Reinventing yourself – is a tricky business. You’re essentially trying to break the habits of a lifetime and transform yourself into the person you’ve always wanted to be – a process that can take months, if not years. It entails examining everything about yourself, discarding the parts you don’t like and rebuilding yourself from the ground up.
Here’s the thing though: that’s the easy part.
Oh, I know: “You call rebuilding my life easy?” And yes. Yes I do. Because that’s just the start.
No, the hard part is maintaining that new life. Whether it’s losing weight, improving your social life or building a whole new you, the real work begins when you’re trying to make those changes stick. In fact, one of the most insidious parts of trying to live with this new and improved you is the feeling that you’re just faking it and the real you is lurking under the surface, ready to re-emerge at the worst possible moment like a shark that can smell a single drop of social anxiety from a mile away…
You see, the thing about self-improvement is that the initial changes are easy, relatively speaking. You’re powered by hope and imagination at first; you’re so excited by the idea of the new you that you’re can power through those initial sticking-points and tests of resolve. But here’s the thing: a body at rest wants to stay at rest and that applies to your state of being as much as it does to kinetic potential. You’ve spent years, if not decades in your current state and it takes a lot of continuous force to overcome that emotional inertia. Moreover: even if you’re not happy with who you used to be, it was at least comfortable. It was familiar. It was the devil you knew. Now you’re in a whole new world, with new rules and new adventures and it doesn’t feel as natural to you as your previous life did. It takes conscious effort to maintain your new life in a way that your old one did’t You’re going to be beset by doubt and insecurity and the nagging feeling that it could all go away in a heartbeat.
Ironically, it’s that very fear that makes it all too easy to regress.
That’s why you need to learn how to keep those changes going.
It Needs To Be Fun
There’s a glaring problem with any sort of self-improvement, from weight-loss to social skills that nobody ever tells you about: if you’re making yourself miserable, you’re going to stop doing it. Thanks to our Calvinist origins, our culture tends to equate “unpleasant” with “good” – the idea that something that we enjoy is inherently less worthy than something unpleasant. Medicine is supposed to taste bad, work is supposed to be hard. So it makes sense – in a twisted sort of way – that we equate the struggle with the reward. Change doesn’t feel right if it’s not difficult to maintain, right?
Too bad that’s a very good way to short-circuit your own improvement.
You see, maintaining that power requires willpower. Human willpower is a limited resource as anyone who’s tried to follow a diet plan knows. Think of it like a muscle: if you overtax it, it’s going to quit working. Sure, restricting your food intake to nothing but half a chicken breast and kale chips three times a day will make you lose weight fast, but you’ll never be able to maintain that as a lifestyle; it requires too much from you and the reward – six-pack abs – isn’t commiserate with the level of effort. Think of the way your arms feel after you’ve held a heavy object until it fell out of your grip – you’re not able to pick it back up until you’ve had a chance to rest and recharge. This is what you’re doing with your willpower.
Fortunately, willpower – like muscles – can be strengthened. And unlike muscles, we can retrain our brains to see things differently and thus require less will to complete. And the key is fun.
This is why you need to be able to enjoy the maintenance as much as the results. When you’re doing something that brings you pleasure, the drain on your willpower isn’t so considerable; in fact, it very well may become the thing you do to recharge.
When I took up running, I hated it. My shins hurt like a motherfucker, I could barely go 50 yards without gasping for air – never mind a mile – and by the time I was done, I was praying for the sweet release of death for days afterwards. I don’t care how much my friends would tell me it would get easier over time or the benefits it was bringing me, there was no way that I was going to keep this up.
And then I got the Zombies, Run app for my iPhone. Gamifying the exercise via a semi-interactive radio-drama that put me in the role of a courier in a post-zombie apocalypse world was key to helping me want to keep hitting the trail; I wasn’t crazy about the running, but I was enjoying the game involved… even if the damn zombies always seemed to know when I was about to run up a hill. Running went from being something I despised to something I actively enjoy; in fact, now it’s a critical part of my writing process. Other geeks have found similar benefits from treating their lives as RPGs; in fact, Chris Hardwick, nerd-king extraordinaire, has an entire section in his book about how to develop your real-life character sheet.
This doesn’t mean that everything in your life has to be turned into skill points and level grinding; you just need to find the way to make it fun for you. It may be the joy that comes from pushing past your limits and realizing that you can do things you never realized were possible for you. It may be that you reward yourself periodically for keeping your shit together – allowing yourself some indulgence as a way of recharging your batteries. Hell, it may be the fact that you’re talking to amazing sexy people and getting more naked-time than you had over your entire previous life combined.
It’s worth noting: there’s a difference between difficult and bad, especially during the reinvention phase. There are going to be growing pains; to quote a wise man: “Without pain, without sacrifice, we have nothing. What you’re feeling isn’t pain, it’s premature enlightenment.”
It’s the oldest cliche in the world, but you will find that there is such a thing as a “good hurt”, the satisfying sort of pain that comes from pushing your limits just a little farther.
It Needs To Be A Habit
Your old life is a series of habits. We naturally fall into ruts of repetitive behavior that we do without thinking, whether it’s the places we visit, the way we talk to people, even our outlook on life are all habits. Trying to overcome those habits – to force ourselves out of old patterns of behavior and into new ones – is a drain on that finite willpower. It becomes the emotional equivalent of trying to bench-press your maximum weight every time… and this means that you’re going to exhaust yourself in short order, to the point of being unable to continue at all.
Remember what I said earlier about emotional inertia? There are two ways of going about overcoming it. You can try to go full-tilt boogie at all times… or you can make it easier on yourself by making the little changes a part of your day to day existence. Maintaining all of those positive changes in your life isn’t about constantly saying “I must be X at all times!”, it’s about finding the habits that will lead to being X, the little things that can you do every day until you’re doing them without thinking about it. Which do you suppose is easier: forcing somebody with social anxiety to try to talk a total stranger into bed, or spending a little time every day making a point to engage people in conversation?
Stick with me here, there’s a point to this.
You want to simplify things and expend your energy where it will produce the most results… so you could expend it all at once to get a specific result every once in a while, or you could expend a little at a time to keep that result. It’s the old “cleaning your apartment” paradigm; you can let things get into a huge mess and have to spend the weekend detoxing the place, or you can make keeping it neat a part of your daily ritual.
The best part is, the right set of habits will make maintaining that evolution effortless because it alters your focus. You’re not having to think of the massive laundry list of changes you’ve made and burn yourself out trying to maintain all at once. You have a collection of small tasks that add up into the changes you wish to keep. Making self-improvement a habit means you’re not having to start from scratch every time you’re trying to, say, meet somebody you’re attracted to.
Let’s go back to the example from earlier: Making a point of being more social every day. When you’re in the habit of talking to people, it will naturally bring more people into your life. When you’re in the habit of talking to strangers, you won’t have to push past your approach anxiety as much; it’s simply one more thing you do. Thus, you’ll find that you’re much more relaxed and confident when you’re talking to people you’re attracted to. This, in turn, will make it easier to flirt with them, charm them and get that date you’re hoping for. Want to be more attractive? Focus on the components: dressing well, maintaining your grooming and improve your posture. Make those your habits and the rest will come naturally.
This, incidentally, is why I recommend maintaining your level of dress, posture etc. at home, even when nobody’s around. If you clean up only to go out and are a slob the remaining 99% of the time, then those changes will never become habit; they will stay something you have to do consciously every single day and be that much harder to maintain over time.
It’s the difference between having to go out specifically to do something – going to a bar in order to meet a person in hopes of getting laid – and setting things in motion so that everything just happens to fall into place the way you want them to.
Make It Part of Your Identity
One of the hardest things to change isn’t your outward appearance or your social skills. It’s not even getting other people to accept the new you. It’s changing the way you see yourself.
You’ve been “you” for as long as you can remember so it’s only natural that it’s hard to shift yourself out of old mindsets. As I’ve said before, I grew up as The One Who Wasn’t Good With Girls. Even as I was studying pick-up, reading up on social psychology and going out every night to practice, that identity was always there in the back of my mind, dragging me down. Every time I thought I was getting somewhere, there was that quiet little voice from my jerk-brain that would say “hey, don’t forget, you’re going to fuck this one up too! They’re going to figure out it’s all smoke and mirrors and you’re a fake.”
I know most of you have felt that too; the feeling that you’re a fraud and somebody’s going to see right through you and call you out. Good old-fashioned impostor syndrome.
If you are ever going to be able to achieve any sort of internal validation, you had to consciously reframe how you saw yourself. Every time my old identity of The One Who Wasn’t Good With Girls would resurface, I’d have to remind myself that no, I’m The One Who’s Getting Better. When you feel like a fraud, it’s impossible to measure your progress; you’ll always feel like it’s just temporary. When you make your improvement a part of your self-definition, it’s much easier to accept that hey, you really are getting better. Maybe you’re not where you want to be yet, but you’re definitely on your way towards getting there eventually.
Success Breeds Success
This is key: you need victories to keep motivating yourself. No matter how much effort you’re putting in, no matter how much you want it, if you can’t prove you’re making progress, you’re going to give up.
Unfortunately, it’s very easy to focus like a laser on that end goal instead of on the journey. When you’re trying to achieve some massive change, it’s easy to get demoralized – everything just seems so goddamned impossible, everything you want stays over the horizon and never seems to get any closer. This is why even little victories can be so important – they remind you that you can achieve and you are making progress.
You want to create a positive feedback loop – little victories and achievable milestones that will motivate you and encourage you and spur you on to meet the next challenge. That, in turn, will spur you on to the next victory, repeating the cycle. Don’t just focus on getting a relationship or getting laid; pay attention to the progress you make getting there. How many people can you approach without freaking them out? Now how about maintaining a conversation for longer than 4 minutes? Be able to flirt and get her to flirt back. Get her number, etc.
Finding these little victories are what will keep you motivated to maintain your new life.
There Is No Finish Line
This is the part that trips people up: there is no endgame. There will always be more: more things that you could improve, more ways you could do things better, more sticking points to work out, more challenges to overcome.
And this is as it should be. The beauty of perfection is the pursuit, not it’s attainment. The moment you think you’re “done” is the moment that you start to stagnate, become complacent, and fall back into old habits. All things inevitably trend towards entropy; it’s only by working to maintain them and propel them forward that we are able to achieve greatness.