January 31, 2020

Forward Momentum Sometimes Builds Behind Our Backs

By Vega Subramaniam

Lately, I keep running into a particular situation. It has to do with this moment when something we’ve been wanting for a long time suddenly occurs almost without us noticing.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

Situation 1

I was at a board meeting recently when our board chair, Hilary, noted how remarkable it was that, after years of talking about but not actually recruiting new board members, that very month two new people joined the board. As if by magic. And Hilary said, “It goes to show, you can’t mess with the timeline…But you can’t give up, either.” The process takes as long as it takes, even when we become discouraged or despairing, and there’s not a whole lot we can do about it—and yet, the process continues, even when we’re not noticing.

Situation 2

I’ve wanted for years now to reestablish my decades-long habit of daily journaling. I missed it sorely, I felt better when I was in the practice, and it was a way for me to tap into my creativity that was unmatched by any other practice.

I tried a hundred thousand tricks and experimented and tested and made efforts and proceeded in fits and starts. And I let time go by and didn’t do things and gnashed my teeth in frustration at not doing things and tried writing groups with this set of people and that set of people and set writing dates and missed writing dates and resolved on daily writing times and failed to write during those daily writing times, and more or less just could not figure out how to crack that nut.

I’d tried so many, many things, and while sometimes I’d write regularly for a few days or weeks, it never stopped being a slog.

And very occasionally, by which I mean over and over again many many times, my entry was some version of, “Dear Diary: I’m wiped but I’m writing today just so I can check it off my list. Good night, Dear Diary. See you tomorrow. Maybe. I mean, I’m not promising or anything, except of course I am, so…yeah, be ready for another entry just like this one. Kthxbye.”

And now, suddenly, as if by magic, I’ve been journaling regularly again for months. So much so that I don’t feel any concern that I’ll drop off; dropping off feels unthinkable.

Situation 3

A few of us were meeting up recently for our personal intentional life planning process. It’s a thing we do every year about this time. We start with a review of the previous year: what were our goals, and which did we achieve? What did we prioritize or neglect? What still matters and what’s no longer relevant? It’s rejuvenating and clarifying and inspiring, every time.

During this process, my friend Anjan noticed a goal they’d set last year that they’d completely forgotten having written. And yet, they’d actually accomplished it over the course of the year. That led them to remark that, “sometimes you just have to put your intention into the universe—and then it ends up happening!” As if by magic.

We all laughed and laughed and laughed, ha ha, wouldn’t it be nice if it were that easy…and then we paused, and thought about it, and agreed that actually, yes, sometimes it is “that easy.”

When you say a goal or an intention out loud, into the universe if you will, then it’s already achieved Step One. It’s already…not birthed, maybe, but conceived.

And once it’s conceived–then what happens?

There are (many, but here are) three ways an intention can be successfully brought to fruition. I’ve had a ritual for the vast majority of my life that I’ve been wanting desperately to reestablish; namely, reading in bed before falling asleep. Let’s use this as a purely hypothetical case study to show three ways for how you (er, I) could make that happen.

One possibility is that it becomes an intentional, deliberate, very active part of how we spend every day. This is the most obvious possibility, the one we’re used to defaulting to, the one we imagine is the only way works. This is the one we assume will lead to the change. 

Intentional & Deliberate

In this scenario, I intentionally create a plan and structures to read in bed at night.

Perhaps I add a reminder to my calendar, and a notification on my phone, for 11:00 p.m. every night to remind me to put away all the devices and head to bed. I leave my book on my pillow every morning to make it easier for me to grab and open it up when I head to bed later. I tell a friend to text me at 10:45 every night as my 15-minute reminder. I put a wall calendar up next to my bed where I cross a big red X out every day I read before sleeping. Basically, I create structural changes in my environment that make it so that I have to work harder to not do the thing I want to do than to do the thing I want to do.

And of course we know that making small changes to our daily behaviors is exactly what leads to larger habit transformations.

And I will never not recommend this as the most effective habit-change path forward.

Another possibility is that it’s less about creating a detailed, granular work plan, and more about nurturing a goal or intention more subtly. Not necessarily in an explicit, discernible way, but rather as and when it appears, in leaping on those occasional opportune moments that pop up.

Subtle Nurturing

Going back to my desire to read in bed every night: say it’s 11:00 p.m. and I’m wondering what to do next, and my brain remembers right then that I wanted to reestablish my reading-in-bed ritual.

At that moment, I perk up and think, “yes. Yes, that is what I will do. I will close my computer, leave my phone in the living room, and climb into bed and read my book. Yes.”

And slowly but inexorably, I’m “suddenly” reading in bed again every night.

A last possibility is that once the intention is named, it doesn’t need to be thought of again. It takes on a life of its own in our subconscious, and our subconscious unconsciously guides our behavior toward turning it into a reality. Just stating the intention, even if you don’t look back, is perhaps one of the most powerful things you can do.

Just Say It

So, I say my intention of reading at night out loud, into the universe, and I find myself, almost without noticing, heading to bed earlier than I’m prone to. And I keep a book on the nightstand. And as often as not, I open it and read a bit before falling asleep.

And a year later, boom, I’m doing it every night, and it’s become an unbreakable habit.

So what’s the lesson? There is power in simply beginning something:

What you can do, or dream you can, begin it,
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it,
Only engage, and then the mind grows heated—
Begin it, and the work will be completed!

My invitation to you is: the thing that you want so much to do, that freaks you out to say out loud: say it out loud. It’s the beginning. It is something. Maybe it is everything.


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