A Duke University study that found over 40 percent of our actions aren’t actually decisions, but habits. Here's how to build good ones.
Chocolate—the key to working out, says NY Times journalist Charles Duhigg. While I’m apt to reply, yes, chocolate is the key to most everything, Duhigg is specifically addressing a way to “trick your brain” into getting fitter. For those lacking the motivation to hit the trail or get into the gym, chocolate just might be the answer.
Kale chips, he goes on, are not the way to develop an exercise habit. He says people get it wrong—you shouldn’t punish yourself by following up a workout with something you don’t enjoy but think is good for you. (Let’s pause to remember all kale chips are not created equal. Some are truly terrible, though.)
You need an intrinsic reward, a treat that is meaningful and pleasurable. As Duhigg states,
Studies say that the best way to start an exercise habit is to give yourself a reward that you genuinely enjoy.
In his book, The Power of Habit, Duhigg writes that habits are a three-step process: a cue, routine, and reward. He cites a 2006 study at Duke University that found over 40 percent of our actions aren’t actually decisions, but habits. We think we’re putting a novel idea into action when really we’re on autopilot.
Unless you deliberately fight a habit, the habit will automatically unfold. You reach for a cigarette, you pull the phone from your pocket while in line, you don’t go to the gym in the morning. You need to introduce a new cue in order to change the routine. But if the reward isn’t there, or isn’t actually pleasurable, you’ll fall back on old patterns.
Having worked at Equinox since 2004 (and having been going to gyms since the late eighties, when my father ran his company’s exercise facilities on the side), I’ve heard innumerable excuses about why don’t people work out.
Not enough time is first uttered. Strangely, though, many of my students are extremely busy at their jobs. It’s not a matter of having time, but of budgeting it properly to ensure they’re functioning optimally in body and brain. Carving that time into your day has beneficial effects on the other parts when you are swamped with duties.
The second is not enough money to join a gym. While some are not cheap, plenty of gyms run between $10 and $40 a month. But forget the gym for a moment. All you really need is about ten feet of space. Given the number of free workouts on Youtube and Instagram, there is no dearth in available content.
Time and money aren’t the real problem. Habits are. As Duhigg says, the brain of the uninspired has not developed the proper neurological connections between routine and reward. It could be a missing cue: leaving your sneakers next to your bed so you see them first thing in the morning is well-circulated advice, in the same way that removing the office candy dish from the table curbs compulsive snacking. Cues are necessary catalysts for routines.
Whatever cues you choose—post-it notes, sneakers at the door, earlier settings on the alarm clock—the following three pieces of advice are the most effective catalysts I’ve witnessed:
Schedule your workouts. Putting your sessions into your calendar makes fitness part of your day. Treating your workout like everything else in life, from your job to taking care of your children, instills a mindset that this is not a hobby. We recognize that we live in a sedentary culture, yet there has never been so many opportunities to explore such a wide range of exercise options. Devoting that hour a day a few days a week will make a big impact in the rest of your hours. Scheduling it in makes it real in your mind.
Commit to daily exercise. This past weekend two different men stopped me after class to tell me they needed to commit to practicing more yoga. Both get in a class a week. But a little every day is better than one weekly session. Even ten minutes on busy days can be enough. Diversifying your workouts, between cardio, weight and bodyweight training, yoga, and meditation is a solid approach, but to begin, just get moving, daily. That said, don’t overload during your first month. Too many people hit it hard only to get injured and lose focus. This is a long game strategy we’re discussing, not a quick hit of dopamine.
Find movements you enjoy. One of the biggest reasons people stop working out is because they don’t enjoy it. Such a routine will never stick. Just as the reward needs to provide pleasure, so does the routine. If you’re not deriving pleasure during exercise—if you think it’s because you should be doing it instead of want to be doing it—there’s no chance it will last. Fortunately there are thousands of ways to move your body. Taking a running class when you have weak knees or lifting heavy weights when you have a shoulder injury makes no sense. What about ping-pong? Swimming? Hiking? Most every form movement is beneficial, provided you’re being safe and focusing on form.
In The Power of Habit, Duhigg writes,
Only when your brain starts expecting a reward—craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment—will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.
Hence, chocolate. Yet Duhigg is not repeated that tired trope exercising allows you to be gluttonous. The need for the chocolate wears off in a week and a half (or so) as your brain links the reward to the routine itself. Your brain—you, forgive the metaphysical verbiage—trick yourself into action by giving it a little boost. Then, he says,
After a week and a half your brain will learn that it enjoys the intrinsic reward of exercise.
Not to say a little chocolate is a bad thing. Let’s be real. Life without exercise or chocolate is not an optimal life. Fortunately we can have it both ways.
Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
According to Pulitzer winner Charles Duhigg, the art of focus is training your mind to know what it can safely ignore.
We all get the same amount of hours in a day. Some people definitely seem to have more. Writers like Steven King and James Patterson, performers like Beyoncé, filmmakers who release a new blockbuster or shoe-gazing comedy every year, and world leaders who are across all of humanity’s problems. Even some humble ordinary folks seem to get more done than appears possible, but 24 hours is the contract our planet signed with the sun so there it is, cut and dried.
In these distracted and competitive times, there is an overwhelming thirst for knowledge on productivity and life hacks to beat procrastination. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charles Duhigg finds it incredibly problematic that even though we have more tools and digital assistance than ever in achieving our goals, that same luxury interrupts us more often and makes it so much harder to focus.
In researching his latest book Smarter Faster Better Duhigg spent an inordinate amount of time (well-structured time, we assume) talking to over 400 people about productivity, collecting several hundred tips and hacks, many of which contradicted one another. So what reliably and consistently sets ultra-productive people and organizations apart?
One of the key commonalities he found was the ability of some people to selectively focus. It turns out the most efficient among us are constantly prioritizing and asking themselves: what are the goals that I should be chasing after right now? According Duhigg, this process starts with mental imagery, what he calls building a ‘mental model’ in your head at the start of each day, something Duhigg now dedicates his morning commute time to. He advises that we spend that time picturing what our day will look like – what do you need to get done? What are the events you can expect? How will you go about doing them? We are surrounded by the needs of others all day long, whether it’s a boss, colleagues, family or friends, email requests or social notifications, and it’s our natural impulse to react immediately when called upon. A notification 'ding!' is tragically pavlovian. Many of us will get a text while we’re busy and send a quick reply that we later regret, or blurt out an unsatisfactory answer to a boss who puts us on the spot. People with a mental model in their minds, on the other hand, already know what to focus on, and have the ability to say or ‘Can we discuss that at a later time?’ or simply leave a text or email to sit for a while. "The more that I have thought through what’s about to occur, the more that I have a strong vision in my mind of what I should expect and anticipate, the more my subconscious is going to be able to decide this is what you should focus on." Instead of reacting immediately, your time is actually much better spent taking a couple of minutes to make a better decision about where your focus should go.
Charles Duhigg's most recent book is Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business.