Monday, March 25, 2013

Under (Peer) Pressure

I have always viewed the concept of "peer pressure" with passionate derision. I always believed that peer pressure is the reason why many adolescents struggle with being accepted and fear ostracization, ridicule, and exclusion if they don't conform to the groupthink mentality of their brethren. You're labeled as a misfit, an outcast, a freak, or even a Satan worshipper if you act or look different from others (this was before wearing an all-black wardrobe became acceptable as the contemporary "New York City look").

The rules of socialization, which have been ingrained for several decades, continued to manifest themselves throughout my adulthood in many arenas. Some of them are like bad cliches, like the horde of drinking buddies exhorting me to "Chug! Chug! Chug!" a plastic cup full of vile, cheap beer at a house party. But other kinds of peer pressure take place at work. Quite often, deviation from conformity is met with accusations of me "not being a team player" or "refusing to fit in." In many places, the motto invariably seems to be "the nail that sticks out gets struck down."

Having experienced and embraced these lifelong biases against peer pressure, I have systematically rejected them until recently. I actually found peer pressure to be a strong strategy for pursuing my life goals--when these sources are in alignment with my core directional values.

I am extremely fortunate that I have friends who value the pursuit of wellness and improved fitness. It is encouraging to read about and become stoked by my friends' cycling, running, workout, and culinary exploits. Discovering that we share similar goals inspire me to put in a workout session when I'm feeling indecisive. Imagining their voices telling me to "kick resistance's ass" often gets me through finishing workouts. That is also why I enjoy fitness events and activities--the presence of other people who are in pursuit of similar shared goals is an incentive to keep on keeping on.

I am also lucky to be involved with several professional and social circles where I am remarked and valued for having bold ambitions, a willingness to be edgy and daring, and held accountable for getting stuff done. Peer pressure is what makes these relationships successful. The inspiring mentors and expert friends not only impart their valuable knowledge, but they expect me to contribute to the two-way exchange of ideas. They're not afraid to ask me tough questions either. My mastermind group meetings are lively and rewarding, but only because we foster a culture of self-accountability--if we have an upcoming meeting with unfamiliar agenda topic, I take it upon myself to deep dive into the subject beforehand so I can contribute to the conversation. I use peer pressure as a motivation to fully prepare myself before walking into meetings with important colleagues and customers whom I have great working relationships with. Leaning into pressure has encouraged me to complete my writing projects on time.

My friends at CDK Creative constantly and urge me to think less and do more, through their in-your-face writing and thoughtful podcasts. Adopting the mindset of having a bias towards action and pressuring myself to learn the stuff that I lack knowledge in--through learning missions and "Dude, Let's Try This!" approaches--will prepare me for the next few months when I encounter new learning and sharing opportunities at conferences and summits which I have never attended before. Using peer pressure to ensure that I know my shit is a useful strategy.

I use feedback from my social media connections--the friends and colleagues--to act as a gentle source of peer pressure to keep my activities rolling in the right direction. In his book "Making Ideas Happen," Scott Belsky describes the act of publicly committing to an action as a positive thing--he refers to this as "committal benefits."

The biggest challenge for me right now is learning how to identify good peer pressure from the bad. Again, it depends on whether or not the source of pressure is in alignment with my values. When I'm surrounded by colleagues who highly value treating all peer and customer interactions with dignity, respect, and a can-do attitude, I am motivated to follow their cultural norms and contribute. However, if I'm mired in a group where there is a pressure not to be the nail that sticks out or to venture outside of their collective silo, I am inclined to resist their oppressive tactics.

I am aware that not everyone out there has opportunities to find positive pressures to lean into. Finding these core directional values may take many years, but when such shared alignments are found, peer pressure is a great strategy for making things happen.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Make a Move and Flex It!

Yesterday I participated in my first-ever timed running race (the 35th Annual Shamrock Run). I ran better than anticipated even though my time  was in the Snail Varsity neighborhood (28 minutes, 36 seconds). Perhaps indulging in cardiovascular exercises at the gym and weekend training runs in my neighborhood have helped me prepare for finishing the race. I felt the high of my accomplishment throughout yesterday. There was definitely a reason behind the exhilaration.

I almost didn't run the race.

Two weekends ago, I felt severe pain under my left kneecap during a training run. The aching sensation first surfaced during a 45-mile cycling event over a month ago, and I must have aggravated the ailment while running. I initially thought that I could tough out the pain and make it go away, but the pain continued through the week during gym workouts and the following weekend's training run. The pain was so intense that I couldn't complete the 4-mile training runs without stopping several times. The pain also manifested while walking up stairs, running to catch buses at the transit mall, and riding my bicycle.

Worried that the pain would persist throughout therapy of the race, I researched my symptoms on the Internet a week ago, and learned that I was experiencing patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS). I was in denial when I read about one suggestion to make the pain go away: "stop running."

No bleeping way.

I had invested so much in the race, both emotionally and socially. I was excitable that several friends and peers at work were also participating in the race. This was my second organized running event (and my first race) since I had decided to make distance running a part of my fitness regimen. There was no way that I was going to back out of the run with only a week to go. Not participating in the race was not an option.

After my indignation had subsided, I read further about treating PFPS, and learned that some effective exercise routines which can be accomplished without further aggravating the pain included weight work  which doesn't involve putting severe pressure on my knee joints, swimming, and light stationary bike sessions (after several pain-free days). Most of my gym work in the past few months involved high-intensity stationary bike and elliptical machine activities. Following new routines would be a challenge.

I thought about quitting my workouts until the pain had disappeared.

Thankfully, the "Dude, Let's Try This!" response kicked in and I made pool exercises and non-intrusive weight machines centerpieces of my new workout routines. Even though I'm a terrible swimmer, doing laps with the U-shaped flotation device felt liberating. And designing my own workouts in the therapy pool (like doing "the running man" while using swimming barbell floats) was fun. I maintained my exercise routine in the past week despite being forced to stay away from my beloved elliptical machine (and the Food Channel programs on their TV consoles). So I leaned into the dip throughout the week, slept aplenty at night, ate sensibly the day before the race, and finished the race.

There have been many times in the past when I abandoned a project or became discouraged with an endeavor after adverse events unexpectedly happened. I've had equipment failures onstage in middle of musical performances--which led to an apathy and half-hearted performance on one occasion (apologies to Pamela, Cameron, and Cedric if you guys are reading this). I took an hiatus from exciting writing opportunities at work after Powers That Be questioned my commitment to the immediate silo in the workplace. I've walked away from creative opportunities at the first sign of discomfort.

There's value in giving up things that don't add value or meaning to my life goals--after all, time is a finite resource--but there's greater value in knowing when to quit or lean into the dip. Running is a strategy that fits into my big-picture fitness goals, and a little PFPS-induced detour isn't going to deter me from forging ahead with my running plans. It's good to build my resilience mindset. It feels even better to tell my resistance mindset to STFU.

I expect my resilient mindset to stick for my fitness-related setbacks. Hopefully the mental resilience will become a routine for all aspects of my life goals. In meantime, I have three more races that I am looking forward to in the upcoming weeks.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Take Pleasure in Leisure, I Believe in Joy!

Being driven to learn, grow, and get things done is an exhilarating adventure. I find it easier to follow my meaningful pursuits when they are enhanced with compelling rituals and rewards. Conditioning myself to take action instead of making mental excuses to lollygag is a welcome change from those days when I would succumb to the temptation to take it easy--those days of prolonged procrastination are mostly in the past.

So am I "all work and no play" these days? Hardly. Do I feel guilty for not putting my nose to the grindstone more often? Hell no!

The pursuit of leisure is not an antithesis to my action goals, but rather a complement. Breaks from intense studying, exercising, and strategizing help me accomplish my action goals. Those "Eureka!" moments often happen after I step away from focused activities. Ideas about how to work smarter, prospective topics for future writing projects, and tactics for daily activities pop into my head in unlikely places: in the shower, during interactions with other people, in middle of neighborhood walks, and during commute to and from work. Perhaps my mind is receptive to serendipity and thinking outside the box when I'm not relentlessly pressuring my brain to come up with all the answers during focused sessions. Leisure time helps my mind form new connections.

I am convinced that the mind is like the body: it needs time to recuperate between focused activities. Just like taking time off between fitness workout sessions, it's important for me to replenish mental energy between working on taxing activities. Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project, in a New York Times Op-Ed column ("Relax! You'll Be More Productive") states, "Human beings aren’t designed to expend energy continuously. Rather, we’re meant to pulse between spending and recovering energy."

Sprinkling in leisure and relaxation between action goals helps me absorb learning material better than the balls-to-the-wall study method. The dreaded "cram-and-regurgitate" mode of learning, often used when urgent exam deadlines are approaching, emphasizes mastery of rote memorization over creative application of lessons learned. When I have time to relax between focused study sessions, my mind is in a better place to work through challenges. Neurosurgeon and author Dr. Sanjay Gupta equates change-of-pace activities as a form of rest ("Work mode: 5 Tips From Dr. Sanjay Gupta On Being Unreasonably Productive"). Switching gears when I've reached the saturation point refreshes my mind--I often "hit a wall" when engaged in a writing project (including this blog entry), and it helps me to step away, get ample repose, and then resume the following day.

When I start pursuing new habits which support my goals, I include leisure time as part of the strategy. My fitness goals involve getting ample sleep at night. My learning goals include unstructured, free-form explorations. My writing projects have reference materials that were gathered outside of focused writing time. To study or to play? Both.

I still struggle periodically with taking too much leisure time between focused action goals. Even though I find it beneficial to rest for a day or two between high-intensity exercise sessions, sometimes I let a week elapse between workouts. Sometimes I take a sabbatical of few weeks before resuming technical learning. I find it difficult to get back in swing of things after an extended break. The Hanon piano exercises that I kicked ass at while I was regularly practicing piano sounds like ass after months of not practicing the instrument. There is a point where taking too much leisure time can be counterproductive. Finding that balance is still a work in progress.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Four R's of Habits

(A modified and sanitized version of this was recently published in my workplace's bimonthly newsletter. This version is no holds barred.)

It happens at beginning of every year. I make a jaunt to the gym and discover that many fitness machines which usually see low usage are regularly occupied. The mainstream America society places so much emphasis on encouraging (and sometimes pressuring) folks to make "New Year's Resolutions"--and the pursuit of getting in better shape is one of the popular resolutions. I concur with Johnny B. Truant's poignant post ("How not to be a New Year's resolution dumbass") about this annual phenomenon which brings out these "resolutionists" out of the woodwork during the first week of January every year. Thankfully the gym is less crowded in March.

I abhor making New Year’s Resolutions since I establish habits without regard to the calendar month, the phase of the moon, the stock market index, or the color of socks I'm wearing that day. When I feel that a change needs to be made in my life, I don't wait for the calendar year to change before I give myself permission to make things happen.

I am interested, though, in learning about how to create and sustain habits over time. Creating new habits mean that some existing habits which take up my time (or have become my pigeons of discontent) will fall by the wayside--time is a finite resource. Replacing familiar and comfortable existing habits with something new can be a challenge though. Reflecting upon some of the habits that I have successfully implemented over years, I have realized that they involve the Four R’s: Routines, Rituals, Repetition, and Rewards.

Routines: When I want to make lasting changes, I find it essential to establish routines based around new habits. One of my recently-established habits is studying new technology skills. To make this happen, I commit dedicated time during weekends and evenings, and treat those blocks of time as sacred --I silence my phone, stay away from social media, and minimize other distractions. My fitness routine involves using different gym machines in a familiar, sequential order. My weekly 4-mile runs follow the same loop. My adventures in cooking always begin with reading the recipe and visualizing the finished dish.

Rituals: I make the routines noteworthy by creating and associating enjoyable rituals. My study sessions at home start by lighting candles, burning incense, turning on music, and preparing a pot of delicious tea. I enhance my study sessions by using nice pencils and quality journals for note-taking. My fitness workouts conclude with quality time in the whirlpool and my favorite hair product waiting in the gym locker after the post-workout shower.

Repetition: I best absorb information when I learn incrementally over time. Establishing short learning sessions few times a week gives my mind time to contemplate new knowledge. Setting aside time for few workouts during the week allows my body time to recover and get acclimated to new routines. Sustaining a running routine helps silence the "But I don't want to run today" gremlin voices inside my head--it builds mental fortitude.

Rewards: Short- and long term rewards make new habits meaningful. When my band has an upcoming show, I establish a practice habit. Signing up for a future cycling event strengthens my resolve to work out regularly. Routine and repetition can also become building blocks for future rewards. Doing exceptional work every day creates opportunities to attract attention from important organizational and industry peers. Establishing a fitness routine introduces possibilities for getting involved in recreational sports--I recently participated in my first 5k run after months of regular cardiovascular workouts.

Adopting and maintaining new habits are ongoing experiments. Other people may find different motivational tactics to get their new habits to stick--to each their own. The Four R’s (which, thankfully, does not include “Resolution”) have created a nice framework for which I can experiment with creating successful habits.