Habits and Riding Horses

One of my earliest blog posts is called What’s Your Motivation. It explores how to overcome inertia and get to the gym. One of the things I touched on was making a habit out of going to the gym. But how do you make a habit?

workout buddy
Photo credit: complex.com

As it turns out, there’s plenty of advice on the Internet including 5 Scientific Ways to Build Habits That Stick and 18 Tricks to Make New Habits Stick.

Face it. As much as any of us can start out with good intentions, make life changes, and make those changes endure over time, the hardest part is getting started. The next hardest part is integrating that change into your everyday life.

One of the main ways I was able to make going to the gym a habit is listed at Lifehack.org:

Get a Buddy – Find someone who will go along with you and keep you motivated if you feel like quitting.

If it were up to me, I probably wouldn’t have committed to getting up every weekday morning at four o’clock and hauling my buns to the gym by five. But knowing that someone else was counting on me made a difference, especially, in my case, when it’s my son.

You probably don’t want to read a list of 18 things, so let’s start with 5 ways to make lasting habits as chronicled at 99U.com:

  1. Make “micro quotas” and “macro goals”
  2. Create behavior chains
  3. Eliminate excessive options
  4. Process plan (but don’t fantasize)
  5. Eliminate “ah-screw-its”

Let’s see how those apply to making and sticking with the habit of going to the gym (or regularly participating in any exercise program).

Eliminate “ah-screw-its”

Aw screw itBoth 99U.com and the Sparringmind.com website mention eliminating “ah-screw-its”. You know what they are. It’s those moments when you are on the threshold of performing the action you want to make a habit, encounter frustration or something like it, throw up your arms and say, “Ah, screw it! It’s not worth it.”

Maybe you think that extra hour of sleep is worth more than that hour of exercise. I suppose it all comes down to what you value the most. If your continued or improved health is valuable to you, then you have a decision to make.

Nothing sabotages a brand new habit like screwing it up for a day or two. Imagine you’ve been going to the gym for several days and then one morning, you say, “to heck with it”. Maybe you stayed up late the night before and you’re extra tired the next morning. You decide it’s worth more to you to skip the gym and get a little more rest. Later, realizing you really should have gone to the gym, you are more likely to say “to heck with it” about how much and what you eat, and having blown going to the gym and your diet, you become more likely to skip the gym the next day. Domino effect.

But as I said yesterday, when you fall off the horse, you need to get back on as soon as possible. If you don’t, you may never “ride” again.

Just tell yourself, “Okay, I screwed up one day. It’s not the end of the world. I’ll do better tomorrow.” If you tell yourself that and believe it, chances are it’s work out that way.

Make “micro quotas” and “macro goals”

baby steps
Photo credit: Babystepsandtears.com

Picturing your goal should be pretty easy. It’s probably something like, “I want to lose 20 pounds” or “I want to gain lean muscle mass” or something like that. You may have a picture of your end goal but aren’t sure how to get there.

The answer is by taking small steps in the direction of your goal. The tough part is the minimum step you have to take is to get to the gym the first time. After you get there, you can set whatever small group of micro steps you want as far as a workout program for each day. But there’s no substitute for actually doing whatever it takes to show up at the gym. Once you’re there, you have control of what you do, but you have to get there first.

Once you’ve accomplished your first set of micro quotas, then you can build on them, either by increasing weights, increasing reps, increasing sets, or some combination if we’re talking about weight training. The same with cardio. Assuming you’re using a cardio machine of some sort, once you achieve your minimum, let’s say 20 minutes at the lowest possible resistance and you find it’s not really challenging you anymore, then you can increase time, increase resistance, or both.

The caveat for cardio is never to increase the time more than about 35 to 40 minutes max and not to increase resistance so you exceed your target heart rate of somewhere between 60% to 80% of maximum. You can find out more about this by reading my cardio blog post.

The same should be said for weight training although the limits are not necessarily as restrictive. Over time, you may find you can lift loads you never imagined were possible, especially at a higher number of reps/sets. However, keeping the “micro” in “micro quotas” in mind, start small and work your way up gradually.

One really practical example of a micro quota is “just one more rep.” When I’m lifting and feeling myself getting more tired with each rep, I imagine the maximum reps I’ll probably be able to do for that set and tell myself, “just one more.” Most of the time, I can push through for the “extra” rep, though occasionally I can’t. It’s just one small way to do better at that exercise than you did the time before.

Create behavior chains

Photo credit: Attachedtoparenting.com

There’s actually a lot that goes into this, so please click the links for 99U.com and Sparringmind.com for all the details. However, creating behavior chains is really the heart of manufacturing a routine.

In my case, the chain for going to the gym is getting up no later than four and having a cup of coffee and a glass of water while reading online comic strips, just to get my brain going. Then I put on my gym clothes, go over Facebook, read my emails, and such (it takes me a while to wake up in the morning), get my gym journal organized for that day’s workout, grab my keys, phone, wallet, water bottle, and towel, then go out the door and drive to the gym.

Here’s another example. When I get home from work, I usually want to eat right away, but I make it a point of doing whatever dirty dishes are around first, then setting up the coffee machine for the next morning. The coffee machine is the last kitchen task I schedule for myself prior to eating dinner.

Think of it as If I do the dishes and make the coffee, Then it’s time to eat dinner. Or, If it’s 4:50 a.m. and I’m in my gym clothes, Then I get in my car and drive to the gym.

Just string a set of regularly performed behaviors together with the last behavior on the list being driving to the gym to workout.

Eliminate excessive options

Photo credit: Slideshare.net

This basically means reducing the number of decisions you have to make to a bare minimum.

I like routine. Actually, I kind of thrive on it. I hate the unexpected or anything that throws my day off. Sure, I have to make exceptions because life is like that, but I’m the most happy when everything goes as planned.

I wake up, drink coffee, read the funnies, go to the gym, go home, get breakfast, take a shower, get dressed, and go to work. Same thing every day.

I actually put my wallet, keys, and phone in the same place every evening when I get home from work. They never get lost.

This really works well with diet. Trying to quit junk food? Don’t buy any when you go shopping. Only buy what you intend to eat on a healthy diet. Track what you eat everyday using an app such as MyFitnessPal. Exactly what I eat for lunch during weekdays varies a bit, but I always take specific fruits and vegetables with me such as apples, oranges, carrots, and celery. I always take two scoops of protein powder with me, one for mid-morning and the other for mid-afternoon.

Yeah, it sounds boring, but in this case, boring is good. But don’t become a robot. If you program too much sameness into your routine, you won’t make any necessary adjustments.

I have a fairly regular weight training routine (Monday is Chest Day, Tuesday is Back Day, etc…) but I’m always tinkering with it here and there, just to throw in some variety and keep things interesting. It’s also a great way to see which exercises work better for what. You can do that with diet, too. Let’s say you want to eat a certain number of grams of protein every day. Stick to the same number of grams but change your protein sources for variety.

Process plan (but don’t fantasize)

Photo credit: thoughtleadershiplab.com

So you’ve pictured your end goal in mind and you have a set of micro steps in place but have you considered why you want this goal? I’ll put it loosely. You want to have an awesome (or just “better”) body and you’ve pictured yourself doing the specific exercises that should get you to your goal, and the reason you want to do all this is to have more strength and endurance when you’re playing outside with your grandchildren this summer.

Of course, you could just be daydreaming, which is why it says above “but don’t fantasize.” Have a purpose for everything you’re doing and set realistic goals and reasons for the goals. 99U.com has a good example of how this works:

According to this study from UCLA, the mistake is in what we visualize. Researchers found that those participants who engaged in visualizations that included the process of what needed to be done to achieve the goal (ex: fantasizing about learning another language, by visualizing themselves practicing every day after work) were more likely to stay consistent than their peers (that visualized themselves speaking French on a trip to Paris). The visualization process worked for two reasons:

  • Planning: visualizing the process helped focus attention on the steps needed to reach the goal.
  • Emotion: visualization of individual steps led to reduced anxiety.

Of course, there’s more than one way (or five ways) to develop enduring habits. As I mentioned above, Lifehack.org has 18 of them, some which overlap what I’ve discussed here and some that you can add on to what I’ve already mentioned.

The Result

This morning (I’m writing this on Monday), I woke up 10 minutes before my alarm was set to go off. I didn’t feel sleepy at bedtime the night before and stayed up an extra hour. So I woke up with a headache and feeling kind of out-of-it. I poured a cup of coffee and wondered if it was going to be enough to get me to the gym in less than an hour and enable me to get a good or even tolerable weight training session in.

horseback riding
Photo credit: Cometohavasu.com

The thought of not going to the gym lasted about a second, but then if I bailed this morning, it would mean making up the lost Chest Day somewhere later in the week. I didn’t want to deal with the extra hassle and disruption of my routine, so it was better just to bulldoze through and get to the gym.

Once I was there and facing a pair of 35 pound dumbbells for my first exercise, I had a moment of doubt, since I was still feeling a little loggy. But then I picked them up, leaned back onto the bench, and got to work. It all snapped into place after the first rep. I left the gym after my workout with a sense of accomplishment and the realization that I’d actually exceeded some of my goals for that particular Chest Day.

Once exercise and managing diet become habits, then it all just becomes part of living.

Remember, you’ll never be perfect, but for every time you fall off the horse, get right back on and ride.

Your past was never a mistake if you learned from it.

Arnold Schwarzenegger


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