When I decided to follow up my successful first marathon by doing a triathlon, I had an idea in my head of how great that triathlon would be. In my mind, I was already doing the triathlon, and I was leaner (like most of the triathletes I’d seen) and strong and fast and gloriously finishing the three-sport race. What an amazing story.
Of course, the story was just in my head — I hadn’t even started training yet! It took me a long time to understand that what I was doing with this triathlon visualization was what was going on behind the scenes of most habit failures. We have a story in our head — the Mind Movie we talked about earlier — and it’s amazing, but the habit hasn’t even started yet.
What’s wrong with that? Doesn’t this Mind Movie motivate us to get started and accomplish things? Well, yes, it does motivate us in the beginning. It’s fine to let ourselves get motivated to start by fooling ourselves with the Mind Movie. The problem comes when things don’t turn out as we’d envisioned.
With the triathlon, I started training for the swim and bike portions of the race, as I was already decent at the run. I got a swimming coach and committed to practices three times a week. I went to my first swim session, and within 15 minutes of training, Mr. Marathon Man was exhausted and nauseated. I couldn’t believe how hard swimming was.
Cycling wasn’t much easier for me. I found that I was afraid of the drivers on Guam, who do not want cyclists on the road slowing them down. So every cycling practice was an exercise in fear and self-preservation. I’d be riding down the four-lane main highway, with drivers zooming past me, often honking and giving me the finger as my life flashed before my eyes. I’d get home and swear that walking would be the only form of transportation I’d ever need for the rest of my life.
The entire span of my triathlon training continued in the same way — I would envision myself as gloriously fit and successful, and then go out and train and it was miserably hard. I finished my first short triathlon, and it was way harder than I thought it would be, and I wasn’t leaner or stronger really.
Many other habits don’t even get that far. When we envision ourselves as happy and successful and disciplined, and then the habit turns out to be much harder than we’d imagined, it can be discouraging. The story in our heads — the expectations and ideals — can make the reality seem dismal in comparison. And then we often quit or dislike the habit.
So what should we do? Be mindful of your story. Start using mindfulness to see the Mind Movie playing in your head about this habit. Shine the spotlight on your vision, the thing that motivated you to start but might discourage you from continuing.
What ideals do you have about the habit? What expectations do you have of yourself and others? How does this match up with the reality of yourself and this habit?
Mindfulness can help us turn our attention to all this, and then turn our attention on reality, to see it as it is. Reality as it is is wonderful, if it’s not compared to a Mind Movie — we just need to see it as it is, appreciate it as it is, be grateful for it as it is.
Practice this: before you do your habit, and as you do it, turn your attention to your story. See this story as something that’s getting in the way of appreciating the reality of the habit as it is, as the source of frustrations and disappointment.
Now see the reality of the habit: be curious about the reality, try to notice everything about it, and appreciate it for what it is. Really pay attention, and find things about each moment to be grateful for.
Having a story, an idea, a Mind Movie, a fantasy about your habit can be motivating at the start, but frustrating, disappointing and discouraging once you get going and things don’t live up to the fantasy. It’s been the biggest cause of failure for many of my habits and for thousands of people I’ve worked with. Don’t let it stop you from making a change.
Mission: Journal your story
As you write your journal for today, briefly describe the story you see as you think about your habit. What does this story look like? Now, as you do the habit next time, be curious about the reality of the habit and find things to appreciate about that reality.