Laying bricks

I remember reading once that life – and goal setting – is like laying bricks. Whether you want to build a cottage or a cathedral you have to put down just one brick at a time. There are no short-cuts, it just has to be done. Eventually you’ll build what you’re trying to build.

One of the dangers with this, of course, is that you can both lose sight of the bigger picture for focussing on the small things, and also get overwhelmed with how long the journey seems to be taking; how long you’re going to have to do what you’re doing in order to get there.

Recently I think I’ve been having a problem with the latter issue and have been focussing on the wrong things. I’ve talked about how I let things go around Christmas and fell into bad habits, and I link that often in my mind with the fact that I haven’t really lost any weight since this time last year. So in the last month or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about how can I lose the weight – should I be counting calories, paying more attention to portion size, fitting in a few more workouts etc… I’ve been so focussed on what can I do to lose the weight now that I’ve not really been thinking about it in a long-term sustainable way.

What do I mean by this? Well, I’m not dieting in the traditional way for one thing, but I’ve been eating differently ‘just for now’ (e.g. only soup or sushi for lunch – which, to be fair, hasn’t really been happening), and keep trying to massively increase my exercise levels from what I’m used to doing. The reasons I’ve not really been succeeding in doing these things and losing any weight is that they’re not sustainable. I’m already failing at them short term, they’re clearly not going to work long-term. Even if I did manage to do them for the next month or so and lose 5lbs, the moment I change those things – exercise less, eat more variety at lunch, then I’m likely to gain the weight back.

I lost sight of the bigger picture. I focussed on building one chapel when I should have been looking at the blueprint for the cathedral.

In case you couldn’t tell, I like this metaphor and will milk it for all it’s worth.

When I lost weight last year, I wasn’t going crazy. I wasn’t exercising any more than I do currently – in fact I’m quite proud that my fitness levels are higher recently than they have been in about a decade – and I wasn’t restricting what I could eat. I was having things I considered treats, eating out quite a lot, and the weight loss seemed to just happen without much effort to get there. What has changed in the last year isn’t the how, it’s the what.

For example, I have eaten a lot of chocolate and biscuits since November. I have a tin full of shortbread that I’ve collected from various hotels in Edinburgh, but prior to being full of Walker’s shortbread it was full of Border Biscuits. It’s no longer full of Border Biscuits because I ate them all. Prior to being the cookie tin, it was the chocolate tin. Again, they’re no longer there because they’ve all been eaten. Last year however, I was eating – and hugely enjoying – sweet treats such as these cashew and date chocolates, which I proclaimed better than normal chocolate. And I probably would still think that, but I’ve not made them in ages so can’t know for sure. Last year I was good at eating alternatives to pasta that I really enjoyed, this year I’m ordering food nightly from the Italian restaurant that provides the hotel’s room service. It’s fantastic food. I’m not particularly good at moderation.

The reason I’ve started thinking that I’m focussing on the wrong things at the moment is partly that nothing I’m doing seems to be working and I am having trouble sustaining it. But a couple of other things have prompted this reflection too; walking and yoga.

Over Easter I talked to various friends and family about using a fitbit, the importance of more exercise and walking in general and the fact that amazingly the average number of steps people walk per day is only between 3000 and 4000. I thought I should be aiming for 10k as the minimum, and that the fact that my average during workdays is 6k was pretty poor. Which I still feel like it is even knowing the information about the average – all I do is walk from the hotel to the tram, from my desk to the canteen or kitchen area a few times, and back again. I feel like I hardly move.

The reason keeping track of my steps is important to me isn’t because it encourages me to go out on an extra walk if I notice I’m 500 steps away from the 10k goal etc. on one particular evening, it’s to keep track of trends over time. I injured my lower back nearly two years ago, and I’ve noticed that on weeks where I start walking less (particularly if I’m not active at the weekend) my back starts hurting a lot more quickly. If I have a couple of weeks where my daily average remains 1.5-5k every single day, my back will be in a lot of pain by the end of the second week. If I keep my average at 70k over the week – even if that means less during the weekdays and more at the weekend, then I might go a couple of months without noticing any back problems. Taking care of the little things – literally, in this case, with each step I take making an impact – takes care of the larger problem of my back. If I just take the longer way round the office and leave the house at the weekend I don’t have to focus attention on my back and figure out how to alleviate the pain.

Yoga comes into this by way of me doing an Ashtanga yoga class the other day. From what I know of Ashtanga, which isn’t a lot, it’s the same routine every single time and it’s a long, never-ending journey. Doing the same thing over and over again will eventually bring rewards – be they physical or mental or spiritual – but there’s no quick way of getting there. The idea of Ashtanga isn’t that you do it five times and then you’ve learnt it and you’re done. There’s a quote saying something along the lines of practicing for a long time – not five, ten years, but a long time – that really stood out to me. Too often we want quick fixes for things, when really I need to figure out what to change or incorporate into the whole of my life.

I’m sure that if I had a consistent yoga practice that I would see benefits from it. I believe this because when I do it even occasionally I am rewarded – my muscles hurt less, I’m more relaxed, I get stronger. But I never do it long enough to see what could happen before I suddenly take a couple of months off and am back to square 1 again.

What would happen if instead of focussing on I’m going to do x for a month like I have been recently, be that types of exercise or types of foods/eating I’m doing, I instead just tried to develop some habits that I want to stick. If the goal was on them sticking, rather than focussing on the rewards that could be brought. Instead of thinking that after doing yoga for 30 days I might be able to do (for example) a headstand, the goal would be to do yoga for 31 days. Then 32.

There’s a quote in the exercise world that “appearance is a consequence of fitness”. I need to lay a solid foundation – put down the bricks – and eventually I’ll get to where I want to be. As a very goal-oriented person it’s a very difficult mindset shift for me. I’m sure I’ll have ups and downs, successes and failures, but I need to try. If we don’t try, there’s no way we’ll ever succeed.

**Photo credit Russ McCabe, Creative Commons CCO License**

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