When was the last time you listened to your favorite hip-hop album without doing anything else? Just you and some headphones and a couch?
When was the last time you watched a movie at home without checking your phone?
The last time you ate lunch by yourself without reading a magazine?
The last time you settled a silly argument by saying, “I don’t know” instead of needing to look the answer up on Wikipedia?
The last time you felt something strong—anxiety, fear, excitement—and let it flow through you without trying to push it away or hold on to it?
When’s the last time you found yourself wanting to be somewhere else or do something else instead of being where you are right now?
Yeah, me too.
That’s the difficult thing about mindfulness: recognizing when you’re lost in thought, when you’re wanting things to be different. And then just accepting it.
Thankfully the day presents lots of opportunities to practice.
I wrote the bones of what would become the Hero Handbook on a train from Amsterdam to Brussels in late 2010.
My friend Jason sat across from me. Every half an hour I’d show him something I’d written.
“That’s good,” he’d say. Or “That’s shit. Try this instead.”
Here’s something most people don’t know though:
I didn’t write the Hero Handbook for other people.
I wrote it for myself, because I didn’t know what I believed in.
At the time, my blog was just a bunch of random posts about working out, eating protein, and living “a good lifestyle”, whatever that means.
Some of it I liked because it felt like me. Some of it I didn’t like because it felt like other people. It made me feel like a fraud.
So I decided to write something for myself. A personal reminder. My manifesto.
And it helped me uncover what I was really trying to say:
No one’s coming to save you, so you better take control of your life. You have the power to live better and become your own hero. So let’s get to work.
I gave it away for free and it was downloaded over 40,000 times. Which was nice, but it wasn’t the best part.
The best part was realizing I had something to say. The best part was finding myself and my voice.
From that point on, every post I wrote felt like me. Every project I started to work on made sense. And the ones that didn’t make sense? I didn’t do those.
Through the process of writing my manifesto, I had unknowingly established a criteria for myself:
“I do stuff like this.”
Who are you and what do you believe in?
My friend Jason—the guy from the train—has a company that builds websites. Most of them are fitness related and they all look fantastic. If you need a good website, you should hire him.
But the content? The stuff his clients put on those fitness websites? I’m sure they’re all very nice people, but they’re starting to run together for me. It’s all a blur.
They all feel like the same person saying the same stuff.
The same personality, the same arms-crossed photo, the same “I’m-a-funny-yet-serious-bro” vibe. (Or the “I-eat-this-specific-way-which-is-the-best-way-to-eat-and-I-have-lots-of-recipes” vibe.)
It’s like they’re playing the “me-too” game.
If that’s the case, I understand. Really, I do.
My old website was a collection of regurgitated fitness-truths and things that I’d heard other people say. I even had the arms-crossed photo.
It’s just part of the process, I guess. We all go through it.
But there’s a way to uncover you and your voice. There’s a way to stand out or at least figure out what the hell you’re trying to say and why it matters.
And it’s become my advice to anyone who is misguided enough to ask me for it:
Write a manifesto.
For you: What do you believe in? What excites you? What do you have strong opinions about? What makes you different?
From the reader’s perspective: Who is this for? Why should I care? What’s in it for me? And what do you want me to do?
I have a friend who’s just starting to get comfortable with the idea of eating out by himself. You know, going to restaurants and sitting alone.
He avoided it for years, but now that he’s single, it’s just a fact of his new life. Sometimes there’s no one to go to lunch with.
Months ago, when the wounds of his failed relationship were still fresh, I suggested he try it. “It’s wonderful,” I said. “Like a date with yourself.”
He cocked his head to the side and sat back in his chair. “God no,” he said. “I’d look like an idiot. What do you even do when you’re out by yourself? Don’t you feel kinda pathetic?”
I go out to eat by myself a few times per week.
Breakfast, lunch, happy hour, dinner—each slice of the day has its own charm. Every one is a mini adventure.
Especially dinner. That’s the hardest one for most people.
Dinner is for dating. Dinner is for catching up with friends. Dinner is decidedly not for sitting by yourself like some pathetic fool whose date didn’t show up.
Maybe that’s why dinner is my favorite meal to eat out alone. Because it’s different. Social expectations seem less flexible at night.
When I eat dinner alone, I leave my phone off and sit at the bar. Always.
I have a drink. I ask for recommendations. I talk with the bartender, the hostess, the people next to me. Maybe the kitchen staff through that little window. I stare at my food and try to pick apart the flavors. I order dessert and daydream. I tip generously and leave.
It’s no big deal, really, sitting there letting things unfold. But we’re so used to filling time with people and distractions, that it seems weird.
Nobody wants to be alone. Especially in public.
But there’s a difference between being alone and being lonely. One is a state of solitude. The other is fear that we’re not loved.
When you’re alone you have to cultivate self-love.
Maybe that’s why we rarely make time for it. It’s scary. Maybe we won’t like what we discover when we’re sitting there by ourselves.
Sometimes I don’t like what I find. Sometimes I have to try real hard to love myself. But not all the time.
Anyway, I saw my friend again a few days ago.
We were at a little Mexican cantina waiting in line to order tacos. He turned around and pointed toward some stools by the window.
“Last week,” he said, “I sat right there for an hour by myself.”
“How’d it go?” I asked.
He thought for a second.
“Well, I didn’t feel pathetic.”
I know famous fitness experts who barely make enough money to live.
I know best-selling authors who are miserable.
I know people who don’t want to be in the fitness industry any longer, but who are still in the fitness industry and don’t know what to do next.
I know people who don’t like to write, but who start blogs and newsletter lists because they think that’s what you’re supposed to do.
I know people who think a workout e-book is a good way to help most people get in shape, and that anyone who doesn’t get results with it is lazy and pathetic.
I know people who think writing a book makes you rich and famous and I know people who think being rich and famous is a desirable thing.
Throw it all away
In 2010 I joined Precision Nutrition as a writer and marketing strategist. I took close to a 50% pay cut for the privilege to do it.
A dozen people in the fitness industry—big names, people just starting out, everyone in between—they’ve come to me and asked: Why?
Why stop doing things on your own? Why join another company?
You had a successful blog, online products, coaching clients, a mass-market book, and everything.
Why throw away what you’ve built?
Throw it all away?
I love these people. They’re friends and colleagues.
But they have no idea what they’re talking about.
I don’t blame them.
Most of them haven’t done the things I’ve done. And I don’t mean that in some egotistical, I’m-better-than-you kind of way.
I mean that most of the people who ask why I’ve “thrown it all away” literally haven’t experienced the stuff I’ve supposedly thrown away.
In 2010, my book Built for Show was on bookshelves. I’d written over a hundred articles for online and print magazines. Thousands of people came to my blog every day. I was just getting ready to publish my second book, The Hero Handbook, and I had a steady stream of online coaching clients.
I was where most fitness and lifestyle entrepreneurs wished they were.
But I wasn’t happy.
I looked around at the industry and didn’t like what I saw:
- A circle jerk of affiliate marketing, people writing workout books in a weekend and spending more time on the marketing funnel than on the thing they were trying to sell.
- Experts living a Facebook-Feed life, posting strategic updates and photos giving the impression that everything they did was awesome.
- People “following their passion” by teaching other people how to “follow their passion.”
It felt like a giant pyramid scheme. And I wasn’t immune to it at first.
1. I recommended products without reading them first. I thought, “This person is cool and smart, so whatever they do has to be incredibly valuable.”
2. I released an online workout book and sold it for $49. Lots of people bought it, and I heard from a few of them. They said it changed their life, and it made me feel good. And then I thought about all the people who bought it who didn’t get their life changed. There were lots more of them. And now I had their money.
3. I posted updates and photos of my “life” that made me look cool. People would see me standing under a waterfall in Costa Rica. But they wouldn’t see me fall on a slippery rock after the photo was taken.
4. I trained clients online, but I wasn’t giving them the attention they deserved. It was more like a factory assembly line than an actual coaching service.
5. I wrote articles for magazines and websites on things I didn’t care about just so I could see my name in print or get a link back to my website to boost my Google ranking.
But those things didn’t make me feel good. They made me feel empty and alone.
I wanted to be part of something bigger than an e-book or even a bestseller.
I wanted more than “a following.”
I wanted to be a part of something that mattered, something that had the potential to change the fitness industry and the lives of the people it purports to help.
I had no idea what to do.
Then one day, Dr. John Berardi called me and asked if I wanted to help him build Precision Nutrition into something bigger than the both of us.
I remember taking the phone outside and walking around the block.
With the sunshine on my face, I decided right then to throw it all away.
It was the best decision of my life.
Some habits are more important than others.
I remembered that yesterday.
After four days of staying up too late, eating too much, not working out, and having too many drinks, I felt terrible. Not just physically, but emotionally too.
My inner critic—normally an optimistic guy with a tinge of self-doubt—transformed into a relentless asshole.
Why you’d stay out so late? How come you didn’t meditate today? Who the hell drinks espresso and bourbon at the same time? Why are you so pathetic?
This isn’t the first time this has happened. And it won’t be the last.
In fact, it happens nearly every time I travel and get out of my normal routine. Before I leave for a vacation or work trip, I tell myself I’ll do all the healthy things I normally do while at home. And then I proceed to ignore 99% of my healthy habits as I get swept up in the novelty of being on the road.
In times like this, when I’m full of self-loathing but also self-reflection, I try to do two things:
- Cut myself some slack.
- Make a short list for next time.
The slack-cutting is because, like a lot of guys I know, I hold myself to very high standards. While this could be considered a good thing in small doses, I tend to think it does more harm than good.
My parents joke that as a kid I’d often get so ashamed, I’d go stand in a corner without them telling me to.
The only thing is that it’s not a joke. I remember doing it all the time.
Apparently, I was and still am my own worst punishment.
So when I’m feeling particularly self-abusive, I try to remember that I’m human, it’s all OK, and no one is making me feel bad but me.
The second thing I do—make a short list—is because I like to remind myself of the Stuff That Makes Me Have A Good Day.
The short list is a small collection of habits that, when performed, pretty much guarantee I’ll feel good, even if I don’t follow any other “healthy” habit.
Here’s my short list:
- Get at least 7 hours of sleep.
- Do 20 minutes of guided meditation.
- Exercise for at least 30 minutes.
- Write for 30 minutes.
- Don’t have more than 2 drinks.
Those are the important ones. The 20% that leads to 80% of my “healthiness.”
I don’t know this to be true, but I like to believe we all have a short list.
A small list of things that can turn a shitty day into something of substance, if only we take the time to do them.
The trouble, at least for me, is remembering I even have a short list.
Perhaps it’d make a good tattoo?
Today I’m starting a habit I hope to keep for the rest of my life.
It will help my body feel better throughout the day. It will serve as a small break from doing my work. And it will make every physical activity I do (inside and outside of the gym) more effective.
Today I’m starting to stretch at home.
And since I’m starting this new habit today, I thought it’d be a perfect time to give an inside look on how I start—and keep—new habits that are good for me.
When habits fail
In my experience, we fail to adopt or keep new habits for 3 reasons:
- We don’t feel a deep need to change and adopt the new habit; instead, it’s just a “good idea” we’d like to try
- The habit is unclear. Or it’s too big.
- We don’t have a plan or process for practicing the habit
How to break down a new habit and start practicing
Let’s stick with stretching, the new habit I want to start and keep.
1. Define why it matters
I sit or stand at a desk in front of my computer for 3-6 hours per day, depending on what I’m working on.
Even though I have an ergonomic chair, a large computer monitor, and a desk that adjusts from standing-height to sitting-height, I still feel tight throughout the day.
My shoulders slump and my head protrudes forward, stressing my neck and occasionally causing headaches. When I’m sitting, my hips are flexed at 90 degrees, causing my hip muscles to tighten. And my elbows tend to flare out when I’m typing, which over time has irritated my right shoulder.
Basically, I feel awkward and tight most of the day.
I want to start stretching because I believe it’ll help alleviate some of the pain and awkwardness I feel and “reset” my body, if only slightly.
So there’s my reason for why it matters to me.
2. Make the habit super-specific
Earlier I said my new habit is to start stretching. But that’s not quite right.
Stretching is too big. It doesn’t really mean anything. It’s not specific.
When will I stretch? For how long? What kind of stretches? What about strengthening or mobility exercises––are those covered under “stretching”? How often will I “stretch?” And so on.
So instead of saying “I’m going to stretch”, I’m making my habit super-specific:
I will do the following exercises and stretches every time I go downstairs to make a cup of tea.
There’s no ambiguity here. I know exactly what I’m going to do and when I’m going to do it. Which brings us to…
3. Set a trigger to remind you to do the habit
You’ll notice I said I’m going to follow my little routine every time I go downstairs to make a cup of tea.
Making tea is the trigger to remind me to do my new habit. A trigger is something you already habitually do, a thing you can “piggyback” your new habit on.
Since I work from home, I go downstairs to make tea at least two or three times per day. And normally I just stare into space while the water boils and the tea steeps.
By putting my new habit (stretching) on top of something I’m already doing (making tea), I’m way more likely to remember to do it. Plus, I’ll end up following my stretching routine at least two or three times per day, which my body will thank me for.
Setting a trigger is the only reason I’ve also started regularly meditating (20 minutes per day after I have my morning coffee) and reading fiction (30-60 minutes before bed).
What to try
Of course, this is just my process. You’ll have to experiment to find out what works best for you. But the next time you want to start a new habit, it may help to keep this 3-step process in mind:
- Define why it matters
- Make the habit super-specific
- Set a trigger to remind you to do the habit