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Commitment Beats Motivation

26 April 2021

Being motivated for things is great. Motivation for a job, for sobriety, for fitness, for budgeting – gets you started and helps establish a baseline. But motivation always wanes over time. Sometimes in a cycle, sometimes in a slow decay. But like New Year’s Resolutions, we are often highly motivated in the beginning to begin a journey, but when it becomes difficult or boring, we almost always relent, and dramatically reduce or abandon our efforts entirely. I’ve stopped thinking about motivation as a driving factor.

Instead I think about commitment. Discipline. Motivation is about something I want to do. Commitment and discipline are about someone I want to be. I’ve struggled with laziness my entire life. I’ve found that’s common to alcoholics. I don’t want to do the work I have to do to get to where I want to be. I want a shortcut. An easier, softer way. But for many things, there just is no shortcut.

Take wealth. It’s relatively easy in concept to build wealth if you have a job that covers anything more than your absolute basic needs. Take a small amount of your paycheck. Put it in a separate account and don’t spend it. Ideally, invest it in something relatively safe that will grow at a steady rate. Repeat every single paycheck. Even if you don’t have much you can afford to put in there, after a few years, the amount will feel pretty large in comparison to your income.

But it’s VERY easy to give up on that. Progress is slow. Needs are many. Desires are many more. It’s easy to look at that pot of money after a while and say, “Hey I can afford to go on a vacation now!” We all deserve vacations. But take it now, and it might wipe out a year of progress or more. While staying the course for a few more years might result in an account that produces enough income to take an annual vacation. I’m not judging the choice a persona makes, but I am pointing out that the choices we make have long-term consequences. All of us, myself absolutely included, frequently make short-term choices that have long-term consequences at odds with our stated goals.

This is the millennial “avocado toast” problem. It’s fun to mock those who say that “young people spending too much on avocado toast is why they can’t buy houses”. But it is absolutely true for people with limited means (almost all of us) that making routine small-but-unnecessary purchases undermines our ability to make occasional large purchases like cars and homes. And the people who are so offended, often indignantly proclaiming, “we deserve little luxuries too!”, are often failing to see the power of long-term budgetary discipline, even at the low levels that they can command.

I am currently on a journey of weightloss. I’ve heard from many people in many places that “diet and exercise don’t work”. This is nonsense of course, diet and exercise are the only things that do work. When people say “diet and exercise don’t work” what they usually mean is, “most people gain the weight back over time, and so dieting and exercising aren’t an effective long-term strategy.” And I’ll agree with that.

But the reason that people gain the weight back is not that somehow, dieting and exercising magically stop obeying the laws of thermodynamics. It’s that people stop doing them. Either because they are demoralized that they are not seeing big enough and fast enough gains, or because they do see those gains, reach a goal, and then rationalize changing their behavior back to a prior baseline. And that’s hard. I’ve done that several times. But it wasn’t dieting and exercising that failed. It was ME.

No one likes to think of themselves as a failure, so it’s easy to externalize the deficiency. “Diet and exercise don’t work,” is more comfortable than, “I fail, or I am dishonest with myself about what I’m actually doing.” But that’s how motivation isn’t effective. No matter how motivated I am to achieve something, demoralization and rationalization can erode my efforts.

Commitment is different. I have decided to become someone who measures my food, accounts for my nutrients, and exercises daily. It’s often not fun, sometimes doesn’t provide the results I want immediately. But I’m not quitting despite my frequent demoralization. Because I’m not doing this for the purposes of reaching a specific weight or completing a specific race. I’m doing it because I want to be a person who exerts control over what I eat and how I move. Rather than being controlled by my laziness and appetites.

So I do the same things every day, in a disciplined and consistent way. And so far, slowly, messily, two steps forward for every step back, I am achieving my goals. Sometimes I’m not finding much motivation. But I am committed.

How I Make Life Changes, Part II.

8 April 2021

I’ve written before about how I am satisfied by incremental change. It’s a disposition that has served me well, and I don’t know exactly where it came from. A friend once described it as a “completionist” instinct, when we were talking about summitting a bunch of mountains (an activity I’ve gotten into during this blog’s long semi-hiatus). But that’s not quite right. I am not energized by completing things so much as I am by accumulating things. I like seeing things grow steadily, or waste steadily. I like watching progress. Like the time-lapse of a glacier moving – relentless, irresistible progress toward an end state or goal. It doesn’t actually matter if the goal is achievable always. What matters is moving in the direction of success, one day at a time.

This is how I’ve managed to accrue 4,801 consecutive days of sobriety, as I’m writing today on April 8th, 2021. These days, the maintenance of my sobriety is more of a background process. I haven’t been tempted by a drink in years. The obsession, as they say, has been lifted by a force beyond me. Take your pick about what that is, I don’t much care. All I know is I never had the power to do it myself. And then something changed and I joined a group of ex-drunks and started working on the steps, then I didn’t need to drink anymore. And day by day, hour by hour, I’m accumulating time in sobriety.

And so leveraging this satisfaction in incremental progress has become a cornerstone in my life regarding change, and I can apply it to almost any aspect of myself I want to improve. I wrote yesterday about being baffled by holding a job when I was in my first year of sobriety. But I was lucky (luck is a recurring theme in my life) that I had a boss who was an academic deeply devoted to mentoring and growing the careers of junior academics. He taught me to write papers and grants (not something I learned in engineering graduate school – partly because engineers do less of that and partly because I was a fuckup.).

And he taught me something else: every year, add a line to as many sections of your CV as you can. Publish a paper. Get a grant. Take a class. Add a position, or get promoted. Take on a new student. Teach a new class. Speak at a conference. Whatever you can do in each section of your CV, to make that section one entry longer, do that. And so I have. And over the past 13 years, my CV has grown from two pages to twelve. And I continue to, even though for the time being, I am in positions where a resume is of more value than a CV.

I have applied this incrementalist perspective to investing, to fitness, and to many other aspects of my life. I have found there are several key things about it that help me achieve my goals. The focus on progress, rather than perfection (a tool I’ve stolen directly from AA) allows me to take satisfaction in the process rather than the end product. Even though I do have, say, a financial goal for my retirement, I think less about how far I am from the goal and how little difference the next saved dollar makes, and more about how much more I have now than I did a month or a year ago. Every paycheck, I have a little left over from what I budget to spend each pay period, and that goes into my investment account. And it’s grown and one day I will have the resources to retire on what I’ve saved.

I’ve done the same thing with fitness. Jogging first a quarter mile, and slowly working myself all the way out to running marathons and ultramarathons and long triathlons. And as I wrote yesterday, I am currently in the beginnings of applying this (successfully at least to begin with) to weight loss. For which I needed additional tools. More about that tomorrow, maybe.

How I Make Life Changes.

7 April 2021

I have spent a lot of time in my adult life making changes to myself. Everyone changes over time, of course. I think for many people, though – normal people – there is a kind of matriculation into adulthood where they set their course of life. By the time they’re 30 or so, they have a strong sense of self, they have career plans or goals, they have their fundamental education. And they have an internal vision of who they are. How they eat. Whether they enjoy exercise. What hobbies they participate in. How they think of themselves as a person in the world. Or, perhaps, how they don’t have to think of themselves in the world because they are content and established in how they inhabit themselves within the world.

I didn’t have that. At 30, I was drinking a bottle of whiskey or the equivalent every day. I was smoking a pack of cigarettes. I was about to graduate with my PhD, but I have no understanding of my career plans. I intended to start a business, but I had no idea how to do that and rather predictably it failed completely. I destroyed a marriage (I had help) and I was obese and trending toward diabetic. I was, in short, a total fuckup with no sense of who I was or wanted to be.

When I got sober at 33, a little more than 13 years ago now, I immediately realized that the way I was living couldn’t persist and wouldn’t serve me if I wanted to stay sober. I was, however, hit with one of the many but great strokes of luck in my life, and I was offered a job – a real career building job – while I was in rehab for alcoholism. I took it. Even though I was terrified. Beyond terrified. I had no idea how to have a job. I knew how to do the work they wanted me to do, but I had no idea how to be a worker. All I did was show up when they wanted me to, and do what they told me. I hid in my office space most of the time, and tried not to be seen or thought of.

I’ve always had fears around being noticed – while at the same time wanting desperately to be praised publicly for doing well. And I’ve had fears around seeing and knowing difficult true things. I don’t mean big existential true things like heart disease runs in your family. I mean mundane and basic true things like, your bank account balance is $671. I hate looking at the scale, checking the post, looking at my bank balance, etc. etc. etc..

And so for me, making changes in my life is something that has been utterly necessary for me to have the kind of life I want, and also at the same time an exercise in the daily confrontation of terrifying minutiae. And the only way I can accomplish it is to embrace fear, conduct a little exposure therapy on myself, and dive into the world of difficult true things even though it feels like leaping off a cliff. So I check my bank balance every single day and have for about 12 years now. As a result? I have managed not to be overdrawn for those 12 years. I have been able to budget, pay off $14,000 in credit card debt, and establish a credit rating that starts with an 8.

Lately I have turned my attention weight loss. And so I step on the scale first thing every morning, no matter what and I force myself to see and know the number on the scale. I write it down. This is already a long post, so I’ll get into my ongoing results, maybe, in a future one. The why and the how of my weight loss attempt is for another day. But the germ of it, the start, the fundamental origin of all my journeys of change – and I’ve succeeded in all of them so far – is the willingness to look at something about myself I don’t want to know, and know I won’t like. To force myself to be honest about myself. Without that, without recognizing my fear, my self-hatred, my self-disgust, I can’t begin to make the change that relieves those things instead of burying them in denial. Which is what I generally prefer.

This Sick and Violent Year

13 February 2021

I haven’t slept in weeks again, my dear.
And linking chains of thought is spongey work.
Who could rest, this sick and violent year?
With horror, gasping death, and fear that lurk

and skulk in every crevice of our minds?
What new and unimagined terror next –
no matter how I’m barricaded – finds
an undefended hope or joy to wreck?

But I have found a bed on which to lay
protected from the worst that ere may come.
A silent space defended from the fray
where all my weeping wounds are washed and numbed.

My bed is any where my lover rests
and peace and peace her head upon my chest.


12 February 2020

I cast my sins on snow and leave them there

I make so small a stain on glacial ice

My aching lungs and burning legs repair

A busy, broken mind that fills me twice


Too full with panicked fear and futile rage

A wild fear made calm by wild space

Look where we’ve come, this frozen mountain stage

Look where we are, this theater of grace


I can’t remember now if I led you

Or you led me from frenzied thrashing crowds

To snowy boulders sealed above by blue

These high unnumbered hills that float on clouds


I’ve sloughed a pilgrim’s burden by the way,

To stand by you above the distant fray.


13 February 2019

It’s loss reminds us all the best of love

Our grief a hollow where the thing belongs

Still memories float on surfaces above

The absent space; the silence in the throng


Of voices, obligations, crowded space

Where images surrender to the noise

Of kinfolk gathered with bewildered haste

to share some comfort’s glow in kinship’s joys


Three times a thousand miles from afar

I breathe a prayer of love and sorrow both

The birds are sipping nectar from the jar

The trees are greening out the spring’s first growth


No one ever leaves, we only change

The whole of what is lost, our hearts contain

Running to Goat Lake.

13 June 2018

On Saturday, BB and I drove for two hours from Seattle to the Goat Lake/Elliot Creek trailhead off of the Mountain Loop Highway. If you’re going to do it, I recommend driving a high-clearance car. After a while, MLH becomes a gravel road that’s pitted and pocked with ruts and potholes. You don’t need a jeep, my Crosstrek was fine, but I wouldn’t recommend just a regular sedan.

The parking area had a sign up that warned of an aggressive bear at the campground by the lake. BB and I have started carrying bear spray as a defensive measure, and I wore a bell to keep from surprising any forest denizens. From the trailhead to the lake is just more than five miles, and has about 1600 feet of gain. So modest compared to some recent runs. But it had a lot of stream crossings and some very technical spots. We also had to clamber over some large rotted trees that had fallen across the path.

At about four miles in, there’s a rootball stuck out of the ground with an orange plastic tie on it. If you detour to the right, and go about 100 yards, you get to a beautiful rapids/waterfall. Warning though, the water is very cold. It’s basically glacier melt, so be careful. The rocks are slippery. But it’s beautiful.

goat lake

From there it’s about another mile of semi-steep switchbacks up to Goat Lake. The lake is one of the more picturesque I’ve been to, but sadly it was too cold and wet to linger much. As soon as we stopped I started shivering; I get really warm when I run and then really cold when I stop. But the lake was beautiful even with low clouds and fog.

goat lake 2

Overall, it was about 10.5 miles for a “loop”, consisting of the upper and lower Elliot Creek trails, and then the unified switchbacks up to the lake. A beautiful run, not to tough, and between the bell and the few other people we saw, we didn’t see any bears or other wildlife except for a lot of birds.

It was a great hike/run that I’d definitely recommend to anyone who can scramble over a few rocks and trees.

Race Report: Coeur d’Alene.

29 May 2018

Well, over Memorial Day weekend, BB and I drove out to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to run a half-marathon. I felt like I was in pretty good shape, after all the running I’ve been doing. Running in Seattle is a lot different from running in ECC. The hills here are B A N A N A S, and as a result I am stronger and fitter than ever. I’m also doing more distance than I have routinely done in the past, even while marathon training. Harder workouts. More time on my feet.

And this weekend it paid off. Though I’m finding myself feeling oddly disappointed too. But let me describe the race first. First of all, Lake Coeur d’Alene is staggeringly beautiful. Just a jewel in the heart of the foothills to the Rocky Mountains, and the weather this weekend was mesmerizing. Cool in the morning, warm in the afternoon, sunny, crisp, and all around delightful. We got in Saturday morning, and wandered about the charming, hipsterish idyll that is CDA. Good coffee, great art, cute little local shops and services. LakeCDA.JPG

The race began at 0700. It was sunny and about 54 degrees. I’d have loved a bit of overcast skies, but I wore sunscreen. BB and I went out together, as we always do for half-marathons. We did our first mile at 8:38, which would be our fastest for the race. But we didn’t exactly slow throughout. The next two miles I deliberately held back a little bit, in order to save some for later in the race.

Mile 4 had a hill. About a half mile long, and about 150 feet of gain, that doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re trying to set a PR, it’s a lot of work. It was also on a curve, and the road was steeply graded to allow water runoff. The result was running with my left leg an inch or two higher than my right, which caused my IT band on the left side to start singing. But we made a 9:49 pace up the hill, even with a shoe-tying stop!

The mile down the hill we did at 8:40, and I was feeling good about my paces. It was around the halfway mark that I figured I wasn’t going to get below an average of 9:00 min/mi, but that I also figured if I could maintain what I was doing that a new personal record was definitely in the cards for the day. I was working very hard, and in a decent amount of pain. But I felt like I had the legs and the lungs to break 1:59:42.

Mile 7-8 was after the turnaround, and back up the hill. It is a longer but shallower hill going the opposite direction, and we managed a 9:20 pace up it. BB was stronger than me all day, but I’d at least managed my bladder and hydration well. I didn’t need to stop to pee at all. I should have had more calories though. I ran the race on 4 Clif shot bloks (133 calories total) and three Skratch chews, for another 60 maybe. I should have probably had another 100 calories.

Nevertheless, as we came down the hill and into the homestretch, I felt like I was going to succeed at my new PR. But I was feeling frustrated too, because I felt like it ought to be easier. I’ve been training so hard, I was really hoping that breaking 9:00 would be “easy” and that I’d feel like I was flying the whole way. Probably a ridiculous expectation from the start. After all, CDA is at about 2200′ of elevation. That’s not a lot, but it’s enough to reduce your maximum oxygen consumption by 5-7%.

So, maybe on a good day at sea level I’d break 9 min. Hard to say. What I know is that despite suffering and fighting and leaving every last drop of energy I had on the course, I ran through the finish line, hand in hand with BB as usual, with a brand new personal record of 1:59:10.

I worked as hard as I could, and gave everything I had, and I took 32 seconds off of my personal record for the half-marathon. I did it on a course with a couple big hills, and at higher altitude than I’m used to training in. The last couple of miles were constant pain and I had to dial it back just a bit, turning in 9:26, 9:05, and 9:11 for the last three miles. But I had a good kick for the final tenth. Overall, my pace was 9:03 min/mi.

That’s a reduction of about 5 seconds per mile from my previous PR, more than two years ago. 5 seconds per mile may not sound like a lot, but it represents a noticeable change in effort when running. I wish I’d gotten another three seconds per mile out of myself. But I still have a goal to pursue at the half-marathon distance, I guess. That’s a good thing.

On the way home from CDA, we went a couple hundred miles out of the way to take highway 20 across the North Cascades. It was as beautiful as you’d expect it to be:


And on we go!


Race Weekend!

25 May 2018

I’ve been at my new job for three months now. I really like it. I’m happy, I’m productive, and I like my team. We’re doing great work and moving fast on a bunch of fronts. It’s an exciting opportunity and I’m thrilled to see everything coming together. My boss is already talking about a promotion and additional responsibility for me. But I want to keep my head in the now.

My ultramarathon training has been coming along nicely too. May was my second 100+ mile month, consecutive with April. I have four more running days in May, over which I expect to do about 30 miles. I’ll have averaged about 32 miles per week, though my elevation gain has dropped a bit from April. That’s fine. Plenty of time to get the vertical miles in.

I’ve been training on long slow grades to try to improve my ability to run up hills. In the past two weeks I’ve run the mile from the lake up to my house at least eight times. It’s a 240′ climb in a tiny bit less than a mile. That’s about a 5.5% grade. Steep enough to be a challenge, but shallow enough that it’s reasonable to run it, not hike it. I’ve been able to average about a 10:15 pace coming up the hill. That feels really good to me.

This weekend, BB and I will be in Coeur d’Alene to run the half-marathon. It’s a flat, scenic road race. I feel like if everything comes together and we feel good, there’s a good shot that we can set new personal records. We’re both in really good condition at the moment. BB set a HUGE PR at her last 10km race, a full minute and a half faster than my PR at that distance from two years ago.

Yesterday I ran a tempo 10km in 54:39. It was really hard work. But it was also 68 degrees and I was a bit dehydrated. I’m hoping the race, which is expected to start at 50 degrees – and for which I will manage my hydration better – will be an easier effort at roughly the same pace. If it isn’t, it isn’t. Coeur d’Alene is also up at 2500′ of altitude. I don’t know how that will affect a sea-level runner like me. Maybe a lot. Maybe not at all.

I’m hoping for a PR because I feel fit and strong. But everything has to go really well to get a PR. I have to manage my hydration in a way that lets me run strong but not have to stop to pee. I have to sleep well. I have to fuel right both the day before and the morning of. And BB has to have the same good fortunes, because we run together. And that’s more important.

But I can run almost 20 seconds per mile slower than yesterday, and still PR the race, if I can keep it up a little more than twice as long. I think I have a chance. Here’s to fine fortune and strong legs.

A Season of Grief.

21 May 2018

It has been nearly two months since my father died, and his funeral and memorial are now over. The memorial was lovely, and we saw family in from all over the country. Several cousins I haven’t seen since childhood attended and it was good to see everyone. I’m finally ready for this to be over though, and return to my regular life. My father is gone. I don’t know what it’s going to be like, and what sudden paroxysms of grief and guilt and loss and sadness are likely to arise. But I know they will come.

I was afforded the honor of giving the eulogy. I thought about it for weeks, and jotted down notes from time to time. In the end I didn’t know what to say and just spoke. I told stories, and focused on the things my father did well. Teaching me to play chess. To swim. To take time for pleasure in life.

I am doing well and my life is good. I have had little to say here recently. Perhaps I’m done.