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.


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.