Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Coddling the Spark

Cultivating a habit is like starting a campfire without matches. It's not the time to visualize big blazing fires. Your job is to focus on generating a precious spark. Then to coax that tiny spark into something just a bit greater. At a certain point, it has a life of its own. You don't create the fire; you only cultivate the spark, which, in turn, makes the fire.

Or maybe the wind blows it out and you must start again. No problem; with attention focused on sparks, fire's inevitable. But if you wind up in an "oh, shit!" mindframe - where the failure of your imagined image of bounding flames to materialize gets equated with every other way the universe has ever let you down - results will be mixed at best.

After taking many months off from the gym due to injury, I was badly out of my workout habit a few years ago. One day, via a herculean act of will, I got myself to the gym, where I parked my car, turned off the engine, sighed deeply, checked my email, briefly stared out into space, registered my anxious lack of focus, and then drove home. But here's the perceptual jujitso that makes me proudly ant-like : I deemed it a success. A spark had generated, getting me to the parking lot!*

The next day, I went inside, and worked out like a wuss. The day after, I also worked out indifferently. But the following day, I started buckling down, and was soon striding into the gym with confident purpose and working out like a Tasmanian devil. I'd coddled the spark to flame and inevitable fire.

* - I knew, of course, that if I were to back up the camera for a cinematic long view during my resigned drive home, I'd have felt preposterous and pathetic. I likely wouldn't have returned to the gym for weeks. But I've learned - and it's by far the best lesson I've ever learned - to pay no attention whatever to the cinematic view of myself. It's never true and it's never helpful. It's just story-telling, and I don't believe in it anymore.

The great secret of ants - the key to their industriousness and resilience - is that they never, ever pull back the camera for that long view ("Jesus, Larry, we're really gonna have to rebuild this damned hill again?!?").

To cultivate a habit, you need to be way more ant-like and way less imaginative.

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