The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
June 2, 2011 3:17 AM   Subscribe

I feel sometimes like I'm fighting a losing battle with myself: to accomplish certain things, stave off certain bad habits, develop certain good ones. How do you actually change yourself for the better when your lizard-brain is fighting you every step of the way?

Like many people, I struggle with certain aspects of life. Waking up on time is my personal DEMON, followed closely by getting enough exercise. Oddly enough, I feel great on the days that I do wake up on time and get enough exercise - but I find it difficult or impossible to make a habit out of these two things. I'm also a champion procrastinator.

I have very high intentions, but am constantly sabotaged by what I call Bad Me.

It sometimes feels as though I will NEVER overcome my bad habits and that I am fighting my lower self constantly to accomplish these things. No matter how hard I try, sooner or later Bad Me wins and I end up sleeping in and skipping my workout. And then THAT becomes a habit.

I hate the feeling of failure, and the feeling that at a certain level I am sabotaging myself, am my own worst enemy, etc etc. Today for example I woke up on time and worked out for an hour, and am already stressing about tomorrow, and whether I'll manage it again.

I'm not specifically looking for tips on how to wake up on time or how to get enough exercise in (but if you have any please feel free to share). My question is more about changing yourself intrinsically and how you do it, and how you stop seeing failure as inevitable, and how you bounce back.

Hit me with your answer-stick, Metafilter!
posted by Ziggy500 to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 117 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: One good thing I've heard: sometimes it's useful to really recognize the simple fact that whatever's going on is pleasant or unpleasant. And see that for what it is. Oh, snoozing feels good — that's it. Oh, getting up to exercise feels a little unpleasant — OK.

I think that's helpful because you can start to understand how that kind of pleasant-unpleasant feeling tone is a kind of shallow phenomenon. Pleasure never lasts, common unpleasantness is usually not so bad. OK, getting up is going to feel slightly unpleasant for a few minutes. No big deal. I understand that, I know what I'm in for, and it's not that bad.

This applies to everything you do, maybe especially the activities you tend to favor when procrastinating. Internet (or whatever) might seem very good, informative, and it's good to keep up with the news, and so on, but if you also recognize that it's simply pleasant you'll understand better what's going on.

I got this wisdom from Gil Fronsdal who gives Buddhist-y dharma talks available on Audio Dharma, of which the listening to is a very good way to procrastinate.
posted by mbrock at 3:40 AM on June 2, 2011 [38 favorites]

don't stress. I find that when I stress, I go for comfort "food" in my case mindly surfing the internet. (oh hello, metafilter! ... yeah. this is why I'm here now. This is good- maybe I'll be able to 'get back on the horse' as it were. )

Maybe your comfort 'food' is sleeping in? Don't stress, and you'll be less likely to "self medicate" with your comfort object of choice.

Is working out for an hour something you're really liking, or could you cut it back to half an hour, to build on?

(on preview- love that "oh, this is pleasant, move on" attitude)
posted by titanium_geek at 3:44 AM on June 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm going to address the getting-up-on-time issue specifically but I would off the same advice for your general question.

I used to find it really hard to get up on time - bed is just so comfortable, and there's always time for snoozing, etc... But these days I can reliably get myself up right away, thanks mostly to the advice this article:
How to get up right away when your alarm goes off []

Crux of it: "The wrong way is to try using your conscious willpower to get yourself out of bed each morning. That might work every once in a while, but let’s face it — you’re not always going to be thinking straight the moment your alarm goes off. [...] What’s the real solution then? The solution is to delegate the problem. Turn the whole thing over to your subconscious mind. Cut your conscious mind out of the loop."

On the face of it, it's silly-simple advice: The Nike philosophy of "Just Do It". But the author offers concrete steps to make that happen, and it turns out to be an enormously useful brain-training/discipline technique.

Personally I've found learning to train my subconscious (instinctive) mind to do the things I can't rely on my conscious mind to have the willpower for to be hugely effective. It isn't "how can I make myself always think the right way", but rather "how can I avoid thinking at all in these situations".

(Note: Steve Pavlina is a slightly love-him-or-hate-him personality, but there's a great deal of value in his blog. If that article's any use to you definitely check out the other posts from the "Best of" section in the sidebar.)
posted by ChristopherS at 3:45 AM on June 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: My mental model is not that of an enemy to fight, but of an inner pet.

If you have pets, you know that no amount of shouting or fighting will ever get you want you want. You have to be smart with them, enjoy their quirks, love them, understand their needs and gently push them in the right direction. And sometimes ignore them.

Practical examples:
* I quit smoking by telling my inner pet that it's just this one cigarette that we won't smoke. Nothing about not smoking ever again, just this minuscule, single cigarette. After the initial training, he usually would forget all about smoking after a moment, so this worked.
* I managed to start waking up early by making it completely non-negotiable. My inner pet is strong and in control in the morning, while I'm weak. There I will never act on any "decisions" made in the morning like sleeping 10 more minutes, because that's not me. The decision is made by the grown up the evening before, and there are no discussions. The pet will get an awesome foamy capuccino instead.
posted by dhoe at 3:48 AM on June 2, 2011 [29 favorites]

Best answer: I have to constantly remind myself that I have a limited amount of willpower and not to "waste" it. That means not doing really unpleasant things that only bring a little bit of gain. Instead, do things that are minimally unpleasant and are really worthwhile.

There are so many things I want to do:
- get up early
- exercise every day
- eat healthily
- not eat junkfood
- be productive at work
- keep the house really clean

I have to prioritise. Realistically, sure I can do all those things in one day, and I'll feel awesome, but I can't keep it up. It's like juggling too many balls.

The things that really matter change from day to day, week to week, and year to year. So maybe for a few weeks you focus on being really productive at work, and let the exercise slip. Then you have a slower period at work and can get to the gym every day. Your life is not going to be destroyed if you dust and vacuum less frequently, so if you really hate that, why waste willpower on it?

One trap I've fallen into occasionally is trying hard to implement two "rules" where one would do the job. E.g. I try to cut down the amount of time I surf the web AND I try to be more productive with a writing project. Now I'm using up twice as much willpower as necessary. In reality, if I focus all of my tricks and energy on powering through that writing project, I'll automatically cut back the time-wasting surfing. OR if I cut back on time-wasting, I'll find myself gravitating towards more productive uses of my time.
posted by lollusc at 3:58 AM on June 2, 2011 [11 favorites]

Just do a tiny tiny bit.

I hate formal exercise, but got myself doing push-ups by telling myself "Just Two", Just took a second, then it was three just 'cause I was there. Now ten is doable and I'm stopping on my bike ride and doing a pull up *A pull-up* well I've just moved to two/three.
posted by sammyo at 4:26 AM on June 2, 2011

Is the morning the only time you have to exercise? If you like to sleep in, could you exercise at night? Is sleeping in something that's affecting anything but your workout schedule?

I think if there's another time you can exercise (a lunch break, or directly after work), why not do it then, and stop beating yourself up for liking to sleep later. The self-sabotage of trying to change two habits at once (sleeping habits/exercise habits) may be one habit too many, and if the later sleeping schedule isn't hurting you in any other way, why not just fit exercise in somewhere else?
posted by xingcat at 4:30 AM on June 2, 2011

Response by poster: Xingcat: I need to start waking up earlier anyway, because I have a new job starting soon with earlier work hours. The workout is something I would prefer to get out of the way first thing in the morning (so I can spend the rest of the day basking in self-satisfaction and endorphins) but I can and often do shift it to later in the day if I haven't done it in the morning.

Thanks for your helpful answers, everyone!
posted by Ziggy500 at 4:38 AM on June 2, 2011

Habits form after a month straight of doing it. It takes thirty days. After that- most are hard to break.

That being said- if you aren't sleeping enough there is nothing that's going to make it easier to wake up early. Try going to bed an hour earlier. I figured out years ago that i need six to seven hours of sleep, but if i am extra active i need eight.

Also- sometimes unrealistic habits just hinder the process. If you HATE HATE HATE getting up earlier so you can do a completely self-motivated exercise routine, you might be self sabotaging.

Make it easy to integrate into your life. Exercise or eating healthy or knocking down your reading list- whatever your goal is, it's best to find ways to make it a part of your current life so it's not so easy to slip out of it. You want to go jogging in the morning so you can still meet a bud for coffee after? get that buddy to play a game of basketball with you instead. Want to make lunch each morning so you don't eat out? Make it the while you make dinner the night before.

I have to make myself do the hard exercises- they feel good after but my god it's hard to get out the door those three days a week. Because i value daily exercise, and I've come to know that skipping planned exercise is worse for my headspace than just not planning on it- I've built an hour of speed walking into my work schedule. I leave the house an hour early and get off the train early. It helps that I see it as an add-on to my commute and not some Other Thing I Have To Do.
posted by Blisterlips at 4:57 AM on June 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

I found it really helpful to think of all of the ways that doing X would benefit me. For example:
  • If I get up on time, I know I will have enough time to accomplish everything I need to do.
  • I can set a routine in the morning and know what I have to be doing at a specific time to make sure I don't forget anything.
  • I can still allow myself a certain amount of snoozes and get everything done.
  • I will definitely be ready for work on time, so I won't be reprimanded by my boss for running late.
Lose your high expectations. Seriously. They aren't working for you and you don't need them to get things done. Set yourself some low expectations. You can easily jump over a low barrier, so much so that it's not worth avoiding. Allow yourself the snoozes you want, but just set your alarm clock to go off that much earlier.

Also, don't try to make several changes at once. it's far easier to juggle with one ball that with two, and you can't learn how to juggle with two until you've learned how to juggle with one.
posted by Solomon at 5:04 AM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Also- sometimes unrealistic habits just hinder the process. If you HATE HATE HATE getting up earlier so you can do a completely self-motivated exercise routine, you might be self sabotaging.

This is a good point. Commit yourself to stop hating the things that you should do. As mentioned above, sheer willpower only works for so long if you have a constant undercurrent of "i hate this it fucking sucks i want to go to bed i hate this".

Second: go to bed early. Take a melatonin or benadryl and hit the sack 8 or 9 hours before you need to be awake. (And quit all stimulants 6 hours before bedtime.) Do this for a few days, and you will probably find that you will be squirming in the bed, desperate to get up and do stuff by the time the alarm goes off.

Third: make a reasonable schedule. By reasonable, I mean something that your lizard brain can agree with. Wake at 6, coffee and paper until 6:30, shitshowershave and out the door at 7. Workout from 7:30 - 8:30, arrive at work by 9. Build it so that there is a little extra time. If it takes 20 minutes to get to work, budget for 30. That way a failure doesn't mess up the next thing on the schedule.

(This is one of my failures in scheduling. It takes me 30 minutes to get to work. It is 30 miles, and is 99% highway driving. On a PERFECT day, I can do it in 25 minutes. But, of course, I never budget the stop for gas and coffee or stopping by Walgreens for a pack of pens, etc. Silliness.)

I like to envision a schedule as a chain, or a fuse on a firework. As long as I hit the first milestone, or light the fuse, the rest will just happen because the schedule works.
posted by gjc at 6:27 AM on June 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, getting up to exercise feels a little unpleasant — OK.

I do a combination of this and the "inner pet" thing along with something else I haven't seen mentioned: have a buddy. My boyfriend is a late sleeper. I am someone who is supposed to do shoulder exercises and somehow manages to not do them. Both of us have reasons for wanting to do these things that are internal [i.e. better for US not just some external expectation] but it's hard to stay motivated.

So usually we'll talk to each other and plan out what our goals are. I'm going to do my exercises three times a day. This will kill 15 minutes of my day (it's important to put this stuff in realistic terms, to me. If I'm whining about 15 minutes there is clearly something else going on). He's going to get up to go to that 10 am meeting. This means going to bed earlier and getting up on schedule. So we plan the night before and check in during the day (we don't live together) and sort of give each other a little "rah rah" pep talk. And then we share with eachother when we've done them. Somehow it makes me happier to tell him 'Hey I did my exercises, I am taking care of myself!" than it is to just do them. This may be pathological, but whatever. He likes getting to work and sending me an email "Hey I am here and I am NOT DEAD" which is our little buzz word. Getting up early on day will not kill him and if it helps him keep his otherwise awesome job, he should be able to do this once in a while. He can sleep late in a few days.

Putting off a task often just means that task and avoidance of it takes up more of your life. If I do my expericses it takes 5 minutes at a time. If I don't do them, I spend hours thinking about not doing them. I'd like to spend 15 minutes on my exercises, not hours.

And back to habits, I think you also have to differentiate what is a habit and what is something biological. If you click around here and read about sleep hygeine, you may find other thints that help you get to sleep earlier, sleep better and adjust your schedule to what you want it to be. If you're at a sleep debt it's going to be much tougher to straighten out your sleep habits.

And lastly, to the pet idea, I often offer myself incentive-type things for doing the things I should be doing. Get out of bed to HAVE COFFEE. Brush teeth while coffee is making because it's dead time anyhow and brushing teeth is me taking care of myself [go me!]. Do exercises so I can tell boyfriend I've done them [yay buddy!]. Do dishes because it's ten minutes and it's me taking care of myself [go me]. prefpara made a comment in another thread talking about how to use positive self-talk to sort of congratulate yourself for doing the things that are good for you. It sounds really goofy in some ways but if you're someone who didn't come from a place where this sort of thing was normal, it may be something you didn't even realize you're missing.
posted by jessamyn at 7:45 AM on June 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: There's a book that might help you!

Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard

This book has been immensely helpful to me for reframing how I think of making change. Before I read this book, all I could see was "be disciplined and apply willpower" or "fail completely". This helped me think more creatively about how to encourage making those changes happen (and how to appreciate that side that wants to stay in bed, rather than thinking of it as the enemy).
posted by cadge at 7:48 AM on June 2, 2011 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Have you tried joining the Metafilter group on Health Month? Last month was my first month and I saw a HUGE improvement in the consistency of my exercising. It got me from once or twice a week to six times a week, and now I'm increasing the amount of time per session. And you can use it to achieve lots of different goals, not just exercise or eating right.

And I agree with the others above that emphasized the importance of taking advantage of your natural rhythms. For example, I'm not a morning person and there's no way I'm going to get up early to exercise; I exercise at night--usually start about 8:00 or 9:00--and it helps me sleep better, get rid of work stress, etc. And I'm way too lazy to go to a gym, so I have equipment at home and a yoga DVD. Find something you like to do and that will help you a lot.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 9:54 AM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with the healthmonth comment above - having social support and a daily means to check in on my goals has helped me make several good habits stick. I'd also recommend making some buddies at the gym so that people will Question you when you don't show up. Basically, enlisting others to help can make it a Lot easier!
posted by ldthomps at 10:10 AM on June 2, 2011

Best answer: Ziggy500, I just went back and read your question again, and I'd like to add to my previous answer that you might want to focus on making your self-talk more positive. What I find is that often people are much harder on themselves than they are on anyone else. When you don't get up on time, you probably say things to yourself like, "you're worthless, you're never going to get anywhere because you're such a lazy slob, etc., etc." When you do that, stop and ask yourself if you would talk to a friend that way if he or she didn't get up on time. Of course you wouldn't! You deserve as much kindness and respect as anyone else, so be gentle with yourself. Not getting up on time doesn't mean you're a failure, it just means that you get to try again tomorrow. Look at how hard you're trying to reach your goals; give yourself credit for that and be kind to yourself. And just from a practical point of view, you don't motivate someone by tearing them down; you motivate by telling them, "I know you have it in you to accomplish this--just keep trying until you get it!" Motivate yourself the same way.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 10:12 AM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've been trying a new approach this year, with success. I tried identifying what does get me to do things, and apply them to my health and gym-going. I know that I follow through on things when someone else is expecting me/when I have a specific appointment scheduled and when I'm spending money on it. I also know that I won't go very far out of my way to work out. So I found a personal trainer, at a gym directly between my house and my office. This has been hugely successful. I'm not willing to stand her up, and I'm paying her money that I don't want to waste.

What are the criteria that do work for you? Like you, feeling better for the rest of the day isn't motivation enough for me. I wish it were, but it isn't. A calendared appointment, on the other hand, works for me. Feeling better is a bonus. I love my new muscles and strength, so I'm getting lots of positive feedback, which helps, too.
posted by gingerbeer at 10:16 AM on June 2, 2011

Best answer: Do you hate, f.ex. broccoli, and can't imagine eating anything more disgusting than a broccoli sandwich? Here's how to make it tasty: add a piece of shit to the broccoli sandwich.

Dig your fingernails into your arm - hard. Hurts, right? Yet what do many people do, when they accidentally stub their toe, or hurt themselves? Well, they clutch - very hard - another body part, or dig their fingernails in or some such behavior. Each of these hurts on its own, but do it together, and paradoxically, they offset each other to some degree and you end up hurting less overall. What you are doing, is distracting the brain - here's an article mentioning this effect:

Study Suggests Crossing Your Arms Can Reduce Pain by Confusing the Brain's Pain Signals

I used these strategies for pain management since I was a kid, instinctively, yet many people who should be familiar with this, are unaware of this effect (when I was in physical therapy after an accident, and I had to do very painful stretching exercises, my therapist would always say "relax", which was utterly counterproductive; same at the dentist, they tell me to relax, while I prefer to death-clutch the armrests).

I did exactly the same thing with unpleasant duties and tasks. Some things you want to do are good for you, but you just can't motivate yourself. For example, I hate exercise. So what I did, was to use the 1 hour on the elliptical machine to do something that I wanted for a long time, but could never quite find the time or force myself to do - learn another language. Now the effort in trying to do the language exercises and the effort on the elliptical offset each other to some degree, and I did both with much less suffering.

Eventually, I've started power-walking mostly uphill for 1 hour 5 times a week, and working on "unscheduled" tasks.

Let me explain "unscheduled". There are a number of things we'd like to do, but because they don't have a strict schedule or deadline, we keep putting off, because we always ask ourselves "why at this moment", and end up never doing them... procrastination! These are often things like: working on a novel, or some writing project, art project, financial planning etc. Well, this is how you *force* a schedule - simply combine exercise with it. I wrote two spec screenplays using this method. I hike for an hour and that's time devoted exclusively to solving problems or inventing stuff for a screenplay - I actually completely forget the pain of the uphill trek, and I have nothing to distract me from working on the script, or financial planning or whatever task. Then I get home and put it on paper.

A very key aspect to this: you must do it regularly and often. Exercising 2-3 times a week doesn't work - at least for me. I start only looking forward to the days off, and soon my discipline disappears. I must exercise at least 4 times a week for it to stick - with fewer days off, my expectation is that exercise is just inevitable. Days off is like smoking a cigarette - pulls you back into a state of physical indolence and its dubious rewards. Better to cut it off completely, or at least make it very minimal. Many people exercise every day for just this reason. Bonus 1: your suffering diminishes. Bonus 2: you'll get a heck of a lot more accomplished on the other tasks, because you exercise frequently.

Do this "combining" of shitty things as much as possible (say, laundry and reading a dull report etc.). It'll be less pain overall.

Bottom line: to make the shit sandwich go down easier, make it bigger and a regular part of your diet.
posted by VikingSword at 12:20 PM on June 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your creative, thoughtful and kind answers!

I hadn't heard of Health Month. Will definitely check that out. And it's a good point about self-sabotaging by trying to do too much at once!
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:59 AM on June 3, 2011

I DON'T KNOW whoa caps were on.

I don't know how relevant this is, since my own struggles were of a bit of a different nature (making myself work on unrewarding things when easy, rewarding options were always present), but I feel I really overcame some of my difficulties when I came up with this idea:

Often when I'm faced with the choice about what to do, I feel like I have this lizard-brain self, as you say, that wants me to choose easy, cheaply rewarding stuff, and this intelligent self, that has other ideas. And so I get into this internal debate about what to do. And that debate is often framed in certain ways: "I deserve to relax after the tough day at work" or "I earned a break by doing X" or whatever. And those terms: deserve, earn, relax, stress, etc. are sort of bullshit terms. They sound like they're saying something maybe worth considering but all that they really are is my intelligent self co-opted into rationalizing the interests of lizard self. They don't actually present any information I really need to consider.

Sometimes you do need to relax, but I find when those times come it just happens naturally and guiltlessly. The "debate" is a sure indication that your lizard self is trying to convince your intelligent self to throw in the towel, and seriously fuck that guy.
posted by neuromodulator at 6:39 PM on June 5, 2011

Hey! I still struggle with some of the same issues myself, but I have managed in the last two years to kick a number of habits, and enforce some new routines, and I think that about 90% of it has to do with perspective.

For instance - I was really quite slack at flossing my teeth, but I wanted to get into the habit of doing it more regularly, even though the thought of flossing made me kind of impatient and believe it was a waste of time. So what I did was start telling myself that I really loved flossing! Every time I thought of flossing, which was whenever I brushed my teeth, instead of feeling beholden to the notion of NEEDING to floss, I would tell myself, "Man I love flossing! Can't wait to do it after I brush!" I decided that I really liked the sensation of flossing - and that made me want to do it more - see what I mean?

This sounds really naff - and quite frankly, it is. But it worked for me. I had similar success with quitting smoking, stopping drinking and waking up early.

I guess the way I see it, our body is conditioned by our thoughts - by thinking the same things over and over, we train ourselves into certain patterns. So instead of focusing on the negative aspects of the routine or habit you want to develop, just focus on the positive sides of it - or lie to yourself - whatever! It works the same way, really - if you believe it, then it's true for you. And you already know the positive aspects of the things you want to achieve - so during the day just start saying to youself, "Man I love waking up early! It feels so good!" Or whatever cheesy dialogue you feel is appropriate... :D

It might sound like a will-power thing - mind over matter, etc - but that's not really it. I don't think it's about OVERCOMING an obstacle - if you see it as an obstacle then you make it bigger than what it is.
posted by AstroTurf at 7:24 AM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

I really feel awesome after I exercise, especially if I manage to do it early in the morning. And YET, I need discipline to make myself do it!

One trick I just recently came up with is this- instead of thinking about how I will feel 15 min BEFORE I start for my exercise tomorrow, I focus on how I will feel 20 minutes AFTER the exercise.

I plan to use this not just for exercise but for anything and everything that makes me feel good later but is tough to begin. It's not a proven idea yet but it's certainly better than what I am doing right now. I think its all about the thought process and this is an excellent way to manipulate it.
posted by xm at 10:07 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think that's a good point, xm. When I think about whether I want to exercise on a particular day, I do focus on how the exercising will feel, not how I will feel after. I'll try and make that shift, too.
posted by neuromodulator at 10:27 AM on June 22, 2011

A recent Radiolab episode would fit right into this wheelhouse.

The premise is - your mind is your enemy. Yeah, in the long run, going to work out (for example) is better for you, but your short-term mind almost always wins out. The trick is to get your mind to not make a decision between long-term vs. short-term, but two options that are both short-term-based.

So, the more memorable example they gave was a woman who was a civil rights activist in the '60s who was trying to quit smoking. Her decision was always "quit smoking and be healthy" or "just one more". "Just one more" keeps winning out. So, to make it so that she had to make a choice between two short-term options, she made a pact with like-minded friend: 'Here's $5,000. If you ever see me smoking again, donate this to the KKK.'

It worked - because now every decision went from:




Might be worth a shot?

Link to the episode in question: here.
posted by po822000 at 1:56 PM on July 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

« Older [SpainFilter] three days in madrid   |   Desktop computer smelled like smoke- now will not... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.