“Success is a Journey,” they say. But that’s a lie.

Well, maybe not a lie. That’s pretty harsh. But “Success is a journey” can be, at the very least, a misleading statement. Because it implies a straight path, a way to get from point A to point B.

In geometry, two points are connected with a line. So if we are trying to get from where we are now (point A) to where we want to be (point B), we should plan a straight trajectory, right?

Well, no.

Track with me here. I promise I’m going somewhere.

Success is cyclical

In movie journeys the characters realize they’re lost when they find themselves walking around in circles.  You know, the point when the heroes throw up their hands in the middle of the jungle because one of them realizes they just passed *that tree* for the fifth time? Because they expect to travel straight, from point A to point B.

Circles feel like a waste of time. I’m telling you this now so you can save yourself some frustration.

Because successful habit change is not a straight arrow, but a virtuous cycle. Yep, a circle.

If you want to lose weight and get fit without becoming ragingly obsessed, you need to build a wellness lifestyle along the framework of healthy habits. You don’t want to create an extreme and overly-consuming diet and exercise routine that you can only stand to work for 12 weeks to get you to body Nirvana, at which point you can gladly abandon the plan and live happily ever after.

That would seem to be a straight path.

And it doesn’t work. Because once you stop doing what you did to get your results, you will lose your results. So even that isn’t a straight path; it’s also a circle, dumping you right back where you started.

Instead of the false straight path of a diet plan, what you want to build is a cycle. In a sense, you’ll be walking in circles instead of traveling a straight trajectory. But you won’t feel frustrated. Because what you have created is a virtuous cycle.

Vicious vs Virtuous

There are two types of cycles in life: vicious cycles and virtuous cycles. Let’s explore the difference through a case study of (we’ll call her) Anne O. Nymous.

  • Anne has a taxing job with many responsibilities. During busy seasons she work late to stay on top of everything.
  • She’s tired, mentally and physically, when she gets home. Because this has been a particularly busy month, she chose rest and recreation over grocery shopping the past weekend. As a result, her refrigerator has very little aside from some expired deli meat and white wine left from last Saturday’s girls’ movie night. So she serves herself a generous pour as she calls for take-out from the Indian joint she has on speed dial.
  • Forty-five minutes later, Anne is holding two large bags of curry and biriyani (which she plans will be dinner tonight and lunch for the next three days) and is heading back to the fridge for another glass of wine. She worked hard, and deserves the break, so she curls up with her curry, her cup, naan, and Netflix. Somewhere midway through the jasmine rice she dozes off.
  • When Anne awakes with a crick in her neck to the glaring blue light of her television, she packs the leftovers away and stumbles to bed. But her sleep is fitful and she wakes several times to pee, when she realizes she’s also bloated and experiencing heartburn. Additionally, there’s so much on her mind she doesn’t want to forget for work tomorrow that she lays awake for a while thinking about it.
  • Because of the poor sleep, Anne misses her gym-time alarm in the morning and wakes with barely enough time to shower and dress before rushing out to another busy day at the office. But first, she must stop for coffee, when she realizes she left her lunch at home…

*record scratch*

Each unplanned decision results in a consequence that feeds the next event, all of which contribute to a scenario of frazzle and hurry that is complicated with poor self-care.

That is a vicious cycle: A feedback loop in which each problem leads to and compounds the next one, in a seemingly endless spiral toward burnout, fatigue, and poor health.

The antidote for a vicious cycle is its corollary, the virtuous cycle.

Again, Anne will be our case study to explore the virtuous cycle:

  • Anne has a taxing job with many responsibilities. She recognizes that good nutrition and adequate exercise are vital to keeping her mind sharp and her energy up, so she can stay on top of everything during especially busy seasons. Even though she left the office a little late this evening, she stopped at the gym for a quick workout while waiting for rush hour to pass.
  • Because she knew the week would be crazy, over the weekend Anne planned and shopped for meals she could make quickly in the evenings from foods she prepared in advance; it only took two hours on Sunday to grill enough chicken and vegetables for several days, to get past the most grueling part of her week. When she got home from the gym, she put some quinoa on to cook, and had a deliciously nourishing meal within twenty minutes. She enjoyed her favorite music with her meal, washed the few dishes, and showered from her workout.
  • After her shower, Anne turns down most of the ambient light in the apartment to relax her mind and body for a good night’s sleep. She packed her lunch and some snacks to take the next day, and laid out clothes for a quick run in the morning. Finally, before retiring for the night, she spends five minutes journaling about the day and listing tasks she wants to make sure she doesn’t forget for the next day. As a result of this simple routine, Anne slept deeply and undisturbed until her alarm sounded the next morning.
  • Anne’s morning run stimulated her neuromuscular system, flooded her mind and body with endorphins, dopamine, and adrenaline, and raised her body’s internal temperature and metabolic rate, all of which contributed to mental energy for the day. She mixes a breakfast smoothie with greens, berries, and protein – the same breakfast she has every day – showered, and headed out for the day, prepared with the supplies she packed the night before. On her way to the office, she stopped for coffee for herself and the team she’d be meeting first thing…

Charles Duhigg refers to keystone habits as those that “encourage change by creating structures that help other habits to flourish.” He was referring to journaling when he discussed this in The Power of Habit; I was referring to meal prepping when I discussed it on HintHacks.com. In both cases, keystone habits are vital components of a virtuous cycle.

Vicious is Virtuous’ evil twin

John Spacey of Simplicable defined the virtuous cycle as, “a loop of actions or events whereby results allow the loop to be repeated with ever-increasing results. It is associated with self-reinforcing practices and processes that gain strength from their outputs.”

And here’s what I want you to notice: this is essentially the same definition of a vicious cycle.

The main difference between Anne’s vicious and virtuous cycles is she let the vicious cycle, more or less, happen to her, while she set the virtuous cycle into motion by proactively planning for it. The circumstances are the same: her job is taxing. But from there the events feed each other in distinctive ways, yielding wildly different results that were perfectly predictable because of the specific loop her actions set in motion.

Vicious cycles result from no goal, no plan, and no framework. Virtuous cycles result from clearly defined goals and a plan to execute toward the goal.

As the cycle is established, in either case, the habits that result feed the results in either negative or positive ways, thus contributing to the result.

Vicious cycles make things harder by feeding and compounding problems. But virtuous cycles make your progress toward your goal simpler, as each action boosts the chances of success for other actions.

You eat well, which makes you feel better and have more energy for exercise, which helps you sleep better at night and allows for effective energy, focus, and productivity at work. That energizes you in new ways, which makes you want to keep doing the good things you’re doing for your health. Yay, virtuous cycle!

The reason that old thinking of a one-time journey to success – the straight arrow from point A to point B – is actually a vicious cycle? Because of what you do when you get to point B.

Do you jump off the wagon and revert to your old lifestyle? If so, you’ll end up right back at point A, in the circling spiral of the vicious cycle.

The good news is you can break a vicious cycle and establish a virtuous one at any time. If you set up a virtuous cycle of effective habit change, each new habit will feed the next, making it easier and easier to continue your new lifestyle in a satisfying success cycle.




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