On slow habits

Let me know if this sounds familiar- you decide on a goal. You’re psyched about the goal. It’s a goal you’ve tried a few different times before but this time will be different, dammit– it’s just a feeling in your bones. You plan out the goal. You tell yourself exactly what to do when the going gets tough, and the goal gets hard, and you journal about it and get super psyched.

And then, after about a week, and for very mysterious reasons, you give up. Too tired. Too busy. Not worth it. Not enough time.

This is an idea that I consider “fast dreaming.” You get excited about the thing NOW. You cannot live without it NOW. You want to achieve this goal and feel its effects and soak in its beautiful afterglow NOW.

But human behavior doesn’t play nice with fast dreaming, and dependence on immediate gratification begets impatience and anxiety. Instead of choosing fast dreaming, we can begin to seek and incorporate slow habits– meaningful micro-adjustments to our lives that allow us to be present, patient, and achieve our goals in a more sustainable way.

Fast dreaming, explained

I’m no stranger to fast dreaming or fast habitry. I was at a family friend’s house in college, eating delicious homemade garlic bread and fettucine alfredo, sharing the goals and dreams that I had and how I wasn’t quite reaching the peak of the mountain. I must have had frustration written all over my face, because she set her fork down, looked at me in her way, and said, “You need to be patient.”

I didn’t realize that the fluttering in my chest and knot of excitement in my stomach that I felt every time I thought about my goals, and the anxious pacing that wore tracks into my carpet when I wasn’t achieving my goals, was something called impatience. I just thought there was something wrong with me. That I wasn’t working hard enough. That wasn’t enough.

It’s okay to admit that some of your goals are way too big to achieve right now.

I am an eternal optimizer. I will always demand of myself the best, more, better, and feel some level of dissatisfaction with my current state. If I didn’t feel dissatisfied, I wouldn’t be pushed to grow. But dissatisfaction alone, motivation and willpower alone, cannot drive a change in habits. It has to be paired with patience.

Man’s search for instant gratification

Our culture, for so many reasons, is obsessed with having things done right away. Everything is urgent. All is critical. We white-knuckle our steering wheels and gnash our teeth together over deadlines and projects. We’re bombarded with “get fit quick” and “get rich quick” and “get happy quick” messages from all angles, always, and have enough evidence of “overnight sensations” to fund our belief that if we just work harder, we can have what we want faster, and we can be ever-more happier.

But look closely at any success story and you’ll notice that a person or a company’s success didn’t happen overnight. The people who are truly happy, truly healthy, truly rich didn’t become that way quickly. The most successful humans, however “successful” is defined by you, became that way due to their persistence, their diligence, and their commitment- to slow, sugary-sweet success.

Mel Robbins is one of my favorite thought leaders alive. Her motto is something like “If you knew it your dream was going to take ten years- would you still do it?” Meaning, if you knew that That Dream, the one you think of often, would take you ten whole years to accomplish, would you be willing to put in the daily work it took to get there?

The things that are good for us, on every level, take their time.

This is the opposite of instant gratification. This is a decade of delayed gratification. If digital minimalism is about reviewing your engagement with technology and network tools, determining if they’re truly in line with your goals, and changing your addictions/culling accordingly… then engaging in slow habits is all about seeing the end goal of your goal, the reason why, and giving yourself permission for this goal to take a lifetime.

Or, at the very least, 10 years.

Fast dreams- the hare

My first (thousand) attempts at incorporating exercise into my daily life were an attempt at a fast dream. I looked around at others and wanted to look like them NOW. I wanted to be working out 5 days a week NOW. I was fired up and excited about the goal NOW. I was sick and tired of feeling like crap, and I wanted to change it NOW. I wanted to be perfect, and I wanted it NOW.

Westerners (particularly WEIRD people) especially feel this impatience very often, and I don’t blame us. How could I? I logged onto my computer and opened up this web page in, oh, 15 seconds. I can text my mom a question and she can respond right away. Entertaining and exciting content is literally at the tips of my fingers, just in another browser, on YouTube or TikTok or wherever, with a load time of 10 seconds max. We can’t expect to have the answers to our most bizarre and private questions just a few keystrokes away through Google and not be shocked when things don’t happen right here, right now.

The problem with this is obvious- like the budding of a flower or falling in love, the things that are beautiful and true in this life take time to create, cultivate, and incorporate into our lives and our identities. But more than that, fast dreams don’t work. Willpower alone doesn’t work. You need a plan. And you need patience.

“I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.” -Lao Tzu

The reason I attempted to incorporate this fast dream of daily exercise so many times without fruitful results was because I was trying to take on too much, too soon. All dreams and goals worth their salt require the addition of a helpful habit or the subtraction of an unhelpful habit. Our lives are built on the things which we make habitual because the brain, a very efficient machine, doesn’t have to expend as much energy on habitual activities as it does on the processing of the new and novel. Try to throw too much at this machine too soon and it spits out an error message. Cannot compute. Do not try again.

For the love of God we need to slow down, and we need to do it right away. At that start of this year, I decided I can’t- nay, I won’t- work out 5 days a week. My life would suck and I would be crabby and miserable. But I can work out one day a week to start, every Monday at 7(ish), and I can do it with certainty.

This is NOT sexy. This is not something I can brag about. And this is certainly not quick. You can’t see my muscles and my middle is still soft. But the idea is that I establish the habit of working out that one day, every single week without fail, and eventually add on another day in the same manner. Which I successfully have. 🙂

The establishment of slow habits is is the result of stepping out of the current of FOMO or chasing or instant gratification or needing it NOW, and relish, savor, and explore the natural process of achieving your goals the right way- with sugar-sweet success to prove it.

Establishing slow habits

All the experts in habit-building say we need to start small, start slow. For the uber-ambitious like me, as we’ve established, this is sooooo not cute. And I believe it’s unappealing to us because going after your dreams slowly is not all-consuming.

Slow habits don’t whisk you out of the present moment and into your daydreams. They require you to keep living your life as it is now, instead of as it could be in your head, and necessitate that you reconcile the difference between your current reality and your desired one with clarity and caution, piece by ever-loving piece.

Start with a vision

What’s helped me in establishing slow habits has been starting with a life vision, and defining what I truly want to be, do and have in this lifetime, without holding back and with the knowledge that this vision is a manifestation of who I truly am.

If exercise is on my mind, I need to realize that I don’t want to be toned, fit and confident just for my cruise in November, and then go back to old habits of popping Reese’s cups and soft pretzels. I need to establish the bigger vision, the true why behind this action. I want to be toned, fit and confident for LIFE, not just for cruises and weddings and whatever else that could potentially make me feel self-conscious, but so that I can run around with my grandkids and lift heavy boxes when I move and not be afraid to do an ollie when I’m eighty. I want to exercise because it keeps my mind sharp and my nerves at bay and allows me my daily reprieve from mental illness.

When I start with my vision, I protect myself against setting goals based on what other people are doing and respect who I truly am.

Life is, of course, built on spontaneous moments and inspirations, but instead of fractioning my focus by redesigning my entire business website based on the latest trend, I can continue to focus on client delivery and expanding operations which support my ultimate vision of success. Instead of absorbing the millions of travel pictures on Instagram and feeling like a very small, very envious turd, I can center myself on what I truly want (not just what my jealous lizard brain considers shiny in the moment), ask myself if I want to travel now, or later, and set goals from a place of presence and clarity accordingly.

If you haven’t already, I recommend taking 10 minutes to brainstorm with pen and paper all the ideas that come to mind about what your life vision contains. Consider your most aspirational vision and do not worry about how it will be accomplished. This is not only an excellent practice in letting yourself dream, but also a way to mine the jewels of your true desires, deep on the calm ocean floor of your mind instead of in the dynamic daily waves of thought on the surface.

Peel it back

Now that you have everything on the table regarding your deeper life goals, you can begin to peel it back into what you’d like to see in the near future.

I’m a fan of living in the present moment and letting the chips fall as they may, as equally as I’m a fan of planning and accomplishing. I think there’s room for both when I recommend plucking what resonates with you now from your aspirational vision and considering what can be accomplished in the next 3 years. Like the authors of The 12-Week Year ask, what would make your next 3 years great? Not good, but great?

What seems achievable today was impossible in the past.

My fast dream of 5x/week exercise, I realized, was not as important as the slow habits required to build healthy habits that run deep. Maybe someday I will work out 5x/week and absolutely crush it. I don’t doubt my ability to do that. I doubt that I will be able to accomplish this in the next 3 years in comparison with my other life goals. I realized that I’d like to work out just enough to keep myself mentally and physically healthy, and focus on eating right for my gut health instead. I know that this shift still supports my life goal and necessitates that I stretch to accommodate challenging new habits, which are really the only 2 criteria I need in order to consider a goal worthwhile.

Commit with 90% certainty

I am 90% certain that I will be available and interested in exercising for 20 minutes every Monday from now into forever. I don’t know what Mondays will look like when I’m 32 or 47 or 89. But for now this works, and so I am committed, even on Mondays that suck and even on Mondays that I’d soooo rather be writing, to getting on my Peloton and sweating like a sauna.

Self-trust, without a doubt, is something you earn. Choose a small habit you can trust yourself to complete.

Here’s what I recommend- choose one dream from your 3-year vision and chunk it down to a habit you’re interested in establishing, like working out 3 times a week or making 50 sales calls each week or doing date night every Thursday and Saturday.

Now chop it at least in half, to something you are 90% certain you can do every single week. Maybe you start off now working out on Mondays without fail. Or you make 10 sales calls every single Wednesday. Could you commit to date night every other Thursday to start?

Once you’ve decided, print out a calendar for the next 8 weeks, circle the day or days each week when you will complete this slow habit in black marker, and check off the date with a red marker each week right after you complete the activity. The sight of this is very motivating, and I got the idea from Jerry Seinfeld’s take on “making it” as a comedian.

After a few months, or whenever you feel you’re ready, add on another iteration of the habit. Maybe you work out Saturdays too. Or you make 15 sales calls each Wednesday, or 10 more on Thursdays. Maybe you’ve realized that you actually need to focus on your pet sweater side hustle right now so that you can afford to do date night two times a week in the future. Circle the date in black marker, and check it off in red marker.

Another thing that’s been very helpful for me, at least in my Monday/Saturday workouts, is having a reminder of my vision that I engage with before I exercise. I stand in honest-to-God Wonder Woman pose and recite my 4 reasons why I exercise from a poster I designed and hung up behind the bike before I put my shoes on. I have another reminder that I’m a badass next to my calendar, so I say that to myself and really feel it every time I check off another Monday in red. I like the phrase “I can, I will, I love you,” so that’s hung up on the wall too.

As sleepy as I may be or as unmotivated as I feel that day, participating in these ritualistic reminders of my reasons why anchors me into the moment and reminds me why the hell I do all this in the first place. It reminds me that these habits, though slow, are creating the life vision I hold in my heart every single time I engage with them. And that’s something that’s definitely worth celebrating.

Don’t. Self. Sabotage.

The challenge of this for mega-dreamers like me is to realize that not every goal on the aspirational vision list is a NOW goal. I need to save some room for future Amanda, trust her, and still live and enjoy my present life with the knowledge that with these visions on my mind, steering my progress, indicates their manifestation without fail.

If we focus on too big, too soon, we risk sabotaging our own success by not taking the time to establish sustainable visions. Let’s take a look at Jane, as an example.

Jane is like a lot of people I know. Jane has a goal of making $150,000 by the end of the year in their business. She currently makes $35,000. Plenty of other people make $150,000 OR MORE in their business each year, and she’s watched dozens of thought leaders share their stories about radical transformations in a short amount of time. I’ve watched the likes of Jane set a hefty goal like this multiple times, get super pumped, and then a) realize that this requires too much time, b) realize that this is too unrealistic of a goal, c) sabotage themselves unconsciously, or d) let themselves be sabotaged and stop pursuing the goal. It was silly anyway, they might say to themselves. Then, they listen to an inspiring speaker or audiobook, conjure up visions of massive success they’ve since squashed down, get super pumped, and go through the cycle all over again with little to no results to show for it. Self sabotage successfully secured.

I was Jane. In a lot of ways I still am. In college, when I was a life coach and brand designer, I had very intense visions of living a luxurious lifestyle of world travel, beautiful food, and helping people change their lives through the power of mindset. I wanted to make $150,000 a year. I watched dozens of Internet people around me do it, at even younger ages, and I was just as smart and savvy as they were- so why not go for it?

Trust that sometimes, your shiniest goals are reserved for your future.

Fortunately for me, I did not make $150,000 by the end of the year in my business, as at that time I was not mentally or financially mature enough to handle such growth. I think I made $27,000 (honestly pretty good for a college kid with a laptop!).

But I will say this- if I had set a goal for myself to, over the course of a year: establish a network of other life coaches, local professionals and online startups; email podcast hosts with a beautiful media packet and pitches to add value to their audience; ask for quality referrals from every web design client I had; tastefully email said referrals and offer a valuable no-obligation meeting to help them and their business; and focus on improving my craft to be one of the best in the field; I could have made $10,000 or $15,000 extra dollars that year, and would have slowly and sustainably built a legitimate business.

My college self had awakened to a major life goal that I still see for myself today- to live a luxurious lifestyle of world travel, beautiful food, and helping people change their lives through the power of mindset. But she hadn’t yet realized that this was just that- a life goal, and not intended, at least in my case, for a 20-year-old to pursue. It was an aspirational vision meant to guide the bigger decisions in her life, not a 3- (or even1-) year plan.

Instead of starting at ground zero multiple times and setting my sights on 0-60 in an impossible measure of time, I could have made significant progress in the direction of my life goals instead of my now goals, which are arguably more important for sustainable contentment. Mega-dreamers, be warned- allow your heart to swell and pulse with the excitement of a new idea. Let it wash over you, and truly relish the moment. Then take a look at your vision, your guiding light, and know when an idea is a fast or slow dream, and act accordingly, with faith that it will all come to you exactly as it’s meant to in the end.

What I know about slow habits- slow and savory wins the race

Slow habits require you to be present.

Dropping twenty pounds in a month is so sexy. Filling your book of business in a week is undeniably hot. But the unsexy and the unhot process of being patient, and spending some time doing things you so don’t want to do, and yo-yoing from success to failure to somewhere in the middle every day of every week is how life-long habits are truly formed.

And what undeniably sucks about slow habits is that they force you to, well, slow down. And slowing down forces you to be present.

Slow habits are the crucible through which your inner strength is tested. When you’re pursuing a slow habit, you don’t have a north star requiring your attention. In my example from my previous blog post, you have a workout on Monday- that’s it for the week. There’s no dramatic will she won’t she when looking at the birthday cake or deliciously naughty feeling of saying “eff it” and sleeping in until 10 on a morning you’re supposed to work out again. There’s no unbelievable highs or demolishing lows. There’s no escape.

There’s just life.

And there’s just you.

This is extremely uncomfortable for me. I quickly found upon slowing myself down that my dreams and goals, exotic as they were, were mind-bendingly pleasant forms of escape. If I’m not happy with my reality or the present moment is too painful, I start planning. Masterminding. Daydreaming and list-making and think-think-thinking, and it’s pleasant, and it takes me out of whatever was pushing at the walls of my brain just moments before.

But slow habits don’t give you a lot to think about. Instead of focusing with all of your might on one goal for two weeks and then giving up, you’re building something sustainable, which takes time and requires less. You complete the habit you’re building on a weekly or daily basis, and then the rest of the time, it’s just you, with your thoughts and your breath and your surroundings, again. Forever. You’re not putting all of your might into the pursuit of something that promises an end to the hurt. You’re putting a little bit of effort into the future of who you can become, one day at a (sometimes miserable) time.

Being present is hard. There’s a lot of pain in the world at large, in our own lives, in the act of being on this planet, and thinking about anything else, doing anything else, being anywhere else is an enticing and easy form of escape.

But the best things in life are challenging, and being present is one of the most challenging things we can do. Our brains, perhaps, were not built for it- but our souls were. And they long to notice everything, no matter how unpleasant, in service of being able to reflect back at the end of our lives and say, “I lived through it all and I suffered and I loved. I was really here. And I’m ready to let it all go.”

Slow habits require you to be bored.

I’m a creative and my mind tends towards the anxious. I’ve started a thousand projects without finishing them. Gone on dozens of dates without ever giving someone a true chance. The number of business ideas I’ve had and sketched and planned on napkins and crisp sheets of white paper, only to wake up the next morning and know it’s not the right idea for me- if I had a nickel for every one, I’d be wealthy indeed.

So imagine my surprise when I read the words, “Marry your boredom.”

This was in an email from one of my favorite thought leaders about building a sustainable online business. The email was about sticking to your guns when the next hottest trend comes around and seeing your business idea through for many years in order to gain respect and stay profitable. But these three words, Marry your boredom, were a jolt to my system, a slap in the face from someone as ambitious as I was.

No! I thought to myself. I will not marry my boredom! I am amazing! I will never settle, I will never be married to anyone or anything, and I will never be bored!!!!!!

And then I took a full time job, and I eat lunch at noon and leave at five.

And then I decided to stay in Buffalo instead of travel, and I go on weekend trips and plan my two weeks’ vacation.

And then, and then, and then, I met Connor.

Connor, who likes beer and pizza and Bills games. Connor, who owns one pair of jeans and one pair of dress shoes. Connor, who does not read Dostoyevsky and does not own a business and does not drive a motorcycle. Connor, who is the sweetest, simplest, and most un-boring person I’ve ever met.

I used to dream of a “fast” relationship: a sultry, sparkly entrepreneur type with rippling pectorals and incredible photography skills, sweeping me away to Italy and Paris and Buenos Aires and capturing me in all my moods in a beautiful, artistic way.

Now I dream of slow nights in with my boyfriend, laying in his plaid-colored comforter eating Skinnypop popcorn and watching Brooklyn 99. I dream of big dogs and lots of land and his phone pointed at me on the Cliffs of Moher, the wind so strong it whips into my mouth and the picture turns out hilariously awful. I dream of his eyes with wrinkles and crinkles, filled with mirth and affection as he laughs quietly at another dirty joke I’ve made in twenty years’ time.

My relationship itself is a slow habit, and thought it has taken some acclimating I couldn’t enjoy it more. We eat takeout for dinner. We plan vacations for months in advance. We ask each other about our days at our jobs and we’ve gone soft around the middle from the good food we eat and the good people we eat it with. We are small, and we are in love, and where I once thought I would feel trapped, I have never felt more free.

Don’t sabotage your chance at happiness because of your anxious, fast dreaming. Let the unfolding of what was meant for you find you through the embracing and establishment of the slow.

Slow habits require you to be the person you wanted to be all along.

One of the greatest lessons I learned from my time as a “Jane”-esque dreamer is that we haven’t achieved our goals yet because we’re not the person that their achievement requires.

I had a goal coming into my current job as a software project manager of being a badass businesswoman, able to dominate a room with my presence and carry myself confidently in the face of any entitled jackass that gets in my way. And I’ve achieved that, but I had to change into the kind of person that I’ve always wanted to be in the process.

It has taken so much work. I am still soft and courteous and sensitive and cry in the bathroom in the lobby of our building, but I am also extremely confident, sharp, well-spoken, and well-versed in pushing back on clients who are accustomed to always getting their way. I have learned how to be less agreeable in favor of finding a solution, I have learned how to communicate more directly (“cut the fat,” as it were), and I am learning not to let the fact that someone is questioning my validity rattle me to the point of self-doubt.

If you had waved a magic want and made me a Mega Badass the day I started this job, I wouldn’t be able to respect or appreciate the time it’s taken for me to transform into a person capable of holding her own. I wouldn’t feel the sense of pride and accomplishment at developing a craft, improving and pushing myself to be better each day. That’s why some crazy percentage of lottery winners end up broker than when they started- if we don’t think we deserve something, we often mess it the hell up.

I started this blog because I absolute love writing. I dream so often about being an author and a speaker that my heart aches and pulses with the thought of it. But I also know that in order to be an author and a speaker, I have much to learn.

If authorhood and speakerhood were somehow dropped into my lap, right at this moment, I would certainly not be prepared, and I honestly wouldn’t believe I deserve it (yet).

It thrills me to think of how the pursuit of this dream will require of me the discipline to write every day, the courage to swallow my fears and open my mouth to share my story, and the fortitude to pursue something with the whole of my soul cheering me on.

I’m excited to see how becoming this version of myself integrates with the rest of my life instead of trying to escape from it.

And I’m confident that one day, when I’m ready, and once I’ve learned whatever lessons I need to learn, I’ll step onto the stage and open my mouth and and say something beautiful.

And if it can’t be beautiful, then it will have to be true.


Amanda Popovski

Hi, I write about digital minimalism, mindfulness, wellness, productivity, and habit-building.

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