It’s a long and irrelevant story as to how this movie reference re-entered my consciousness lately, but bear with me. I’m not into Rom-Coms (surprise, surprise), but let’s just say I have people in my life who are. There’s a famous scene in the old 80s flick When Harry Met Sally (no, not that one…) when Billy Crystal runs a couple miles through Manhattan fueled by the realization that “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” Don’t give me too many points for this (thanks, Google), but that line has stuck with me since I heard it who knows how many years/decades ago. Yes, it’s a nice sentiment, but at the time I admittedly connected (again, little surprise) more of a trainer’s message to it. (Shameless, I know.) When you know the life you want, why wouldn’t you want to begin it now? Why would you put off what you want today for tomorrow? No, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but there’s a lot to be said for the feeling of being on the path. Mentally and physically, you reap the benefit of every day you live a better life, no?
Yet, damned if we don’t play that old, sabotaging card – putting off our goals for a mythical tomorrow. What is it with us humans? For some strange reason, we bring this magical thinking to time, imagining that tomorrow will somehow be fundamentally different than the same hour today. Yes, a different date will come up on your phone tomorrow morning, but that singular digit holds no particular capacity. Do we honestly think something will be changed tomorrow? We’ll win the lottery and not have to go to work? The kids will dress and feed themselves with no reminders or aid? Our brains will be more motivated and capable of accepting change? Our bodies will have gained strength and stamina overnight to crave a hard workout?
You could say it’s simply abject laziness. You could call it inertia. I’d suggest you’d be right to a degree in both cases. Add to this, I think, the acknowledgment that the human mind is immensely gifted in the art of mental games. While we rationally know we earn our goals one exertion or test at a time, we see future investments as somehow more fruitful. I wonder why we accept that illusion so readily? The fact is, all days themselves are created equal. Yet, today is the one you have in front of you. It’s the one you have to work with. Tomorrow will actually be “today” in a few hours, and all that magical thinking you imbued it with will vanish. It will – gasp! – feel just like today except you’ll have lost the benefit of the day before. And we will once again be surprised.
Whether it’s a modern or simply human tendency perhaps doesn’t matter. The real question is this: how do we push back on our tendency to put off what could be started (and enjoyed) today?
Sure, it works for some people to make change in one big push. However, if a fixation on the cold turkey method keeps you from actually making meaningful change, accept that this particular approach isn’t going to work for you. If you can’t make a perfect choice, make a great choice. If you can’t make a great choice, make a good one. If you can’t make a good one, then at least avoid going nuclear (e.g. skip the drive thru).
Behavior change experts often cite the “cycle” of change theory, which holds that people go through a series of steps to institute a behavior change, including a beginning precontemplation stage (denial and justification), a contemplation stage (consideration and information gathering), preparation (planning and troubleshooting), action (implementing and substituting behaviors) and finally maintenance (continuing and refining action). If you can’t bring yourself to action today, do something to push forward your contemplation or (better yet) preparation. Make a list of healthier meals you could make for dinner, buy better food for any snacks you feel you must have in a day or come up with three ways to fit in some kind of physical activity after work. If you don’t do anything different today, you won’t be in a position to achieve anything different tomorrow.
Overwhelmed by devoting a whole day to healthy behavior? Choose to make better (not perfect) decisions for an hour. If it needs to be 15 minutes, make it 15 minutes. That’s all. Walk past the vending machine. Don’t eat anything left over from the meeting that’s sitting in the break room. Get up 15 minutes early and make some eggs for breakfast. Do some bodyweight exercises for 15 minutes. Spend 15 minutes of your lunch hour walking and getting some sun.
If you’re resistant to doing what’s healthy today, maybe it’s because you associate too much effort with a good choice. When we’re early in the behavior change game, a little extra effort can feel larger than it is. Keep healthy as simple as possible. Do as much as you can to make it difficult to fail. Set an alarm for yourself to go work out. Accept any workout as a small victory. Go out to a restaurant where you know you can simply order steak and salad. Go to bed an hour early. Go for low hanging fruit today if you’re tempted to wait until tomorrow.
It’s so easy to blame a long day at work, your kids, your spouse, budgetary constraints, daily stress, a bad night’s sleep, the weather, yada, yada, yada. (Who or what in the universe is your favorite scapegoat? Go on. We all get cranky some days.) Guess what? Life never gets easy. If you’re waiting for a magic, barrier-free stretch, good luck. People who experience the most success, satisfaction and peace in their lives are the ones who don’t wait around for it. Tomorrow will present its own set of annoying circumstances. Beginning will still be as inconvenient. Effortlessness is and will always be fiction. Accept reality and build your effort around it.
If the idea of committing to healthier behavior itself is too much, consider whether there’s a legitimate need behind your resistance. Are you tired? Hungry/”Hangry”? Overstimulated? Anxious? Lonely? Are you ready to eat that donut because it’s 2:00 and you’re realizing how much you hate your job or because it’s 8:00 at night and you resent being stuck at home alone? What do you need to do to get out the emotional trap? (Hint: Krispy Kreme or Ben and Jerry’s won’t help.) Do something fun. Yes, a brisk run or healthy salad would work your biology toward your emotional advantage, but do what you can. If it needs to be eating a hardboiled egg to drum up the energy to make something more substantial for lunch, do that. If it needs to be turning around a cynical, woe-is-me mind by watching 10 minutes of Louis C.K. on YouTube, do that. If you need to get 5 minutes of sun to wake up, there you go.
For the love, don’t think you have to do it alone. If you don’t have a friend or partner you can count on for encouragement, get involved in the forum here. Send a message today. Now would be good. (The comment board below can work, too.) Even a well-designed app can be a holding container or feedback source in a pinch. I highly recommend getting out of your own headspace as often as possible. Sometimes it’s your greatest asset. Other times it can be the most defeating place you’ve ever visited. When your best thinking is keeping you stuck in the illusion of “I’ll start tomorrow,” it’s high time you tapped into someone else’s perspective on what can be done today.
Have you ever found yourself on the inert side of “I’ll do it tomorrow?” What got you over the hump? Share your anecdotes and suggestions, and thanks for stopping by, everyone.
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