“You shall not place a stumbling block in front of a blind person” (Leviticus 19:14). I love how this phrase is so obvious when taken literally. Of course we would never literally put a stumbling block in front of the blind (that would be downright mean), but figuratively we do it all the time. We set ourselves up to
stumble. Why do we make things harder for ourselves? The short answer is that removing stumbling blocks involves two critical things: 1. Knowing what your stumbling blocks are (i.e., knowing yourself) and 2. Taking the time to be proactive to move the blocks out of the way.
Removing stumbling blocks requires time and attention. This is the good and bad news. Since I am working on being more optimistic, I am going to take the approach that this is good news. But just to be safe, I am going to provide the wisdom of three experts below:
The first time I really thought about this concept was when I read Wendy Mogel’s Blessing of a Skinned Knee (my parenting bible). Mogel discusses the challenge of the stumbling block as it relates to parenting. In her section on the Blessing of Self-Control, she introduces the idea of the stumbling block: “If you keep running into trouble with your child at specific times—getting ready for school, mealtime, homework, bedtime—it may be that you are inadvertently placing a stumbling block before him.” (p. 195).
To remove parenting stumbling blocks, we need to notice where our children struggle and how we can respect those challenges and not exacerbate them. For instance, if you know your teenager is slow in the morning, do not ask them to do all their chores first thing when they wake up. If you
know your toddler gets cranky at 2:00, try not to plan a doctor’s appointment for that time. In other words, don’t make life harder! This is more difficult than it seems for two reasons. 1. You need to know your child. You need to pay attention to his or her idiosyncrasies 2. You need to plan ahead. Being proactive and not reactive is key to avoiding stumbling blocks. Parenting is a tough and busy job, so taking the time to reflect, notice and plan is challenging. In the end, removing stumbling blocks is worth the effort and will save time and aggravation in the future.
Not only does this idea of stumbling blocks help with parenting, it also helps with our own personal management. I recently read the book Better Than Before: Managing the Habits of Everyday Life by Gretchen Rubin. This book is full of strategies and tools regarding how to make habits stick. As Rubin points out, “Habits are the invisible architecture of our everyday life”. One of the strategies she discusses is the strategy of “safeguarding”. When establishing a habit, we need to pay attention to what interferes with our ability to stick with it—in other words “know yourself”. Then she suggests we anticipate potential stumbles and prepare for them—“be proactive”. Some common stumbling blocks with habit formation are “tension with other people, social pressure, loneliness or boredom or anxiety and –perhaps surprisingly—positive emotions such as joy or excitement” (p. 165).
Boredom and anxiety are big stumbling blocks for me especially when I am trying to get something done that requires concentration. I am currently working on developing a writing habit. One of my stumbling blocks to keeping this habit is to say to myself, “oh, I will just check Facebook for ten minutes and then I will get right to work”. Yea right! 45 minutes later I come up for air and realize that I just missed out on a golden opportunity to actually get work done. Both boredom and anxiety contributed to that stumble. Sitting down to write can be fraught with anxiety because I want to do a good job and I worry I may not have anything meaningful to say. Also, let’s face it, work can be boring – at least compared to the absorbing world of Facebook. Therefore, my safeguard against the stumbling block of procrastination is to shut down Facebook while I write and wait until after I am finished to check it. Keep in mind, I continue to stumble, but I stumble less because of this safeguard.
Rubin is also points out that a stumble, while dangerous, is not the same as a fall. If you stumble, reflect on why it happened and build in more safeguards. How you react to a stumble is equally important in the success of building good habits. Learn (know yourself even better), build in more safeguards (be more proactive) and move forward. Habit development is a process not a destination.
Staying True to Ourselves
I am currently taking a course in Positive Psychology. In one of my lessons, Tal Ben-Shahar (one of the leading experts in Positive Psychology) talks about knowing your “nature”. Essentially, know when you thrive and know when you struggle. This is part of growing up—we all need to know who we are and how to best support our nature. For instance, I have a limit to how much time I can be social or in groups. I am very careful when I put together my calendar to only schedule one or two social activities in a day. This is my safeguard.
However, I cannot always control how much time I need to be social and there are times I have to act outside my nature. In these instances, I acknowledge the challenge and I do what I can to minimize the consequences. For instance, I will be sure to build in quiet time as soon as I can if I a need to be social for an extended period of time. On the other hand, my husband is more of an extravert, so he needs to build social time into his workday in order to feel energized. If you are a morning person, schedule your morning activities with that in mind. Don’t waste your morning in front of the TV; instead utilize that time to be productive and get things out of the way. If you are a night owl, figure out how to maximize that time. By knowing ourselves and knowing our nature, we can be proactive rather than reactive as we schedule our days. We can also show ourselves self-compassion when we are forced to act out of our nature.
Think about yourself and think about your relationships. Are there stumbling blocks you are unknowingly putting out? Can you, with a little attention and planning, remove them? Remember, this is a 3,400 year-old problem so be kind and generous to yourself as you figure this out – but don’t give up, I know you can do it!