I took a float today, which refers to a sensory deprivation float tank. You climb into a coffin-like box (a sarcophagus, for those who love to use a thesaurus) filled with warm salt water. You plug your ears, turn out the lights, and close the lid on yourself. Then you lay still for an hour or so.
That's it. That's floating. The floating part is easy because the salt water allows you to float, like taking a swim in the Dead Sea.
It's warm so you don't feel any temperature change on your skin (but it may remind you, at first, of swimming in public pools in summer with so many kids splashing around that you are certain there's more urine than water).
If you can lay still, and not freak out about being in a coffin, or floating on urine-temperature water, it allows your brain to calm down thanks to the sensory deprivation. This takes a few minutes to achieve because your thoughts have to settle. Your subconscious has to be convinced there's no input coming other than the occasional drip of condensed water from the ceiling.
I find it to be like having a dream while waking. Not a day dream, where you might work out some fantasy or disaster in your mind. More like an actual dream, where your brain interprets stored up thoughts and feelings from the day and you see images that are the brain's attempt to make sense of the thoughts.
In the float tank, my thoughts bounce between being mindful of my breathing, the fact that I'm in a float tank, and various strange images.
After the float, I'm chill as fuck. I've never gotten high, but I'm guessing it's a little bit like that. It's an all pervasive chill. My joints and muscles are relaxed. To me, it's better than my best night of sleep.
Why bother? (I know: I really didn't answer that, yet.)
I've never had a million dollar idea, or a flash of insight on a particular problem from floating. So I've never gotten my money's worth from the floats directly.
It's part of my overall strategy to be mindful, calmer and present. I also walk, meditate and practice yoga. These occasional floats (which are between $60 and $90 a shot) are assuring my brain that I don't have to worry about everything.
Nowadays, that's a critical thing.
Also, I'm hoping it improves my ability to be creative and help me write stories, novels, and screenplays that are entertaining and compelling.
But I can't quite shake the worry that other people have urinated in the float tank before me.
As the habit for fitness takes hold, you will notice changes in how you feel even when you’re not exercising.
When Haruki Murakami decided to become a novelist, he realized he would need great stamina to persist in the writing process. Novels are long-duration creative projects. He wasn't sure if he had that kind of stamina, or the ability to focus long enough in a writing session to gather and record thoughts. The prospect of doing that day after day, for a year or more, worried him.
Murakami decided to take up long distance running. The demands of training for and running marathons would change his brain — or so he hoped — and give him a chance to sit at a desk and concentrate long enough to compose a novel of 60,000 words or more.
His four novels have all been bestsellers and critically acclaimed. Now, it's not a given that running leads to bestsellers. But he found a way to transform his life and he used his physical fitness training to fuel his efforts.
But how do you turn your new habit for fitness into something that transforms your life?
Make the habit and the habit makes you
As the habit for fitness takes hold, you will notice changes in how you feel even when you're not exercising. First of all, you will begin to look forward to your activities because your body will anticipate the release of serotonin after the exertion. You will be more alert because your sleep has likely improved. And your energy level increases because you've trained your body to process oxygen more efficiently and to manage sugar in the blood stream. Put simply, everything about your life will improve because of daily exercise.
You may feel joy or appreciate the world around you. You have transformed your physical presence in the world.
Use the extra energy
Around the time that your fitness is improving, it will become easier to get your daily activity done. You won't have to force yourself, and remind yourself, and work so very hard to make it happen. The habit becomes easier to keep. This is a one-two punch of goodness for you.
As your energy levels increase, your energy demands decrease. You can contemplate tackling other projects without putting your daily habit at risk. And after the nine months or a year of daily fitness becomes second nature (i.e., truly habitual) your confidence should further encourage you to take on other projects.
This is a great time to begin other training, such as learning a musical instrument, taking night classes, or practicing macrame — whatever it is that will satisfy your passion.
Pick a bigger goal
Now is the time to make a plan to achieve the bigger goal that will realize your dream. If you want to win a Grammy or an Emmy, then you should set some goals for music, acting, or writing that will lead you down that path.
If you want to change careers, then you'll want to focus on getting the training you need, finding a mentor, and networking with people in that field to prepare for the job search.
The point is that you will leverage changes you've made to your brain — as exemplified by your fitness habit — to transform other aspects of your life. You will have the confidence, energy and tenacity to persist through many challenges, because you are no longer who you used to be.
You are on your way to becoming the person you want to be.
You have to work hard to be happy in Cleveland
If your goal is to find happiness at the end of a year of fitness, you'll be disappointed. Happiness is not something you find.
Happiness is a by-product, not a goal. You experience happiness when you work on things that matter to yourself and to people you love. Setting a goal of being happy won't work. You might mistake going to a resort and experiencing pleasant things as happiness, but you are just enjoying the pleasantries. That's not lasting happiness. When you return home to your normal life, you will miss the resort. The joy stays there. It doesn't travel with you back to Cleveland.
When I started improving my life, about ten years ago, with a daily fitness habit, I didn't find happiness either. I found I had to keep working at things to achieve them, but I was happy. If I gave up on working at things, that's when I was unhappy.
More than anything, it's the fact that I become happy by working hard at things I want to accomplish that keeps me doing it. I persist because of the happiness I experience. But I won't ever find happiness.
You won't either, but I hope you experience it while trying to achieve your dreams.
And I hope that you make whatever changes are necessary in your life to satisfy your passion.
Having persisted for 250 days or more, you will have taught yourself what it’s like to exercise in the different seasons, when it’s cold out, freezing out, dark out, hot, humid, and bright out.
I was nine months into my daily exercise when I’d faced my greatest challenge. I’d started in spring and gone through the easy days of summer, running consistently and starting to shed weight.
In the fall, I figured out how to exercise while taking my son to soccer practice or my daughter to dance lessons. In spite of the driving around and waiting, I did something every day (my pro-tip: use the time waiting for the kids at soccer or dance to go ahead and exercise).
Winter came and still I persisted, adding a layer of clothing to keep me warm as I jogged outside. Even the holidays didn’t disrupt my daily exercise, as I ran before Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas afternoon, once the presents were opened.
But on that fateful Christmas afternoon, as I jumped over a snow pile as I jogged, I landed too hard and tweaked my right knee. By evening it had swelled like a casaba melon and ached like something was very wrong.
It turned out I tore the meniscus in my right knee. I needed surgery, and although it was technically possible to run, it hurt and my knee swelled up. I could swim, though, so I switched my emphasis to doing laps in the pool and I kept going to a health club to use their muscle machines for my arms and shoulders.
Once my surgery was over and my knee healed, I worked jogging back into my routine.
What I learned after a year of daily exercise
The first nine months of daily exercise taught me that I could figure out how to get through the next three months in spite of knee surgery.
I took off the days needed for the actual surgery, but otherwise found a way to stay active.
This was especially useful because next I would have an emergency appendectomy, a (benign) tumor, and a hernia to deal with. I simply had to take a break from daily exercise during those recoveries. But once cleared for activity, I got back into it.
In the meantime, I took walks, as allowed, every day, as a placeholder for more strenuous activity later on.
What you should learn about daily exercise
Having persisted for 250 days or more, you will have taught yourself what it’s like to exercise in the different seasons, when it’s cold out, freezing out, dark out, hot, humid, and bright out. You have taught yourself what it’s like to exercise when your kids are in school, on a break from school, and home for the summer.
After a full year of these challenges, you’ve faced the worst of it.
The key to success in daily exercise
It is more important to have the daily habit than it is to achieve certain goals by certain days. With each challenge to your daily habit you deepen your capacity to persist.
And there are gimmicks you can use to help you along the way. I have used the Fitbit to help track these things. I don’t necessarily need the reminder by the app, but I do check and see if my activity level has decreased.
And I use my morning stretching routine to do something, and also use the high-intensity, interval training if all else fails. In seven to fifteen minutes, you get a full-body workout that can keep the daily streak going, and reinforce your resolve to exercise daily.
There was absolutely nothing special about me that made me more likely to keep a daily exercise habit. It’s kind of like staying married. You have to decide to stay married in spite of the distractions, frustrations and endless temptation to do something else.
You simply decide to exercise every, single day. Once you do it, you are that person who exercises every day.
So why is it that the people making a New Year’s resolution can’t stick with their habit? Is it something about January?
Every January, hope springs eternal in our heart that this year we might finally get into shape. We’ll shed the weight we don’t need, fit into clothes that we love, and maybe accomplish some other things we’ve been meaning to do while we’re at it. It’s a magical time when possibilities exist like no other time of the year.
The gyms and health clubs fill up with people who have made a New Year’s resolution to start a habit for fitness. For weeks, it’s crowded and you have to wait your turn to use a fitness machine. You see people outside running. There’s a charge in the air as we share energy with each other. You are convinced that, this year, it’s really going to happen.
But by the end of January, you notice that you’re not waiting quite so often for machines at the health club. The locker room is not as crowded as before. And by the middle of February, the rush is over and only the regulars remain at the gym.
Or so you guess, because you're not going to the gym to find out.
Why does that happen? Why do so many people give up on their well-intentioned resolutions.
What does it take to keep a good habit once you’ve started?
The old way of thinking about habits
So why is it that the people making a New Year’s resolution can’t stick with their habit? Is it something about January? Did they choose the wrong gym and they just didn’t have the energy to go look for another?
If you’ve ever looked into it, the conventional wisdom about forming a habit is that you need to do something for 14-21 days in order to make the habit. That might work for some people, but if the anecdote about the health clubs emptying out in February sounds familiar, you probably agree that it’s a tiny minority that can form a habit in 21 days.
The rest of us give up and move on to something else.
Why three weeks is not enough
I think it’s that three weeks (i.e., twenty-one days) went by and they didn’t feel their new habit take over, and they were distracted by something else and decided that physical fitness was not for them. That whatever they promised themselves as part of their resolution was misguided, and that agreement is now null and void.
What did they do wrong?
Should they punish themselves for breaking their promise? Should they feel bad, or that they aren’t worthy?
Of course not. But when they’re ready to try again, they just need to adjust their expectations about firmly adopting the habit.
How long will I have to do this to get the habit?
I think you need to persist for 250 days to get the habit. I got this idea from James Cleary, and my own experience bears it out.
About ten years ago, I made a drastic change in my habits, focused on fitness. I wanted to become someone who exercised every day, and didn’t take “time off” from that exercise for weeks or months at a time.
That was my habit, in fact. I’d start some exercise routine and it’d go great for a month, sometimes two, and then I’d skip a few weeks. Or a couple of months. By skipping, I turn my back on the good feelings I experience from exercise. When I’d finally restart, I’d restart from the beginning (not where I left off) and it was doubly frustrating.
When I finally made the change that led to a daily fitness habit, I decided that I’d spent 30 years (age 13 – 43) not doing it quite right, so it’d be okay to plan on taking two years to figure out how to do it right.
Somewhere around nine to ten months into it, I was confident the habit would stick.
Why so long?
You should read James Cleary’s article on the subject, but my explanation is that you have to show persistence long enough to demonstrate to your brain that you are going to be able to exercise through all the challenges you face during a year. If you are in a temperate zone, like I am, the four seasons are very distinct, and the demands on your brain are very different to get you the exercise in winter than it is in summer.
If you start in January, you have to persist right through spring, summer, and into fall so that you learn to overcome the different obstacles you’ll face.
If you have kids, you have to persist through all the different school and sport activities they will bring home.
If you have an extended family, you have to persist through all the holidays, birthdays, reunions, and visits that will challenge your schedule and your sanity.
If you have a job, you have to persist through the market phases and business cycles that impact your work life over the course of a year. There will be times when you have to travel for work, or work over time, or are so busy at work that you're exhausted at home. Any of those can blow up your routine, and break your exercise habit.
That’s a crazy amount of time to persist
Yes, it may seem crazy to persist at an exercise routine for nine months or longer. You’re going to have to plan a lot of things to get through it.
They good news is that we’ve already discussed the importance of switching routines every six weeks to break up boredom.
But if you don’t plan, and don’t consider these very real challenges, you’ll be derailed and distracted within a month. You will not have considered what bizarre schedule conflict will arise near the end of your kids’ school year when a freak storm rolls in and you still have to figure out how to visit your uncle in Cleveland. When faced with that kind of conflict, of course you skip the work out.
And once you start skipping the work out, another distraction will appear. And another. And another after that.
Pretty soon, the only habit you know is the one to skip your workouts.And you’re right back where you started.
Unless you plan to persist for 250 days, at least. Because you’re worth it, and having a daily fitness habit can truly change your life.
There are things that we all must do to take care of ourselves, but it’s not necessarily fun. It’s often like work, and occasionally it’s hard work.
Parents always try to trick their kids into doing things by telling them it's fun. "This is how we pick up dog poop in the back yard. Isn't that fun?" It's almost never fun, even when it's not picking up dog poop, and the kids see right through it. They don't want to do it if it isn't fun.
This was my mother's technique. She would try to convince me to do everything because it was fun. I honestly think she wanted me to have fun, and she recognized that there is stuff you just have to do to keep the house running properly. But trying to trick us into doing it led to suspicion and, eventually, it was ineffective. We just wouldn't do it.
Some parents take a dictatorial stance and demand that kids do things just because the parents told them to. This may work for a little while, but their hearts aren't in it. Whatever they do, it's not done well, or with enthusiasm. They aren't giving 110% to that job, whatever it is, no matter how much the parents tell them they're doing it wrong.
This was my father's approach. At some point, he planted plum and apple trees in the back yard. As summer wore on, fruit would drop from the trees and rot on the ground. He'd tell me and my brothers to go pick it up, and pick up the sticks from the maple tree while we're out there, and then mow the lawn. He'd insist we do it just because he told us to do it. But we never picked up everything. We went through the motions, and hoped he would get distracted so we could quit and go play.
A few parents resort to various forms of punishment. That works worse than anything, and creates resentment or even hatred. Even if the chore is done, there will be a backlash at some point. Threats and punishment are never worth it.
But there are certain things that have to get done to run a household. You have to do the dishes. You have to wash and fold the laundry. You have to pick up the dog poop in the back yard. You have to mow the lawn.
You have to manage your body just like a family has to manage their household
There are things that we all must do to take care of ourselves, but it's not necessarily fun. It's often like work, and occasionally it's hard work. Finding healthy and suitable food to eat for yourself can be work. Exercising can be hard work.
So how do you get yourself to do the hard work of caring for yourself when it's not fun?
Find a fun activity that gets you the exercise you need
If you're enjoying yourself, you won't notice that it's hard work. For me it's biking. I can leave from home on the bike and return 20 or 30 minutes later with my workout complete. But I'm smiling.
I know some people that climb rocks (a.k.a. "rock climbing") and some people that use a stand-up paddle-board ('sup?!). Others join teams to play volleyball, soccer, or hockey.
But even if you find such activities, there's a strong possibility that you can't do it every day forever. Hockey is expensive and ice is cheapest at weird hours. Rock climbing and stand-up paddle-board requires good weather. If you rely on those for your every day activity, you may find yourself doing nothing more often than you are getting fit.
Gamify the exercise
"Gamify" refers to turning the activity into a game with points, competition, and rewards. One website in particular, NerdFitness.com, has a huge following. Users can set their own rules and point systems to keep up their motivation. The feedback loop it creates can be a strong motivator.
To make it work, however, you have to have a variety of exercises — either going to a gym or a calisthenics routine — that you can call upon when needed.
Find an accountability partner
Shame is a strong motivator. I dislike using punishment as motivation (like with my father's dictatorial style) but if you set the right tone with an accountability partner it can be a positive experience. Look for someone with a positive attitude to work with you.
The basic technique is to agree to a schedule of either communicating to each other about your fitness activities, or exercising together. On a weekly basis, you tell each other your goals and plans. You may check in during the week on progress. Then you compare notes to see how it went.
Rinse and repeat.
This is not a good technique for me, but my friend used it to get into body-builder type of shape, working with a like-minded partner who met him daily at 5 a.m. at a gym as they helped each other train, eat well, rest and recover.
If you can't make it fun, keep it interesting
The technique that works for me is switching activities every four to eight weeks. I find myself switching — even without consciously planning it — every six weeks as new ideas present or old ones are recalled, or as the seasons change. I bike in the spring and summer, as the days grow longer here in Michigan. I do my best to make swimming a regular thing in the late, hot days of summer. I try different strength training routines as well, switching between calisthenics, high intensity interval training, and circuit training.
This fall, I'm pretty sure my wife is going to insist we take dance lessons. It's not an intense exercise, but it's an activity that goes on for an hour at a time. I'm interested in supplementing that with tap dance lessons, which will be more of a workout — also fun.
Do something with built-in variety
For the past four years, I've practiced yoga twice a week. My yogi leads the practice, and it's interesting because we never do the same routine twice. The same poses show up, but she offers variations to further challenge ourselves. That challenge keeps it interesting.
Studying martial arts would also offer a built-in variety as you progress in you abilities, spar with different partners, and branch out into different areas.
What did we learn?
Let's review these thoughts so you don't have to do it yourself. First of all, we talked about the various ways our parents try to get us to do things as kids to help take care of the house. Taking care of our health with exercise can be like that, and we may need to find ways to motivate ourselves when we don't really feel motivated.
The best thing is to find a fun activity you love to do and that keeps you active. But that's not always going to be possible, and even a really fun activity gets boring if you over do it.
You may find an accountability partner to keep you working on your daily fitness habit. If they are like-minded and have a positive attitude, it can be a great way to stay active.
Keep it interesting by switching up activities and exercises. You can do this with the phases of the seasons, or just every few weeks look for something new to challenge yourself. Or find an activity such as yoga or a martial art that is interesting by design.
Finally, the ultimate secret to exercising when you don't feel like it
The real secret is to combine one or more of the above techniques to keep yourself active without resorting to threats or punishment. Remind yourself that your health is worth it, and that it doesn't have to be a bad thing. With the right combination of support and activities, you can grow as a person even as you improve your health.