If You Want to Stay on the Path, Build a Wall Around It

One day last week, I planned to run fairly early the next morning, and I set my alarm when I went to bed.

But a loud thunderstorm and hard rain woke me up that night, and I couldn’t get back to sleep for several hours.

When I finally did fall asleep again, it seemed like only a matter of minutes until my alarm went off, telling me it was time to get up and run.

I really didn’t feel like running. Not only was I tired from lack of sleep, but all the rain meant the trail would be muddy. On top of that, it was a dreary sort of morning, a far cry from the kind that inspires you to jump out of bed and get outside.

There was every reason for me not to run, and in situations like this, “later” offers an easy way out that I usually take. Sometimes later actually happens; often it doesn’t.

But on this particular morning, to hit snooze and skip the run didn’t even cross my mind. It wasn’t an option.

Despite feeling terrible, I dutifully got out of bed, put my shoes and shorts on, and ran.

Why was it so simple this time? Why not the back-and-forth conversation in my head that ultimately ends in procrastination? Where did this warrior-like discipline come from?

Actually, it wasn’t discipline at all. It was just that I wasn’t running by myself. I had made plans to meet a friend I hadn’t seen in a while, and to flake out on that would have been far more painful than just sucking it up and running.

If my path was running, then the date with my friend was a giant wall around that path that wouldn’t let me stray from it.

The Wall that Keeps You on the Path

Leo Babauta from Zen Habits, in a recent interview for our “Change Anything” month in the NMA Academy, shared a metaphor about habit change that I can’t stop thinking about.

What he said was essentially this:

When you’re starting a new habit and you have the impatient urge to take huge steps along the path in hopes of getting there faster, don’t.

Instead, take small steps. But with all that extra energy and motivation that’s causing you to want to go faster, build a wall around the path that will keep you on it when you’re not so motivated.

The foundation of that wall could be a huge public commitment, perhaps a blog or podcast you start to share your progress (like No Meat Athlete was for me when I first went vegetarian). Or some other form of accountability — is there a partner you can recruit to meet you not just one morning, but every morning?

There’s so much more you can do than just more of the habit.

Building the wall doesn’t take much energy, either: in my case for this particular run, a 15-second email the day before to pick a time and place dissolved all of the waffling and self-talk that I’d usually go through on a day like this into nothing. For bigger commitments it will take more effort than that, of course, but compared to running a marathon, the effort of telling everyone about your plans — and importantly, keeping them updated on how your training is going — is essentially zero.

Accountability to other people doesn’t solve everything, but it dramatically changes the conversation in your head. It’s the easiest and quickest way to build the wall that will keep you from straying off the path.

With your new habit, is there a way for you to do a little less sprinting down the path, and a lot more building of the wall?

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Comments

  1. Totally agree about how your inner monologue changes when you know you’ve made the commitment to training with someone. I’ve found this approach effective in the past but I think it depends on who your accountability partner is. The worst I’ve had was my wife, as (to use your analogy) the wall wasn’t high enough – we were both willing to let each jump over it too easily! Working with someone with similarly high levels of motivation makes a big difference in my experience.

    Enjoyed the article, looking forward to the next.

  2. Yesterday I dragged myself out of bed at stupid o’clock after an all night storm and drove to my half marathon. As I stood in the dark, freezing cold wind and rain I overheard another runner admit she would certainly not have been there if she hadn’t (foolishly) told others of her race. I imagine after the race she silently thanked those who got her to the start line….much like me.

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