Stop Looking So Far Ahead
The journey to change might be long, but it needn’t be a grind. We tend to get ahead of ourselves, which makes the entire process exhausting to even think about, let alone take on. So let’s look at how to make it enjoyable.
So here you stand, in the parking lot looking up at the mountain of personal change that awaits you. The top sure looks fantastic. Know what else looks pretty lovely though? This goddamn parking lot all of a sudden. It’s got a bathroom and pleasant shade. Is that a bench? Benches are so very versatile. You can sit on them and everything. Maybe we set up shop in this parking lot for a little while?
The truth is, the parking lot kinda sucks. If you’re like me, you know this because you’ve lived in that parking lot for most of your life. The parking lot only feels good because the alternative is scary.
There’s a part of you that does not want to change, and it’s got a whole bag of tricks to keep you safe and sound. Emotional eating, compulsive anger, endless people pleasing, and maybe even a drug addiction or two. Say what you will about the parking lot, but we can’t deny it’s a bit of a party.
Change is hard, and one unavoidable part of the journey is standing in that parking lot, looking up at the mountain and saying, “would it be so bad if I didn’t do this?”
The end goal feels so far away
There’s no simple way to make this pill go down easy, so let’s say it and see where we end up: meaningful change takes way longer than you want it to. There. Wasn’t so bad, was it? Wait. Come back. Don’t you walk away from me. Don’t you get in your car. Don’t you dare start doing drugs off the back of that self-help book that promises immediate results.
Let’s give those behaviours we want to change a little credit. They’ve been around for a while and didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. They might be the result of something we were exposed to for years, or maybe they were the result of something devastating. For many people, it’s both, so to assume we can untangle it all with an inspirational quote is to ignore the gravity of the situation.
An excellent bit of advice from author Brad Stulberg is that before we undertake any journey toward change, we must first meet ourselves where we are. Part of that is being honest about how we ended up here and what stands in front of us.
It doesn’t take much digging to realize our desired result is quite far away. I look at the blissed-out meditators that have been practicing for decades, and I think, “that’s what I want, but they’ve been doing it for how long?” So here I am, wanting the sage wisdom of a 60-year meditator while I have the attention span of a gnat and lose my temper when the wind changes direction.
Making matters worse is finding out that sweeping, dramatic changes are not exactly the law of the land here. A common challenge posed by author Sam Harris is to dedicate 30 seconds to complete focus, whereby you think of absolutely nothing. The catch is unless you’ve been practicing a very specific kind of meditation for years, you will absolutely fail. Thirty seconds. Basically impossible. That’s not encouraging.
Admittedly it was helpful to realize that my furiously loud mind wasn’t abnormal, and it was supposed to be as hard as I was finding it. On the other hand however, it was a little disheartening. Exactly how long would it take to become good at this? Is this the best use of my time and effort?
The double-edged sword of being able to forecast
Being able to imagine the future is a fundamental advantage of being human. Paradoxically it’s also our prison. Notice how your dog can’t start up an accounting firm, but he’s also perfectly content to lick his ass and sleep all day—bit of a trade-off. Despite the many benefits of starting an accounting firm (money, prestige, stuff), I might argue that the dog has a better shot at happiness than we do. He can’t plan for shit, but then he seems pretty chill. I bet all the ass-licking helps.
That’s not you though. You have hopes, dreams, and aspirations. You also have fear, doubt, and inner turmoil. We can forecast the glory of success and the crushing defeat that stands in the way. The probable truth meanwhile is that neither extreme is quite what we imagine. The glory of success and the agony of failure will likely unfurl differently. Just because we can forecast doesn’t mean we’re particularly good at it.
Why are we so bad at it?
In short, when it comes to recognizing reality, we suck spectacularly. In a weird turn though, this bendy interpretation of reality is critical to our success. We are terribly biased, and our biases keep us safe. From birth we must learn quickly to understand what can harm or kill us, or our time here will be limited.
So we must gather information as quickly as possible to develop an idea of how the entire world functions, and this becomes what we all hold up as “reality.” As a result, we’re all running around with our own uniquely skewed versions of reality, but we’re simultaneously trying to guess how things will unfold. This creates an obvious problem.
A bias toward disaster
An example of our biases being insane but functional: because a lion in a bush is catastrophically more severe than a sloth, our brains are hard-wired to see threats more often than they exist. This is a good thing because without it, that one instance of lion-in-bush (regardless of how unlikely) is a real shit day for you.
While helpful, this causes more than a few problems… mainly because every sound in the forest becomes a lion in our minds, and we probably miss out on opportunities to pet a sloth.
This tendency to see disaster at every turn bleeds into everyday decisions all the time, and it plays a massive role in screwing with our forecasts. We suffer more in imagination than we do in reality, and this defence mechanism is mainly why. Very handy on safari, but less so when starting a business or trying to eat healthier.
So listening to your forecasts
This catastrophizing plays a significant role when we look at the mountain of change ahead. It’s natural that we’ll see it as scarier than it is because that mountain probably has more than a few bushes on it, and it feels like each bush has at least two lions.
The voice will arrive swiftly: the change we want to make will take too long, it’s unrealistic that we could ever get there, and it’s not worth the effort.
Those are some shit forecasts right there, yet they are entirely in line with what we can expect. If you are at the bottom of your mountain saying the same thing, congratulations! You’ve passed the human test.
So start paying attention to your forecasts. Write down where you think things will go, and be honest when they don’t. Over time you may realize that following your forecasts as closely as you do is a curious way to go.
What if the journey was enjoyable?
When we focus on the end-game ideal version of ourselves, that’s us saying, “I want that right now.” That’s what I do when I look at the blissed-out meditator. To quote Sadguru once again: we want the mango; we don’t want the tree. Our society has us so conditioned to behave like spoiled brats that we want everything now, and–if possible–we’d like to work zero moments to get there.
An issue with the all-or-none mindset is that it makes things terrible most of the time. Things suck until they don’t. You’re incomplete, and then one day, you’re complete.
This sounds acceptable until you talk to anybody who’s “made it.” They’ll often tell you once you arrive, the relief is rarely as good as the dream leading up to it. Does getting the car, promotion, or magic number on the scale feel great? Bet your ass it feels incredible. Seven days later? Right back to a new goal and feeling like nothing again. Life is 1% achievement and 99% working towards that achievement, so if you feel like a pile of nothing until the achievement… well… *sweating while typing into a calculator*… your life will suck so hard.
There’s no sense denying that the 100% fully actualized version of yourself looks like a hell of a time. How about 75% of the way? 50%? How about doing something the actualized version of yourself would do once? What if the journey to becoming the 100% changed person was just as enjoyable as arriving? Is that even possible?
There is only one decision to make–and you get to make it now
Over the next 3 seconds, you have a decision to make. What will you do, and what direction will you take? It is truly the only decision you have to make because this moment is the only one that’s real. Your memories are laughable constructs tainted by 1000 different factors, and we’ve already established your forecasts rarely pan out.
Rather than walking around tortured by the question of how to get from A-Z, we forget all about the only one that matters: B. We can all look at the frustrating issue that plagues us at this very moment and ask, “can I make the proper decision right now?”.
The concern over “how will I ever get to where I want to be” is far more paralyzing than “what can I do at this moment?”. Rather than boiling the sea to eradicate all suffering from your life, try to make the best decision you can with what you face now. That ideal person you have in your head… what decision would they make? There. Make that decision.
“Don’t panic before the picture of your entire life. Don’t dwell on all the troubles you’ve faced or have yet to face, but instead ask yourself as each trouble comes: What is so unbearable or unmanageable in this? Your reply will embarrass you.”
– Marcus Aurelius
You have ample room to fail
I will not give up on you until you love yourself goddammit. In keeping with my insistence on self-compassion, this approach to living allows for missteps. But, if anything, it anticipates them and provides them space to frolic and fall all over themselves.
One moment need not dictate your entire day. You have thousands of chances to begin again every day. Ok, so you lost your shit on the guy stocking the grocery shelves. You wanted those chips, and I get that. That’s not great, though. Not a good look.
It’s in the past though. Can you apologize right now? If yes, do that. If not, merely prepare for the next opportunity to handle things differently.
Gather ye dominos while ye may
I love this graphic from James Clear’s Atomic Habits because it shows the chaos of a regular day and how little things become big things. Of course, you can have slip-ups and stumbles that send you lower and lower, but there’s always a decision going up.
In my mind, I’ve always pictured it as dominos. You can set them to fall in one direction or the other. You can do your damnedest to send them one way, but they still might not end up exactly where you expect (forecasting, that old bastard). The general direction though will eventually bend in your favour over time. The key is to keep trying, one domino at a time.
This is how the decision to go to bed instead of watching one more episode turns into a great day at work or how an email to a friend turns into a breakthrough over lunch.
“The present is all anyone possesses. To waste it, to let it escape you, to fritter it away with fear or frustration, is not only to set yourself up for failure, it is a rejection of a beautiful gift. ” – Ryan Holiday
It’s easy to break things into components when there’s only 1
In the post on using self-compassion to build habits, we touched on breaking behavioural actions into their parts. Sexy stuff, I know. Important, though, and this is how to do that.
We so easily slip into a trap of “if I don’t get out the door, I’ll hit traffic, then I’ll be late, then my boss will be mad, then I’ll miss out on the promotion, then my partner will grow annoyed with me, and we’ll begin to grow further and further apart.”
Is any of that true? Or even real? How many times do we say something like that only to see none of it happen? Yet we confidently roll into the next day certain that we’ve got it all planned out.
What if there was only one decision to make or problem to handle at any given moment? A clean sheet every few seconds. How much weight is that off your shoulders? You’re allowed to put the other shit down.
How to notice
The solution to this problem (for me, at least) was to notice with intention how every moment being present helped me and how every moment not being present hurt me. The good news is the proof came immediately, so it didn’t take long to see the pattern once I opened up to it.
Experiment with whatever methods you’d like, but my primary tools were meditation and journaling.
Meditation is how I managed to strengthen the “now” muscle. By observing the broken fire-hydrant of thoughts that bombard me day in and day out, I could see that present moments would flow through me so quickly that they’d be gone before I noticed they arrived at all. With meditation, I’d catch one of those slippery pricks every now and then.
The journal can become indispensable in keeping a tally of what works and what doesn’t. It can turn inner confusion into the clarity you might find after a good talk with a friend who helps you turn your problem to a different angle. I understand the tendency to think of the journal as just your thoughts in another format. That makes it feel redundant, but sometimes an idea that seems reasonable in your head doesn’t have the same feeling elsewhere. There’s a scientific reason for that we can get into one day, but not today. Trying to focus on one thing, and that’s wrapping this sumbitch up into a summary.
Most of the self-help industry knows you don’t want to hear that change is complex and lengthy. Telling people what they don’t want to hear is terrible marketing. Thing is, if it were as easy as they all say, there wouldn’t be a self-help industry at all.
Please don’t lose sight of the fact that your mind is trying to keep you safe; making you a better person is not high on its list of action items. Sometimes that means it will trick you with whatever reality it needs to cook up. So don’t be afraid to ask, “is that true?”
We only have one moment to decide whether to improve or get worse, so treat that moment with the respect and attention it deserves.
Change is complex and lengthy. Breakthroughs may arrive suddenly and dramatically, but they’ll arrive on the tail of something much more significant. We need to move past the idea that the journey must be entirely unenjoyable. Of course, it won’t always be fun, but it won’t always be a constant struggle either. Being only 1% better today can be a beautiful feeling, and it’s worth working towards.