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The Art of Showing Up

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Raptitude Experiment No. 8

I’m finally settled from my return to Canada, with a permanent apartment and a permanent job, so I feel ready to dig in and make some strides in the self-improvement department.

Self-improvement is about habit change, I know that now. But I have a poor track record for habit change. I have been ping-ponging between two different strategies, and neither has worked too well.

My old strategy was to summon all my enthusiasm, pick a day and try to change everything at once: begin exercising, meditating, staying organized, and practicing guitar every day. Usually I start this on a Monday and it lasts till about Tuesday.

It’s too much. There is too much of a sudden schedule adjustment, and the habits have a tendency to get in each other’s way. Any new habit makes ripples in your life that you can’t really predict until you’re doing it.

For example, if you’re in the new habit of working out with kettlebells after work, when you sit down to play guitar you may notice your hands are sore and tense, your mind is a bit dull, and it’s just not conducive to playing guitar. Your practice is an uninspiring one, and it’s getting late anyway, so you don’t do the next thing right either, if you get to it at all. Getting even the first day right is hard when you take on multiple new habits.

Many people suggest never trying to change more than one habit at a time. My problem with this is always the same: I have some initial success and then I can’t help but think about other habits I could be forming. I want to ride the momentum. If there are five or six habits I want to form, and I’m not allowing myself to begin on the second until I’m 30 days into the first, that means I can’t even touch some of those habits until I’m five or six months down the road, and that assumes that I’m successful in my first attempts.

I don’t know about you, but when I want to make a change, I don’t want to put my inspiration on hold for six months. In my life it seems I am either comfortable and complacent, or I want to make a dramatic change (a revolution!) in how I spend my time. Right now I want to make several changes at once, and I’m determined to find a way.

The Plan

I have a suspicion, and I’m going to test it out.  

There are five activities I want to make into daily habits:

Kettlebells — This has been intermittent for me since I got back. I was solid for four weeks, and during the week of my move I haven’t worked at all. I was on a roll, but it’s just as easy to get on a roll going the other way. Now I’ve been on a not-working-out roll for eight days.

Blog promotion — When I first started Raptitude, I spent time every day making connections with other bloggers, through comments, forum posts, and emails. I got out of the habit while I was traveling, and my growth has slowed. Time to make it a daily practice again.

Visualization — Productivity whiz Steve Pavlina is a gushing advocate of daily visualization, and I’m going to give it a try. You sit down and picture the sensory details of the fruits of your goals. In other words, you imagine your life as if you already have what you want, as if they exist in the present. Pavlina is coldly honest about what works and doesn’t work for him, and this is something that works. He claims that regular, pointed visualization of what you want has powerful transformational side effects. I’ll try it and report.

GTD — David Allen’s robust productivity system, Getting Things Done, is notoriously hard to implement, but I am still a fan. I have used it for bursts of productivity in the past but I’ve never brought it to a self-sustaining momentum. I’ve been able to record and organize everything I need to do, I just never sit down and work through my projects, I just let them sit while I attend to the things that are coming up soonest. That’s the habit I want to install this time: sitting down to work through my stuff, every day, before it becomes urgent.

Set out vital tools for the morning — This is a simple habit to create continuity between one productive day and the next. It’s just a nightly ritual in which I take a few minutes and set out what I’ll need the next day: any phone numbers or documents I’ll need, my GTD binder, and anything else I don’t want to forget on my way out the door.

If I were to jump into them all full-bore, it would be a struggle every day. They would be competing for my time and my patience. I’m going to try something different.

Low Standards to the Rescue

So here’s what I’m thinking:

Set low standards for each habit, and knock them off with ease every day for 30 days.

Low standards sounds like a counterproductive strategy. After all, this whole experiment is about expecting more from myself. But a low standard is a firm standard. It doesn’t invite fooling around before I’ve reached them, because they’re always within reach, each less than fifteen minutes from completion at any given time. My belief is that 30 straight days of getting some degree of my goals done is much better than intermittent successes, even if they’re bigger ones.

The idea here is to get my foot in the door, each day, for each of these activities. When I was running (before I started kettlebells) I knew that all I had to do was get my shoes on and get out the door. That simple, initial act represented about 1% of the effort I would expend, but nailing that simple task made sure I actually did it. Once I was running, the easiest thing to do is keep running.

If I keep the requirements of these daily habits small — laughable even — I can minimize the interference between these new habits, and I won’t need to carve a lot of extra time out of my existing lifestyle. By merely showing up every day, these habits aren’t battling for my time and I have no excuse for not doing them.

It’s a simple way to fend off the habit-defeating Broken Window Effect. Missed days — not modest output — are what kill habits, and this way I have no good reason to miss any days. I can’t even pretend I have a good reason, which has been my downfall before.

The Requirements

Here are my encouragingly low standards for each of the five habits:

Kettlebells: Get changed, do a three minute warmup, and do ten reps of whatever I feel like.

Blog promotion: Leave one thoughtful comment on another blog, make a forum post, or make a direct contact with another blogger.

Visualization: Spend ten minutes in dedicated visualization meditation.

GTD: Sit down, read through my projects list, and put ten solid minutes into moving one of them toward completion.

Set out vital tools: Leave my GTD binder open to the projects page in a place where I will see it in the morning.

And that’s all. I can do them all in half an hour if I need to. Once I’m engaged in each activity, I can obviously continue, but the hardest part — starting — is already done.

All I need is five checkmarks on my big board, every day, for thirty days. On any of those days, I can do more of each activity if I like, but not at the expense of getting those other checkmarks.

I’m practicing the art of simply showing up.

This experiment commences Wednesday, September 15, will run for 30 days, concluding on Thursday, October 14.

I’ll report my results for each day in my experiment log (to be posted under the experiments section tomorrow.)

Wish me luck.


Photo by zappowbang

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Tim September 13, 2010 at 12:31 am

I’m experimenting with Cal Newport’s “Shadow Courses” theory, otherwise I would totally join you and test out your experiment too.

I could actually try and implement your theory with his and create some compound experiment, but I feel that, for me, it wouldn’t mesh with how I GTD in my own way.

Good luck.

Monique September 13, 2010 at 1:12 am

Best post I’ve read on here :)
I have the exact same issue, throwing myself in the deep end, which generally means you’re setting yourself up to lose. I think this is an excellent way of approaching it! Kudos

Habit Guide September 13, 2010 at 4:50 am

Hi David, hope you’re good. It’s what we call “quantum leap” (change many or all habits at once) or “baby steps” (change one or a just a few habits at a time).

Over the years we’ve definitely found that baby steps are the way to go for most people. Unless there’s a wedding dress to be got into by a certain date (for example), quantum leaps usually fail and leave the person feeling disempowered.

Baby steps produce “wins”, a feeling of “I can do this!”, empowerment.

Successful change comes from making a series of pacts, and then knowing how to stick to to each pact. Habits are subtle and powerful little buggers :-) so getting the balance just right and then knowing how to be the master of your attention is the key to success.

I like your “low standards” idea — it’s what we call “putting down a marker” or “just doing it a little bit”. This is great because you’re telling your brain “this is where the new habit goes”. The connections are being set up for the long term — it doesn’t matter that the new habits aren’t fully formed yet.

Good luck with the changes, hope it goes well. Great work with the spirituality posts recently, it’s not always an easy subject to tackle.

All the best,

Sheri September 13, 2010 at 7:50 am

Hi David, Don’t forget to see what’s in front of you while you are busy completing your “To-Do” list and self improving.
This is not a direct quote but credit, again, to Emerson:
“…after listening too long to the great astrologers/philosophers speak at length of the greatness of the universe, I left the grand lecture hall, and wandered outside. There I looked up and saw the stars in all their glory and beauty.” Or something like that :)

David September 14, 2010 at 10:34 pm

Mindfulness contributes to my quality of life more than anything else, and I certainly won’t be sacrificing it in favor of something in the future. I don’t think there is necessarily a contradiction between goals and living in the moment.

David September 14, 2010 at 10:37 pm

Hi James. That’s the idea, getting little footholds that I can later expand, or drop. I always thought modest standards were a waste of time, but they haven’t been as big a waste of time as higher standards that I don’t fulfill.

Lisis September 13, 2010 at 8:51 am

Your “low standards” theory reminds me of Peter Lafleur’s: “I found that if you have a goal, you might not reach it. But if you don’t have one, then you are never disappointed. I gotta tell you, it feels phenomenal.”


David September 14, 2010 at 10:32 pm

Hmm. I spent most of my life rejecting goals and the idea of goals, and it led me to a disappointing life. I think the key is monitoring attachment. Goals without attachment, that sounds good to me.

Lee September 13, 2010 at 9:21 am

Sounds like a plan!
I’m going to try it as well.
Good luck to us both, then.

Nate September 13, 2010 at 11:00 am

Good plan, I think I will try to tag along to see how it goes. I struggle with good enough, my imagination knows what is possible so I always fall short of that. I’m trying to teach myself that because we can’t possibly commit 100% of ourselves to any single thing we always have to make a choice about how much less than our potential we can accept in each endeavor. Because of this, gradual improvement has been incredibly hard for me. I always want to ‘go big or go home’…

I just sold a nice weight set I’ve owned for years…. and it has been liberating. I never realized it represented what I thought I should be but never could because of all my other things. It represented a ‘really strong or nothing’ goal I’ve had since high school and have consistently felt guilty of falling short of. Now that it’s gone I’ve been doing simple body-weight exercises and am on a much healthier and consistent path. I no longer feel guilty about what I am not, just feel good about making an incremental improvement.

There are many other areas like this where I need to let go of old guilt-inducing goals and replace them with something better. I’ve just started reading your blog, it is already one of my all-time favorites. Keep it real and thank you for your spin on things, they’ve helped me a lot.

David September 14, 2010 at 10:29 pm

I suffer from “all or nothing” syndrome too. I always think I need three uninterrupted hours to get any work done, that I have to work out like crazy for it to be worthwhile, etc. This experiment is my way of trying a different tack for once.

nrhatch September 13, 2010 at 11:34 am

Excellent post. Excellent plan.

We don’t have time to pursue all desires to the extreme, but we have plenty of time to dip our toes in the water and decide where to focus our talents . . .

Unless we get caught in the dreaded trap of perfection.

Sometimes “good enough” is “good enough” . . .


Dan Mitchinson September 13, 2010 at 6:00 pm

I’m torn between life measurement and ‘beautiful chaos’.
You may have seen this.
If not……..

David September 14, 2010 at 10:17 pm

Hey that was great. I can sympathise with his figuring-things-out addiction. That was always a major source of gratification for me: proving to myself that I’m smart.

Ultrabuzz September 13, 2010 at 9:07 pm

David, you’ve done it again! I’ve been trying the same thing, without much long term success. This ‘foot in the door’ approach sounds like it answers just the problems I’ve been facing. I for one will join you on Wednesday and will be looking forward to receiving your insight on the experiments page.

Good luck! :O

David September 14, 2010 at 10:07 pm

Right on, good luck with your trial. The experiments page should be up tomorrow evening. I’ve had troubles with WordPress today.

Nea | Self Improvement Saga September 14, 2010 at 6:26 am

Hi David. I really like the idea you have here and I think I’m going to try it myself. Like you said, the hardest part is just getting started. Great post!

Meg - Minimalist Woman September 14, 2010 at 10:41 am

Excellent plan–can vouch for the baby steps method, myself. I know the feeling of wanting to make many changes at the same time, it hits periodically, maybe every 2-3 years. Certainly keeps life interesting!

Chaz September 14, 2010 at 3:58 pm

I was reading your post today to keep stalling on things I know I really need to do. (Although I usually read for better reasons than that.) Thanks for the inspiration to get back to work!

David September 14, 2010 at 10:04 pm

Get back to work

Donna Willingham September 15, 2010 at 1:24 am

Hi David, what a brilliantly helpful blog – I look forward to seeing the results at the end of 30 days, and you’ve given me heaps of inspiration to change a lifetime of habits, too. I feel I should share with you an amazing course I did that got my life back on track. I’d been lacking in confidence and dealing with negativity around areas of my life, but the strategies that Sarah Merron of Fire Dragon Coaching teaches really helped me focus on getting the best out of myself and others around me. She runs courses in Cairo and the Maldives, so it’s a fantastic way to see the world at the same time. Here’s the link if you should ever head that way, I found it had a very powerful effect on my life: http://www.nlp.firedragoncoaching.com/destination-egypt.html

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) September 15, 2010 at 1:36 am

Small sips~

Trish Scott September 15, 2010 at 10:27 am

This seems to me to be an excellent strategy. There is no big deal. As you say, just show up. When I taught violin and students got all fussed about never being able to get where they wanted to be I would ask, How do you eat an elephant? The answer is, of course, one bite at a time.

Henway September 15, 2010 at 6:11 pm

Showing up is a great way to put it. When I set out to learn Chinese, I just made my goal very modest: listen to 5 minutes of Chinese audio a day. Once I did that, I found myself listening for 5 minutes more… then 30 minutes more.. then those 5 minutes turned out to be a couple of hours. You build momentum by starting slow. I rather do something modest everyday then doing something gigantic inconsistently.. your motivation just increases when you do something consistently.

mike September 15, 2010 at 10:00 pm

….what are we talking about here really?…self improvement techniques or how disgusted/dissatisfied i am with myself..my life…and life in general ??….it seems no matter what superficial changes i manage to accomplish it’s still “me” inside..and i ALWAYS regress back to “me” eventually….. modifying behavior is good for alcoholics and smokers but it’s futile for those who suffer from a restless spirit….

nrhatch September 15, 2010 at 10:04 pm

Master your thoughts . . . master your life. 8)

mike September 19, 2010 at 11:16 pm

…sorry for being a Kill Buzz……………..

Robi September 16, 2010 at 5:49 am

Oh new habits, how i love them! I think it’s the human tendency to try and get as much of it done in the first day and then quit immediately after, due to burn out, and like everyone else, i do jump into the deep end, before i even know i can swim properly.
I recently started working out and eating healthier, so as to lose weight and get in shape, and guess what? After my first workout i could barely move, all my muscles hurt. But here’s the thing, i always thought the best motivation to keep doing something are the very results of that thing, so the pain kept me going. It showed me that the muscles are there, getting firmer in time. Same for the diet I’ve been on… I’m always craving for a juicy hamburger, mainly cause of its divine taste, not because I’m hungry, but every ounce I see down when I get on that counter tells me to stay away from them.
Feeling the results of your new habits is a powerful motivation in my mind, not a reason to quit. I do feel tired at times, and feel like I don’t want to workout today, but damn, it feels so good after you get yourself to actually do it.

As for that visualization thing, I’ll give it a try, but all in all i find it to be a rather cruel experiment. Why? Well I tend to set out goals that are not only for a very very long term but also usually out of my reach. Trying to achieve goals that are out of my reach allows me to better myself, even if not actually achieving them. And no, it’s not demoralizing not getting to my goals, the progress keeps me going, enthusiastic about it. Now… trying to imagine that i have obtained the unobtainable is all fun in theory, but waking up and seeing that you STILL don’t have it, might be a bit crushing… Nevertheless, I’ll give it a try.
Good luck with your new goals.

David September 18, 2010 at 4:40 pm

In the article I linked, Steve Pavlina gives a bit of a different take on visualization. Give it a read if you have a chance.

Barns September 16, 2010 at 10:07 am

On the visualization thing, I’ve never felt moved to try this – in virtually any form – because I feel like it is a process designed to take you away from your reality, or, as another commenter suggested, to keep you from living in the moment. Perhaps it’s the fact that I have very fluid goals, with a number of different forms and outcomes that I would be perfectly happy with, that prevents me from seeing the benefit of visualization. At bottom, I’m most interested in finding out where my intention takes me, with all the surprises that can be thrown up, and trying to be fully present when I get anywhere… something I’ve always struggled with.

Anyway, I’m really interested to hear how that visualization side of things goes for you. As a whole, I think setting manageable and reachable goals (that, when I think about it, can be easily visualized – hmm) is a very solid philosophy.

By the way, on the blog promotion thing, I’m kicking off a project at my own blog, kind of in an effort to get it active again. The project, ongoing hopefully, is to do short (10 questions) email interviews of bloggers I read and admire. I’d be honoured if you were willing to take part – let me know via email if/when you get a chance…

David September 18, 2010 at 4:37 pm

Hi Barns. I’m only a few days into it but I’ll be posting updates on my experiments page, so I’ll let you know there what I think of visualization.

Scott Barlow September 23, 2010 at 7:33 pm

Excellent advice and i shall be trying a few of your suggesstions.

One thing thaat works for me in regards visualisation is to have a PowerPoint (or i use Aminoto) with music of images of what i want to be and where i want to be. E.g. body shape – photo of when i was buff! A picture of a local house i would love to live in, short video of a rnage rover sport, a financial figure – all of my life goals that you can see on my blog – http://scottsbarlow.tumblr.com/lifegoals

I can help you with your blog goal – connect with me! Im following you on Twitter – good luck

Kepp on keeping on!

Aaron September 26, 2010 at 8:54 pm

Hilarious, I just started setting goals to practice guitar more and weight train more and I’m worried about fatigue interfering with my guitar improvement.

David September 26, 2010 at 9:41 pm

It’s a tough combination. I find I have too much muscle tension in my forearms to play guitar after working out.

Mia October 15, 2010 at 11:35 am

Loved it here. First time… and already feels comfortable.
Thanks for sharing.

Laurie Young January 27, 2011 at 11:47 am

I too found that one habit was too slow. I have experimented with incrementing the number of habits. So I set one habit (36 sit-ups). Then after doing that for 30 days, I started on two new ones.

I even wrote an web app (http://habitualapp.com) for keeping track of how I’m doing with my habits, and posting my progress automatically to Facebook. Getting lots of “likes” when I hit 5 days, 10 days and so on really helps me keep going.

I like your idea of setting minimal standards, for two reasons. First as you say, once you get started, doing more is easy, so you are kinda tricking yourself into doing what you want. Secondly, I suspect that most of the benefit is in the initial few bits of work.

Stephen February 12, 2011 at 4:40 pm

I liked this post. A few days ago, Ramit Sethi, interviewed Dr. B.J. Fogg about persuasion and forming habits. It was a “private interview” but you still might be able to get a copy of it here: http://www.iwillteachyoutoberich.com/blog/bj-fogg-interview-persuasion-psychology/

He really breaks it down and uses some great personal examples. He really drives home the importance of taking small baby steps so that you can get small wins. Success begets success.

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