Day 21 of 200 – Habits, again

(Blackpool Half-Marathon training, 2019)

Tuesday 30 October 2018

Part of returning from an injury is learning to get back into the habit of running again every day.  It’s all too easy to get into the habit of not running because, after all, that’s what I have been doing: not running.  So, after two months of not being able to run, it’s back to it, it’s back to the habit of running.

I’ve often reflected on the idea that the universe has an odd way of putting in your path just the very thing that you might need.  It’s not always what you want.  I didn’t want to be injured. (Although, let’s be honest, of all of the things that one can be afflicted with, a dodgy hamstring is pretty low down on the list compared to the sheer misery of illness and circumstance that so many people in that world have to contend with.) But maybe, on reflection, it’s what I needed. Maybe I really needed sometime off, some time away from it all to work out what I really want from myself each time I lace up my shoes.  I’m still trying to work it out.

Sometimes these things that the universe seems to provide are a little more direct. This morning was no exception. For the last year I’ve made the conscious effort to break my twenty-odd year habit of listening to the Today programme on Radio 4. The coverage of the news, although thorough and comprehensive, left me feeling somewhat deflated.  I frequently found myself responding to a news agenda rather than actively setting my own for the day ahead.  With its insistence on global issues (many of which seem totally insurmountable, at least to me), I’d often feel the need to give myself a pep talk after listening.  So I broke the habit.  My new habit is to listen to podcasts.  My tastes are wide and varied, but a particular favourite is The Rich Roll Podcast. Today’s episode was with habit expert James Clear. (As an aside, I highly recommend that you subscribe to Clear’s email list.)  Of course, the topic of today’s podcast was habits.  This was a lengthy episode and it seemed like each minute contained a lesson that could be taken away and applied.  As I was busy doing other things I couldn’t really make notes – although I will definitely listen again to do so. But, still, a couple of points really stick in my mind:

  1. Start small. Do the smallest thing. For example: going to the gym for two minutes repeatedly sets the habit. If you do this each day, then the habit sticks. Yes, it’s only two minutes but momentum is everything. You build from there.
  2. This habit creates identity: I am someone who goes to the gym everyday. Habits are not really about what you do, but about who you are.
  3. It is the cumulative of these small actions which compound over time.

What is notable is the fact that there is nothing particularly new here.  Many people have said similar things before; I know I have on my own podcast.  What makes the observations so notable is the fact that we often need to convince ourselves of these basic truths when we are facing our own behaviour change.

Tonight, my own small training session was 30 minutes of weights, followed by a two mile jog at 12 minute miles.  My hamstring felt great!  Remember, it’s the small things completed repeatedly that add up to success over time.

 

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Excellence

Excellence.

Until recently I thought that it was a word that could not be applied to me.  I could only use it when talking about others.

One day I was asked by someone, as part of a development exercise, to make a list of the things that I had done with my life that could be seen as personal achievements. With a sharp intake of breath I wrote: a happy marriage; two beautiful children; several degrees; a professional career… I stopped in embarrassment. Mine was a positive list of treasures and I felt shallow and self-absorbed to be nothing other than delighted with how my first forty years had panned out. Why then did I not feel qualified to use the E word?

And then it hit me. Those were things that I had accomplished in spite of myself.  My general frame of mind was far from excellent and my previous lifestyle choices and behaviours were not conducive to achieving anything other than an expanding waistline, problematic health and a general feeling that I did not have a grip on myself and my life. To an outsider the outcomes may have appeared successful, but I knew the process was haphazard, patchy, frustrating, and in many respects characterised by self-sabotaging behaviours. My habits were far from excellent and any success that I’d had felt superficial. I’d never really put everything on the line in the pursuit of excellence and I felt like I could give and achieve so much more with a better philosophy.  More importantly, I was far from being happy and this affected every facet of my life including my relationships.

I did something about it; I had to.  When the wheels come off you’ve only two choices: denial or growth.

Through relentless reading, listening, talking and learning I came to realise that personal excellence occurs when goals, attitudes, mindsets and behaviours are aligned.  You can’t fake personal excellence.  This is where I’d had it all wrong: my ‘excellence’ was an act and not a habit.

I came to realise that personal excellence is the grind, the work, the slog.  It’s far from glamorous and it’s never the outcome, it’s the habitual routine. I’m never going to be the world record holder for the marathon, but I can still work hard to become the best runner that I can be; the best teacher that I can be; the best parent that I can be; and the best version of myself that I can be.  This is my understanding of personal excellence: when you’ve risked it all, when you’ve made the sacrifice, when you’ve learned from your mistakes and when you’ve, in the words of Pindar, ‘exhausted the limits of the possible’. It may be cliched, but it really is all about the habit.

In 2015 I decided to make the effort to help others wherever I could.  My aim then (as now) is to reach out to people who feel they would benefit from help to unleash their potential, set free their ambition, and liberate the best version of themselves.  I’ve always approached teaching children in this way.  It is an honour to be able to help others to realise that the most significant barriers to success are most often fictional – unhelpful stories that they and others have repeatedly articulated.  The status quo is always a flimsy narrative.

This blog attempts to capture what I learn along the way.

If, like me, you want to #BeHappier, I’d love to hear from you.  You can click here to find out more.