The Power of Habit

The early part of the year was quite difficult for me. There was post-trip letdown on a huge scale (complete the task you’ve dreamed of for half your life and then what?!?!), COVID-19 was ramping up and then a ridiculous idea popped in to my head. “What if your life has peaked? What if it’s all downhill from here?”

And, in the way our minds often do, and my mind especially I was off and running. I’m almost fifty, I’ll never be this fit again, what else is there in the future? Will it just be putting in time for the next few decades? Looking back from here it all sounds quite ridiculous but at that time I did a very good job of convincing myself. I should probably just buy a big television and a big boring car to get around in. What’s the point, after all?

The great thing about my family is that they’ve got great suggestions and a wonderful sense of humour. And so, instead of joining in the pity party I was throwing for myself, they laughed at me and called me on my ridiculousness. And then, after that they gave me great suggestions. The most useful one was to actually do things. Some of the things I did were simple habits, actually following an idea I’d had in the back of my head for 20+ years. To myself I called it “Do the right thing practice.” It’s quite simple. We almost always know what we should be doing. We should be working, we should get up and make breakfast, we should read more, we should get some groceries. But what we should do and what we actually do are often not the same and this causes trouble. And so came the habit tracking. And the habits are so simple but so powerful. Daily meditation, waking up at 6 every day, starting a short gratitude journal showering immediately and then making breakfast, diligent work on weekdays, following through on plans when I make them. And of course, daily exercise. Am I really doomed to being progressively less fit every day from today? I won’t know unless I try to find out otherwise.

The beginning was hard. Inertia to sit and drink coffee in the morning and relax or sit and browse the web for an hour when a book or writing here would be time better spent is a powerful thing. But I’d made a commitment to do this and do this I did. I tracked my progress on habits with an online tool that keeps track of how long my streaks actually are. As they grew I became more committed to them. A three day streak is easy to break. Break it and then three days later it’s all better. But now I’m approaching 60 days for many of these. Break one today and I’m not going to get back to this point until August. And as I got inspired I added more habits – the 100 push-up challenge (I’m at over 80 now), improving sleep by not drinking coffee after 1PM, and eventually deleting social media accounts like Facebook and Instagram.

And of course there has also been exercise. Lots of it, in fact. At the beginning of this that exercise I committed to at least 30 minutes of daily exercise. Some days are more strenuous than others to give myself a break – so a rest day is not one of inactivity, it’s a leisurely 30 minute bike ride instead of a strenuous 90 minute one, for example. A few weeks back I added running to the mix, working toward being able to run 5 km again but eventually hoping to be ready for a half marathon again. And so now my days alternate between running and cycling. Sometimes I’m lucky and I have chores to do on the bike like riding to work or fetching groceries and that serves as that day’s exercise. Some days I’m unlucky (or more lucky? You decide) and I have bike chores to do on a day I also have to run. So now my days look like this:

For the curious this is one of the functionalities built in to Toodledo – the free version lets you track up to five habits (and lots of tasks)

There are a couple of ways to measure this. One is quantitatively with numbers and statistics. I can see, for example, that I went from being unable to run for more than two minutes, I ran two miles (a little over 3 km) last night and my pace was higher than my average pace in 2016 when I was at my most fit and able to run 22 km. My VO2Max – a measure of how much oxygen I can use during exercise – one measure of aerobic fitness – has increased by 10% since April and, in fact, is the best it’s been since August 2018.

Another way to measure this is more qualitative. How do I actually feel after all of this? The answer is that I feel great. I don’t feel any less capable than I was in 2016. Mind you, I need training to get back to the distances I was running then, but it feels totally attainable. I think the best indication of how I feel, though, happened just about a week ago on my way to a trail run.

With views like this who wouldn’t want to run on trails?

On this day the trail entrance was blocked by construction (it’s a good thing – they’re improving the trail) but I wanted to get past the construction to the trail itself. And so, I went off-trail into the woods, running at a good pace when suddenly, WHAM, my right foot encounters an immovable object, a tiny stump about the diameter of a thick broomstick a little shorter than my knee. In to the air I fly. Both knees hit the ground and soon after my shoulder and head slam in to another small tree nearby. The shock of going from running to being completely stopped has made me a bit dazed. I shake my head and stand up, assessing the situation. My shoulder hurts, I’ve got a bit of a bump on my head and my right knee is dirty, scratched and bleeding. I bend it to see how serious the injury is and conclude that it’s not that bad – more a bunch of scrapes than an actual joint injury. And so, I stand back up, brush myself off and complete the remaining 30 minutes of the run.

A day later I see my scraped and scabbed over knee when I get out of the shower and I sense a disconnect. The idea I had in my mind of having peaked and its now being time to just settle in in front of the television does not match with the person who can not only run well, faster than in years past, but that can, in the middle of it all take a nasty fall, get up and brush himself off and continue.

Ever since that, I’ve been turning this idea over in my head – the idea that our minds and bodies are static, fixed the way they are. If we’re unhappy, that’s either the way we are or it’s our circumstances (“What will I do now that I did the thing I most wanted to do? It’s over!”). We assume that based on a number of different things – our current fitness level, weight, age, exercise experience, that our bodies are also fixed as they are. I think most of us realize that when it comes to our bodies, we do have a level of control over them but it takes work – usually activity and healthy eating in some combination. Improve those and slowly our fitness will improve. But we also should recognize that our minds work the same way. If we want to see positive changes in our mind, we need to change our habits and do more constructive things. Some of those things like meditation and exercise improve our mind directly while others improve our day to day life or give us a sense of satisfaction and self esteem that makes us feel better. Just like our bodies, though, it isn’t an overnight process. We don’t start the “Couch to 5K” app and instantly become able to run the distance. We also don’t improve our habits one day and the next day feel amazing about ourselves though unlike, say, running, there are moments where you feel immediate satisfaction.

In the end over these months I learned something important. In many ways our mental and physical state is a construct. We decide we’re unhappy so we do fewer things – or take refuge in escapist activities that make us feel worse later instead of doing things that take more effort but pay off later. Or we decide that we’re old, not fit, or both and then don’t exercise because we’re not fit enough instead of slowly working at improvement. But if we take those small first steps – create our goals and then create habits to support those goals, we can change everything.

2 thoughts on “The Power of Habit

  1. Great that you realised and now you are on the path of betterment. You are absolutely correct; end of the day what matters is our health and good habits. It may take some time to make them but once made it makes you a better person. Good work, Todd. Inspiring.

    1. Thanks! It really makes a difference to realize how much of our life is fixed and how much is open to change. I think most of us assume things are mostly set in stone. And for sure, some of it is. I’m unlikely to become a billionaire, for example, and will almost certainly never give birth. But there are lots of things I can change – and the easiest one to start with is my attitude.

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