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The Ideal vs. the Reality of Changing Your Life

zen habits 1

“Our plans never turn out as tasty as reality.” ~Ram Dass

If only life went exactly as we imagine it would go … things would be so much easier!

Unfortunately, in my dozens and dozens of habit changes, I’ve never once had a change go exactly as I’d envisioned. The reality is always different.

Here’s the thing: that difference can be an interesting surprise, or it can absolutely derail you.

I’ll give you a few examples.

Example 1: Waking early: When I plan to start waking up earlier, I have this rosy ideal about how nice it will be to get up when it’s quiet, and use my day productively. I’ll meditate, write, read, exercise, do some yoga … life is going to be amazing!

Then I start waking early, and the reality is much different: I am tired, I’m moving slowly, my meditation is fuzzy because I’m tired, I don’t write as well when I’m still waking up, I don’t feel like exercising.

I can become very disappointed with this reality, and in myself. Or I can embrace the deliciousness of being tired, and see it as a thing to be curious about. I can continue with waking early, but instead of thinking I know how things will turn out, I can simply see what it’s like. Take a stance of not knowing, rather than thinking things will match my fantasies. And explore.

Example 2: Exercise: I always have an incredible plan for when I start a new exercise program. I’m going to do a hardcore squat program. Or an ambitious running program. Or some kind of intense Crossfit-style plan. Oh man, I am going to be so fit, and people will admire my new quads!

Then when I start doing the program, not only is it way harder than I imagined, but I struggle to stay with it, and even when I’m able to stay on plan, I might get injured. Or I’m super sore, walking around like a stiff zombie, then for my next workout I can’t push through the soreness. Turns out, my body needs a little more rest than I thought, and I should ramp up to intense workouts more slowly. Who would have guessed?

I can become disappointed with my body, with the reality that meets my optimistic self. Or I can see this as a learning opportunity, and a chance to adjust my thinking and my exercise plan. When met with the cold hard face of reality, we can adjust our plans to be adapted for that reality. We don’t have to grip tightly to the original plan, stubbornly trying to make reality conform with our ideals. Adjusting means we learn to be adaptable, flexible, fluid. This is one of the many lovely benefits of meeting reality.

Example 3: Writing a book: When I decide to write a new book, it’s interesting to note what my ideals are. I have this fantasy of being an amazing writer, who just blows minds and changes lives. People will not only be impressed by the wisdom and richness of my writing, they’ll throw their money at me in gratitude. I’ll wake early, write like a maniac, come back to revise and craft my tender words, and then publish within weeks, triumphantly.

I’m sure you can guess that reality throws some cold water on that fantasy, right quick. When I start writing, I first have to deal with the demon of procrastination. I’ll want to check email, read my favorite blogs, clean my house, do some “research” (those quotes don’t mean something dirty — the research is just an excuse to google things and put my writing off). I’ll fall behind schedule, be less than enthused about the project, and enjoy the writing a lot less than I thought I would. It feels like drudgery, not bliss.

This can derail me, and it has in the past. But my best response is to accept this reality, to see the humor in it (laugh at myself for my hilarious ideals), to find curiosity in the process, to find joy in the small moments of creation. Sure, people aren’t worshipping at my writing god feet, but I am connecting with people through my writing, I’m connecting with my inner, unseen self, and I’m connecting with the written word and all other writers in a way that I don’t fully understand. This is fascinating and something to appreciate at a level of detail that fantasy can’t match.

The Takeaway: Be Open

As you can see, the reality of life change doesn’t come close to what we idealize it to be. When we hit the ground of reality, we are never prepared for its actuality. And for many (myself included), that can be disappointing, frustrating, derailing.

But it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. If we are open to this different reality, instead of rejecting it, we can:

  • Accept this new reality
  • Be curious about it
  • See it as a learning opportunity
  • Find gratitude in the small details of it
  • Find joy in the small moments of it
  • Adjust our plans, and learn to be flexible, fluid
  • Embrace the deliciousness of drudger, or being tired or sore
  • Explore with a stance of not knowing

This is how we can meet the cold, hard reality of our actual changes. And it can be magnificent.

Zen Habits is about finding simplicity and mindfulness in the daily chaos of our lives. It’s about clearing the clutter so we can focus on what’s important, create something amazing, find happiness. My name is Leo Babauta. I live in Davis, California with my wife and six kids, where I eat vegan food, write, run, and read.
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