Episode 276 – The thousand-day lessons

running with SorchaEarlier this year, I passed the 1,000-day mark in my #goldenyear running streak. In this week’s episode, I reflect on what I’ve learned from building that habit, and what it’s taught me about writing, resilience and when NOT to wear shorts. 

A short episode this week, but I hope you’ll enjoy it. 

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

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The EBBC summer 2021 reading list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/thinking-better-the-ebbc-summer-2021-reading-list

I’m going to talk about something I’ve been doing for the last 3 and a bit years, which is running every day. Now before you hit stop because you’re not interested in running, hold on: I’m not really talking about running. I’m talking about life and writing and business and habits, and I hope there’s stuff here that’ll be interesting to you even if the thought of running brings you out in a cold sweat.

First a bit of background for those that aren’t familiar with the story – I went for a run on my 49th birthday, intending to start a year-long running streak to take me up to my 50th birthday. And when I got there, I discovered I didn’t want to stop. So today’s run was run no. 1,123, and I’m just going to keep going until I can’t. One day I’ll be ill or sprain my ankle or something and it’ll have to stop, but until that day, I plan to keep running at least 2km every day. That’s over three years, two lockdowns, two house moves, two blocks of homeschooling, and all the usual schizzle of life. And it’s taught me a thing or two about habits and consistency, and that’s what I’m going to talk about today – and full disclosure, I’ve been asked to write an article on this, so I’m thinking out loud to you as a way of pulling my thoughts together. I hope you don’t mind, think of it as the director’s cut.

1. shift in identity
For years I told myself and anyone who would listen that I wasn’t a runner, and I was doing this out on a run with my friend Emma one day – Emma definitely IS a runner, she looks like one and wins races and stuff, and she just looked at me and said: ‘What are you doing right now, Alison?’ To which of course the only possible answer was, ‘Well, I’m running.’ And she gave me a look that said more eloquently than words ever could ‘Well you utter twonk you’re a runner then aren’t you, you of all people should understand how verbal nouns work.’ I’m paraphrasing, but it was a very eloquent look.

And what’s interesting is that as soon as I realised I WAS a runner, because I was, you know, running, I started to see myself as a runner, which meant I started to eat a bit better and take my training a bit more seriously and have my gait analysed before I bought new trainers.

And that was an epiphany – I had told myself I wasn’t a runner because I didn’t think of myself as a runner – the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves take some time to catch up. But I was running, and therefore I was a runner.

A lot of the authors I work with tell me ‘I’m not a writer.’ And of course they’re not professional writers, but the point is that if you’re writing, you’re a writer. And as soon as you start to see that actually, you ARE a writer, you start to take the process a bit more seriously. Instead of just blatting down the facts, you think more about the craft of writing, the structure, the metaphors, the rhythm, the tone. For the reader, that’s the stuff that makes the difference between a book that changes your world and a book you stop reading after the first two pages. So if you’re writing a book but telling yourself you’re ‘not a writer’, have a word with yourself – because the sooner you recognise that, guess what, if you’re writing, you’re a writer, the sooner you can get on with creating stuff that’s really worth reading.

2. power of habits

There’s a famous quote attributed to Aristotle – in fact it was actually coined by Will Durrant as a pithy summary of what Aristotle was getting at – ‘We are what we repeatedly do’. Which can be a bit depressing, if you’re given to bingeing on Ben & Jerrys, but is also incredibly exciting if you think about it, because it means your identity is not fixed, you can craft the person you want to be by choosing your habits. And for me this was ultimately the reason I chose running as a daily habit: I wanted to be a person who runs every day. I do other stuff too – I have 6 daily habits on my Streaks app – and each one of them is chosen because it reflects part of who I want to be – as well as running there’s habits based on financial management, on connection with the people I love, on my spiritual practice and so on – and they’re all things that matter to future me, but that I can’t rely on me in the moment to do without daily prompting.

The thing with streaking – which, just to be really clear, means doing something every day, nothing to do with the lack of clothing – is that it makes things really simple. I used to ask myself ‘Am I going to run today?’ and very often the answer would be ‘Not today, I’m busy/tired/can’t be bothered.’ When you’re streaking, the question is much simpler, it’s just: ‘WHEN am I going to run today?’ And incidentally I’ve discovered the answer to THAT is as soon as possible – because then you get to feel smug for longer. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve put off the run because I didn’t feel like it in the morning, and in the evening I still didn’t feel like it, but by then it was cold and raining.

What has this got to do with writing? Well, the third thing I learned is

3. the power of accountability.
I started posting a picture on Facebook each day with the hashtag goldenyear and the number of that day’s run, and it was a real boost to see people’s comments and support – and it also made me run with my eyes open for a good picture, which I’ll come onto soon. I don’t know if I’d still be running now if I didn’t feel that sense of accountability – when I stop, as I’ll have to one day, of course, it will be quite a public stopping, I can’t just give up quietly, people will know, and it’s amazing how powerful that was especially in the early days, when I had the inevitable ‘can’t be arsed’ moments.
If you can involve other people in your writing, have them hold you accountable or even just be interested and involved, I reckon you’re much more likely to keep going when the going gets tough.

4. start small
The fourth thing I learned is another lesson that applies equally well to writing as to running, I think, which is to start small
If I’d committed to running 5km every day, I can tell you right now I wouldn’t have reached 1000 days plus. I’d probably not have got as far as 100. I set my minimum as 2km – the first time I streaked it was just 1 mile, and that’s a great place to start if you’re considering this – but for me the key thing about 2000m is that I can be out and back in 15 minutes. I don’t care how busy your day is, you can find 15 minutes.
So when I was thinking about committing to a daily habit, I tried to imagine my worst day – travelling, meetings, training, kids’ commitments, whatever that looks like – and find something that I knew I could fit into even a day like that. On Day 964 I woke up at 4am, did two hours of work, then spent the rest of the day moving out of our family home and cleaning like a maniac, saying goodbye to all our friends, then driving 3 and half hours north to our temporary home. I was so tired I was practically hallucinating. But I could still just about manage a 15-minute stumble round the block before I fell into bed at 10pm.

And I think writing’s like that too. I often hear people say that they’re going to write 500 words a day, but there are some days when that’s going to be really tough, actually, and what you’re probably doing is setting yourself up to fail, which makes you feel bad, which is the exact opposite to what you need for successful habit creation. So my daily writing habit is 6 minutes minimum. Often I write longer, but even on the worst days I can do 6 minutes. And that keeps the sense of success and the momentum – there’s something very powerful about a streak. The longer it goes on, the less you want to break it. I know Jerry Seinfeld took this approach too, marking a cross on his calendar each day when he’d done some writing and trying just to keep the line of crosses unbroken – it’s not about how words you write or even how good it is, it’s just the practice, it’s showing up, it’s keeping that commitment to yourself. That way you’re creating space for the magic to happen, and if it doesn’t happen one day, not to worry, tomorrow is a whole new day.

I’m increasingly seeing writing as a practice, like yoga or meditation: it’s not about the output so much as the process and the consistency. I don’t think it’s that dissimilar in some ways, either – creating that space for writing each day, for thinking intentionally about the world and shaping your experience and your ideas into words, there’s something quite profound about it.

5. The power of self-efficacy
Which leads me on I think to the fifth thing I’ve learned from running every day, which is the power of self-efficacy. I think during the pandemic all of us to some extent experienced a sense of a loss of control – the plans we’d made went out the window, we had to abide by new and unfamiliar restrictions, we couldn’t even buy basic goods we’d taken for granted for years at the shop. And of course we’ve known for years that a sense of lack of control as one of the main causes of stress and anxiety. Put that together with uncertainty and fear for ourselves and our loved ones and separation from friends and family and it’s an unholy toxic mess. I hestitate with this one a bit because I’m very aware I was one of the incredibly lucky ones in lockdown: I didn’t lose my livelihood, I was in a happy stable family and my kids were old enough to get on with things pretty much independently, we had a garden, I totally won the lockdown lottery, and yet those psychological pressures were still there. And for me, running every day – particularly when we were literally allowed out once a day for exercise – was something I clung onto to keep me grounded. I had so little control over what was happening, but I could control this. I chose to run every day. And that restored a feeling of self-efficacy and a sense of control over my own circumstances that I know was hugely beneficial to my mental health.

On the mental health thing more broadly, and again I have no qualifications to talk about this at length so I won’t, but all I can tell you is that when I get stressy and negative, my husband has learned to say: ‘time to go for a run, Alison?’ Because I always come back a better person to be around than when I went out. And there’s some solid neurology to this apparently, something to do with endorphins and brain regulation, but I think it’s got a lot too to do with getting outdoors, which leads me onto the sixth thing I learned:

6. the power of nature
which is that I have spent most of my life pretty much blind to nature. it’s there as a backdrop on walks, of course, and it’s pretty, and I notice big things like the leaves turning and falling or, you know, snow, but basically I have lived most of my life in centrally heated homes in towns with electric lighting and for most of the day the season and the weather outside have little if any impact on me.
Running every day changed that, because I got to see the world change around me in a million tiny ways day by day. I think this became especially important because I took a picture to post on Facebook every day, so I was actively looking around me, looking for the first blossom, or snowdrop, or blackberry, and also seeing the bigger shifts, how the long evenings of June fade into twilight in July even though the days seem just as summery, and how the paths turn from bogs to cracked hard mud pavements. And nettles, lots and lots of nettles. Apparently urtification is a thing – people used to flog themselves with nettles to improve circulation or treat arthritis – I don’t know that I’d recommend that, but you certainly know you’re alive when you’ve run along a path lined with nettles when you’re wearing shorts. I don’t know if I’m selling this, but it’s definitely part of the experience.
The point is, feeling connected to the natural world has been one of the most wonderful unexpected side effects of running every day. The Japanese famously have the idea of forest bathing – shinrin yoku. Funnily enough I was thinking about that one day as I was running through Pamber Forest, and thinking how spiritual and transcendental and wonderful it was, with the light filtering through the trees above me and absolute peace, and the next minute I tripped on a root and fell on my face, so, there you go. From the sublime to the supine in one painful, inattentive moment.

7. everyday extraordinary
And finally, seventhly, what I learned in my thousand days of running, is that you don’t need to do something extraordinary to do something extraordinary – anyone can do this. I’d love to be one of the people who can go and sail across the Atlantic single-handed or climb Everest with a fridge strapped to my back – well, ok, I’d actually probably hate that, but you know what I mean, but I have kids and I have to run a business and pay the bills. Every day I go out for a run it feels like a microadventure – Alastair Humphreys introduced me to that word, and it’s perfect. I’m discovering new paths, getting lost, getting sweaty, it’s fun and it restores me, and I have made it part of my everyday life. Recognising what you need to feel fully alive and then figuring out how to incorporate a micro-version of that into our every reality is perhaps one of the most life-changing things you can do for yourself. Before I discovered the word ‘microadventure’, I called it everyday extraordinary, and I think that works too.

So there you go – seven things I learned over the last 1,123 days.

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