As with most of the world, I hoped and sought to turn things around as we moved into 2022. The last few years have been…well unlike any that most of us living have ever experienced. I know that many have been much more profoundly impacted by the pandemic in emotional, psychological, and personal ways than myself, but for me the last eighteen months or so have been a descent into feeling…off.
The optimism and excitement of the beginning of my 2020 challenges began to feel like a distant other life as I would stop by the grocery store to pick up another bottle of wine on the way home and then drink it while binging Netflix. After my 10,000 pushup challenge, I went on to gain nearly 40 pounds, rarely exercising. Sure, there were some external limitations (six months of gym closures and mandatory curfews), but nothing that would have made some physical activity impossible.
So as the calendar changed over into 2022, I began to work to change. And, with only a few days left in January, I’m incredibly proud of what I have done. I’ll explain a bit more in later posts, but for now I want to write down some musing about motivation and habit formation that have come to mind.
I have mentioned James Clear’s Atomic Habits in many other posts, and for good reason. I can credit much of the momentum that I built up to starting the 2020 Year of Challenges with finishing the book in April of the year before. (Apparently, I’m not the only one, as it was the #1 best seller on all of Amazon last year.) Last year, I re-read it in October, and while I was much more familiar with the content, it still reminded me of a few things that I put into action. Clear has four laws to make a habit stick (explanations my own):
- 1) Make it obvious: Design your environment to maximize exposure to that which you want to adopt
- 2) Make it attractive: Add an incentive to perform the action you want to make habitual
- 3) Make it easy: Minimize the activation energy needed when starting out
- 4) Make it satisfying: Include a reward upon completion to encourage you to come back
For this post, I want to focus on the third law, ‘Make it easy‘, which has been the most influential on me.
Clear has two responses to the often asked: ‘How long does it take to form a habit?’ The first is ‘Forever.’ That is, if you stop doing it, it is no longer a habit, and you should think of habit adoption more as an evolution of your personal identity than a milestone you need to cross. But his other answer is a different question: ‘How many does it take to form a habit?’ That is, rather than measuring in days, we should measure in how many times we practice the habit. For if you go all out and then don’t do anything for a while, you are much less likely to get it to stick than if you do something smaller every day.
The other day, I was thinking about how habits are like stretching a muscle. Yes, there is the ‘you need to stretch regularly over a long period of time to gain flexibility’ thing. But there is a different metaphor while you are actually stretching. First, you need to get warmed up, otherwise you hurt yourself and stop. This can be a short warmup, but the most profound deep stretches I’ve had were about 40-50 minutes into a hot yoga session, where the activation and movement of the muscles plus the heat of the room (not to mention pools of sweat) allowed my muscles to stretch to a point they hadn’t previously. Then there is the stretch itself. For those deep stretches, you go to the point where it is uncomfortable, but not painful, and hold it and breathe. And if you have prepared well, you feel the fibers slowly move into a place they couldn’t before. That’s what forming habits is:
- 1) Warm up by ‘making it easy’ and building reps with easy completions
- 2) Put yourself in an uncomfortable, but not painful, position
- 3) Hold there and breathe, and without needing to move additionally, you will slowly evolve.
This is the place where I am right now. At the end of last year, while I didn’t do much that I would consider productive, I did begin a few ‘warmup’ routines:
- I started doing small sets up pushups throughout the day. Nowhere near where I got to before, but enough to get started.
- I set a daily task on my Todoist to spend one minute working on blog content
This month, I have to some degree developed a rote routine where I’ve put myself in a daily schedule that feels uncomfortable, but not painful. And as the month has gone on, I have begun to feel the change.
One of the next steps, which I’m still working to figure out, is how do I bring back periods of relaxation and socializing without falling back off the wagon? It’s a constant learning process, but I at least feel more stretched out now.