“I’m out of shape. And I want to do something about it.”
That’s the thought that went through my head about 3 years ago. And it wasn’t the first time I’d thought that thought (and it wasn’t the last). But it was the last time it occurred with that special, awful familiarity one feels when confronted with something that you’ve failed to accomplish over and over again. It was the last time because I finally figured out what it took to make that goal a reality. I needed to make exercise a habit.
And it’s not like I hadn’t done the simple arithmetic before. If someone exercises regularly, they’ll get fit. That part’s not hard to figure out. The real difficulty is finding a way to replace the variable “someone” with the constant “I” and then work through the equation to the final solution. Which is me actually getting off my butt and exercising for more than just a day, or a couple of days, or a week…and then reverting back to previous behavior. What I needed to do was make exercise a habit.
As I’ve written previously, the best way to start a new habit is to do it for 30 days. And that’s a tried and true way to do it. I’ll testify to that. At this point, I had successfully broken my habit of eating potato chips and started a new one of eating a fruit or vegetable with every meal. But just how many things in our lives need to be done each and every day? Not many, turns out.
And when it comes to exercise, every day isn’t the best idea. Especially when first starting out. The body needs recovery time, and it’s been shown to actually be beneficial to take a day off from an exercise routine. And my body definitely lets me know (through elected representative, Right Knee) when a day off is needed.
What’s more, my weekends are usually unusual. Whether it’s traveling, having guests, sleeping in, or any number of things. I simply could not count on Saturday or Sunday as regular exercise days. So, taking these factors into account, how would I make exercise a habit if I couldn’t do it every day? The solution turned out to be the clock.
Building the irregular habit
The first thing I did was decide to base this new habit around a time of day, 10am. I did this for 2 reasons:
I needed to remove the decision making process from the equation. I didn’t want to have to decide to exercise. I wanted to have an external indicator that it was now time to exercise. I’ve already written about the great power that comes with divorcing deciding and doing here.
I needed to establish a pattern and a rhythm. Since there’s always going to be a 10am, there’s always going to be an indicator that it’s time to exercise, whether I was going to actually exercise or not. Even if it was 10am on a Saturday, I wanted to be reminded that this was normally the time that I would be changing into workout clothes.
Next, I took a few weeks to prepare myself mentally for this challenge by starting to program myself to become aware of 10am and what it was soon going to mean. I started to practice tying off current projects and activities when 10am approached and taking a break at that point, all the while telling myself that this was soon going to be workout time.
And finally on the 1st of the month, I started working out at 10am. I started 3 days a week: MWF. Just to give my muscles enough rest in between. Turned out, I needed a little more time that first week. So I did MThF. But the next week I was MWF all the way. Soon I worked up to MTThF, and for a while, I was able to go all 5 business days. But then Representative Right Knee spoke up and we worked out an arrangement.
It’s been 3 years since this habit was created, and I’m still going. Even today, with a daily schedule in constant flux due to a very active 1 year-old, I’m still very aware of when it’s 10am, and I’m able to adjust workout time as needed.
So there is hope!
There are a number of strategies that you can use to solve this problem. This was just my method of solving this specific problem. Once again I turn to Steve Pavlina to quantify and qualify that which I arrived at organically and inefficiently. In his article How to maintain not-quite-daily habits, Steve spells out 5 distinct approaches to this problem.
- Make it daily anyway
- Use placeholder habits
- Chain habits
- Make specific commitments
- Turn habits into appointments
So there’s no one right answer for every situation, and several may apply to the same challenge, but being aware of these will be of great help when building new habits, even for things that don’t happen each and every day.