Last year, my goal was to workout 150 times over the course of six months. This year, my goal is to workout 300 times over the course of a year. As I’m writing this I’ve worked out 9 times in 10 days, averaging 6.3 workouts per week, which means I’m ahead of schedule.
I’m feeling strong.
But come on, it’s only Week 2! It’s easy to feel strong in January. I haven’t been traveling, I’m healthy (aside from this dry cough that I’ve pretty much accepted is part of my life now), and the gym is full of patrons as optimistic about the future as I am. The problem is I’ve seen this movie before, and I know how it ends. In February 2018 it was a back injury. In July 2019 it was my shoulder. So what’s the setback going to be in 2020, and is there anything I can do to stop it?
Since starting the blog, I’ve gotten tons of book recommendations from readers. However, the most recommended book by far was The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, which I’m reading now:
Biggest takeaway: most of the activities we do in our day-to-day life are simply habits we’ve formed over the years, and habits are developed based on a three-step loop. From the book:
First, there is a cue, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering in the future.
So for example, my cue is putting on my running shoes. I only wear them for running and going to the gym, and so everything about them – how they look, how it feels to put them on, the sound they make when I’m stumbling around in the dark of our condo trying not to wake anybody up while I sneak out in the morning – I associate all of these sensations with one thing: working out.
Working out is the routine. This is the positive habit I’ve worked to cultivate by consistently applying the cue and the reward.
The reward is the act of putting my workout results in the spreadsheet. There are lots of other benefits to working out, but the immediate gratification that comes from putting the stats in the spreadsheet and seeing my workout count autopopulate gives me a nice little hit of dopamine.
But eventually something happens that jams up the loop – the cue, the routine, or the reward gets compromised, and I start to get off track. It can be something innocous like traveling, or something more serious like an injury. Is there anything I can do to stop this from happening?
At one point in the book, Duhigg references an experiment conducted by a British psychologist involving orthopedic hospital patients who had recently undergone hip or knee replacement surgeries. The purpose of the experiment was to better understand why some patients stuck with rehab while others gave up. Back to the book:
“Recovering from a hip or knee surgery is incredibly arduous. The operation involves severing joint muscles and sawing through bones. While recovering, the smallest movements – shifting in bed or flexing a joint – can be excruciating. However, it is essential that patients begin exercising almost as soon as they wake from surgery. They must begin moving their legs and hips before the muscles and skin have healed, or scar tisue will clog the joint, destroying its flexibility. In addition, if patients don’t start exercising, they risk developing blood clots. But the agony is so extreme that it’s not unusal for people to skip out on rehab sessions.”
The psychologist then split the patients into two groups. After three months, the second group had started walking almost twice as fast as the first group. That’s a huge deal! So what was the difference?
She had the second group write out their plans.
She included 13 blank pages in the back of their rehab schedule for patient in the second group to detail their goals for the week. How can 13 blank pages be so effective? Back to the book:
As the psychologist scrutinized the booklets, she saw that many of the plans had something in common: They focused on how patients would handle a specific moment of anticipated pain. The man who exercised on the way to the bathroom, for instance, knew that each time he stood up from the couch, the ache was excruciating. So he wrote out a plan for dealing with it: Automatically take the first step, right away, so he wouldn’t be tempted to sit down again.
It’s contingency planning, and it sounds like it works. So that’s what I’m going to work on this week. While I’m feeling strong, I’m going to try and come up with some concrete plans for what I’m going to do when I’m not feeling so strong, and hopefully avoid getting completely derailed in the future when life throws me a curveball.