Flexible Structures

This essay was originally published on my Patreon.

I try not to get too caught up in ritual.

I enjoy routine and predictability on a visceral level as much as anyone, and being able to plan around lazy mornings or afternoon workouts makes it simpler to distribute other tasks throughout my day. But I also like knowing I can break these patterns on a whim, and even bend them when warranted, without harming the overall structure I’ve built.

For the past half-a-year or so, for the first time since my university days, I’ve been running every day. I built myself back up from “sluggish, unable to move at speed for any duration” to a regular, comfortable three miles a day, with regular elevated walks mixed in for flavor.

Recently, though, for a period of about a week, my schedule was dramatically altered by an opportunity. One that required I act immediately (I found the perfect motorhome for my upcoming tour, and had to do a lot of driving, learning, repairing, cash-withdrawing, and negotiating, all within a very short period and with little time to prepare), messing with that nice, reliable running ritual I’d come to enjoy.

What had become my daily routine was blasted to bits, and although I told myself that I would keep running throughout—I brought my shoes and shorts with me on the drive—there was just no way to make it fit amidst everything else I was doing that week. The near-constant stress of spending a large amount of money, the consistent reminders of how little I actually knew about what I was getting myself into, the physical strain of driving a series of vehicles of varying length and air conditioning-situations for days at a time, often through mountainous roads and intense heat; yeah. It wasn’t happening. I thought I could make it happen, but I couldn’t. I was too drained, and there simply weren’t enough hours in the day, most days.

Fortunately, I’d built a fail-safe into my running habit.

I allowed myself, when I felt a twinge in my leg, or when I’d had a particularly exhausting week, or for no reason at all, just because I felt like it, to take a day or two off. To defy convention and buck the trend I’d worked so hard to develop.

I allowed myself to break my habit semi-routinely.

And if you can do that enough, and come back to the habit after—if you can train your brain and body to expect that you’ll return to it after a period away—that break becomes a bend. It becomes a latent flexibility, a give, rather than a fracture that cannot be repaired.

Concrete, unyielding structure can be useful when building new, beneficial habits.

This is especially true when you’re replacing old, perhaps simply outdated, perhaps actively harmful habits with something new. It’s a good idea to stick with it, whatever shape your day takes. Sometimes a step away from that path is actually a step backwards, and one that will be difficult to come back from.

At the same time, though, there’s an inherent fragility in the idea that if you break a habit even once, even for one day, your entire system will collapse around you.

Is that the kind of structure you want to be building? Does it feel particularly sturdy or safe, this framework that will shatter if your plans ever change or the variables in your life necessitate a temporary adjustment to the norm?

Whenever possible, I prefer to tether my habits to a different type of foundation.

Rather than relying on the habit, the structure itself, to hold me up, I see it as just another means of toning my existing willpower. And that willpower is shared between all the things I do regularly: from my daily run, to the voice exercises that can sometimes be quite taxing, to the creative writing sprints I do each day, to more isolated projects like blitzing my way through the first draft of a book or learning all I can about a new topic before recording a podcast episode about it later that week.

In this way, I haven’t made that 30-minute daily habit a load-bearing element in my life. Instead, it’s something that relies upon a more fundamental muscle that I maintain and exercise in countless other ways, on a regular basis, and which I know can take the strain. The muscle-system can hold the habit in place until I come back for it after a wild week of motorhome-purchasing, or after a few days of allowing a tendon to rest to avoid injury.

The field of earthquake engineering is a fascinating one, as it’s predicated on the concept that the safest, most reliable building is the one that’s most capable of safely diffusing the dangerous energy of an earthquake, rather than the one that is the most heavily reinforced and staunchly constructed.

I tend to think in those terms as I engineer my lifestyle.

I want something that can stand tall in all circumstances, not just ideal ones. Something that can weather the seismic changes that life brings.

I strive to build life that can absorb or redistribute or dampen or even harness and utilize those shockwaves so that the whole structure doesn’t come crashing down around me as soon as the ground starts moving.

I want foundations that can shift as the world shifts. A life with a type of structural integrity that allows me to feel comfortable building skyward, whatever the future might bring.

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