January 21, 2013

Enough is Enough

How's it going with your New Year's resolutions? If you're on track, good job! If you're less on track, read on:

Sometimes we're reluctant to take a baby step toward change or toward meeting a goal because the step seems too small. For example, say you resolved to quit smoking or to develop a regular meditation practice. And you decided to start by cutting back by two cigarettes per day or by meditating for five minutes every morning. Although these objectives are minor, you may find yourself not meeting them--because they feel almost too minor. 

Part of my job as a cognitive-behavioural therapist is to help people identify the thoughts that prevent them from moving forward. One thought that shows up repeatedly is "It's not enough." For example, a patient's goal might be to introduce regular exercise into his routine in order to counter anxiety and improve physical health. If his usual day involves no exercise at all, we'd probably plan to start with something like five minutes of walking every evening. My patient might express enthusiasm about the plan--but then end up going out walking once or twice, and then quitting. When asked what happened, he might reply that five minutes just didn't seem like enough. Similarly, severely depressed patients sometimes resist the validated strategy of planning small pleasurable activities, because it seems like calling a friend, taking a bubble bath, or going to the movies just isn't enough to counter depression.

The scourge of "enough" is not limited to the clinical setting. It comes up for me regarding writing. More than once, I've set the goal of writing for fifteen minutes every day, only to abandon it because it doesn't seem like enough. Similarly, I have a friend who has already abandoned her New Year's resolution to address her credit card debt with weekly payments of $15--because $15 is just not enough.

Here are a couple tips that might help when you're set to abandon your goals because your small steps seem inconsequential:
a) "Enough" is arbitrary. Why is cutting back by two cigarettes per day insufficient? Would three be enough? Four? Where credit card debt is concerned, would $20 per week be acceptable or would it have to be $25 to meet the enough threshold? Who decides? Recognizing that our thresholds for enough are arbitrary and idiosyncratic can help us adjust our expectations and commit to small steps

b) "Not enough" is how you get to "enough." Even if five minutes per day of walking isn't enough to immediately reduce my patient's anxiety or improve his physical health, it's a step toward enough. How will he get to twenty minutes per day if he doesn't start with five? Similarly, meditating five minutes per day may not seem like enough, but it's a step toward it. Recognizing that not enough is practically a required stop on the way to enough can help us persevere with small goals.

If the concept of enough is getting in your way, hopefully these tips will help you get back on track with your New Year's resolutions. Keep me posted!

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