PCS survival guide episode 1: Goal setting and flexibility [Audio]
Episode 1 Transcript: Pre-PCS
Ryan: Hello, I’m Dr. Ryan Landoll, the assistant dean for the Preclinical Sciences at the Uniformed Services University, and today I’m here with the Consortium for Health and Military Performance (CHAMP), at the Defense Center of Excellence for Human Performance Optimization, and the operators of the Human Performance Resource Center (HPRC), a source for military-specific, evidence-based, total force fitness information. CHAMP is here to talk about how a total force fitness approach to permanent change of station (or PCS) moves help make the process easier on Service Members and their families.
For most Service Members, PCS happens every 2–5 years depending on Service, Rank, and Job. I know for our USU medical students, who often go on extended TDY, it can feel like they are going on PCS every 4–6 weeks for their clinical rotations, with a first true PCS after their 4th year. I have to say that many of the topics we’re going to discuss in these 3 episodes can still be applied. And then I know a lot of our graduate and nursing students have already experienced a PCS, most often, and will experience another when they graduate. And so again, the hope here is that all of these things are going to be applicable as we walk through.
For even for the seasoned veteran, PCS’s can be a stressful time for Service Members and their families, affecting all domains of Human Performance Optimization, or HPO, like your social and mental fitness, nutrition, and physical fitness. Our HPO experts here from CHAMP are going to discuss how your mind and body is affected by a PCS and what you can do to keep performing well during these difficult transitional times. We’ll also discuss how to maintain as much normalcy for you and your family during the process.
That’s a lot of information to cover in a podcast, so we are going to do a 3-episode series on this PCS timeline. We’ll start with the month leading up to your move day, then we’ll cover the PCS moving period, and then post-PCS considerations as you transition to your new unit.
In this episode today, episode 1, we’re going to talk about the pre-PCS strategies of goal setting and maintaining flexibility. In episode 2 we’ll cover strategies to use during your PCS experience, such as getting enough sleep, and staying present. And then in the 3rd and last episode, we’ll discuss post-PCS strategies to ease the transition, including consistency, maintaining routines, and how to leverage social support. Along the way there will be tips about nutrition and physical fitness during the PCS time as well.
So let's start talking about the pre-PCS time point. Here today, I’ve got Sarah Steward and Dr. Lauren Messina with us from CHAMP. And together we’re going to discuss how we get ready for that run-up to moving day as early as possible. So welcome Lauren and Sarah.
CHAMP/Sarah: Thanks so much for having us! I’m Sarah and I’m a Family and Relationship Education Specialist within CHAMP’s Education Directorate, and I’m really happy to be here.
CHAMP/Lauren: And I’m Lauren. I’m a Senior Scientist with CHAMP also focusing on education. Similar to Sarah, I'm a SME in social fitness optimization and my doctorate degree in Family Science. Thanks so much for having us Ryan.
We wanted to start off with talking about, like you mentioned, setting realistic goals, and maintaining flexibility prior to PCSing. It’s really, really important during this time period to think ahead and to think about how you want the PCS process to unfold—and how you can handle it within yourself and with your family. That’s really crucial to trying to maintain a level of harmony—again, within yourself or within your family unit. So we’re going to talk about realistic goal setting and maintaining flexibility.
And we also want to mention that what we present today is going to have to be tailored to your specific experiences, and you have to take what strategies are going to be relevant for you. And while talking about pre-PCS, goal setting and being flexible are absolutely relevant to TDYs and to other PCS time points as well.
Ryan: Awesome, I totally agree. Okay, so let’s get started, what kind of things should we think about when you’re talking about setting goals and prioritizing your plans?
CHAMP/Sarah: Strategically, you want to aim to make the PCS experience the least disruptive as possible. Do that by prioritizing your routines as much as you can leading up to your packing day. It’s great to create a plan to keep up your routines, but know you will also need to be flexible—“Semper Gumby” (always flexible)! For example, if you run every morning—obviously when the movers are coming you might not be able to do that—so know that ahead of time and in the days leading up to your move, try and maintain that routine as much as possible.
And when your routines get disrupted through PCS season, as they most certainly will, practice flexibility to deal better with the disruption and prevent it from affecting you in a way that can even sour exchanges with others. For example, when you’re stressed, try and catch yourself before you jump to conclusions or make assumptions with your family members or friends.
CHAMP/Lauren: In terms of setting goals, PCS time is not a good time to make a significant change or commit to a big life improvement goal. When you arrive at your new duty station, that’s going to be a little bit of a better time to start a new habit, and we’re going to talk about that in a later episode. But, goal setting is still relevant during this PCS time, and we’re going to talk a little bit about how you can do that and how you can set some manageable goals.
For example, now is not a good time to embark on a new style of eating that you wanted to try. But there’s still room for goal setting here. If you think about eating during the pre-PCS time, much like the holiday season, is notorious for putting on the pounds because people off-track with eating and exercise routines... you’re about to encounter a big change in your routine through the PCS time period. And, many people may subconsciously use this as an excuse to eat pizza and fast food, especially when you are on the road. And those choices can unfortunately make you pack on some pounds and affect your nutritional well-being, especially when it’s done across a period of time like 4 months like a PCS can be. So maybe your goals during this time, instead, are to stick with your healthier eating routines, and to look at nutritious options when you are eating out. It’s normal for change to prompt us to think of things in a new way and to encourage us to see things that we might want to be different, or we wish were different, and there’s big changes can be on the horizon when you end up at your new duty station, which again we’re going to talk more about that more in another episode.
Ryan: That sounds nice in theory. But I know I just want to get Chinese takeout or whatever after we’ve been purging and prepping all day, and moving things all day, or house hunting in the new place. It’s such a busy time, and you pointed out that sometimes this can go on for a long period of time. You know, our students for example, are doing this every 4 weeks and it’s just so busy.
CHAMP/Sarah: You’re right, it’s important to be realistic. So, consider making a goal to maintain your healthiest eating habits 80% of the time. Set that intention. Taking the time to set that intention alone is going to put you ahead of the curve. One tool to help you maintain your healthiest eating is to keep a functioning kitchen going almost anywhere you are—whether it’s in the final week before the packers and movers come, or when you’re in temporary housing with just a microwave and fridge. It may sound impossible, but in this podcast series and in the resources posted on HPRC-online.org you can find ideas for how to do exactly that. And by the way, we’re going to reference lots links and resources that you can find on HPRC-online for many of the topics that we’re going to discuss throughout these episodes on PCSing, so definitely check that out.
But anyway, yes, you can maintain your nutrition routine through a PCS, but for now, just set the goal—the goal being that you would like to maintain some degree of healthful eating (again, say 80% of the time) during this PCS. There will be intentional takeout and “oops” meals—just because that’s the nature of a PCS—but Semper Gumby. That is okay. Try for the 80/20 rule.
Ryan: I love that idea of 80/20, that’s it’s not about 0 or 100. And I just want to highlight that you mentioned some resources on HPRC-online.org, the Human Performance Resource Center, which is an online resource filled with total force fitness information and ways to stay healthy throughout your service. It’s a great website, I highly encourage you to check it out in relation to this podcast and other topics.
You know, one of the things I love about having these conversations are all the service-specific phrases that often mean the same thing. I like to say “flexibility is the key to air power.” And so I think it’s important to have a plan, even though we know plans won’t survive first contact. But then, when should you start planning, and what does that planning look like?
CHAMP/Lauren: It’s totally true that many aspects of PCSing are going to actually depend on when you get your orders and you know where you are going. Then you can start to look for and plan those really specific and very important details like housing, schools, and whatnot. And we certainly recognize that there can be a lot of anxiety around not having your orders, or orders taking a very long time to come in—and that that can impact this goal setting because you’re not quite sure… “Should I start to pack? I don’t have my orders. Where am I going?” But, still, there’s a lot that you can do to help you feel more prepared when the move actually occurs and when you do know where you’re going. The idea here, as we’ve mentioned, is to really try to stay flexible. And when we say “stay flexible” we mean make an active choice of what you’re going to focus on. So instead of focusing on the unknown, the fact that you don’t know where your next location is going to be, focus on what you can control.
For example, on a tactical level, call a family meeting. Calling a family meeting is something that you can absolutely control, and it’s a place where you can choose to focus your energy. So you can call a family meeting to discuss that there’s a PCS coming up. And our recommendations for calling an effective family meeting include picking a specific time and place, setting an agenda with your family members, getting everyone involved—even the youngest kids—and taking turns listening and talking, and writing down your plan of action for successfully executing this PCS.
You might talk about things like, what jobs is everybody in the family going to have when you’re executing the PCS. You might also take time to think about—if you've gone through a PCS before—what went well, what didn’t go well? And process everybody’s feelings about the move, the unknowns, the excitement, that sadness, the apprehension. This is a big experience to go through as a family, and so you do want to normalize that. And especially if you’ve got young kids who’ve never gone through it before, you might have to walk them through some of their expectations, help them understand what this change might mean for them.
CHAMP/Sarah: One strategy to help you accomplish your PCS goals is to identify potential obstacles and develop a plan to overcome them. So, for example, if you’ve PCS’d before, talk about what didn’t go so well and how to avoid those pitfalls this go around. One research-based strategy is creating what are called “when…then” statements, also known as “implementation intentions.” For each of the potential obstacles you have identified, create a “when…then.”
“So when I encounter XYZ obstacle, then I will implement my XYZ plan.” Using “when…then” statements can help you more deliberately connect your plan to the obstacles you’ve identified ahead of time. And that strategy is going to prevent you from wasting a lot of your mental energy deciding what you should do because you already have that automatic plan in place.
For example, “When the movers break something, then I will take 3 deep breaths and remind myself that it is insured. I will write down the information needed for the claim.” That can help you go smoothly through a lot of the obstacles you might encounter.
CHAMP/Lauren: Yeah, absolutely Sarah. And, on the topic of goal setting if you’re looking for different ways to set and to manage your goals, we also want to encourage you to, again, check out HPRC for information on what’s called SMART goals. There’s SMART goals worksheets and information there for managing and executing this idea of goal setting.
Setting SMART goals are goals that are Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Relevant, and Time-phased. And, thinking about goals in that context will enable you to know exactly what you need to do, when you need to do it, and how to determine whether or not you were successful. So research on this—experts say that 90% of the time, setting specific and challenging goals leads to better performance; better performance than when you set “I’m going to do my best” goals or not setting any goal at all. Setting goals can even help kids to begin thinking in the short- and the long-term. This enables them to guide their own behavior and learn about cause and effect. SMART goals can help you to direct your attention, mobilize your effort, increase persistence, and help you form good strategies for getting through this challenging time.
We also want to say that the time doesn’t have to be all about packing and logistics. Maybe some of the SMART goals that you set for yourself are to make sure that you experience things one last time, in your current locations. So maybe you set a SMART goal about visiting your favorite restaurant one last time as a family. Or you set a SMART goal about doing that activity, like visiting that museum or park that you always said you wanted to get to in your current location. And wrapped up in that is a really important idea of celebrating small successes. And by that we mean taking time to reflect on what you’ve accomplished when you have achieved one of your goals. The small things can really, really matter during the pre-PCS period.
CHAMP/Sarah: One other piece of preparing for a PCS and setting your goals is to remember to leverage your resources. For example, https://planmymove.militaryonesource.mil/ has checklists of what to do, what to pack, what you might need to get done. Lists and resources like that can help remind you of all the little details that will eventually need to happen, like for example, changing your address.
Ryan: Oh that’s awesome. I moved last summer and I’m still forgetting all the places that I need to change my address with. And it’s nice because some of those things you can do regardless of timelines. You can make the plan, you can know what to expect. You talked about what to do when the movers break stuff for example. Because I know a lot of people get focused on all the things you can’t do until you have orders: I can’t schedule the move, I can’t start to make those kind of plans. And I think that just builds stress by focusing on the uncertainty versus those things you can control, exactly like you said: Where is that favorite restaurant I want to visit one last time? What are some of the things I haven’t gotten a chance to do yet here that I really want to? But once you finally get those orders, what are some of the things you should start to think about?
CHAMP/Lauren: As you get closer to actually PCSing and your orders are cut, then you can start planning on more defined timelines. So as we approach that we want to encourage you to be thinking about focusing on small, manageable tasks. And this is again where maintaining mental flexibility really comes into play. Mental flexibility is practicing shifting your perspectives and exploring alternatives. It’s about focusing your energy on where you have control, rather than wasting energy frustrated with things you can’t control.
So one way you might think about this is in “KISS: K-I-S-S: Keep It Smart and Simple.” Paring down your stuff will help you make the move simpler and that is going to be a really, really good thing. So whether it’s your spices or your shoes, purging means thinking about if something is really, really useful in your life still. And this is mental flexibility. You want to use mental flexibility during PCS to get rid of things that you don’t really use, instead of shipping them to your new location. So you want to think about how often you use the item, and is it really worthwhile to pay to ship it?
On the other hand, being inflexible is an unwillingness to open up your thoughts and your feelings, and refusing to adjust your own mindset or behaviors. So after you purge things you don’t want to bring with you, after using some mental flexibility to get through that process, we encourage you to then take another few days to focus on taking inventory of more valuable goods and what you’re going to pack on your own in advance. If it makes sense time-wise, you can begin packing those things, the things you want to pack on your own during these few days (if you know you won’t need or use them before the move).
Ryan: So say I’ve got a whole apartment to pack up. How do I even tackle that from a tactical perspective?
CHAMP/Sarah: Good question. All good things start in the kitchen, right? So let’s talk about the kitchen as an example. When you think about purging and packing, like Lauren talked about, remember that there are rules about what the movers will and won’t take. While some people will get the movers to pack and take their food items, most movers will turn down items in glass bottles, anything liquid, and any actual food items. You can check out move.mil for more information on that. And if we’re talking about a long distance move, even if the movers will take your canned goods, they are super heavy—and are those really the kind of items you want to use your poundage on when moving across the country? Or if you are packing yourself, it’s really expensive and it’s a lot more labor. So it’s unlikely you are going to move all the food items you have in your kitchen. Doesn’t it makes sense to use all that food instead? Use it or lose it, right?
Ryan: Okay, so how do you do that?
CHAMP/Sarah: At around 5 or 6 weeks before the packers and movers come, embark on the “pantry challenge.” If your household is like most American households, you probably have a lot of untouched food in your pantry and freezer. The pantry challenge is a great way to purge food items and is a huge help to your budget during a month where you might actually be spending a lot of extra on things related to your PCS. So focus on spending 4 weeks or so using the items in your pantry and freezer. Check out the guide on HPRC in the Nutrition section for ideas on how to make the most of the food items you have yet to use. You can also Google “Pantry Challenge” for other resources. The other piece of this is that you’ll need to exercise discipline at the grocery store by getting only the items that you actually need to supplement what’s already in your pantry and your freezer and to prepare those dishes.
Ryan: Okay, I’m going to have to check out this pantry challenge because I don’t know how good that sounds—most of the stuff in the back of the freezer are the foods that I somehow was never excited to cook or eat. I think I’ve got a can of tomato paste in my pantry somewhere that’s probably not even still good because it’s from my last move. So what do I do?
CHAMP/Lauren: Yes, that’s absolutely a good point. And while we want to highlight that the motivation for the pantry challenge doesn’t usually come from a desire to embark on gourmet cooking—it’s just a super practical approach to making your way through what you do have in that freezer and in that cabinet—it’s really about saving money and eliminating food waste. The other good thing is that you can begin to take note of what is actually in that pantry and in the back of the freezer and maybe that will help you think about whether or not you want to purchase those items again and if it’s worth it to stock up on them in your next location.
Food safety does matter, absolutely. There’s a chance some of the items in your pantry and freezer are no longer safe to eat. There’s a couple great easy ways to check that out, like using the USDA “FoodKeeper” app. The app will list how long foods will keep for and under what storage conditions. Interestingly, the expiration date does not necessarily correspond to food safety. With the exception of baby formula, there are no federal regulations on date labeling. Often the “best if used by,” or “sell by,” or “use by” designations are just the manufacturers’ best guesses about how long their food will taste its freshest. So it’s still a good indicator of when a food is okay but many times even perishable foods like meats and dairy will safely last several days past what is listed.
Ryan: I get it. That seems cool. I can handle that. But what about packing up the actual kitchen after this pantry purge? It’s one of those rooms I’m not sure I want the movers to just take everything from.
CHAMP/Sarah: Most of the kitchen can be packed up. But it’s a great idea to set aside maybe 1-2 boxes worth of kitchen essentials that you can keep with you until the very last moment. You can potentially send those saved boxes to your new location using unaccompanied baggage, or if you have space for it, keep it in the car with you and take it on your actual move. By doing that, you can still prepare simple meals up to almost the last minute and you’ll also be able to start doing that right when you arrive.
Being able to cook is in part about your physical nourishment, of course. Yes, eating is nourishing and can be supportive of your “performance” which helps you to be your best mentally and have the physical energy to get through some busy days. But the reality is, you can find healthful foods in restaurants and on the go. So being able to cook wherever you are, it isn’t just about that. I want you to consider the mental health implications of being able to prepare meals. Maintaining your routines around meals and cooking, especially with your family, can help anchor you during a time of a lot of change. Getting your kitchen going can be a part of settling into your new home—or making a temporary home on the other side of your PCS—feel more comfortable.
Ryan: That’s a great point. I know there’s just some days after I’ve been out and traveling a lot, I just want a home cooked meal. And I think, even for our students who are on their short-term TDY’s, finding some routine is a really good idea. So what do we put in these magic 2 boxes that are in the kitchen?
CHAMP/Lauren: So to bring it back to goal setting. You want to set the goal to pack these boxes with just a few basics: paper plates, plastic serve-ware, a good big stock pot (for boiling water or for one-pot meals), a small 10-12 inch saute pan (or bigger one if you prefer), a spatula, a couple wooden spoons, one chef’s knife and cutting board, measuring cups, and a few mixing/serving bowls. You can accomplish a lot with just those items. There is a full listing of suggested kitchen basics on the website where you found this podcast and on HPRC.
We also want to encourage you during this time to celebrate the successes that you have. Maybe you want to celebrate the successes you have in packing or purging by having a meal out at your favorite local restaurant. And then just remembering that you set that goal for yourself to try to pick nutritious options when you are there.
And then to expand this out to your whole house, apply these principles to other rooms of your home. So first you want to take the time to purge, and then you want to set the goals for deciding what you are going to pack. We also want to note that while you’re packing and purging over the weeks leading up to the move, be aware of your body, take some breaks, and note any soreness.
So we were talking a lot about mental flexibility, but physical flexibility comes into play here too. Packing can be a really physically intense experience, especially if you’re moving yourself. So just have an awareness of your different muscle groups and if you’re experiencing any pain, thinking why does my back or my neck hurt? Engage in some active recovery and injury prevention by noting that soreness and maybe doing some stretching. And the same goes for everybody helping you—even your kids. Maybe you want to slow down to begin a packing session with some stretches for everybody. Make sure muscles are warm and that you don’t experience any pain while doing those stretches. On HPRC-online.org you’ll find some great resources on the different types of stretching, including static stretching, dynamic, ballistic, and foam.
Ryan: That’s why I have the movers pack most of the stuff nowadays, honestly. But I remember what you were saying about purging and it reminds me about this room we have in our house that we still haven’t unpacked from our last move. We were just talking the other day; we’ve lived here for 9 months, maybe we don’t really need it. But I know one thing I struggle with is once I pack stuff up, how do I go about my normal routines, and what do you think about that?
CHAMP/Sarah: Right, like you said, ideally you’ll want to maintain as much normalcy in your routines right up to moving day. And we recognize that’s not always possible. But from a strategic perspective, it’s good to have that as a goal. Like I said earlier, set the intention that you want to maintain your routines. If you have a workout plan, stick to it as much as possible. It’s okay to take a week off, but remember, if your goal is to maintain your cardio and strength, you’ll actually start to lose it after about 2 weeks or so.
Ryan: So you set goals, try to plan for obstacles, you get your family on board. But what do you do when none of this goes like it’s planned?
CHAMP/Lauren: Absolutely! No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. So, Semper Gumby, or flexibility, is the key to air power, both physically and mentally. This is a key component of making your PCS experience go smoothly. It’s really easy—probably too easy—to get caught up in the stress of realizing the things that you wanted to happen, aren’t happening. This can be a really big energy drain that can be felt physically and mentally, particularly for those who “carry their stress in their shoulders”
So remember to apply flexibility not just to your routines, but your relationships. In relationships, romantic or otherwise, flexibility means adjusting to and being able to accommodate to each other. When there’s flexibility in your relationships, other people that you’re close with can feel supported and respected. You then also can feel like you can depend on each other as well. We want to recognize that a PCS or a TDY means lots of changes for everybody in your household. So strive to be gentle with the people that you’re close to and who are going through this with you. And find outlets for stress that are going to be constructive. There might be a delicate balance between having a plan, setting goals, and also maintaining flexibility for when things will go awry. But these strategies that we’ve talked about here today and that you’ll hear about in the next 2 episodes will well-position you to successfully navigate your upcoming PCS, or a smaller TDY.
Ryan: Awesome. Well thank you Lauren and Sarah for introducing this really important topic. Moving is never easy. In fact, one thing we probably have to work on is something my friend talks about with managing anxiety—getting comfortable being uncomfortable. I think that focusing on what you can control and accepting what you can’t, we really see that in a lot of places as a way to optimize your mental and emotional health, and it’s been great to dive into some of the tactics for how you can do that when preparing for a move. I know you all mentioned a lot of resources today, and as I understand all of these materials and links as we’ve said a couple of times are available on CHAMP’s website, at HPRC-online.org.
Next episode, we’re going to pick up with thinking a little about how to navigate that transition to moving—and things to do in the interim. I think a lot about our students who have such short TDY stints on their clinical rotations, that are just constantly in a state of transition, are going to really get a lot out of that next episode, so I hope you’ll join us then.