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Habit Change: Short Term Pain, Long-Term Gain, And Easier with Friends

July 25, 2018


Interesting Thought: The Winding Road to Habit Change (That's Easier with Friends)


We often hear that long-term pleasure and satisfaction means short-term pain and struggle. This is generally true. But only for a period of time. Once a new habit, at first difficult, is engrained and solidified, it often becomes pleasurable. 

A few examples:

  • Healthier eating.

  • Recovery from addictive substances.

  • Exercise.

  • Meditation. 

  • Not checking your phone a million times a day.

  • Reading instead of watching TV.

  • Doing nothing for the sake of doing nothing

  • Flossing 

So many of these struggle > pain > freedom behavior changes have a somewhat predictable path to progress. Lots of motivation to change; lots of pain and struggle; a period of "getting it" and starting to feel good; relapse to the old way of doing things; repeating that cycle a few more times; and finally, whatever new behavior that was once so hard starts to feel easy and good.

Habit change is a process and it's hard. Being real about this stuff is helpful. It's not inspirational but it's true. Inspiration feels good. Truth is good.

Anyways, it's important to acknowledge that yes, certain behavior changes have the potential to make you feel so much better. But it can also be really freaking hard to get from here to there. Understanding and accepting this is freeing. When you mess up, you won't be distraught and despairing, or at least not as distraught and despairing as you might have been. Instead you'll think, "Oh, I've failed. Fuck. But of course I did, because change is hard."

Also: it's helpful to have community to pull you along the way. Support groups are helpful for everything, from alcoholism to exercise to meditation to being more vulnerable to writing. Any kind of community goes a long way. In-person community almost always goes the longest. So make time for it. If you think you're too busy for in-person community that probably means you need it most. 

Change is hard, especially at first. You'll probably fail at least a few times. That's fine. If you keep at it, eventually you can get there. Doing it with the support of others increases the likelihood you will. 


Coaching Corner: Recalibrate Difficult


"Medic to the finish line!" belted over the speakers of the stadium.


I'd just completed the final mile leg of a relay race and was sprawled out on the grass adjacent to the finish line of the track, puking my guts out. Well-meaning adults scrambled around trying to help or at least do something.


The strange thing about this medical scene was who was lacking in concern. My teammates, parents, and coaches were calm, quiet, and trying to stop the intervention. "He's fine," they told the frantic adults, only to be ignored.


People who knew me weren't concerned. This was a normal occurrence.


Throughout my high school running career, I threw up after just about every race I ran. During that four year period, that comes out to puking at least 50 times. I was convinced that "toughness" was my talent; pushing far into the well was, at the time, what I considered the key to my success.


While my self-belief waxed and waned throughout my competitive running career, one thing that stuck with me was knowing I could tolerate physical pain. Regardless of my fitness, I knew how to push, how to workout hard and get the most out of myself.


Until I got injured.


For 3 years, I've battled Achilles tears, calf strains, and just about everything else that could go wrong with my lower leg. Severely restricting my running and with long periods of time off, I knew my fitness was eroding. But one thing that I never thought would disappear did...that ability to push, to suffer.


As I began to push, the pain came quicker. The usual tactics of accepting and working through it failed. My inner self-talk was screaming at me to slow down, stop, take up chess, anything, just not this difficult thing I was trying to do now.


And that's a lesson that I guess I didn't remember. Dealing with pain, suffering, or effort is a skill. It's trainable, just like anything else. The reason I felt I was tough was simple. All of those years of training and racing reset my norms of what difficult felt like. Of what it meant to work hard. It was normal to push until I puked. It didn't start out like that.


Having run and raced for the majority of my life, I'd forgotten what it felt like not to have that skill. My set point had been reset to that of a mildly in-shape person who seldom pushed his heart rate to its max or his muscles until they burned. The body reacted by turning down the dials, making what used to be a five feel like a nine on the pain scale.


As my "toughness" has disintegrated, I'm left with the realization that we need to do difficult things. To make sure that our scale of what is easy or difficult doesn't shrink to the point where everything seems like a challenge. That testing ourselves, and potentially failing, is how we keep our body and mind in check.


For myself, that means it might be time to hit up the track again, even if it means running laps much slower than it used to be, for the sole purpose of re-calibrating what difficult is.

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