week?

What conversation do you have with yourself to justify the indulgence? Do any of these rationalizations sound familiar?

  • I just want to relax! (exasperated)
  • I really NEED something sweet. (whining)
  • I deserve a treat after the rough day I’ve had. (assertive)
  • You only live once! (carefree)

donutOr maybe you grab the donut and gobble it down quickly so your brain doesn’t have much time to launch into the pros and cons. It’s a reaction to the bakery smell, a compulsion to feel the sugar crystals and yeasty texture in your mouth. Your mind shouts, “Quick! Before she can talk me out of it, grab that sucker!”

You’re not alone. We all succumb now and then. Temptation is like a wave, a very strong, formidable, and sometimes overwhelming force.

But what if you ride the wave of temptation instead of being swept up in it? Take a minute to identify your own idiosyncratic self talk. What do you tell yourself? Once you’ve put your finger on the dialogue, raise a little red flag next time you hear yourself thinking it. Believe it or not, recognizing the pattern is the most important step in changing the behavior

Next step is to challenge the thought. Most of us don’t distinguish between our thoughts and the truth. They are NOT necessarily one and the same. Realizing there is a difference helps diminish the power of our thoughts. Once we know we can challenge them, it becomes a lot easier to do so.

What I’m describing here is sometimes called “conscious awareness,” and it’s one of the guiding principles of mindfulness. It’s the act of checking in with our thought processes and challenging those that aren’t serving us. It’s an important step in developing self-awareness, not to mention self-control.

Consider sharing you’re own favorite line in the comment section below, along with a good counter-argument. For instance the next time I tell myself “You only live once,” before diving into a short stack of chocolate chip pancakes, I might further the thought with “Yep. Life is short. All the more reason to make smart choices.”

 

Image courtesy of Suat Eman at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Wellness Tips for Leaders

The following is adapted from the section on wellness for leaders that I contributed to the newly published What Exceptional Leaders Know, High Impact Skills, Strategies and Ideas for Leaders, by Tracy Spears and Wally Schmader. Whether you’re a CEO, sales team manager, parent, coach or teacher, you’ll discover useful information on wellness and more. Here’s just a sampling: 

Wellness, as a term, gets tossed around a lot these days. But what does it really mean? According to the National Wellness Institute, “Wellness is an active process through which people become aware of, and make choices toward, a more successful existence.” I like this definition because it reminds us that we are each responsible for our own success as a person. No one can do it for us. We have to want to take that close look at ourselves, and then accept the self-knowledge that results.

Next we commit to making changes and envision how these look moving forward. It’s an “active” and ongoing process, with no formula that works for everyone. Each of us is unique in our challenges, yet wellness is available to all of us who actively participate in the journey.

What Exceptional Leaders KnowThe authors of What Exceptional Leaders Know have done a great job of outlining a 30-day reboot that fits our definition of optimal wellness. They lead us through an Energy Audit and a Neglect Review. Together these tools boost our awareness of what’s working and what’s not.

Next, readers use information from the Audit and Review to create change in the Managed Goals Workshop. When reviewing your own behaviors, be sure a few of your health concerns make it into the exercise. Without our health, we have nothing. You know this all too well if you’ve had a health scare or suffer from a chronic condition. Lucky you if this seems like just another platitude, but someday it’s meaning will be crystal clear. Don’t wait for that day. Don’t fall prey to the mindset of, “yeah but, that won’t happen to me.” Just like everything else relating to personal success and wellness, good health involves awareness (no denial here) and consistent good choices.

My Top Suggestions

In addition to your list of goals that result from your Personal Reboot, I offer three suggestions that every exceptional leader will benefit from. In my practice as a health coach, without exception my clients need reinforcement in at least one of these areas. Even though my suggestions are undeniably basic — the first two you’ve surely heard hundreds of times — they bear repeating because they allow for the strongest, healthiest and most robust platform from which all or your energy, ideas, and talents as a leader flow.

Sleep

Adequate sleep is elusive to many of us, especially leaders. Two reasons seem to be at the root. The first is that we are taught that go-getters don’t have time for sleep. Sleep is for lazy, unproductive folk with little motivation. We hear about movers and shakers who only require about 4 hours a night (think Martha Stewart, Bill Clinton, Barak Obama and Donald Trump). Remember, these folks are anomalies. They represent only 1-3% of the population. If you’re not regularly logging 7-9 hours (1/3 of us sleep fewer than 6 hours each night), you are accumulating a sleep debt that has far-reaching negative effects on the body and mind.

The second reason we don’t get enough shuteye is that many of us fall into a cycle of bad habits that undermine our ability to get a sound night’s sleep. Poor sleep quality is often blamed on age or chalked up to stress, but there are ways to improve our sleep.

– Why Sleep is Vital

The first step in improving your sleep is to understand why it’s so important to our health and our overall success. Our bodies contain a delicate mix of biochemicals, which regulate how we feel and behave. These brain chemicals become depleted throughout the day, particularly by stress. Sleep is when our bodies restore this important balance.

  • Mentally, sleep deprivation makes us more forgetful, less able to process new information and leaves us vulnerable to depression and anxiety. More sleep keeps cortisol (the stress hormone) in check while boosting our natural mood enhancer, serotonin.
  • Insufficient sleep lowers cortisol and leptin, making us more likely to crave and overindulge in fatty, crispy, salty, and sweet comfort foods.
  • Physically, sleep debt hijacks our immune system, raising the risk of hypertension and heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, and stroke.

– Tips for Getting a Great Night’s Sleep

Now that you’re convinced of the fundamental importance of a good night sleep, there are a few things you can do to help you get it.

  • Charge electronic devices outside of the bedroom, or completely silence them. Beeps, hums, and chirps are disruptive.
  • Cover as many of the light sources in your bedroom as possible – that red light on the TV (a piece of black tape), the glow from your alarm clock (turn it around), the street light streaming in past your shades (invest in better window treatments).
  • Kennel your pets at night, or have them sleep outside of your bedroom. I know I sound hard-hearted, but as comforting and sweet as they are, they wake us up a lot. We need lengthy periods of deep sleep that aren’t possible if we are repeatedly awoken by our bedmates.
  • Have a bedtime routine that doesn’t involve electronics. At least a half hour before bed, dim the lights, step away from the computer, turn off the TV, and do something quiet and relaxing. Make this a habit so that your body comes to know the signals that sleep is imminent.

– If you wake at night and have trouble getting back to sleep

  • Take a look at your exercise level during the day. Is your mind worn out but your body under exercised?
  • Are you anxious about a problem or upcoming event? Keep a pen and paper next to your bed, and take 5-10 minutes to jot down ideas, to dos, even worries. The simple act of putting them on paper will help you rest more easily.
  • Is heartburn an issue? Try eating an earlier dinner, elevate your head and shoulders while you sleep, and avoid foods that trigger indigestion. If that doesn’t help, see your doctor.
  • If you drink alcohol, resist the urge to have a nightcap. Wine or whiskey may help you nod off faster, but as the alcohol is metabolized, it becomes harder to stay asleep and sleep well.
  • Are your mattress, sheets, pillows and PJs comfortable? How’s the temperature in the bedroom?

Most people don’t realize they’re sleep deprived. They don’t tie their irritability, lack of self-discipline or difficulty concentrating to sleep debt. Try some of the suggestions above and take notice of other changes that result.

More Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

That fruits and vegetables are healthy is nothing new. But I have a strategy for anyone trying to improve his or her eating habits. Don’t spend energy counting calories. Forget about denying yourself right and left. Banish the word “diet” from your vocabulary. Simply eat more fruits and vegetables.

By eating more fiber-rich, vitamin-packed fresh produce, you will be crowding out some of the less healthy choices in your day. Keep in mind you can enjoy an enormous vegetable-laden salad and not come close to the fat and calorie count in a burger and fries. And since we’re not denying ourselves, go ahead and have a few fries, but chances are you won’t want nearly as many.

Go for variety. Try new things. If you’re taste buds are somewhat challenged at the thought of veggies, set a goal of trying at least one new fruit or vegetable each day for a week. Another helpful “rule” is to limit any after-dinner snacking to fruit only. You’ll be surprised at the awareness this raises around the difference between true hunger and a craving for something sweet.

Fruits and vegetables are also nature’s best source for vitamins and minerals. Increasing your intake will provide your body with more of the nutrients necessary for robust health. When you consider everything you put in your mouth as opportunity to nourish your body, you’ll eat more mindfully and be less likely to use food for comfort.

Less Sitting

My third suggestion isn’t quite as obvious as sleeping more and eating better. But being sedentary for long periods of time is somewhat of an epidemic, especially among those working in mid- to upper-level jobs. We tend to sit in long meetings, travel by air and car frequently, plant ourselves in front of the computer for hours on end. On average, Americans are seated for 9 hours each day! In 2013, the American Heart Association stated that too much sitting is as dangerous to our health as smoking.

Even regular exercise won’t offset the negative impact of sitting for long periods of time. What does help is incremental movements throughout the day, something Mayo Clinic physician, J.A. Levine, has termed NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis). NEAT encompasses any energy expended throughout the day — from sleeping to fidgeting to climbing stairs — that is not done for exercise. Levine and others have found these activities add up, and have a significant impact on our metabolic rate.

Be more mindful about the length of time you spend sitting still. When doing computer work, set a reminder on your phone to stand and stretch every 15 minutes. Take the stairs, all the time! Consider scheduling a walking meeting as opposed to discussing business over lunch. When on a conference call, put on your headset and pace around the room. You can even add in some deep knee bends and no one on the call will be the wiser.

Wearing a pedometer or using a smart phone app to track your movements is hands down the best way to track your movement. Leaders know you manage what you measure, so why not measure your daily activities in order to increase them.

Standing desks or treadmill desks are becoming more common in the workplace. Some companies invest in one or two, allowing employees to rotate through the workstation throughout the day. Certainly, investing in the health of your employees is a remarkable way to gain their trust and respect.

Your Reach as a Leader Includes Creating a Wellness Culture

As much as you endeavor to improve your health and habits for yourself and your personal success, remember that as a leader you set the tone for many others. In the lingo of positive psychology you are an “influencer.” By practicing and embodying good self-care habits, you inspire those around you. As a leader, you’re in a position to model good habits, reward healthy choices, and spark constructive change. In essence creating a culture of wellness for you and those you manage is a powerfully productive leadership skill.

A wellness culture will not take hold if leaders don’t invest personally in the health-promoting ideas and the tools. If it’s not good enough for the boss, then the team probably won’t spend the time. Employees sense a wellness program that is primarily concerned with improving the bottom line through fewer absences and less expensive health insurance costs. But when a company fully supports the wellbeing of its employees, a zeitgeist forms and builds upon itself to strengthen the company, its employees and its leaders.

– from What Exceptional Leaders Know by Tracy Spears and Wally Schmader —available on Amazon

Six Things to Remember When Feeding your Kids this Summer

I’m very happy to have a reprieve from packing school lunches every morning. But with the kids home for more meals and wanting constant snacks, the new challenge is providing healthy options.  Growing kids need plenty of quality calories and many want lots of choices, yet they’re often picky. Here are a few ideas to help them pack in the nutrients this summer.

1)  Take Advantage of the Extra Time – Summer brings longer days, fewer commitments, and more down time. Take advantage of a looser schedule to spend more time in the kitchen preparing fresh food. It’s easy to fall into the trap of eating out when we’re busy, but eating at home is the healthier choice. (Read more about this in It’s Cool to Cook at Home.)

Boy Eat Watermelon by Miroslav Vajdic courtesy of Creative Commons/ Flickr

Boy Eat Watermelon by Miroslav Vajdic courtesy of Creative Commons/ Flickr

2)  Enjoy More Fresh Produce – Vegetable gardens are usually yielding lots of delicious produce over the summer.  If you don’t have one, consider taking on the project with your kids. Farmer’s markets, near home on while you’re traveling, will be in full swing. Bring the kids along and get creative with what you bring home.

Melons like cantaloupe and watermelon are at their peak, not to mention anti-oxidant filled berries. Mangoes and Pineapples are everywhere. Cut them up and put them in glass containers where they’re easily seen. Serve them as dessert.

3)  Get the Kids Interested in Cooking – Whether you’ve got little ones or teens, teaching them to find their way around the kitchen is key. You might put an older child in charge of preparing one meal each week.

4)  Be the Example – You’ve got to walk the walk. Unfortunately kids are bombarded by bad food choices at the mall, on TV, and even at school, so what they eat, and see you eat, at home is really important. Good eating habits, good choices, start at home.

5)  Prepare and Eat Food Together – This is the best way to be the example (see #4). It’s a simple concept but has huge benefits for your health, waistline, and your family. Your goal might be a minimum of one meal a day eaten together. This is easier if you don’t allow teens or middle schoolers to take food back to their rooms, or eat a meal in front of the TV.

6)  Clean out the Pantry with your Kids – Talk to them about processed and packaged foods and the overuse of sugar (it goes by 41 different names on food labels) trans fats, and other preservatives. You might want to take them to see Fed Up. Then challenge them to round-up any foods that have these ingredients and toss them. Although the FDA has instituted a gradual ban on trans fats, some products still contain them. Look for “partially hydrogenated oil” on the labels of things like microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, refrigerated dough (biscuits), and ready-to-use frosting.

So with all of those easy-to-grab processed snacks out of the picture, what are you going to feed your hungry kids? Here are some snack ideas.

  • Hummus and Vegetables – Think baby carrots, sliced celery, jicama, red pepper
  • Fresh Fruit Popsicles – Outshine by Dreyer’s is a good product, but if you want only organic fruit and no added sugar, try making them at home.
  • Whole Wheat Tortillas – Keep them on hand and fill them with fresh options like red pepper, fresh spinach or arugula, avocado, tomatoes, salsa, beans or my favorite, leftover grilled vegetables.
  • Trail mix – Packaged granola bars are easy and some brands are healthier than others, but consider mixing your own trail mix with healthy nuts  and seeds, dried fruit, and maybe even some chocolate thrown in there. (Remember to put these in glass jars so you and your family see them.)
  • Hard Boiled Eggs – Plain or prepared as deviled eggs or egg salad, all options are a good cooking project to get kids started.
  • Homemade Protein Bars – This is one recipe kids really love.
  • Whole Wheat Pasta – Cook more than you need next time, and then reheat with some pesto, red sauce or olive oil.
  • Fruit – Grapes, apples, berries, cherries, pears, papaya, bananas, melon, apricots…the possibilities are endless.
  • Nut butter – Whether made from peanuts, almonds, or cashews most kids love nut butters. Look for brands without added sugar and oils. My favorites are 365, Woodstock and Kirkland.
  • Smoothies – If you’re not already in the habit of making fruit smoothies, summer is an ideal time to start. As long as you keep the fruit (fresh and frozen) on hand, and maybe some yogurt and even some greens, the kids can whip up a cool creamy snack with ease.

Kitchen Consultation with Barclay SchraffIf you need more help, sign up for a Kitchen Consultation  with me! I offer lots of information and advice on eliminating processed foods, introducing more plant-based options, preparing easy, healthy meals, label reading, and the impact of good nutrition on your health.

Last but not least, I’d love to hear your ideas for healthy meals and snacks. Please post them in the comment section below.