Optimism Needs Honesty

Monday morning, I got up a little earlier than usual, and —despite being pretty tired— was looking forward to getting back to the gym. I’d taken a week off to get over a cold, and while I’d have to reduce the weight I was lifting to avoid soreness, it felt really good to have recovered enough to get some exercise.

In our apartment, everything was ready for my triumphant return, too: my gym clothes were neatly folded and ready to go, the coffee machine was ready to brew, and I had all the ingredients I needed for a quick pre-workout snack (9-grain toast with orange marmelade and peanut butter, if you must know).

And yet… I found myself having a very hard time getting out the door.

Why? Because since Saturday night, we’d gotten a bunch of freezing rain followed by snow, and the thought of having to de-ice my car felt like a huge hassle that I didn’t want to deal with.

Sorry, let me rephrase that: it was a huge hassle that I didn’t have to deal with.

In other words, I’m feeling lazy about going to the gym because I’m allowed to be lazy about it. When you think about it, skipping the day’s workout didn’t have any real consequence (unlike, say, skipping a day of going to work), but it also had no real, immediate reward, either (unlike, say… going to the guitar shop to buy a new guitar, I dunno).

So there I was, yanking on door handles trying to get into my car, realizing that it’s surrounded by hardpack snow that’ll require going back up to my apartment to get a shovel, and watching the available time for a workout that morning dwindle.

You can bet that if I had to get into that car to drive to a job, or to pick up a new Telecaster, I’d have made it happen. But having neither the forcing function of work nor the reward of made-in-California twangy goodness, the motivation to get into that car and on my way to Do The Thing™ was approaching zero, and that I’d have to rely on good ol’ discipline.

And really, all I could really think to myself was: Montreal winter: 1, Discipline: 0. Also, that my bed was probably still pretty warm.

Well, it was worth a shot.

The thing is, discipline isn’t the kind of thing that goes from zero to one easily. Discipline is built on routine. On habit. On showing up, day after day. And sure, I try to go to the gym fairly regularly, but after two and a half weeks of sleeping in because of holidays and then illness, my routine had been broken.

When you’re trying to kick off a new habit, you can rely on your motivation to get started, but you’ll also want to stack the deck in your favour, too. Setting yourself up to develop discipline can be made easier by two things: minimizing the friction between where you are and where you want to be, and rewarding yourself for actually doing the thing you’re trying to make a habit of.

It’s hard to look at a protein shake as a reward for going to the gym. There’s pretty much nothing good about going to the gym, in my opinion, beyond eventually witnessing some progress. So for now, I need to focus on minimizing friction. I thought I did a pretty good job of making sure that I was ready to go, but really I failed to account for the biggest obstacle: fighting the elements.

How could I have made that hurdle lower (i.e., set myself up for success)?

I know that getting into the car afterwards dumping of freezing rain and snow is a lot harder than just dusting off some snow, so I could have instead taken public transit and/or walked. This multiplies my travel time by a factor of about four or five, and nearly doubles the amount of time I have to dedicate to my workout. That extra time commitment then eats into the other stuff I do in the morning, which is the opposite of a reward. Knowing myself, that isn’t going to happen.

I could have instead gone out and cleared the ice and snow on Sunday afternoon, so that the car would be ready to go Monday morning. In fact, I was telling myself that I should exactly that, after a morning of chores. And if I needed to drive to work or go buy that Tele, you can be sure I would have found the energy to do that. But instead, I mostly convinced myself that it probably wasn’t too bad and I could leave it to the next day.

There’s a word for this: procrastination. But that’s a topic for another day, because I think there’s a more subtle and interesting takeaway here.

What fascinates me is how good and positive I felt about what Monday morning would look like, as Sunday evening crept towards bedtime. Somehow, I’d already done the calculus that I was going to have a tough time getting where I needed to go. And still, I was able to push the impending failure outside my door to the back of my mind, and instead point to all the things I’d done right in my immediate environment to slam dunk a home run.

(Clearly, I’m not a sports person.)

Yes, skipping the gym is trivial, but it points to something bigger: the ability to tell myself that everything’s great and trick my mind and body into believing it when there’s obvious evidence to the contrary. This is powerful, and insidious, and probably invades other, more important things. I sometimes describe myself as a “cautious optimist” — but maybe I’m not as cautious as I think.

This is probably also why reflection and introspection have made such a difference in my life. There are only so many times you can fool yourself when you’re faced with the same evidence week after week. That gut-check is something I’m doing more and more of in my weekly retrospectives as I focus on less and less, and while I still have a long way to go, being more honest with myself about the time, energy, and attention I have available is already paying off.

More TK.

Interesting reads this week

I’m trying something new, where I’ll share two or three articles that I read this week (they may be relatively new, or really old — so long as I read them this week).

  • Thinking in React Hooks — Amelia Wattenberger: Not only is this a fantastic explainer of the mindset shift required to make the most of React Hooks, I really love the interactive presentation of the post’s code examples. This isn’t the kind of thing that can be done anywhere but on one’s own website. (H/T: Keith Kurson)

  • The Wages of Productivity — Anne Helen Petersen: I first became aware of AHP from this interview on the Hurry Slowly podcast. The fetishization of productivity is invading our leisure in ways that not only exhaust us, but —more dangerously— fuel classism and further divide our society. (H/T: Jocelyn K. Glei’s newsletter)

  • Brainstorming: how I start a project — Brett Terpstra: I’m fascinated by the idea of mind-mapping (and have been purchasing MindNode’s upgrades for years now), but for some reason, it’s just not something that I jump to when I want to brainstorm on and/or flesh out a project. I think that’s because I’ve never been sure how to start, exactly, and this article (along with BT’s related mind-mapping posts) has given me some ideas.

PS: No guitars were purchased in the writing of this post. Unfortunately.

Angelo Stavrow

Montreal, Canada
Email me

Tinkerer with a strong interest for development, of both the personal and software persuasion; easily defeated with spatulas. Equal measures enthusiasm and concern for tech's effect on the world. He/him.