I often hear sponsees ask “How often should I meditate/go to meetings/call you/etc?” Similarly, it’s often the case that people outside of recovery ask, “How long do you have to keep going to those meetings?” It turns out that neither of these questions has anything to do with recovery. They’re about the power of repetition.
I had the opportunity to sponsor a professional bodybuilder for a few years, and by talking to me about weightlifting, he taught me a lot about recovery. One of the things that he taught me that is equally applicable to weightlifting and recovery, as well as most personal growth, is the idea that “It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been training; if you stop, you backslide.”
Now, I’m not a professional bodybuilder, nor will I ever be. But, I’ve been going to the gym four or five times a week for most of the past 25 years. During that time, there have been multiple occasions when I couldn’t or didn’t go — sometimes for just a week or two, sometimes for as long as six months. After those times, I definitely noticed that I was not in as good shape as I had been, getting motivated to go back to the gym was harder than usual, and workouts that I found pretty easy before the break had somehow become more challenging than they used to be.
There are lots of things that we can do to take care of ourselves—going to the gym, meditating, doing affirmations in front of the mirror, setting boundaries, etc.—where if we do it once, or do it occasionally, it’s not going to hurt, but it’s not really going to help either.1
I’ve talked before about my experience with mirror affirmations. What I may not have emphasized is that the first time around, I did those damn affirmations every single day for nine months. Every. Single. Day. Nine months. Did I set out to do it that way? No; I was hoping that I’d do it for a couple weeks and then be done. But, nine months is what it took for me to get results.
In my experience, most self-care things are like that. It’s not necessarily that the target is every day, but rather that the benefit is from repetition over an extended period of time, not from doing the thing once (or twice, or seventeen times).
A few years back, Malcolm Gladwell got a lot of press for his idea that to become a world-class talent at something, you needed 10,000 hours of practice. The strong implication was that anyone would become a world class talent if they just practiced that much. Most of these studies were done with musicians, but the idea is applicable to other things as well.
Now, this turns out to be mostly bogus. Practice explains some of the variation in performance, but typically less than half; true world-class performance depends on many other factors, genetics among them. (If you’re interested, this Vox story offers a good overview of the research as well as links to more detailed articles.)
But, I don’t actually care if I’m a world-class meditator, or writer, or athlete; I just want to get better. And, it turns out (see the research above) that practice, particularly guided practice in which an expert observes what you’re doing and offers suggestions, almost always improves performance.
I have had the opportunity to work with a sponsor for decades. I have had the opportunity to work with a few different personal trainers, each for three or four months at a time. And, just a few times, I have had the opportunity to do a guided meditation with an experienced meditator. In all of those cases, I learned a lot about what I was doing and how I could do it better, and I was able to take those things that I had learned forward and use them on my own after the fact.
For me, and for many of us, starting something new is hard. One of the reasons it’s hard for me is that I want to do it right, and I want it to be effortless. This is perfectionism, and I’ve talked before about the thinking traps in there. I’m nowhere near a professional athlete, and yet I get benefit out of the workouts that I do. I’m at best mediocre at meditation, and yet my daily meditation helps immensely in keeping me calm throughout the day. My self-talk is not close to perfect, but I’ve gotten tremendous benefit out of practicing mirror affirmations and self-compassion.
All of those things were difficult when I started. All of them felt awkward and uncomfortable. There were times with all of them when I was convinced that getting good (or “good enough”) at them was beyond my reach. But, with additional practice, I was able to get there. That’s not because I’m special; it’s because repeated practice works.
- I remember one time maybe 20 years ago when I was at the dentist, and as dentists do, he was encouraging me to floss regularly. At the time, I really struggled with that, so I said, “I’m not sure I can floss every day, but I can probably manage every other day.” His response? “You might as well not bother. You’re going to get so little benefit that it’s probably not worth it.” Curiously, that made it much easier for me to start flossing every day. ↩