Diet and Exercise General Motivation Productivity

Building Habits with Paper Clips – Day 31 – Great Revelations

Day 31? Perceptive readers are asking, “Don’t you mean Day 33?”

No. It’s actually Day 31. The truth is that I fell off the wagon back on what would have been Day 24 and Day 25.

On Sunday, August 12th, I taught Sunday School at church, so I decided to polish my lesson that morning instead of walking. I knew that I could make it up later in the day. During the afternoon, temperatures were near 100 degrees, so I decided to wait until it cooled off in the evening. Our dog had been having stomach problems for a few days and by Sunday evening she was dehydrated and unable to keep water down. We had to take her to the Veterinarian Emergency Clinic about 8:30pm, and we didn’t get back until nearly midnight. I had missed my chance to walk during that day.

On Monday, I had my own little pity party over not making my 40-days-in-a-row goal, so I didn’t walk then either. 

On Tuesday, I decided that none of that really mattered very much anyway, so I started walking again. I stressed a little bit over whether I should start back over at Day-1 or not. Over the next few days, I realized that it was no longer about reaching the 40-days-in-a-row goal; it was just about forming the habit, and after 21 days, the habit had been formed. I could break the habit if I chose to, but that would be my choice. I think the 2-day break was a positive thing because it gave me an opportunity to prove to myself that I had really formed the habit.

While walking yesterday morning, I got another great revelation. I don’t have to improve at exercising. Exercise doesn’t have to be challenging or competitive. But I do need to it regularly, and there is benefit in doing so.

When I first started this experiment, I felt that I needed to increase my walking speed, or continually push myself to walk further and to walk more strenuous routes. In retrospect, that was a ridiculous thought. Here is my current perspective. If someone didn’t bathe daily, and wanted to build the habit of showering every day, they wouldn’t likely try to scrub a little harder every day, or try to spend a little longer under the water each day. They would simply bathe at whatever level fit their perception of good hygiene and be done with it. If someone wanted to develop the habit of getting their email inbox to zero every day, they wouldn’t try to get more email so they could process more, nor would they be likely to race against the clock to see if they could get to zero faster than the day before. They would probably be content to just get to zero every day and form the habit, and the associated comfort level, of having an empty inbox.

So, where did I get this warped idea that I had to continually improve at exercise? I was meditating on this during my walk this evening, and the best I can tell, it was taught to me in Physical Education class during my 12-years of school. We weren’t taught to just be active, nor were we taught the benefits of being active at a moderate level. We were taught that to compete against each other, and ourselves, to continually improve. We were taught that by the end of the semester we needed to be able to run faster, or do more push ups, or make more goals than we could at the beginning of the semester.

I was academically aggressive, but I was physically challenged. Physical fitness wasn’t one of my strengths–pardon the pun. It was no problem for me to be able to read a higher level, or do more complex math at the end of a semester, but it was a real challenge for me to do better physically. And it was a challenge that I didn’t like. My poor marks in this area reinforced that.

Schools offered math and English classes for students that had various strengths or weaknesses in those areas, but physical education classes were for everyone. The starting quarterback for the football team, and the kid that was 50-pounds over weight and 6 inches under tall, were likely to be in the same P.E. class. The quarterback learned to continue excelling in his strengths, and the over-weight kid learned that he wasn’t cut out for sports and exercise.

If a student was poor at math, he was placed in a class where he could continue to use math, but at a lower level. If a student was poor at reading, she was placed in a class where she could continue to read, but at a lower level. I believe this may have caused many of those students to continue using the math or reading skills they did have, long after they left school. Students that were poor at physical fitness, on the other hand, were never taught the benefits of continuing to do some physical activity every day, even if it wasn’t at a high level. We were never taught that it was OK to walk for 45-minutes every day. In fact, if we walked around the track when we were told to run, we were scolded and ridiculed by both the teacher and our peers.

There is some challenge to my daily walks, but mostly it’s a matter of just getting started each day. Even if I never get any faster, or make my routine more challenging, yet I walk at least 3 miles every day, I will have walked over 1,000 miles at the end of a year, and probably burned an extra 200,000 calories. That’s no small accomplishment!

If someone didn’t read well, but read 5 pages in a book each day, she would read over 1,800 pages in a year, or probably about 6 or 7 books a year. According to one survey, 58% of the US adult population never reads another book after high school, and 42% of college graduates never read another book. Even at a very moderate pace, a poor reader can reap major benefits by reading a small amount each day.

It’s very liberating after all these years to finally realize why I’ve always hated to exercise. Now that I have come to terms with my own weaknesses in that area, I don’t have to compare myself to others, yet I can still reap some benefits of daily exercise. Some people may be fine running for an hour a day, or lifting weights, or playing basketball. I don’t have to measure up to that. I’ve found an activity that works well for me. I’ve joined the ranks of people that exercise daily, even though I’m no athlete. Little by little, over time, I’ll even do more than many people who consider themselves to be athletic. I have the habit of walking every day, and it feels great!

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  • Reply
    8/22/2007 at 6:27 am

    I agree with you on the bit about constant improvement. I think that improvement could be good if you begin with maybe a 5 minute walk and wish to do 1 hour a day. Then you would want to add to the 5 minutes bit by bit. But if you are already doing sufficient and don’t aspire to the marathon, than what’s the point. I’m happy to hear you discuss that prevailing belief in competition as a good thing.

    Thanks for beginning this journey with the walking habit building on your blog. It inspired me to develop some habits, too. I’ve been working on doing T’ai Chi Chih 6 days a week and have just completed 30 days so far. I’ve had no migraines this month and am wondering if it might have to do with the T’ai Chi Chih. If, not, I’m still grateful for the habit and to you for the part you played in getting me going.

  • Reply
    8/22/2007 at 8:40 am

    Anita – You’re absolutely right that we need to challenged and that competition is a good thing. However, when the challenge or the competition becomes a negative force, it’s much better to do something than it is to do nothing. I think we all have those areas where this is the case, but those areas will be different for different people.

    I’m excited to hear about your progress with T’ai Chi Chih, and especially about the positive side-effect of no headaches. I’m humbled that I could have a part in that.

  • Reply
    Matthew Cornell
    8/26/2007 at 3:27 pm

    Very good insight, Ricky. I like how Mark Forster puts it in DIT: “little and often”,. He says the mind likes to work this way. It has time to simulate, make
    connections, and get new insights. Fundamental to habit changes, as well.

  • Reply
    Mark Martinez
    1/5/2010 at 2:09 am

    You got a point…
    When the focus is on “building the habit” and making it stick, single focus is great. For example, I’ve been off any kind of workout for 6 months due to an injury… now I’m trying to get back to it, past few weeks the focus has been “just get to the gym 3 times a week”
    Once that habit is formed, it depends where you wann’a take it next (or leave it there if that satisfies you)… in my case, next step of focus would be: “Have a structured workout” (one that serves whatever side sport I’m into – e.g. wakeboarding, kickboxing)

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