Home » 21 Day Mini-Course: Establish an Exercise Habit » Day 6: Throw Ambition Out the Window

Day 6: Throw Ambition Out the Window

Crescere, cercare, coltivare.

The most important thing that we can do when we are creating a new habit is ditch our ambition. This should not be a surprise, given that you’ve chosen an exercise habit that is fun and easy, but today, we are going to take this “strategic slacking” attitude to it’s limit.

Today, I need you to fully and finally ditch your ambition to do everything impressively. If you are anything like me, this will be so much harder than you’d think. When I decide to do something, I tend to go big. For example, every time I used to start a new exercise plan, I was overly ambitious, planning to train for a half marathon instead of a 5K, planning to meet with a trainer three times a week when I had time for only one meeting a month, planning to stretch and strength train for thirty minutes a day instead of the ten minutes that is really necessary. We ambitious people are programmed to think and behave like Aesop’s hare. We want our success instantly. We want our natural ability and speed to carry the day. But in truth, we will succeed only if we think and behave like Aesop’s tortoise.

If we want our habits to stick, we need to start really, really small. It is hard for us humans to make lots of behavior changes all at once. Creating a new habit or routine can take a great deal of energy and focus, and we have only so much self-control in a given day to work with.

Here’s the thing: It’s much better to succeed at just one small thing at a time than it is to fail at bigger things or many things at once. Almost all of us can pull off a brilliant couple of days, or even weeks, when we warm up, do the full exercise routine, PLUS stretching AND strength training.

But unless we have a really big catalyst for our change, like a very scary health diagnosis or other crisis-level event that provides us with immutable (and long-term) motivation, we’ll usually crash and burn soon after takeoff. We’ll have a couple of good days–or even weeks–but then we’ll have a bad day and skip our exercise class. The next day we’ll decide that the whole routine is too hard and we’ll skip it again, resolving to make revisions tomorrow. The day after that we’ll hardly think of it at all. We’re back at square one.

The “Better Than Nothing” Workout

The alternative to being super-ambitious when we create new habits is to build slowly. When I first started going for regular walks in the late afternoon, my goal was just to put the leash on the dog and walk to the end of the block. Why? I ALWAYS have time for that, because it takes less than five minutes. (Yes, I really did this a lot at first, and I still occasionally do. Usually I walk longer, but not always.) Maybe your initial goal is to just take thirty steps on the treadmill, or ride your bike once around the block.

Here’s how unambitious I want you to be. Break your exercise habit down into it’s most simple behavior, something you can do in less than 5 minutes from start to finish, including changing your shoes if that is something you need to do. Do this knowing that you are starting to carve a neural pathway in your brain that will eventually become an unshakable habit. The first few steps of establishing any new habit can be hard, though, so you need to do something really, really, really easy—something that requires so little effort that your brain doesn’t put up any resistance when you start it, and you can feel successful for completing it. You want to create a habit that doesn’t depend on effort or willpower, so this first extraordinarily unambitious habit is about initiating the neural pathway and nothing else.

Once you have an exercise routine so easy you have no excuse not to do it, this will be your “Better Than Nothing” (BTN) workout routine. Again, mine is to change into my walking shoes and walk the dog to the end of the block. You will be able to do your BTN routine when you are exhausted, when you have no time, when you are a little under the weather, and when you really feel like staying on the couch. This is a teeny little bit of physical activity that is better than not moving at all.

Here’s what will become of this “Better than Nothing” exercise routine:

Every few days during this program I’ll prompt you to expand this routine, but only if you are itching to do more, and only if the expansion feels really easy.

If at any time you feel any resistance to your BTN routine, you’ll know it isn’t yet easy enough. Start by cutting it in half in terms of time and effort. Many people need to start with something that takes less than 30 seconds — say, putting your walking shoes on, and walking out the door. This sounds ridiculous, I know. Remember, we are all about establishing the neural pathway at this stage in the game, and to do that, all we need to do is associate your anchor or trigger with something that will someday become exercise.

Even after you start expanding, you’ll need to hang on to some form of a BTN routine: something you can still do even when you aren’t feeling great, when you don’t have time, and when the unexpected happens. Every time I feed the dog in the evening I walk him at least to the the end of the block, no matter what the circumstances are.

HomeworkWhat To Do Today

Task #1: Strip your routine down to something that is so ridiculously easy you could do it every day under virtually any circumstance with barely a thought. Use the “Throw Ambition Out the Window” from your workbook.

Task #2: Join the discussion on Facebook. What is your “Better Than Nothing” workout? Share with the group, find support, and ask questions: https://goo.gl/Zj35ZD

Task #3: Take your “Better Than Nothing” workout for a spin. Does it feel ridiculously easy? If you really want to do more, go for it, but the very second that you feel any sort of resistance, please stop! Remember that you will eventually come to avoid what feels bad, and pursue what feels good, so keep your habit feeling good.