On beginnings that Stick…

I am about halfway through my expected “4000 weeks” and it’s just now, that I’ve finally established a healthy, dare I say, life changing habit. I’d like to share how I came to this breakthrough, with the hope that it helps you establish your own healthy habit. As you might suspect after a brief survey of articles here on exploring-art.com this story starts with a book. 

Atomic Habits - book featured on an e-reader

Atomic Habits is another trendy self help read that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. However, alas, the first attempt to apply what I had thought I learned was a total failure.

I committed one of my common mistakes, which was trying to do too much, and over complicating the routine. I also failed as the tactic to make it harder to do the wrong thing wasn’t a sufficient barrier for my pleasure seeking ways. Let me explain. I had tried to implement a regime of  daily exercise by putting the exercise bike in front of the TV every night along with a fresh set of workout gear. The rationale purveyed by the book was this would make it easier to get on the bike and ride than to move the bike out of the way and enjoy the TV. The experiment was a total failure. The bike got put away while I told myself I just didn’t have the energy. 

Sometime passed and my irritation at my inability to form and stick to a single good habit returned. If I didn’t make some improvements soon, activities I once took for granted like the ability to complete the Grouse Grind, or hike Mount Finlayson, might be beyond my ability to do reliably. 

In the face of this internal conflict, I of course turned to my trusty traveller’s notebook, my practice of self reflection flexing its muscles, wielding its mighty mechanical pencil and… 

Some of the wisdom from the Atomic Habits came back to me during this reflection period. One was to keep it simple, maybe even more simple than the stationary bike, another was it had to be something I could do everyday, and lastly rather than making it easier to do the right thing, maybe it had to be something that I actually enjoyed… like you know…. all my vices. 

What could I do everyday, that was good for me, that I actually enjoyed? And then the idea struck me… I could go for a walk! An outdoor walk. I’m inside all day working on my computer, I love fresh air and being outside. A speedy walk would get my heart rate up and would be unlikely to hurt my knees or legs impacting my ability to do it again the next day. Could I commit to finding 90 minutes everyday to speed walk 8 kilometres? The walk itself would be less time, but there would be change and cool down time. This was less of a time commitment than going out for a long bike ride… and if I kept up a fast pace, it would be great exercise…

I was compelled to try… and to my surprise it actually stuck. After a few weeks of getting out for this daily speed walk, I’d get down right anxious if a day had gone by without my 8k… like a day without my 2 cups of coffee. I had done it! I had established a healthy daily habit. 9 months later, I’ve lost 30 pounds and I feel great. And as the saying goes – I’m not done!

So how do you begin a healthy habit that will actually stick? My advice to you is:

  1. Choose one thing you can do everyday 
  2. Make it something you actually enjoy 
  3. Force yourself to do it, until it becomes second nature 

I was beginning to believe the myriad of books on habit forming and task management that I’d read just weren’t for me. That given a busy work schedule I was just too spent to master my own personal administration, and that some downtime spent numbing my mind on the couch was my just, pleasurable, reward. I was beginning to believe that I could force myself to do something for a while, but it would never become part of my entrenched daily routine.

I was wrong! I’m grateful that after more failed attempts than read advice, I have finally formed a healthy habit. And I believe you can too! Drop a comment below if you need some ideas on what might work for you or further convincing. And good luck making the most of your limited time… may your good health be preserved by the formation of a good habit! 


Here is the One Heart Five Habits book review that never finished the editing cycle back in March 2021. Re-edited for brevity and its new context.

Upon turning 40 my doctor diagnosed me with hypertension. This is bad news as hypertension is known as the silent killer. It is a major contributor to cardio vascular disease, the number 1 attributed cause of death globally.  

I ordered a smart blood pressure reader and flummoxed my doctor with unusually high readings for  someone so seemingly healthy. 

We experimented through trial and error with some meds and found one that worked. My blood pressure readings  improved but remained too high. My diet didn’t seem problematic to me, I thought to myself, I don’t eat fast food, I don’t add salt to my food… we eat fresh vegetables and fruit… we walk for exercise… anywhere from 3.5 – 10km excursions… I didn’t understand how my diet could be the problem. My doctor recommend the Netflix show Gamechangers and a few other research and inspiration activities but nothing struck me. I didn’t do much in terms of followup, other than take my meds. 

I am not entirely sure what caused me to search the internet  but I came across a book I hadn’t heard of, called One Heart Five Habits and added it to my virtual library. I devoured it. It was an exceptionally easy and inspiring read. What struck me most about it?

Despite the fact that I was pretty convinced that the salt issue didn’t apply to me, the book convinced me that it did… Eating out, even at a fancy restaurant, you’re going to get more salt than dining at home. Tips for looking at the labels of packaged foods to assess salt content, resulted in realizing that even my organic, premium choices for home were still, quite often, too salty. 

I felt like I ate plenty of fruit and vegetables… until I took the challenge of eating 8 servings of fresh fruits or vegetables in a single day… ditto for water. That’s a lot! I was no where near that level, and still struggle to fit that much in over the course of a day – even while working at home! 

One Heart Five Habits was also super encouraging, setting  and reinforcing a tone of “every little bit helps…” it’s not an all or nothing equation. Each alcoholic beverage you skip, helps. Each extra walk, each serving of fruit, veg or water… it all contributes. I found this motivating. 

I enjoyed the book so much I was happy to pay the $6 for the app to track my progress. The app was super basic, there was a couple of rough edges in the user interface, and I think I even spotted a typo. Its privacy details weren’t updated in the app store at the time of writing, and it didn’t integrate with any of your other heath apps, so you’re manually transcribing your weight, blood pressure, minutes of exercise etc. That said the UI is pleasant, gives positive feedback when you tally yet another fruit or vegetable consumed, and I found it quite effective for tracking my progress.

So, how were my results? 

After 3 months (Jan – March 2021) I was trending down both with respect to weight and blood pressure, despite suffering through some stressful life circumstances. However, I struggled to maintain the regime and after making a career move I proceeded to gain back more than I’d lost. I gained a total of 26lbs between May 2021 – April 2022.  I was the heaviest I’d ever been. Which was also no good for my blood pressure.

As I mentioned in my last post, A Skeptics Interrogation of A Skeptics Guide to Stutz, it’s at this point April 17th 2022 that I made the internal commitment to speed walk 8k (meters) a day and thereby proceeded to lose all the weight I put on and more. And more importantly I’m not done! Next week I’ll share more on how I landed on this commitment and why I think I’ve been successful keeping it for more than 9 months. 

Stutz – A Skeptics guide

Hey folks, looking back at 2022 and the pandemic years in general, our collective understanding of, and experience with, mental health has evolved in significant ways. The recent release of Stutz a Netflix documentary by Jonah Hill couldn’t have been more timely.

I love the movie, it made me laugh and think, and following watching (and rewatching) the movie I dove into Stutz’s two books co-authored with Barry Michels, The Tools (2012) and Coming Alive (2017.) While I enjoyed both books and think there’s useful ideas and tools contained within I struggled with some of the framing around spirituality, a new spiritual order? Really? and more generally the use of personification to explain the reasons behind our struggles. So I thought I’d create my own perspective to highlight how you might access these useful tools without too much emphasis on the spiritual, humans as the center of the universe, packaging found in the books. Welcome to my interpretation of Stutz, or a skeptics guide to Stutz, if you will.  

Let’s begin. We start with the concept of our inner self and our outer-self. I think that’s easy enough for us to agree with, we understand how our outer strength derived from our muscles is different compared to our inner strength such as will power. We can agree that making an internal commitment and keeping it is different from an external action like turning a light on and off.

Another area of agreement is the belief we have an internal commitment we must make everyday. Our existential question is do we want to choose to be helpful and hopeful in a possible world or do we choose to be helpless and hopeless in an impossible world? Stutz and co-author Barry Michels frame this as a choice between being a creator or a consumer. However, this framing didn’t resonate with me. It feels like a classic false dichotomy. Each of us are consumers and creators, and so to me the important construct is really around this choice of how you want to show up in the world. Are you here to be helpful to those around you? Are you prepared to be hopeful, and look for the lessons and value in big and small interactions? Because if you are, there’s a world of fantastic opportunity waiting to be explored. 

Intuitively this seems like the choice everyone would make, why would you choose to be hopeless and helpless when you could choose the opposite? And while these two extremes rest on a gradient and your degree of hope will fluctuate from time to time, it’s the choice of orientation that is the critical internal commitment. So why would anyone not make the positive choice?

Well, it turns out being helpful and hopeful in today’s world is hard. Which isn’t to suggest it’s ever been easy. It takes a lot of energy to help others and to look for lessons and bright sides in difficult situations. To turn the other cheek and be the bigger person takes effort, even for those of us blessed with sunny dispositions from our earliest days. So how do you generate the energy to get out of bed everyday and choose to adopt this positive orientation and try to be helpful? 

I think Stutz nails this part. It’s about practice. Knowing his tools is not helpful in and of itself, you actually need to use the tools. And as with everything else, it gets easier with practice. The place to start in my mind is the question, everyday. Do I choose to be helpful, hopeful and live in a world of possibility? 

In addition to practice and orientation there are other elements that will serve you well on this journey and I refer to them as your foundation. For me the foundation starts with integrity, which is understanding what’s important to you and living your life in accordance with those things. This includes small things like doing what you say and being honest and big things like trying to find ways to reduce your carbon foot print if you’re concerned about climate change (and I hope you are.) As I like to say – “Integrity is a gift you give yourself.”

The next layer of the foundation is inner strength and it is built up over time. It serves as a mini engine or flywheel between the other layers of your foundation, your integrity and your forward momentum. It’s the glue, or rebar, or nuclear fusion that helps you go from making the positive choice, understanding your personal values, and making the tough choices and taking the associated actions in life that generate forward momentum, in alignment to those values. And ultimately a life in a world of incredible possibility. So what is this internal strength?

In the books, Stutz and his co-author are a little vague, comparing it to outer strength and the internal equivalent of needing to exercise to build muscle to support outer strength. I think that’s fair however perhaps not specific or as helpful as it could be. In the film Stutz seems to acknowledge this and outlines a pyramid as one of the places to start, this pyramid seems like a modification of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, starting with a focus on body and exercise, other people, and then yourself as 3 levels of awareness to focus on to help build inner strength, or what he refers to as a connection to your “life force.” I think this is good, however it could again benefit from a bit more granularity, and a bit more specificity to be the glue that holds our foundations together and propels us into a world of possibility.

My rendition of the inner strength pyramid has 4 levels.

Energy is the same as Stutz’s model, the best path to this type of energy is physical exercise, healthy eating and living. There’s no two ways about it, getting in shape offers huge benefits in terms of making you feel alive and having the energy to make tough choices and get things done. However it’s insufficient on its own.

The second layer of inner strength comes from maintaining an open mind. Like many true ideas this may seem like a contradiction. However, it’s not through dogmatic subscription to our beliefs that we generate inner strength. It’s through separating our identity from our beliefs, and maintaining that separation. Your beliefs can trap you, your beliefs can be untrue, hold them apart from yourself so more paths forward can be apparent. Be humble, be curious, tap into the energy and wonder of childhood by avoiding the tyranny of potentially toxic beliefs. As oft is the case, there’s some truth in the humorous expression: “It’s not what you don’t know that’ll get you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just isn’t so.” – Anonymous*

This open mind enables selflessness and universal love as the next layer of inner strength. Again we see this potential dichotomy of if I’m incredibly super internally strong shouldn’t I be super important and the centre of everything? No, inner strength comes from serving others, loving others, all others or as many others as possible. Free yourself of toxic beliefs of in groups and out groups, your own self importance, superiority and righteousness. Try to serve and love others, even if you disagree with them. I like to say “You have to love everyone, or you can’t love anyone.” It’s easier said than done! Fortunately Stutz’s tools do a particularly good job of laying out how to do this and warning of the pitfalls associated with failure (being stuck in the maze!)

If you can do these things, exercise, practice maintaining an open mind and serving others with universal love, as the last layer of inner strength, you get a gift. Perhaps not as grandiose as Maslow’s Self Actualization, however perhaps you’ll find it more pragmatic. You get improved discipline, self discipline, that allows you to make hard choices and take their subsequent actions to build forward momentum. Your foundation is now in place for a life of immense possibilities!

By asking yourself the question, and developing your foundation you receive the resilience you will need when things get tough and don’t go as planned, or fear is standing between you and something you really want.  This practice, this personal commitment and repetition leads to more forward momentum, helping you move forward and accomplish things you never thought possible, and what dare we ask is the ultimate reward beyond said accomplishments? More energy! (You might call it life force, or positive energy or karma.) Regardless, this is additional energy to be more helpful and to keep reinvesting in making positive choices. A larger personal fly wheel, or virtuous cycle, of positive choices, energy and big and small accomplishments. The secret to living a happy, fulfilled and meaningful life. 

Everyday won’t be a perfect day, and not all our goals will magically be accomplished. However I do believe that despite some of my reservations with the materials laid out by Stutz and Michels in the books there are a lot of useful tools and ideas there as well, in addition to what was a fantastic movie. You practice this stuff enough, you’ll develop an increased appreciation of the journey and more energy to devote to skillfully navigating the inevitable ups and downs.

So if you’re like me, and a little skeptical of higher powers and personified spiritual villains, I’d still encourage you dig into the materials. I think there’s still lots of potentially helpful ideas there without having to join a new spiritual order. If you choose to go on that journey I hope some of the framing shared here is helpful to you, with respect to incorporating those aspects of the tools that will be most helpful to you. 

Good luck honing your interconnected personal flywheels. The flywheel of your foundation and inner strength, and the larger flywheel of a fulfilling life, brimming with energy, to help you accomplish the things that matter most to you, and those around you. May they support you well in good times and bad, and may 2023 and the years beyond offer improved mental, physical and material health for all! 


* https://quoteinvestigator.com/2018/11/18/know-trouble/