Stretching and Habits

February 4, 2021


First, a quick health report: my left shoulder is in bad shape again. I wrote about this injury previously, but I didn't mention how bad it had got. I had to pull out of the 2020 Timmins Invitational after 7 games into my first shift to rest for the second shift of the day. I bowled the entire night shift, but through pain almost the whole time, and I genuinely don't remember if I even made it to 1600 for the 8 games. I had traveled all that way to play in the tournament, and you'd better believe I was going to play whether I finished last or second-last.

I'm so glad that I played through the pain. I used it as mental toughness practice. And then it seems that I'd forgot what I'd learned.

The day we returned from Timmins, I saw a doctor who referred me to a physiotherapist. They prescribed a stretching regimen to help me loosen up the muscles in the area, after which we would go further. Then the shit hit the fan and, long story short, I haven't been back there yet. In spite of this, I followed the stretching regimen quite faithfully over the intervening months and felt quite a bit better.

I even tried participating in the 25 Push-Up Challenge, but I have relatively little upper body strength and a bunch of people blasted me for not doing them correctly. (On my knees and hands too far apart.) At first, I reacted with significant anger—I mean really—but after a few days I realized that although they were assholes, they weren't wrong. I started trying to do "real" push-ups and worked my way up to about 30 per day. Combining that with the stretching rather seemed to be helping.

And then I did something monumentally stupid: I stopped some time in early December. I don't know why. I just stopped. Fast forward to this past week and the pain returned. This past Wednesday, I was bowling through pain that was about half as intense as the pain I'd experienced back in Timmins.


I read James Clear's Atomic Habits (well, I listened to it) in summer 2020. I had heard a lot of the concepts before, but the book found me at a time when I felt better able to listen to more of its message. I had long trusted the power of building systems to make things autonomic, based on the idea of making things feel easier to do, so that I'd do them more often and better. (I use this concept a lot in my software consulting practice.) Clear's work did lay bare to me one new thing that I found very useful: habit stacking.

Once you establish one habit, you can "stack" a second habit on top of it. I already have the enjoyable habit of making espresso every morning, so if I start unloading the dishwasher (which I enjoy less) just before I make espresso, then wanting to making espresso becomes the reminder to unload the dishwasher, which makes me more likely to do it. You can stack habits this way pretty much indefinitely. Nice!

I had established a habit of meditating, which I'd enjoyed, so I chose to stack the stretching program on top of meditating. Each day, when I thought "it's time to meditate", I'd stretch first. I'd do the stretching program that my physiotherapist had recommended, adding the push ups, then meditate. Yes, the whole thing took 1-2 hours, but after a few weeks, it had become autonomic: I no longer had to think at all about stretching before meditating. It just became a thing I did.

Habit stacking. Recommended.

One interesting side-effect of habit stacking: when I stopped stretching, I also stopped meditating. Then it became a race to see which habit I'd miss first. I noticed the physical pain in my shoulder before I felt the urge to get back to meditating, so at first I resolved to resume stretching. After stretching, I suddenly had the urge to meditate, because those are things I do together! Excellent.

Even so, just to be sure, I added another trick: a little tough love.

I decided to track when I actually stretch, so that if I forgot to do it for a few days, then something would remind me. I probably won't need this, but it took 15 seconds to add a safety net, so why wouldn't I?

I started with 10 push ups today. I'll do 12 tomorrow.



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