I’m always looking for advice on behavior change and habits. It’s fascinating stuff. How can you get yourself to do the things you want to do but then for some reason don’t. Lately, I have seen several sources advocating to create an exercise habit as a first step to successfully creating other desirable habits.
Here Stephanie Lee talks about applying what she learned from her fitness routine to business and recommended getting fit to get ahead in business. Here an Australian study showed that when people focused on creating a very modest exercise habit that they were able to function better in other areas of their lives like spending less money, being more productive at work and eating less junk food, undoubtedly all good behaviors. And, Charles Duhigg in his excellent book The Power of Habit, describes an example of a woman who changed her whole life, which was a disaster, by focusing on only one habit- exercise.
When you want to change your behavior, it appears that focusing on habit formation is the key to success. Go for creating the habit first and then scale up if desired. Once you have been able to make a welcome but not necessarily natural behavior a habit, it’s easier to create other habits. Theoretically, it should not matter what behavior you focus on initially; although, Duhigg suggests that some behaviors are more important than others. He calls these keystone habits. Keystone habits are foundational, and when you successfully nail those habits, it will end up affecting other habits. Exercise is a keystone habit. For instance, once you start exercising regularly, you naturally want to eat right, prioritize sleep and manage your time better.
But here’s the thing. I do exercise. I’m pretty fit. Exercise is and has always been a priority. I do it without thinking about it. I do it automatically. My exercise habit is well established, yet I’m not killing it at all the other behaviors I want to achieve. Yes, I do eat healthy food (usually) because, as expected I feel better and have more energy to exercise when I do. I also am tired at night and want to get to bed and sleep. But unlike Ms. Lee, who has been able to translate what she learned from achieving fitness goals into entrepreneurial business success, I am still flailing at many desired behavior changes, including showing up for a regular writing and publishing schedule as well as food prep and meal planning to name a few.
These are two of a plethora of habits that I am working on. It is my goal to plan a week’s worth of meals on the weekend. And, if possible do the shopping and a portion of the food prep ahead of time, too. Then during the week when time and mental energy are limited, I can bust out my plan, the parts I have prepped and be ready just to cook. Voila. Healthy, tasty meals prepared without hours spent agonizing over the decision. Of course, it would be a massive help if the meal came together quickly, but I think the most significant win would be not having the what’s-for-dinner-question hanging over my head all day. Yet day in day out, week in week out, I am not able to come up with any kind of plan, much less any do-ahead prep.
I also want to write. I enjoy writing and feel like have something to say. Maybe too much to say which is potentially part of the problem. I can see the similarities between exercise and writing (or business), much like Ms. Lee points out in her piece. I get the same feel-good sensation when I make progress on a writing project as I do when I finish a work-out. That feel-good vibe is undoubtedly one of the reasons I can exercise daily because I know and want that awesome feeling. And, even though I get a similar feeling when I write, I am not able to do it with anywhere near the same kind of frequency.
I haven’t been able to make writing a habit where exercise clearly is. Exercise happens with relative ease, on autopilot 5-6 days/week yet I struggle, procrastinate, sleep-in, fill in an excuse to get the writing I want to do, done.
I actively seek out and attempt to implement advice on productivity and time management. There is no shortage of opinions on this subject if you start looking. I have followed many of the suggestions: write every day, write at the same time of day, start with a ritual, start by writing in a journal, set a daily but small output goal, use the Pomodoro technique (set a timer for 25 minutes, work until the timer goes off, then take a short break.)
The list goes on.
Nothing has worked.
It is still a battle.
There are several potential reasons for this but one near the top of the list- I dread getting started. So I delay opening the document on whatever task I’m working on by doing any number of other non-important, low yield tasks.
I know I should just get started, as I do with exercise on those days when I am less motivated. I dread and procrastinate exercising too. But I still do it. It just ends up taking a whole lot more time. For instance, I waste an inordinate amount of time standing on the pool deck or sitting at the water’s edge thinking about swimming before actually getting in. I’m there, I’m ready in my suit, I’m not going to turn back, but yet it takes a ridiculous amount of time to get myself wet.
When I’m dreading my workout, I tell myself to get started, and if I’m miserable after 5-10 minutes, I can stop. I never do. Clearly, getting started is an issue for me.
To establish my writing habit, I am setting a timer for six minutes. Write for six minutes. My mind should be able to handle that short interval without coming up with too many things I need to do first before I can start. In this way, I hope to get over that getting-started hump. And then, once I’m going, I should be able to continue. So far this method has worked for six days. I’m building momentum but way too soon to declare victory.
When the six minutes are up, I want to continue. In fact, on the days that I have tried this method, I am surprised and even a little annoyed when the timer goes off. I actively want to continue.
I hope that by focusing on getting started, writing will become a habit. Something that I just do. If the habits researchers are right, once my desired behavior becomes a habit, it should become something I do automatically and without much time-wasting procrastination. Once I establish the habit, I can increase the time interval. Eventually, maybe I could write for an hour a day without frittering away all my time delaying getting started. Right now an hour a day doesn’t even seem like much time.
Imagine how much writing I could do if I spent an hour a day doing it. But up until now, I haven’t been able to do that with any consistency, despite wanting to. Much like with exercise you don’t start out running a marathon or deadlifting 300 pounds, you start with a smaller more manageable chunk and slowly increase. So I’m starting with six minutes and will scale up when possible. When that feeling of dread decreases, and in its place is a feeling of anticipation, I will consider it a win. My behavior successfully changed and I should be excited to get down to work and create something great.
So if you’re trying to change your behavior, and let’s be honest who isn’t trying to be better at something, think about it as a habit first. Work just on being consistent. Do it every day, even if the amount of time spent is so small it seems ridiculous. Let me know how it goes.
I almost didn’t write today because I told myself I didn’t have time. Then I thought that’s absurd, of course, you have time. You have six minutes. So I sat down, started writing, and got a few more words on the page. Yay for me.