SA Snyder of Luna River Publishing: Getting An Upgrade; How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, and Focus
Use the power of thought to sharpen your focus. Give negative thoughts their due; that is to say, tell them to hit the road. Negative thinking never did anyone any good. I’m not talking about negative experiences but about actual thoughts in your head that serve no purpose other than to distract you or keep you down in some way. Just let them float by like leaves on a stream. I’m not saying you can just positive-think your way out of disaster, but you can exercise your mind by learning how to use the power of thought to your benefit.
As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance & Focus,” I had the pleasure of interviewing S.A. Snyder.
S.A. Snyder is a writer, oral storyteller, and environmentalist. She blogs about self-care and retreats, and topics related to current events in an effort to inspire readers to be their better selves and find contentment. Her latest book, The Value of Your Soul, was released in September by Luna River Publishing.
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?
The youngest of five, I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. Mom was a school teacher and Dad a preacher. Life was competitive in my town, which pushed me to work harder for what I wanted and also turned me into a tough kid in some ways. There was a distinct wealth gap in that town, and my family wasn’t on the rich end. I knew there was something better for me but unsure what. Just before my junior year in high school we moved to another suburb. I tried to see it as a chance to reinvent myself, but my new peers were focused on typical teenage stuff, which I couldn’t care less about. I purposely kept my friend list minimal, put my head down to study, and counted the days until I could flee to Montana, where I knew I wanted to go to college. At the time, it was the longest two years of my life, but it helped me develop resilience.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
I started my career in the 1980s in wildlife biology and forestry. My parents were the impetus for my love of nature and the outdoors. Dad would take us on long camping trips all over America, particularly in the mountain West, a place that I discovered early in life really fed my soul. At home, Mom and I would explore nature preserves, and I spent most of my time outdoors year-round. I ached to be in the mountains among vast forests, lakes, and rivers. So when it came to college, the University of Montana was the only choice for me. My ancestors homesteaded in Montana in the 1880s, which I hadn’t known until I moved there.
All that nature and soul food also inspired me to write. I’ve been a writer all my life, from keeping journals as a small child to becoming a professional writer beginning in my thirties. I eventually hung up the forestry boots for a master’s in journalism with an emphasis on environmental sciences. By a circuitous path — an interesting but long story in itself — I ended up in Virginia as a technical writer for data center engineers. I kept writing creatively because you can’t dampen the passion, nor should you! So my side writing gigs involve blogging and writing books about my life journey with the goal of inspiring others to get to know their true selves and reach their full potential. I also dabble in oral storytelling.
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?
In college I met a woman in the community who got involved in a student group I belonged to. We asked her to help with publicity, her professional work. Deanna and I became friends, despite the 20+-year age gap, and I credit her with starting me down the path of self-introspection. One day I was telling her about how I kept running scenarios through my head of people who had hurt me emotionally and feeling vengeful toward them. These scenarios had happened several years earlier yet still plagued me. “There is nothing left of the past but its beauty,” she said, then wrote it on a piece of paper and handed it to me.
It was like being smacked by a wrecking ball. At that moment I totally understood what it meant: It was a call to let go of the past, which is the biggest and most powerful act anyone can do to improve their life. Living in the past, fuming about, lamenting, or even wishing for the good old days will never bring you peace or joy. Deanna’s simple wake-up call was so powerful, that 35 years later I still remember her exact words and where we were when she spoke them. In terms of my work, I would have given up writing if I let every rejection letter or bad critique stop me. Writers are rejected all the time, even those who go on to become best-selling authors. The ones that keep going are the ones that know every rejection is part of the past. The beauty that’s left over is the passion for and the belief in what I do that keeps me going.
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?
After graduate school I was freelance writing but having trouble making ends meet. So I took a job as a 911 dispatcher, which provided steady income and health insurance. I could still write on the side. At the beginning of our shift, we dispatchers would choose what our roles would be for that shift. We could answer 911 calls, dispatch fire and medical responders, dispatch the city police, or dispatch the county sheriffs. One summer evening I was dispatching for the sheriffs, who were writing a ton of parking tickets to people parked illegally along a stretch of road near a popular swimming hole by the river.
So I’m on the phone with a city copy and also on the radio with three sheriff deputies, all who were giving me information they wanted me to check on the computer. I kept having to put the city cop on hold while responding to the deputies by radio. At one point, I said to the city cop, “If these guys would shut up for five minutes, I could get you what you need.” Only it wasn’t the city cop I said it to; instead I had broadcasted it over the sheriff department’s radio! There was complete silence for a few seconds, then one of the deputies came on the radio and said, “10–49?” which was code for, “I don’t understand. Can you repeat that?” I wanted to crawl into a hole. I carried on like nothing had happened. After my shift ended, and things had slowed down for the evening, one of the sheriffs came to the dispatch center to ask what that was all about. I had gone home but my colleagues explained that my remark was meant for the city cop. Fortunately, everyone had a good laugh and there were no repercussions.
This story may seem like it doesn’t relate to my work as a writer; however, there are three lessons here that apply to my writing work, and really any type of work: First, ask for help when you need it. All I had to do was ask a fellow dispatcher to help record the license plate numbers when the deputies were lobbing them at me like baseballs in a batting cage. Second, know your priorities, what really matters at any given moment. I could have told the city cop to call back later. His wasn’t an emergency, and my first priority was to the deputies. Third, avoid saying things you might regret later. Even though my comment was more sarcastic than mean-spirited, it fell on the wrong ears — several of them! In other words, make sure the mic isn’t hot before you speak. Seriously, though, train yourself to take a few breaths before instantaneously reacting, especially with your mouth. It’s no exaggeration to say that mere words have started wars.
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?
A big question with a simple answer: let go of the past and live in the now. It’s been repeated so often, it’s become cliché; however, letting go of the past is the most powerful gift you can give yourself. Letting go frees us to become who we truly are and what we most desire. The past shapes us but it doesn’t have to dictate our current state of contentment or prevent us from becoming who we want to be. There is only ever this moment, yet we spend more time being angry or regretful for what has gone or fretting about what we think is to come. Focus now on what you need to do to achieve your goals and create a road map for how to get there. Then in each moment, do one thing on that road map. Then do the next thing and the next. Course correct as needed and learn from the past, but don’t ever let the past prevent you from being who you want to be.
I’m not talking about shaping your career, although that’s part of it. I’m talking about shaping your life. If you’re not right with yourself, it will manifest in harmful ways, distract you, and prevent you from making progress in all aspects of your life. By the way, being right with yourself necessarily means forgiving others for their transgressions, which does not equate to condoning wrongs committed against you. Rather, forgiveness is acknowledging what happened and moving on. We are given the gift of now every second of every day to make it what we want it to be. Use it to reach your full potential for yourself and the good of humanity.
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?
Over the years I’ve read dozens of books about personal growth, from the lightweight “you can do it” cheerleading kind to ones that dive deep into personal and spiritual growth, how controlling thoughts and your mind is key to leading the life you want. Some were considered cutting edge for their day, while others were considered way out there in woowooland. What’s funny is that a much broader section of the population is devouring this information, accepting as valid, and putting these thought experiments into practice. We know so much more today about the link between our thoughts and our reality — that thoughts really manifest as reality. Much more studies are being done into the brain and the intersection of consciousness and spirituality that the so-called woowoo stuff isn’t so weird anymore. Here are three secular books that really brought me deeper into who I am today. They were just what I needed to read at those times when I picked them up.
The Power of Now and A New Earth, both by Ekhart Tolle. Basically, these are the same book written for different audiences (respectively, those who don’t like metaphysical navel gazing and those who do). I’ve read both books multiple times because I always need a reminder that now is all there is and moaning about the past does no one any good.
The Soul’s Code, by James Hillman. This book woke something in me when it was first published in 1997. It showed me there was much more depth to who I was and my purpose in life. It really lit the fire under me to begin living a more soul-centered life and drove home the importance of getting quiet inside to listen to that calling.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
Ram Dass said, “It is extraordinary how near we are to our Deeper Being. It’s just a thought away, and the thoughts that take us away from it create so much suffering.” It’s a profound reminder that we are our thoughts on one level, so why spend energy thinking non-beneficial thoughts? We expend a lot of energy on things we can’t control, or that have already happened, and wonder why we never get anywhere.
Sometimes I feel I’ve wasted so much energy in a state other than joy, yet how would I have ever known the pure pleasure of letting go of that which doesn’t matter? How can you know the true blessing of what it’s like to bask in the warmth of a kind sun if you’ve never been mired in cold mud? So it’s okay to not be content all the time, but it’s not okay to be discontent most of the time. There is a lot more to us than what happens to us or what clothes we wear, car we drive, job we do, where we live. Do a little self-introspection to find out what your Deeper Being is. You’ll be awed, and you should be because you are awesome.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
My most recent book straddles the genre divide of a self-help and humor memoir, although mostly the intent is to offer a little homespun wisdom for coping with people, circumstances, and life. The book, The Value of Your Soul: Rumi Verse for Life’s Annoying Moments, draws from my memoir (published in 2019) of living at a spiritual retreat in Scotland for two years. The 13th-century poet Rumi wrote extensively about his relationship with God. His writings were like self-help for their era but that advice still stands today, regardless of your faith beliefs. Although we are experiencing some incredibly tough times, I want to remind people not to take life too seriously, at least the stuff that doesn’t matter in the long haul. So this latest book is like chicken soup stories, only you can think of it as lamb stew for the annoyed soul!
My next project, due out soon, is a short book titled DIY Retreats: The Ultimate Guide to Making Space, Setting an Intention, and Creating the Self-Care You Deserve. Before the pandemic I was blogging about retreats, what they are, how to choose the right one, how to behave at one, and how to retreat on a budget. Now that travel is curtailed, I want to provide tips on how to create a personalized retreat at home. We could all use some time and space to chill and it’s important now more than ever to take care of ourselves. We need to be in a good space emotionally and mentally to make decisions about our next steps, where we want to go as individuals and as a collective humanity. Making good choices requires calm thinking, which retreating can provide. So I hope this book helps people find that space physically in their homes as well as in their heads.
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 difficult to change, which is why it’s imperative to develop good ones, habits that will positively affect you and those in your orbit. Ultimately, if everyone practiced good habits, we’d all be happy and healthy with little to complain about. That alone is an important reason to create good habits! Realistically, it’s not much different. Having good habits leads to happier and healthier outcomes, like eating healthily, exercising, and maintaining emotional health. Good habits can keep us out of the hospital, keep us employed, help us pay the bills, and be better people to our families and friends, just to name a few benefits.
When my nutrition habits slip and I eat unhealthy foods, I get cranky, which creates conflict at home and work. Bad eating habits not only make me feel physically ill, they make me shun exercise, and I’m inclined to keep eating bad-for-me foods. The same happens when I allow anxious thoughts and worry to consume my daily outlook or when I stop meditating for a while. I’d rather just wallow in helplessness, which turns to apathy. I’m especially vulnerable to letting good habits slip whenever I’m away from home. We can’t be perfect all the time; so what if I don’t meditate every morning while on vacation? Not a big deal, but the more I practice good habits, the easier they are to maintain and the easier it is to get back on track after a slip.
How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
Good habits keep me focused on my goals, one primary of which is to experience contentment every day. To do that, I need to check in with myself regularly, so during the work day, I set an hourly alarm on my cell phone as a reminder to stop and take five minutes to check my mood and physical state. Do I need to eat? I sometimes forget when I’m too focused on work, resulting in a headache later. Am I tense or stiff? Do I need to breathe more deeply or give my eyes a rest from the computer screen? It’s easy to neglect ourselves when we’re absorbed in something. Taking a few minutes frequently throughout the day keeps me in tune with my needs so that I can relieve stress or head off impending stress. Once stress does set in, it throws the rest of the game off, causing me precious time to reset. The more I can maintain tip-top shape physically, mentally, and emotionally, the more content I am. The more content I am, the better chance at achieving all my goals.
Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?
Take baby steps. If you try to change every unwanted habit at once, your mind will strongly resist and you won’t succeed. Instead, focus on developing one small habit at a time that you can reasonably and easily do. Don’t drink from the firehose if there’s a water glass nearby. Then just keep doing that one thing until it feels comfortable and you find yourself wanting to continue. Don’t get upset if you miss a day here and there. Just get back on track. Good habits lead to feeling good about yourself, and once you reach that point, you’ll be motivated to keep going.
Stop bad habits by taking notice of your state of mind whenever you feel the urge to do something non-beneficial. For example, I have a sweet tooth but I’m at risk for developing diabetes. So eating sugary treats is not in my best interest. Whenever I get the urge to eat sweets, I do two things: check my state of mind to figure out what’s behind the craving and drink water or herbal tea or eat a piece of fruit. Checking in helps me understand the reason behind the craving (e.g., stress or low blood sugar from a missed meal), which encourages me to change circumstances that may lead to cravings. The second tactic — consuming something more healthy — is bringing in the cavalry to defend the fort. By being aware of your actions, rather than unconsciously reaching for the candy jar, so to speak, you are better able to stop bad habits. But have a backup plan, the cavalry, just in case!
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.
It’s true we are what we eat. The ancient Greeks figured this out millennia ago, so develop the habit of eating whole foods, mostly plant based, if possible. When I turned thirty, my body began suffering various physical ailments that I couldn’t shake. Up until then, I had been incredibly fit and healthy, eating what I thought was a good diet. When doctors couldn’t help, a naturopath told me to keep a food diary for two weeks. I was supposed to record everything I put into my mouth, even if it was just a cough drop. I also recorded how I felt physically each day. At the end of two weeks I began to see patterns, such as getting headaches or stuffed sinuses after eating certain foods. After a bland cleansing diet and continued careful tracking of what I ate and how it made me feel, it became clear what my body could and couldn’t handle. To this day I know which foods support my optimum health and which don’t and I’ve changed my eating habits to accommodate that.
Keep active. Whether you’re a honed athlete or casual walker, what matters is that you keep moving in a way that doesn’t damage your body but gives your heart a little boost and keeps your muscles moving. I try to walk at least two miles a day; sometimes I easily knock out four miles. I do two hours of yoga a week with a class instructor and take breaks during my day to do some stretching. Being sedentary is just as bad for a body as eating poorly.
A third wellness habit involves the subtle body — the mind and spirit. Calming the mind every day is essential to maintaining a healthy life. You can meditate, pray, lose yourself in soothing music, or simply sit quietly and rid your mind of thought for five minutes each day. It’s important to turn off the brain’s endless chatter and take deep breaths. Five minutes every day will do wonders for your disposition. Without this practice, I quickly become irritable, anxious, and hurried. Life just becomes an endless list of things I “have to” get done. It’s no way to live.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
To eat more healthily, start by eating healthful foods one day a week. You might even try fasting for a day. If you can’t manage a whole day, start with one meal one day a week. Gradually work up to two meals — or two days — and keep going. Take it slowly. Going cold turkey or forcing major changes all at once ensures defeat.
To keep active, pick an activity that will get you moving. Try yoga if you need something gentle, or a short walk. Again, start small but do something active every day, even if you just manage a walk around the block.
To calm the mind, it’s really not that hard to start with five minutes a day for a brain time out. Pick a time during your day when you know you’re more likely to achieve that goal, not just before the kids are demanding their supper or the boss is demanding a report. Stick to that time and set an alarm to remind you. Also, set an alarm for five minutes so you know when your time is up without having to check the clock every thirty seconds. Gradually increase that quiet time or increase the daily frequency. Try building in some time to meditate. My best hour is right when I wake up. I get out of bed and go to another place where I only do that — meditate. That way my body knows when I’m in this place, it’s time to quiet the mind. Sometimes I listen to background music or guided meditations on a phone app. Other times I focus on my breathing or repeat mantras in my head or envision experiencing something I want as if I already have it.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.
Setting priorities at work keeps me on track. It’s easy to get knocked off balance, especially when I’m doing something tedious and someone pings me to ask a favor. I’m always eager to drop the tedious thing and help a colleague no matter how low priority the favor is. At the end of every work day, I take fifteen minutes to determine what I need to do the next day and write it in bullet points, in order of priority, in an email and send it to myself. I ensure that my list is reasonably doable in one eight-hour day to account for unexpected emergency tasks and other business. Since developing that habit, my productivity has skyrocketed.
To manage email, I created three main folders in my inbox. One contains items to do, another contains non-urgent items to read, and a third contains items I’m waiting on. Three times a day I filter through my new emails and put each one in the relevant folder. After I complete my priorities, I work my way through the to-do folder. When that’s done, I check my waiting folder to see whether I need to send reminders to people. I use the last hour of my work day to read through the non-urgent items. As long as I keep up that habit, I avoid getting overwhelmed or scattered.
The third habit involves the mind. It’s easy for me to play the hero and work myself to exhaustion. Not only do I have a lot of interests and want to get involved in everything, but sometimes saying no when a colleague asks for a favor is hard. Staying focused on my priorities keeps me productive without the exhaustion. So another good habit I’m developing is learning to say no more frequently. Another tactic is to respond to requesters by asking which of my priorities they would have me sacrifice for them. The latter usually gets the message across without the need for an outright no.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
Get organized. If you don’t know where to start, just plug the phrase “how to organize your inbox” into a search engine. Replace the word “inbox” with whatever else you need to organize for maximum productivity. Also, treat the timer on your cell phone like your best friend. Use it to remind you how long to spend on a task, when to take a break, and how long to meditate or quiet the mind.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.
Know who you are — who you really are. We each play many roles — spouse, sibling, parent, worker, boss, friend — but none of these is who we are. They’re what we do. Get in the habit of meditating or getting quiet and ask yourself who you are. Contemplate what your purpose might be in life. Are you living up to expectations you’ve set for yourself (not ones others have determined for you)? A little self-introspection goes a long way to contentment. Knowing who you really are, your purpose, will help you stay focused. I find free writing in a journal about these topics brings up things I never thought of before and helps me work out conflicting emotions and desires.
Avoid the drama of others. Drama is best left to performers on stage or screen. Oftentimes when I find myself arguing with someone, it turns out we’re arguing about different things, clearly misunderstanding the other person’s viewpoint. Or if I let someone’s complaint get to me, it makes me feel bad — and it’s not even my stuff! If you’re in the position of mediating drama (parents or work managers), maintain a neutral attitude and listen to all sides before enacting your resolution duties. You can still do this without getting sucked into the emotional aspect of the drama.
Use the power of thought to sharpen your focus. Give negative thoughts their due; that is to say, tell them to hit the road. Negative thinking never did anyone any good. I’m not talking about negative experiences but about actual thoughts in your head that serve no purpose other than to distract you or keep you down in some way. Just let them float by like leaves on a stream. I’m not saying you can just positive-think your way out of disaster, but you can exercise your mind by learning how to use the power of thought to your benefit. By the way, thoughts that involve harm to others will not benefit you. I recommend the book The Intention Experiment, by Lynne McTaggart.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
The best thing you can do is to spend a little time each day in self-contemplation, meditation, or complete silence to clear your head of all thought. Start with five minutes a day and work up to thirty over time. Cultivating stillness will calm your being and sharpen your focus. It will help you get to know who you really are, help you put into perspective what really matters (hint, it usually doesn’t involve drama), and leave you craving more of the positive stuff.
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?
Do an activity that brings you pleasure. For me, it’s riding my bike, a sport I’ve loved for more than fifty years and counting. I’m fortunate to live in a place that has hundreds of miles of paved biking trails, so when I need a break, a pick-me-up, or a little joy, I pedal. Even the neighborhood streets will do. Doing something pleasurable eases anxiety and helps focus your mind automatically. Doing so regularly can train your mind to get into a state of flow more quickly and your mind starts to crave those moments. Also, discover what you’re good at and try to do a little of that regularly. Doing something you’re good at, whether it’s a physical activity or a mind one, boosts your endorphins and helps you feel in the flow.
Not only do I love riding my bike, but I’m really good at it, so this is a twofer for me! I can skillfully navigate obstacles and various terrain — I did a lot of hardcore mountain biking when I lived in Montana. I’m also skilled at handling a bike and can respond with laser focus to a potential hazard. Bike riding quickly puts me in a state of flow.
Finally, I use meditation to get in the flow (I hope you’re seeing a pattern here). During my meditation, focusing on something I want to flow enhances my ability to do so when it comes time.
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.
Among the many things I believe we can do to improve life for all Americans here are two we can implement now:
- Foster compassion and understanding by instituting national volunteer service. People serve at least one year and can choose from options such as working for a nonprofit that supports a humanitarian or environmental cause or working in a local, state, or federal government capacity that supports underprivileged people and communities. Such service could also be substituted for a teenager’s senior year in high school. For those in the privileged classes, their exposure to the difficulties of others’ lives will be an eye-opener. (I know this first-hand from having served briefly in the Peace Corps.) For the underprivileged, it can encourage a deeper personal investment in their community. For all volunteers, it allows for an exchange of stories and ideas that can lead to better lives for everyone.
- Create local networks of Gift Banks to offer services for those in need. Everyone has gifts, something they’re good at or maybe do professionally. Givers would offer their services to someone in need, for example, fixing a drain pipe for a neighbor who couldn’t afford it otherwise. Unlike the time banking model, where you accrue time spent volunteering to help someone in exchange for an equal amount of time for a service you want, gift banking is an investment in your community. People of limited means request a service, and givers volunteer as they feel called to lend a hand. We don’t lack the power to change how we live and support one another; we lack the will. It’s a matter of shifting priorities and therefore the resources to support those priorities. We must hold our elected officials accountable to pass legislation for the good of the greater community. We must elect politicians who know that upholding one person is to uphold the community; to value one person is to value the community; that when one person suffers, the community suffers; when all needs are met, we are all better for it.
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 :-)
James Clear, author of Atomic Habits. I want to know how those of us with ADD can adopt his methods without slipping so frequently!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Check out my blog at www.LunaRiverVoices.com. You can also find links to my books there.
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.