I'm a list guy. I like checking boxes and keeping streaks going.
This habit spans my personal and professional lives. Every day I write out what I'm going to do and take great satisfaction in checking off those boxes. The list usually spans the work I need to get done and the everyday items I knock out daily: meditating, journaling, gratitude practice, intermittent fasting (and yes – I realize these things represent a near maximal level of nerdery, but I like 'em).
Periodically – by which I mean often – I fail to do something on this list. As I write this, I am wrestling with the knowledge that I didn't get to my journaling this morning. Or yesterday. Or the day before that.
In the past, breaking a streak like this could quickly devolve into a minor crisis. One missed day precipitated a week, then a month or more of skipped routines. Sometimes I would simply give up for good. After all, if I've already broken the streak, what's the hurry?
This mindset is insane. It shifts the focus from what I actually cared about – in the case of journaling, getting my thoughts onto paper as a forcing function to organize my cluttered thinking into something coherent – to simply ticking a meaningless box.
We all fail to live up to our visions of our best selves from time to time. This is normal and part of the experience of being a human on this planet. That's not the point.
At some point, I realized that missing days here and again was largely inconsequential. What was important was whether I stopped the bleeding once I realized I'd fallen off the wagon.
Stop the Bleeding
For the last year or so, I've been using Sam Harris' meditation app, Waking Up, to guide my daily meditations. One of the most impactful concepts I've taken from it is the mantra to "begin again." As in, have you forgotten that you are meditating? Begin again. Thinking about your grocery list? Begin again. Wondering why the sky is blue? Begin again.
Beginning again is all that matters. The streak is nice, but in the absence of a streak, simply begin again. I think of it as stopping the bleeding. Anyone with first aid training will know that the most important thing to do in a crisis is to stop the bleeding. If you don't stop the bleeding nothing else matters. The path back to health starts with this first step.
The same is true with the habits and behaviors that are good for us. If we don't stop the bleeding now, we simply prolong our time in the wilderness. A missed day is inconsequential. What is essential is starting again when you realize you've stopped.
The best outcome would be to do the things I said I would do on time, every time. If I can't do that – and if history is any indicator, sometimes I just can't – the next best thing is to stop the bleeding by getting it done today.
So take this as your wake-up call to begin that thing you've been putting off again today. Call your parents, start working out, meditate. Whatever that thing is for you, stop the bleeding and get back on the horse.
The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is today.
As for me, this blog post is day one of my current journaling streak. That's a win.