Imagine an outstretched rubber band. Stretched at either side enough to be tight, but not tight enough to tear. What happens when you try to pull it at the middle? When you pull it to one side — towards yourself, for example — its immediate reaction is to spring back in the opposite direction with a force proportional to your pull. Its endgame? Getting back into its resting, balanced state. Simple visual. But also an abstract concept that can explain how our bodies and minds are wired.
How the Mind and Body Work: An Introduction to Balance
Like an outstretched rubber band quickly trying to quickly restore its balanced resting state, so do our bodies during stress. In biomedical textbooks, this is called homeostasis. Couldn’t put those cookies down? Our blood sugar spikes almost instantly. But so does insulin, a hormone that shuttles sugar out of the blood and into tissue. The hormonal system, at normal function, is rigged to quickly restore balance should anything spring out of its normal range, from blood sugar to electrolyte levels to blood pressure. Can it be that our thinking — and decision-making ability — mimics a similar pattern?
Our wiring was set during a time when what we needed was hard to come by, so we evolved features that helped us adapt and survive. Most of these features involved quick, reflexive reactions that instantly reversed any problem — a rubber band being snapped back after the initial pull — to help us restore our safe “baseline.” Think cavemen. Leaving your home for food likely meant being chased by a predator in pursuit of that food. So we evolved the biological machinery to help us escape physical danger quickly. Our thinking is a product of that same biology and chemistry. Quick, reflexive, balance-restoring reactions served us well then. But do they serve us well in today’s world, where, for many, abundance of food and lack of immediate physical threats are the norm? Where short-term goals are less valuable than long-term ones?
Why We Do What We Do
Today, we don't face the same challenges we evolved to face. We're a modern machine with a legacy operating system. Our bodies are equipped with the biochemical machinery to help us snap back to our defaulted baselines as quickly as possible should we ever leave that safe zone. This is as true for our bodies' ability to regulate blood sugar as it is for our minds' decision-making ability.
So then, how is this psychological baseline, our "comfort zone", set today? What do we always try to bounce back to? And, more importantly, how do we rewire it to take steps towards distant dreams — in other words, stretch that rubber band — when we’re wired to default to comfort as quickly as possible? There’s no one right, or easy, answer: we’re trying to undo what evolution took hundreds of thousands of years to achieve.
Our psychological baseline is cemented by evolution, genetic predisposition, and environment. All of these factors bleed into our biology. Evolution, we can’t undo. Genetic risks, if you’re predisposed, have the potential to be alleviated by medication. Environment, or context, we have all the power to change, if we choose to.
Today, our environment is in our comfort zone's driving seat. What were you exposed to during your formative years? How were you trained to react? Were you rewarded by those you value for being curious? Shy? Outgoing? Comfort zone set.
Today, we don’t understand the difference between physical and emotional threats, so we react similarly to both. When was the last time you felt out of your comfort zone? How did you feel right before diving in? Anxious? Avoidant? The “fight or flight” response that helped us evade predators also tries to help when we're: about to speak in public. Or ask out a crush. Or network. Or take the first step toward starting a business.
Now, we know what we’re up against. And sometimes that’s half the battle. To train ourselves to make better decisions by employing foresight, we’ll have to train the same way we train for anything else.
- Understand our endgame.
- Break the goal down into simple, actionable steps.
- Set a routine.
- Force the issue.
- And practice.
1. Understand our Endgame
We don’t know which way to turn if we don’t know where we’re going. We like to get value, and we get little value from expending effort into something we don’t get immediate value from. So, think about and understand what you want to achieve. Set a goal. A specific one — goal metric and timeline. “I want to lose 15 pounds in the next 3 months, right in time for summer.” “I want to take a job that’ll allow me to start my own business on the side in the next year.” “I want to invest so that I’ll be financially independent in the next 5 years.” Having an exact idea of what you want, even if you don’t know if you’ll want the same thing at that time, makes it much easier to understand which steps are most valuable as we move towards our goal.
2. Break the Goal Down into Simple Steps
Let’s stick with the weight loss goal: 15 pounds in 3 months. 15 pounds is a lofty goal and hitting that number requires sacrifice. If we only see the end goal, starting, much less following through, becomes much more difficult. So let’s shrink the problem space and find the smaller, more actionable steps that’ll help us get there. 15 pounds in 3 months means 5 pounds every month, which equates to a loss of just more than 1 pound per week. Much less intimidating, right?
Let's see if we can break this down to a daily activity. It’s estimated that a 3500 calorie deficit burns 1 pound of fat. So, we're looking at a daily 500 calorie deficit. A mild, 30-minute run nets you around 320 calories, depending on weight and speed. Or, just skip that big slice of pizza for lunch and you’re well on your way.
3. Set a Routine
We don’t like the unexpected. It becomes too cognitively difficult to deal with, much less thrive in, unanticipated situations. So set your stage. If you’re set on running as your next step, make it as easy as possible to fit running into your daily routine. Can you wake up 30 minutes earlier? Or take a jog after work? Set your gear on the couch the night before. If you go out for lunch regularly and tend to pick up high-calorie foods, pack your lunch at home.
It may be hard to do a complete routine turnaround at first, so ease into it. Run a few times a week. Pack your lunch a few times a week. Alternate running with packing lunch. Get creative with your routine. Give yourself Fridays off for good behavior.
4. Force the Issue
You’ve set your stage. Now it’s time for you to perform. Don’t want to? That’s alright. We’ve all been there. One step at a time. You don’t have to take big leaps here. You’ll burn out, your goals will go by the wayside, and you’ll train yourself into believing that you aren’t able to hit your goals. You are. Get up 30 minutes earlier. Take the 20 extra minutes to prepare your lunch for the next day. If you won’t do it for you, no one else will. Do the work. You won’t regret it.
It won’t always be as hard as it is at the start. It gets easier with each rep. Soon, 6:30am won’t seem very different than 7am. Taking the time to make your lunch might actually give you the time you didn't know you needed to meditate on how your day went and what you’d like to accomplish tomorrow.
Before you know it, you’ll have hit your goal. Or, better yet, set a new, more challenging one.
Expand your horizons and, as always, be more than you ever thought possible. For an extra dose of inspiration, see our canvas prints and quoted apparel.
Pasha & the Bemore Team