Last year was a year of a lot of changes and some heavy losses. It was the sort of year that makes you take a long hard look at your life and decide to make some changes. Like a soldier in the trenches of Verdun, you find yourself thinking of all the things you’re going to do when you’re out of this mess. Sometimes those changes mean pulling the trigger on things you’ve always meant to do but kept putting off: watching all those movies you “need” to see, actually follow through on those projects you’re going to “get around to” and so on.
Other times… you look at your life and realize that you need to make even bigger changes. As soon as you’ve got your shots and the world starts opening up again, you’re going to change everything. You’re not going to throw away this shot to finally, finally build the life you’ve always wanted. And then once that opportunity came… well, nothing changed.
You’re stuck in the same rut you were in before, and you can’t get out. And to make matters worse: you know you’re not happy, but you can’t seem to break that cycle. As soon as you had the chance, you fell right back to those old patterns and habits that were making you miserable. How do you finally have the life that you want?
Well, you build a new one!
As dramatic as that sound, the changes you make aren’t. The goal isn’t to toss everything out and start over, but to understand why you’re making the same choices and running through the same routines. As I teach my students: the key isn’t to change your personality or try to be someone you’re not. You want to break the old routines and disrupt the patterns that are keeping you stuck in place.
If You Want Things To Be Different, You Have To Do Things Differently
One of the unusual quirks about the human brain is how much of our lives are run on autopilot. So much of what we do, how we act or even how we feel aren’t based on logic or choices or our environment, but on habits we’ve cultivated over a lifetime. This is why we get stuck in ruts that leave us feeling frustrated. Our brains don’t care about our happiness; they care about efficiency, predictability and regularity.
When you look at your life, you’ll often see these recurring patterns that you fall into without even thinking. They dictate what we do every day, from where and what we eat to who we talk to… and who we don’t. Even how we feel tends to be based on predictable and repetitive habits; we get in the habit of avoiding the things that cause us discomfort.
The perverse thing is that this predictability is actually comforting, even while it makes us unhappy. After all, our brains prioritize efficiency, and following the same routines mean that we expend the exact expected amount of energy to maintain them. Change requires sustained effort, which takes more energy. That works against what our brains prefer, and so we fall back into old patterns… including predictable emotional patterns. So our brains prefer it when we experience the same emotional states every day, even when experiencing those states keep us in cycles of misery. After all, when you’re in a consistent state of, say, anxiety, you never get the chemical rewards of alleviating that anxiety. Or you never seek the physical connection to alleviate your loneliness. You don’t get the dopamine charge of emotional intimacy or self-actualization or meet other needs.
And our brains prefer it that way. While the lack of chemical payoff means we never alleviate those needs, the predictability of those habits is preferable. After all, change means injecting unpredictability into the equation. If you go out to meet people, well who knows what could happen? Yes, you could make a new friend, or you might get shot down in flames by the cutie you saw browsing the stacks at the library. Or, shit, you might get eaten by wolves! You don’t know what could happen. Better to just stick to the known, the same routine you’ve been living in for the last five years.
If you want to reboot your life, you have to turn off the autopilot and keep it off… for a while, at least. Your goal is to create new patterns, new habits that actually make it possible for you to live the life you want. And while “develop new habits” seems like such a minor thing, the results you get from changing those habits can be astounding. After all, when you change your actions and build new habits, you change how you see the world. After all, positive and negative outlooks on the world — even the belief that you are desirable and deserving of love — are habits. Even something as small as the Positivity Challenge — where you spend seven days being positive, and restarting at day 1 when you fall back to negative thoughts or behaviors — change the filter through which you see the world.
But even making those changes in the first place can be daunting. You’re going to have to fight against parts of yourself that are so deeply ingrained that you’ll feel like they’ve always been there. You’re going to have to do things that you would swear to your dying day are just integral parts of your personality.
But they’re not.
They’re just habits.
And breaking those habits starts with a simple change in behavior.
Reboot Your Life By Becoming A “Yes Man”
Here’s the first habit you need to break: the habit of saying “no”. One of the reasons why it is so hard to break out of ruts and old habits is because we’re in the habit of saying “no” to things that go against those routines. Think of how many times in your life when you look at something — whether folks having fun with their friends, a trip, an opportunity for a new experience… and you say “no.” “No, that’s not me.” “No, I’m not somebody who does those things.” “I’d love to, but that’s not something I can do, so… no.”
Small wonder that you’re stuck in place.
But if you want different results, you have to have different actions. If you want a different life, then you have to open yourself to new experiences and new opportunities.
I mean, after all: if you’re reading this, then odds are that what you’re doing now isn’t working for you. People who’re satisfied and content rarely read about how to shake everything up and build a new life.
The truth is that just because you’re used to doing something doesn’t mean that it’s good for you or that it’s right for you. It does you no good to hold onto patterns or routines that don’t or no longer serve your needs. However, breaking these patterns can be difficult because they require that you shake things up in ways you likely have never been willing to do. To break those routines, you have to do things that aren’t “natural” to you or to act in ways that are “out of character” for you. You need to be willing to try things even though they scare or intimidate you.
In fact, you need to do some things because they intimidate you.
After all, your comfort zone is a poor metric for judging… just about anything, really. Your comfort zone isn’t about comfort, it’s about the known. It’s there to preserve the status quo and “protect” you from fear and unpredictability, not to make you happy. And one of the biggest fears that you’re “protecting” yourself from is failure. When you stay in your comfort zone, you’re sticking to the things you know you can accomplish. But this isn’t safety, it’s the illusion of safety. In practice, you aren’t being protected, you’re stagnating.
The truth is that much of who “you” are is not you. What you’re doing is defining “you” by what you assume your limitations are. When you stick to your comfort zone, you are keeping yourself from ever pushing the envelope of what you’re truly capable of. Your comfort zone may be “protecting” you, but all it’s protecting you from is fear; you’re sticking to your “limitations” because of old experiences and old fears, especially the fear of failure. But those experiences and failures are often no longer accurate, or even relevant. You’ve grown. You’ve changed. So have your capabilities.
Sticking to your comfort zone means that you’re choosing to stunt your growth or even discover what you’re truly capable of. To break out of the habits that keep you there, you have to build the habit of saying “yes”, rather than “no”. “Yes” to new experiences, new challenges, meeting new people, even new ways of thinking and doing things. It’s only through doing new things that you actually learn.
But the key is: you have to actually commit. If you want to reboot your life, you can’t just half-ass it; you have to give your whole ass. Saying “ok, I’ll try” is, in a lot of ways, as bad as saying “nah”. Do, or do not; there is no try. Try does not exist in this dojo, does it?
You don’t try something, you either succeed or you fail. “Trying” is just how you pre-excuse failure, justifying why you didn’t actually make a good-faith effort. And the thing is: failure isn’t something to be afraid of. Failure is important. Failure is a vital part of how you learn. But you don’t actually learn anything if you don’t make a real and dedicated effort to succeed… and ideally more than just once.
(More on that in a few.)
Making a point of saying “yes”, especially when you would normally say no on reflex means that you’re making a conscious choice. You’re taking control, rather than living on autopilot or waiting for others to lead you there… or simply carrying you along, for that matter.
So where do you start?
Act Like A Tourist
Quick question: when you go on vacation somewhere new, what do you do?
Do you try to figure out a way to have the exact same experiences you would at home, just with different scenery? God no. You’re out seeing and doing new stuff, checking out all the cool things that the area has to offer and that you don’t — or can’t — do back home.
You’re taking advantage of all the opportunities that you would never experience if you hadn’t gone on vacation, maybe even seeing things in a new and different light. That’s the whole point of going on vacation.
So why don’t you take that same attitude home with you along with souvenirs?
The way you treat your hometown is a great example of habits in action. When you’re doing the same things every week, eating in the same restaurants or otherwise following the same routine, you’re living life on autopilot. Treating being at home like you’re on vacation — seeking out interesting things to do or see, new experiences and so on — is one of the quickest and easiest ways of getting into the mindset you need to reboot your life and build a new one.
Think about it; how much does your hometown have to offer? How much of it have you actually explored or taken full advantage of? Don’t just knee-jerk and say “nothing” or “all of it”; take this thought exercise seriously. Most of the time, that isn’t even true. You just assume that it is, because of the things “you” don’t do. Case in point: after the lockdown, I made a point of treating my home like I was on vacation and trying things I saw but never tried — kyaking and tubing on the rivers, hiking in the greenbelts and nature trails, visiting museums and so on. The same goes for you: the odds are very, very good that there are hordes of unexplored corners and unexpected opportunities that you ignore because they’re not “you” or not a thing that “you” do.
So if you want to reboot your life, start by acting like a tourist where you live. Ask the locals for suggestions or recommendations; you’re new in town, so what’s cool, unique or interesting? What are the things that someone who’s visiting for the first time should make a point of seeing? Similarly, do your research to find out what you may be missing. Find the local influencers or follow the local social media groups on Facebook, Instagram or Reddit. Read up on Atlas Obscura or Eater about things in your area that you may never have known about. what’s popular, unusual or unexpected? What’s something in your town — or near by — that you’ve never done or that you would “never” do in a million years?
Make a list of possibilities and go through them one by one, checking each one off. Prioritize trying the things you would normally avoid, just because giving them a shot could lead to having a great story.
By that same token, explore your home in ways you wouldn’t, normally. Go for long walks or bike rides, not just in your neighborhood, but other neighborhoods around you. Wander through parts of town you never visit or only drive through. See what’s around that you may never have seen before until you looked at it from this new angle.
Go see bands that you don’t know or never listen to. Find restaurants that serve cuisine you don’t normally eat or prepare it in ways that go outside your usual experience. Try things that you’ve traditionally disliked, just to see if maybe your tastes have changed.
If you’re not sure where to start, use “that’s not me” or “I would never do that” as your litmus test. If that’s your reaction to something, then that thing gets moved to the top of your priority list.
As you find new experiences and new hangouts, make a point of becoming a regular. Part of why we fall into ruts and end up going to the same places over and over again is because they’re familiar. They’re known. We know what to expect and what the rules of expected behavior are. But that’s why you need to give new places a chance to become familiar — whether it’s a new bar or coffee shop, a new gym, a new meetup or social club, or a new comic or game store. Going more often gives you the chance to get to know the other regulars, learn the local culture and to feel more at home in this new space and with new people.
And as a bonus: by acting like a tourist in your hometown, you often discover new hidden gems. Those give you new experiences to share or new places to take folks to on dates.
And speaking of doing things you never do…
Make A Habit Of Being Social
One of the habits you want to build as you reboot your life is to start being more social. And yes, that is a habit.
Part of changing your life and building a new one means doing the things that are “out of character” for you… including starting conversations with strangers. After all, not talking to people is an ingrained habit — one you likely developed out of fear of discomfort.
And while that’s an understandable reason — we do a lot of things in order to avoid things that we think may make us uncomfortable — part of how you break that habit is to overwrite those old experiences with new, positive ones. By learning to be more social, we discover that talking to folks is neither awful, nor as difficult as we fear.
Now, the secret to breaking this habit is two-fold.
The first is simple: you take baby steps towards being more outgoing. Part of why so many folks try and fail at being more social is that they try to run before they can even crawl. When people try to leap into, say, trying to flirt with strangers at clubs, when they’ve never even gone to a club before, never mind cold-approached strangers, they end up taking on far more than they’re ready for. They choke because it’s just too much, like being expected to hit the game-winning home run when you’ve even held a bat.
But habits aren’t born out of taking on massive challenges. They’re born out of small, easily accomplished steps that you repeat until they become muscle memory. Then, as you get used to that first step, you take on the next. And then the step after that. Each small step becomes the foundation for the next, making progress smooth and easy.
And the great thing about making being social into a habit is that there are almost infinite opportunities to cultivate it. Say “hi” and “how’s your day going?” to the barista making your coffee at Starbucks. Sit at the counter at a new restaurant and ask other diners or the waitstaff what they recommend.
Incidentally, this pairs well with acting like a tourist; it gives you a “reason” to ask questions.
Second: you have to be shameless. Part of rebooting your life means that you have to muscle through worries of being weird or intrusive. These are often less about actually being weird and more about resistance to change; it’s the fear that holds you in your comfort zone, not reality. In fact, asking for help or advice is one of the quickest and easiest ways to get a positive response from people. Not only do folks generally like sharing things they think are cool or pleasurable, but it invokes what’s known as The Ben Franklin Effect. We do favors for people we like; if someone does you a favor, it encourages them to think of you in warm and positive terms.
Plus: asking for help or asking for suggestions tends to open up opportunities for conversations; these frequently serve as a starting point for getting to know somebody. That, in turn, gives you an easy and almost effortless opportunity to make new connections. And in a worst case scenario, if you do beat the odds and actually end up being a little weird or awkward… folks tend to forget as soon as you leave their eye line. As much as it feels otherwise, your awkward moments simply aren’t that memorable. People are far too wrapped up in their own drama to devote much of their bandwidth to yours.
If you need that extra little “umpf” to push you past the initial resistance, treat it like an acting exercise. You’re simply playing a character. After all, if you’ve played D&D, you’re perfectly capable of acting like someone else. The difference here is that you’re playing yourself… just a version of you from the future, that’s more social. This way, if things feel odd, well, it’s not you. It’s just people reacting to the character you’re playing.
As you start to add those minor moments of socialization to your muscle memory, you can begin to escalate. Sit and eat at places that bring strangers together, such as communal tables at food courts. Get curious about the people sitting with you; what’s their story? Everyone has something about them that’s secretly fascinating; make it a game to talk to folks and see if you can find what makes them interesting.
This is also an area where becoming a regular works in your favor, and why joining groups that meet regularly is helpful for building these new habits. Whether it’s a social club, a class, or an amateur sports team, finding a group that meets regularly gives you more opportunities to interact with folks and spend time with them. The more often you see people and they see you, the more familiar you become. Familiarity breeds affection and comfort. That, in turn, makes it easier for you to feel comfortable starting and holding conversations with people you haven’t met yet.
But most important of all…
Get Comfortable With Failure
One of the reasons why folks don’t make changes or fail to make them stick, is because they give up at the first sign of difficulty. It’s like the classic “gifted kids” problem: if you’re not able to do it perfectly the very first time you attempt it, then why even bother doing it?
The problem is, if it’s something you’re unused to or you’ve never done before, of course you’re not going to be an instant expert. Talent is great, but talent is no substitute for effort. Skill is developed over time through repetition and practice. So, for that matter, are comfort and familiarity… even taste. In fact, especially taste. If you’re familiar with acquired tastes — including things like alcohol or cigarettes — then you’re familiar with the same things necessary for acquiring skills.
The thing is: as the sage once said, “sucking at at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at it.” Failure is a crucial part of how we learn… including learning that failure doesn’t kill you and that you can, in fact, recover from failure. Learning that failure is something that you can bounce back from, in the short term and the long term, is one of the most important lessons. After all, that fear of failure is part of what leaves you stuck in your comfort zone. Overcoming that fear makes it that much easier to discover what you’re actually capable of.
But as you work on breaking old habits and building new ones, it’s important to remember that rebooting your life and building a new one doesn’t mean that you need to do everything perfectly, now or in the future. When your only standard is “perfection or failure”, then you are cutting off your own potential before you ever have a chance to explore it. Perfection isn’t a state to achieve, it’s something to strive for. Not being perfect doesn’t mean that you failed, it just means that you’re learning.
And learning is the most important part of building your new, exciting and satisfying life.