“Did I take my pill today?”

I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s happened more than once. I’ll be holding my bottle of vitamins, staring at it with a puzzled look on my face, wondering if I’ve already taken my pill or was just about to take it.

The first thing I’ll realize is how absent-minded I was being. I was so un-conscious that I could not remember whether I opened the jar and swallowed a pill just a few seconds earlier.

Then I'll think of my mother. She would take medicine daily and would often wonder aloud, “Did I take my pill today?” Instead of offering empathy, my younger self could only react with a mix of irritation and shame. “How could you forget such a simple thing?”

Finally, I'll reflect on the power of nudges. I read recently how simple text messages helped people in Nigeria take their malaria medication. For me, my nudges include putting the vitamins in the same place and taking them at the same time, and checking off a box on my daily progress chart.

Maybe you also have some things you forget, like where you placed your keys. Or maybe it’s something much more important, like telling those around you how much you love and appreciate them.

You’re not thoughtless, you’re human. Each of these moments is a gift, a chance to remember to be mindful, to offer compassion to yourself and others, and to perhaps change your environment a bit so you’ll remember next time.

The Happiness Jar & The Curse Cup

They sit on the window ledge in my living room. I’m looking at them now: The Happiness Jar and the Curse Cup. They’re visible reminders of the choices I get to make throughout each day.

The Happiness Jar came first. The idea, attributed to Elizabeth Gilbert (or at least it was on her Facebook page that I had first seen it) is simple. Each day, you reflect on something that made you happy, write it down on a small piece of paper along with the date, and put it in a jar. Then at the end of the year, you open the jar and randomly read through all those happy moments. (You can find instructions and variations here and here.)

It has same benefits as keeping a gratitude journal. The act of reflecting on positive things and writing them down each day (or even anticipating that process) makes you more mindful of the happiness you experience each day. It could be something your child or friend or spouse did to make you feel loved or appreciated. Or the fulfillment you got from doing good work or exercise. Or simply the way the sun felt or the food tasted.

Like writing in a journal, it takes a while for it to become part of your routine. Though capturing a happy moment only takes a few seconds each day, my first attempt at a Happiness Jar wound up languishing on my bookshelf. It was only when I put the jar in a visible place along with some post-its and a pen, and put it on my progress chart, that depositing something in the jar became a habit.

The Curse Cup came later, and it's also simple: every time you curse, you deposit some money in the cup. While I’m not offended by cursing, I didn’t like that it had become an unthinking habit. Between growing up in The Bronx and working on trading floors, cursing seemed like a natural part of my self-expression. But when my children commented on my “bad words” and a few readers pointed them out in my writing, I decided there’s enough cursing in the world that I didn’t need to add to it. 

I said the kids could split whatever money was in the cup at the end of the year. So now I have an eager peer support group at home, waiting to assist me by pointing out whenever I curse and demanding I deposit a dollar for each offense.

These are trivial changes to my environment and to my day, and yet they’ve shifted my thinking. They've made me more mindful of a choice I get to make: I can focus on the good things in my life and be actively on the lookout for more, or I can add to already-too-much negativity and anger in the world.

The Happiness Jar and The Curse Cup. Which one will I contribute to today? 

The most difficult push-up ever

The most difficult push-up isn’t doing it one-handed or with weights on your back or anything like that.

For me, at least, the most difficult push-up is the first one. And understanding that first push-up is teaching me an important lesson about developing and maintaining a habit.

Let me explain.

the-push-up

I always thought doing push-ups was a great exercise conceptually. They don’t take much time, and they can help you look and feel a bit better. Once in a great while, in a phase of exercise exuberance (“This time. I’m going to get really fit!”), I would do a few. But I never kept it up.

So after working on a wide range of other habits from eating to writing to learning piano, I figured I would attempt doing push-ups again. I even put them on my progress chart. (That’s where I track all sorts of behaviors - things I want to do more or less of - so I’m more mindful of them.)

But push-ups? I went over 100 days without a single one. Every day I would look at that progress chart and stare at a row of blank space, day after day, week after week, month after month. Every day I would think, “I really should do push-ups.”

So what was the problem? I discovered the answer when I came across this Life Pro Tip on reddit.com:

reddit-life-pro-tip-about-push-ups

The advice is a variation of what I tell other people all the time: “Shrink the change.” (I even use an exercise metaphor - “touch the treadmill.”) I just needed to take my own advice.

The idea is that, when you’re facing resistance related to a particular goal, you shrink that goal until you take the fear out of it and actually do it. Then let the power of the progress principle start to work for you.

When I used to think of push-ups, I would conjure up all sorts of negative thoughts: the discomfort of the last and most difficult one, perhaps, or how I wasn't in as good a physical condition as I would like.

The Life Pro Tip helped me shrink the change and bypass those thoughts. "Just 15! I could do that!"

The next day, I picked a specific time (right before shaving) and, without thinking too much about it, I got on the floor and did something I hadn't been able to do for many months. That first day, I was able to do 20 push-ups. I was pleasantly surprised, and I took great pleasure in ticking the box on my progress chart.

Yesterday, I did 43 push-ups. But I still think of 15 as my goal. Because the first one is still the hardest for me. If and when the habit becomes more deeply-ingrained, I won’t have to think about it so much, and I may set a different target.

What about you? What goal have you been resisting? How could you shrink the change so you could “do your first push-up” and start making progress towards something you care about?