Sometimes easy does it

The best change is one that sticks, that becomes part of your way of being, of living. Often, its is also the one that comes the easiest.

Sometimes easy does it
Photo by micheile dot com / Unsplash
The best change is one that sticks, that becomes part of your way of being, of living. Often, its is also the one that comes the easiest.

If you are anything like me, you have grown up with the mantra "good things required hard work", and any "easy does it" type advice sounds like "new age snake oil".

But time is a wise teacher and, as I aged, I came to realise life does not follow mantras, sometimes things require blood, sweat and tears indeed... sometimes the "new age" approach is best.

When hard work doesn't pay

I tried learning the guitar since my late teens. I loved music and experimented with some music production software, made some "beats" (probably an insult to producers out there) but was drawn to the organic sound of musical instruments. I tried to self-teach for years, internet videos, DVDs, books, different methodologies, you name it. I tried it all, but it was far too difficult to get any good at it, or enjoy it.

By my late twenties I had enough money to pay private lessons once a week, I made progress during the 1st months, but then progressed stalled, I became demotivated, and the interest and effort started fizzling away...

I'm sure the "good things required hard work" crowd is now screaming, betting that the reason was that I did not put enough effort into it. I can assure you, that was not the case, but also I did not want a hobby turning into a hustle. I was putting effort, time and money into it. Other things required far less effort with far greater outcomes. I was at a loss... and lost interest in the guitar...

Then, when the COVID19 pandemic arrived, I used some of the additional spare time to learn the piano, and man was that different!

Sure, I had more time than usual to learn the instrument, but in a few months I was capable of playing simple songs & improvise. The piano mechanics and range fitted me better, and was probably easier to learn as an adult than the guitar.

Please don't be inclined to think I'm any good at the piano, I'm still a beginner, but a happy one :)

...and again...

Now I find myself in the same predicament, this time the topic is exercise. Incentivised by one of my "partners in crime", Luis, I embarked in trying to build a habit of stretching every morning.

The reality is that I do not enjoy it. Yes I can see the difference, I feel a bit better, but it is not a "pain killer", as it is for Luis, and neither does it bring me joy. It is the proverbial "Habit dead end", no amount of effort will ever be enough.

I contrast this to my other recent experience building an exercise routine. I play tennis 2-3 times a week, and started playing as means to build a seed of social life in a new country. I chose tennis because there was a good tennis club near by, and I had played a bit of tennis in the past, and enjoyed it.

I did not had to "endure" a habit formation process with tennis, it just IS fun. For all the benefits of stretching, I'm not sure I'll stick to it unless it saves me from real pain, or it evolves into a competitive sport using a racket...

An Elephant enters the room

I'm going to be a bit "risqué" and assume that you have experienced something similar to what I described above. Yes, perhaps in other areas of your life, activities, or context, but fundamentally the same experience: there are things you wanted to change that came easy, others that no matter the effort just did not stick!

Jonathan Haidt has a beautiful analogy called The Elephant, The Rider & The Path. In the analogy Haidt describes our conscious mind as the Rider, our environment & context as the Path, and our emotional self, habits & routines as the Elephant.

The analogy allows us to intuitively understand the interaction between our rational self, our emotional self, the habits & routines we perform, and the influence environment has on how we carry ourselves, what we do, and how we do it.

The Rider is rational, plans ahead and makes (mostly) considered decisions. The Elephant is driven by instinct, habit and routine. The path is something you need to deal with, not completely under your control, but essential in reaching your destination.

The great thing about this analogy is that it is extremely helpful in understanding why lifestyle changes are so hard, and why we cannot simply "think ourselves" into changing.

For all the grand planning and strategising of a rider, you will not move an Elephant towards "new lands" unless you make him want to go there, and remove the roadblocks along the way.

If you take the Elephant up a steep and unknown path you are in the literal "uphill battle". With great will and determination you can get up the hill, but chances are that your Elephant (habits & emotions) will win at the end (hands up who had a big whole tub of ice cream after giving up on going to the gym!).

Sneaky note: If you have read Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow you will see similarities between his book and Haidt's analogy (System 1 is the Elephant & System 2 is the Rider).

On overpowering an Elephant

You can try... but it will be in vain...

A lot of my previous failures were the result of trying to overpower the Elephant. You can try, but it is stronger than you. You can bribe it with peanuts, throw them into a different path, but eventually the peanuts will run out (motivation) and the Elephant will go back to the original path.

Shaping the path

The trick to behavioural change is to "shape" the path, and find objectives inherently attractive to the Elephant. Literally one must find the path of least resistance, and make the Elephant an ally on the journey. I know, easier said than done, and all a bit esoteric.

But perhaps it is not that esoteric. Going back to my example with music:  The objective (destination), was not to learn the guitar, it was to learn and play music. What was wrong was the instrument (path) that I chose to reach that objective. I could also make the analogy with tennis & stretching, and I'm sure you will find some analogies in your own life too...

It's complicated

There is a lot of psychology involved in what I talk here, all topics for future posts, and it can get complicated very quickly.

The objective with this post is to highlight that there are easier ways to change your habits and lifestyle than pure "labouring", that sometimes changing paths is wiser than enduring one that is not generating returns, sometimes you just have to pivot, and most times you intuitively know when!

As a final thought: I'm starting to form a theory that what is a difficult habit to form at one particular time of your life may not be so at another (and vice versa).

Part of this is that your live's objectives, values, current mindset and environment play a big part on what effort is required, and these can change over time. As an example, learning to play the piano by building a habit to playing every-night is easier when you are in the middle of a pandemic, working 100% from home, and you happen to be in a pretty open state of mind...

...and who knows, I may even find stretching enjoyable and fulfilling in a couple years, making a certain Luis grin from ear to ear.

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