And how to defeat this feedback cycle from hell.
During the lockdown, I grew a tendency to binge on everything. I used to fall victim to the common culprits like TV shows, video games and junk food. However, I’m most intrigued by the fact that I also binged positive behaviours, whether working out, taking an online course or working on a project. I would describe this feeling as a type of intermittent obsession with a kind of behaviour.
Binging hurts for two reasons:
- Emotional extremes: Productive binges can feel great, but they’re followed by a period of negative binges that lead to feelings of disappointment and guilt.
- Slow and inconsistent progress: Cycling between positive and negative binges slow or completely revert the progress you make.
In this article, I’ll explore this behaviour and define some action items that can help you move towards a more consistent lifestyle.
How it started
My binging behaviour originated from a break-up. I felt sadness, anger, guilt and loneliness. These emotions were like nuclear fuel in terms of motivation and energy for me. While it was available, I was unstoppable. For two months, I was like a machine, making leaps towards my goals. However, nuclear fuel has a nasty side effect — once used, it can’t do work, and it’s hard to get rid of. Running out of this fuel lead to my first set of negative binges — tons of junk food and TV.
From here, the cycle goes like this:
- I felt guilty for having sidetracked my progress
- I want to make up for lost time and set unrealistic expectations for myself
- I burn out and binge negative behaviours
How to fix it
In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear explores the idea of becoming better 1% every day. Making small and consistent improvements has outstanding returns in the long run (because of compounding interest)… if you can stick with it. In the recent past, I’ve made some changes to help me move away from binging and live a more consistent lifestyle.
Commit to less than you think you can do
If you’re the type of person who has enormous aspirations and goals, this might sound counterintuitive. I used to see it as selling myself short. In reality, committing to less than you think you can do has the following effect:
- You’re able to meet your commitment consistently.
- Over a reasonable time horizon, you make significant progress and feel great.
- Because of this achievement, you feel like you can handle more, so you set an incrementally higher commitment.
This step is about simplifying your routine so that you can meet it on your lowest energy day. Stephen Duneier has a great TED talk on how he used this process to learn German, find success in his career, and become a Guinness World Record holder. Check it out here.
To minimize the downward spiral of harmful binges, do nothing (literally). These spirals tend to have some emotions attached to them. To avoid the wave of bad decisions, make a conscious effort to stop and sit with no sensory inputs. Let the voice in your head speak its piece. I’ve had immensely cathartic laughs and cries when I let my thoughts and emotions sort themselves out. Binging is a form of distraction that keeps emotions bottled up.
Choose your inputs wisely
Impatience is a crucial component of binging. Wanting fast results is what leads to applying an unsustainable amount of energy. Consuming media can serve as a nucleation point for desire. Here’s an example: I follow fitness pages on social media because I like taking care of my body. Seeing this media on a bad day tells my subconscious that being muscular and lean is the norm and that my body is subpar. My mind begins to obsess over how to get the body I want and leads me to apply an unsustainable amount of energy towards this end. I do this even though my existing regiment was sufficient to get me good results over a reasonable time horizon.
The ultimate goal is to make consistent progress with a clear mind.
I’ve committed to trivially small steps for four new goals:
- Read a programming problem and its solution every day
- Start a lesson on duo lingo every day
- Put on my work out clothes and put weights on the bar every other day
- Stay outside for 2 minutes every day
All of these goals are designed to get me to the start line. Even on my worst days, I can bring myself to do these trivially easy tasks and generally speaking, my natural curiosity and desire to do work will do the rest.
When I feel low — loneliness, anger or sadness, I give the emotion the chance to manifest itself in isolation. Occasionally, I’ll record myself speaking my mind alone. This process has helped me learn a lot about myself and my subconscious interpretations of my past. It’s also helped me avoid drowning my pain in destructive distractions.
I’ve gone to an extreme and currently avoid TV, movies, video games, social media, and music with lyrics. I make exceptions for doing these activities in a social setting. This change was the hardest to make on this list but also one of the most helpful. It’s helped me keep my goals and thoughts clear. (This topic deserves an article of its own)
After making these changes in my life, I’ve felt less stressed. I acknowledge that I am a work in progress and that I am doing all that I need to achieve my goals. It takes getting used to; doing less now to do more in the long run.
Resources that helped me improve my consistency
How to Get Out of a Rut by Better Ideas
Atomic Habits by James Clear
Obligation vs Opportunity — An Article by Keith Edwards
How to Get Back on Track After Slipping Up by Tim Ferriss