On my run this last Saturday—ten breath-taking, some times ankle-bending miles in several inches of snow—I was thinking about change. Recently I heard an Invisibilia podcast talking about the mutability of personality, questioning whether we just ‘are who we are’, or whether humans are capable of significant personal change during their lives.
At a cellular and molecular level, our bodies change all the time. According to David Kestenbaum, physicist and journalist for NPR, 98 percent of the atoms in our bodies are replaced every year. We can even protect ourselves from degenerative disease through exercise—actually transform our brains! So why should we assume that, although our physical bodies—right down to our very DNA—alter over our lifetimes, our characters are set in stone, carved out in early experiences, defined by the thoughts or actions of childhood or early adulthood?
In the Invisibilia discussion, one of the programme contributors asks, if personality change is possible, how come her mum always acts so completely and utterly her-mum-like?
In my own experience, I find that I tend to respond to people in certain ways, depending on context. With my children, for example, there is perhaps a box of ‘mum-like-ness’ that I inhabit. I’m a varied and complex person—but my kids will always, predominantly, get the mumness in me. And when I’m in a work context, there’s a professional category of perspectives, tones and behaviours which constrain and inform the way I respond to people. Maybe like me, you’ve experienced that excruciatingly weird phenomena of encountering people from a former period of your life (perhaps, school, or even relatives) and temporarily morphing back into old mindsets and attitudes that you thought you’d left behind decades ago…
As I considered these thoughts, I also came across lots of online descriptions of the ways in which athletes’ bodies change as they develop particular muscle groups and postures. I vividly remember looking down at my legs one day, and discovering a completely new muscle which seemed to have miraculously appeared in my shins! This was a few months into daily running—even though I’d been running regularly and frequently for a couple of years at this point, and racking up a reasonable mileage, the change in muscular development and tone was noticeable, just by making one small consistent change.
And I think this may provide a key to considering change.
“Good decision making determines the amount of leverage in your life. Good habits determine how well you capitalize on that leverage. Said another way, your decisions determine your trajectory. Your habits determine how far you travel along that path.” @James_Clear
I’ve found that consistent change is possible, and I have made some radical changes in my life, but rarely have these been the result of massive milestone-type declarations. More usually, I’ve considered an area I’d like to see an improvement in, made a decision about how to make that improvement, and then created a small sustainable habit to see that change embedded.
An example of this is the frustration I was finding in fitting in regular running into family life, and the anxiety I would sometimes feel around whether I was over-training. I realised that by deciding to run every day without exception, all the agonising over when and how far to run was removed: a shorter or slower run than I’d like didn’t feel like a failure or a cop-out, because there was always the sure-fire guaranteed chance of something longer or faster the next day.
I can’t tell you the number of times since I made that decision that I have been so grateful I did. Especially in weather like the #beastfromtheeast we’ve been struggling through lately, I would have bailed on so many runs in the last few months because I felt tired, or busy, or just freezing cold. Because the habit of daily running is now ingrained, there’s no stress and no dilemma. It just happens—short, quick, slow, tempo, hill reps, long, whatever—and I never regret it.
There are lots of other areas of my life in which I’ve made major changes, and they’ve all been earthed through the same process of reflection -> decision -> small sustainable habit embedded. Some times these habits get eroded, and I have to go back and build them again. But that’s okay, because I trust the process. It doesn’t get wearying because it’s doable. Simple steps lead to complexity. The muscle builds, and the habit sticks, and you move along a path from strength to strength.
Running streak total today is 431 days, 1767 miles. #runeveryday