"Torture and Reward"

My husband Sheldon, an accomplished man in both business and life, has the best work ethic of anyone I've ever met.  What's his secret? He has a self imposed work system which he (tongue in cheek) refers to as "torture and reward."

Truth be told, he has a greater willingness for hard work and delayed gratification (the "torture" phase) than most people. And that in itself could be its own article and is well worth some deep contemplation.  He's also unwilling to endure torture if there is no sufficient reward in sight. This is the reason he quit the hourly wage work force early on, and started working for himself as soon as he could figure out a path to do so. These are both great things to contemplate, but may not be for everybody.

But there is a universal piece, one that any of us can benefit from, which is this.  Sheldon understands and consistently applies these 5 golden rules of how to use rewards. These are:

  1. Don't enjoy the reward too early
  2. Time big rewards strategically
  3. Do enjoy rewards!
  4. There's a time and a place for everything
  5. Use positive self talk (all the time) 

Don't enjoy the reward too early, means, you don't kick back and take a break first thing in the morning before you've gotten anything done.   It means you apply yourself, you do the work, and then you enjoy an (appropriately scaled) reward. 

It also means you look at the rewards you would like to have in your life, including--actually, especially!--whatever you might already be thinking to do for yourself, and you consider timing them strategically to increase your motivation. For instance, consider saving the expensive purchase of that Nice New Thing you're thinking to buy, for after the successful completion of the thing you are working on, or some milestone point. Breaking up your big jobs into smaller milestones is a basic and foundational motivation piece, which I hope you are already doing. 

What would it look like to map out some upcoming rewards for yourself around your accomplishments? What could you give yourself, when?  Sometimes the small ones are fun, and can become a bit of a game.  I used to watch a certain TV show only when I was working out on the elliptical machine. If I wanted to see the next episode, I had to get on the machine!  Sheldon is in the habit of unloading the dishwasher in the morning, while the water for his coffee comes to a boil. It's a fast job, it fills the time he'd just be waiting, and he gets to check off an accomplishment before he's even sat down to his coffee.

Do enjoy rewards!, means that, at the end of the day, you take an hour or two to read or do something else you enjoy, in a clean and intentional atmosphere (maybe light some candles, put on some music to enhance your enjoyment). Or whatever floats your boat!  It means at the end of the week, you take a day to devote to something you enjoy--a reward for your hard work of the week. 

If you find yourself working into the wee hours of the night, every night, without a rest, you are missing the reward of your day's work, and your motivation will suffer.  Ditto the end of the week.

Taking stock of and celebrating what you have accomplished-- at the end of the day, at the end of the week, and before a vacation period-- is an important and necessary reward. Resting and enjoying your accomplishment is really how we bring the accomplishment to completion. If we are skipping this, then we are not actually completing the accomplishment. Praise where praise is due--for yourself, for others--and taking a well earned rest (appropriately portioned for the phase of work) goes a long way toward absorbing a reward properly, and, by doing so, preparing yourself to enter the next phase of work.   

The more you start to look at phases of work and rest as a rhythm and a system, the more you realize that, indeed, there's a time and a place for everything.  Hard work in the morning, break for lunch, maybe even a short siesta if you need it to make the most of the afternoon; another cycle of work, ending with rest and enjoyment in the evening.  Working in complete cycles like this, you can get more than one cycle of hard work out of yourself in the day.

Which time of the day will you rest and enjoy? Which day of the week? Which week, or two!, of each season will be devoted to enjoyment and rejuvenating? Plan to pay yourself not just with monetary rewards, but the rewards of healthy rhythms, and a life well lived. 

Positive self talk. Last but not least, this is a constantly available and accessible reward that you can apply liberally, with yourself and others. It's one reward that you can give as early and as often as you like, so it doesn't follow the other rules, except for the Do Enjoy It rule.

Beginning your week having fully appreciated all you did the previous week, you are well set up to feel good about what you will be able to accomplish this coming week.  "I sure did a lot last week! (Nix the critical voice that will insist you could have done more.)  I did this, and that, and that. Good job, me!" It's easy to go from that, to "I can do anything I put my mind to this week. What do I want to accomplish?"  Follow a job with credit where credit is due, even for the small things. "I did that thing I said I would do this morning!!" And if you have a supportive ear, go ahead and support each other with good listening and appreciation. Telling each other about your accomplishments, however humble, and praising each other's efforts, is a magic formula for a great work environment that stays motivating for all.  

While positive self talk sounds rather obvious, many people find it actually quite hard to do, and I can relate. My own social programming was to be modest, to the degree that I used to tease Sheldon for what seemed to me to be exaggerated bragging about the smallest accomplishments. But after twenty years in relationship, I cannot deny that what he does, works!  He knows how to motivate himself! And more and more, I am taking a page out of his motivation book.

By incorporating positive self talk, well timed rest, enjoyment, and strategic rewards, I find I have a much easier time motivating myself, enjoying my accomplishments, and getting myself psyched and feeling confident to take on the next thing. Try them, and let me know how they work!

Interrupting the cycle of anxiety or despair

In Zen there is an adage that says to do one thing at a time. Finish what you are doing before starting the next thing.  

I was reminded of that once during a particularly stressful time. It was a time of emotional crisis, and I found myself operating from a place of fear and worry, unlike anything I had known before.  I found myself jumping from one worrisome thought to another, before any single thought could be adequately processed by my mind-body system. Each question would ramp up the tension in my body, and, instead of taking the time to slow down and feel it, and allow that tension a natural release, I would be off into the next worrisome question before the first one was even truly complete. 

This destructive thought pattern had all of my intuitive health alarms going off. Building tension, on top of tension, on top of tension, I knew this pattern could cause me serious harm if I allowed it to continue.

Thankfully, interrupting the cycle was actually quite straight forward. I want to share with you the technique I used, based in yoga, and how it is validated by modern understanding of the nervous system, as I recently learned from a friend trained in Somatic Experiencing. It wasn't hard, and who among us can't use another tool for offering an emotional and spiritual reset during a time of stress?

First,  I told myself to slow down. To pause, and breath, and notice what I was feeling in my body at that very moment, as a result of the thoughts in my head.  Then, it occurred to me to take Shavasana, the rest one takes at the end of a Yoga class. Here's how to do it: 

Lay down in a dim, quiet place. Bringing your shoulders up to your ears, back toward the floor, then lock them down once again. This may help release some tension in the shoulders, but more importantly it will bring a protective arch into the lower back, to allow one to comfortably extend the legs and arms.  Lay with your  legs slightly opened, like an "A" shape, and your arms as well. Feel the support of the floor, and let your body begin to sink into that support.

Notice the sensations in your body. Allow them to be what they are.  Breath deeply, allowing the belly to rise and fall. Stay here for ten minutes, or until you feel rested.  

The Shavasana was a profound relief!  And not surprisingly. As my friend trained in releasing trauma from the body through Somatic Experiencing tells me, it is well understood that the nervous system requires ample time to de-activate. We can't just tell ourselves, "I'm relaxed!," and then run off to do the next thing. It simply doesn't work that way. This is why a good yoga teacher will never have you skip shavasana. Exercise activates the nervous system, just the same as getting stressed out about something does, or even getting excited about something.  From an activated place, it takes actual time, in actual space, for the nervous system to deactivate. 

A bicycling accident I had in college illustrates this point well.  I had been riding my bike up to a stop light, when the passenger door of a car unexpectedly flew open, caught the handlebar of my bike,  and caused me to wipe out.  It wasn't a bad accident; I maybe had a small bruise from it as a result. But it naturally caused an instant, full activation of my nervous system. I told the people I was fine, and as the light changed to green, we all went on our way... but I soon realized that saying I was fine, and actually being fine were two different things.  I just needed to give myself a minute!  (Or ten!) So I pulled over to a patch of green and sat in the shade. I felt my body shaking. I allowed some tears to come and go.  I took the time I needed to fully process the event.  And then I was fine!

That's an extreme example, of nervous system activation, but to a smaller degree, it's the same, any time we get worked up about anything. Physical exercise is working up the nervous system. Thinking anxious thoughts--or even excited thoughts!--is working up the nervous system. Like a bucket filling up, it can only handle so much activation, before it needs to be given a chance to release. And, like draining through a modest hole in the bottom, the release isn't instantaneous, it takes time. Specifically, time during which we are not adding more stress to the bucket or bringing ourselves into some new activity before we've had a chance to decompress.

One of the biggest blessings that came from my difficult day of thinking anxious thoughts, was  simply realizing the power of resting, and starting to think of including rest as a natural and necessary completion of the cycle of stress. I began to think of it simply as finishing what I was doing. When another stressful thought arose for me, instead of spinning off in my head, I learned to pause, and notice the bodily sensations that came up as a result.  By staying with the bodily sensations, I was not activating myself further, and I was also holding a space in which my body's activation could be released.  

I probably took three or four shavasanas that day! And by doing so, I successfully reprogrammed myself to be functional and healthy again.  By slowing down to complete the cycle of stress that arose in me, I gained a steadier, wiser perspective. When I later noticed myself chewing my entire bite of food, and swallowing every bit of it before I even had an impulse to take the next bite, I knew that my body was figuring out how to do this, at least as much as my mind was, and I knew it was a good sign! One thing at a time. Finish what I'm doing before starting the next thing.

May we all slow down. May we each allow our body and our spirit the time and awareness needed to process that which arises for us. May we continually orient to the wisdom and inner calm that is our birth right as evolving humans...

By doing so, we can each become like a mountain. Rooted enough to be able to handle life's storms, and elevated enough to enjoy the heights at the same time.