“So. I’m going give about 10 seconds to get up and get out of bed,” the terrifying voice of a former Navy SEAL commander uttered from the phone sitting on my counter.
With my limbs feeling like lead, I tossed off the covers, rolled onto the floor into the leaning rest, and began my pushups as Jocko counted: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.”
The motivational morning speech continued as I turned on the lights, folded my blankets, turned my little futon back into a couch, and changed into my workout clothes.
Once I turned off the alarm, I changed back into my sleeping clothes, remade my bed, turned off the lights, and set the alarm for 10 minutes later, 8:50 pm.
I was practicing.
Last week, I had snoozed for over an hour on multiple mornings, skipping my workouts, which started a downward spiral for those days. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed that the resolve to get up and workout in the morning is much stronger when I’m setting the alarm than when I’m responding to it.
Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on resolve. The old trope that we are creatures of habit is both true and extremely powerful. Firmly building good habits takes time, but once they are in place, it’s like being on autopilot. For many parts of our lives, we don’t want to be on autopilot. We want to be focused and present while we’re solving new problems at work or being with friends.
But this energy is finite, and if we’re using up our mental energy on simple things like getting out of bed, that’s taking away from the more important things later in the day. Now, instead of fighting through the internal debate of “to get up or not to get up” as my alarm creeps earlier and earlier into the wee hours of darkness, the habit is reforming. After only about a week of consistency, I’m pretty much unconscious until I’m stepping out into the cold and jogging over to the gym. By that time, the “not to get up” argument has little force.
I’ve built many good habits over the years, and the momentum of those habits has buoyed me through my psychological struggles over the past few months, but there are plenty of habits that I didn’t even know I’d been cultivating.
One particularly important one, which has had some unexpected consequences, is the habit of constant relocation. Before moving to Denver, I was in Fort Collins for about three months. Before that, I was on the road for a month. Before that, I was in Poland for a month. Before that, on the road for one. Before that, Norway for two, Visby for seven, Uppsala for one, Fort Collins for three, Denver for one, Fort Collins for three, on the road for two, southern Seoul for four, central Seoul for four, Fort Collins for two, Milton for one, Pace for seven, Pensacola for seven, Glenn Burnie for two, Fort Collins for one, and finally, almost five years back, Annapolis for a long four years (if you don’t count summers and that semester in Colorado Springs).
And to note, I’m still in the cycle. Even though I won’t be moving this year, my office is moving, so it’s hard to justify getting too involved in Littleton or in activities along my commute.
The point here is that this habit of being in one place for only a few months at a time means that my concept of time has been distorted. To me, “a long time” is like a year. Who gets anything done in a year? The projects I’m working on will take at least three years to complete, probably more. Anyone who has become reasonably competent in anything (barring prodigies) worked toward that goal for years if not decades, even scores.
Although I’ve gone through the motions of settling down to make some legitimate progress on my goals (career, education, fitness, etc.), I haven’t actually made the mental shift. I’m still in the mindset of making sprints instead of training for the marathon. This translates into pervasive impatience. I try to attack all my goals at once, get frustrated that I can’t keep up with them, question why I’m pursuing the goals to begin with, and backslide.
But how does one practice pursuing long-term goals?
I’m still working on this, but here’s what I’m trying. And at least for the first five days, it seems to be going really well.
- Patience & Perseverance. Building good habits (and breaking bad ones) takes time. For those like me who view “long” time scales on the order months, this process seems like a really long time. I’ve lost a lot of my good habits, and my impatience to get them back has led me to rationalizations like “Ok, that was a good week. Now let’s double all my goals, commit to triple the time, and push past where I was a year ago.” That, of course, leads almost immediately to failure, depression, nihilism, and self-doubt. Instead, the current plan is to focus on #2:
- Build a solid foundation. Yes, one of my ultimate goals is to finish this damn book that I’ve purportedly been working on for the past two years, but immediately trying to jump back in and build the habit of writing 2,000 words a day is a recipe for disaster. Right now, I don’t have the habit of focusing for a reasonable amount of time (2,000 words typically takes me 3-4 hours), the habit of thinking in a narrative structure, or even the habit of doing cognitively demanding work outside of working hours. Being patient enough to accept that I’m not going to get to my ultimate goal for several months is drastically increasing the odds that I’m actually going to do it, and having the perseverance to do so is greatly helped by #3:
- Set rewards. I’m going to take a stab at explaining some neurochemistry here, so please forgive the inevitable mistakes. Good feelings can be understood by which chemicals are elevated in the brain. One of these is dopamine. Dopamine is what makes that chocolate indulgence so attractive. It’s what makes you excited about shopping or opening a big paycheck. It makes you want things enough to pursue them. But here’s the thing, our bodies only excrete dopamine if we can actually see our objective and believe we can achieve it. We can only maintain that dopamine if our actions continue to reinforce that belief, so we need to be making noticeable progress toward the objective. Nebulous goals like “improve” or “do more” don’t trigger a dopamine release. That’s why setting concrete goals is so important. But the desire may wax and wane. There’s another way to hack this system: link the goal to some other desirable thing. For me, food is basically the greatest thing ever, and I will do just about anything to get myself in front of a mountain of delicious food. I’m also pretty easy to please, so a reward like spending the afternoon munching on a fresh loaf of bread and fancy cheese goes pretty far. It also helps to have the reward related to the goal. I have a goal of exercising every day for 30 days. The reward is to treat my abused body with a massage. However, even with these guidelines, I’m bound to slip up, for the final guideline, I’ll take one of Jordan Petersons “12 Rules for Life”.
- Compare yourself to who you were yesterday. The reason I’m undertaking this whole endeavor is that the person I was yesterday is not whom I want to be tomorrow, but who I am today is somewhere in between. When I slip and fall back into old routines, I have to remember the effort up to this point has not been in vain. The practice that I’ve done, no matter how small, has been an improvement upon who I was when I started. To throw it all away because of one misstep is in ignorance of the fact that even though it may be a step back, it is a step backward from multiple steps forward. Even if it’s just as many steps backward as it was forward, at least I’m back where I started instead of further behind. This point also recognizes the fact that we are changeable. Indeed, we inevitably and perpetually changing. Making the comparison to who I was yesterday means that I’m not comparing myself to who I was a year ago or a decade ago, and I’m certainly not comparing myself to who anyone else is today. I’m focusing on the little gains, the small steps toward my goals.
Even with these guidelines, though, the process is not easy. I’ve had far too long to build up bad habits, accept some faults, and move significantly backward from much of the progress I made last year. Fortunately, I have plenty of time to get it back. I’ll almost certainly be here at least until next January (when my apartment lease expires), probably a lot longer. That’s a solid year to rebuild good habits and settle into what it feels like to settle down. This situation isn’t permanent – I know that for certain – but impermanent does not necessarily mean “a few months”. A few years is hardly anything even in short few decades I’ve already lived.