How to escape the gravity well of "not working out"

What NASA and Kim Kardashian (HEAR ME OUT) have to teach us about the process of doing deceptively hard things.

How to escape the gravity well of "not working out"

The Question

So now I have completed LIFTOFF, and I feel really good! But I also wasn’t expecting something to be eating at me, which I’m having trouble articulating. But it’s something like: I wish I had just gone to the gym sooner. I’m glad that I did this and I’m loving the results. But I feel like it’s also exposed a side of me I don’t like. I don’t like seeing that I’m a person who avoided this thing for so long that turned out to be actually pretty easy.

I felt I had good reasons for not starting to work out all along, but now in the rearview they feel silly and trivial. I guess I am mourning the loss of time? But also I just feel dumb. And now I only have a few good years left of lifting before it all supposedly goes down the drain and I can’t get stronger anymore. I love your program but I also hate that it has revealed to me how weak I actually am! I’ve confronted reality and I don’t like it!! —Lindsey W.

The Answer

It feels like the prevailing metaphor for life is a series of branching paths. One path may turn out to be thornier than the other (or maybe that part is perceptual, and cf. good old Robbie Frost, the difference is actually arbitrary!). We can end up super far away from what we later learn was a path we might have liked better, and then we have to work our way either backward or around to the Good Path, or else lament that, if not for our relatively arbitrary-feeling-at-the-time choices, we might have ended up on the Good Path we didn’t know that we weren’t choosing at the time.

I have found it much harder to end up on the Good Life-Bettering Path than simply making the Good Life-Bettering Path choice, or putting myself in the way of Good Life-Bettering Path circumstances. This is because the path metaphor has largely failed me and my particular set of challenges.

I will choose a path—let’s say I’m deciding to start going to the gym for the first time ever—and then I hesitate. And hesitate. I will doubt the choice. I start noticing many little things about the path and fashion them into ways to call into question whether the path was good at all. Many people decide to start going to the gym every day but—what if someone notices I don’t know what I’m doing? What I’m not good at it? Willn’t those things perhaps invalidate whatever might have been good about this in the first place? I’m hovering at the entrance to the path, saying to myself, “you can simply take the other path.” But then I will miss out on the first path. And by this time, I’m feeling really bad about why can’t I just pick a path and go on it? I’m just picking paths; this should be easy! Why isn’t it easy for me? I’m once again asking—what is wrong with me?

The path metaphor, I think, lacks dimensionality. So, enter the gravity well.

An animation of gravity at work. Albert Einstein described gravity as a curve in space that wraps around an object—such as a star or a planet. If another object is nearby, it is pulled into the curve.
Thank you NASA for happening to have this exact animated GIF

Gravity wells are a way of understanding the pull that heavy objects have on other objects. You can almost think of them like a marble sitting on a suspended sheet of fabric. The marble sitting on the surface of the fabric creates a depression. If you try to roll another marble past it, the “well” created by the first marble draws the second marble in. The heavier the marble, the steeper and more encompassing the well is, and the faster and more efficiently it will draw in other marbles. Gravity wells are the (simplified) reason we don’t just float off of the Earth into space, and why it takes a phenomenal amount of fuel for a shuttle to not just escape the atmosphere, but meaningfully escape getting pulled back in by Earth.

Obviously, not everything is a deep gravity well; some choices really are just two divergent paths. Eggs or oatmeal for lunch. Yellow or green shorts. Clockwise vs. counterclockwise mid-girl walk around the neighborhood. But this is not the kind of decision that “starting to work out” is. It is a lot more like trying to escape an orbit than it is choosing a path.

We can store a lot of tension in the supposed triviality of certain decisions and choices. It will not surprise you to hear me say that a lot of the things that women are pressured to care about are not only framed up as trivialities, but because of that we are given no time or resources to attend to them. So we—joy of joys—are thrice slapped by the hand of society (once for the pressure, again for the triviality, again for the no resources). We are often made to feel like our fates rest upon being hot, upon remaining healthy, upon eating the “right,” “good” foods, upon “taking care of ourselves.” And then the tasks of making these choices and executing them are treated as trivial, even by doctors: Why can’t you just make a different choice? Why can’t you just eat less? Why can’t you just work out? Why can’t you, instead of going down this path, go down this other path instead?

I have a core belief that your experience of your body, and the task of taking care of what it feels like to be in your body, matters. It matters a lot. It doesn’t matter in the “it’s imperative that you be hot” sense, or the “you must care about your health to the degree of attempting immortality” sense. It matters in the “you can’t pour from an empty cup” sense. It matters in the “we all have a right to basic ownership of and comfort in our bodies” sense.

It is not a trivial thing. It is not an easy thing. We have to feed ourselves three times a day, and that’s just one small part of it! And it’s made even harder by all these other conflicting imperatives, hotness and perfect health and “good behavior.” There is a fundamental difference between this-or-that choices and gravity wells of our personal tendencies, as well as the complex pressures of what we “should” do and the resources we have for executing them.

So without knowing really what was involved, I would say you didn’t just arbitrarily decide to go to the gym, finally. You escaped the complicated gravity well of not going to the gym. And that is a big deal!! We are much closer to staying the same than we are to changing, and I think the gravity wells reflect this. It may feel silly to make a big deal out of that, but, I don’t think so.

There is one thing I read in the last few years that really sort of changed my thinking around this, and the source is going to feel like the most ironic thing in the world, but hear me out. It’s from a GQ profile (NSFW-lite photos) of Kim—hear me out—Kardashian HEAR ME OUT picking out assets for her mobile game PLEASE LISTEN:

A large portion of Kim's waking hours is spent picking things out. Is it hard? Harder than not  doing it. This process is known as “approvals”; it is slightly more difficult than choosing an appetizer off a lunch menu and considerably less difficult than harnessing the neutron source californium-252 to minesweep a tract of land, yet Kim does it with the precision of someone engaged in either task.

Kim begins flipping through a binder of photos, choosing ones to include in the approximately 14 billion collages (Kim loves collages) on her app, covering every page in a rash of approval hieroglyphs. This continues for nearly an hour, her face betraying no more emotion when she scrawls a giant X on a photo of herself on her wedding day cuddling her child than when she draws one over a retail image of a one-piece swimsuit. “Not that one,” she murmurs liltingly, as if singing a song about not that one. “Not that one, not that one.”

Why does it matter to me that this paragon of rigid conformity to conventional beauty standards (who also lies like a rug about it), who also gets on her high horse about “nobody wanting to work,” picks out little pictures for her app?

It’s not anything complex. It’s just that she, who is considered a silly person by a lot of people, is doing a silly task, but is taking it really seriously. It’s the most serious thing in the world to her, in that moment.

I don’t mean this in a “if Kim can take drawing an x on some pictures seriously, then you can do anything” way. I mean it in that, since reading this, I have actually gotten a lot out of treating the supposed silly things in my life seriously. What if I took even the supposed trivial things I have to do on a daily basis, seriously?

More on: humbling yourself before the dumb little task of working out

As a perfectionist procrastinator, I am wont to take everything unseriously. I am well-studied in the art of telling myself a paper will take only 30 minutes to write, and then doing my best 30-minute job on the paper in the 30 minutes right before the class where it’s due, when I should have spent at least several hours on it. I couldn’t not do this because my personal value is bound up in that paper-writing being easy; if it’s not easy, then what is wrong with me?

But in reality, many things take me forever. Even simple things take me forever. I have to give myself room to approach certain tasks like they are going to be the Battle of Helms Deep. I have to provide for the possibility that they will be less like choosing a path and more like escaping a gravity well. If starting to go to the gym was hard for you, then it was hard for you. That the actual little tasks you did once you got out of the not-going-to-the-gym gravity well are and should be separable from whatever made going in the first place difficult. That can stem from a number of things: feeling embarrassed about your body; having been bullied; fearing failure. As dumb as many people think working out is, the task of going to the gym is really a microcosm of some of our greatest challenges! And we trivialize the shit out of them, for the reasons I mentioned above.

If struggling with this or something like it means I’m a dummy, then, very well, I’m a dummy. Those are my needs. I can only be myself. It doesn’t matter if other people can just walk into the gym and instantly turn the front-desk girl and all the bros hogging the squat rack into their best friends and have a great sweaty workout; I cannot. For me, it’s a whole project. But it feels like a relief, to me, to give myself room to treat things as projects that require planning, even, or especially, if people are like “why can’t you just [x]?” I don’t get anywhere treating the bridge troll of self-sabotage as anything other than a worthy foe.

This doesn’t mean anyone should blow things out of proportion until stresses them out, or turn them into some impossibly outsize task. I could see this type of thought process backfiring for a certain kind of person (if that’s you, then: the opposite of everything in this article). But the goal is to validate the following: That thing that should be easy that is not easy for you? It might either not be easy, period, or it might not be easy for you. That thing that other people don’t take seriously? It is serious, to you. Either way, it’s not easy. So it’s hard. It’s a gravity well. You’re not just making a choice between two things; you are plotting an escape. And it doesn’t super-matter why, though you can always save that for careful analysis later.

It makes sense to regret and mourn what feels like lost time. But here is the thing: You could not have been anyone other than who you were, at the time you were. You were not someone who understood gravity wells. You were someone who was preoccupied with a lot of other stuff. And everyone else, no offense, possibly did not help! If they did try to help, you were not in an emotional place to receive them. You’re in control of your life, but you’re also the product of your environment, to an extent. You didn’t make the world.

I try to keep something along those lines in mind when I’m trying to decide stuff now, in the present. Because ultimately, if there is a thing I want to do, I can do it, or not do it. I can do all that it takes to make it happen for me personally (accounting for challenges that may be beyond my control!), or not.

So what will I do? I have never really understood “Where do you want to be in five years?” as a fruitful question. But if I reframe it slightly, it makes more sense to me: “Here is [x goal]. Five years from now, do you want to have done this, or not?” I’m willing to bet that five years ago, you wished you were someone who worked out. And here you are, at least in this specific respect, all that you hoped you would be. Let it be hard, and let it be enough.