All-in or all-out?
When I take on a new client for private lifestyle coaching, one of the questions I always ask is: are you an all-in / all-out kind of person or would you consider yourself more moderated, on an even keel, so to speak? My impression is that the majority of people class themselves as all-in / all-out types. I worked with a guy recently, let’s call him Pete. I think his experience will chime with a lot of you. He had the capacity to exercise extreme discipline for periods of time and he could make good progress like this. But he found that, in the past, whenever he went just slightly awry, he couldn’t stop the whole process unravelling. One slip-up would lead to a blow-out day which would in turn become a ruined week, lost month and, finally, the end of any semblance of direction or progress. Once he had made a mistake, Pete couldn’t find the right time or opportunity to get back on plan. He wanted what felt like a clean starting point so he always had to wait. When a new day didn’t seem like a clear enough break, it was a new week and then a new month. The question is: why does this happen and how can you combat this kind of reaction? How can you get back on plan effectively after a slip up?
I’ve talked a lot in past posts (Measurable Lifestyle, Know Less) about taking ownership of your own actions and choices and accepting that your current situation is a product of the decisions you made in the past. This kind of ownership should be empowering because, whatever state you are in, if you arrived there as a result of your own actions, then you can just as well navigate yourself to a better place if you make better choices. However, there is a distinction to be made between taking ownership of your actions and dwelling on them. If you dwell on your past choices, you end up reversing the intended relationship: the past begins to own you and you feel like you can’t escape it. This post is going to be about how to stay on the right side of that distinction and how to react when you do make poor choices. After all, you aren’t perfect. You will make a mistake at some point and you need to have a strategy for how to deal with that. My basic tactic is based on Stoic philosophy so I’m calling it the Stoic Strategy. It sounds cool, right? A little bit of alliteration for you nerds out there.
Enter Marcus Aurelius: you are not your past choices
So, how do you own your past choices without letting them dominate you? It’s all about understanding your relationship to the past, present and future. I’m going to let Marcus Aurelius do the talking because I’m pretty sure he said it better than I ever could:
Letting go all else, cling to the following few truths. Remember that man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant: all the rest of his life is either past and gone, or not yet revealed. This mortal life is a little thing, lived in a little corner of the earth
For the passing minute is every man’s equal possession, but what has once gone by is not ours. Our loss, therefore, is limited to that one fleeting instant, since no one can lose what is already past, nor yet what is still to come
Both these quotes are from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. The point is that only the current moment belongs to you in any real sense. You need to recognise that your past choices are what brought you here while being able to see that you are not defined by those choices. Each and every moment is a fresh opportunity to reinvent yourself by making better decisions. It’s a bit like the theory of sunk costs in economics. Sunk costs are unrecoverable and you should not base current business decisions on trying to redeem those costs. Sunk costs are not a variable in present business decisions. Likewise, past lifestyle choices are not a variable when it comes to present lifestyle choices. Sure, you recognise the sunk cost and endeavour to incur fewer of them in the future but you do not let the way you feel about the sunk cost affect the clarity of your current thinking. The past is dead and gone. It doesn’t belong to you and you need not answer to it. Let it go.
What often happens is that you look back on your past habits and actions and you build a negative impression of yourself. “I’m fat”, “I have no will power”, “I’m lazy”, “I hate myself” and you then allow that self-perception to drive your current choices. You start to make choices that align with these self-deprecating descriptions. This is how destructive cycles begin. Bad choices create unfavourable self-images which in turn lead to worse choices and even worse self-images. You need to break this loop. Your past choices do not define you. Your current choices define you and with those choices right now you can choose to be whatever you aspire to be. All you need to do is make the right choice right now.
Breaking the loop: The Stoic Strategy
It is with this mindset that you need to respond to mistakes and moments of ill-discipline. Next time you err in your plan, next time you crush a pizza and a tub of ice cream when you shouldn’t have, redefine yourself straight away by making your next decision a good one. Don’t wait until tomorrow, or next week. Look for the very next opportunity to make a choice which aligns yourself with the self-image you want and the plan you’d like to be on. Let’s say you nail a Dominos and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s (yeah I know, I’m obsessed…) on Friday night. Well, there’s still a chance to make a better decision before the night is up. Make the decision to do some mobility work, some breath work or get into some meditation. Choose to get to bed on time so you get 8+ hours of sleep. That way, you are no longer the guy or girl who just inhaled a kilo of dough. You’re the person who decided to aid their mental health and recovery with some mediation and / or stretching and you’re the person who goes to bed on time because they care about their performance. That’s a radical shift in self-perception and it only took one choice and half an hour of limited effort. If you’re sitting there thinking your self-image is not affected by poor choices, stop kidding yourself. You are not a bionic human. Everyone is vulnerable to this even if it occurs subconsciously.
So here is the Stoic Strategy for getting back on track: as soon as you have erred, take the very next opportunity to make a choice which re-aligns you with your plan and your desired self-image. Don’t wait a day. Don’t wait until what seems like a logical re-set point. There is no such thing. They are all arbitrary. Make the next meal super clean, get to the gym and train straight away, do some mobility work, do some meditation, get to bed on time, drink some water, take your supplements. There are SO many ways to skin this cat. The important things is to do it as soon as possible; before you have a chance to be affected by the negative feedback loop of bad choices and self-perception.
Understand that you are not equivalent to your past choices. You must own them but not become subjugated by them. You are only defined in the present moment. That is your only true possession. Any time you slip-up, break the loop and choose to be something better right now.
If you’re interested in checking out some Stoic philosophy, check out the below:
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
On The Shortness of Life by Seneca
The Daily Stoic edited by Ryan Holiday
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