By Amanda L. Dale
Why what you do often is more important than what you do well...
Imagine the scenario: at the beginning of 2019, the ‘new-year’s-resolution’ bug hits and you decide that this is your year – this is the year you’re going to finally become a runner. You go online and sign up for a local 10K, find yourself a manageable online training plan, head to the store for a brand new pair of sneakers and boom, you’re off.
The first week of January goes great. You’re running four times a week as the training plan recommends, you’re breaking in those new shoes like a champ and you’re on track to finish your 10K race with your fastest time ever.
The problem is, the weeks roll on and, try as you might, come February those running shoes get less and less wear. Your four times-per-week program dwindles to two, at best. In fact, your shoes sit next to the front door more than they get onto your feet. Even worse, your daily run seems to fall further and further down the to-do list and with each busy day comes a new excuse to drop running out of sight and out of mind. The race is suddenly just weeks away and you realize: you haven’t yet become a runner and, to make matters worse, now you feel like a failure for having even started in the first place, only to crash and burn.
The truth is this: setting fitness and health goals is easy, but reaching those goals is hard. And the most challenging thing of them all is to keep reaching the same goal day in and day out – in other words, forming a healthy habit. Yet this is the skill that lifelong healthy people have mastered, often unknowingly; the ability to keep performing the same healthy tasks, no matter the mundanity, each and every day.
More often than not, the best intentions get buried beneath the demands of day-to-day life, the ebb and flow in that myth we call ‘motivation’ (more on that later) and the cold hard fact that making meaningful change is a lot harder than we predict it to be when we are just starting off on a new goal.
That’s exactly why James Clear, author of New York Times bestseller Atomic Habits, suggests that we drop the idea of goals in favor of habits; concrete, measurable, bite-size, repeatable actions that chip away to become greater shifts in our identities.
Changing an identity, Clear argues, is more important than just reaching a goal. Given the example above, instead of wanting to “become a runner,” one should aim to become “the type of person who never misses a run.” The process and habit of running four times per week, rather than just completing the 10K itself becomes the indicator of success – and lasts far beyond race day.
A recent article from the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity suggests that voluntary exercise behavior – you know, that nebulous force inside of you that forces you to lace up your running shoes and get out the door – is actually quite stable across the lifespan and it tends to follow the same pattern throughout adulthood.
What this means is that whether you are one of those people who is motivated to work out on your own – or, unfortunately, you’re not – you’ll probably stay that way in the long run.
This is why the myth of motivation exists – we want to believe that there will, at some point in our lives, be some kind of awakening, a sort of magic bestowed upon us that will suddenly remove all barriers and make us “motivated” toward whatever our goal may be – eating healthier, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, or losing weight.
The reality, however, is that we all have equal ability, motivated or not, to create a healthier lifestyle. The key is to identify, form and practice habits; actions that are repeated over and over on a daily basis until they become automatic. Clear says that the question to ask when it comes to habit is not how long will it take to get there, but how many? Habits are a game of frequency and repetition.
Linking a new, healthy habit to an existing, easy one – for example, taking a 30-minute walk each morning after you drop the kids at school, or making a healthy salad for lunch as you drink your usual morning coffee – makes you more likely to stick with the task. If you want to take it up a notch, consider joining a group where the habit you want is the one they’ve already mastered; for example, a running club. Habits tend to stick in environments where they are valued and practiced frequently.
Clear also notes that in order for a good habit to stick, it must be obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying, which means that to break a bad habit the contrary is true: it must be invisible, unattractive, difficult and unsatisfying.
To give this a nutrition example, if you’re trying to clean up your diet, keep tempting, hyperpalatable foods out of your house. Don’t buy them and don’t allow anyone else to bring them home. Stock your refrigerator with colorful, pre-cut fruit and veggies and keep them at eye level when you open the door. Make the healthy choices the easiest ones and the unhealthy choices the hardest ones. It works.
There is no magic in creating a habit – if you do something often enough, it sticks, for better and for worse. Habits are the automated solutions to recurrent problems in our lives. The struggle is that maintaining healthy habits can be boring – how many times have I had a client ask, “how long do I have to eat/work out like this?” And when my answer is, “for the rest of your life, if you want to stay healthy,” the shock on their faces is real.
But therein lies the rub: the only way to make sustainable change in your life is with years of consistency, not ‘30 day challenges’ or grand gestures that fizzle out after a few weeks. Even the smallest healthy habit can be meaningful if you stick with it long enough; drinking just one extra glass of water per day adds up to over 91,000 extra milliliters per year! These seemingly small actions can compound into big results – just remember to take them one habit at a time.