Willpower – No Friend of Mine

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How many of us have tried to make changes in our life and failed when our willpower has waned? When we set those massive new year’s resolutions to go to the gym, lose weight, giving up smoking or drinking. Why does it so often go wrong, even when we have every genuine intention of doing it?

I guess this was a question I asked myself time and time again, as I would relapse back to drinking. So capable of achieving some many things but slipping over the same banana skins time after time. What was the thing that broke this cycle finally (Well as I write 2 ½ years of abstinence)? It was learning that it often takes a hell of a lot more than will power and that actually willpower isn’t an infinite resource no matter how strong minded we think we are.

I always got that addiction is the strongest of habits, but I guess I never really understood the vice like grip that habits can hold over us, both good and bad. After reading the power of habits by Charles Duhigg, a lightbulb most certainly went on in my head. I will try my best to keep it in simple terms that I reckon can be applied to any challenge in life.

The first point I will make is that like most things it’s not about targeting the big changes it’s about starting small and being utterly consistent. Once we form a strong enough habit loop it becomes something that can be harder not to do than do, maybe that makes sense when you think about addiction. So I will use my example that is the real deal when it comes to my drinking.

Anyone who knows addiction will know that the compulsion to do, to take is unbelievably strong, like a hidden force controlling your body, no matter how hard you fight. Well for me the first step was stepping away from the places that put me at highest risk of drinking. I gave up playing rugby knowing that at that time being around a drinking environment socially was not something I was strong enough to handle. The idea that we can put ourselves around our demons and simply use willpower is flawed to my mind. Once we are around those things, habit takes over so in my case it was natural to then drink. My feelings would build up to full blown panic attacks at worst, my petulant 7-year-old routine often used from fear of simply not wanting to put myself at risk of relapsing. For many years I thought I had to live my old life, do what I had always done and again rely on my inner strength to fall back. But whilst that habit is live you are always only a minute away from failure. When people say, just the one could tip me back, it’ because it’s really just like sliding down a giant snake and starting the journey again. The bigger problem that with every relapse, our battered confidence in our ability to defeat our foe is lessened further still.

I never got when I was a kid how my Uncle who was such a good guy, couldn’t just give up or George Best, Gazza. But as grew older the strength of addiction made perfect sense. The claws once locked into us can be fatal to so many. So what am I saying apart from a random splurge of thoughts. That firstly if you want to make serious change in your life you can’t expect to live the same life. Your brain is always expecting that component that you are now saying you don’t need, but putting yourself in the same place. Example – Why would I think hanging about in pubs now abstinent would be a good idea?

My first step of breaking away from rugby was only a small battle. I remember the worst feelings of anxiety around a Saturday teatime, the time that defined my old social life for my whole adult life. It was awful feeling completely devastated that I could no longer just be one of the boys. To have the only existence I had ever known taken away from me. Not just missing the game, but my whole social circle now practically gone. My normality was just that and at that time I could see no other way, just as my brain couldn’t comprehend removing these things from my life. I tried smoking dope, not a massive amount as, well I can’t smoke and a have a kid’s chest. But enough to relax me, to not want to drink and to simply be calm. Luckily I realised the stupidity of swapping bad habit for another.

So I turned to something that had become habit, only by the choice to own a dog many years ago, to simply walk. To click dog lead on and head out the door, walking till the feelings began to be replaced by an endorphin release that felt altogether better. Where instead of the brain spinning and thinking like a knotted ball of twine, it would unwind like a conveyor belt. Ideas would start to take shape and problems seemed to have definable answers, or at least stepping stones to working towards their completion.

Again it was not willpower that was going to help but using simply habit. Walking the dog, a daily activity, that would give the prize and reward of feeling relaxed. I analyse my drinking habit and getting to the root cause, which I can confidently say was about achieving a state of rest, peace within, stemming from childhood when I began drinking to forget, to be the person I wished I could be. My habit loop told me that when I wanted to relax I would drink. Sadly, it was a floored strategy that sure gave me some Dutch courage but began to give other worries about what I’d done, or said then the deep feelings of self-loathing that ultimately followed many years into the future. What cemented this habit loop, love! Yea when I stopped giving a shit about everyone else a dog asks so little of you that small walk everyday seemed manageable. Again in relation to the drinking when I felt really anxious I could a double up and take that walk, that I needed to take anyway.

So the seed was laid for my first charity walk across England maybe aiming to help further cement this habit loop. My work and the setting up of BCT gave me another defence strategy, that of busyholism. Not giving the brain time to think about things of a negative nature. Rolling from task to another till through sheer tiredness I would drop to sleep.

This initial period of success was maybe just a little luck, as it was after yet another relapse that my belief in firstly understanding habit and secondly trying to tip them in a positive way came about. The mistake that many a drinker has made is that “I’m ok to have one or two”. Just a simple glass of wine with a meal, it can’t harm. I’m not the person I was and it’s not so bad now. The slow relapse a well-known phrase, with that one glass slowly but surely building back upwards. I had also gone back to playing rugby again, quite apt as I write this blog I have just attended my first training session for some 3 years, am I making a mistake well hopefully not. But the drinking was returning to those problematic levels, where the depressive periods following were getting longer and deeper till reaching the point of suicidal thoughts.

I once again picked myself from the bottom step and looked up at the epic mountain to be climbed. One day a time is the saying, one step at a time. Well these are true whatever the challenge to be undertaken. So during this period I read the book I mentioned earlier and began to put in place my own control measures. I do love the idea of risk assessing my life in this manner. I had to get rid of the riskiest activities in my life that could cause me to fail. So sadly once again this meant giving up rugby once again, even though I had managed to work my way back into the first team, which did mean a great deal. I now knew that I needed to come up with a new activity to replace this lifelong one. So I decided to use running as Meg was now too old for long walks. So each Saturday afternoon I would put the running shoes on and head out for a long run. No matter how anxious I would feel I would tell myself “If you are gonna moan and whinge, do it once those feet are on the pavement and you are moving”. I knew fine well that once moving at some point those horrible feelings in my stomach would be replaced by that lovely little buzz where everything just seems a lot better. Even better once back in the house I began to feel a state of mind I know truly crave, the one I call serenity within. A feeling of no longer worrying or caring about anything, maybe even learning how to enjoy the simplest of moments, such as a sunset, a bird singing, you get the drift.

I began to race, with the simple aim of linking it into my competitive nature giving me a focus to keep me getting out the door. But never forgetting what my true aim was, to simply stay well. I began to realise through my racing that I could have a social life that didn’t rely on drinking. More sharing a brew, a cake or a trail or two for hours on end. Stepping into that world even though of course tiresome leaving me feeling mentally on top of the world. I also linked into the fact that my long term battles with depression meant that physical pain could be accepted and actually felt quite good, it was honest and valid, unlike the pain of the black dog and the stigma that still lives it. I began to see that socially I had only ever lived the most limited of palettes. Sure there was an amazing folk out there had a good time, simply high on life.

So 2 ½ years later I am once again looking at how I apply this thinking to achieving in my life. Looking at how I can use habit loops in my life and also to go back and revisit things that mean a great deal. I yearning to return to rugby has built up in me over this period, it’s hard to describe the attachment to the game, but It’s like home. It’s a place that feels so natural that when it’s missing it really is a hard to handle. So I made the decision to pull my boots back on and be back in that culture, could it be a mistake? well only time can tell. But maybe I have finally changed my habit loop where drink, relaxation and stress are concerned. The old association doesn’t seem to have its hold it once did over me.

What pulls me back, the feel of a rugby ball in my hand just a like a kid giving a pass or making a tackle. 25 years on from the first time it once again feels something really special. How long does it take to change a habit loop, a decade maybe well in this case that’s what are talking? So for the quick fix merchants that’s not great news, but the journey can only ever start with a small action. Something that we can positively imbed in our daily lives. Think about attempting to go to the gym 5 days a week, when you have never gone to a gym and certainly not 5 days a week. We put our success in the hands of will power and we also scare ourselves to shit as the goal is just too big. Then when we fail we totally crush ourselves for that lack of commitment. So when the days are toughest it ain’t about hitting the gym of an hour it’s about something so small that we can taste success, then got on a bit of a roll. Maybe we’ll without realising do 15 mins, 30, an hour after all. The biggest the challenge the more we need to find the small wins, sometimes these are simply not going backwards. Merely surviving the day is as good as it gets and we need to say well done to ourselves on these days.

I remember the first time my habit loop was truly tested this last period of abstinence. It was when I had to close BCT’s café named after my beloved Grandparents and a period that felt like total failure as I returned to construction just to survive. The task of clearing out the kitchen left to me with all our amazing staff now departed, I sat in that kitchen and considered going to Weatherspoon’s and having a Guinness. The woe is I approach, justifying to myself that sure it would be ok to fuck up today, no one will hold it against you. The depressive’s friend, beating ourselves with our own stick rather than use anyone else’s. But for whatever reason I simple thought lodged in my head, that sticks with me and maybe as much metaphorically stays with me, I decided I would simply turn right.

So back in the day when I was drinking I would turn left out of my street and simply cross the road to Aldi to buy my red wine. But whenever I ran at that time they would all start by turning right and heading down Norton Avenue. On the good day’s turning right was easy, but each time I did it I reinforced my habit loop that when times get tough I turn right. So as I sat in Weatherspoon’s with a coffee instead of a beer, I told myself that I needed to commit to just one simple act each day. When I arrived in from work, I would instantly put the running shoes on and head out the door turning right. Each day all I had to do to get rid of those dreadful feelings of woe, was to fight the urge to sit down, stick on those running shoes and turn right.

Those day’s turned into weeks and those weeks became months, followed by years. That was the role that running began to do for me. During this period, I have tried to replace busyholism with learning to enjoy the moment more often, simply enjoying what was around me, whether that’s the people or surroundings. So recently after playing rugby with old pals and attending good friend’s birthday parties where I was surrounded by the old drinking crowd and realised there wasn’t a single part of me craving what they were taking. Knowing that I can really get high on life leads me to thinking I have to go back to the places where my heart feels deepest. No grand agenda just to enjoy doing the things that have made me happiest as long as I am physically able, which isn’t forced to be long, if the feelings after one training session are anything to go by.

So when we want to make big change what are the key elements, well here goes:

• Risk Assess your life, where are the highest risk activities / people maybe. Don’t keep testing your resolve especially when weak.
• Substitute the behaviour with something else, smokers use chewy, ecig’s etc. all based around keeping the habit happy.
• Don’t make it too big, it only scares the brain and that causes another load of problems. Start small and try to do with utter consistency especially whilst feeling good.
• Surround yourself with energizers, people who lift you up, give you energy and allow you to be the real you.
• Understand that on your down day’s we must be realistic with our goals, we can’t change too many things at once. Some day’s simply getting out of bed maybe our success.
• Realise that making lasting changes to ourselves takes time but by using small wins we soon cover a lot of ground.
• Do things that make you truly happy and try to work these into any habit you are trying to form.
• Work around the things you can make part of your daily life, that works on the bad day’ and not just the good.

I know one thing about my journey it’s no longer just about beating my demons, but about how it can be applied to having a rich and fulfilling life. But for me right now it’s also about going back to where the good and bad times seem equally etched and hopefully writing a new chapter. When you love what you do, we never see the hard work.

Peace & Love
Paul

Depression – Surviving & Thriving

Taking a power nap on his walk across Scotland.
Taking a power nap on his walk across Scotland.

I guess I only ever write about depression when I am either down or I am just turning the corner on the road back out of its throes. But I wanted to share some of my own thoughts and coping strategies, that I reckon help me not only manage it, most of the time, but also maybe even get some positives from it. Needing to get on the front foot and actually see it as a challenge, an opportunity to improve myself.

Depression has been part of my life for some 20 years, with reflection and it is only in the last 6 years that since acknowledging its existence that I have changed my own mindset towards it. The competitor in me sees it as one hell of a challenge to be taken, one that I cannot shy away from and one that is a lifelong pursuit, where it isn’t about quick fixes. But that’s the apt word “quick fixes” these things never help us achieve big, but more the application of doing the little things well and over a long period brings large gains.

My depression is a chronic disorder, although I haven’t had the need for visits to a medical professional in the last few years, I know very well that if I take my off the ball then I can be very quickly in the grip of the black dog. The red flag’s obviously still zero alcohol and lots of lovely exercise. But what intrigues me is that the little things I need to do are completely compatible with achieving success generally. My ad-hoc study of habits and how the brain is always trying to make our life easy by automating everything, sadly the bad ones just as much as the good.

So why have I once again let my mood fall into the grip of depression, because I didn’t go to bed early, because I skipped a run, because I kept working late last night, because I’ve been sat at my desk to long. None of these things a great catastrophe on their own, but when one follows the other, that’s the start of the slow road downhill.  See, just like when achieving big, it’s about the constant application of doing the 1%er’s every time, to the point that we no longer even think about doing, it simply happens! Well whether I am training for a big event or a business goal, it’s the same approach realising that success and more importantly feeling well are directly connected to getting the small things right.

There is no big answer, no quick win but simply restarting with that first small win, that single step, getting out of bed, getting ready. To say the greatest journey starts with a single step isn’t just some clever metaphor it is very good practical advice. Whatever we are looking to achieve stop looking big but start looking small and the quick wins, the things you can do today, that set the tone, that build the confidence, getting on a roll so to speak.

So as I write this blog buoyed by being productive, actually simply from putting my feelings down through this keyboard I am starting the process. What’s the next step? Well in my world it’s getting the ass out the door and going for a run, my most simple but successful strategy. Those beautiful endorphins giving me a big collective high 5 and helping run my blues away.

Those who know depression will know that when in Its grips the idea of going for a run is a painful thought. Well it is no different for me, once I’ve let myself slide down too far. So I must look even smaller first to get on a roll, the most minuet win.  In this case I replied to some emails, I checked off some really small tasks, that when I looked at my faithful diary showed me I had begun to achieve, those small tasks when listed together started to look like a bigger win.

I have learned that we cannot judge success by the same criteria on different days, sometimes the smallest wins are as good as it gets and guess what! That’s ok as we can’t kick the shit out of it every time.

I know from my many miles running and walking that sometimes, when that wind blows in your face, it’s cold, dark and wet making any ground forward a real success. When I struggle most and need to keep going I make my goals even smaller. I do this for real, so when running I start to look not at the horizon but at an oil stain a few feet in front, a leave, a road sign again only a few feet down the road. I check off the micro victories giving myself just the smallest sense of achievement that secretly pushes me on to the next challenge, the poo bin, the curb, the red car. Not big wins, the smallest of wins, but ones that I know keep helping me make progress towards a bigger win.

This blog is a ramble of thoughts, but the point if there is one, well that there isn’t no easy win’s worth having, we don’t achieve big things from one big effort, but from a consistent daily application to the task in question. I have to laugh at the irony of depression, on the good day there is not much that worries me in the world, but on that down day, the smallest task becomes an effort requiring herculean strength.

So depression I guess I owe you a debt of gratitude as without you by my side I maybe would have never worked out these things that help me achieve big. A big win is a million small ones and that’s where my time is spent working out how I create the habits that take the thinking out of the game. When it becomes habit it simply happens, rugby pitch, youth session, business meeting, practice the smallest elements and let the amazing computer also known as our brain do its thing.

Peace & Love

Paul

The Confidence to Be You

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As I sit here with a rainbow coloured beard after once again publicly looking incredibly silly, as part of the fantastic SIRF community carnival I can’t help but reflect on the reasons behind it. That maybe aren’t so silly, in fact that I know are not silly in the slightest, but showing that once we learn to embrace who we are and let go of that inner fear we can achieve great things.

I spent over 20 years developing a character/fascade that allows me to achieve the things I wish in life. But they don’t come from a positive place, but rather like many from feelings of inadequacy, constantly worrying about the opinion of everyone, on everything. The phrase that changed my life maybe from a former rugby coach at Billingham Rugby Club as a young 16-year-old scrum-half stepping into senior rugby. “Become the pantomime character” Simply meaning it may not be the real you but build the character then use it to aid performance. Well over 20 years later I wonder is it still the character or  is it simply the person I am within.

Paul and the kids from BCT Aspire CIC
Paul and the kids from BCT Aspire CIC

Having ran youth sessions for well over a decade and also lived with anxiety problems, I see the difference between being nervous and being completely paralysed by fear, for whatever reason. So when children walk into my world, the first task is always to simply make people feel comfortable and safe, just as we all need in life. Sure fear can on occasion help performance in some, but living in a constant state of fear, is like being slowly poisoned. The same can be said for once of the most potent fuels for performance and something that can be seen in many great achievers, that of true anger, again overuse it becomes toxic. I say that having suffered a breakdown in 2009 with these both very probable ingredients. So my pantomime character, that of the clown is maybe not so silly. To show children that within our world, you can be the person you wish, deep inside, without the constant worry of judgement. Sure, not everyone is or has to be an extrovert, but to simply understand that you can be who you really are, is a worth more than gold.

Behind the Tiger Face anything is possible
Behind the Tiger Face anything is possible

It also leads onto the other vital ingredient of everything we do and believe, that of energy and more specifically positive energy. I have used this in many aspects to achieve great goals, I have set myself and understand that when we can pull together as much positivity it is truly infectious. As a collective, a team we gain strength from the energy and strength of one and another. The introvert rests easy next to the extrovert understanding that we all bring something special to the team. The great teams work around those who need support positively and ultimately improve everyone and everything. This is the culture that we work hard to achieve at BCT Aspire CIC.

So think about it for a second, how far is the gap between the inner and outer you? This is the gap I have tried to slowly bridge building something I call true confidence vs perceived confidence. The latter is the performance, the fascade that allows us to get the job done. True confidence is the magic, when we know longer have to think about who or what we do, but simply be who we are, in whatever way that manifests.

When I am in the room with my groups hopefully they can rest assured they need not worry about feeling silly as you are going to have to go some to look as daft as me. But first we must all feel safe in our environment, that go’s across business, sport, whatever place we step foot in.

Think about it for a second how many different characters do you have to use in your life, one for business, one for socialising, one that is the real you, whilst surrounded by those who make you feel safe. Well when we can begin to bridge the gap, the discord within can slowly be broken.

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Bizarrely since writing this blog and then reflecting on it, i have interestingly been brought back to my rainbow beard. As i got ready for my Saturday night run i pulled on my new running vest, which represents Sara’s Hope Foundation and who’s logo is a rainbow. My good friend Tony the Fridge is currently running 100 consecutive Great North Run’s for BCT Aspire CIC and Sara’s Hope. So anyway i guess the beard needs to stay till that challenge is completed, so if you see the rainbow beard you know why.

Remember ! No one can ever be a better version of you, than YOU

Peace and Love – Paul