Thoughts on a Life Well Lived


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Progress and the Decision to Change - Part 2

As the title implies, this is the second and final part of an essay about focusing your progress toward meaningful pursuits and understanding the requisite changes necessary. If you have not yet read part 1 and would like to, please find it here:

Progress and the Decision to Change - Part 1

In the first part of this essay I proffered some uncomfortable questions about what you want to accomplish and where the majority of your attention and time are focused. For most of us, our desired areas of progress are not in perfect harmony with where we focus our daily efforts.

So many of our daily functions come from habits, devoid of conscious thought. The process of forming and breaking habits is a field that is just recently receiving much scientific attention (see Maneeshi Sethi, Hacking the System). I am currently researching for a more in depth and scientific series of essays on this topic. For the purposes of this essay, suffice to settle on this definition of habit:

Habit - an action during which the prefrontal cortex (the region of the brain largely responsible for cognitive behavior and decision making) becomes inactive and the body functions along predetermined patterns.

Habits are formed from continual repetition of the same action(s) and thrive on a proven reward or avoidance of a negative reward.

Habits begin as cobwebs and harden into chains.

          - Spanish Proverb

Your first action upon arriving home each day could be to unthinkingly head to the fridge, grab a beer, kick off your shoes, and plop down on the couch. All without consciously deciding to do it. Your body (read: unconscious mind) is following an established pattern that it knows will produce an anticipated outcome - that wonderful feeling of ease when you put your feet up and take the first sip of cold beer.

This post-work pattern is not inherently negative, but should you desire your evening hours to be spent focused on more meaningful pursuits, you need to establish a new pattern. Think about the type of patterns that you follow everyday. Some could be positive (ie. automatically brushing your teeth and showering after waking up) and others could be preventing you from focusing on your true desires.

Now that we have acknowledged our lack of focus on our desired areas of progress, let's establish some actionable steps.

1. Decide to Change

That's right, decide. This is the hard truth section. Acknowledge that everything you have accomplished (or failed to) was a decision. Deciding not to act or change is still a decision. Every part of your existence took practice and commitment. We don't accomplish anything with committing to it.

If are are unhappy with your gut, poor diet, or insufficient sleep habits, recognize that you have made the decision to practice such habits. Not only have you chosen to behave that way, but you have stuck to those choices with enough commitment for them to harden into habits. It will take the same level of commitment to develop new patterns.

Deciding to change seems to be the part of the process that comes easiest, at least on the surface. How many times have you heard, "That's it, something has to change! I'm going to wake up at 5am everyday to go for a run," or some other similarly ambitious and well-meaning declaration.

2. Replace Rather Than Build Anew

I find the best way to incorporate positive change in you life is to replace an old habit rather than try to build something from scratch. You have already built up the automatic triggers - put them to use for good.

If you automatically reach for a beer at certain times, replace it with water. If you automatically want to sit on the couch to watch TV after work, choose instead to sit on the floor to stretch or roll out. You can eliminate something negative, while adding something positive.

You won't forget to practice your new habit because you'll constantly feel the old triggers. You will also realize how prevalent the old habits were in your daily routine.

3. Start Small

Incremental change. Select things that will not feel so abrupt. I would love for everyone to eliminate sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods, sleep 8-10 hours each night, and incorporate a regular workout, mobility, and meditation/spiritual practice into their lives today and never look back. This is is extremely unrealistic.

Begin with small changes, eliminating the patterns to which you are not terribly attached. These changes are easier to commit to. The success you'll find in these will bolster your will to stick with the more difficult changes to come.

For example, eliminating sugary drinks is a great place to start if you aim to reform your eating habits. You will not feel such an abrupt change by passing on the Coke with lunch as you will from a complete diet overhaul. 

Below is a list of great places to begin for some common desired lifestyle changes. Begin with small, easy steps and increment when you feel the previous change becoming pattern.

  • Waking Up to Add Something Productive in the Morning
    • Wake up 30 minutes earlier for a few weeks to allow for a bit more leisure in your regular morning routine.
    • Wake up 60 minutes earlier to add in a few minutes of whatever you want (ie. a short run, stretching, writing, packing a lunch, more time with your family, etc.)
    • Increment 30 minutes earlier every few weeks until you reach your desired wake up time.
  • Eating Habit Reformation
    • Eliminate added sugar and sugary drinks.
    • Eliminate proceeded foods
    • Eliminate refined carbohydrates (ie. flour/grains)
    • If you never make any changes beyond these you will be a pretty solid place. Use this as a launching point for more specific and regimented changes should you desire to.
  • Working Out With Greater Frequency (or at all)
    • Give yourself a "Daily Movement Practice" as little as 5-10 minutes. This could be a simple as waking up and stretching/rolling out for a few minutes or a short walk on your lunch break. Remember we're just teaching ourselves to change and incorporate movement into your daily routine.
    • Increase to 30 minutes of walking, jogging, yoga, or bodyweight exercises. (Tip: This is great thing to incorporate in conjunction with your incremental earlier wake up).
    • Increase the frequency and intensity as you desire. This is much easier once you've trained your body to craze daily movement and activity.

The most important take away from this step is teaching yourself to make changes. It is important to be patient during this process.

Understand that the early steps are not about the workout, or the extra 30 minutes in the morning. It is about establishing new patterns and breaking old ones.

Biting more than you can chew is a wonderful way to fail. Make success at the early stages easy by starting small.

4. Change Your Thinking

The way that we choose to see our situation has profound effects on our success. Learn to view each instance of practicing your new pattern as evidence that you can make a change. You have accomplished it once, there is no reason why it cannot become a regular pattern.

Learn to view failure as an opportunity for learning rather than as evidence that you cannot make a change. Perhaps you failed to wake up at 5am this morning. Examine this failure to learn how you might change your pattern to facilitate success the next time around.

Ask questions like: Did I go to bed early enough to make waking at 5am a reasonable expectation? Is 5am too abrupt a change from my old habit? Are there changes I can make to my sleep environment to enhance my sleep quality?

Relish each failure as a chance to learn and improve your process. Know that each failure will hone your new routines into patterns that are right for you.

5. Hold Yourself Accountable

There are many tried and true ways to establish accountability. Apps, checklists, accountability partners, reminders, etc. All can be effective for different people. The key is to find what works for you.

If you keep a day planner or appointment book for your other daily tasks, simply add some new routines to your daily schedule. If you love everything to go through your phone, check out the wide variety of productivity and accountability apps. If you are choosing to make changes with a partner, friend, co-worker, hold one another accountable.

I elect for a more personal approach to accountability: the journal. I have found no better way for self-examination and reflection than my journal. The act of siting down to reflect on yourself is like looking in the mirror. It is much easier to step outside yourself and assess the situation objectively.

Take five minutes at the end of each day to rejoice in your successes and reflect on your failures. This is your chance to re-assess and learn from slip-ups you may have encountered. This environment of self-reflection is a wonderful opportunity to adjust your strategies toward future success. Journaling to guide yourself through changes builds self-reliance and a confidence that all changes come from within.

This process needs to take no more than a few minutes and consist of only few sentences. It could read something like:

Today I aimed to _____. I succeed in accomplishing it because I _____. Or I failed to accomplish it. The most difficult things was _____. Tomorrow I will try _____ to increase my chance of success.

Begin with these few short sentences. I find that once the flood gates of self-reflection are open a much deeper examination often comes pouring out.

Creating the Environment to Change

We often feel that the odds are stacked against us. Changing to too difficult. That type of habit just isn't for me. Or any other reason we can find to justify failure or inaction. This is creating an uphill battle.

Argue your limitations and they're yours.

It is easy to view the positive changes of others and be discouraged. We may think that they are better, more disciplined, or had things easier. All of these are false. Positive changes come from the right process and the right mentality.

Everyone finds making changes challenging. Everyone has doubts and hears the negative, internal self-talk. Those who overcome have learned to change their thinking and approach positive changes with the right process.

Create the environment to change. Understand that you have to work at establishing new patterns. Facilitate success by choosing small, incremental steps. Learn to relish each failure as an opportunity to improve. 

Turn that uphill battle around. Approaching things from the right perspective can create a downward slope where each change snowballs, building speed and momentum toward an increasingly healthy lifestyle.

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