“How long can I keep doing this?”
In addition to being an accomplished television personality, minister, and musician, “Mister” Fred Rogers was also an immensely disciplined fellow. He was a vegetarian who never drank or smoked. He went to bed every night at 9:30 PM. He rose every morning at 5 AM, and began every day with prayer, answering fan mail, and swimming laps. After swimming, he’d weigh himself. Every time, the scale was the same: 143 pounds—the “I love you” number as he’d call it due to the number of letters in those words.
Was this routine flashy? Hardly. Was it sustainable? Undoubtedly.
Inspired by Rogers and my desire to be a friend to the older versions of myself, I’ve grown fixated on cultivating the most sustainable lifestyle possible. This research continues, but this piece contains what I’m presently referring to as “The Four Attributes of a Sustainable Existence.”
Four touchstones must be present when determining which lifestyle activities, habits, or routines are sustainable—a sustainability test, if you will.
- Positive: The activity has to be something that you won’t need to give up eventually.
- Honest: The activity has to be something you honestly want to pursue with motivations authentic to your character.
- Simple Reasoning: the reason for pursuing this activity needs to be simple.
- Enjoyment: you need to enjoy the activity separate from the benefit it brings.
Throughout this piece, I’ll be using the routine of jumping rope for 15 minutes, six days a week as an example of a sustainable lifestyle habit of mine and why it met all these criteria for me (and maybe you, too, but hey, that’s you...)
1. The activity needs to be good for you…or at least not bad for you.
Starting with the most obvious, any lifestyle activity you hope to pursue into old age shouldn’t be anything that will, at some point, result in negative consequences. Some examples of not-good activities include nightly cigar smoking, a keto diet, or afternoon ice cream. While any of these may begin as harmless niceties or even helpful tools, if you’ll have to give it up eventually, there’s no use in starting it now.
Example: One of the reasons I chose jump rope as my favorite form of exercise as opposed to, say, motocross racing, is due to its sustainable nature. With the proper conditioning, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to do jump rope cross-overs and boxer-skips into my 90’s. Ok, maybe not double-unders, but I can take or leave those.
Secondary thought: is it good (or at least not bad) for the world?
This activity should also not be harmful to others. (This is perhaps the most common understanding of modern use of the word sustainable—which many use in an environmental context.) For instance, if you decide to pursue an activity that requires a product whose manufacturing or disposal is overly destructive to the environment, this activity may not be sustainable. Likewise, if this activity damages a valuable relationship, it’s also likely not sustainable.
2. Do you really want this? Why?
Despite our ambitions, there is a certain amount of virtue in properly giving up on a goal. To determine which ambitions to pursue or discard, we can simply look at the honesty of our motivations.
- Do you want to read all 2,711 pages of the Babylonian Talmud to glean its information, or are you doing so for the bragging rights?
- Do you want those six-pack abs to combat dangerous subcutaneous and visceral fat or to flaunt it on your Instagram feed?
- Do you want to wake up 5:30 AM to get a jump on the day or because you simply want to share that aspect of your daily routine with your favorite influencer?
Honest Motivation = Stored Willpower
Any activity we pursue will occasionally depend upon stored motivation and willpower to commence or pursue. If our motivations are frivolous or shallow, that fuel source will be spoiled when we need it most. When our motivations for pursuing a specific goal are constructed on vain or fragile foundations, they are doomed from the start.
To test this, ask yourself:
“Do I want the result because I want it? Or do I want the result because I’m supposed to want it?”
My motivation for jumping rope is pretty straightforward: to maintain my fitness and because it’s fun. Yes, I’m supposed to want to maintain my fitness and pursue fun things, but I also genuinely want to pursue these endeavors for my own sake—thus, this goal has a sustainable motivation.
Besides, if I was going for cool points, I could have done a lot better than a jump rope.
3. Is your motivation simple enough to endure?
If our motivations for pursuing a task are unclear or overly complicated, determining success may be difficult—and thus, the reward illusive. To test your motivations’ simplicity, see if you can express them in a single concise sentence.
Here are a few examples of my own reasons for pursuing my routines/habits:
- Why do I practice intermittent fasting? To aide my digestion and boost metabolism.
- Why do I jump rope six days a week? To maintain my fitness and because its fun.
- Why do I journal? To process my thoughts and emotions.
- Why do I meditate? To train my attention span.
- Why do I pray three times a day? To maintain my spiritual alignment.
- Why do I allot eight hours in bed every night? To maintain my health and focus.
Now, enjoy some examples of my past routines/habits I’ve abandoned due to complicated or misguided motivations:
- Why do I practice strength training? Because I’d like to, at least once in my life, see what my abs look like under that gut fat. I mean, wouldn’t it be pretty cool? I guess, though it’s not a huge deal, it seems like something I should want. (Yep, and I ditched it.)
- Why do I engage in the Daf Yomi (daily reading of Talmud every day, resulting in completion in seven-years-time)? I imagine that studying Talmud and navigating all of the arguments of the sages would give me immense insights into Jewish life. Besides, being able to say “I’ve completed Shas(Daf Yomi)” is something not everyone can say. (And thus, I closed the book.)
- Why do I get up at 5:30 AM? Some of the most accomplished minds get up at 5:30 AM, if not even earlier. Getting up an hour or more early will give me time to do more throughout my day…right? (I didn’t quite believe this and was tired cutting sleep short, so I have since abandoned the notion.)
If you have to sell yourself on your motivations, pursuing the associated goal is likely not sustainable.
4. How much fun are you having?
Another sustainability sniff test for a lifestyle activity is how much pleasure you derive from the process…independent of the goal.
“Because I Want To” Passes the Test…As Long As You Do
To piggyback on clearly defining motivations, one of those motivations may simply be, “because I enjoy doing it.” That was my initial motivation for jumping rope. Though it has transitioned into, “I jump rope to maintain a certain level of fitness,” as well, the process began solely as, “hey, that looks fun.” Because fun was my original motivation for starting it, I still enjoy the process to this day. Any project or activity we begin must remain pleasurable to remain sustainable.
Pleasurable Doesn’t Always Mean Non-Stop-Fun
Only pursuing projects I find pleasurable does not mean that I am perpetually laughing like an idiot through every step of a process. During a writing project, I may end up banging my head against the wall regarding what word to use or how to structure a piece. During exercise, I may end up frustratedly tripping over my jump rope. Despite these challenges and disappointments, exasperations eventually give way to breakthroughs, making them an enjoyable part of the process. However, when the highs no longer justify the lows, it may be time to abandon an unsustainable initiative.
In Conclusion: I’m Actually Lazy
While the idea of cultivating sustainable lifestyle activities and projects seems ambitious, it’s actually a process I’ve lovingly dubbed utilitarian laziness. It’s nothing more than buffing out the friction of false-starts, thin motivations, and superfluous fluff from life to get us closer to the good stuff—fewer items on our docket, but each one packing a resonant punch that helps us live a life that truly sticks to our ribs.
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