Crumple Zones

Screeeeeccchhhhh… Crash.

Advertisements

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.

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.