I once practiced qigong for 4000 days in a row. That’s 11 years without missing a single day.
You’re probably imagining me as someone with tons of willpower and lots of healthy habits.
And you’d be right — if you were imagining me in my present form.
Today, I have boundless willpower, I eat my vegetables, I exercise regularly, and I even floss.
But back then — back before I did my 4000 days in a row — I was a different person.
This person, this former me, was just coming out of a severe episode of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD).
He had recently, and seriously, thought about committing suicide.
He smoked a pack of cigarettes daily, drank a 6-pack of beer every night, and ate vegetables only when they appeared on pizza, and even then reluctantly so.
He, this former me, was a hot mess.
So how did he change?
How did he transform from someone with minimal willpower and a basket of bad habits into the type of person who practices qigong 4000 days in a row and eats 6 servings of vegetables every day?
To help you transform your own life, I’ve distilled my success into 8 simple secrets:
Secret #1 – I Started Small
First, let’s back up. When I said that I practiced qigong for 4000 days in a row, were you imagining me doing hours of qigong every day?
Or perhaps a half hour?
At least 15 minutes, right?!? I mean, come on now!
No, no, and no.
The first secret to my 4000-day streak was that I did just 2 minutes on many of those days.
Sure, I did 15 minutes or even 2 hours on some days. And as I built momentum, those days happened more and more often.
But I didn’t start there. I started with just 2 minutes.
I now know that this is called a “tiny habit” and that there’s research to back up what I discovered on my own.
But I didn’t know that back then. At the time, I had never heard of tiny habits, and I had never read a book or article on willpower or habit making.
So how did I do it?
Well, I had one big thing going for me: A long list of failures (see secret #6).
I had already failed to quit smoking, to practice qigong daily, to change my diet, to get a meaningful job…
All of those failures, combined with my growing depression, led me to a dark, dark place.
So when I set out to change my life, I didn’t bother with the usual optimism and say, “I’m going to practice qigong for an hour a day for 4000 days!!!”
No. I knew I was a failure (see secret #6), and that I need a goal suitable for people like me.
(As an aside, I later learned that this phenomenon is called “depressive realism”. Apparently, we depressives are MORE realistic than non-depressives. Who knew?)
With only the tiniest dose of optimism, I said the following to myself:
“I’m going to practice qigong for a least 2 minutes a day for 30 days.”
Secret #2 – I Spent My Willpower Wisely
Are you imagining that I’m somehow different than you, that I was born with more willpower?
If I’m different than you, then I changed AFTER the 4000 days, not before.
Back then, I had almost no willpower. Everything I touched seemed to turn to failure.
But here’s what I discovered.
All humans have A LITTLE willpower, no matter how bad things are.
The trick is to be stingy with that willpower and spend ALL of it on one habit.
(And make sure it’s a tiny habit – see secret #1.)
Again, I think I got lucky.
I was so beat up from my past failures that I didn’t try ANYTHING else for those first 30 days.
I quit quitting smoking. (Click here to read my article on why you shouldn’t quit smoking.)
I stopped worrying about my diet.
I made peace with my crappy job.
In other words, I used ALL of my available willpower (which was minimal) to do my 2 minutes of qigong.
All of it. Every last drop.
And you know what? I STILL struggled.
One night, I was in bed when I suddenly realized that I had forgotten to do my 2 minutes.
I won’t lie. It was an epic act of will to get my ass out of bed and do 2 minutes of qigong.
“But you said that you didn’t use willpower!!!”
Hold your horses.
I said that I didn’t need any willpower for 4000 days, and that’s true.
But I DID need a teensy amount of willpower for the first 30 days or so.
This is the big secret that I didn’t know at the time, and that you probably still don’t know, which is the next secret…
Secret #3 – I Focused On Habit Building
If it still requires willpower, then it’s not a habit (yet!).
Real habits don’t require willpower.
Do you need willpower to brush your teeth? No, because it’s a habit. There’s no decision to be made, no hemming and hawing, no guilt. You just brush your teeth and get on with your day.
That’s a real habit. It’s on autopilot, and it happens effortlessly.
That’s what I did with my 2-minute qigong habit.
I spent all of my limited willpower (secret #2) on practicing qigong for 2 minutes a day (secret #1) until it became a real habit (secret #3).
The first 30 days consisted of 2 minutes of the worst qigong you’ve ever seen.
I mean, it was awful stuff. Even if you know nothing about qigong you would know that it was awful.
It was a struggle, but after about 30 days, something magical happened.
You know how you wake up some mornings and, before you know it, before you’re really awake, you’ve already brushed your teeth?
Well that happened with qigong.
I was still groggy. I was getting ready for work. And then it hit me.
I had done 2 minutes of qigong without even trying! It had just happened!
That was a huge win for me.
Another win was that I had done 30 days in a row, something that had seemed impossible 30 days earlier.
I had a streak going. Every day, I put a check box on my calendar. I liked seeing all those check boxes.
(I now know that this is called The Seinfeld Method, named after the comedian’s method for writing every day. I didn’t know this at the time, but maybe all those years of watching Seinfeld paid off somehow?)
With 30 check boxes in a row, it was an easy decision to shoot for another 30.
And then another.
And before I knew it, I had 4000 in a row.
Secret #4 – I Took Stress Seriously
We all know we’re stressed out, but not many of us take it seriously.
We only take stress seriously AFTER something breaks, AFTER our health suffers.
But for some reason, I took stress seriously, even in my 20s.
Maybe it’s because my grandfather, who I never met, died of a heart attack in his early 50s.
Or maybe it’s because I was already broken, because I knew that something was terribly wrong with me, and I knew that it was connected to stress. (It wasn’t until later that I was officially diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder.)
Whatever the reason, I was serious about de-stressing, and I knew that it was up to me to do.
I don’t remember where I heard this, but I do remember hearing a saying that went something like this:
Showering doesn’t last, and neither does stress relief — which is why both must be done daily.
I was only doing 2 minutes a day, but I was doing SOMETHING, and that alone helped me to feel good about myself, which in turn relieved some of my stress.
And of course, the more qigong that I did, the more stress I relieved, and the better I felt, creating positive feedback loop.
Secret #5 – I Added Before Subtracting
I desperately wanted to quit smoking. Every day, 20 times a day, I felt like a complete asshole when I lit up.
But I had tried to quit, and failed. Over and over.
So I decided to quit quitting. The idea was to get some healthy habits going first.
And you know what? It worked like a charm.
Years later, I quit smoking for good. I haven’t had a puff since then, and I never will.
But before doing getting to that point, I had already added several healthy habits to my life.
I started with 2 minutes of qigong. Then, quite naturally, I started to eat better and exercise more. And so on.
In other words, I added the good before subtracting the bad.
Secret #6 – I Failed
Sometimes students look at me as if I’m perfect.
The look on their faces say, “How would YOU know what I feel like?”
I always want to punch that look right in the kisser!
I know failure, dammit!
Years ago, the title “master” made me uncomfortable. I winced whenever people used it on me.
Two quotes changed my mind:
‘The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.” – Stephen McCranie
“An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field.” – Niels Bohr
I’ve failed more at qigong than the beginner has even tried. I’ve made all the mistakes which can be made in the field of qigong.
I’m a master.
I know failure. The key is that I learned to embrace it as part of my journey.
Secret #7 – I Embraced Mindfulness
Speaking of embraces, I also embraced mindfulness.
This was the late 1990s. Mindfulness wasn’t in vogue yet.
But somehow, I knew it was the big secret. I knew that I desperately needed it in my life.
I had tried Japanese style sitting meditation (zazen), and failed miserably (see secret #6).
I had also tried yoga. Another failure.
I tried karate, and although I succeeded with the fighting aspects of the art, there wasn’t much mindfulness in there. I might as well have been practicing soccer.
But I didn’t let the failures stop me, and I kept looking.
I knew, on an intuitive level, that I had lost control of my life and my habits, and that mindfulness was the only way I was going to get it back.
The latest research proves that I was right. Here’s a quote from an article from PsychCentral:
“Mindfulness helps people feel less defensive when exposed to important health messages — such as “stop smoking so you can live longer” — and more likely to be motivated to make changes”
Secret #8 – I Found the Right Art
“I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life to learn qigong!”
I hear this from a lot of students, regardless of their age.
I felt the same way. It just clicked for me. I knew I was home.
I’m not saying that qigong is for everyone. It’s not. I don’t think the cosmos works like that.
Qigong is not for everyone, but mindfulness absolutely is.
Don’t give up on mindfulness, even if you’ve failed with other arts in the past.
If you haven’t tried qigong, then please do so. Maybe it will feel like coming home.
How to Create Habits That Stick
I’m so passionate about this subject that I poured my knowledge, my experience, and my heart into an online course called:
This online course is all about using a 2-minute daily qigong practice as a gateway to other healthy habits.
Sound familiar? It should because it will show you all of the secrets mentioned in this article.
May this course help you to transform your life for the better, starting with just 2 minutes a day! From the heart, Sifu Anthony