when the shine wears off

This is the third week in a row that I’ve gone to the gym almost every day. So far, it’s been kind of fun, I’ve been feeling very proud of myself, and I know I can look forward to a better summer hiking season if I keep this up.

As the third week unrolls, however, I can feel my motivation starting to flicker. It’s normal, at least for me — I always start an exercise program enthusiastically, hit my goals regularly for the first few weeks, and then fizzle. It’s not unlike several of my previous attempts to quit drinking: highly successful for a short period of time, but easily derailed once my momentum slows down.

In the early days of changing my drinking habits, I used to refer to this as the “LOOK WHAT I CAN DO!” feeling, a great leap of energy and euphoria from discovering that I could pull off this ‘abstaining’ thing for day after day. Then the shine wears off, the brand-new trick becomes increasingly tedious, and the thought that I have to keep this up forever starts feeling awfully depressing.

I also struggle with the fact that results are not instantaneous. What can I say, I like instant gratification. I also live in a culture where instant gratification is wildly over-promoted, with exercise gurus promising “overnight results,” self-help slogans suggesting you can turn your life around with this “one simple trick,” and an endless barrage of shiny ads promising immediate gratification for desires you didn’t even know you had. Message received: I want things to work right away, so I can move on to the next great thing. Also, I really hope that the next great thing is made of chocolate.

And so here I am, almost three weeks of regular exercise achieved, and I am not noticeably stronger, faster, more toned, or otherwise transformed. I’m just me, with a somewhat stinkier pile of laundry and a ravenous appetite (which might be due to the increased exercise, or you know, might just be because I like to eat). The shine is tarnishing, my new activity has a long way to go before it becomes an ingrained habit, and in theĀ  meantime, it requires a considerable amount of effort. Sigh.

I’m trying to put the pieces together to make this a sustainable habit, and one of those pieces is figuring out how to navigate this (predictable) stretch between “LOOK WHAT I CAN DO!” and that far-off time when going to the gym is just part of my normal, everyday routine. It may be a long stretch, I don’t know…certainly, it won’t be as quick as I would like. But I feel a big surge of confidence every time I remember one thing: I already managed a huge change in my drinking habits, so maybe I can figure this out too.

Thinking back to what worked for me with drinking, I have a few ideas for how to navigate this little valley of dullness. One of which is to remove my focus from how I feel. We humans are fascinated by our feelings, but they can be a tremendous distraction. The truth is, gyms are full of people who don’t feel like exercising, they just do it anyway. I can’t only do the things that feel easiest, or most comfortable, otherwise I’d still be drinking wine all evening long…and anyway, the more we do anything new, the easier it starts to feel. So instead of obsessing over changing how I feel; I need to focus on changing how I act, and trust that my feelings will catch up eventually.

Focusing on a simple action, for the short-term, my primary goal is to continue to make it to the gym 4-5 times per week. That adds up to about 20 times per month, which I’m trying to track (note to self: get a calendar that would make this easier). Short-term goals should be quantifiable and achievable. Long-term motivation absolutely depends on regular, observable “successes,” so this sort of short-term goal setting helps a lot.

I’m doing what I can to remove obstacles to going to the gym, making “success” as easy as possible. I go at the same time every day (first thing in the morning — the time change might be part of why my motivation took a hit this week!). I have a gym buddy. I sort out my gym bag the night before, and make sure I go to bed at a sensible time (and don’t drink a lot, obviously).

I’m also focusing heavily on the auxiliary benefits. Three weeks of regular exercise simply aren’t enough to produce dramatic changes, anymore than my first 30 days without alcohol fixed everything in my life. But there are immediate, short-term benefits. For instance:

    • I am sleeping better and waking up more easily
    • I went for a steep hike, and wasn’t noticeably sore the next day (this is AWESOME!!!)
    • The day after my hike, I went back to the gym to lift (and felt like a BADASS!)
    • I am proud of myself each time I make it to the gym, and start my day feeling like I’ve already accomplished something important
    • I have missed days at the gym, and then gone a day or two later — recovering from “going off-plan” is such an important skill for me to practice
    • Gym time is something I share with my partner, which means we are starting each day with a shared activity, which makes both of us happy

Each of these is worth celebrating, and I do. I’m lucky enough to live with my gym buddy, so on our way out the door, we discuss how proud we are of ourselves, or how much we enjoy stealing a little quality time together. My partner has started referring to gym mornings as our “date mornings,” only semi-jokingly. But even on my way home afterward, when I am by myself, I spend a few minutes sincerely congratulating myself for having made it to the gym one more time.

Will any of this, or all of this, be enough to effect a long-term change in my slothful behavior? I honestly have no idea. But even if I manage to keep up my gym habit for just a couple of months, I believe I will enjoy considerable benefits. I have a hiking trip planned for early May, and it will be FAR more enjoyable with a month or two of regular exercise beforehand. Really, any amount of exercise is always good, so I should just keep doing what I’m doing. Eventually, I hope to find a different kind of shine, or at least, a comfortable sort of glow that can stick around.


the drinks we keep

I’ve spent the last six weeks working on a project that threatened to overwhelm me. Tuesday night was the day of the big decision — would our hard work make a difference, or would we lose this thing in a big way? Two hours before midnight, the decision finally came down: we won.

Along with the relief and exhaustion, I wanted to celebrate. Not with the big group, just with my co-organizer — the one person who actually understood all the agonizing, the late nights, and the hard work that actually made this happen. We went over to her house, canvased her fridge, found just one beer, and split it happily into two small glasses. A few other people came over, we hung out exuberantly until my yawns became too obvious, and then I wandered off home.

Deciding to moderate means I get to decide which drinks I want to keep in my life. Of those I’ve chosen to hang onto, my favorite are those I share with others, especially the celebratory sort.

It has nothing to do with the contents of the glass, of course. It’s the celebration, and the sharing. It’s sitting down at a battered kitchen table, raising the glasses, and meeting the eyes of the person who was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with me in this particular struggle. We could have toasted with water, with corn chips, with a fist bump.

When given the choice, I like being able to toast with something alcoholic, because I like the way the slight buzz amplifies my feelings of relief, release, and jubilation. And I like the ritual of it, the social moment of recognizing a shared joy and enjoying a shared treat. But the drink is the smallest part of that, and that’s good too. It means I’m not losing my sense of elation to that nagging desire for more buzz, more beer, more numbing intoxication. There was a time, not that long ago, when the fact that it was only half a beer would have frustrated me. I’m glad that part is past too. It was late, and I was tired: half a beer was plenty!

As things go, this was actually the first (and thus far, only) drink I’ve had all month. The fact that it’s rare helps make the toast feel more special — I can tell you from experience that there is nothing special about a “treat” that I give myself every day. It’s the paradox I keep rediscovering: by drinking only rarely, I end up free to enjoy a drink anytime I really want. The less I drink, the less I need to think about my drinking. It took awhile to get here, but it turns out to be a good place to be.