Do Hard Things. Move to the Caribbean!

My best friends are crazy.

I just returned home from a month living with some of my best friends on Vieques, a tiny island off of Puerto Rico.

They don’t live on “mainland” Puerto Rico. Instead, they’re on a tiny island, only accessible by an irregular ferry or an eight-seater airplane.

They are building a bed and breakfast overlooking a stunning 270-degree view of the Caribbean Ocean and the world’s most luminous bioluminescent bay. They are building out of concrete because anything not made of concrete gets destroyed by hurricanes. But getting concrete, or simply groceries, is a full-day journey that requires careful preparation and timing.

All the difficulties are exactly why my friends moved to Vieques. For the love of a challenge.

Do More Scary Things

I appreciate the irony. Do hard things, move to the Caribbean!

And while most of us probably aren’t going to move to a tiny island in order to make our lives more difficult, there are a lot of simple habits that can help.

Identify One Thing Every Day That Scares You

Identify something that scares you.

You don’t need to take action – not yet! Just bring attention to one uncomfortable moment.

Start with awareness.

A Daily Movement Practice

There is a lot to be said for daily exercise.

Exercise is hard. When you push your physical limits, you get better at pushing the boundaries of what’s possible everywhere else in your life, too.

Unfortunately, more than two thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, so clearly pressuring people to exercise doesn’t work.

My approach to movement is different. Having broken my neck on a trampoline, I also know the negative consequences of pressure. Instead, I make a habit of moving every day to build the confidence that I can learn new things.

If you’re interested, here’s a short video about my movement practice.

Coffee Shop Challenge (h/t Tim Ferriss)

Try this challenge: go to your local coffee shop and ask for a 20% discount.

The rules are that you are not allowed to give any explanation for why you are requesting a discount or any additional details alongside your request. If asked why, just say that you would like a discount and that is why you are asking.

The point of this exercise is that you are going to be uncomfortable. It will take you outside of your comfort zone.

Notice how it feels to make this request. Notice the tension in your body and your voice. It doesn’t ultimately matter if you get a discount or not, so long as you try.

(As a former coffee shop owner, please give that 20% back to your barista as a tip!)

Do Something Difficult Every Day

Do one thing today that is out of your comfort zone. It could be as small as a short exchange with a stranger, a much-needed conversation, or advocating for your opinion.

When my friends first moved to Vieques, I was skeptical. I’m all for beautiful ocean views, but it was so remote and isolated. (And the hurricanes!)

Now that I’ve spent a month living in that remote paradise, I understand their motivation a little better. Living there is difficult. Every day is a stretch. And that’s the point.

In a world where I – and probably you – enjoy every other modern convenience, it is easy to get complacent.

Perhaps we could all use a bit more discomfort in our lives.

The Line Between Habit & Addiction

My grandfather and uncle died of alcoholism. I’m predisposed to addiction.

As I write this, I’m in the midst of my fourth 5-day water-only fast. When I began fasting, my friend Michelle warned me, “You be careful. You be safe!” knowing that my addictive tendencies might lead to extremes.

Given a predisposition and love of intensity, it has taken me decades to develop an appreciation of the fine line between habit and addiction.

What Is Addiction?

The DSM-5 defines addiction as a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by seeking and use despite adverse consequences. In other words, compulsive engagement in naturally rewarding behavior.

What’s complicated, though, is that what we call addictions aren’t necessarily problematic in moderation. There aren’t a lot of downsides to having two drinks a week. Short of sexual addiction, sex is great!

But to get the same positive experience and dopamine reward over time, we have to increase the stimulus. We need more alcohol, more drugs, more sex, or more exercise to get the same – or even a lesser – outcome.

There is nothing wrong with chasing naturally rewarding behavior. It is just important to choose the right ones!

A Little Escapism

Some years ago, I spent a night at Lake Titicaca in Peru. The locals were celebrating their annual harvest, which entailed getting black-out drunk for days – and nights – on end.

Growing up around alcoholism, I’d always judgmentally deemed alcohol as problematic. What I learned in Peru is that the locals were practicing a form of once-a-year escapism in the form of celebration and a significant cultural ritual.

We all need escapism, whether that is a die-hard devotion to a sports team, binge-watching Netflix, reading science fiction, or my own study of movement.

Altered States of Consciousness

We all enjoy altered states of consciousness.

Few things feel better than getting out of my 39 degree cold plunge after 3 minutes. As I’ve written about in Habits for Fasting, I enjoy the altered state that comes with fasting. Whether through a physical accomplishment or an emotional victory, winning feels good. (And can be made even better by Deliberate Celebration.)

It has taken me years to realize that the pursuit of an altered state – whether a slight alcohol buzz or exercise endorphins – isn’t harmful. And to identify two characteristics which help me steer clear of habits that could too easily spiral out of control.

How I Differentiate Between Habits & Addictions

The keys I’ve found to differentiate positive habits from addiction are in these two questions:

Is it difficult to do? – The habits that I let myself pursue today are hard to do. Exercising is never easy. Cold plunging can be miserable. Fasting is the single hardest discipline I’ve ever attempted.

By contrast, drinking alcohol is easy. There’s very little barrier to entry, and the second drink is even easier than the first!

When something is difficult to do during the practice of that habit, you are much less likely (to be able to) abuse it.

How do you feel afterwards? – The second criteria is how you feel afterwards. Alcohol feels great immediately, but you can be sluggish or hungover the next day. Cold plunging is uncomfortable, but the endorphin high afterwards is exhilarating.

Fasting is the most difficult delayed gratification I know. But even more than the altered state of consciousness that comes during a long fast, I like how I feel afterwardsWith exercise, cold plunge, and many other pursuits, the reward comes after the effort.

This newsletter aims to be a tactical guide to good habits. As someone who has long been afraid of my own predisposition towards addiction, I’ve found it useful to recognize that when a habit is difficult to do and leaves me feeling good long after, I’m probably on a good path.

Until next time,
Robin

P.S. I’m not a medical doctor and nothing here should be construed as medical advice! If you are struggling with addiction, please consult with a professional.