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Here’s how I finally got myself to start exercising

Nov 2, 2020 / Christine Carter PhD

When we received the stay-at-home order in March 2020 — I live in California — I came out of the gates pretty darn hot.

“Embrace not being so busy,” I wrote. “Take this time at home to get into a new happiness habit.”

That seems hilarious to me now. My pre-pandemic routines fell apart hard and fast. Some days, I would realize at dinnertime that not only had I not showered or gotten dressed that day, I hadn’t even brushed my teeth.

Even though I have coached people for a long time in a very effective, science-based method of habit formation, I struggled. Truth be told, for the first few months of the pandemic I more or less refused to follow my own best advice.

I think this was because I love to set ambitious goals. Adopting little habits is so much less exciting than embracing a big, juicy goal.

Take exercise, for example.

When the pandemic began, I optimistically embraced the idea that I could get back into running outside. I picked a half marathon to train for and spent a week or so meticulously devising a detailed daily training plan. However, I stuck to that plan for only a few weeks — all that planning and preparation led only to a spectacular failure to exercise.

I skipped my training runs despite feeling like the importance of exercise and the good health it brings has never been more bracingly clear. Despite knowing that it would cut my risk of heart disease in half. Despite knowing that exercise radically reduces the probability we’ll get cancer or diabetes and that it’s as least as effective as prescription medication when it comes to reducing depression and anxiety, that it improves our memory and learning, and that it makes our brains more efficient and more powerful.

Why did I skip exercise despite knowing all this?

The truth is our ability to follow through on our intentions — to get into a new habit like exercise or to change our behavior in any way — actually doesn’t depend on the reasons that we might do it or on the depth of our convictions to do it. It also doesn’t depend on our understanding of the benefits of a particular behavior, or even on the strength of our willpower.

Instead, it depends on our willingness to be bad at our desired behavior.

And I hate being bad at stuff. I’m a “go big or go home” kind of gal. I like being good at things, and I quit exercising because I wasn’t willing to be bad at it.

Here’s why we need to be willing to be bad. Being good requires that our effort and our motivation need to be equivalent. In other words, the harder a thing is for us to do, the more motivation we need to do that thing. And you might have noticed that motivation isn’t something we can always muster on command. Whether we like it or not, motivation comes and motivation goes. When motivation wanes, plenty of research shows that we humans tend to follow the law of the least effort and do the easiest thing.

New behaviors require a lot of effort because change is hard. Change can require a lot of motivation, which we can’t count on having. This is why we often don’t do the things we really intend to do.

To establish an exercise routine, I needed to let myself be bad at it. I needed to stop trying to be an actual athlete.

I started exercising again by running for only one minute at a time — yes, that’s right, 60 seconds. Every morning after I brushed my teeth, I changed out of my pajamas and walked out the door, with my only goal to run for one full minute.

These days, I usually run for 15 or 20 minutes at a stretch. But on the days that I’m totally lacking in motivation or time, I still do that one minute. And this minimal effort always turns out to be way better than nothing.

Maybe you relate. Maybe you’ve also failed in one of your attempts to change yourself for the better. Perhaps you want to use less plastic, meditate more or be a better antiracist. Maybe you want to write a book or eat more leafy greens.

I have great news for you: You can do and be those things, starting right now!

The sole requirement is that you stop trying to be so good. You’ll need to abandon your grand plans, at least temporarily. You must allow yourself to do something so minuscule that it’s only slightly better than doing nothing at all.

Ask yourself: How can you strip down that thing you’ve been meaning to do into something so easy you could do it every day with barely a thought? So if your big objective is to eat lots of leafy greens, maybe you could start by adding one lettuce leaf to your sandwich at lunch.

Don’t worry: You’ll get to do more. This “better than nothing” behavior isn’t your ultimate goal. But for now, do something ridiculously easy that you can do even when nothing in your life is going as planned.

On those days, doing some wildly unambitious act is better than doing nothing. A one-minute meditation is relaxing and restful. A single leaf of romaine lettuce has a half-gram of fiber and important nutrients. A one-minute walk gets us outside and moving, which our bodies really need.

Try doing one better than nothing behavior. See how it goes. Your goal is repetition, not high achievement.

Let yourself be mediocre at whatever you are trying to do, but be mediocre every day.

Take only one step, but take that step every day.

And if your better than nothing habit doesn’t actually seem better to you than doing nothing, remember that you are getting started at something and that initiating a behavior is often the hardest part.

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Avatar universal
WOW inspirational thanks
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I'm sure this helped the person posting, but I certainly don't agree with this.  Humans are pretty bad at everything.  Some might be better than other humans, but most other animals are far better at any form of exercise we can imagine.  We're not strong, fast, armored, sneaky, quick,etc.  We do have pretty good endurance, but mostly what humans do have is the ability and desire to work together, and an incredible desire to dominate others.  So those  of us who love exercising usually love it because we found something we really liked to do whether or not we were all that good at it.  It gets harder when we exercise solely because it's good for us.  When I was younger and more fit, I played a ton of basketball, and almost all of us were terrible at it.  But we loved it.  That's why we did it.  I always tell people to try to find something to do for exercise you enjoy.  If you play any sport, it's a lot more fun than doing an elliptical machine by yourself.  Bicycling to go to pretty places or to get somewhere you want to go is a lot more fun than riding a stationary bike.  It make it a lot easier to do it because it's fun.  When we get older and can't really get folks together anymore for play all that often, we adjust and go to gyms and do things we really don't like all that much but we do like the feeling of having done it.  I personally don't believe it has anything at all to do with being good at it, unless you are involved in competition.  Peace.
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That's what she's saying - that you don't have to be good at something to do it and/or make it a habit.  

She actually said:  "The truth is our ability to follow through on our intentions — to get into a new habit like exercise or to change our behavior in any way — actually doesn’t depend on the reasons that we might do it or on the depth of our convictions to do it. It also doesn’t depend on our understanding of the benefits of a particular behavior, or even on the strength of our willpower.


You don't have to be good at something to start doing it - just doing a few minutes of something is better than doing nothing.

I've always been an advocate of making small changes instead of trying to make big drastic changes that often set us up for failure just like the author of the article didn't do the marathon they started training for.  Exercise is one of those things - it's better to walk around for 5 minutes at a time than to try to run a marathon we aren't capable of doing.  

It's the same with anything we try... for instance, I belong to a calligraphy guild and take classes to learn various types of lettering - I'm not good at any of them, but I enjoy trying.  If I sit down to practice lettering, it's easier to do it for a short period than it is to make a marathon of it and if I convince myself that I have to practice for 2 hrs every day, chances are, I'll actually stop practicing because taking a 2 hr chunk out of my day isn't easy.  However, if I practice for 15 minutes, it's much easier because I'm not obligated to carve out a huge chunk of time.  If I get into the habit of practicing for 15 minutes/day, there's a good chance that I might continue on for longer once I get started.  

If I'm trying to change my eating habits, I'll start with something small - like replacing 1 soda/day with a glass of water until eventually, I don't drink soda anymore or replace one sugary cookie/day with a serving of raw veggies until I no longer eat sugary cookies.  The same concept can be applied to almost anything.  It doesn't matter whether we're good at something or not; it only matters that we want to do it, even if it's only one small step at a time.  

The whole point is "get started" with what one wants to do, whether it be exercising, better eating patterns, or whatever.  Once we get started and the activity becomes a habit, we'll do it every day - like getting up for work, brushing our teeth or taking a shower.
I get that, but that only applies to her.  She's the one who had to be good at things.  I mean, who starts out running by doing a half marathon?  Most of us just go out and run for the joy of motion and of being outdoors and the love of sweat.  Her point is that most people don't exercise because they're afraid of being bad at things.  I don't agree.  Gyms are packed with people who aren't good at what they are doing.  Tennis courts have long wait times for people who can barely hit the ball over the net.  Lots of people do exercise and few are good at it.  So I was just saying, her premise appears to apply to her but I'm not sure it applies to the rest of us.  I think the thing is simpler -- some of us love sweat and movement and some just don't.  Remember grade school?  Some of us got to school early so we could get out on the playground first and some never liked to play the games and just stood around.  The key to exercising is to like doing it.  I just don't see it as being about people fearing they won't be good at it.  I agree with her conclusion, if you want to exercise, start exercising.  I disagree with her reasons for why people don't exercise, which is just they really prefer to do other things.  But we do need to move to be healthy, and so the key is getting people to like playing.  Peace.
I think a lot of people don't exercise because it's not something they're really interested in and they know they won't be "good" at it so it's probably not something they'll stick with.  The whole concept is about building healthy habits.

I don't agree with the author about being willing to be "bad" at something because if we practice enough, we get better.  I do think a lot of other people feel the same way as the author, though and instead of giving themselves a chance to work up to the desired goal, they feel that they should be able to meet the goal i.e. run a marathon (write calligraphy, build a house, lose 20 pounds) right off the bat.  Because they can't do that, they give up on the "practice" (exercise) which could eventually get them to the goal of running the whole marathon or whatever their goal actually is.    

The idea is to simply START with "something" and if one continues long enough, they will have formed a habit and will continue with that habit over the long term.

I'd never try to run a 1/2 marathon because I know I'd never be good at it - i.e. I'd never get into good enough shape to be able to complete it.   I go out and walk most days (did before I broke my foot), but if I haven't walked for, say, a month, I'm still not going to set my goal at walking a mile, because I know I won't be able to do that and my # 1 goal is to "not" set myself up for failure... instead, I'm going to set my goal at simply getting off my duff and doing "something" even if it's only 5 minutes or 1/10th of a mile.   Doing this short walk every day, turns it into a habit so I'll continue to do it.  By the same token, I'm not going to set a goal of losing 20 lbs (even if that's what I needed to lose) because it's too daunting.  My goal is, typically, 1 lb because it's easier to lose 1 lb than it is to lose 20, but if I lose 1 lb often enough, I'll eventually lose 20 lbs.  So if I start exchanging unhealthy foods for those that are more healthy, it will become my habit to eat only healthy foods, get out and walk every day, etc.

What *I* take from the article, more so than focusing on having to be good or bad at something, is the concept of forming the habit to do something healthy, although there are those of us who do have to come to terms with the idea that we can't be perfect at most of the things we do.  If one considers it "bad" to not be able to start out at the ultimate goal, then yes - I guess they do have to learn to be bad before they get good (reach the goal).

I throw these articles out here for the sake of discussion (not necessarily that I agree 100% with them) - I appreciate your comments.  :-)
649848 tn?1534633700
Continued from previous post...

By getting started, you are establishing a neural pathway in your brain for a new habit. This makes it much more likely that you’ll succeed with something more ambitious down the line. Once you hardwire a habit into your brain, you can do it without thinking and, more importantly, without needing much willpower or effort.

A “better than nothing” habit is easy for you to repeat, again and again, until it’s on autopilot. You can do it even when you aren’t motivated, even when you’re tired, even when you have no time. Once you start acting on autopilot, that’s the golden moment that your habit can begin to expand organically.

After a few days of running for one minute, I started feeling a genuine desire to keep running. Not because I felt like I should exercise more or I had to do more to impress people, but because it felt more natural to keep running than it felt to stop.

It can be incredibly tempting, especially for the overachievers, to want to do more than our designated better than nothing habit. So I must warn you: The moment in which you are no longer willing to do something unambitious is the moment in which you risk everything.

The moment you think you should do more is the moment you introduce difficulty. It’s the moment you eliminate the possibility that your activity will be easy and even enjoyable. So it’s also the moment that will require a lot more motivation from you. And if the motivation isn’t there, that’s when you’ll end up checking your phone instead of doing whatever it is you intended to do or you’ll stay on the couch binge-watching TikTok videos or Netflix.

The whole idea behind the better than nothing habit is that it doesn’t depend on motivation. It’s not reliant on having a lot of energy, and you do not have to be good at this. All you need is to be willing to be wildly unambitious — to settle for doing something that’s just a smidge better than nothing.

I’m happy to report that after months of struggle, I am now a runner. I became one by allowing myself to be bad at it. While you couldn’t call me an athlete — there are no half marathons in my future — I am consistent.

To paraphrase the Dalai Lama, our goal is not to be better than other people; it’s just to be better than our previous selves. And that I definitely am. It turns out that to grow as people, we need only do something minuscule. When we abandon our grand plans and great ambitions in favor of taking that first teeny-tiny step, we shift. And, paradoxically, it is in that tiny shift that our grand plans and great ambitions are truly born.

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