Inside the Mind of a Habit Former
Ten things I’ve learned from the past few months of developing a new habit
James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, and a speaker, once said in this article, “New goals don’t deliver new results. New lifestyles do. And a lifestyle is not an outcome, it is a process. It is a series of habits.”
Bad habits are easy to form and hard to eliminate. I experienced it firsthand a few years ago, when I wrote about my attempt at losing weight here. At the time, I was in my mid-thirties with two children, and never completely lost the weight I gained with my second baby. Plus, I’d come to the realization that my lifestyle choices (snacking in the afternoon on chips, too much coffee, etc.) was contributing to a slight weight gain, which I felt uncomfortable acknowledging.
As much as I’d like to tell you that my story ends there — that I somehow figured out the magic solution to continuing my journey towards being fit, I did not figure it out, and my story came to a halt for several years…until the pandemic hit.
We can blame the pandemic for creating major upheaval in our lives, but one thing that it did for me was allow me to reflect upon my life choices. Suddenly, I was without a job. And suddenly, I realized that I did not want to emerge from this darkness of the pandemic without feeling like I had accomplished something.
Since I ran my first 5K two years ago, I had fallen into the trap of someone who could not, would not find a way to continue what I knew was a good habit. Perhaps it’s because of what Elizabeth Segran said in her book, The Rocket Years: How the Twenties Launch the Rest of Your Life, habits get harder to develop and maintain the older we get. Somehow, our brains have developed the ability to be on autopilot. As our lives become easier, she says, we tend not to focus our energy on everyday things that are surely a habit done out of necessity — for example, brushing your teeth, grocery shopping, cooking, showering, etc — because that would mean we’d become overwhelmed. We’d rather focus our energy on problem solving or creativity or projects at work.
So I began to run again, after a two-year hiatus. Here are ten things that I’ve learned in the past five months of doing a consistent activity.
- There is a difference between a habit and a hobby. At first, the lines were blurry — I couldn’t distinguish the difference. But once I began to run on a regular, consistent schedule (3–4 times per week, mostly in the mornings), I realized that in order to develop a hobby, you must first turn it into a habit — something you do regularly. Thus, if you don’t have a desire to go running, you won’t do it, and you won’t do it unless you’ve already formed the impression in your mind that it is a habit.
- If I don’t put it on my to do list, I won’t do it. That is simply who I am. I’m old school. While others use productivity apps or calendars on their phones as reminders, I write things down on a to-do list. Over time, I realized that without seeing the actual task on paper, I don’t recognize it as important enough, and therefore, I don’t do it. There’s something about having a tangible plan that convinces you it’s worth doing.
- If I don’t make it a priority it won’t happen. Shane Parrish, known for his podcast, “The Knowledge Project,” once interviewed Amelia Boone, an obstacle racer and ultra runner (dubbed the Queen of Pain), for this episode, in which he drilled in on her habits and why she’s been so successful at what she does professionally (she’s a corporate lawyer) and personally, and what she said really stuck out with me. In a simple sentence, she reiterated the fact that, “You do have time, it’s just not a priority.” It made me realize that by shifting my time around and including the activity of running as part of my regular routine, hence a priority, then I am much more likely to commit.
- Practice and repeat. I’m not going to lie. At first, it was painful. To this day, I still feel a slight pain whenever I run. It’s the initial first two laps when I’m trying to control my breathing while also taking in my environment. Trying to absorb everything while simultaneously listening to music and keeping my body moving turned out to be much harder than I thought. But instinctively, I knew that I am the type of person who doesn’t quit (at least not normally) before the show ends. Since I’ve already committed myself to this time and made the effort to begin, I might as well continue. This shift in mindset has dramatically helped my ability to continue, despite the discomfort.
- Cue and reward. This is incredibly important, as human beings are inclined to desire things that makes us happy, and we’re willing to work for it. In “The Rocket Years,” Segran mentioned just how important this really is — having a cue is something that propels you towards that activity, but in order to be successful, you must also have a reward attached to it. For example, new clothing or chocolate afterwards. As much as I love chocolate, I couldn’t imagine eating it for fear of additional calories; plus, I wasn’t in such a lucky position to be able to afford new clothes every time I worked out. Thus, my cue became the act of putting on my shoes in the morning, so much that after awhile, my kids began to cheer me on, which, as a result, acted as a reward for me. My son would always say, “Are you going on a run?” I’d say, “Yes,” to which he’d reply with a grin, “Go get sweaty!” I can’t tell you how much this makes me happy.
- Lack of desire is going to happen. If you’ve just recently began to implement a new habit, expect that there are days when you won’t feel like doing it at all, when you crave comfort — staying at home and browsing my phone sounded so much better than putting on running shoes, I thought — but then I realized that the neighbors were waiting for me. Nature was waiting for me. The place where I run — a local park — is filled with runners, people who exercise, and who do it regularly. And I can imagine that at some point they felt no desire to do it either…and yet they do. So I felt like it was in my best interest to join this group of people.
- It gets worse before it gets better. Pain, I’ve discovered, is more prevalent when it’s mental. When I began running, I’d experience the cramps in my legs after three laps, and I’d slow down. I could feel my legs dragging on and in my mind, I’d think, “Oh my god, I’m dying. I should stop.” But I didn’t. That’s because I realized that it was all in my head. Not only that, the people around me were going, going, going, and I felt like I couldn’t let myself down, for fear of humiliating myself. Over time, and slowly it got better, to the point where I felt myself getting stronger. My body (legs, especially) had gotten used to the distances and it was no longer painful.
- You will have less time for other things but you will gain more momentum in your life. Let’s face it — opportunity costs exists everywhere, even in hobbies and activities. To be able to do anything well, one must be willing to put in time and effort, which takes away time for other tasks that may be important to you. As for me, I lost out on time I could’ve spent reading and enriching my mind, but at the same time, I lost weight and felt better physically. The trade off was much better than I had anticipated. The simple joy of being outdoors and seeing my neighbors exercising was enough for me.
- Being successful in one habit will help you change other habits. This is similar to the domino effect — that once you begin one habit successfully, which turns into a hobby (something you enjoy doing, whereas a habit is simply something that you do), you will instinctively readjust other aspects of your life. For example, I’ve gained the willpower to resist chocolate and to overeat. Snacks are a thing of the past. And when I do snack, it’s usually just fruit. I love carbs, but only eat it for breakfast…all because I am now consciously aware that in order to be an all-around fit person, it takes more than exercise. Nutrition matters a lot.
- It takes a lot longer to develop good habits. Honestly, whenever I try to come with reasons why I stopped running after my first 5K, I couldn’t come up with anything other than the fact that I was busy. I was on autopilot, shuttling my kids back and forth from daycare, trying to get them fed for dinner, their baths done, and go to bed at a reasonable time. I was so immersed in the world of a “busy parent” that I didn’t stop to ponder or to decide what was more of a priority for me. I cannot say that I won’t fall into this trap again in my future, but I can definitely say that I am more aware of how things can be when I use my time intentionally, when opportunity costs are considered, and when basic needs are met.