Dogs Don't Know They Can't (Part 1 of 3)
As I watched Chesty, today, tear in half his life-time guaranteed “indestructible” chew toy, it dawned on me. Dogs don’t know “they can’t.”
I have a video of him chewing his way through a still standing pine tree. A squirrel ran into a tiny hole in its trunk. Chesty wanted that squirrel. So he started working for it. He tore, and he gnawed, and he chomped on that tree for the better part of an hour trying to get at that little critter that was hiding down in there. He would still be shredding that tree trunk enroute to his pray had I not pulled him off for the ride home.
If only you didn’t know the term, “I can’t”. Think of how different your lives would be. Think of the possibilities. The dreams you would chase. The chances you would take. The goals you would achieve. If only you had never been allowed to say, “I can’t”.
You can probably relate when I say failure is never more frustrating than when you’re trying to make a positive change in your life. Let’s be honest. Many of you have been there. You’ve tried to change things up and completely missed the mark. Be it taking your personal life in a different direction, increasing your fitness, ditching booze, or improving your eating, many of you have experienced the scourge of falling completely on your face.
And it sucks.
For the majority, the pattern is very similar. You have the same conversation that starts with something like…
“I’m done. I’m fed up. I tired of feeling this way. I want to be happy with how I look. I want to have more energy. I need to make a change. I’m done eating like shit.”
Mind you this is almost always right after you just smashed about 4,000 calories worth of booze, cheese fries, and moon pies in the hole in your face and the thought of eating one more ounce of food is enough to turn your kitchen into a vomitorium fit for Nero.
Though probably most common, it is not only the realm of nutrition and weight loss where goals are found in droves, abandoned. How many times have you had your ass handed to you by gymnastics movements in the CrossFit Open?
One of my athletes, “B”, does. I was just speaking with him about this the other day. We were talking about the CrossFit Open. He said he remembered workout 15.4, where he couldn’t even start the WOD because it started with handstand pushups (HSPU). He shook his head in disgust noting how determined he was that year to not let it happen again the following year. And how the following year, after not getting a single HSPU in CrossFit Open workout 16.4, he got really serious. 2016 was the last year he was not going to get HSPU. But it was not until 2017, when the same workout was repeated and he again got ZERO handstand pushups, that he decided enough was enough. 2018 was going to be the year. Then he laughed remembering how right after CrossFit Open 18.4, again getting zero HSPU, he realized he needed to make some changes so that 2019 would be a banner year for him. And then CrossFit Open workout 19.3 came around and he got rug-slapped by, again, HSPU, and he knew he finally had enough. He was fed up. Deep in his heart of hearts, he said, he knew that the 2020 CrossFit Open was going to be the one where did handstand pushups like a boss. He made a hallowed oath, stopping just shy of performing a ritual sacrifice, in order to convince himself and everyone else he was on the path to change. There he sat nodding his head and clenching his jaw mumbling, next year…
Whether it is eating better, increasing our gym attendance, training our gymnastics movements, or making better choices in our personal endeavors, it doesn’t matter; the pattern is the same. You can’t help yourself. A moth drawn to the flame of destiny, you say it…
“Tomorrow I’m making changes. I’m going to…blah blah blah blah blah.”
With the resolve of a Benedictine Novitiate about to take their Solemn Vows you swear off all that would impede you on your journey towards your latest higher calling: The 30 pounds that needs to come off. The 5k you want to run. The cloths you want to fit into. The handstand pushup you want to perform.
Then the fun begins.
You cut 100% of the sugar and enjoyment out of your eating while stuffing nothing but greens and dry chicken into the hole in your face. You go to the gym 6 days in a row and throw in a few doubles for good measure. You run on your rest days. Absolutely certain of the fact that time tested progressions only apply to everyone else, you immediately set to work on an advanced gymnastic movement while ignoring that fact you still can’t squat below parallel, do a pull up, or maintain a hollow rock. You try all the various snake oils and liniments, fancy treatments, and diets.
You make it your mission to do everything except set yourself up for long term success.
Does any of that ring true for you? I’d say I’m hitting the nail on the head for more than just a few.
Habits, specifically good ones, are the ingredient missing that causes us to fall on our face. Habits play a vital role in making lasting, positive change because of the way they work. They are so efficacious because they allow us to act without the specific consent of our brain. More profoundly, habits allow us to act against our rational judgement. Habits are the reason Marines, when in a near ambush, without hesitation turn toward the enemy and charge straight at them. The rational mind would have them drop and seek cover and remove themselves from immediate danger. They aren’t acting on rational thought – they are acting on habit. Habits are what you need in order to be successful.
It’s not that you aren’t capable of creating habits. You are just trying too hard. Your sights become singularly focused on specific achievement rather than the process, and the progress that will come with it.
In an effort to get back on track and simultaneously punish yourself for your latest failing, you go to the extreme. While your intentions are certainly good, the road to hell and no-showing at the gym is paved with good intensions. The exuberance with which you re-engage on the behaviors that you want to turn into habit becomes your undoing. Your efforts are unsustainable.
I think we can all say that it’s impossible to count the number of times we have repeated that cycle. And that is where what I call habitual sustainability, comes in. Habitual sustainability is when you are able to actively pursue your goals in a consistent manner over an extended period of time. It is characterized by actions that provide a degree of immediate positive feedback, the use of behavior that requires little thought, and equipping yourself with the knowledge needed to effect the results you seek.
So how do you get there?
There is a pretty straight forward, 3-step process. 1. Decide, with specificity, on that which you want to achieve. 2. Establish your rituals. 3. Understand and learn everything you can about your goal.
Get specific with what you want to accomplish. Don’t settle on, “I want to get back into the gym”. It isn’t good enough to say, “I want to lose some weight. “I want to start reading more”, while noble, is very vague. “I need to be more patient with my________”, is something that probably applies to all of us, yet is scant on specifics.
After each of my shoulder surgeries I needed to decide what I wanted to achieve first. I don’t mean in the rehabilitation/recovery stage; that is all very prescriptive. I’m referring to the period of time from when I was first cleared hot to start exercising again up through today. I decided the first thing I needed to achieve was the ability to get the bar positioned over my midline. I chose this because it was a very specific outcome. Being so specific made it easily tested and very easy to choose actions that gave me instant feedback toward my desired goal.
What would this look like if my goal was trying to get back into the gym? First, I’d make the decision to return to the gym, in my first month, 3 days per week (specific). Next I’d break out a calendar and mark with a highlighter the actual days andtime that I’d go to the gym (easily tested). Further, I’d attend the absolute earliest class possible as it decreases the likelihood that life would conspire against me to interfere with my attendance. Each time I returned from the gym I’d take another highlighter and mark the day as ATTENDED (instant feedback). It should be apparent that I chose a very modest number of days with which to start. If I’m currently attending ZERO days, the thought that I’m going to suddenly start attending 5 or 6 days, is absurd. Notice I further set myself up for success by creating a means for positive, immediate visual feedback by using a calendar.
I WANT YOU TO COMPLETE STEP 1 AND I WANT TO HELP. Decide on what it is you want to do. Send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) with the details. If you need help organizing and distilling your thoughts down to something specific, let me know. I love helping people figure that stuff out.
In two days I will post the next installment of this blog post where I talk about establishing r
ituals. Two days after that I’ll publish that last installment where I will cover step 3.
Before you know it you will be on your way to habitual sustainability and chewing your way through your own tree. I will look for those emails!