Wildly Unambitious Habits

by Joyce Loucks, Wellness Committee Member

Not many people like to be bad at things, me included. If I can’t master a skill, I usually just quit. But when it comes to things like exercise, that attitude doesn’t really work! I learned this the hard way when a year of medical issues set me back physically more than I had expected. Before my medical journey, logging over thirty thousand steps was a normal day for me.

The longer you put off taking care of physical health, the harder it is to start being active again. Christine Carter explains in one of her Ted Talks (“The 1-Minute Secret to Forming a New Habit”) that we need to change our goal mindset. I related to her explanation. When trying to build a behaviour, the goal shouldn’t be success but repetition. Success might come later, but we first need to establish a pattern of behaviour that guarantees consistency.

When I started walking again, I was tempted to sign up for a five-kilometre walk six months down the line to force myself to get in shape, or else. But that is a success goal, and I needed to create an achievable behaviour goal. So instead, I committed to walking outside for at least one minute every day. This was a good start, but I eventually got a puppy because I knew that would get me outside and walking. Two years later, I walk a minimum of an hour (not all at once) per day. I also don’t count steps anymore: this would be focusing on the goal and not the behaviour.

Just starting and establishing a neural pathway for a new habit makes it more likely that you will succeed with something more challenging or ambitious later. Carter refers to this as “hardwiring a habit”; you can do it without thinking and without much willpower or effort.

Carter identifies some great examples of making small changes. Doing something wildly unambitious is better than doing nothing. One minute of meditation is enough. One carrot stick still has fibre and vitamins. A walk around the block is still better than sitting on the couch. The best way to beat procrastination is to just start, no matter how small or insignificant you believe the action to be. Also, if you don’t do it now, sometimes later becomes never.

Let’s do this, my friends!

Why do we skip exercise despite knowing all its benefits? The truth is our ability to follow through on our intentions — to get into a new habit like exercise — 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 behaviour, or even on the strength of our willpower. Procrastination for me comes from not wanting to be bad at something. I have had to accept that I am bad at a lot of the physical activities that I was once good at. Yes, even walking. Now I’m working on bike riding, skipping rope, and meditating.

Changing my mindset to allow myself to be bad at these behaviours has been a struggle. Motivation requires a lot of effort when I’m expecting to be the once-proficient athlete in all areas of physical activity. You might have noticed that motivation isn’t something that we can muster on command. It comes and goes. When it is absent, we tend to follow the path of least resistance to the easiest thing like napping.

In case you thought it was too late to make a difference to your health and fitness…

Then think again! For me, it’s never too late to…

  • Get started.
    Try doing one, better-than-nothing behaviour
  • Get strong.
    One minute at a time!
  • Get fit.
    One minute at a time!
  • Get healthy.
    One minute at a time!
  • Get confident.
    One minute at a time!
  • Get on track.
    One minute at a time!
  • Get back to feeling like myself again.

There are many places to get information on getting started on something. I recommend the Ted Talks series on “How to Be a Better Human,” taking what resonates with you from each presenters’ advice.

Despite being a physical education teacher for many years, Joyce Loucks claims she hates exercise. After she left the gym, however, she noticed a decline in opportunities to “play” and is working her way back into it.