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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Success and Jalopies

Now seems like a good time to check in with those New Year resolutions. It’s the end of February, and my email inbox and Twitter feed are full of strategies for implementing habits, keeping resolutions, and bits about why We Are Failing To Do So.

When I say “we” I mean me. I was struggling to get my routine back on track. I mentioned in my New Year’s post that I have enough resolutions to keep me busy. Except what happened was that the wheels fell off the jalopy. The system broke. As it is wont to do, from time to time. In my healthy, long-view of life, I realize that it’s all about breaking down and revving up again. System breakdown is part of the system

But, now, Readers, I’m improving. See, when I realized that my jalopy needed an overhaul, I began reading those things about success and habits that, handily, poured into my email inbox. Apparently, I’m not the only one with a broken down jalopy.

This tidbit came to me, via Brain Pickings, which is a really great blog, by the way. This is an excerpt from a Vanity Fair profile of President Obama:

“You need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. ‘You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,’ he said. ’I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.’ He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. ‘You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.’”

To be frank, wavering over what to wear is one of the things I enjoy, at least sometimes, so I don’t want a uniform. However, I do make too many decisions. I can’t settle on a routine. There’s dithering and deciding many mornings. Should I do sun salutations or physical therapy stretches or deep breathing or meditation? Should I go to the gym right after the kids are out of the house, or should I sit down at the computer and write? All these decisions lead to fatigue and naps. And putzing around on Facebook and email. Or, in scientific terms, willpower depletion

This quotation from President Obama reminded me of something Matthew Seyd wrote about chess players in the book Bounce; namely, that what makes chess masters so great is not superior intelligence, but that they have practiced so many chess moves so often that they’ve memorized sequences. They have routinized (thanks, President Obama – my Word dictionary doesn’t recognize this neologism, but if Jimmy Joyce could invent words, you can, too) and automated hundreds and hundreds of moves. Consequently, they have brain energy to spare to figure out what to do in a challenging game.

Around this time, whilst putzing around on FB and email I came across inspiration via an email from an online Pilates teacher. She was writing about developing consistency in exercise, but I think we can extrapolate to other areas of life. According to Robyn Long, the secret to building and maintaining fitness is to set one goal at a time. A person can get overwhelmed with goals and give up, whereas if you pick one and stick to it, you develop the habit.

So, I decided I needed to be more like President Obama (who doesn’t, really?), more like a chess master, more like a Pilates instructor. I needed to routinize more of my system. If I did more things automatically, out of habit, then I would have fewer decisions to make about how to use my time. Fewer decisions would mean more energy. Then I would have more willpower left to take on the more challenging parts of my routine.

Key to success here seemed to be choosing an easy thing to automate. Something non-threatening (not writing, obviously), something to just get out of the way first thing. Like teeth brushing, or putting on deoderant. I chose sun salutations. They’re yoga, and they’re meditative, and they’re brainless.

That was over two weeks ago, Readers. I’ve kept up my streak. Even when I threw my back out last week, I managed to creak through a few sad ones. They were less sun salutations than sun grovels, but I counted them.

I don’t feel more like President Obama, and certainly not like a chess master. Pilates instructor?  A little. But I do feel more like Jerry Seinfeld, who has a famous work ethic – he X’s every day on the calendar that he works on jokes, and never gives up on his streak.

The best thing, really, is that once I’ve got that first wheel back on the jalopy, the others are easier. Soon, I’ll be rolling on to new things.

Speaking of jalopies rolling - the 16-year-old drove home from the library yesterday. I thought it went very well, and I only stepped on the imaginary brake for half the ride. However, to the husband she reported that the whole thing was “stressful” and that there was “too much to think about.”

Then the husband and I said, “That’s because it’s all new to you.” We kind of raced each other to say it first, I think, but I’m not sure. I can only speak for myself, and in this instance, I don’t want to. If you follow. 

Anyway, then he said, “Once you get more practice, a lot of it will become automatic and you won’t have to think about it.” You’ll know how far to let the steering wheel turn to straighten out, and you’ll have memorized the rules of the road. And the more stuff becomes automatic, the less energy you have to expend on it.

“Wow, I just drafted a blog post on this topic,” I said.

And that, in a nutshell, is the beauty of routine.

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