The fall term is starting to draw to a close. That means that my work at the Law Centre downtown is starting to wind to a close and I’m closing out or transferring the remaining files that I have. It also means that my time is starting to free up a little bit and I will be able to focus more on building my coaching business.
This term has involved a tremendous amount of time and effort building the foundation for what I will do once I graduate. Identifying the business name, determining the target market, what is my niche, who are the people that I can best connect with, how should I market to and connect with those people, etc., etc. Building the foundation can be frustrating, because you don’t see the fast results that typically signal progress to us. It goes slowly, and it doesn’t provide the changes on the surface that we typically associate with success or transformation. But that’s because it’s foundation. It’s the groundwork upon which all of that good and more exciting stuff is built. Without the foundation, your efforts will crumble without the support they require.
I’ve also been conducting more experiments on myself, and that’s what I’m writing about today.
Retreating from your vices.
What does this mean? At first brush, it sounds pretty negative doesn’t it? Rather than dealing with the problems you have, just run away from them! That’s not what I mean though – I mean take a retreat from them. Maybe even a vacation, if you prefer that terminology.
The genesis for this post began when I decided that I wanted to drink less coffee. I’ve always loved coffee. I like the flavour and the smell, but most of all, I love the buzz. I don’t know what it is, but that sense of getting energized is something that I’ve always been drawn to. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m naturally a person with a lot of energy and I love to accomplish a lot of things. Perhaps the ability to “overclock” my personal CPU and get even more cycles out of myself (or at least, provide the illusion that I’m doing that) is especially enticing as a result of my nature.
However, for a long time, I’ve felt like my relationship with coffee had become unhealthy. It’s not that I required coffee to get up and start my day. I’ve never really allowed myself to make it a habit to that extent. The problem, for me, was more one of self-control (a theme you will see revisited a couple times in this post). When I would decide it was time for coffee, I wouldn’t just drink one cup – I’d have three or four. It wasn’t enough to simply get a mild buzz, I wanted to be vibrating!
When we ended our orientation and began working proper at the law clinic, I made the decision to drop coffee for a month, and see what the result would be.
Why? There’s a few reasons why.
First, I wanted to see if I could do it. I was pretty sure that I could (it’s just coffee right?), but nevertheless, I knew that I would feel a sense of accomplishment simply from having the discipline to do this.
Second, I wanted to give myself some time to reflect on what kind of relationship I wanted to have with coffee. I recognize that describing my coffee habit as a relationship might seem a little dramatic, but the shoe fits, so why not. Did I really want to drink coffee every day? What about every second day? Did weekends count? These were all questions that I was trying to resolve, but found it difficult to do when I was actively drinking coffee. I would think half-heartedly about the fact that I wanted to consume less, but the next day at work when I wanted to really get some work done, suddenly there was a cup of coffee in my hand.
Vices are funny things that way. Alcohol is a great example. The morning after a heavy night of drinking, it’s easy to look in the mirror and swear that you don’t plan to do that ever again, but next weekend, when all your friends are drinking at the party… well, you know how it goes.
The Next Step
Halfway through “The Great Caffeine Withdrawal” (as I dubbed it), I enjoyed the process enough that I decided to add two more experiments into the mix: alcohol, and refined sugar products.
There’s a never ending amount of research suggesting that alcohol is consistently linked with cancer, and I really don’t want to set myself up with habits for the rest of my life that are going to detract from my longevity and quality of life. Alcohol had become a crutch for me in a lot of ways too. Most often it was a way to loosen up in social situations, and, oddly enough, I used it as a cure for boredom. Nothing to do? No problem, have a few beers and play video games.
As for refined sugar, my decision was to drop things like cookies, donuts, pastries, pie, cakes, pop and juice. For the most part I’m pretty good when it comes to eating sweet treats, but, as always the case with me, the biggest issue is self-control. Bay would buy a bunch of cookies for our cookie jar at home, and while I would initially begin eating one cookie a day, before long I would be shoving three in my face as soon as I got home.
The Common Thread
The common thread that runs through each of these things I chose to retreat from is one of self-control. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. I have fantastic discipline, but absolutely terrible self-control. I can set up systems of rules, and when I do, I’m excellent at adhering to those rules. But, if you just put a bag of cookies, a 12-pack of beer and a pot of coffee in front of me and said “consume until you feel you’ve had enough”, you’d come back to a few crumbs, 12 empty bottles and me bouncing off the walls.
By setting up a specific duration of time during which I wasn’t going to consume any coffee, sugar or alcohol, I created a simple rule that I could follow — I exercise my discipline, rather than my self-control.
The results were really interesting. Let’s start with coffee first.
I allowed myself to continue drinking tea, because tea has never really been an issue. Sure, I will easily drink an entire pot of tea in one sitting, but that doesn’t cause me any problems and it wasn’t making me unhappy. The relationship with tea was not a problem. Also, since I never drank coffee consistently in the morning, it was never an issue to get out of bed or get the day started. I would come in to work, make a cup of tea, and begin the day.
One thing that I did notice was the signalling that coffee produced. In the past, coffee had always been something I would go and buy (or make) when it was time for me to really get down to work. If I had a complicated problem that I wanted to work on, or needed to push through a lot of work in a short amount of time, the cup of coffee was a little signal that it was time to get into that mode.
Sure, I could make another cup of tea, but it just wasn’t the same. In the end, this came down to a matter of reprogramming myself. If coffee had been the way that I had signalled to myself that it was time to get things rolling, I would have to substitute in a new signal.
I chose to use some specific songs, and switched from green tea to black tea when it was time to knuckle down. This wasn’t really that problematic, but it was an interesting part of my relationship with coffee that I had not been aware of prior to this point.
Sugar had similar results. It’s not that I was dependent on sugary treats – I exercised good discipline when at the store simply by not buying them. Without having them at home, I wasn’t compelled to shovel the cookie jar into my face, and there was no problem.
The thing about refined sugar products was that they had come to symbolize a reward. I first noticed this returning to work after having the charges against one of my clients stayed (which means that the Crown, for one reason or another, drops their case against the client – they effectively walk away from the charge). I got back in to work and paced around a bit. I felt like going and getting a donut, or something else sweet to symbolize the moment of triumph. But, without having that option, I just sat back down. I could make more tea, but there’s nothing special about that – I make tea all the time.
Again, the solution here was to come up with new ways to signal that success. Separate the signal from the product itself, and then reattach something new to that signal.
The results for alcohol were a little more drastic. Much like refined sugar and coffee, alcohol had come to symbolize certain things for me. It symbolized relaxation and also symbolized the end of the week. In addition to that, it was also a big part of socializing. If I was going to meet up with people, drinks would usually be involved.
One really funny thing that I noticed was that I would find myself thinking things like “Hmm, well, there’s a party going on that I could go to, but I’m not drinking, so do I really want to be there?” After reflecting on this a bit, it struck me that this statement really said more about the party than anything else. If I wasn’t interested in going unless I was going to be drinking, why would I even want to be at the party in the first place?
I noticed another funny thing while not drinking. Most of us that drink recognize that awkward moment between the first time you get together with a group and the end of the first drink, where everyone is friendly, but the vibe hasn’t quite settled in. People are still figuring out where they’re comfortable and what to talk about and are generally focused a little too much in their heads, rather than simply being present.
This moment always passes, typically after everyone has finished their first drink. The funny thing I noticed was that the moment passed regardless of whether or not I was drinking. It was simply a matter of time and sitting in the slight awkwardness of the moment. I’m sure that many of you won’t find this surprising at all, but to me, it was a bit of a revelation. The fact that this moment passed once people had gotten a little bit liquor’d up was one of those things that I’d always simply assumed and never had any data to suggest otherwise.
Again, I’ve found myself in situations where I miss liquor. Going out for dinner with Bay and cheers-ing our relationship with a glass of water to her nice glass of champagne just didn’t feel right. Sitting around home and drinking tea with my parents was okay, but I enjoy drinking beer with friends and family.
So is it all gone for good?
Definitely not! Removing certain vices from my daily life for the course of thirty days does not mean that I never intend to have them in my life again. What it does mean is that I’ve cleared myself out from them and can now be completely present to the kind of relationship I want to have with them going forward.
As an example, I mentioned above that refined sugary treats had come to symbolize a reward – a treat when things have gone well. This is the kind of relationship that I would like to have with this vice. Not something I simply eat because I’m bored of studying and want something to break up the tedium. Not something that I eat as a matter of course every single time I come home from work.
Alcohol, as I mentioned, is also a great way (for me) to celebrate, and is something I really enjoy sharing with good friends and family. But again, I don’t want to have a relationship with liquor where celebrating means I drink my way through 12 beers in a night.
What about coffee? Is it making it’s way back into my life? Well, that’s the actual casualty of this experiment. I don’t really miss it. I substituted black tea for the moments when I wanted to supercharge myself, and I also drink decaffeinated beans when I really want that delicious taste that I enjoy. If I’m not missing any other aspect of it, is there really a reason to make it a part of my life? I can’t think of one.
And that’s the beauty of this approach – you don’t need to do anything in particular when you’re done. Maybe you will finish your 30-day retreat and come to the conclusion that you’re content with the relationship you have. Maybe you’ll change your mind and want to strike out some new balance. Either way, you will hopefully arrive at your conclusion more present to what it means, and with more purpose and awareness behind the decision.
What does this mean for you?
Think of something in your life for which you’re not particularly happy about the relationship you have with it. It might be drinking, it might be overtime work, it might be exercise (maybe you hate jogging 4 days a week but you do it because you feel you have to). Identify what it is, and isolate it. Then, remove that thing’s presence from your life for the next 30 days – take a retreat from it.
More important than anything else here is that you commit to those 30 days. Commit yourself to remove that thing from your life for those 30 days, and refuse to allow yourself to break this commitment. When you find yourself missing that thing, or getting frustrated because you can’t have it, reflect on why that is. Why are you missing it right now? What does it mean? Is this a reward system at play? Is it a thing you use to relax? (And is that the relationship you want to have with this thing? Maybe you don’t want to need this thing in order to relax…)
Isn’t this just a cleanse?
It depends what you mean when you use the word “cleanse”. For most of the people I see posting on Facebook, a cleanse is a ridiculous diet that does not have any scientific merit and is meant to “supercharge your health”, or at least clear out all of your toxins. (Something that our biology has had millions of years worth of evolution to do far better than lemon juice, honey and cayenne pepper ever will).
Further, I don’t see how you could possibly intelligently reflect on the relationship you have with something when making such a drastic change to your overall diet. Removing coffee from your system is one thing. Removing all solid foods is quite another. Your system will be in such a state of shock that it will be a challenge to focus on anything other than how much you want to feel some texture between your molars.
Here’s the summary for those of you that want all of the sex and none of the foreplay:
- Temporarily retreating from your vices can be a great way to gain better control of them
- Removing the influence of a vice in your life will put you in a better position to understand how it affects you, and what kind of relationship you have with it (and remember, vices aren’t just something you consume – they can include things like work!)
- Use moments of desire as an opportunity for reflection, rather than regret or frustration
- Taking a retreat from something in your life does not mean it has to be permanent
- The goal in an exercise like this is to end up more present and conscious of the decisions that you are making. If you can achieve that, you’ve scored a victory for yourself and your self-awareness.