Sure, you might think that you have complete control over your actions. You set goals and then make reasoned decisions that will lead, inexorably to achieving those goals.
Except it never works that way. You’re much more prone to irrational actions and harmful habits than you think.
One of my goals for 2016 is to spend my time more productively. I wanted to spend less time playing video games, and more time working, reading, writing, exercising — basically, anything that would be considered “productive”.
But my sister got me a copy of FIFA ’16 for Christmas. I really enjoy it — it’s fun, competitive, and fast-paced.
So I played it. A lot.
I would sit on the couch, grab the controller and say to myself, “I’ll play one game of FIFA, then hit the gym.”
3 hours later, I’d look up, realising that not only had I wasted a lot of time, but I’d also made myself angry, frustrated and miserable because I’d played badly and lost a few games. And that anger and frustration was compounded by my anger at having wasted so much time.
Obviously, the answer would be to just stop playing after one game, right? Or to only let myself pick up the controller after completing a set amount of productive behaviour? That would be the rational way forward. Still have the option to play FIFA whenever I want, but limit myself to a set amount of time.
Great ideas. In theory, at least. Except I’m well aware that I lack a certain amount of self-control. And at this point, firing up the PS4 first thing in the morning had become a strongly-ingrained habit loop.
I completely failed. I set a goal and fell so far short of it that it’s embarrassing to talk about. And Nike decided to rub it in my face.
I did what you’re supposed to: I set an ambitious goal that was a SMART goal: it was specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. I wrote it on an index card that I kept close to me at all times. I read a lot about the topic and knew exactly the steps I had to take to reach my goal. I tried to stay “motivated”.
And still, it didn’t happen. Not even close.
I wanted to run more, so I decided to run 3x per week, with the ultimate goal of being able to run a 10k race in less than 50 minutes.
How did I do? Well, here’s how.
I ran an average of 0.28 times per week, aka less than 1/10th of what I wanted to do, and the fastest 10k I did, I didn’t even break an hour, let alone 50 minutes.
So what did I do wrong, and how can I fix it?
Mistake #1: Made a huge, unsustainable change
I went right out of the blocks trying to run 3x per week from the beginning, which was a) a huge increase in the amount of exercise I was doing at the time, and b) a huge increase in the amount of sweaty laundry I created, both of which were an added hassle that I had to deal with. It was unsustainable, such that I’d run 3x per week for 1-2 weeks, then not run at all for a few weeks, feel shit about myself, get motivated again, then run 3x in one week, then take another month-long break, and so on. This cycle repeated itself a number of times until I just gave up.
What I should have done instead: eased into it by starting off exercising 1x per week, to make it easily winnable to begin with, so I’d feel good about myself, and begin to create a habit of running. Then slowly increase the frequency until eventually I was hitting the goals that I wanted to hit.
Mistake #2: No accountability
I wrote down my goal on an index card, and put it in my wallet. That’s what people recommend, right? That should be a daily reminder of my goal, right? No, not when you put it in a hidden part of your wallet that you never look in. And I didn’t tell anyone about this goal, so I didn’t have any skin in the game. There was no pain or forfeit if I didn’t make it. So it wasn’t a big deal.
What I should have done instead: told multiple people about my goal and had them check in with me on a regular basis to ensure that I was following through. Or even better, put some money on it and have friends and family bet against me achieving the goal, which provides a carrot (I win money and get to show off to people that I hit my goal) and a stick (I have to pay out and everyone knows I lost).
Mistake #3: I tried to do it alone
Not only did I not tell anyone about this, but I was always running alone. And I was the only one chasing this goal. I didn’t talk to anyone about it, I didn’t have a running partner to motivate me to go out, and I didn’t join any sort of running club. No-one would miss me if I didn’t lace up my shoes and head out the door.
What I should have done instead: joined a running club or found a running partner, or at least someone another runner I knew that I could talk to about running that would keep asking “Been running recently?” which would make me embarrassed to keep responding, “No, I’m a lazy shit”, so I’d actually go running.
Mistake #4: I picked something I hate doing
I don’t like running. It’s boring, it’s always cold and raining here in England, and you step in dog shit all the time. You have to avoid cyclists and old people and you’re always out of breath and you get injured all the time. Running sucks. I chose it as a goal because running is what you’re “supposed to do” if you want to get into shape and lose few lbs, right?
What I should have done instead: pick an exercise activity that I actually enjoy, like lifting weights, or cycling, or football, or boxing. Any of these would have been good as I would actually look forward to doing the activity, rather than dreading it.
So, I picked a goal and an activity where I:
tried to do too much too fast
on my own
with no accountability or stakes
at an activity that I don’t like doing
I don’t think I was ever really going to succeed.
So this year, with the same aim of exercising more and getting healthier, I am going to: