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Flaming June: lessons learned

In Flaming June I challenged myself to shape up my habits with regular meditation, exercise, music, diet changes, work changes and more. A personal bootcamp, if you like.

My inspiration to do this came from a Commencement address given by Admiral McRaven at the University of Texas. In his address, the Admiral detailed 10 principles from his time in marine training. The job of the training officer to toughen you up, to prepare you, to exercise you – and to try to make you quit. You job is to toughen up enough, prepare enough, exercise yourself enough, to stay the course. Watching the address, I realised how much stronger, resilient and resourceful humans are, compared to how we often ourselves. So I experimented with bootcamping myself.

To recap, the habit changes I aimed for were:

  • Ovo-vegan as much as possible.
  • 5:2 to shift a few pounds, then 6:1 or 5:2 maintenance.
  • Daily walk/run/cycle for 30 minutes.
  • Daily meditation.
  • Daily music-making.
  • Aspiring minimalism.
  • Project 333
  • Daily Buddhist Action Month tweets
  • Fledgling business fully set up by 30 June 2014

Whilst my progress on each of these nine changes/projects is detailed in Flaming June – how did it go?, in this post (and some more later) I’m going to focus on what I learned more generally.

Don’t aim for burnout

The biggest lesson from Flaming June was about burnout. Actually, that’s overstating it somewhat, but I did get singed. What else would you expect from a month I described as Flaming?

Burnout for me has seldom been an issue because of a handy burnout-prevention mechanism called migraine. When things get too demanding, for too long, I get migraine. If it’s mild, I can function but I’ll wince every now and then. If it’s serious, I can’t change from sitting to standing without shooting pains, and looking at a monitor or being around bright lights feels like being lasered.

Actually it’s more accurate to say that when I get too demanding of myself, for too long, I get migraine. I ignore what I need, what I feel, and push on with whatever my head has decided I should be doing. As you may have guessed by now, June ended in migraine. Having demanded a lot from myself, my body pulled its defence mechanism out and stopped me in my tracks.

Looking at my set-up for the month, you could almost see it coming. In the first week, I sneaked in an extra habit: get up at 6am. This turned out to be one of the killers: I was pushing myself to get up even when I was shattered (weekends too). I wasn’t allowing myself enough rest. Things that were usually play – music – became tasks to tick off my list. There was no space, freedom, or liberty in my daily happenings.

Burnout – or it’s baby-brother, migraine – generally happens when you drive yourself too hard for too long, and don’t recharge enough. Migraine prevention can be simple: make space for enough rest, play, and fun. Preventing a migraine can be the same as alleviating one, but from a position of migraine/burnout, even this gets approached as another thing to do. Another task, another expenditure of energy, effort and time. It becomes pretty Catch-22.

The revelation for me in June was gentleness. I needed to think more gently, act more gently, be more gentle. I needed to bring some softness into my life – less rigidity, more gentleness. I need to allow myself to be, to feel, to let myself know what I need. All this needs a gentle receptivity, a gentle touch, a gentle and listening ear.

So when you feel yourself become too driven, too demanding of yourself, for too long, see if you can bring in a little gentleness, a little love, a little lightness.

Set the bar low enough

Somewhere in the back of most perfectionists’ minds is the thought “that”s not good enough”. If anything, I tend towards high standards for myself. While I would rather not see this in myself, to most people it’s more than obvious. So I’ll go along with the prevailing view even though I’d prefer not to.

Setting a low enough entry level for habit success falls straight into believing that a low bar isn’t high enough. Well there’s no surprise there… But seriously, setting the bar low feels like failing at the beginning. It feels like aiming for imperfection, and what’s the point in that?

But that is exactly the issue here. Setting the bar low – and finding happiness in at being there – gets most of the habit-forming blocks out of the way. Suddenly the habit is easy to do. Each day, a tick in the box. Each week, a streak of completed days. After a missed day, it’s easy to get back in.

Setting the bar low enough for me in June might’ve looked like focusing on one specific habit daily for the month, and aiming for everything else once a week. This would allow space and energy for serious change in one area, while keeping other aspects ticking over for sharpening up later in the year.

Setting the bar low enough is a practice is delayed gratification. Sure, you’re aiming for 30 minutes a day of meditation, or music, or running, but can you hold out on satisfying that desire? Can you limit yourself to 5 minutes and delay the pleasure of achieving the End Goal of 30 minutes? Can you hold fire on some habit changes, focus on one at a time, and get your gratification in a few months when your changes are in place?

Be aware of your context

When you take on a habit change, you need to factor in how your context will support your habit change, or hinder it. Your context is everything: your home, relationships, workplace, recent or forthcoming events. And it makes a huge difference to your resources – to the energy, time and effort that you have available to make changes.

In compounding my 5 habit changes with developing 4 projects (oh yes, I nearly forgot, while settling in to a new country, new culture, new living arrangement, and learning a new language) I lost sight of my context. While drawing inspiration from the Admiral’s account of training, I lost sight of the support network that a new recruit has (a sergeant, fellow recruits) during their training – a support network that I don’t yet have in my new location.

When you come to make a habit change, take stock of your context. How will it help you develop your new habit? How will it prevent you? How will it support you?

What habit(s) do you want to integrate – and how will you do it in a long-term sustainable way?

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