Your greatest challenge for making progress with self-improvement is your own Critter Brain. What it is and how you can combat it.

I love insidewink’s latest theme, Being Present.

At first glance it seems so simple… “Yeah, yeah… I know how to be present… just breathe, be ‘mindful’, be here now… blah, blah, blah”.  But is it really that simple? How present are we, actually?

Amy McLaughlin-Margolis is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Co-Founder/Director of Santa Monica Counseling in California. She specializes in treating eating disorders, addictions, anxiety, depression, codependency and adoption-related issues.

Are You Really “There”? A Morning Ritual Can Help.

Have you ever felt that a friend or partner was there with you, but not really there. When you were speaking, instead of listening, were they formulating their next response… to look good, win the argument, or end the conversation so they could get back to tik tok?

Or maybe it was you.  Have you ever looked your husband in the eye while he was “man-splaining” something and nodded politely while running through your laundry list of… what do I need to do this week?  Am I bloated?  Should I have skipped that second glass of wine last night?  Then you come-to and he is still talking and you think,  uh, I hope there isn’t a quiz.

Don’t “Miss” Your Life

Being Present is not about physically being there.  It’s about being open-hearted, listening intently, and being emotionally available.  Enemy number one to being present is distraction. We are all busy people with busy lives that are compounded by technology, which makes us available 24/7 and offers us entertainment at the click of a button.

If we don’t become the gatekeepers of the distraction we allow in, we will literally miss our lives. We run the risk of being spectators in them instead of participants or worse, doing our lives, but not really feeling them.

RELATED: Try Unplugging to Regain Control of Your Life

I am a reformed “future tripper” myself. I used to “get high” cooking up the next goal, fantasizing about how great my life would be once I achieved it. I would spend countless hours a day somewhere else in my mind, while missing on the blessings right in front of me. My life is so much richer when I allow my goals to inform my day, not hijack it.

Why, when we change for the better and feel so good, do we get in our own way?  As if our brain is at war with itself.  Well, because in a way, it is. - Critter Brain

How Much Time Do You Spend on Your Phone?

According to research from RescueTime (an app that keeps track of phone use), people generally spend an average of 3.25 hours on their phones every day, with the top 20% of smartphone users spending upwards of 4.5 hours.

I like to believe we are here to live our lives fully, use our God-given talents to give back to the world and most importantly, to enjoy love and connection with the people in our lives. None of this is possible unless we quiet our minds daily and set the intention to be present. One of the key tools that has been a game changer for me is the practice of a morning ritual.  And I hope, if you are inspired to live with more consciousness and presence, it can be for you, too!

A Daily or Morning Ritual Can Help Keep You  Being Present

What is a Daily Ritual?

Essentially, it is a daily routine that gets you in touch with your thoughts, feelings, goals and dreams; grounds you in your body and life philosophy and gives you agency on how you will face the day ahead.  With all of the ups and downs in our lives caused by… unexpected events, hormones, chemicals, genetics, relationships, challenges… a daily or morning ritual is invaluable.

Have you ever woken up feeling okay, then within minutes your brain goes to “pick something up” and the chatter starts…  What happened yesterday?  Oh yeah, my mom pissed me off.  Next time I’m gonna have the perfect comeback!

Or Oh great, another day.  Why haven’t I gotten everything I want yet, when is it gonna be my turn? Or Why did I eat that pizza? Will I ever lose this last 15 lbs?

Or maybe you wake up feeling p-r-e-t-t-y good. Yesterday you had some success and you are bathing in the afterglow until you roll over and think, Hmmm… what’s up? and you turn on your phone and fall into the black hole that is social media.  First, you feel entertained then slowly you start to feel insignificant and invisible as you compare your vulnerable insides to the glossy, edited outside lives staring back at you.  You think, they are happy and perfect and doing it right.  I can’t compare so why bother.

Introducing Critter Brain
Many famous people (Obama, Kafka, Jobs, Churchill) do or have done a daily morning routine.

Try Starting A Morning Reboot

Unchecked, your needle can get stuck on insanity, rumination, and chaos.  The radio dial in your brain can tune right into channel K-F$%#!  If any of this resonates with you, a morning ritual can help you get centered before you get hijacked by the world, other people and most importantly, your own thinking! I will share some ideas that have helped me live my days with more presence, peace and joy. Try what inspires you or form your own practices.

When deciding what your morning ritual will be, choose something you are willing to do daily. Pick a few non-negotiables just for you and remember: consistency is key.  You are building a new muscle. You know the old gym metaphor.

And the bible backs up this theory of daily practice, stating that God gives us fresh mercies every day, “our daily bread” and will renew our minds.  Adapting a morning ritual will give you a daily reboot and my hope is it will become part of your routine like brushing your teeth or drinking your coffee.

Here are some ideas:  journaling, making gratitude lists, setting intentions, writing affirmations, goals and dreams; exercising, meditating, breathing, praying, stretching...  I won’t mansplain all the benefits of each of these here, because this article will become a book and you have a life, but here are a few to get you started.

Three Ideas for a Morning Ritual

Change Old Ways of Thinking and Being with These Exercises to combat Critter Brain

1. Silence!

Spend the first part of your morning ritual in silence and free from the noise of the world… like news, politics, your instagram likes and hashtags!  This may be hard, especially for those of you who use your iphone as your alarm clock.  But, I am imploring you to ignore, ignore, ignore until you have you time.  This is so you don’t begin your day with anger, chaos, negativity and/or compare and despair.

This is YOUR LIFE, you are running your own race, and trust me, when we take the time to improve ourselves, everything in our lives will improve… our relationships, our effectiveness at work, our self love, esteem and confidence.

Change Old Ways of Thinking and Being with These Exercises to combat Critter Brain

2. Journal, Journal, Journal

Writing is a wonderful tool to help you get to know yourself and get your troubles and hopes down on paper rather than just swirling around in your head. If you hit the page every day you can’t hide and you will become more conscious and aware of what’s important to you.  And no pressure, your writing is for your eyes only. You are stream-of-consciousness, brain-dumping, to clear yourself of noise and bring clarity to your day ahead.  Also you are much more apt to take action around goals or dreams and/or believe for and manifest your affirmations if you write them down!

Change Old Ways of Thinking and Being with These Exercises to combat Critter Brain

3. Do A Structured Writing Ritual Each Morning

A popular 12 step program, one that keeps members in “fit spiritual condition”, is the AEIOU exercise.. It evaluates yesterday… “What went well?  What didn’t?  Do you have anything to clean up?  And how does that inform your behavior for the day ahead?”  This accountability keeps you daily becoming a better version of yourself. Let me explain…

AEIOU Exercise

A is for Abstinence, E is for Exercise, I is for I or Me, O is for Others and U is for Uncover or anything your need to clean up.

A – Abstinence: How well did you do from abstaining from your most destructive behaviors? For some this could be refraining from excess food or alcohol.  For others, managing their temper or impulsive shopping. The point is you are checking in with yourself on how emotionally clean you were with your thing yesterday.

E – ExerciseHow did you move your body? How did it feel? And how does that inform what you do for exercise today?

I – I (Myself): What did I do for Myself yesterday? Did you go to a yoga class? Did you stand up for yourself in a confrontation? Did you do your morning ritual? 

O – Others: What did you do for Others yesterday?  Were you nice to a new colleague? Did you read with your child? 

U – UncoverWhat did you uncover?  Did you get more information about a decision you need to make? Did you learn something new about a friend?  Do you have anything you need to clean up today, such as apologizing to somebody?              

Do It Just For You

Start to explore what you would enjoy doing daily just for you and let go of perfectionism.  Any daily investment you make in yourself is great.  Make it work around your own personality and schedule. Also your daily or morning ritual can look different day to day and can change over time depending on your life circumstances.

For example, in my 30s (I wish I could say I woke up at the crack of dawn before the kids and sat on my porch with my herbal tea and wrote in my gratitude journal.  I did not.)  I pressed snooze until the last possible minute, chugged my ice coffee, got everyone fed, packed, and out the door and did a gratitude list in my head.

But then after drop off I would move my body, pray, and set an intention for the day.  Then later on before the after school pick-up and ensuing madness, my non-negotiable was to unplug, read something spiritual, lie down, and meditate. This was my midday recharge that kept me conscious and served me and my family well for years.

There is no right or wrong here, no black or white. Do the daily or morning ritual that helps you stay present and feel the richness that is your own unique life!

An Engaging Conversation with Maria Shriver and Jean Trebek

What’s Maria Shriver’s Morning Ritual?

An engaging conversation with Maria Shriver and Jean Trebek on the value of a daily morning ritual, and the importance of maintaining a healthy balance between “doing” and “being”.


Your greatest challenge for making progress with self-improvement is your own Critter Brain. What it is and how you can combat it.

Why is Self-Improvement So Hard?

Why, when we change for the better and feel so good, do we get in our own way?  As if our brain is at war with itself.  Well, because in a way, it is…


Amy McLaughlin-Margolis, LCSW - insidewink guest author

Amy McLaughlin-Margolis, LCSW

Amy is a wife and mom to three humans and two animals! Hailing from Boston and NYC, Amy is a SoCal transplant. And though she misses her big Irish family, she is incredibly grateful come January when she is taking long walks in the sunshine and her cousins are calling her about a wicked cold Nor’easta! Amy is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Co-Founder/Director of Santa Monica Counseling. She specializes in treating eating disorders, addictions, anxiety, depression, codependency and adoption-related issues. Amy is also a Meisner and Groundlings trained actor, who has spent the majority of her career doing Voice Over work for animation and commercials and recently optioned her first animated series. Amy is excited to be contributing to insidewink, a site she finds so inspiring. She hopes to be a worthy contribution!

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Dove Rose give us ideas on how to stay curious! Keep it Fresh in the Kitchen, on the Drive and in your Life. New ideas to keep our mind alive!

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