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Cold Showers rock!

I write a lot about cold showers. They may sound crazy, but bear with me and you may find them more helpful than you could have imagined.

After taking a few in Shanghai because the water took five minutes to warm up that I couldn’t stand wasting, in December of 2013, I took thirty days of cold showers. I can’t tell you how much the discipline, dedication, and so on have helped. Taking them enables you to do things you wouldn’t have thought you could but always wanted to, or that others dream of.

If you’re interested, read the posts in this series. Click on the links on the left to read my posts about it.

By the way, after the first thirty days, I decided to continue the practice by taking cold showers every fourth day (I do like warm and hot showers, after all).

Also, read my series on self-imposed daily challenging healthy activities (SIDCHAs) too. The topics overlap.

30 days of cold showers review: Lessons in discipline and pleasure

[This post is part of a series on Cold Showers. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view that series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

I just took my first warm shower after thirty days of cold showers. It was different than I expected, reflecting some growth and change the experience brought me.

Before the warm shower

The first change I noticed was that I looked forward to the warm shower. It’s hard to look forward to a cold shower in winter. Maybe people who keep their houses hot feel differently, but it’s about 68 degrees inside here, probably colder at night, so not exactly cold, but we wear sweaters inside. Looking forward to the warm shower, I got out of bed sooner and went almost straight to the shower after my burpees.

Then another change happened just before entering the shower. Before getting into a cold shower I would psych myself up and start to feel excited. Before getting into the warm shower I didn’t get excited. I didn’t have to get over any fear. I didn’t set my timer first, which I’d been using to motivate my jumping in.

Starting

For the cold shower I would get into the stall, then turn on the water, which would hit me cold. No need to wait for the water to warm.

For the warm shower I was torn between getting in right away, like I’d been doing for the past month, or to let it warm up first. I ended up getting in first. When the cold water hit before the water warmed up, I jumped out of the stream. Since I had looked forward to warm water, I couldn’t stand the cold water. This felt weak — to become so reactive and timid.

During

Obviously, the warm shower felt more physically pleasurable than the cold shower, but only physically pleasurable. My mental state didn’t feel as good as I expected. While physically the water felt warm, emotionally it felt indulgent. It made me think about the common American advertising message: “Because you’re worth it,” but I kept asking myself, is this making my life better (I forgot I wrote a post on the topic that I just looked up and found relevant, “A question to ask all the time: “Is this making my life better”“).

I concluded a few things.

Pleasure feels good in the moment, but it has unintended consequences. I felt deserving but hadn’t earned anything. I felt indulgent, but what was I indulging for? Sure I could say there’s nothing wrong with feeling indulgent and deserving, but I could feel the warmth of the shower lulling me into complacency. It felt great to stay in the cocoon, but at the expense of actively living. Pleasure creates complacency.

Cold showers invigorate, excite, and activate you. Warm showers make you feel lethargic, indulgent, and deserving. I kept thinking about what I’ve told people over the past month:

Challenging yourself risks hurting yourself. Exercise and sport leads to injury. Challenging yourself socially risks rejection, shame, and humiliation. Business challenges risk failure and bankruptcy. I don’t see any way to avoid risk if you challenge yourself. If you want to avoid risk and injury, the best way I can see to do so is to take it to the extreme: buy the most comfortable couch you can, the most full cable subscription you can, buy ice cream and cookies every day on the way home from work, and watch television from your comfortable couch eating delicious ice cream and cookies. You won’t risk injury. Any time you start thinking about what your life could become if you did anything risky — physically, socially, business, etc — just find a show more funny, dramatic, or otherwise gripping to stop you from those thoughts. Anything less still risks injury.

I also noticed that warm showers feel a lot more pleasurable than cold showers, at least in the winter — enough that I could see myself choosing warm showers over cold showers a lot. If I went long enough without a cold shower, I might get too scared or complacent to take a cold shower again. I could see the value of the full thirty days and the full five minutes for developing the skill to enter a cold shower. One cold shower changed my life, which I could only have found by experiencing the sense of accomplishment, thrill, and excitement I felt after finishing it, but thirty days of them built a life-improvement skill I can use forever.

I also couldn’t help think about people who live without warm showers any time they wanted, which probably includes most people now and throughout history. How did my culture come to make hot showers standard? How has that affected us, to make indulgent normal? Have we trained or lulled ourselves into confusing pleasure with happiness and emotional reward? If you like warm showers, why not go full on to the couch, cable, ice cream, and cookies? Is that what my culture has mostly done, with its two-thirds obese population?

I also couldn’t help think of how much heating up all that water pollutes, which doesn’t go away because I don’t see the fossil fuels heating the water. The pleasure of a warm shower causes asthma, mercury poisoning, and so on.

After

The end of the warm shower hit me most. After a cold shower I felt invigorated, excited, and ready to go. When my five-minute timer went off, I turned of the water, flung open the shower door, jumped out of the shower, quickly got dressed, and headed out to do things, to act, to live by doing. My heart pumped fast, I laughed at the crazy thing I’d done and felt great.

Not so after the warm shower. Turning off the water was hard. I didn’t want to open the shower door since the air outside was colder. Since the towel was out there, I quickly opened the door, grabbed the towel, and re-closed the door. Then I huddled inside the stall, wrapped in the towel like a blanket, and didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay protected and comfortable, reinforcing my thoughts during my shower.

Conclusions

Taking the warm shower reinforced the value of cold showers and of action and excitement over indulgence and complacency. The experience has more emotional content and lessons than I expected. Years ago when I played ultimate five or six days a week, practicing in the rain until my body ached, playing four or five games a day two days in a row, being sore and painfully scabbed for months. The experiences made me a better person. A lifetime of warm showers felt good too, but didn’t change me.

When you indulge you want to keep indulging and you fear losing what you have. When you choose to challenge yourself, you elevate your mood and feel capable.

I’ll still take mostly warm showers, at least during the winter. I might not turn the water up as high as I used to. I’m deciding on how often to take cold showers — maybe a couple times a week or every third or fourth day. We’ll see.

Cold showers are a perfect SIDCHA. They give the personal development value of the best others, for most people saving time, money, pollution, and other resources. Physically uncomfortable as they are, they make you more capable and the rest of life easier.

Video: the first and last word on improving yourself

[This post is part of series on the Self-Imposed Daily Challenging Healthy Activity (SIDCHA), burpees, and cold showers. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click to view the SIDCHA series, the burpee series, and the cold shower series where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Yesterday’s webinar, on sidchas, my most comprehensive treatment to date:

Adrenaline-rush activities you can do right now that beat jumping out of planes

[This post is part of a series on Cold Showers. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view that series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Today I’m writing about the value of taking cold showers. Purposefully doing so can change your life more than jumping out of a plane or most other adrenaline-rush activities. You’d be amazed.

You can give yourself life-changing experiences as exhilarating as jumping out of planes or bungee jumping without all the baggage people who do those things have to do. My picture at the top of the page swimming across the Hudson River illustrates how anyone can create inspirational, life-changing activities with minimal effort. Today I’m writing about lowering the bar further.

I don’t have anything against people who get rushes from scary things like jumping out of planes or jumping off cliffs. I’ve parachuted from two planes. The first time, when my friend dragged me with her because her friend dragged her, I expected not to enjoy it but found it incredible, at least enough to do it a second time. That said…

Most adrenaline-rush activities are passive, destructive, and deprive you of the challenge of motivating yourself to do it.

Despite having done a couple of these adrenaline-rush activities, several problems hold me back from the mainstream ones. There are better alternatives for most purposes.

  • They are big ordeals removed from your regular life, limiting what they do for you. You usually have to
    • Plan around them.
    • Travel far for them.
    • Pay a lot for them.
  • They pollute.
    • Flying a plane burns a lot of fossil fuel.
    • Driving to get there burns a lot of fossil fuel.
    • I love skiing, but running businesses in the snow seems to use a lot of energy and require cutting down a lot of trees.
  • They coddle you.
    • You have to sign crazy legal forms.
    • You have to wear all sorts of safety harnesses.
    • You have to do exactly what they say exactly how they say.
  • The activities become passive.
    • While you physically participate, you don’t actively decide anything once you start. They take care of everything for you.
  • They’re expensive.

These activities don’t seem that harmonious with nature. They seem to me contrived — not much different than riding a roller coaster. I like roller coasters. Why not just ride them and save yourself the effort and the risk of fooling yourself that you’re doing something different?

There are better alternatives for most purposes

The big activity that comes to mind as superior in almost every way for most purposes is the one last major skill I want to learn and activity I want to experience: surfing. I can’t say much about it since I’ve only tried twice and both times there were almost no waves. But I think if you live by a beach with great waves and can surf easily, you’re achieving the goals most people shoot for with the adrenaline-rush activities they plan and pay for people to give them, except you do it yourself.

Competitive sports like Ultimate at the national level qualify. Casual pick-up games might, depending on your standards.

Individual sports like rock climbing, gymnastics, and a few others qualify.

Still, it’s hard to get a team together and most people don’t live near great surfing beaches or mountains to climb.

You can simplify and get yet more with almost no effort

But you can do better without making a big deal even if you don’t live near a surfing beach or have a team to join.

Swimming across the Hudson River has none of the downsides I bulleted above, yet gives you the big elements that I think give the value of the adrenaline-rush activities

  • You choose to do it.
  • You already have all the equipment to do it. Most cities are on bodies of water.
  • You risk dying (you can mitigate this risk with friends and boats).

I can’t overstate the importance of your choosing to do the dangerous part as opposed to letting it happen to you.

I’m writing today because I’ve been doing another life-changing activity you don’t even have to leave your home for. It even saves energy for most people. And you can do it every day.

Longtime readers may recall that last year in Shanghai I started trying out cold showers. I started it because in the apartment I stayed in the water took three minutes to get hot and I didn’t feel comfortable wasting that much water. I continued it because of the emotional skills it developed. That’s why I titled that post as an exercise in emotional skills and willpower, “An exercise in doing what you have to even when you don’t want to“.

Since returning home, where the shower gets warm faster, I switched to standing in the shower first, then turning on the water and getting about ten seconds of cold.

Lately I’ve been taking full showers with only cold water. I read a few of the posts below, found their descriptions of the experience consistent with what I like in life, and went for it. I was surprised at how invigorating and awesome I felt after a full cold shower. And how trivial doing it was.

I should clarify two things in the last paragraph. First, I found in those posts many health claims about cold showers. None seemed credible to me — all spurious talk about waking up all the cells in your body and boosting your immune system. However healthy cold showers are, nobody could back up their claims. But they don’t need to. The experience is awesome anyway. Second, while the physical actions of taking a cold shower barely differ from taking a warm shower, emotionally and mentally it’s totally different, which is the point. It exercises your mind like lifting weights or running sprints exercises your body. Your mind plays tricks on you to keep you from getting into a cold shower.

After you do it, you realize it’s not nearly as painful or difficult as you thought — that is, when you develop the fortitude to experience it without allowing yourself to associate unpleasantness with badness. It’s a physical sensation, that’s all. You can to make of it what you want, a great skill to develop, applicable to many parts of life. What you gain in emotional skill far exceeds the physical discomfort. Read my series on willpower to see the value of those skills across many areas in life.

Taking cold showers seems to have many of the characteristics of burpees.

  • You don’t want to do it before, but feel awesome after. I can’t imagine walking out of a cold shower not feeling invigorated, refreshed, awake, and smiling.
  • It forces you to decide to do it. You have to use your willpower.
  • It requires no equipment.
  • Little risk of injury.
  • It instills discipline.
  • You can do it while traveling.

If the temperature of the water I’m showering in is the temperature of the water my building heats to make hot water, I’m polluting more than I thought when I take a hot shower.

Words to inspire and help you start

First, if wealth is not how much you have but how little you need, then taking cold showers makes you wealthy, by reducing your need for something external.

Also, check out these posts from people who took cold showers every day for extended periods

Anyway, I don’t think I’ll take only cold showers for the rest of my life, but I expect to take a lot of them.

An inspirational SIDCHA video

[This post is part of a series on the Self-Imposed Daily Challenging Healthy Activity (SIDCHA). If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

[It’s also part of a series on Cold Showers. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view that series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

About twenty-five days into taking thirty days of cold showers I watched the following video by the guy whose blog motivated me to try it in the first place, Joel Runyon. I found this video the most meaningful description of the reasons to try it. Well, the second most, after just trying a cold shower yourself.

I find the video explains the benefits of any Self-Imposed Daily Challenging Healthy Activity (SIDCHA). What I like most about this video

It describes how trivially accessible life-changing activities are. The challenge isn’t finding ways to improve your life. The challenge is doing them. Doing them need take no extra time, money, or any other external resource (cold showers save money and pollute less. They’ll probably save you time if normally take longer than five-minute showers). The challenge is purely internal, as is the reward.

The challenging part of a SIDCHA forces you to face yourself. Anyone who does a SIDCHA will tell you the growth it promotes beyond the task they do in the moment. If you’ve done a SIDCHA you know what I’m talking about. If you’ve never done one, that’s the fear or discomfort holding you back (like in this post on just sitting still, but which applies to challenging yourself, “More excitement than most people can handle“).

Is describes how choosing to do something challenging provokes the same feelings that discourage all of us from doing many things we want to do. He spoke about starting a company, but he could have spoken about plenty of things

  • Exercising
  • Asking for a promotion
  • Public speaking
  • Asking someone out
  • Helping someone you don’t know
  • Trying new food
  • Singing
  • Dancing
  • Playing sports
  • Telling someone you care about how you feel about them
  • Trying new things
  • Etc

It describes how to train yourself to overcome those feelings. It’s a skill you can learn. It promotes leadership by getting you to lead yourself. The resistances you feel to doing what you want are the same resistances you’ll face from people you want to lead. Learn how to understand and overcome yours and you’ll learn how to understand and overcome your followers’, and they’ll thank you for it.

It distinguishes between discomfort, pain, and fear, all of which are fleeting, and damage, which cold showers and the list of above activities have no risk of.

It’s funny.

I wish I had made a video like it!

… although I confess I feel extra pride from choosing to do the cold showers on less inspirational material than this video, since it means I took more responsibility. Still, the main value of cold showers comes from doing them.

Cold shower -- 49 degrees!

[This post is part of a series on Cold Showers. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view that series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Today is my twenty-second of thirty taking deliberate cold showers. It’s an amazing experience I would never have guessed as valuable as I’ve found it. I’ll write more on it after day thirty. For now I’ll note two things:

  • Cold showers are incredibly invigorating. You can’t leave a cold shower bored, lazy, lethargic, or depressed. They give you energy.
  • They build mental fortitude. After you decide to start a cold shower and to stay in for five minutes, not eating a piece of chocolate cake is trivial.

Yesterday I bought a thermometer. This morning I measured the temperature. It said 48.9 degrees Fahrenheit.

(EDIT: the next day it said 48.3 degrees)

(EDIT 2: December 31st it said 47.3 degrees. I look forward to July cold showers, probably ten or twenty degrees warmer)

(EDIT 3: January 1st, my last of thirty days, it said 46.2 degrees)

(EDIT 4: A new post on a new personal best, 45.7 degrees)

My physics training tells me since I don’t know the measurement’s uncertainty I can’t trust the number. It’s a cooking thermometer with digital readout. I’ll find something to calibrate it against. In the meantime, I’d guess it’s accurate to a few degrees.

In the meantime, my quick search online didn’t uncover any other reports on measured shower water temperatures. It feels about as running water will get. I figure the water gets to roughly the ground temperature, which will take months to get to freezing, right? New York this morning is in the low 30s. The past few days were warm — hitting a record-breaking 70 Sunday.

Today’s water felt about as cold as I’ve felt. It’s still not painful, but definitely uncomfortable. My fingertips keep turning slightly purple. It takes ten or twenty minutes to warm up. Rinsing after brushing my teeth is uncomfortable too.

You’d think I’d shiver just after the shower, but I don’t. Then I’m in a great mood, full of energy and excitement, laughing at the absurdity of what I did. Ten minutes later I might shiver a little, maybe just from being in a house below 70 degrees with wet hair.

Anyway, I recommend cold showers more than ever. Until I write them up more after the thirty-day period, if you’re wondering, as nearly everyone does, why anyone would do such a thing, read the links from my post a couple weeks ago, “Adrenaline-rush activities you can do right now that beat jumping out of planes“. Most of you won’t try it, or even seriously consider it. Those who at least consider it might recognize the risk of injury and cost in time and money is zero, and the worst you suffer is some discomfort. But how much value do you put on comfort? If it’s so high, why don’t you just eat ice cream and watch TV all the time? If you recognize the value in challenging yourself, why not increase the challenge and see where it takes you? Seriously, there’s no risk to it.

Another big lesson of recent decades is the value of experiential learning, in contrast to the book learning the world imposed on me most of my life. Some things you can only learn by doing — dancing, singing, playing sports, and social skills come to mind. You can’t understand the value of deliberately taking cold showers without trying them. And I’d say for a month.

I wrote the following to Joel Runyon about a week ago, who is promoting cold showers more than I am.

It’s snowy and wintery here and I think the cold water temperature dropped a couple degrees. Yesterday my fingertips were purple by the end of the shower, I presume from the cold, which hadn’t happened before. Some people might think of stopping or wondering about potential dangers. I thought about people who jump into frozen lakes, putting their whole bodies under icy water, and decided it was just part of the process. My fingertips weren’t about to fall off. They were just purple.

 Let me know if you decide to try.

How to overcome creative avoidance, destroyer of motivation

[This post is part of a series on Cold Showers. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view that series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

What is creative avoidance?

You know the feeling, or rather the mental chatter.

The scene: Some time ago you told yourself you would do something challenging. Maybe going to the gym, talking to your boss about a raise, asking someone out on a date, one of those things you have to will yourself to do. At the time you knew you would do it. Now it’s time to do it. Suddenly your mind fills with excuses and various reasons not to do it:

  • You’re tired.
  • It doesn’t matter that much.
  • You can do it better later.
  • You want to do something else first.
  • You’re not ready yet.
  • You can’t afford it.
  • You’ll do it, you really will, tomorrow.
  • You didn’t really want to do it in the first place.
  • Other people didn’t do it and still succeeded.

You know the routine. Someone came up with a name for that thought pattern: “creative avoidance.” If you read my posts on mental chatter and empathy gaps, you know about it.

The problem with creative avoidance

The problem with creative avoidance is that after all those excuses seduce you into complacency, you look back later and realize none of them meant anything and you feel bad for succumbing to them. You teach yourself not to challenge yourself as much the next time. You miss out on great things in life and make yourself helpless.

The opposite of creative avoidance

The opposite of creative avoidance happens when you do something challenging. Here is that overall pattern.

  1. Long before your activity you think “No problem, however hard it may seem, I’ll will myself to do it and my willpower will make it easy. Nothing can stop me.”
  2. Just before you do it your mind goes crazy with excuses not to do it, to do it tomorrow, that not doing it is no big deal, and so on.
  3. Doing it is uncomfortable.
  4. At first you think “Holy shit, am I actually doing this?!? This is crazy!!”. When you’re almost done you think “That wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought. The anticipation was worse than the experience.”
  5. Then after you do it, the discomfort disappears immediately and you feel great for doing it.

How many great parts of life do we lose in step 2?

Every time I see a hard problem I think of my repeatedly proven way to solve hard problems:

The best way to solve a hard problem is to solve a related easier problem, build experience, and apply what you learned to the harder problem.

What are easier problems? SIDCHAs! Burpees, exercise, cold showers, meditation, and things like that develop the skill to overcome that creative avoidance. Because they’re healthy they improve your life. Because they’re challenging, they develop your ability to recognize and overcome creative avoidance.

Many people ask me why I continue with the cold showers or twice-daily burpees. All they think about is the physical sensation, or how they’d rather sit on the couch and not do them. For some reason they don’t realize it’s training to live the life I want by enabling myself to choose deliberately what I want to do, not just to follow paths others lay out for me, which I call the rat race, or surrender to whatever shiny thing appears in my vision, which I call blowing in the breeze.

I think people who just give in to whatever pleasure or chocolate cake tempts them consider this lifestyle austere and spartan and theirs more pleasurable. I suspect the opposite—that living this way brings more pleasure, happiness, and emotional reward, and that people who live this lifestyle appreciate their pleasure more. But that’s just my feeling.

The 42.3 degree shower (5.7 Celcius): Trading fleeting discomfort for long-term reward and growth

[This post is part of a series on Cold Showers. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view that series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

To people who haven’t tried and don’t get taking cold showers (or other punishing task like running a marathon you know you won’t win, climbing Mount Everest after others already have, meditating, or practicing yoga — none of which create results beyond you dong something challenging and the personal benefit that comes with it) today’s post might help them understand.  you might understand why you’d challenge yourself with physical discomfort. Except a cold shower delivers comparable results needing no equipment or any deviation from your regular schedule, has no risk of injury, and pollutes less.

Two days after I finished thirty consecutive days of cold showers and finding my first warm shower anticlimactic, reinforcing the value of cold showers, New York City had a high of 17 degrees. I thought, “Even though I don’t have to take any more cold showers, how often will I get the chance to experience potential temperature extremes? Maybe I should try another cold shower on what might be the coldest day this winter.” So this morning, January 3, I tried another cold shower. It delivered like achieving any athletic personal best.

As usual before any challenge, I felt anxiety, fear, and trepidation. I also knew I risked only discomfort, not injury or suffering. After yesterday noticing the pleasure of warmth didn’t bring the happiness, satisfaction, emotional reward, or growth I expected, I felt a smaller longing for a warm shower, making the cold shower easier.

It felt physically cold, but emotionally good. Actually, this time the cold bordered on painful if I let the water hit any spot for too long, especially my hands and feet, I guess for being extremities, and the top of my head, because the water hit it most directly. I easily solved that problem by moving.

I’ve written on distinguishing pleasure, happiness, and emotional reward, including the relevant series I linked to yesterday “How to bring happiness and emotional reward to your life by analogy with pleasure — the series“. I can’t tell you how much more long-term value emotional reward and skills can have compared to physical pleasure. Of course I prefer both, but usually if I can get more of one at the expense of the other, I choose reward and learning over pleasure.

What else are we doing when we exercise, do sports, or any other challenging activity? You can talk about the health benefits of exercise, but to someone who prefers comfortably sitting on their couch, what does health matter if they don’t physically feel better? You can’t feel clogged arteries or high blood pressure. Getting fat doesn’t hurt. Exercise does. If you value physical fitness over obesity, you value reward over pleasure. Your life is yours to live by your values. Challenging yourself and experimentation helps you do it. Complacency doesn’t.

Edit: On January 7, New York hit 5 degrees outside. How could I not try for a new personal best? The water temperature was 42.3 degrees (5.7 Celsius). It hurt my hands and feet, but by now I have the skills to handle the discomfort. The challenge is like running or lifting. I know what to do, it’s a matter of doing it.

Edit: February 4, 2014: water temperature was 39.9 degrees (4.4 Celsius), though I didn’t time it, so I don’t think I made the full five minutes. More than uncomfortable. Couldn’t keep my hands in the water because they hurt. After the shower ended my skin felt cold. Still, the discomfort ended the moment I ended the shower.

What are your tricks?

[This post is part of a series on Cold Showers. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view that series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

I’ve been talking to people about SIDCHAs. I’ve found something surprising that I’d consider researching if I were still in school or had students working with me.

Nearly everyone who does a SIDCHA overcomes the challenging part with a trick — something to start them. One of mine is that before starting burpees I think of doing one, not all twenty-five, then once I start I finish the rest. Another is that before starting a cold shower, I often set my timer for five minutes and ten seconds. My minimum shower length being five minutes, that gives me ten seconds to start the shower, so I can’t keep dawdling around and have to get in and start.

Most challenging things I can think of that I do regularly have tricks like that.

I thought I had a few personal little one-off ad-hoc tricks, but I’m beginning to think these tricks are more common, maybe even pervasive, among people who have productive daily habits to help them do them. I would have thought using tricks got in the way of actually learning to do it, but now I don’t think so as much. I see them as becoming part of the process.

If you don’t have little tricks to do you SIDCHAs or other challenges, think about creating them. They work. No reason not to if they help you do the job. If you do have little tricks like that, share them. I bet others would appreciate and benefit from them. I’d love to hear them.

Top 16 tips for starting habits you want and stopping habits you don't

[This post is part of a series on Cold Showers. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view that series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Years ago I tended to have unintentional habits that I did without thinking about them and they didn’t improve my life much. Now they’re mostly ones I intentionally adopted because I knew they would improve my life. And ones I don’t like I’ve gotten rid of. You can create the same mix in your life. Here are my top tips for starting habits you want and stopping habits you don’t.

Don’t stop doing one habit, start doing another. It’s easier to do something than not to do something else, especially if trying not to do something makes you think about what you aren’t doing. If you want to eat less junk food, instead of trying not to eat potato chips, eat more fruits, nuts, carrots, and other quick food. Instead of trying to watch less tv or spend less time on Facebook, start doing something else, like join a team or writing a book.

Make your goal creating emotions you want. If you want to start a habit, think about what emotions you can and want to create and work primarily on them. If your habit won’t create emotional reward, you’ll eventually stop. If it will create emotional reward, doing it will motivate you to do it again. If you want to get in shape and make your goal just “going to the gym,” you won’t likely create a self-sustaining activity. If you make a goal “learning to enjoy going to the gym,” “finding gym partners you enjoy spending time with,” or “finding a team you love to play with,” you’ll more likely succeed. Whatever the goal you want to achieve with your desired habit, think of what emotion you could get out of it, usually by looking at what successful people who do it get out of it, and shoot for that. If you don’t focus on the emotion coming from it, expect to lose interest.

Use willpower as starter motor to engage emotions as main engine. New habits compete with old activities for your time and other resources. Those old activities bring you some reward, predictably so. New habits you aren’t sure will bring reward so your emotional system won’t kick in to motivate you. You can use willpower to start the habit, but willpower takes mental effort that runs out. If you know what desired emotion your habit will create, use willpower to start the habit enough for your emotional system to feel that reward, which will motivate you to keep doing it, now without the mental effort willpower required.

Start with awareness of current situation. If you don’t know where you are it’s hard to get to where you want to go. If you want to go to the gym more, know what you’re doing instead that going to the gym will displace. If it’s sitting on the couch watching tv, know that that activity creates reward, will motivate you in stressful times, is always available, and is easy. If you don’t take everything into account when you plan new habits, you won’t overcome the old habits’ allure.

Use environment, belief, and behavior. If you only change your environment, only your beliefs, or only your behavior, you’ll likely miss some parts of your life that motivate the old habits you’re trying to displace, or miss reward that could motivate the new habit. When your environment, beliefs, and behavior align, you’ll feel reward and want to continue. If they don’t, you’ll feel internal emotional conflict, which will discourage you. So don’t just say you’ll go to the gym, which is just behavior and environment. Also include belief, like believing the exercise gives you energy, increases attraction, or something else that will motivate you.

Notice what you’re doing, like if you’re using willpower to do something you don’t like. Many people start habits that don’t make them happy without realizing it. They force themselves to exercise when they don’t enjoy it or don’t eat meat when they love it. Nothing will destroy a habit you want more than feeling emotional punishment when you do it. Nor will anything make you feel more helpless about starting other habits, even ones that would improve your life. Yet people persist in willing themselves to things they don’t like.

Practice discipline all the time. Whether you’re doing your habits or not, do things that develop discipline. For me, things like marathon training and cold showers develop my ability to do something even when I don’t want to. Find things like those that work for you and you’ll find maintaining habits easy. I weened myself off potato chips by making a game of limiting my eating.

Find role models. Somebody does what you want to. You can learn from them. Find them and get to know them. Learn from their mistakes. Adopt what works — beliefs, practices, etc. Have them hold you accountable if you can.

Create accountability, ideally public. Few things motivate more effectively than looking bad in front of others. Also, having others see your plans and behavior helps find problems.

Create reward intrinsic to the habit, not external, and attach it to habit. The closer the reward is to your habit, the more your emotional system will motivate you effortlessly and the less you’ll have to rely on willpower. The reward of feeling stronger will help motivate going to the gym, but not as quickly and directly as seeing your body look how you want it in the gym mirrors while you’re there. Enjoying a sport and teamwork may be even more direct and intrinsic.

Share what you love. I’ve written about this at length. The more you share what you love, the more people will bring more of that into your life and the less they’ll interfere. Once you start enjoying a new habit, tell people about it to attract supportive people and repel discouraging ones. Take responsibility for creating your community.

Habits aren’t logical don’t expect reason to help. It’s nice to know if something you want to eat more of is healthy, but intellectual ideas don’t motivate. Find a way to make that food delicious if you want to eat more of it. Emotion and reward motivate. Thinking just gets you thinking.

On success, build more because it’s a skill, or set of skills. When you feel a habit you want take root, start building another habit you want. When you kick a habit you don’t want, find another and kick it too. Starting and stopping habits uses skills and your skills are sharp when you’ve just succeeded, as is your motivations.

If you miss one day you can miss two, if you miss two it’s all over. Read this post on this advice.

Develop and use tricks that work. Talk to people who successfully started habits they like and you’ll hear lots of little tricks they develop that work for them. As little and ad hoc as the tricks sound, I’ve come to believe they are integral to success. When I start my burpees, I don’t think about the whole set. I think about starting one, then when I’ve done one I finish the remaining nineteen (actually, remaining twenty-four lately) because I feel like doing more once I started. My friend who goes to the gym a lot doesn’t think about going for two hours, he thinks about walking in the door, then stays for two hours because he feels like it once there. Before starting my cold showers I start my five-minute-and-ten-second timer because once it starts I feel like I have ten seconds to start and get in the cold water.

Last and most important:

Do. Act. Start. Try. Habits are fundamentally behavioral. If you don’t start them you’ll never continue them, nor will you feel what doing them feels like. If you want one to stick you need to feel emotional reward.

Half-marathons and cold showers

[This post is part of a series on Cold Showers. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view that series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

This morning I ran about a half-marathon. I say “about” because I run for the fun of it and how it makes me feel after (and this year to train for the marathon again) so I don’t know the exact distance. I ran down to the river, up to Central Park, did a lap, and ran back along the river.

I know people out there run fifty-mile runs. I know people train more than a half-marathon now and then. Even so, there’s no getting around that running twelve or fourteen miles is hard. If you haven’t run that long a run since October, toward the end of it you’re in a different place. Come to think of it, that’s another reason I run—to exercise discipline during the strong empathy gap state that kicks in at your limits and makes you want to stop.

On the other hand, today was another beautiful day. A little warm, but breezy and shady enough, at least at the beginning of the run before the sun was directly overhead.

The two hardest parts of the run and why they made it that much more awesome

The hardest parts came after the run. They also were the most awesome parts.

First was doing my burpees. I do sets of twenty-five now. For the first time I can think of, I couldn’t do the full set straight. I did seventeen, paused briefly, did another three more, and then had to pause for a while to catch my breath. Maybe thirty seconds. I felt like I couldn’t continue. I hadn’t had that happen before during burpees. Lifting weights, sure. Anyway, I finished the last five after the pause. They were easier than I expected so maybe I paused unnecessarily long.

Knowing I reached a limit I hadn’t before felt great! As hard as starting the burpees was, I felt that much better after finishing them.

Second was realizing today was a cold shower day. After all that running, burpees, and inverted rows (I added this new SIDCHA without telling anyone yet), I was looking forward to taking a relaxing shower and lying down to rest. Then I realized today was a cold shower day. No relaxing shower for me!

Here’s the thing. Cold showers are hard to start but they are incredibly refreshing and invigorating after. As hard as getting into the water was, holy cow did that cold water make me feel great!

I wouldn’t have chosen to take a cold shower had I not already scheduled it independent of the long run. That’s the beauty and value of removing choice from your SIDCHAs. The mental effort of choosing is harder than the activity, at least for most activities. Remove the choice by making them regular and you can do more than you thought.

I can’t tell you how much discipline improves your life over self-indulgence and complacent comfort. I love indulging myself and comfort. I appreciate and enjoy them that much more when they accompany achievement.

Close to cold shower record

[This post is part of a series on Cold Showers. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view that series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

I don’t remember posting about cold showers in a while. I’m still taking them, now every fourth day, which I call a sidcha, even though not daily. I consider it regular enough.

Today’s water temperature was 41.5 degrees (5.3 C), close to my record of 39.9 degrees. It’s hard to take a shower that cold without writing about it.

I do it every fourth day because I like warm showers as much as anyone. When I take my warm showers, I can’t believe I take cold showers, feeling the water before it warms. I know that I do, but something inside me can’t believe anyone would do such a thing. It seems impossible.

Yet I do, and their value is in teaching me to do things I can’t believe possible, to develop skill in doing what I choose to, not just what I feel like. People talk about overcoming fears, then say they won’t take a cold shower, where the only thing to fear is discomfort. There’s no risk of injury. It takes no extra time. Rarely does the water get this cold.

Some people do their equivalent of a cold shower—some other sidcha. I respect that.

I can only conclude that most people think they’ll overcome their fears and anxieties later, always later, their whole lives, deciding to accept complacency. Only they aren’t deciding. More like sleepwalking or blowing in the breeze.

I have to be careful. I’m not trying to convince anyone to take cold showers. I’ve just found them to have the lowest hurdle of nearly anything you can challenge yourself with—no extra cost, time, risk of public embarrassment, risk of injury, scheduling conflict, membership, equipment, dependence on weather, etc. What else takes less? All there is to it is personal challenge with discomfort. Learn skills to overcome discomfort and you start to learn other things you can overcome.

What takes less material or outside effort than taking a cold shower yet still challenges you? Writing, exercising, cooking, sports, etc. All take more time or effort.

It’s weird to think of a cold shower—something so hard to do—as so incredibly easy from another perspective. All you have to do is not turn on the hot water. I wish I could describe the benefits, but they’re experiential. You only get them from doing it. How do you describe the benefits of enabling yourself to live the life you want more than just the one that’s easiest?

A reader takes on cold showers

[This post is part of a series on Cold Showers. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view that series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

I got this email from a reader this morning:

This caught my eye this morning. Watched the video. I’m accepting the 30 day challenge which will conveniently end the day before my 46th birthday.

responding to yesterday’s newsletter about yesterday’s post, “Close to cold shower record“. I presume she referred to the video in “An inspirational SIDCHA video“.

I first thought of how exciting it was for someone to take up the challenge. Then I thought about how February is probably the coldest water month. I did my thirty days with only cold water December into January and the water got colder over the month. In that month I took minimum five-minute showers and five minutes under water this cold starts to hurt.

Since then, for my ongoing every-fourth-day cold shower I haven’t required five minutes. I do my regular washing and then count slowly down from sixty, probably making a two-and-a-half to three-minute shower.

I wondered, “should I suggest relaxing the five-minute requirement since the water is so cold now?”

Then I realized thinking about talking about minimums and relaxing them would take too long and sounds like complaining. I should just take a five-minute cold shower.

So I did. A gratuitous February cold shower. It was just like old times. It reminded me of the feeling that inspiration gives, as I wrote in “How inspiration feels, in depth“, that inspired people look back fondly at the crazy amount of work they did after the project is done and inspired people value missing less rewarding activities, no matter how fun they would have been.

I set the timer to five minutes and ten seconds to give me time to get in. When I began to psych myself up to get in, I did what I used to do that worked better than psyching myself up. Without thinking about it, I pressed the start button. Acting works better than thinking! With ten seconds to jump in, I jumped in in less time than I would have taken to psych up.

The water was cold. There’s a temperature where if you keep your head under the water for long enough it hurts. Today was below that temperature, but I was surprised how well I handled it. After five minutes I measured the temperature. It was 46.5 degrees. While cold, that’s a solid five degrees warmer than yesterday.

You know the feeling when you realize something you used to consider hard doesn’t seem hard because you’ve done harder? I had that feeling, a mix of accomplishment, satisfaction, and surprise. I like that feeling.

So I congratulate the reader and thank her for inspiring me to take an extra cold shower that gave me that feeling. That feeling endures a long time. The discomfort of the cold stops the second I turn the water off.

Aren’t enduring inspiration, accomplishment, and satisfaction worth temporary discomfort?

Forty-eight point nine

[This post is part of a series on Cold Showers. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view that series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

I haven’t written about cold showers lately, probably because the water hasn’t gotten below fifty degrees since last winter, but this morning it did, so I am. The thermometer said the water was 48.9F (9.4C) this morning.

People ask me why I do it. Other people who do cold showers understand. Taking them develops skills and perspectives that apply elsewhere in life—actually, everywhere in life. I like hot showers, which account for three-quarters of the showers I take, but physical pleasure isn’t everything in life.

I can’t explain why I like exercise, healthy food, and physical fitness either. Maybe I can illustrate it with a story.

I stood outside a Cheesecake Factory the Monday, waiting for a train. The temperature was well below freezing and the winds gusty. Through the restaurant window I could see giant pieces of cheesecake slathered with chocolate, strawberry, and other sauces on display. I know if I went in that eating one would bring me physical pleasure. It’s not obvious to me what material benefit not eating them brings me. I mean, I’ll stay more fit and I’m more likely to live longer than if I make a habit of eating them, but if I value pleasure, eating more cheesecake might lead to a life of more pleasure.

But I don’t value physical pleasure over the emotional reward that comes from physical fitness. I once did. Physical pleasure is fleeting, but even a lifetime of cheesecakes and other pleasures don’t measure up to the long-term, rich and complex emotional reward of something I work for, like muscle definition on my abs, or being able to swim across the Hudson River on a whim, or to come in second in a footrace for the fun of it.

People associate not eating desserts with willpower and avoidance and fitness with deprivation. I didn’t find those cheesecakes appetizing in the least. I think cold showers has something to do with that. The cheesecakes looked gluttonous, gross, sugary, and fatty. What does that say about the people eating them, or the society that leads to the restaurant chain’s national success? Do they not seem gluttonous, gross, sugary, and fatty too?

Meanwhile, I’m cooking with more vegetables picked from local farms than ever and I don’t remember loving what I eat more. I’ve found more in life to enjoy from fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, and legumes.

The train I was waiting for was to meet a friend at a gym. He’s a personal trainer and showed me some new exercises I plan to start making a habit of. I’m still sore from that workout.

I can’t explain why I choose to go out in the cold to work at something with no material benefit and will make me physically sore two days later while I’ve lost interest in cheesecakes, but it’s the same reason as the cold showers. Each builds on the other. To me they create an integrated life.

I think people who have experienced it get it and don’t need explanation. Until I experienced it I didn’t get it either.

EDIT: four days later, the water temperature in my shower was 46.7 F (8 C), with February still to come.

EDIT: January 28: 46.4 F. Still a ways from my record: 39.9 F

EDIT: February 12: 45.9 F (7.7 C)