I trow I hung on that windy Tree
nine whole days and nights,
stabbed with a spear, offered to Odin,
myself to mine own self given,
high on that Tree of which none hath heard
from what roots it rises to heaven.
– Odin, HávamálAdvertisements
At the time of writing, it’s the end of January and the worthless, imperfect subhumans among us* have already convinced themselves that gluten free brownies are “allowed” on their “diet”; either because they are sanctioned by the godly progenitors of a three to four week long elimination protocol that also licenses a neat sticker for food packaging or simply due to the fact that for many, making sweeping changes to lifestyle habits is exhausting to the point of utter futility in the short term. The opening salvo of the previous article, Upgrade Your Battlecage has me barking about “goals” and “goal setting” as ranging from pointless to self-defeating in the non competitive arena. It is my aim to elucidate further here.
Goals typically come from the change of or improvement on, a pre-existing habit. In the absence of a pre-existing habit a new one is required. To understand goals and goal-setting, it may be important to first understand how these habits are formed. You’re likely to be familiar with tropes such as muscle memory, Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule and that mastery is acquired through deep practice. You may be less aware that habit forming is not only limited to physical or neurological, but also to biological function. You literally have to grow a habit. What was once called muscle memory is now understood to be the formation of an insulating substance – myelin – around nerves over time. This strengthens the signal of the action, pattern or behaviour being performed. Further, hypotheses are now being kicked around suggesting that emotions (positive and negative) can enhance or accelerate this process. Finally, there is speculation around mirror neurons being attributable to habit forming through the observance of others, resulting in cognitive replication as if it were actions being performed by ourselves.
Good vs. Evil
At some point we decided that habits or behaviours can be categorised as either good or bad. As an extension of Monostructuralism*, we are now able to chastise ourselves (or others) for having a beer after work, not finishing the pull on a snatch or clean, picking our nose, flicking through our phone during a lull in conversation, opening the cupboard to look for a treat when bored, excessively using commas when writing – the list is endless. What’s particularly interesting is when you think or say “bad habit” it feels normal but doing the same with “good habit” seems weird and uncommon. This shows us we are more habituated to saying, thinking or hearing bad habit. Interesting.
So then, let us re-examine what it takes to do what we do. We have a chemical, biological, electrical and emotional library, stacked together over whatever duration – let’s say most of our adult lives for the sake of argument. I call this the Learning Stack. The value of each component stacks together, increasing the strength of the habit and creating a complex bundle of intertwined inputs – like a ball made of elastic bands. Now we can think about breaking our bad habit by untangling that ball of elastic bands. Not very fucking likely is it? No. In fact, it’s impossible. A habit is hard-coded. It will exist until you DIE. Just like that ball of elastic bands(?)
When we set goals (such as new years resolutions), we can very easily fall into the trap of being mind-blowingly unrealistic about achieving them. Part of the reason for this is our mindless and relentless scrolling through social media. Another zombie you follow will share with you some achievement porn: fat person is thin. Ugly person is beautiful. Pauper is successful. Their story is typically heart-warming and the result is not only elation for their victory over whatever societally caused first world problem they think they are suffering through, but that you too can be like them! All you have to do is shoot for the moon! If you fall short you will land on a star! We humans, though almost completely blinkered to our surroundings, are still able to tell that something isn’t right. This can be another cause of our desire for change. We may be restless in our lifestyle, location or vocation and sense that something has shift. Unfortunately, thanks to the abundance of can-do fantasy and absent minded as-long-as-I-don’t-have-to-help support, we tend to bite off a continent-sized chunk to chew on.
Seeing something through is a test of capacity. It requires focus. Focus requires energy. As we bumble along here in the twilight of humanity, we are spread desperately thin across our waking moments. Artificial light disrupts our sleep. Jobs demand all of our daylight hours or worse. Our constructed environments wear us down with the corrosive illusion of comfort, safety and order. We are in a permanent state of numbed exhaustion, yet here we decide that now’s the time for embarking on something novel. Change is not impossible, in fact, it is impossible not to change. That does not mean change is easy. The margin of change dictates the level of difficulty. It should be obvious by now that the level of difficulty correlates to the length of time this change will take. This is why we often see reversion to previous states occur once fatigue has set in. This can be observed at the micro level: forty percent good reps and sixty percent poor ones during a training session – or at the macro level: name your detox (social media, garbage food, staying up late) turns into retox. At this point it’s decided this is due to some inherent flaw within us and we give up, or worse, try again expecting a different outcome. If we can’t feature in a sharable achievement porn video, perhaps we’ll be seen in a perseverance one instead.
The other day I met someone who was trying powerlifting for the first time. When I asked them what they wanted to get out of training, they responded by telling me they want to get to the Arnold [Classic] some day. That person has deadlifted in a powerlifting setting twice in their life. While their goal is not unachievable, they will wake up each day knowing they have failed to qualify for the Arnold Classic yet. While this may seem like a hyperbolic example, now think how crazy it is to decide to cut out sugar after a literal lifetime of walking past it on shelves, eating it and watching others eat it. The important thing about setting a goal or changing a habit is injecting an overwhelming dose of realism into the decision. An excellent method for this is by breaking whatever it is down into sarcastically manageable chunks.
I like to call each of these chunks a known-can. It is known that I can do this. There is no guess work. I have completed this micro goal and it is now on my known-can list. I achieved this tiny step forward in progress. It makes me happy to see this progress. My body knows what it did to achieve this progress. I am slowly developing the habit of achieving things. Once I have spent long enough achieving these things, this will be a developed habit in the field of whatever. The old habit will still exist, but this habit will have a stronger signal. This habit will be my default. These tiny chunks also carry less potency, so if I temporarily move backwards in my goal of change, I don’t feel like everything is fucked. My wagon simpy hit a bump in the road. I didn’t fall off and split my head open and bleed out screaming and die a miserable lonely death of shame.
Success is Boring
To conclude, those who have made change that stuck know the attainment of their goal was fairly boring. It required small, uninteresting steps – sometimes forward, sometimes back – along a road that turned out to be significantly longer than any achievement porn indicated. The big picture became landscape at a glacial pace, and now it’s now now. Take your shoes off and walk round the block. Cook a single meal from scratch. Put your phone to bed an hour and half before your own bed time. Read a page or two of that book you bought eight months ago. Now you know you can. Let’s see what we can do tomorrow.
*we are all the same.