On November 3, I bundled up and stood on Manhattan Avenue cheering on a friend and the other runners participating in the 2013 New York City Marathon. Perhaps it was because parts of my cognitive functions had shut down from the cold and were not yet fully restored, or perhaps it was the lingering feeling of community and togetherness that had pervaded the streets that day–I still cannot explain this to myself–but the next day, I decided to enter the lottery for the half marathon, which will be taking place this spring. Now, for context, the last time I set foot in a gym (or in a sneaker, for that matter) goes back to my high school days. So when the momentary euphoria I felt after signing up dissipated, I was left with a sense of utter panic. Not only have I not kept to a fitness regimen in nearly a decade, but I particularly dislike–read abhor– running. My first reaction was to make endless promises to the universe about how much of a better person I would become if only I were not picked in the lottery. My second instinct, more mature and productive, was to gather up what I know about motivation and making changes and translate that into action (rethinked*annex, anyone?)
From what I have learned on the science of willpower–that it is a finite and easily depleted resource–and my intense dislike of running, I knew that if I were to stand a chance sticking to my training over the next few months, I would have to make running a habit. I remembered watching a Big Think Edge episode with Charles Duhigg author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do what We Do In Life And In Business and decided to use what I knew to (purchase) and lace up my sneakers and get started. My memory was a bit shaky on the concepts he had laid out, but I did remember that habits are made up of three components–the cue, the behavior and the reward. I also remembered that you have to create an extrinsic reward for yourself until the neural pathways connecting the cue to the behavior forms and strengthens to the point where the habit becomes near automatic and the reward intrinsic. Finally, the reward has to be a real reward, something you genuinely enjoy. I took all of this quite literally and told myself that every time I put on my sneakers (cue) and went for a run (behavior), I would buy myself doughnuts (reward). I am now on week three of my training regimen and I haven’t missed a single day. And yesterday, during the day, I found myself anxiously awaiting the evening to go on my run. It wasn’t the doughnut that I was anxious for, it was the run!
While my strategy for sticking to my running regimen may seem a bit extreme, I came across this video of an interview that Duhigg did with Jonathan Fields, founder of the Good Life Project, where he says, verbatim, “We know from studies that the best way to start exercising is, at first, give yourself a piece of chocolate as soon as you’re done with your workout. […] What you’re trying to do is you’re trying to trick your brain into associating this cue and this routine with a reward. And then, we know from studies, that after a week and a half, once you start exercising, you don’t want that chocolate anymore. The intrinsic reward becomes enough to sustain the pattern, but you have to trick your brain at first by giving it an extrinsic reward.” (Yay, neuroscience! )
Watch Duhigg explain the power of habits and get lots of practical tips on habit formation to get a head start on positive changes for 2014!
Enjoy & rethink …*
Good Life Project: Charles Duhigg – Power of Habit | Published on YouTube July 4, 2012