Starting Over

The hidden key to long-run consistency

I hurt my back about two months ago -- badly enough that it’s sidelined me from just about all physical activity since then. Regular exercise is normally a big part of my sense of wellbeing, so having that taken away temporarily has been a bit of a downer. There have obviously been physical and mental impacts of not being able to exercise, but there’s also been a more subtle, second-order kind of impact: the frustration of having a good habit interrupted.

Most of the battle with any long-term pursuit like physical health is about consistency. Moments of inspiration produce bursts of intensity (think: ‘cleanses’ or crash diets or a million gym memberships purchased every January 2nd), but those bursts have little/no effect on long-term outcomes. Consistency is the compound interest of behaviour, so being well in the long run -- physically or otherwise -- has way more to do with what you do when you’re not particularly inspired. Show me your habits, routines and default modes of operation, and I’ll show you your future.

This back injury has messed up my rhythm (of exercising regularly) and caused a pretty material setback to my physical health. It’s frustrating to know that now I’ll have to start over, fighting just to get back to whatever modest level of fitness I had before. I’ll need to re-learn my weekly routine, accept the fact of being weaker than I was, and struggle through the world of hurt that’s waiting for me as I start back up.

It occurs to me, though, that this challenge of starting over is actually a really important part of the battle for consistency: keeping forward momentum is one thing, but just as important is what you do when you lose it.

After all, it seems pretty likely that -- as years turn to decades -- any good habit will at some point be interrupted. You might lose the ability (like I did in this case) or the will (like we all do at times). Either way, the certainty of being interrupted from time to time means that being able to regain-- not just keep -- momentum will end up playing a major part in your long-run outcomes. If not for the will to start over, even the longest uninterrupted stretch of productive behaviour is likely to look like a short burst of inspiration in the grand scheme of things.

So instead of being surprised and discouraged by this setback, I should recognize that a) it was inevitable in one form or another, and that b) in the long run, the story of my wellbeing will be way less about any temporary setbacks than about how I respond to those.