How do you beat the demons you can’t see? Start easy, then go with simple, then go fast.
The rational is overrated – Dr. David Rock
Many years ago Dr. David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, and Director of the Neuroleadership Institute, gave a talk at Google. The talk itself was brilliant but one thing in particular, jumped at me. He talked about how we perceive and respond to positive and negative stimuli, or rewards and threats. Two points stood out for me:
- We’ve got emotions backwards!
A reward causes a slight peak in the positive emotions or reward response in the brain, by contrast a threat of the same magnitude causes a huge spike in our emotional brain. We evolved to be hypersensitive to threat as it provided a better chance of survival. I mean back in the caveman days, you were more likely to survive if you saw a sabertooth as a threat and not go with how cute and cuddly it looked 🙂
- Social threats for humans are at least as big as (if not bigger) than actual physical threats! Humans are innately social animals. According to Dr. Rock, from the time we are born, we look to others for food and shelter. As we grow up, so do our needs, looking for learning, approval, and a way to survive in the world.
In summary, we are deeply affected by social threats. As social threats go, most are based on our perception rather than what is actually out there. The video is absolutely fantastic and I highly recommend it if you have an hour to learn about yourself 🙂
At the time, I was working on my idea of creating software to help people stick to exercise. Perusing loads of material on body image, exercise adherence, and phobias. There was a sudden revelation, I could understand the fear of a young overweight girl trying to go to a gym. I realized the enormity of the challenges she faced. To anyone else, it’s just going to the gym. But no one else can know the battles inside her mind, the effort it took for her to overcome perceived threats just to walk into the gym. Here are just a few:
- She would be treading into a place where she felt the outsider. This would be exacerbated if she walked in there alone, in an unfamiliar environment she has little idea of how to navigate. I am sure this is something we can all relate to.
- And then there would be girls working out, whom she would perceive as fitter than her.
- And I am not even getting into if she has tried to lose weight earlier and failed. An inner voice reminding her of every time she felt she was overweight, and how she would remain so… this list could go on and on.
The point is we are not always aware of all the threats we face, or even how deeply those affect us. These invisible barriers could be silently sabotaging us without our knowledge. What we see is only the tip of the iceberg, while a giant blob of ice under the surface ready to sink the Titanic.
No wonder so many fitness (and other) goals fall flat. Including for yours truly. What all are we dealing with just to get fit? Or to get that raise? Or ask someone out? What of goals that are more complex and more important? How many demons stand in our way without us ever realizing? Why do we end up hitting the same wall in the same way, over and over?
And that brings me to starting easy. Over the years I have discovered some rules that help me stick to my goals. Here is my four-step-plan:
Find something that makes you smile (or learn to smile at your goal): If you haven’t already read my last post “Does it make you smile?”, please do so. Choose a goal or activity you want to do and it makes you smile, and I mean an ear to ear grin as if the world is yours today. The road is tough enough, and life has a habit of testing you when you think you have it all figured out. So choose something you want to do. It will give back to you rather than take away from you. Enjoy the process, have fun! Some people like to enjoy the journey, some the destination. Figure out what makes you tick.
A word on rewards here. Research talks about rewarding yourself when you attain your goal. I feel the goal itself should be rewarding, and when it makes you smile, chances are it will be.
Finally, if you can’t find something that makes you smile, move to step 2 already. Don’t spend too much time here.
Start with easy and effective. To be honest, I was reminded of this when reading Born to Run. My first experience with starting easy came to me when a competitive powerlifter friend of mine in grad school, Dave, helped me get back from ACL reconstruction surgery. He gave me a very simple routine in the weight room, 3 days a week. “First, just get comfortable and regular in the gym, then we can add complexity”, he said. The routine was simple, but very effective. I made more gains in strength in a few weeks than I ever had in years before.
While easy is good, it is progress that will convince your mind. So it has to be easy and effective. If your goal is fitness, I will go into an easy and effective in a future post. The rules really don’t change, the mind has to see progress for it to believe. The quicker you perceive progress, the stronger you will believe. The stronger you believe, the easier it gets. Then choose a new easy, harder than the previous easy.
One last note, remember slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. Caballo Blanco is Chris McDougall’s mentor in “Born to Run” and best explains the approach on how to run, “Think easy, light, smooth, and fast. You start with easy because if that’s all you get, that’s not so bad…. Make it effortless, like you don’t give a shit how high the hill is or how far you’ve got to go.” See the rest of it in the pic. By the way, if you haven’t read the book yet, please do so. I highly recommend it!
Be kind to yourself and be your BIGGEST cheerleader! This is extremely important! So much that it deserves its own post and will get one soon. For me, this is also one of the hardest! For now, just know this. Before you start know that cheer-leading is a full time job with two very important job requirements:
- First, cheerleaders back you to win. Always shouting for you to focus on what you did well and what you can do now, not on what went wrong.
- Second, they show up every game with the same enthusiasm, regardless of the result of the previous one. If there is only one lesson from sports, let it be this, “result of the previous game has no bearing on how you are going to play today”. It’s a new game in every sense of the word.
Having a support group that pushes you relentlessly is a great substitute until you can learn to be your own cheerleader. Find people. Stick with them. If they are not cheering you on, cheer them on. It will come back to you, I promise!
Show up! Seriously! The power of simply showing up is perhaps the most underrated performance variable. Showing up is at least half the battle. When Dave gave me the routine, the most important part was me showing up 3 times a week. I was in and out of
“Eighty percent of success is showing up” – Woody Allen
the gym in 45 minutes. If you miss a day, as I did sometimes, go to step 3 and show up the next day. As long as you keep things simple, this should not be very hard. If it is hard, chances are you are not having fun doing what you’re doing. Rethink, revise, and restart. This cheerleader won’t let you quit!
And that’s it! As I have grown, I am relearning what it means to really keep things simple. And while I still want to do everything all at once, I know the worst part will be having the same tasks on my list another year from now. These rules have served me quite well, hope they are of some assistance to you as well.
What have been your experiences with demons hiding in the shadows? Can you think of situations that made you nervous for no reason? Fears you didn’t understand? Do you think the Start Easy approach will work for you? Or already has? Please share your experiences and feedback in the comments section.