Recently I found myself caught in an internal dialog about exercise. I've been avoiding exercise, and I told myself, “I must not really want to be as fit as I can be. Otherwise I would exercise. If I really wanted it badly enough, I'd do it.”
I've had that dialog with myself before, and at first blush it seems logical and legitimate. I'm not overweight, and I'm reasonably fit and healthy. Exercise feels “optional,” even though I know intellectually how important it is for my overall health and longevity. I don't have a compelling, urgent need to exercise. So my lack of recent initiative has led me to the conclusion that I must not really want to be as fit as I could be right now.
But that's simply not the truth.
If I could snap my fingers and have the choice to remain at my current level of fitness, or be able to easily run 5 miles and be toned and flexible, of course I'd choose the latter. If it were as simple as snapping my fingers, I would absolutely want to be as fit, toned, and healthy as possible.
Have you ever found yourself caught in this internal debate ?
It sounds as though you are being honest and real with yourself — “If I really wanted it, I would do something about it.” But the truth is we all really want it — whatever it is. We want to be fit, learn to meditate, finish a project, clean out clutter, master a new skill, eat healthy, etc.
The Problem Isn't Wanting
Every one of us dreams of being better, doing great things, accomplishing more. The problem isn't that “we don't really want it enough.” The problem is we don't want to do all of the hard stuff required to make it happen. Wanting something enough (and how do you define enough anyway?) doesn't make the steps to achieving it less complicated or easier.
Even when we feel quite passionate about something we'd like to achieve, many of the steps required to make it happen aren't remotely related to the outcome we feel so passionate about.
For example, I am passionate about writing and blogging. I am not passionate about many aspects of computer technology. But in order to have a successful blog, I've had to learn computer skills that I find tedious and difficult. My passion for blogging has helped motivate me to a certain extent — it gave me a positive outcome to look forward to. But I still had to deal with the unpleasant or boring technology steps while they were happening.
Sometimes we want things because we feel passionate about them. Sometimes we want them because we know they will make us better people or more marketable professionals or broaden our horizons.
Whatever the motivation may be for wanting to improve ourselves, we still have to contend with the reality of making it happen. Passion and desire help, but they often don't go far enough.
Why We Give Up
Sadly, at some point in our lives, most of us have given up on a self-improvement goal because we became overwhelmed with the actions to make our desires a reality. We want to be fit, but it is harder than we expected to squeeze exercise into our established routines.
It feels uncomfortable to break a sweat, to pound the pavement, and to breath hard. It takes too much willpower to cut back on carbs, eat more vegetables, or skip dessert.
We might start with lofty plans and great gusto. But after a few days, we begin that internal dialog.
“I must not really want to be as fit as I could be. I don't really need to meditate. What good is a foreign language anyway?”
We let go of our dreams and wrap them up in excuses and justifications before we let them sail away from us. It hurts less than thinking we are undisciplined losers.
Well here is the good news: you are not an undisciplined loser.
You don't lack willpower. You are not lazy.
And you do really want “it” badly enough.
You have the same burning desire that we all have to be better, to live better, to accomplish more.
And you have the same ability.
What You Might Be Missing
The only things you may be missing are the proper skills.
To accomplish those things that you really do want deep down inside — the things that you may have tried and failed at a few times, the things you may be avoiding because you are stuck in inertia or fear — you need to slowly and carefully retrain your brain.
Each of these self-improvement accomplishments requires the integration of dozens of small habits. Exercise requires the habits of blocking out a certain time, putting on different clothing, walking out the door or to a special room, moving your body in various ways over an extended period of time.
If you try to integrate a full-blown exercise routine into your life without the proper preparation and without building up to it slowly, you are bound to fail. Just as you can't transition from sedentary to running five miles in the first day (because your body isn't prepared), you can't go from no exercise habits to half a dozen new habits in one day (because your brain isn't prepared).
Every new habit you introduce in your life changes the way your brain is wired. Habits create new neural connections in the brain, and the more you practice a new habit, the stronger the connection becomes. It takes several weeks before the connection is strong enough that the habit becomes automatic. And if you stop practicing the habit for a period of time, the connection gets weaker.
To ensure that you give your brain the time and space to make and strengthen these connections, you must start slowly with each new habit, breaking the habit down into the smallest possible components.
And you must begin with a manageable amount of time, around 5 minutes to begin with, so that you can adapt to carving out the time for this new habit.
We all make the mistake of wanting to dive in head first with any self-improvement goal. We get the equipment, the expensive shoes, the six-set series of Learn Italian in a Week. But the first order of business is to train our brains to carve out the time to insert this new activity. Then you start expanding from there, once the habit and habit time begins to feel automatic.
So in a nutshell, if you want to begin a goal to improve yourself in some way, here are the initial steps:
- Break the goal down into the smallest possible actions or steps (if this is your first time trying this, pick a simple goal);
- Choose the logical first step from the smaller actions steps;
- Determine the time of day when you want practice this new action;
- Keep the activity to five minutes in the beginning, even if it feels uncomfortable or ridiculously too short.
In my next post, I'll discuss some of the other necessary steps toward integrating a self-improvement habit into your life so that it sticks.
A Resource for You: If you need a little help in those early days of establishing a new self-improvement goal — if you need advice, accountability, and a community to get you over those rough spots — consider joining the next edition of The Habit Course this May with Leo Babauta, Katie Tallo, and me. It’s all about creating new habits for life – habits that last, habits that can lead towards the realization of your biggest dreams. Registration opens Tuesday, April 24, and the course begins April 30-May 25. There's a short little video on the middle of this page with the three of us talking about the course if you'd like to watch.