Apparently, barbecue is the preferred meal of choice in Denver on Super Bowl Sunday. On more than one occasion during my run, I was more certain that I was about to knock on a door and solicit a meal from a complete stranger, than I was to actually finish the run. I'm pretty sure some delicious wafts of smoke physically tugged at my arm, quietly cajoling me to stop.
Quitting would have been much more than easy. It would have been glorious. If only the run had felt like the easy option.
Hard Work is Easy... When It's EasyYears ago, I had considered myself a runner. As a rower in college, running was about pain and winning. Mostly about pain, because we didn't win a lot.
In the early pre-dawn hours, we'd jolt ourselves out of sleep and into a flat out sprint as soon as our vans lurched to a stop on the eastern edge of the Veterans Memorial Bridge over the Susquehanna River.
Heaven forbid any of us "lose" a warm-up run. I can still feel the burning in my lungs as the urgency and competitiveness of youth found my body's limits at the flip of a switch.
Pain wasn't like it is now. It wasn't something to suffer. It was something to celebrate. It was a right of passage. Feeling pain was proof of something-- manliness, I suppose. Which is what a young man wants to feel more than anything.
That being the case, eventually the bridge wasn't enough space with which to express our manliness, so some of us took to running the additional couple of miles from the bridge to our dock. Stupidly fast. Before practice. Running was always like that, as were circuit workouts, stairs, and of course, the rowing. Rowing is for experiencing pain, I'm now convinced. I even tore a muscle in my back. Cuz, you know. Can't be stopped!
But of course, pain we sought. And so one day, a few of us decided to just run the whole freakin' way from campus to the river. 16 miles. None of us had gone that far before. We made it, and we were fine, because we were 20 years old.
At that time, if me and my teammates were the hardest workers we knew, it surely had something to do with will, but more to do with chemistry. Quitting would have literally felt worse than pushing through the pain.
Getting Dosed on DopamineDopamine is the secret to doing anything worthwhile. Ironically, it's the same thing that makes you want to do easy things, instead. Dopamine is your brain's way of saying, "Yes, please, let's do that again!" Every time you engage in a pleasing habit, eat something tasty or have a pleasurable experience of any kind, dopamine flooding your brain is what makes it feel so good.
Learning to find my physical limits-- and those of my college teammates-- was all about dopamine. It doesn't matter that it was wrapped in what might be considered "hard work." I didn't have some virtuous trait that helped me work hard, I had a compulsion. That compulsion led me to enter quite a few running races after college, including four marathons. I often decided that I hated running in the moments before a run. And then I'd go for hours, because I had to. You might say it felt too good to stop. That's what a strong habit does for you.
Being successful isn't about suffering pain and exercising willpower. It's about finding what feels good. It's about positive feedback loops.Most hard tasks that we also consider important don't feel good while we're doing them. Unlike eating cake, sitting down on the couch with the remote control or fooling around on Facebook, important tasks don't usually elicit immediate gratification. They don't have a built-in positive feedback loop, like simple pleasures do. Engineered properly, however, they can.
Finding Your Feedback LoopsI'm not 20 anymore, and I've been sorta busy with things like having a kid, selling a house and launching a start up. That makes running feel harder than it did. These days, the actual pain and physical discomfort easily override the positive feedback loop I experience by finishing a run. Such is the case with so many things, amiright? Here are a few simple ways to start building habits that suit you, without beating yourself up about them.
- Commit to one or two quick and easy habits you can do every day.
Quick and easy. Say you want to blog more regularly (don't know anyone like that, do you?) schedule a daily task for yourself to jot down one new blog post idea each morning before you finish your coffee. It has to be that simple. Not one new post. One new idea. In order for the feedback loop to work, you have to make it short and satisfying. It can't be a hassle or dependent on other factors, either. If you can do it yourself in a few minutes, that makes it a good choice.
- Pair your new task with a habit you already have.
I mentioned coffee for a reason. You already score a dopamine hit with your coffee, so it's easier to pair another quick task with it that can tag along for the dompamine ride. Then some good ol' classical conditioning starts to happen. For example, you may start thinking of new posts while pouring your coffee, or even before your coffee while you're still in the shower. I so often spend time writing first thing in the morning, that I often have to put ideas into my smartphone when I'm going to bed.
- Schedule the task.
An alarm goes off on my phone reminding me that even before I take my daughter to school, I want to spend some time on content and social media for my websites. Notice I used the term "want" not "should" or "need to."
- Find ways to be accountable for your task.
For better or worse, we humans are motivated by the fear of embarrassment. We don't want to look dumb or let others down. It's part of being a social creature. So use it for better, and instead of failing to start for fear of failure, ask for help. Commit to deliver on the task for others. Blog about it, tweet about it. Find a buddy. My dog lays on one hell of guilt trip when I neglect take him for a walk or jog, which suddenly makes my running challenge much more manageable.
Before long, you start looking for ways to expand your habits. I've been on a writing tear of late while also ramping up my mileage-- two activities that can feel especially things that feel boring, painful or otherwise unpleasant in the moment. And yet, they're becoming fun again. I find myself craving them.
I wrote a more in-depth article specifically about forming a blogging habit for the Search Engine People blog, where I'm a regular contributor. As someone who works in the content marketing and SEO field all day, producing more content is at the center of everything I do. I'd best be good at it.
It's stuff like that-- stuff that seems to take willpower-- that add up to make a difference in your day/week/month/year/life, which are the hardest habits to form. But those things are hard to do because they don't usually feel good while you're doing them, and something else you could be doing feels better. Like eating barbecue, instead of running.
If only you could figure out how to reliably do the hard things all the time. Dopamine is your answer. Find quick and easy feedback loops that feel good, and the habits you want will follow.
Do you have any habit-forming tips or tricks to share? Please let me know in the comments.
photo credits: whatwereeating.com, themediadesk.com