The Power of “Just Showing Up.”
How drops, not an ocean, can carve the stones of change.
“Dripping water hollows stone, not through force but through persistance.” — Ovid
If you only read one thing today, make it this: Just show up.
We all struggle with new habits, routines, diets, exercise regimes, etc. We start out fired up and committed to this new way of being. Yet, somehow, life gets in the way and we deviate from our new path. Sometimes, it’s a manic week where every part of our normal baseline goes out the window. Sometimes, it’s the arguably more dangerous route…the slow straying. Day by day our motivation slips, our fire turns from a blaze to embers, and one “oh I’ll just skip today” sneakily turns into more skips than completions. Weeks go past before we even realize we are back on our old path, diverged from where we were originally hoping to go.
When the motivation is still in full gear, we feel the positive effects of our new practice. We can tangibly perceive the shifts. More energy from our new workout, healthier food choice, or better sleeping pattern. A sense of calm from less time on our phone, our new meditation, or just remembering to breath when things get wild. There is an immediacy to the practice we are cultivating; we are receiving the affirmations + immediate gratification of our labours. Neuroscientifically, our dopamine systems are firing, we receive a hit of feel good chemicals, and reinforce the new habit neural pathway in our brain (making it easier and easier to follow the habit — will dive deeper into this in a bit) incentivizing us to do it all again.
When we deviate from our new habit, the benefit immediacy from our new habit begins to fade. We remember the convenience, ease, and/or comfort of our old way. We autopilot. Our brain slips into its familiar patterns and continues to reinforce the old pathways. As the new habit/practice begins to feel farther and farther away, we convince ourselves that the energy/time/resources it would take to start again directly correlate to that growing distance. We’ve already botched it, what’s one more skip going to do? We slip and slide until all of the sudden we find ourselves back at square one or in a habit of negative self-dialogue, convinced we’re still a mess/failure/incapable of change.
Our brains are wired to follow convenience, aka the most energy efficient route. We possess one of the most powerful + energy efficient computation systems in the known universe right inside our skulls. It’s a miracle beyond comprehension in so many ways. But, luckily for us, neuroscientists + behaviorial psychologists have illuminated some very helpful processes that can help us to build new habits more successfully.
In pursuit of energy efficiency, our brain creates shortcuts. Let’s think of it like our automotive road system. We have neighborhood roads, with a 20mph speed limit: slow, meandering, a bit cumbersome trying to remember which is which and which connects where. We have main roads, 45mph: a bit quicker, more direct, still not the fastest, but easier to navigate. We have highways, at 70mph: fast, high volume, limited divergences, easy trip from A to B. And then, we have the autobahn: lightning fast, reflexive autopilot, unspeakable speeds, we can get from A to B faster than it takes us to think and there aren’t really any other route options — we just go.
The neural pathways in our brains are like these roads. When we want to perform an action, our brain fires a neural pathway: the neuron sends an electrical (or sometimes chemical) signal through neurotransmitters to it’s axon, the information conductor of a neuron, across the gap, known as the synapse, to the target neighboring neuron, and so on until the action is performed.
Each time our brain fires a pathway, the specific pathway undergoes a process called myelination. The pathway is wrapped in a fat which allows the signal to travel faster and faster. Therefore, the more we fire a pathway, the faster the speed limit becomes. It also makes the pathway easier to fire. In our road analogy, it takes the pathway from neighborhood road one step closer to becoming the autobahn.
When our brain comes to a decision point in the neural network (the web of all the neural pathways), it is prone to follow the highest speed path, just as we do on a long drive. This is why it is so easy to slip back in to old patterns: they are very well myelinated. It’s not because we are a failure, lazy, not good enough or any of the narratives we tell ourselves to make sense of the deviation. At it’s core, we slipped back in to the old habit because we let our brain autopilot down the convenient route, and reinforced it again.
The good news is that myelination is an active, ongoing process. The paths it upgrades are not set, fixed, or intractable. As you fire a new pathway, the old pathway will weaken and becomes less convenient for your brain.
So if we want to make that new habit, practice, lifestyle, whatever it may be, stick, start by remembering one key mantra : Just show up.
Our new habit is a neighborhood road. It’s not travelled on as frequently yet. It’s slow, cumbersome and requires a little navigating. But the more and more we travel that neighborhood road, the easier it gets, the faster we are comfortable going. Choosing that broccoli becomes less of a gross yucky and more of a reflex.
The best news about your new habit? A new habit doesn’t require perfect performance or even a perfect attendance record. It requires persistance. It just needs you actively choosing to fire that new pathway again and again. Not perfectly, just imperfectly open to change.
There will be detours and bumpy roads. You will fall into the convenience trap and end up firing that old pathway. It’s going to happen, so start with acceptance. There is zero benefit in beating yourself up when it does. You aren’t less of a human, a failure, or whatever story comes to mind. Your brain is following it’s most convenient wiring.
[Important note: Now, that’s not an excuse to not try on making the change. “Oh it’s outside of my control, my brain is just going to do it anyways.” You know how it works, you know that you’re going to slip up, but you also know that if you keep on showing up, you will end up with a new habit. So the choice is in your hands.]
So how do we build a new “most convenient wiring?” Just show up. Even if it’s only 1% of what you would like to ultimately incorporate, it’s firing the right pathway and myelinating this new habit. Trying to start meditating and the goal is an hour a day, but each time you try that hour you get fidety after 5 minutes, start running through your to do list, etc? Start with 5 minutes. Heck, start with just taking 2 minutes to sit on your cushion, count 20 breaths, and slow down your heartrate. Set yourself up for success.
You are not there yet. Rome wasn’t Rome the first day Romulus and Remulus set up shop on the Palantine Hill. It took centuries to build. You don’t have to be 100% the new you from moment one. It’s not an all in or all out game. It’s a build a new wiring game, repeatedly firing a pathway game.
“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” — Arthur Ashe.
As soon as your first step becomes easy and comfortable, you can see you’ve built a new most convenient pathway (yay progress!) and now you are ready to level up. You are building the pathway of that new habit, that new you. And it will last. Even if you deviate. As long as you just remember to just keep showing up.
So far all of us on the journey of a new pathway, here’s your reminder for today and to take with you along the adventure:
Dripping water hollows stone, not through force but through persistance.
As the expression goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Habits, progress, growth, achievements all take time.
Don’t beat yourself up if you are “not there yet.” Instead, take a moment to celebrate how far you have come and your commitment to reaching further.
Just keep showing up, trying, exploring.
Practice by practice, your drops of water will hollow the stone.
Be proud of your persistence.
Liza Tullidge is a serial entrepreneur, investor + advisor focused on reengineering business + individuals to build a better planet. Find out more about Liza + her work at www.lizatullidge.com