How do you make it through a really long run on the treadmill? Here’s a hint: Do NOT watch the clock. Aside from watching the seconds count down on my microwave as it reheats some Chinese food, glaring at the treadmill meter while running is the slowest and most agonizing way to pass the time. After having experimented with a variety of different mental tricks and mindsets, the best strategy I came up with was a simple one: turn up a playlist of my favorite music tracks and allow my mind to just get lost in it as I run.
Whenever I manage to do this, I find myself leaping over long distances every time I glance down at the tracker. I feel less demoralized, and I occasionally surprise myself by running farther than I thought I was capable because I’d have briefly freed myself from the harassment of the “Am I there yet?” mental loop.
It didn’t occur to me that the lessons I learned from my cardio workouts at the gym could teach me things about how I ought to be approaching the other parts of my life.
I’m lucky to still be a college student, where most of my practical needs are taken care of, so that I have the freedom to ponder about bigger and more abstract things, like what noble causes I’d like to ally myself with or what it means to make a living by studying “human behavior.” Essentially, my parents paid a shit ton of money so that I could have a private sit-down dinner date with my existential problems. In many ways, this is great! I love cranking my intellectual gears and I’ve become really well practiced at self-analysis. I’d also lived with a roommate where, between us, we’d casually recount the details of our days and have the chat unwittingly (but predictably) morph into a seminar about how some ambiguous social encounter reveals something deep and complicated about our personalities.
Needless to say, introspection is a practice I’ve never skimped on doing. Constantly checking in on myself about whether I am happy and cracking at the question of whether I am doing all the right things to be happy and successful in the future has become my go-to escape valve. I’ve been staring at the treadmill meter. To nobody’s surprise, overdoing it has been making me pretty unhappy and anxious.
The burden of overthinking has fallen more heavily on my shoulders lately because I had a lot more free time to myself last semester, and now I’m currently enjoying an abnormally long winter break. Throughout this, the hyper-awareness that my months left of college are numbered and the hyper-awareness of how little still I have my life figured out are perfect catalysts for the bad kind of overthinking. It’s been both exhausting and counterproductive because my brain was running laps around the block while I was still sitting in my armchair getting nowhere.
Finally, I called myself out on this behavior. It’s also when I realized how the treadmill running analogy makes a lot of sense outside the gym too. My strategy to sweating and toiling effectively while running is to immerse myself in music that motivates me instead of fixating on the progress bar. It’s not really about thinking less, but rather thinking more about the things that can take you for a ride and actually get you to places. The less frequently I give in to peeking at the meter, the more likely I’d be able to surprise myself by how far I’ve come.
To me, “immersing myself in music” means becoming proactive about the things I care about. It means taking the initiative in meeting new people, reconnecting with the old, and being more open-hearted. It means tugging on a few tantalizing threads of intellectual yarn to see if it’d unravel into something way cooler than I expected. It means writing to all my role models out there and being painstakingly vocal about my admiration and gratitude. Instead of plotting how I ought to be successful and following the steps of how to get there while constantly sizing myself up against a ruler to see if I was doing it right, maybe I’ll be able to get there more easily by putting on some good music and just running with it.
There is only so much I can accomplish from the cushiony safety of my armchair. Introspection is something I’ll still do regularly because, like any good thing in moderation, it’s healthy. But I’m hoping that challenging myself in this new year to be a braver, more generous, and more curious person on top of this will help me to ask myself less: “Am I there yet?”