For every problem, you can find a raft of generic solutions. But find the one that works spectacularly for you — and that’s your “secret formula.”
Recipes and Secret Formulas
For all the problems in the world, there are even more solutions. Turn on the TV and if a solution is told as a story (e.g., how to lose several hundred pounds, how to redecorate your home, how to get off drugs, or how to clean your house if you’re a clutterer) we call that “reality television.” Between the episodes, you’ll see solutions for sale, better known as “ads.” Head down to the local bookstore and find the “self help” section, (often one of the larger parts of the store,) which could more accurately be labeled the “how to solve your problems” area. Religions and philosophies offer to lend a hand with problems like sin, suffering, mortality, and temptation.
How can problems remain in the face of so many solutions? One of the biggest reasons solutions fail is that they’re generic: most of the above solutions are supposed to work for everybody (or almost everyone) all the time, even though we know they don’t. I call these sorts of solutions “recipes”. Like their cooking equivalent, recipes are legion and widely available. Some are good, others awful.
As a therapist, I help my clients find solutions to their problems, but not recipes. When I’m at my best, I’m looking to find a solution vastly more effective that a generic recipe, one that’s tailored precisely to my client’s needs. I call this kind of solution a “secret formula.”
Whereas recipes are common, secret formulas are worth millions and jealously guarded. (Think of the secret recipe for Coca-Cola for one.) Like the formula for Coke, secret recipes are harder to find, but unlike Coke, they’re personal. My secret formula for change probably isn’t even a good recipe for you, and vice versa.
On the Hunt
In my own life, I’ve had my own trials and tribulations seeking the “secret formulas” for change. After a major health scare ten years ago, I got serious about staying fit and healthy. I started with a pretty good recipe. In addition to seeing my doctor, I hired a personal trainer. In addition to hitting the gym together three times a week, he gave me some good advice about what to eat.
I worked with my trainer for over two years. We worked hard together and I did gain strength. It was a sacrifice to get up early and head to the gym while everyone else was still asleep, but I liked my trainer, and this made it a do-able schedule. My weight dropped but then mostly came back. Then the bottom fell out of the market in 2001 and I was laid off. I had to reexamine whether I could keep investing in personal training. I took out my “before” picture and compared it to what I saw in the mirror. Wearing only a pair of shorts, I could see a small difference, but I doubt anyone else could, especially in street clothes. I also didn’t feel much better than I had two years earlier — in fact, I was sore and tired most of the time. What I had was a recipe, not a secret formula.
Why couldn’t my trainer and I come up with a secret formula to make a visible change in how I looked and felt? After all, isn’t that what trainers are paid to do? I don’t blame him. We were looking in the wrong place. The standard recipe for fitness is: strength training plus flexibility training plus cardiovascular training plus good diet equals fitness. And it is a good recipe. The trouble was that getting all that done was more expensive in time, money and exhaustion than I was willing to pay, especially while laid off. The recipe was just too hard for me to swallow at the time.
Earlier I described how I began integrating walking into my work routine (see: “Self Care When There’s No Time for Self Care”). I started walking purely for stress relief and to get away from the cube farm at a previous job. Most of my walks were short, on the order of 10 or 15 minutes. I didn’t associate my walks with fitness, but I did notice I liked walking and was motivated to do it. As with many discoveries, personal “secret formulas” are often stumbled upon rather than designed. Inadvertently, I found a way to avoid the costs of going to a gym, changing clothes, and getting sore and exhausted by a conventional workout regime.
As I was walking, I thought back to the only other time I ever lost a large amount of weight. Before college, I drove everywhere in my parents’ cars, ate home-cooked food, and zealously avoided all sports. I was getting pear-shaped. When I got to college, I lived on the third level of a dorm with no elevator: an instant and unavoidable stair workout. I also walked to all my classes. Paying for my own meals, I started to think about how much and what I ate. As a result, I dropped over 30 pounds before I even noticed what was going on. One morning I looked in the mirror and realized something was different, but only after several minutes did I realize my spare tire was gone. I had discovered a secret formula, and I remained trim until a few years after I bought a car and started living in an apartment. Even then, it took a while for the weight to come back.
The trouble with secret formulas is that not only are they personal, but what once was a secret formula may devolve to an unworkable recipe as a person’s life changes. I have a car now, and it’s really not a viable option for me to walk where I need to go. But reformulation is possible. I realized that if I’m going to walk, I needed to find a place to do it. Atlanta summers are punishing, and so I retreated to the mall. I found that the food court did have healthy options available, so I figured out how to get my lunch and my exercise all in one place. To sweeten the deal, I added audio books to the mix. Now I could not just walk for 15 minutes as I did before, but I could let an hour of walking slide by while becoming absorbed in a book. I had found my missing ingredient: ease and enjoyment. This is a routine I know I can maintain for years with no difficulty. In fact, I feel irritated if something gets in the way of this “me time.”
In addition to experimentation and refinement, some good old-fashioned research also directed my progress. I read in the National Weigh Control Registry that most people who lose weight and keep it off exercise regularly and that the most common activity was walking. That’s when I decided that I could omit the traditional gym routine for a brisk walk. Then a funny thing happened: the daily hour-long walk was more effective than all that time in the gym. I started losing weight and really feeling better. Objectively, I had exchanged three hours a week of gym time for 5-7 hours of brisk walk. Even though I was doing more, it felt like less. Being able to do more but feel like I was doing less was the “special sauce” that made this recipe my secret formula.