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Learn to Practice Like Zorro

Note: This is part of a series of blog posts I’ve been doing about adopting a more positive mindset. You can find the others in my list of blog posts.

What do Zorro and mindful eating have in common?

No, this isn’t a trick question. But it’s certainly not something I thought about until I read The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. That’s when I found out that one of his strategies for creating happiness is by using the Zorro Circle.

What is the Zorro Circle?

Even though I didn’t grow up with the original Zorro, I was a big fan of the more recent The Mask of Zorro. (The fact that Antonio Banderas played the new Zorro didn’t hurt.)

And in both old and new versions, Zorro had to go through significant training before being able to fight the way he did. To do that, he worked in training circles. He’d start with a specific action in one circle, and while there, that one action was his whole focus.

He didn’t worry about what came next, or his ultimate goals. His concern was mastering what was in that circle. Only once he had that down would he move on to the next phase.

This allowed him to gain control over different styles and aspects of fighting. And it turns out, that sense of control is significant.

Importance of (perceived) control

In mindful eating, I talk a lot about being “in charge” instead of being “in control.” The language of control tends to foster judgmental, black and white thinking. Plus, it ignores the fact that so much is out of our control.

But interestingly, Achor points out that greater feelings of control lead to greater happiness.

These two ideas are difficult to reconcile until you add this piece. Happiness comes with perceived control, not actual control.

Specifically, if you believe that your actions directly impact your results, then you’ll be happier. On the other hand, if you think nothing you do will make any difference, that you’re entirely at the mercy of external forces, you’re likely to be unhappy.

And it’s not just about happiness. Believing you can make a difference through your own efforts reduces stress. This is because, when you’re stressed, you’re subject to “emotional hijacking” – letting the older, reactive part of your brain (what Achor calls “the Jerk”) overtake the newer, rational part (a.k.a. “the Thinker”).

It’s also worth noting that this stress doesn’t always come from big events. Small stresses can pile up and lead to the same result.

Even worse, when that reactive, “Jerk” part of your brain takes over, your decision-making skills, productivity, and effectiveness all suffer.

So the more you can take action to make change where you can, and recognize that you aremaking a difference, the less likely you are to be waylaid by the Jerk.

Regaining perceived control

Of course, I also think it’s important to remember that you can’t control some things. For example, what other people believe or how they respond to you. But you can influence quite a few things about and immediately around yourself.

In order to get that feeling of control back, Achor suggests the following three steps:

  1. Self-awareness. Start by noticing your feelings, and also make sure you get them out by writing them down or talking about them. This helps you truly acknowledge your emotions.

  2. What’s in and out of control. Next, recognize what things are truly outside of your control – and let them go. (For some of us, that’s the hardest step!) Instead, keep your focus on the things you can change.

  3. Pick a small, achievable goal. Many of us like to think big with goals, but if you’re feeling overwhelmed, that only makes things worse. Instead, choose the easiest thing you know you can do that will move you forward. And do that. Achieving a goal, no matter how small, will give you confidence to take the next step.

As with Zorro, the idea is to focus on continuous improvement – while making sure you don’t move to the next area until you’ve fully mastered what’s in the first circle.

Zorro circles and mindful eating

This ties in very nicely with mindful eating, since I always encourage people to do the simplest thing to start with. This is the best way to learn any new skill. The last thing you want is to jump ahead too quickly, only to backslide and lose the skills you thought you had learned before.

And as with Zorro’s training, mindful eating takes lots of practice. It doesn’t happen overnight.

You also have to learn to defend yourself, in a way. You won’t be in sword fights (I hope!), but different life situations will test what you’ve learned. That’s why you want to make sure you have each skill down, until you know it so well that it becomes reflexive.

The letting go part of this is also important. For instance, much as you might like, you won’t be able to change the fact that certain foods are readily available, or that you might encounter them every now and again. The only thing you can control is how you respond when you see those foods.

How I’ve been using this

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in terms of learning. I enjoy learning new things, and I’ve been taking a bunch of online classes related to content and marketing writing.

At first, it was fun to just jump into everything, and try to learn it all at once. But what I’ve realized recently is this only gives me a surface knowledge of many things. I haven’t taken the time to focus and become fully skilled in any one area.

So I’m taking a step back. Instead of adding new things, I’m going to revisit what I’ve already done and try to solidify that. Or, if I realize that something doesn’t interest me or isn’t that relevant, I’ll let that go.

Speaking of letting go, this has been helpful in trying to deal with stress at work. We have so much going on right now, and each day brings new requests and questions. (Maybe you can relate.) But I’ve gotten much better about not worrying about the things I can’t influence, and going through my to-do list one at a time.

I also keep reminding myself that it’s more important to get those tasks done well, even if I don’t finish everything in a day, rather than do them all badly and have to work on them again later.

How about you? Have you had experiences where you’ve needed to practice different circles or levels of skills, either in mindful eating or elsewhere? If you did, how did that go? What helped you through that process?

Even if you haven’t tried this method, I hope this gives you some ideas in thinking about how to approach mindful eating, or any area of your life where you’re trying something new. And if it helps, just remind yourself that you’re learning like Zorro.

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