2021 has been the most transformative year of my life. While I’m still fundamentally “me” at my core, I feel like an entirely new person; I’ve found myself unlearning long standing beliefs, relearning, and taking up many new interests. I’ve learned to reframe activities that once felt arduous and taxing for so long, making them easier and more congenital.
Before this year, my motivation to spread myself thinly amongst multiple activities was charged by external rewards. My measures of success would be in the form of personal bests, earning accolades, and seeing the tangible results of my workouts/nutrition plan (building muscle and getting leaner).
With my writing, I just wanted to expedite the process as quickly as possible and get to the end result. Once there, I’d obsess over the viewership stats, money I earned on Medium, or the breakdown of sentiment I’d receive. The dopamine hits were my measure of success—if I didn’t feel that high, I was doing something wrong. I took it personally if a blog post didn’t do well (based on my own subjective measure of success).
The biggest transformation for me was letting go of outward appearances and relearning to enjoy an activity at its core–not with any performative expectations. Earlier this year, I stopped sharing my running stats and am not active at all on Strava (aside from syncing my runs with my Garmin). If you scroll back on my Instagram for a year or longer, you’ll notice that most of my posts were a kind of workout log—a way to publicly track my workouts. I felt like I was constantly performing for an audience, fighting for a spot at the top of the leaderboard. This was the type of motivation that I relied on heavily and I have to admit, it worked sometimes. Knowing that I set the expectation that I had to share my run stats gave me a short burst of motivation to push myself to get a PB, get a ‘good time,’ or sign up for more organized races (the ultimate high). Once I finished, I’d get to share the stats with my audience and of course, got rewarded with some virtual laud.
While this felt amazing the day of, the high wore off quickly. In subsequent days after, I felt like I needed to prove myself yet again by cultivating a new challenge or pushing myself in some other capacity. I was constantly chasing after the next thing and making sure I publicly announced it—holding myself accountable and being so self-absorbed that I actually believed people cared (which they don’t). As silly as it sounds, my run stats accounted for a large portion of my self-worth. When I wasn’t chasing a new challenge, race, or personal best, I felt unfulfilled; life felt boring, mundane even. 2019 I burned out hard after running a marathon in May, a 100-mile race in September, a half marathon in October, and the NYC marathon in November (which I trained extensively for), all while keeping my run streak going. I was mentally and physically fatigued. My running coach even pointed out how high my heart rate was after a super easy, slow run. She said, “Emily, your HR is in the race pace zone”—yikes.
I had even bigger plans for 2020, but those came to a screeching halt because, well, you know the old COVID song and dance. I wrote about this more extensively in my 4-year run streak reflections, but with organized races being stripped away during the pandemic, I had to get creative with sourcing motivation to show up for my workouts. Struggling to find a new frame, I experienced the longest streak of ‘bad days’ in my life. Bad days, for me, were minimal motivation, bouts of procrastination, low energy in my workouts, and just a general aura of apathy all-around. The bad days lasted for months in 2020. While I was lucky to have stayed healthy and injury-free, I was being a bit of a self-absorbed brat and complaining about my lack of self-discipline I thought I had mastered over the years. The old frame: relying so heavily on external validations and events or ‘proving myself’ in some other capacity was no longer available to me. I was forced to look inward and change my frame of reference. While miserable at the time, this change or should I say, transformation, was the most important mindset shift I’d ever experienced in my life.
The big paradigm-shifting moment for me was when I took Steve Palvina’s course on creativity called Amplify in March 2021. I’ve been reading Steve’s blog for years now and truly believe it’s the best self-development content on the web. The opportunity to dive into this course came at a perfect time in my life—a synchronicity I did not anticipate.
If you’ve been reading my blog over the last year, you’ll know that I’ve been working on a book. I wrote a rough outline in December 2020 and started the research and writing process in February of this year. However, every time I sat down to write, it felt so labour-intensive…so forced. I couldn’t figure out a way to consistently show up to my writing. I felt so much resistance, mustering up some pretty ridiculous excuses to avoid putting in the work.
Enrolling in this course and listening to each lesson day-by-day, then applying what I learned to my own creative work, made transformative changes to my writing process and mindset. Framing is a psychological term where we can change our realities by positioning ideas in our mind in different ways. Two people can have the exact same experience, but completely different interpretations of it—one may enjoy it, while the other might view it as their personal idea of hell on earth. This phenomenon is what Steve Palvina coined as “The Frame Game.”
By working through the journaling questions after each lesson, I quickly realized my big mistake over the last several years, and that is the focus on external validation and rewards to fuel my efforts in both my training and creative work. This frame provided inconsistent and sporadic forms of motivation. On days where I didn’t feel like writing (which was most days), I would skip it all together and then proceed to chastise myself. My inner monologue deemed myself lazy and my self-confidence would take a hit. However, Steve tells us that rather than chastising ourselves for not sticking with our commitments, we should “blame the frame.” It’s not that we’re lazy, we’re just framing the activity in a way that’s providing us with a weak form of motivation and drive.
We need to instead, play with different forms of frames to find the one that sticks for us; the one that provides us with consistent motivation. We must position ourselves as an explorer—one who is constantly experimenting and testing out ways to keep ourselves accountable and present do the work. Explorers cannot fail; each time we discover a weak frame, through deduction, we bring ourselves closer to the truth: our own truth. This leads me to my next point on how I’ve been able to learn to enjoy the work for the work itself, whether it be in my running or writing.
I’ve had a morning routine for I can’t even remember how long. It starts the night before and goes a little something like this: lay gym clothes out and get the coffee ready. Wake-up, put the coffee on, meditate, then read. I would then “attempt” to write a bit (sometimes), but oftentimes, I would just read, skip the writing, and either go right into my freelance work or begin my training. At the end of the day, I would feel guilty for not making time for my writing. Writing is a skill I really wanted to improve, but my relationship with it was so dysfunctional. Again, I was only focused on the end result and didn’t actually enjoy the act of writing. I wanted all the benefits that came from writing, but borderline loathed doing the actual work. That is, until I combined more powerful frames with a morning ritual.
Rituals typically have a spiritual or religious association tied to them. While routines are more repetitive and can even be automatic, rituals provide more meaning to our routines—they help us connect with our tasks in a deeper way. So instead of just laying out the gym clothes or picking up the book, I’ve set up an environment that signals to my brain that it’s ‘go-time.’ After my meditation, I put on an instrumental playlist, drink my coffee and wake-up my brain. As soon as I start to lose focus, usually when I’m hitting that 45-minute to 1 hour mark, I’ll transition into my writing where I’ll be fully absorbed in the task. Not every day is easy; I don’t always have ideas top-of-mind to flesh out and explore in my writing. But I’ll stick to my habit, whether that be publicly or privately (through journaling). I always try to stop writing as soon as it starts to feel forced. I want to leave on a good note so it’s easy to return again the following day.
I have a ritual for my training as well. I put on my running shoes, plug in my headphones and start listening to my latest favourite beat(s). I then brush my teeth, mix my pre-workout drink and I’m out the door. As soon as I put on my shoes, the ritual begins.
I have several other rituals as well with my reading, freelance work, etc., but there is one constant: all of my rituals connect me to the task at hand. They help me focus and do the deep work—they help me enjoy the activity in and of itself.
What I’ve realized over the last 10 months is that the work is the reward—it never stops giving. I know that I can find happiness over the long term because there is there’s no endpoint. I can keep doing these activities every day because I enjoy them and I’m getting better at them. I’ve developed more self-confidence and feel more self-assured because I’ve been able to show up and do the work. I no longer feel this pressure to share everything I’m doing all the time with everyone. It’s a highly gratifying and rewarding experience.