Crumple Zones

Screeeeeccchhhhh… Crash.

We all have times in our lives that things just…go wrong. It can be a devastating single event such as the loss of a loved one or a job. It could also be a string of small stressors that bedraggle us over time. Whichever way it happens, it is inevitable that we will all face difficult times. Other than the fact that it kinda sucks to be sad, sadness has a lot of deeper, more troubling effects. Since this blog is focused on self improvement, I’ll focus this post on the effect of melancholy on the goals we set for ourselves.

On one side of the coin, you have the times that you’re cruising along on your path to self improvement. Times like these are marked with a veritable wellspring of positive energy (or negative energy turned to positive change — more on that in a later post). You build momentum and start making change after change. While traveling down that road, everything just seems to go “right”. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could stay at that pace forever? Sadly, we cannot. Eventually, something causes us to pump the brakes and that energy evaporates.

One of the most common examples of how this can happen is illness. I’m not talking about serious diseases or life-changing diagnoses.. I am talking about the sniffles. When we are under the weather, we don’t feel like doing -anything-, much less maintaining all of the little habits we’ve set up for ourselves over the course of our self improvement. Junk food looks so appetizing. The couch is comfier than it has ever been. The gym starts to look like a torture chamber. It is when we are tired, sick and defeated that everything we’ve worked for starts to seem unimportant. Comfort becomes paramount.

So, what do you do? In an ideal world, we would all be mentally strong enough to power through the fatigue of illness. We would tirelessly continue our good habits and when the illness passes, wouldn’t have lost an inch toward our goals. In reality, though, none of us are infallible. We all give in to our desire to comfort in different ways. That “giving in” is exactly the purpose of this post. As much as we would love to continue ALL of our habits, in this imperfect world, we have to acknowledge that some things are going to fall through the cracks from time to time.

What, then, do you let go of? That question is a wholly personal one. In my life, there are parts of my routine that are crucial to the vision of the person I want to be. Breaking these commitments will result in huge blow to my life and must be protected at all costs. To use myself as an example, my daily core commitments are as follows: engage in physical activity, abstain from pornography, practice ballroom dance (this one is actually “pursue a skill”, but that skill is currently ballroom dance). Of course, there are a ton of other major commitments that I have, such as not missing work and being kind to others, but those three are behaviors that I have to constantly reinforce or else be in danger of falling short on.

How do I protect these core commitments? Well, I have found that there is a great relief in giving in to your desire to act counter to your goals. For instance. Having a huge cheese burger after weeks of clean eating is phenomenally satisfying for me. So, if giving in to your desire to slack off is so rewarding, but you refuse to give in on your core commitments, what can you do? My decision was this: in good times, I would push myself to create a wide array of small disciplines. A few of these habits are: taking cold showers, eating cleanly every day, waking up at 5am, and avoiding alcohol. Are all of these crucial to my being who I want to be? Absolutely not. Instead, they are designed to give me habits to “give up” when times get tough. They are my crumple zones.

You are probably familiar with crumple zones. They are sections of an automobile that are designed to collapse in the event of a collision, absorbing a great deal of the impact and protecting the passengers. My habits tend to fall into two categories: the passengers and the crumple zones. The passengers are my core commitments listed above. Their protection is of utmost importance. All other habits are crumple zones, a wide array of small habits that I can simply abandon in order to get that feeling of relief.

I feel a little under the weather.. Well, I’ll take a hot shower and eat a pop tart for breakfast!

I had a hard day at work.. Alright! I’ll have a beer and play some video games!

I really need a night out.. Cool! I’ll go out with friends and sleep in tomorrow morning!

Because none from the above examples are things I often allow myself, giving in to the desire for those comforts gives a great deal of relief. If I drank every night or slept in every morning, I would feel no different when I did those things while in a “low” state.

As surely as those periods of cruising through life are sure to end, so too are periods of being stopped in your tracks. In most cases, we come out of our sadness and return to a “normal” state in a reasonable amount of time. It is essential that when that happens, we put forth the effort to restart those small habits. If you don’t straighten out those crumple zones (yeah, I know you can’t actually do that.. It’s a metaphor, damnit), they won’t be there for the next collision.

One strong note is that this is another place where complacency is especially dangerous. Complacency isn’t really sadness. It isn’t marked by some big change or by a series of stressors. It is a loss of motivation over time. That loss of motivation can cause this entire self improvement automobile to fall in disrepair, crumple zones and all.

The best way to mitigate major setbacks is to acknowledge that they will happen. Prepare for bad times and keep your crumple zones ready.

The Backslide

We all slip.. But how long will you slide?

“I’m not a hypocrite, damnit!”

I remember hollering this at a friend of mine.. Or ten friends of mine.. Many times over while tailgating for the Indianapolis 500. In one hand I had a half empty can of beer, in the other, I had a handle of Fireball whiskey. The air was filled with laughter and shouts of elation. Most of the guys around me had been my friends since college, and all of them knew I hadn’t had a drink since December of the prior year, so this was indeed a special occasion.

I had decided to take a break from my commitment to being alcohol free. I like to tell myself that I made this decision in good faith, but I think a part of me just wanted to say “fuck it” to all of the commitments I had made. To just take a break from everything. Part of me naively believed that just taking one day off wouldn’t be a big deal.

The next day my head was splitting as I lay around my apartment, just wishing the hangover would pass. I knew I should be getting up to study, but I couldn’t fathom focusing my still impaired mind on anything complex. I knew I should get to the gym, but my body was crying out in protest of what I had done to it. The only things that appealed to me were eating terrible food and watching mindless television. On top of it all, that little voice that had convinced me to “take a single day off” had changed it’s tune. Now, it condemned me. It questioned all of my commitments and made me doubt all of the things I had said. Was I really strong enough to change?

The worst part of the entire situation is that I know this feeling all too well. I have convinced myself that taking a little step back would be easy and getting back on the wagon would be no problem. Well, two days later and I am still feeling the effects. It isn’t a hangover anymore, at least not in terms of a physical hangover. It is an emotional hangover. I feel the urge to simply give in to this negative momentum and return to a life of ease. I feel the urge to stop pushing myself and let the status quo take over.

Right now is the time where I have to decide whether a slip is going to become a slide. Whenever you are moving toward a new goal in life, there will be times that you stumble. Something changes in your life that challenges your commitments. Or perhaps you simply fall short of your ideal and are left feeling like you’ve lost all you’ve worked for.  This is especially true to battling addiction. It’s incredibly easy to see a single cigarette or a drunken evening as a sign that you’ve failed in your attempts to change.

That is why the backslides are one of the single most important moments in your life. No matter how long you have done the right thing, there will come a time that your commitments come under fire. The days following a failure are literally the “make or break” time of a life change. It will be hard. You will want to quit. But knowing how to power through these moments is what will make a temporary change become a permanent change. Permanent changes aren’t made from “one and done” decisions and immediate results, they are made from having the ability to pull yourself back up and keep going after you are met with failure.

So, what does this mean for me? Well, I drank away Sunday. I squandered Monday. But I will dominate Tuesday.

Fuck backsliding.

 

 

EDIT: I feel like I didn’t stress a core point to the message I was trying to get across with this post. Streaks are awesome. Being able to tell yourself and tell others that you have maintained an ideal for X number of days is incredibly validating. There is danger in focusing too hard on streaks, though. A staggering majority of streaks come to an end at some point or another. A streak can and should be a source of great pride, but it cannot be the crux of your change. Enjoy the streak, but never feel like resetting a streak is the same as “starting over”. You are worlds ahead of where you were when you started, even if your number doesn’t say the same story.

 

That’ll Do..

Good is good enough.. Right?

Complacency.

The above is a word I am likely to write many times as I develop posts for this blog. Complacency is the Big Bad Wolf to my Little Red Riding Hood. It is an ever present evil that attempts to disguise itself in order to trick me away from my best interests. At times, it masquerades as contentment. Other times, it presents as doubt. Regardless of what mask it wears, complacency constantly threatens to relegate me to a life of the status quo.

To understand my experience with complacency, I’ll give a bit of background about myself. I am a 28 year old white guy from a middle class family. I was raised in a small town, but went to a big university. I graduated with a Bachelor degree in Computer & Information Technology and I’ve worked as a software developer for the last 5 years. I have always maintained an active lifestyle and my physique reflects that. I have a good circle of friends and I am very close to my family. All in all, life is pretty good (barring the aforementioned break-up. That was not neat).

So you might be wondering, “Why I am bragging about my life?” Well, I’m not. I’m telling you these things to give context to this post. For most of my life, I had a firm grasp on how to perform well in everything “important” in my life. I did well in classes, maintained healthy eating and exercise habits, and kept up with my personal relationships. The problem with everything in your life being “good enough” is that once you have accomplished certain things in your life, it’s hard to find the motivation to do more. For me, it was graduating from college and landing a well paid career in software development. In my mind, I had made it. This was the goal that I had in mind since I first decided to spend my college years with my nose pressed to a computer monitor.

Though complacency had already begun to manifest within my satisfaction in my career accomplishments, I hit an all time low in terms of motivation when I found myself in a relationship with the woman of my dreams. I was completely satisfied by simply laying with this woman and spending an evening scouting out Netflix. I did not realize it, but I had stopped challenging myself. I had stopped growing.

Well, as I’ve mentioned before, that fairytale relationship recently came to a screeching halt. I won’t go into details on how this happened, but I was definitely not without fault. Reasons aside, two months ago I found myself sitting in a half empty apartment, my only company being the creeping realization of how far I had let the vision of myself slip away. I had many things that I knew I needed to be working on, but I became so complacent with life that I half assed every single one of them. Among other things, I had let my vices become stronger, I stagnated in my career progression and I had stopped putting real effort into romancing my mate. I did what was necessary to keep living my comfortable life and stopped pushing for more.

I am sure that last line is something you can relate to. Have you ever gotten to that place where you’ve been met with success and some part of you decided that it was enough? Or perhaps you have that one thing that you -know- needs to change, but it just seems like too much work? That is complacency playing it’s very best trick. In fact, complacency works best when it operates in the shadows of our minds. While you are distracted with enjoying life, complacency is robbing you of your potential.

The interesting thing about complacency is that it is not that hard to battle once you have discovered that it is a problem. It is realizing and catching yourself becoming complacent that becomes the struggle. The fact is, we have a hard time truly maintaining a status quo. Often times, keeping things “as they are” turns into letting things slide backward. For example, if you are not pushing yourself to achieve new levels in your career, it is all too easy to allow your work day to become simple routine. Once it becomes routine, it becomes easy. Once it becomes easy, it begins to be taken for granted. Before you know it, you’re simply going through the motions and your aptitude begins to decline.

This happened to me. For the last year or so, I had stopped having much of a passion for my workouts. I was happy with my body and I was on a routine that had me work out every day. The thing was, I didn’t have drive during those workouts. I showed up, exercised, and left. I didn’t throw myself into my workouts as I had previously. And the entire time, I thought I was staying on top of my game. You see, I was steadily gaining weight during this time. I thought to myself “Wow, I’m putting on some real muscle!”. What I hadn’t realized, though, is I wasn’t putting on muscle at all. I had gained 10 run-of-the-mill pounds of fat.

You see, complacency didn’t set in all at once for me. It hid behind my satisfaction with my fitness level and quietly ate away at my drive. But complacency doesn’t stop at workouts. You can become complacent with your work, parenting, friendships, and honestly it can happen within any facet of your life.

I think it is essential to revisit the things in your life that you care about and make sure you haven’t begun to take them for granted. Look for things that you can improve and run with it. It doesn’t have to be a big change. It can (and often should) be something small. For instance, I am a whiskey lover. While I have cut my drinking back over the last few years, I was still having a glass of whiskey before bed. I realized that I no longer had a good reason for doing it night after night. It was a crutch picked up to help myself sleep (breakups are hard, man!), but I never reevaluated the practice after my emotions stabilized. By nipping that habit in the bud, I have prevented a potentially damaging routine from taking hold.

My message here isn’t all gloom. In fact, there is a bright side to discovering the tendency toward mediocrity that most of us have. It was through this discovery that I have begun to experience the thrill of challenging my standards. Self improvement has the potential to give a sense of fulfillment unmatched by other pursuits. Once you start moving in a positive direction, it becomes exciting to see where you can push yourself.

The big takeaway to all of this is to realize that complacency doesn’t only exist in people who obviously have things they need to change. Even people who are fairly successful in a particular area have to remain vigilant so that they don’t allow their hard fought successes to slip away. Find a reason to continue to push forward in those areas that are important to you. Find out what characteristics define you as a person and never stop refining those.

Above all, love who you are now, but love yourself enough to keep pushing to be your best.

Spinning Plates

If you’re like me (and I assume you are since you are taking the time to read this post) you have things in your life that you want to change. How many things you want to change, and how strong your desire is to achieve those changes, will vary quite a bit; but we all basically want better for ourselves.

There are a lot of common cases: I want to stop smoking, I want to lose weight, I want to get out of my dead-end career, I want to be more social.. These are things that countless people struggle with.

Sometimes we get so fed up with the way life is going, that we decide that there is no one thing we want to accomplish. Instead, we look at wide array of unsavory habits or lifestyle choices and decide to do away with all of them. We set our sights on the person that we know we can become and rush headlong into the fray.

Sometimes this approach is wildly effective.  Especially if you are currently in a position of extreme motivation. More often than not, though, this drive only lasts a short while and before you know it, we’re back to our same old selves. To see examples of this, most of us need look no further than last December’s New Year’s resolutions.

The reason for this urge is pretty straightforward. The idea of becoming this ideal self overnight is incredibly appealing! In our modern world of instant gratification, we desire for self improvement to be no exception. But the thing is, undergoing personal change is one of the hardest things we can do in our lives.

So why do we fail when trying to undergo so many changes at once? The reason is complex and varies from person to person, but it boils down to willpower and our limited supply of it. When you first start to make a change in yourself, each time you choose to work toward that change, a big portion of your will is put into achieving that goal. Perhaps you are trying to start getting into an exercise routine. For the first few weeks, it will often take a great deal of energy to get yourself to pick up that first weight.

This would not be such a bad thing if we had an unlimited supply of willpower.  But that is not the case. Every time we must use our will to act against our base desires, we use up a bit of willpower from that day. This is often referred to as decision fatigue. Some decisions (like figuring out what socks to wear) may not drain much of your willpower, but others (like remaining fully engaged at work or school) may take a great deal more. At the end of a long day of effort, we often feel completely drained and unable to exert any further energy. It is during times like these that we start to feel less attached to our new commitments. Why go to the gym when Netflix is right here? Why cook a meal when there’s a McDonalds on the way home?

When we attempt to make too many changes at one time, we tend to find ourselves hitting that decision fatigue wall prematurely. We get to a point where we are so tired that we cannot imagine making another decision. We simply want to relax. It is during times like these that we often back off from one or even all of our new found commitments. When we fail in something we set out to do, we often become overcome with hopelessness. We feel defeated and give in. This can cause a cascade effect that can lead to being right back to the proverbial “square one”.

This is where the analogy of spinning plates comes in. I imagine all of the positive changes I’ve made in my life as plates spinning on the tips of narrow rods. Some of these plates spin effortlessly. They have been spinning for years and years without incident. They sit farther away from me and require very little attention. Other plates are closer. They wobble from time to time and need a bit more care. Then there is the plate I just set on its rod and have begun to spin. It requires a great deal of my concentration to keep it level. I am able to focus my attention on it because the other plates whirr on passively in the background.

Some look at me and see a lot of spinning plates and think “Gee, that must be nice!” or “Wow, he must have a lot of discipline”. But what many don’t realize is how long it has taken me to get all of these plates spinning. At one time, every single one of these plates was like the one I am currently tending. I once stood in an empty room, surrounded by broken plates and cursing myself just to get a single good thing going.

That’s the point. I don’t believe most of us can simply start in an empty room, spin up six or so plates and keep them going. Outside of the aforementioned “extreme motivation”, it’s a noble cause to simply work on one thing at a time. Focus hard on that one thing and eventually, it’ll become easy. It won’t require constant care and you can move on to something new.

With practice, you can get better. With time, you will be able to tackle more than one thing at a time. But that may not be how you start. Be patient with yourself and realize that slow progress is always better than no progress at all.

 

Embrace Sucking

Want to learn new stuff? There’s something you’ve gotta do..

I know, I know. The title could use some work.

But it is the phrase that came to mind when I first started thinking about this idea and I don’t have the heart to change it!

Don’t worry, this blog hasn’t yet taken a turn for the juvenile. What I am talking about is embracing sucking -AT- something.

I think this is a very good topic for my first actual post on this blog. Why? Because blogging isn’t something I know anything about. Frankly, I don’t know if I am a skilled writer, an average writer, or a complete schmuck. So why, then, am I doing this? Because it is something I have an interest in and the only way to ever become skilled at something is to start from the bottom.

The only way to learn is to embrace sucking at something.

Does that mean that everything you do will be naturally difficult and that you will be a failure when you start? No, not at all. If you’re one of the blessed few with many talents, there will be plenty of things that come easy to you. Perhaps you don’t have to embrace nearly the level of suck as the rest of us. But for those not so blessed, there is often period of absolute drudgery when starting something new.

I have found that this phenomenon is accentuated among men. The average guy has a lot of pride. It is often hard for him to admit that he simply isn’t skilled in a certain area. To add to it, trying new things is worrying because there is the possibility of finding yet another thing he isn’t so great at! I know that while growing up, I -hated- things that I wasn’t skilled at. I would pick something up, try it a little bit, and promptly quit once I noticed I was a little behind the others.

I was this way for a lot longer than I’d like to admit. Something changed in my 20s, though. I suddenly realized that I had this mountain of interests, but around the base of that mountain were walls that I had put up because I wasn’t confident in my abilities.

So what was the answer? Simply put, I committed myself to not caring about my performance when attempting something new. And just like that, I was cured! I went on to ignore every failure and became skilled at everything I did!

Or.. Not so much.

I started out with soccer. I had never played soccer before but the sport always appealed to me. I found a pick up group that played near by and I showed up… I was terrible. I couldn’t cover anyone, I was never open for the ball, and I only occasionally remembered who was on my team. I spent the entire first game in a state of abject confusion.

When I went home from that game, I was ready to quit. I had discovered I had no talent for soccer and the guys I was playing with were far better than I would ever be. But after a bit of self pity, I remembered the commitment I had made to myself. A week later, I was back on the field with the same guys.

Did I ever become skilled at soccer? Ehhh… What I can say is that I am now a hell of a lot better than I was. The result of my attempts is a comfort with casual soccer that I would never have had if I had let my pride lead me away from learning. Now if I get invited to play soccer with friends, I don’t have to conveniently have an “ankle injury” and have to skip.

Beyond preventing you from quitting a skill early on in it’s adoption, being content with sucking at something allows you to get out of your own head when trying new things. If you spend all of your time drifting around in your thoughts, mulling over how terrible you’re doing, you are not focused on the task at hand. You will miss out on opportunities to learn.

I have recently begun to do ballroom dance. This has been a huge learning experience for me because I have absolutely no music background. I once thought I knew something about music since I spent so much time jamming out to Creed on my way to football practice in High School. Turns out, listening to music and following music are two -very- different things.

I noticed with ballroom dance, there are often so many things going on that it is easy to get overwhelmed. Counting music, following the steps, leading your partner (for guys, for girls – trying to tell what the hell your partner is doing), adding “flair” with your arms during certain maneuvers.. It is complicated. My teachers are great and they do what they can to keep it simple, but that doesn’t mean it is easy to ignore the fact that it often feels like you’re just stomping around the dance floor.

Ballroom dance has been a great example of a time where I needed to simply accept the possibility that I look like an idiot. By not spending time considering how silly I might look, or whether or not I suck at what I’m doing, I’ve been able to better absorb what my teachers tell me. I don’t find myself growing quite as frustrated because I have resigned to be really, really shitty at this if I need to be.

Being comfortable with being terrible isn’t something you commit to and never think about again. It is a constant struggle between self deprecation and self actualization. Sometimes, failures will be very hard to take. But there’s strength in the struggle. Keep reminding yourself that it is alright to slip up.

That’s basically it. I don’t want to start the trend of writing immense blog posts that no one wants to trudge through, so I will close with this.. Seriously, get out of your own head. The fact is, it takes real strength to put oneself out there and try, especially when you’re not sure of the outcome.

Keep on improving.