One of the most useful pieces of advice about meditation that I have ever heard came from Tim Ferriss. He explained that the game-changer for him had been when he realised that bringing his attention back to his breath was the rep in the exercise of meditation. Success in training himself to meditate - the sign he is training himself well - is not holding his attention on his breath all the time. It is not when his thoughts are not wondering at all. That is the aim – just like in weight training having the strength to carry large weights (or the muscles that could do that) is the aim. But the rep. The repetition. The repeatable exercise which builds the strength so you can carry those large weights, that’s what you count as you train. The more reps, the more strength. The press up, the bicep curl, the crunch or situp. That’s the rep. That’s how your body learns.
And in training your mind and your attention, it is bringing your attention back which is the repetition which will build your attention and your focus and your mindfulness. Bringing your attention back is the rep.
I tell this story firstly because it may help you if you have a mindfulness practice of some kind. And secondly, because in this article I want to unlock - for you - one of the biggest insights of the last year of my life.
Our Inner Critic Dooms Our Mindfulness
You’re sitting there meditating, perhaps. Or you’ve gone out running to break out of the anxiety you’ve been feeling. Or you’re doing the breathing exercise that your coach is taking you through at the start of your session. Or Headspace is going on in your headphones.
And your mind drifts.
Then, a few seconds (or minutes!) later, you notice. Perhaps the coach or the app or your meditation bell reminds you. Or, perhaps you just notice with a thought. If you’re running, maybe you notice something which brings your mind back to the reason you’re out running. What do you do? Do you calmly put your attention back on your practice or your run, or does your mind go somewhere more like this..?
I was here to stop thinking about this bloody situation at home. I’m such an idiot.
I can’t even keep my head clear, when running, for 15 minutes.
I’ve got an app running and I’m still thinking about that awful thing he said to me.
I’m paying this coach, she’s running this beautiful thing to help me focus and I’m thinking about football!?!?
The inner critic going off. The comparison trap, bringing me thoughts of ‘I bet the other people here have got clear heads’, or ‘I bet my brother can meditate for fucking hours without his mind drifting’.
And of course, none of this brings us more of what we want. It doesn’t bring us calm, or focus, or mindfulness. It doesn’t bring us to the moment. It takes us further away. And this is the beauty of Tim’s insight: if you are the kind of person (like me) who slips into self-blame when in these practices, but who can see that it takes a repeatable exercise to build a muscle, then something shifts. Because you realise: in order to increase my focus, to stay in the moment more, the thing I have to practice is bringing myself back here. If I could already keep my attention just on my breath, or just on my body, then I wouldn’t need the practice.
So all I have to do to spend more time in the present moment, to be more present, is keep bringing my attention back to the present moment. If I do that, then I am succeeding in my practice.
Bringing myself back to the present moment is the rep.
'No need to apologise here. You prioritised something else this time. Do you want to recommit?'
This is one of the rules, or thoughts, or distinctions that Rich Litvin brings into his coaching work. I heard it first months ago, but didn’t understand it until much more recently. He says it when someone apologises for not doing the thing they said they would do, or for not filling in their weekly report. He never chases or criticises for those things, but when someone apologises, this is the frame he brings. No need to apologise here. You prioritised something else this time. Do you want to recommit?
I went to one of Rich’s events in Los Angeles in April. And, on the final coaching call we had before then, just before the end, I shared that I hadn’t put my hand up for coaching in that call, even though I had some things I really needed help with. Rich did his thing, which is to say he offered me a couple of quickfire insights, and then the Hands Up Challenge. The idea of the challenge is this: if you are someone who often doesn’t put their hand up for things, who hangs back - who maybe (like me) safely puts their hand up after four or five hands have already gone up, or when the time is nearly running out, knowing that the chances of being chosen are minimal - if you are like this, then instead, for the period of the challenge, put your hand up at every opportunity, even if you don’t have something to say. Just put it up, and see what happens. This was the challenge Rich set me for the event in LA.
Of course I was quickly able – with help from Rich and then from my fiancée Emma – to see how this really would be fine. Worse case I’ll get lots of coaching from Rich at the event (yay!), and a few people might think ‘Who is that selfish guy putting his hand up?’, but even if they do – who cares?! They’re probably just jealous because they’re scared to put their hands up (this is what is going on for me whenever I think that about people). Or, as Emma pointed out, maybe they’ll be very grateful to hear my questions and coaching. “I’m really interested in what you have to say, and the questions you would have to ask,” she said. ‘And even if I fuck up the questions,’ I thought, ‘I can be pretty confident I won’t be one of those people who just talks for five minutes and doesn’t even ask a question.’
And then the event came. On the first evening, there wasn’t much of an opportunity to ask questions. But on the first full day an opportunity came. And a strange thing happened. I knew what I had to do. I just had to raise my hand. I thought, ‘Ok, here goes. It’s time. Put your hand up.’ And then I had a kind of out of body experience. My hand didn’t go up. I was outside myself, looking down, thinking ‘Put your hand up. Go on. It’s time. You said you’d do that.’ But it didn’t happen. My hand stayed firmly down by my side.
And then it happened again, and again, and again. The whole day went past. I didn’t put my hand up once.
I was already finding the event tough. As I described it to my brother via Whatsapp on the first day, it felt much more about being inadequate than being inspired. I was doing the comparison thing on every side: people more successful than me, better networks than me, more money than me, more happy than me, more direction than me. Everywhere I looked I felt inadequate. I was poor, struggling to afford the event - indeed having to borrow money to attend. Nothing was working out quite how I wanted. All these people had already done amazing things in their lives, and I hadn’t done shit. And to top it all off, I was too fucking cowardly and too much of an idiot to put my hand up. What an impossible loser. How can I help clients if I can’t even do this? What was I going to say to Rich on the next call? Or what would I say to the other members of my coaching group, if they even remembered that I had the challenge (because of course why would they pay attention to what was happening for little, lame, insignificant me)? How humiliating.
My inner critic was going crazy. My body was tense. Small talk and smiling was hard. I had three conversations that evening, at the end of the day, which gradually shifted me towards what happened next, and I’m very grateful to Simon, Arvin and Kristen for their help in those moments. I was too embarrassed, I think, to even share the Hands Up Challenge and how it was occupying me in those conversations. But I spoke about some of my other struggles, and things moved for me.
And either late that night, or early the next morning, I realised something.
On the first day, I had prioritised something else. Some long-learned pattern. Possibly from school, where putting your hand up first and almost always being right was pretty much lose-lose when it came to being liked, or accepted, or fitting in. Possibly from earlier life, some pattern learned in childhood of ‘don’t outshine others’. Possibly a much older pattern being short-circuited in the modern era, linking a relatively safe modern situation to a much more dangerous ancient situation, where exposure or being caught out meant – for my ancestors on the plains – death.
And the question came: do I want to recommit?
And in this moment, as I asked that question, I was free. The first day has been hard and unpleasant. Full of self-judgment. That can continue: judge yourself, beat yourself up. Or, you can give up and go home. Or, you can recommit to the challenge. And recommit to the event. You can lose yourself in the failures of the first day, or recommit to making the second and third days as successful as you can.
And you can recommit to putting your hand up. So I did, and so much of my self-judgment just fell away.
And then, another opportunity to put my hand up came. And I was back outside myself, watching my hand by my side. It just didn't go up.
So I thought, ‘It’s ok. Just recommit.’
And then another, and another opportunity missed.
‘It’s ok. Just recommit.’
And then another. And this time my hand went up. First, straight away. And Rich called on me. I asked the question, going hot and cold, my voice croaky, sweat on my hands, eyes slightly out of focus, breath short.
And then I’m sitting down. It was an interesting question, one that meant something to me, and led to a connection to the coach I asked the question of later in the weekend.
And then, later there’s another opportunity. And it passes. It’s ok, just recommit. And another. Recommit.
And then I ask another question. And later in the weekend someone comments on how they really valued me asking the questions. And someone else says ‘Ah, we haven’t met yet but I know you because I’ve seen you asking all those questions.’
ALL THOSE QUESTIONS?! I only asked two. Imagine if I’d put my hand up eleven or twelve times! But it was a nice moment.
And, amazingly, despite all the failure. Those two questions felt like a great success for me. I had developed the muscle. I had recommitted and recommitted and recommitted. And I had managed two questions. Which is almost certainly two more than I would have managed if I had stayed in self-blame and inadequacy. Perhaps this realisation and that experience was worth the fee and the flights and the hotel alone. Because it showed me the incredible power of that question.
And it made me think. What if recommitting is the rep?
Stories of Recommitting
Since then, I’ve been seeing the story of recommitting everywhere.
I told the story of Tim’s mindfulness insight to a client, last month, struggling with procrastination as they worked on a big project which matters to them. For them, recommitting took the form of sitting back down at their desk, closing Facebook, turning their phone back off. These became the reps, and instead of beating themself up each time they found themself scrolling down their bottomless social media feeds, they were able to recommit, confident that they are working through their procrastination.
I wrote elsewhere recently about my experience at Frank Turner’s Lost Evenings Festival. I was incredibly touched, uplifted and inspired by the amazing creation of this festival. The people, the atmosphere, and of course the music. And I fell into the comparison trap. How can I ever create anything like this? And if I can’t, what’s the point? But Frank’s story isn’t one of setting out to create a festival. It’s one of recommitting. Despite being burned by the end of his first band, he recommitted to music. There must have been tough days as he toured by himself on a train, playing anywhere that would have him. But each day he took a breath and steeled himself for the next one, recommitting. So the only answer, for me, was to recommit to my work.
Brandon Sanderson, whose books I've been rattling through recently, wrote thirteen novels before his first was published. Thirteen. Imagine, after the twelfth, sitting down and thinking. What do I do here after all these rejections? Well, this is what I want to do. So I recommit. I write another.
What’s the secret to marriages that don’t end in divorce? Decide, each day, not to get divorced. Recommit. Each day. After each argument. Each time your spouse does something you don't like. Each time they say something that leaves you hurt. You recommit.
How did I beat my Resistance? How did I build my business? I sat down, each day, and recommitted. No matter what has happened before, I will be here, starting work each day. Even if I don’t know what to do that day, I sit down. I have a business plan, something like: keep having conversations with people. If one doesn't go well, if someone doesn't want to work with me. If I don't feel well, or happy, I have a choice. Stop, now. Or recommit.
Recommitting is the journey
Creating change in our life is hard. In fact, life is hard. There are so many reasons to give up on what we want. On the life we want. Each time we fail to maintain our habit of going to the gym or sticking to our diet, we have a choice. We didn't go to the gym over Christmas, and we ate a lot and drank a lot. So. Is that it? Do we give up now? Or do we recommit? The rep isn't keeping it going forever. It's starting again when we stop.
Each time we say unkind words to our girlfriend or husband, and we are filled with regret. Do we give up, and accept that as who we are? Or do we recommit to being better next time? The rep isn't never being unkind - most of us are far too human to achieve that. The rep is looking at ourselves, and recommitting to being the person we want to be, even when we haven't lived up to our values.
Each time we face disappointment, in our work, in our hobbies, with our friends who let us down and ourselves when we don’t follow through on our ideals? Do we cut our work or our hobbies or our friends or ourselves loose? Do we give up? Or do we recommit?
When we lose something or someone that means the world to us? Do we spiral downwards, trapped by a past which is forever set in stone, unchangeable and immovable? Or do we recommit, to ourselves, to our lives? We only have one. None of us is getting out of here alive, and we don't all get happy endings. Do we dwell, trapped by our inner critic and the past, by our failures or our struggles? Or do we lean, ever outwards, ever onwards, holding to our commitments as best we can, and recommitting when we can’t? We all fail sometimes. We all struggle sometimes. That’s called being human. The measure of us is what we do when we fail, when we struggle. Do we stop? Do we give up on ourselves or what we want, on the people around us, on who we are and who we want to be? Or do we recommit?