I enjoy watching stand-up comedy shows a lot in my free time. One particular female comedian, Tiffany Haddish, has recently become my favorite. While I love her sense of humor and likeable personality, I also find Haddish inspirational. When she was homeless at one point while doing stand-up comedy, she created a list of goals to motivate herself to focus on completing only goal-related tasks that would help her succeed. In the year 2017 alone, she hosted Saturday Night Live, published a personal memoir, released a comedy show, and starred in a movie alongside Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith! I couldn’t help but be amazed by the power of setting goals and creating a series of to-do lists that are consistent with those goals.     

As creatures of habit, many of us would agree that making one behavioral change is hard enough. Too many times I’ve failed my new year’s resolution to exercise more because I didn’t create a concrete plan with a long term gym buddy. At the beginning of this year, I successfully (forcefully and painfully) cut down to one cup of coffee per day after trying for FOUR months.

Behavioral changes such as working out and cutting down on caffeine intake might be the easiest to make out of three major components of human experience: behavior, emotion, and cognition. I would like to share a tool with you for introducing some behavioral changes. Perhaps a lot of you have heard of the S.M.A.R.T. tool for project management or employee development. The acronym S.M.A.R.T. stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-related. If you could benefit from some structure, I’d like to illustrate how to use the S.M.A.R.T. tool as a guiding light on your daily path.

Let’s say I am someone who is learning to manage mild depressive symptoms one day at a time as my main goal. There are four behavioral basics that I would need to stick with: sleep, daily exercise, healthy diet, and socialization.

  1. In order to ensure eight hours of sleep so that I am not sleeping too much or too little. I will turn off all electronic devices at 10pm to ease my brain from the stimulation. Perhaps play some relaxing music and then I will sleep from 11pm to 7am.

  2. To get 15 to 30 minutes of exercise every day, I will park my car further than my normal spot at work and when running errands. Bonus points for the brutal Chicago winter because walking in the cold burns more calories! Those few minutes are not limited to physical exercise, you can substitute it with any reward or pleasure driven activities, such as painting, singing, listening to music, or playing musical instruments.

  3. I will keep a consistent diet by making sure I am not eating too much or too little. Regardless of my appetite, I will eat similar portions around the same time every day and never skip a meal. I will avoid eating fast food and cook more homemade meals. These specific behavioral tasks such as sleep, exercise/creative activities, and a healthy diet could help boost my dopamine and serotonin levels.

  4. Last but not least, I will communicate with a small group of people on a weekly basis. I will briefly talk to three friends, coworkers, or family members every other day in person, via texts or phone calls. I will show up once a week at any social gathering, it could be happy hour after work or a book club. Having some form of socialization can help ease the feeling of isolation in the midst of struggles.  

Just to throw in a mindful caveat, it’s OK if you don’t complete the entire list because even the most successful and efficient person only finishes about 30% of their list. The main purpose of setting goals and creating to-do lists is to lift you up by offering a sense of accomplishment in the process as you check off the items.

As we approach the end of this year, what are some of the S.M.A.R.T. goals you are setting for 2019?

In the quiet by Jessica Gombis

Let me address the elephant in the room.  I am not a licensed counselor or social worker.  So why do I get to contribute to Sprout Family Clinics blog and who am I, anyway? Well I can't speak to why these therapists gave me the mic (wink wink), but I promise I'll do my best not to lead you astray.  I am the wife of an actual therapist at Sprout. I'm also the gal who does the billing, manages the website, orders toilet paper, as well a bunch of other glamorous tasks around here. Most importantly, I'm raising three amazing kiddos ages 5, 4 and 10 months.  So, with that introduction and list of fabulous credentials, I'm sure you are excited, dear reader, to hear my perspective on things.

Now, I'm not just saying this because my husband is a therapist and I work at Sprout, but therapy is awesome.  Really. It is. There have been seasons in my life when it was absolutely necessary for me. Truth be told, I could probably always use therapy, but I can gratefully and humbly say that right now, I'm doing pretty good-- good enough to use some of the strategies and rituals I've learned through periods of therapy and self discovery.

The primary tool that I’m using right now is having daily quiet and prayer time.  For me, it’s best early in the morning, before little feet come down the stairs to ask for milk or to read a story.  I know that I need this time, but for me, it’s funny how when I'm doing okay or something else comes up, I easily give up these practices until, suddenly, I realize that something is really missing.

In the last year, I've been lacking my early morning prayer and quiet.  With the arrival of our third child last January, sleep became scarce, so the idea of waking up when I didn't have to, seemed beyond ridiculous.  And so, 9 months later I could feel it. Something was wrong. When I get that gut feeling that something is wrong, it usually takes me a while to figure out what to do.  I'll have a few too many icky interactions with the kids or I'll bicker with my husband. I’ve been known to go on a new job hunt and to have a shopping spree, which is immediately followed by a spending freeze.  I may get a new gym membership or reserve a plethora of self help books at the library.  (Notice, I didn’t say read them.) You may know what I'm talking about.  I try to rework to the whole life scenario for a few weeks. Then I remember the simple things that I need.  I need prayer and quiet in the morning. I need it.  

And so I began again.  I set my alarm. I made the coffee.  I lit the candle. I sat in stillness.  I prayed. I read. The first day wasn't magical and neither was the second.  But, it’s been about a week now of being back in the practice and I feel dramatically different.

I don't have just one thing that I go to when my world seems off kilter, but prayer and quiet is a solid practice for me.  Your thing may not be prayer and quiet. It may be running or yoga or coffee with a friend. Whatever it is, I think we need to identify our personal rituals that set our minds back on track.  We need to keep them stored in a safe place to remember and return to when we get that feeling that things just aren't right.

Maybe, like me, you need the help of therapy to get started on the path to identifying some practices and rituals.  Lucky for you, you've found the right blog.