Like setting a kitchen timer and meditating for five minutes.
Or doing just one set of pushups, as many as you can do.
Or taking two minutes to think of ten new things you’re grateful for, and lucky to have in your life.
Or writing down one thing that you love about your significant other.
Any one of these simple things, if done every day, could have a big impact on your life. But as Jim Rohn used to say, and as this post is titled, the simplest things to do are also the simplest things to not do.
How I learned this in the gym
Last September when I took a break from running, I started going to the gym with the goal of putting on as much weight as possible. I did it partly for fun, and partly as an experiment to see how mass-gaining with a vegan diet would work.
My strategy in the gym was an extremely minimalistic one, and yet very effective. I learned about it in Tim Ferriss’ book, The 4-Hour Body: In each gym session, do one set to complete failure of just a few exercises. Nothing else. Total time in the gym is about 20 minutes. Then go to the gym again two or three days later, do the same routine with different muscle groups, and repeat the process until you’re jacked.
Up to this point I had thought my days in the gym were over. Having discovered running, especially ultrarunning, I just didn’t see how I’d ever be motivated to spend an hour and 15 minutes slamming around the iron like I used to. But this program energized me again — sets were so scarce that each time, I wanted to do my very best. And I’d look forward all week to my chance to improve on my previous effort.
Compared to any other workout program I had done, this one was simple. Less time, fewer instructions, fewer exercises for which to have to learn the form. And the results were great.
It hit me: If this is so easy, and so much fun, there’s no reason I should ever stop.
Now, fast forward three months, to January 2012. I’m running again, but the gym (and my simple, easy-to-stick-with workout routine) is a distant memory.
What happened, first, was an injury. I hurt my back in a careless accident, in which I loaded more weight on one side of the bar than the other before attempting a deadlift. This ended my little weight-gaining experiment while my back healed, but there’s no reason I shouldn’t have been back in the gym eight weeks later.
Looking back now though, I see the reason … and it has to do with habits.
A few months ago I published a post about new habits I had undertaken, and it was one of the most popular I’ve ever written here. I’d say I owe you an update!
I’ve kept most of the habits I started then, and I’ve added a few new ones. Several of the habits — running, flossing, and making my bed — I’ve done without fail, every single day since I started them. Not one miss. I’ve also added a habit of reminding myself of what I’m grateful for during the last five minutes of my run, and I haven’t missed on that one yet either.
That’s 63 straight days of running, and something like 100 consecutive days of making my bed and flossing and brushing my teeth — these two before I do anything else in the morning.
Other habits are still fully intact, but not quite every single day: drinking tea instead of coffee, meditating for 15-20 minutes, not biting my nails, reading. I attempted to add a habit of writing every day, and I haven’t been successful with that one, but I’m writing more than I was before.
What makes the difference in habits that stick
Recently I asked myself: What has been the difference between those that have stuck perfectly, and those that have been harder to keep up? After a little thinking, I came up with the answer, which explains why my time in the gym didn’t last — even when it was a simple, enjoyable thing to do.
Of the small habits — the simple things to do that are just as simple to not do — those that I’ve been perfect at have a definite trigger, or cue, that signals to my brain that it’s time to do them.
When I started learning about habit change, I learned about the importance of a trigger. Now I actually believe it.
I wake up in the morning and I make my bed and floss and brush my teeth before I even think about doing something else. The trigger, in this case, is simply waking up and getting out of bed. It’s something I do every day, and my brain has learned that after you get up, you make your bed and floss. I haven’t missed on either of these habits yet.
Reminding myself of the things I’m grateful for happens at the end of each run, right when I shift into cool down mode. My body slows down and my breaths lengthen, and my brain is reminded to be grateful. Every time.
Those smaller habits that I haven’t been quite as good at doing every day — meditating, reading, writing are prime examples — have not had a strong trigger associated with them. I’ve done them at varying times throughout the day, never choosing a certain, everyday action to cue these habits.
But what about running?
Running has been an everyday habit, but although I intended to do it in the morning, the reality is that it happens whenever I can fit it in. And yet, even without a strong trigger, it still happens. Every. Single. Day.
The reason running has succeeded without a trigger, I believe, is that it’s become a big deal. Once I got up to running 40 or 50 or more minutes each day, running occupied a big space in my day and my mind. It ceased to be one of those simple things to do that’s also simple to not do. It wasn’t simple to skip running anymore: my run has become such a significant part of my day, with having to get dressed for it, go outside for an hour or so, and shower afterwards, that I never “forget” to run.
(Interestingly, I did have a strong trigger in the beginning, when running took only 20 minutes and seemed simpler. That was crucial to getting started.)
That’s why I never got back to the gym after the injury sidetracked me. Working out seemed simple, and I had no trigger for it. I just did it when I felt like it, which made it easy to forget to come back to after I recovered.
If I had wanted a 200-word post instead of a 1400-word one, I’d have written this:
For small habits — the important things that are simple to do but also simple to not do — you absolutely need to choose a trigger.
It’s well-known that habits are pathways in your brain that have been strengthened by repetition. But if you don’t have something (let’s call it X) that signals to your brain, “Okay, you did X, now it’s time to do Y,” then you’ll often forget (or feel unmotivated) to do Y. Y is too small a thing to remember and want to do each day.
If instead, Y is a big deal and takes a lot of time — and it’s not a simple-to-do-yet-simple-not-to-do activity — the trigger is less important, at least in the short-term (the only time frame I have any familiarity with here). But keep in mind that if you’re looking to change a habit, it’s best to start small (i.e., simple), and that means you’ll want a trigger at first.
Simple things add up
Don’t doubt that those tiny, simple things can make a huge difference in your life. As you add more of them, and they become more habitual so that you do them automatically, they begin to stack, to compound. And several months (or years) down the road, the effects can be astounding.
But to keep them, you need a trigger. With all of the small, important habits that I’ve been only good (not great) at doing daily, I’ve gone back to the drawing board to deliberately set up a schedule so that a trigger precedes each simply habit. In some cases, like deciding to do 15 minutes of meditation after my run, the trigger may simply be another, stronger habit. In others, it’s lunch, or my morning cup of tea, or putting my son to bed.
That’s the next stage of improvement for me. I hope you can use my experience to help you make some changes you want to make!
PS — After I wrote this, I found a great interview with The Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg. If the topic of habit change interests you and you’ve got half an hour, it’s worth watching.
But what if you gave your body just 15 minutes per day — no weights or equipment needed — for as long as this situation lasts? Could you turn this into an opportunity to start a fitness habit (maybe for the first time ever), and come out of it in better shape than before?
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