One of my favorite professors in graduate school was Dr. Doug Taylor. He was a poetry scholar, both American and British, specializing in John Milton and Walt Whitman. I took both classes from him and loved every minute of them. In fact, after his sudden death in my last year of university, our annual graduate journal that year was dedicated to him: the epigraph included the last lines of the last stanza of Whitman’s Song of Myself. It was my suggestion, as I can still vividly recall him reading those lines to our class.
If you had met him on campus, you would have thought he was a football coach or maybe something like an engineer. He looked like a real hands-on kind of guy and in fact, he played football at Rutgers. He definitely didn’t look like the stereotypical poetry professor (that guy taught Chaucer, which I also took… unfortunately.) Dr. Taylor was perennially popular, mainly for his no nonsense approach. Anyone who has been in college knows that as the end of the semester approaches and major assignments start coming due faster and faster, everyone- including the professors- start feeling the pressure. One of ‘signs of semester end’ for those of us in the English department was Dr. Taylor’s “NO WHINING!” sign on his office door. As each semester drew to a close, the professors would be closeted in their offices reading and grading and reading and grading and they hated to be interrupted, hence Doug Taylor’s sign. If you showed up at his office door with an excuse about why your term paper wasn’t done or why you tanked the final or missed so many classes, he wasn’t buying it. You had all semester to get things done and if you waited to the last week and “something happened,” you could take the class over again, take the D or F or apply for an Incomplete. See that sign? No Whining! It wasn’t a big sign either, less than a quarter sheet of paper, a few inches really, but it got the job done. He said it; he meant it!
I think about that sign and Dr. Taylor whenever I start making excuses for why I’m not eating the way I should be or why I can’t make my workout or why I need a pass on whatever it is I’m trying to weasel out of. See that sign? No Whining! Am I really too tired/ sick/ sore to make it to my workout? If I had to work late and just plain didn’t make it to the gym until the class was over, then yeah, that’s a legitimate reason. I was doing my job, but because I’m just not ‘feeling like it’? NO WHINING! The same goes for eating junk food: running around town, doing all kinds of errands and now “it’s late and I don’t want to cook so why not stop and get a burger or fried chicken?” Remember Dr. Taylor’s sign? Yeah, so stop whining! You’ve got a bag of salad and roasted chicken at home so put the salad on a plate and stick the chicken in the microwave. Getting junk food would actually take LONGER! Even if I didn’t have those things at home, which has happened recently, it takes no longer to get them at a grocery store than it does to go through a drive-thru. Run in, grab them, run out- healthier dinner in the bag!
I can give you the whole “discipline is important” lecture that lots of guidance counselors, study skills teachers and parents like to give, but I found more students responded better to the “habit explanation.” Most of us live according to our habits, i.e. ‘Auto Pilot.’ We follow the same patterns every day with the necessary detours and when we ‘suddenly discover’ that we are way overweight, we’re genuinely confused. It doesn’t ‘feel’ like we’re eating badly, but when we shut off the Auto Pilot and take stock of what we are eating and what we are doing during a normal week, it can be surprising. I know that 90% of what I do every day and every week is because I’m on Auto Pilot, and while changing courses on a real airplane’s Auto Pilot is just punching in a few numbers into the computer, changing a human being’s Auto Pilot is a whole lot harder: we have to reprogram our brains by building new habits.
There’s a boatload of books, podcasts, websites and other programs out there to help you build or change your habits. I heard one the other day discussing our “lower brain” v our “upper brain.” It was full of a lot of technical hoopla but I don’t think he was wrong (It was On Air with Ella episode 139 with Jim Fortin if you want to hear it for yourself.) For myself, I know it’s hard to learn/ change my habits because they are so firmly ingrained. The more we do them, the more firmly they are ingrained, so the key is to stop doing them and do something else, and again, the more we do the ‘new habit,’ the more firmly that one becomes ingrained. This is how I can argue with myself during my two hour commute about how ‘my shoulder hurts,’ ‘I’ve got too much to do,’ etc so I should bail on my workout and then find myself turning into my gym’s parking lot even though I have already ‘decided’ not to go. The habit has been entrenched in the ‘Auto Pilot settings’ in my brain, so no matter what my ‘upper brain’ decided, the Auto Pilot ‘lower brain’ did what it wanted to do anyway.
The hard part is getting the new healthier habit entrenched, which means doing it on a regular basis. This is what makes me think of Dr. Taylor’s NO WHINING! sign. That interval between changing a habit or building a new one is the dangerous ground. For me, this is where I can actually talk myself out of going to my workout and finding myself pulling into my driveway instead of the gym. So when I start the whining and fumbling around with flimsy excuses, an image of Dr. Taylor’s sign will pop in my head. Because really, I AM whining. Eating healthier isn’t a burden or any more work than eating badly, and eating badly has the added baggage of making me feel crappy emotionally and physically, whereas eating healthier is going to make me feel a whole lot better. The same goes for working out: am I going to feel better after spending an hour working out, or am I going to feel better after spending an hour scrolling through my social media or watching tv? Which of these actions are actual burdens and drains on my time and energy? So why am I whining? Because it’s the change that’s hard, not the actual new habits! It’s tough reminding yourself: tomorrow is Wednesday, which is a workout day, so make sure you have the gym bag packed and you take it with you and then you have to remember to drive to the gym instead of going home. It’s the same with my cardio class at another place where I need change for the parking meter, so not only do I have to remember all of the above, but I also have to remind myself to get change before I get there! It means we consciously have to pay attention to what we are doing, which actually requires energy. It’s why some mindset coaches will tell you to stop arguing with yourself or debating your actions, because it wears out your brain and saps your energy. Those of you who have kids know this: monitoring them is real work! And so is monitoring ourselves! This is what makes building and changing our habits difficult: we have to be watching our thoughts and actions so we don’t slip into Auto Pilot. Whining about why we can’t build the new habit is more work than actually doing the new habit.
The recent On Air with Ella podcast with Jim Fortin didn’t really tell me anything about changing habits that I didn’t already know, since I’ve spent the last two-plus years building and changing my habits. His advice is to ‘dismiss the urge’ and change your focus to something else. What works best for me is telling myself simply NO (in the same tone I use for my pets) and moving forward with the new habit. When I feel the urge to start making excuses or whining, yep! NO WHINING! Getting whatever it is done is a whole lot easier than trying to get out of it, and a whole lot more rewarding. Just doing the healthier new habit literally is its own reward because we feel better emotionally and physically and we’ve moved one step closer to programming the new setting into our Auto Pilot.
It can be a real hassle to make a new habit, which is why there is an entire cottage built around it, and honestly, I wish I were better at some of my other bad habits… like leaving the dishes in the sink until they smell funny. (For some reason, Dr Taylor’s sign doesn’t work so good on that one!) We are all Works in Progress, no matter how old we are. We all have something we wish we did better or didn’t do at all. Maybe putting a sign up over my sink is an idea: NO WHINING!! And No Excuses Either!!