How to build a habit – and have the adventure you deserve.
Bad news, I’m afraid. The year is marching on – which means you really should be cracking on with That Thing and That Other Thing that you said you really want to achieve by year’s end.
And – are you?
Maybe it’s saving money for a dream adventure (perhaps one of these?) by skipping your pricey morning beverage at Starbucks for half a year. Maybe it’s steadily pushing your body harder and harder, so you can get fit enough to tackle anything. Maybe it’s a creative project or qualification you’ve always wanted under your belt.
Whatever that resolution for 2018 it is, this is where it gets hard.
January 1st was easy. Possibilities were endless.
January 2nd was…retrievable. Reality creeping in, but still time.
January 7th was your second chance to get your weekly routine nailed down, so there was still hope.
But by now, well over a third of us have dropped out – with nothing but months of miserable self-recrimination and regret to look forward to.
So, let’s stop that kind of thinking. It’s ego-driven, self-abusing garbage that does exactly nothing to solve the problem.
Go read this from a professional adventurer about mental flabbiness (it’ll give you exactly the kind of kick you need right now) – and then come back. (We’ve got work to do.)
Here’s the real story you need to drive you forward:
You don’t need superhero willpower.
You don’t need an unbroken string of perfect home-runs.
All you need is a habit that truly works.
Here’s how you start making one.
Rule 1: Forget Willpower
Anytime you start beating yourself up for not having the self-control to build a habit – you’re probably assuming that willpower alone is the right tool for the job.
Not the least bit true. Not even close.
It doesn’t matter how motivated and committed you think you are – you’re still going to forget stuff.
It’s too much pressure to learn something and turn it into a habit on your first try (and in fact, that’s not how we learn anything. Repetition is how things truly stick).
Instead, create reminders. Use your phone to tell you when it’s time to practice your new habit. Instead of assuming you’ll remember your money-saving resolution when passing Starbucks, set an alarm to remind you to make a coffee before you leave the house in the morning.
Or, attach it to something you already do without thinking – say, by putting your toothbrush inside your favourite coffee-cup.
Make it so you can’t get through the day without being reminded of that habit (ideally multiple times).
That will work better than willpower ever could.
Rule 2: Reward Yourself Every Time
Your brain is smart. It wants you to be happy, and have a life filled with delicious, slightly unwholesome pleasures. (Naughty brain.)
Therefore, if you try to build a habit by replacing a pleasurable bad habit with a less pleasurable good one, you’ll have a fight on your hands (or more correctly, behind your eyes).
Since your brain sees your new habit as a fun-destroying enemy to be slain, it cannot be trusted to remind you of the importance of that habit, and remind you of the times you should be doing it.
(Go back to Rule 1, above. That’s partly why willpower doesn’t work.)
But your brain can be fooled. It can be won over.
Or more correctly, it can be bribed.
If you find a way of rewarding yourself, every time you successfully complete that habit, you will make your brain prefer it to the old one, because it’s getting at least as much fun from it. It will suddenly want to help you with your new habit.
(This is why replacing an existing pleasure is much, much easier than simply denying yourself of it.)
Let’s say that Starbucks-skipping habit is to save money for a rock-climbing trip, which you’re totally obsessed with.
Your reward, then, could be getting to work a bit earlier than usual – which is possible because you didn’t spend any time in Starbucks – and once you arrive, you binge-watch rock-climbing videos on YouTube until it’s time to start work, while enjoying the satisfaction of knowing you’re one day nearer that goal, thanks to the money you just saved.
(Of course, you’ll still need morning coffee. That particular habit is one of the hardest to break. So that’s why you need to find a much less expensive source of it that still delivers the required caffeine kick. Remember: replace, don’t deny.)
Also, how are you putting that money aside every day? Use a piggy bank, so you can give it a shake every morning and feel it getting heavier – or if you’re a spreadsheet nerd, use your work computer to track your progress. Feel that progress. Make it a real pleasure.
Replace a pleasure with a reward. Measure your progress. And repeat.
This is how you build a rock-solid habit.
Rule 3: Make It Easy To Stick To
Journalist Charles Duhigg wanted to start running in the morning, to counteract his sedentary and donut-fuelled daily routine in the offices of the New York Times. He quickly found that waking up with the intent to go for a run was virtually impossible – the bed was too warm, the run was too intimidating, and he just turned over and went back to sleep. Problem definitely not solved. He wanted to build a habit, but just didn’t know how.
To fix this, he made a new deal with himself. Screw the habit for now. He decided he didn’t have to go for a run. All he had to do was wake up and put his running shoes on.
That was all. If he still felt sleepy, he could take them off and go back to bed. Totally allowed.
In fact, as he said in his bestselling book The Power Of Habit, the act of putting the shoes on was usually enough to get him awake enough to decide to go for a run – but the habit that triggered it was far easier than the run itself, so he was always capable of sticking to it.
Make it so easy you’d feel stupid not doing it.
“I don’t have the time to get fit!”
Right now, 2018 is really starting to kick in. The craziness of the holidays is being replaced with the even-more-craziness of normal life, and you may be finding it difficult – or even impossible – to stick to your training plans for that big adventure you’re planning to take later this year.
This is where you’re allowed to cheat.
Yes, there are only 24 hours in every day – but some of that time can be ‘hacked’, so you can squeeze in the physical activity you want to be doing.
The guiding principle is pretty simple:
If you can do it while exercising, do it while exercising.
Here are three examples that have worked well for us.
(a) Walk To Work
Motorists in the UK spend more than a day every year stuck in traffic – with London being the worst city for it (if you commute by car in London, you’re losing up to 3 days a year).
Is there an alternative where you can use that time to get fitter?
If your workplace is only a few miles away, the solution is easy – give yourself some extra time in the morning, buy some good walking shoes, plug your headphones in (here are some excellent things to listen to) and walk the whole way at a brisk pace, maybe aiming to beat your previous time so you get a good sweat on.
If work is a lot further away, is there somewhere enroute where you can park the car for the day that still gives you a good walk to work and back?
Or how about using public transport to go to work on Friday, giving yourself a long, leisurely walk home with the whole weekend to recover? (This is the idea behind the Walking Home For Christmas charity fundraiser.)
(b) Use Your Kettle-Time
Electric kettles take between two and four minutes to come to the boil. For most people, that’s time spend pottering around the kitchen, not doing very much at all.
Aha, says the exercise-hacker.
Two minutes is enough time to do a dozen push-ups. It’s enough time to gently stretch every muscle in your body – and it’s enough time to push your muscles to their absolute limits.
How many times do you boil the kettle, mornings, evenings and weekends?
That’s how many mini-workouts you’re missing every day.
(c) Commit Using Others
It’s easy to break fitness-related promises to yourself, because it’s only you that’s negatively impacted by ignoring them (which isn’t quite true, but we’ll gloss over that for now).
However, when it means breaking a promise to others, there’s way more pressure to stick to the plan.
(After all, when are we brave enough to speak to others in the way we speak to ourselves?)
Exercising with your partner is an obvious choice – but if you have a young member of the family, how about giving them some extra time outdoors, burning off some of their youthful energy and making you scramble to keep up?
If you have a dog – how about a run on the beach with them, three times a week?
(And if you don’t have a dog, who else does? Any elderly neighbours that would love you to take their dog for a run, every now and again?)
4. Become An Expert At Failing
Ever said the following to yourself?
“This time I’m never giving up!”
Sorry. It’s BS.
You’re always going to give up at some point. Or come so close to giving up that you’re going to lose all your momentum, and properly give up next time, really soon from now.
The good news is: certain types of giving up are absolutely normal – and a sign you’re successfully building that habit in the right way.
If you want to build a habit, it isn’t about instantly beginning a perfect, unbroken run of successes from now until the end of time. It’s actually about the exact opposite. It’s the result of a long series of glorious screw-ups.
So as usual, you’re beginning an imperfect, frequently broken run of successes and failures (even if you’re trying to avoid admitting that to yourself, since it feels like defeatism) – except, here’s the key difference that separates success from a completely broken habit. This time, temporary failures won’t stop you.
Temporary failure is inevitable. And it’s temporary. So ultimately, it doesn’t matter.
What really matters is getting back up and trying again, every time you fall short of expectations, break a promise to yourself (making it an unrealistic promise to yourself, let’s face it), and end up falling off the wagon in some way.
Remember learning to ride a bike?
Clamber on – wobble alarming – fall off – shriek inconsolably as blood runs down your leg from your grazed knee – parent dabs TCP on the painful area – and you clamber back on.
And after a while, after a lot of wobbles, crashes and TCP, you’re riding a bike.
Why do you think life is any different when you’re an adult?
To build a habit, you have to understand failure in a brand new way. The way professional adventurers (also known as serial failurists) understand it.
From now on, failure is not a sign you’re not cut out for this adventure lark.
It’s not a sign you’re weak. It’s not about being incapable, or lazy, or worthless. It’s none of those things.
When you give up on something, there’s always a trigger that has nothing to do with you as a person. You don’t quit because you suck. You actually quit because getting out of bed felt like too much effort that morning, or it was raining so you didn’t feel like going for that seemed so easy when the sun was shining, or you got hooked on Netflix and couldn’t get off the couch…and so on.
These have nothing to do with who you are. They’re just things you did.
The trigger (aka. the thing you did) was the reason why you quit – so it stands to reason that avoiding that trigger, or finding a way to counteract its effects on you, is how you don’t quit next time (and how to build a habit over the long term).
It’s exactly that dumb a solution.
And it has nothing to do with you as a person.
– Getting out of bed too difficult? Okay – how much sleep are you getting? How easy are you making it to get out of bed? How about trying that Charles Duhigg trick with the shoes, or something else that’s super-easy to stick to, but taking just enough time to wake you up properly?
– Raining outside? Okay – how about having a backup plan for when it’s raining? Say, an hour at the local swimming pool, or a rainy day exercise routine you can do at home?
– Getting hooked on TV shows? Okay. How about doing a workout while you watch? Remember: If you can do it while exercising, do it while exercising. So! For every episode of something, give yourself a target of [x] reps of something, [y] reps of something else, and so on. (Let’s face it – exercise is really boring. There’s a reason we put the radio on when we’re ironing clothes or washing dishes. That’s why you can’t stop watching Netflix – your brain likes being stimulated. So feed it!)
Every failure is an opportunity to change that trigger and improve your habit so it works better – but only if you treat that failure as what it really is – an opportunity for course-correction and habit-strengthening, so you’re less likely to fail next time.
Do that enough times, and you will run out of ways to fail – and this habit is yours for good.
However you plan to train for your adventure activities this year, now is the time to get started – not a couple of weeks before you go, fuelled by panic and self-disappointment (ahem, speaking from bitter experience here).
All the time you need is there for you, every single day.
So go bend the rules, build a habit you can be proud of, and totally make it yours.
– The Rug & Rock Team