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Falling in Love (Or: How To Get Started)

The first time I ran a mile it hurt. It wasn’t fun. “Never run again!”, I told myself. I’ve since run several marathons and thousands of miles a year. It’s transformed by happiness, my health and given me new friends.

When I tell someone I ran 16 miles, they’ll look at me like I’m crazy. They think I have some inhuman ability to endure pain. I don’t. The relative effort applied has always been the same. When I’m at my 10th mile, it’s just not painful. It doesn’t hurt. (It’s quite fun, actually.)

This post isn’t about running per-se. It’s about how to get yourself to do something that isn’t immediately comfortable. There are no essays about how to eat more donuts. That doesn’t require planning. But if you want to work out, read a challenging book or “grind” through a project, you need to be smart about how you approach it. You need to fall in love with it, otherwise it’ll be impossible to persist. I’ve fallen in love with running. I’m going to try to explain how to engineer that and suggest parallels to types of work.

Don’t go out too hard. Novice runners often mistake running for sprinting. They go out for a “run”, sprint for a mile until they’re out of breath and then vow to never repeat the experience. Sprinting is hard! Don’t start with that. Maximize enjoyment. Run at the easiest pace you can manage. Find a scenic place. Enjoy the fresh air, if you can find it. Your goal is to make memories that are pleasant. Similarly, you’re working through a project, try to start off my making it as fun as possible. One way to do this is to split a problem into small, bite-sized components, since it’s satisfying to mark something as done. Or reward yourself by working on a novel part of the problem first.

Celebrate success. Once you achieve something challenging, your goal is to remember it as much as possible. You want your mind to store the positive moment as motivation fuel for next time. With running, some of this comes for free (the biochemical effects of a “runner’s high”), but you can get it for other tasks as well: tell your friends what you did! If you made it through a book, discuss it with others. If you finished some part of a side-project, show it off! It’s fun to get feedback from other people, especially if you respect them.

Surround yourself with motivation. The most potent form of motivation are other humans you know. They’re proof that “better is possible”. Join a running club. Find people on Strava. In the non-running context, consider applying to a program like Pioneer. Try to find friends who seem very productive to you. Work near them. Setup your screen to face them, so that you feel like they can track your progress.

Reprogram yourself. Many have decried the negative effects of social media, but I believe you can use it’s powerful addictive qualities for good. I recently wanted to start weightlifting. This is a new area for me. I wasn’t interested in it. I didn’t have a bank of positive memories to rely on when considering the activity, so my mind always rejected doing it. It was a high willpower endeavor. As an experiment I downloaded Instagram and followed only weightlifting athletes. I found myself watching a lot of CrossFit and weightlifting and aspiring to do it. Suddenly I was interested in weightlifting. When I thought of the activity, it conjured aspirational thoughts instead of anxiety. You might be able to use this technique to “reprogram yourself” in other domains.

Treat your desire to do something as emergent factor. Instead of trying to force it, setup the environment for desire to naturally occur. If you want to learn to code, read Masters of Doom, not O’Reilly’s C++ for beginners. Fall in love with the idea, so that you can spend more time doing what you love.