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“Performance is always enhanced by creativity” With Sarah Hays Coomer

Play — Performance is always enhanced by creativity, and to be creative, we have to stretch beyond our typical routines or ways of thinking. There’s a reason we get our best ideas while taking a shower or walking or falling asleep. Playfulness and exploration make innovation possible. As a part of our series about “How […]

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Play — Performance is always enhanced by creativity, and to be creative, we have to stretch beyond our typical routines or ways of thinking. There’s a reason we get our best ideas while taking a shower or walking or falling asleep. Playfulness and exploration make innovation possible.

As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewingSarah Hays Coomer.

Sarah Hays Coomer is a Mayo Clinic Certified Wellness Coach, a Certified Personal Trainer with the National Strength and Conditioning Association, and a Certified Nutrition and Wellness Consultant with the American Fitness Professionals & Associates. She is the author of three books: The Habit Trip: A Fill-in-the-Blank Journey to a Life on Purpose, Physical Disobedience, and Lightness of Body and Mind. Sarah’s work has been featured in Thrive Global, The Wall Street Journal, Utne Reader, Huffington Post, Bustle, and The Tennessean, among others. She has spoken at organizations and universities nationwide including Google, Vanderbilt University, the Nashville Women’s March 2019, The University of the South, the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, Confluence, and the Girls to the Moon Conference. Sarah lives in Nashville with her husband, son, and two rescue dogs, Moon and Ringo.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Thank you for having me! I grew up in New Haven, CT, and we moved to Durham, NC when I was in high school. My mom was a hospice nurse and epidemiologist, studying the effects of aging on different populations. My dad was a theologian and New Testament scholar. With those influences, I grew up with a split personality between science and philosophy, but I landed in the arts. I loved animals as a kid (still do!) and spent a lot of time in dance class and theater productions. I’ve always been very aware of how my body feels in the world, for better or worse. That fixation was a challenge as a young adult, but it became a huge asset in my adult life.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

I majored in Theater in college and, after graduating, went to New York City to pursue dreams of being on Broadway. Unfortunately, I was engaged to be married at the time, and my fiancé dumped me via voicemail three weeks before the wedding. Just as I was preparing to launch into a career that required enormous confidence and focus, I was crippled by clinical depression, self-doubt, and a ferocious eating disorder that had been brewing for a long time.

I stayed in New York for three years, working a series of odd jobs as a cocktail waitress, office temp, singer/songwriter, and street performer. I was at war with my body. Struggling to find hope in the city, I found myself drawn to the parks and greenspaces. Eventually, I moved to Los Angeles for the easy, free access to the mountains. Hiking became my solace, a daily ritual that got me out of my head and into my body. While working in Human Resources for a music company, I went back to school part-time at UCLA to study nutrition, physiology, and eastern philosophy. I became a personal trainer not to conquer my body, but to make peace with it. When I felt the difference that approach made and saw how it helped my clients, I wanted to share what I was learning. All of that led to writing my books and becoming a health coach through the Mayo Clinic. I wanted to explore the gap between what wellness feels like in real life and how the fitness industry portrays it.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

Oddly, one of the people who had the most influence on me was someone who discouraged me, rather than encouraging me. I had a boyfriend in L.A. who told me I was too fat to be a personal trainer and that I didn’t know any famous people to train. He thought I should stick with my desk job and give up the whole idea. His attitude fostered a special kind of rage in me, and I thought: Why can’t I do this?? Why do I have to be a hardbody to be an expert on wellness, and why should only famous people have access to coaching that celebrates them? It was a real wake-up call that showed me how excited I was to pursue this career, and I never looked back.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

Like so many people, I have wasted huge amounts of money, time, and energy trying to make my body conform. I talked a good game at the beginning of my career — encouraging my clients to strengthen and support their bodies instead of trying to control them — but it took me a long time to walk the walk. I secretly flew to Canada once, about twelve years ago, to get a “fat-reduction treatment” that wasn’t legal in the U.S. yet. I couldn’t afford it, so I put it on my credit card. It didn’t work, of course. I’ve never told anyone that story before, but there you go.

I finally opted out of the rat race of trying to “fix” myself, and it’s so fun helping my clients do the same. Our time and money are so much better spent on living well. We are powerful creatures when we put energy into strengthening ourselves instead of apologizing for who we are.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

Find what excites you and follow that lead. Even if the final goal is unclear, if you keep taking steps to explore what excites you, you’ll end up in a place that feels right, professionally and personally.

And in the process of following those instincts, learn how to bounce. Life will never unfold the way you expect it to. If you tense up when your plans fall apart, you’ll shatter, and it takes a long time to put the pieces back together. Identify the people, places, and activities that bring you to life, so you can rely on them when things get tough. Even if some of those support systems are unavailable, you’ll always have at least one or two to keep you stable. With those in place, you can be flexible with whatever comes, learn from it, and keep growing.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Oh wow, that’s hard to choose! If I have to pick one, I would say Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies. My life and writing have been heavily influenced by her work. She is raw and vulnerable but maintains a ferocious sense of humor — and that spirit infuses everything she does. She taught me, by example, how much power there is in telling the truth and how important stories are to helping people feel less alone.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” — Annie Dilliard

This quote is so simple, but it’s one of the truest things I’ve ever read. Habits shape our days, and we have the ability to build new ones that enrich our lives and further our ambitions. Emotions run high around “habit change”, but there are enticements all around us. If we follow the breadcrumbs of purposeful, pleasurable, reliable routines, we can’t go wrong.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I’m having so much fun with my new book, The Habit Trip: A Fill-in-the-Blank Journey to a Life on Purpose. It’s an interactive storybook for grown-ups that filters the most recent research in behavior change through the lens of a whimsical fantasy world. It’s a fill-in-the-blank roadmap through ten areas of well-being where the reader is the hero and expert in their own story, with a bunch of mythical creatures (and a Ford Pinto) along the way to keep them company.

I got tired of self-help being so grueling. The research shows that people only change when and how they want to. I can give people advice all day about what they should or shouldn’t do to be healthier or more productive. Your doctor can tell you how to improve your cholesterol or your partner can tell you to be more organized — but it falls on deaf ears if you’re not invested in the changes you’re making. You’ll change when you’re good and ready, and you’ll have good reasons for it when you do. This book puts you in the driver’s seat and helps you find your way forward. It’s for anyone who wants to make a change but hasn’t been able to figure out how to make it happen.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?

Habits are rituals. They are the routines that make life less mentally and physically taxing. On a fundamental level, they are coping mechanisms — some of them useful, some not-so-useful. If we can figure out what they are helping us cope with — what kind of relief or comfort they are offering — we can fill those needs with healthier rituals that make us feel better in the long run.

Imagine you’re working from home because of the pandemic (or braving it as an essential worker). You have a child or a partner or you’re on your own. Your home is in disarray, and you feel like you’re falling short with all the things. You’re pissed off at the coronavirus and the political landscape, and now you’re coming down with nagging medical symptoms — which are annoying enough to worry you but not alarming enough to make you pay $150 to see the doctor. Something has to give. Habits can serve as reinforcements to get you through hard times — or help you thrive in better ones. I call it “microdosing wellness.”

We dose ourselves all day every day with habits. Quitting “bad” ones is really difficult, especially when you’ve tried and failed in the past. But dosing yourself more often with habits that make you feel alive turns out to be a whole lot easier. It feels good too, and that goodness spreads throughout your life.

How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?

I have walked nearly every day for the last 17 years. Sometimes it’s 15 minutes, and sometimes it’s three hours, but walking is absolutely essential to my mental health and creativity. The craziest, most wonderful ideas happen when I’m walking. I could not have written three books without it, and I would be in a bad spot emotionally if I didn’t take that time.

I have black tea with almond milk every morning and stretch every night before bed. I lay around with my dogs every chance I get, and I make the same pizza dinner for my family every Sunday night. They are rituals. They seem so small, but they create signposts in my days that remind me what pleasure and purpose feel like. I spent far too long trying to stop all kinds of unhealthy habits and making myself crazy with guilt and self-recrimination. Finally, I gave up and decided to let the bad habits be so I could focus on building some good ones. Over time most of the ones I was trying to stop just drifted away, though I still keep a few for good measure.

Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?

Lasting habit change comes from marrying what you need with what you love. If you need to de-stress at the end of the night, do you do that with a bath, or a box of cookies, or a bottle of vodka, or a journal, or a few minutes of yoga? So many options! Some helpful, some not. The way to find out what feeds your long-term wellness (while giving you an immediate payoff) is to try things. A lot of them won’t work out, but some of them will if you keep exploring and playing with your options. If you like something, run with it. If you don’t, keep looking. The easiest way to stop a bad habit is to replace it with something better. Fill the need with something else.

Let’s talk about creating good habits in three areas, Wellness, Performance, and Focus. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum wellness. Please share a story or example for each.

We all share the same basic human needs for shelter, safety, sustenance, and physical movement. We also need connection with others and a purpose or reason to get up in the morning. Wellness encompasses both physical and psychological well-being, but when we aim for “optimum wellness”, we tend to imagine big muscles, slim waists, kale smoothies, or marathon running. But those goals aren’t possible (or even ideal) for many of us, so we each have to define what wellness means for us.

Morning and evening rituals — Bookend your days by checking in with what your body needs. Find tiny habits that give you a chance to catch your breath and pay attention. What have you loved in the past or what would you like to try that would give you a minute to breathe, morning and night?

Strength — What is one thing you could do to strengthen your body every day? A client of mine, who was going through a painful divorce, planked for 30 seconds every time she started feeling out of control. It grounded her and strengthened her core (and her resolve).

Nutrition — Food is fuel. It’s also a source of celebration and connection. When you think of food in relationship to “wellness,” do you think about deprivation or pleasure? Find one indulgence and one healthy food choice every day that you can look forward to.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

I created a visual wheel for my clients that shows ten areas of life that impact health and well-being — with the body at the center. If you can discover which areas feel great, which are too daunting to tackle right now, and which are ripe for change, you can start building reinforcements that you genuinely crave. Once you start feeling the benefits, it gets a lot easier to build new habits in other areas as well.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.

A lot of people assume performing better requires working more: harder and faster. But if you consider the times in your life that you’ve performed at your best (or even imagine what it would be like to perform beautifully in a new endeavor), you’re likely to be prepared, well-rested, and enjoying yourself, knowing that you’ve got the skills you need.

Prepare — When we prep in advance (studying for a test, training for a sport, or preparing for a meeting), we build confidence. Confidence boosts our energy and increases our efficacy. When we know our stuff, we thrive.

Sleep — Sleep impacts every part of our lives, including productivity and decision-making. We are often unaware of how foggy we are when we don’t get enough sleep, but when we are well-rested, we know it. Downtime is when our brains process information. Just like a muscle needs rest to get stronger between workouts, our minds need rest to be at their best.

Play — Performance is always enhanced by creativity, and to be creative, we have to stretch beyond our typical routines or ways of thinking. There’s a reason we get our best ideas while taking a shower or walking or falling asleep. Playfulness and exploration make innovation possible.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

Preparation, sleep, and play are all about how you spend your time. Thinking through a typical day or keeping track of your time for a few days will give you a feel for your current priorities and routines. If they don’t allow for playfulness, rest, and learning, how can you make more space for those habits? It doesn’t require a lot of time. Practicing your guitar or researching an idea you’ve been curious about only takes a few minutes, but giving yourself that time opens up a portal to creativity.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.

If wellness and performance are the outcomes you want, focus is the means that makes them possible. There are both internal and external factors that affect our ability to focus. It’s often easiest to start with the external ones and move inward.

Environment — The physical space around you is the container for your daily routines. If you have a lot of clutter in your space or screens with alerts flashing every few seconds, you’re not going to be able to focus very well. This is true in both home and work environments. Even the clothes you’re wearing can be distracting if you can’t get comfortable — or if you’re so comfortable, you’re falling asleep!

Relationships — Have you ever had a friend or colleague you could happily brainstorm with all day long? Or an older mentor or young collaborator who pushes you to think bigger? Who makes you feel grounded and at peace? Making time for people who help you feel more curious or engaged sparks inspiration. They can help you refocus or work through areas where you’re stuck.

Perspective — If you’re having a hard time focusing, you may have lost perspective on what you’re doing and why. Circumstances or priorities can shift while we’re busy in the weeds trying to get things done. How does the task at hand relate to what matters to you?

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

The problem with lack of focus is it’s hard to focus on fixing it! Instead of trying to overhaul your whole routine, look for the pain points. What is the current situation, and where do you most frequently find yourself off track? Then you can find micro-solutions in each of these three areas to focus your attention. Once you’re back on track, you’ll find yourself drawn to the next steps.

As a leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?

The opposite of being in Flow is being stuck, so what we’re really talking about here is getting unstuck. “Flow” makes me think of a leaf bobbing and weaving down a stream. If we get hung up on a rock, we need an extra push to knock us loose. I think people assume that push has to be something big like an exotic trip, moving to a new city or job, or a break-up. But I’ve seen rituals, as small as one minute a day, break people loose from where they are stuck. Doing 10 push-ups when you’re hung up on a work problem, or frustrated with the news, can break you out of a rut and set you off on a new direction. Dancing, drumming, gardening, cooking, exercising, tackling a home improvement project, or taking a nap can make a huge difference. We need to give ourselves permission to expand our physical boundaries. Physical movement of any sort can play a huge part in getting unstuck.

Connecting with others can get you back in Flow too. People are full of all kinds of quirky, wonderful idiosyncrasies, and spending time with ones who make us feel comfortable being ourselves is always energizing.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I want to heal the paradigms we hold around #beauty and #wellness. Every day we feed our biases into algorithms online that feed them right back to us through search engines. America has been steeped in division since its founding: native/colonizer, black/white, male/female, rich/poor, “disabled”/able-bodied, right/left. That hostility is rooted in an inability to recognize the common humanity we all share. When we see ourselves and each other as fully human, those divisions begin to slip away. We can change the algorithms by redefining how we represent beauty, power, and wellbeing. They are different for each of us, and we all get to decide for ourselves.

There is a 365-Day Challenge toward the end of The Habit Trip that proposes, “For one year, take your body with you into every room you enter… Pick your body up off the floor, and take it with you… Show up with it like Lizzo at Madison Square Garden.” Wellness isn’t about control; it’s about freedom to enjoy our bodies and lives. It’s about peace and kindness toward ourselves and others, being grounded in who we are and celebrating our differences.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

This may seem an obvious choice, but if I could sit down with anyone, it would be Michelle Obama. Her Let’s Move campaign benefited millions of families, and she could have done even more if it weren’t for the divisions that prevent us from recognizing each other as whole and valid. Access to nutrition, safe environments to exercise, and health care for every person on earth shouldn’t be up for debate. I would love to help support her work through the Girls Opportunity Alliance and My Brother’s Keeper.

I’m also fascinated that she’s jumped into the entertainment industry with Higher Ground Productions. When we make the pursuit of wellness an adventure, there’s no stopping how far it spreads. There are so many opportunities for podcasts, tv shows, animation, and even video games that celebrate the idiosyncrasies that make us all unique. This life is a wild ride, and our bodies — every shape, color, and size — are the vehicles that make all of it possible. What are the messages our bodies and communities are sending, and how can we fortify them with small, life-giving changes? Microdoses of well-being.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can find me at TheHabitTrip.com or Instagram @sarah.hays.coomer. I have a weekly newsletter, and the book is available wherever you buy your books!

You can see my video “5 Things You Need to Know to Create New Habits” here: https://youtu.be/8xlBet3hskQ

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

Thank you for having me!

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