When you decide to become somebody who goes running three days a week, your first real test will probably be when one of your running days lands on a rainy day.
This is where the running newbie begins bargaining. He bumps the commitment to the next day, with a vow to give it an extra special effort. Then it rains that day too, and he’s essentially back to non-runner status until he decides to start again.
Meanwhile, to veteran runners it’s just another day, because they’re runners, not wanna-be runners.
But this creates a bit of a paradox when it comes to getting from beginner to veteran, in running or anything else. You want to develop enough discipline that you can run when you don’t particularly feel like it — but to do that, you have to run when you don’t particularly feel like it.
This is what makes major changes so difficult to pull off — every new pursuit seems to be at its most “uphill” at the beginning, when you have fewer skills and less confidence than you’re likely to have for the entire rest of the path (assuming you make it anywhere.)
The traditional approach is the “baby steps” philosophy, where each time, you do a little bit more than feels comfortable and natural to you, and gradually, what was once difficult and intimidating becomes manageable.
Most people who are already good at something will tell you that baby steps is how they got there. But this approach still takes a considerable level of discipline at the outset — you have to consistently draw more from yourself than feels natural. It requires you to find willpower every time you look for it, and doing that probably requires some unseen luck.
The real difference-maker
Two equally talented, equally motivated friends living in different cities decide on the same day to begin a running regimen. (Apologies for the running theme if it isn’t your thing — substitute anything you like.) A year later, Friend A has become an experienced runner, and Friend B has reverted to couch potato, and is about try to “get on the wagon” again. The difference was only that Friend B began his endeavor when his city was experiencing a brutal cold snap, and therefore much more willpower was required of him than was ever required of Friend A, in order to get to cruising altitude.
Meanwhile, both of them now believe B is just intrinsically lazy, and that A “has what it takes.” Both are unaware that circumstances ultimately made the difference in this case, because they had the same capacity for effort. Friend A goes on to run marathons. Friend B goes on to build a Blu-Ray collection.
The real key to Friend A’s success is that, for whatever reason, he reached a place where he felt like a runner before any additional adversity derailed him. By the time he had his first day of bad weather, he already self-identified as somebody who runs, and so it felt natural for him to go out anyway even though it’s chilly.
We often regard the “baby steps” explanation as being the complete story, because we presume that success is more-or less just a matter of effort. But there’s something more important at play that we often miss, which is the change in self-image that always comes along with a successful change in habit or behavior. In every pursuit, it aids the established people and hinders the novice.
If you go from couch potato to morning runner, however you did it, you can’t help but feel like a different person. Lazing around all morning will no longer be attractive to you. You’ll relate to everything in your life differently — food, television, your couch, the outdoors, successful people, unsuccessful people, free time, and your expectations of the future, because your moment-to-moment sense of who you are is different.
This sense is the thing that makes the real difference in any personal change. It makes the effort happen or not happen. The actual efforts involved in our goals — as in the miles we run or the pushups we do — are often less like choices and more like reactions to who we feel like we are in relation to those efforts. If you always self-identify as someone who isn’t cut out for exercise, every workout will feel like self-spite, and it is.
Look at every hill from its top
We tend to think of these identity changes as being involuntary consequences, or rewards, that come after the behavior change. You did the running, and because of the running and resulting fitness, your self-esteem and relationship to the world changed.
But it’s two-way relationship. This new identity, if you could somehow access it beforehand, would have made the running a hell of a lot easier. It would feel downhill rather than uphill. It would feel like an obvious and inviting thing to do, rather than a solemn self-sacrifice.
Personal development geeks have been exploiting this two-way effect for a long time. You can actually cultivate the new identity before or during your efforts, and this makes the behavior part a completely different experience. It energizes you rather than drains you.
With some basic creative visualization, you can consciously envision living life as the person who has already achieved those goals, and experience the reinforcing effect immediately. If you spend ten or twenty minutes envisioning what your present moment would be like if you already were in the habit of running at dawn every morning — including the consequences to your physique, sense of self-worth and confidence — you’ll find getting the shoes on and getting out the door dramatically easier.
But the effects are broader and longer-lasting than that just getting you out the door. If you make a point of locating that identity frequently, you’ll naturally find yourself grocery shopping differently, planning your day differently, and entertaining yourself differently. You’ll begin to find it more natural to do the things that will create and sustain a fitness habit, and you’ll find it less natural to do the things that sabotage it, like eating bad food and lazing around.
This isn’t a matter of “Fake it until you make it.” You aren’t trying to fool anyone, just to cultivate, as often as possible, a present moment sense of what right now feels like when you’re the person who’s already doing what you want to do.
It’s easy to overcomplicate this. Close your eyes, take ten minutes, or even five, and imagine your present-moment reality as if you’re already living the way you’re trying to live. Steve Pavlina has written volumes on this if you need more instruction.
This kind of practice is another frequent victim of kookiness-by-association. It has obvious real-life benefits to anyone who’s tried it, but it’s often regarded as schlock because so many advocates attribute its effectiveness to universe-bending magic or ancient prophecies.
But it’s totally rational. Who you feel like you are determines, at every moment, what actions feel reasonable and unreasonable, doable and not doable, natural and contrived, uphill and downhill. If you can see, even for a moment, what the path looks like from the top of the hill, no part of it looks treacherous, at least for you.