If You Don't Do It, Does That Mean You Don't Want It?

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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.

 

Comments

  1. Wow.
    This is just what I needed. There are so many things that I want to do: personal development, career, family, health, love (or finding it!)… that I oftentimes just stop even before I begin.
    Excuses like, “That’s too expensive,” “I don’t have time,” “I’m too fat for it to work,” “What will people think of me,” “I could ruin my life,”and “I could set the house on fire” are all famous in my book of excuses.
    (Although I think the last one is legit.)
    You are absolutely right, Barrie!
    I fail almost 99% of the time because I’m not prepared. I dive right in without preparation.
    I guess this is me trying to be more extroverted. You know, the “go just do it attitude” which seems to be what social media and global culture wants for everybody.
    These are all practical advice and I’m going to start on them now.
    Thank you so much for this piece!

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Glori,
      Preparation is so important in the success of a new habit. And once you prepare and take things very slowly, you won’t need the excuses!I’m so glad this came at the right time for you. :)

  2. TJ Forest says:

    One particular tip you mention, Barrie, that other seem to miss when writing about habits is starting with 5 minutes. I’ve found this to be very helpful. “Shucks, I can do 5 minutes!” Then it starts to snowball.

    Forgot about picking one part of the day to focus on your habit. Thanks for reminding me. :-)

    TJ

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi TJ,
      Yes, the “5 minute rule” is very effective. Not only does it make it easier to approach the habit, but it allows your brain the time to establish the habit as part of your routine. Many people want to break this rule because it seems to easy — but it is really critical.

  3. R.M. Koske says:

    I love this. I knew about the connection between exercise and tiny habit-steps. I started an exercise routine once by planning to change and exercise for only five minutes, and it worked beautifully. (I felt a bit silly with such a tiny goal, but the resulting habit was worth it. Until we moved and I needed a whole new routine. Still working out the new habit.)

    But I hadn’t really connected it to other goals. Learning SQL or journaling every day, crafting or drawing routinely – these are things that I may need to build small and slowly. I can do that.

    (And Glori – I know what you mean about feeling like I should be able to just jump in and succeed. Like succeeding is still failure somehow if you take your time about it. Bucking that expectation is hard, but you helped make it clearer in my head what’s going on there. Thanks for that, and good luck!)

    • Hi R.M.,
      Once I learned the science behind adopting new behaviors, I didn’t feel so bad about my past failures. You can’t force your brain to operate differently through willpower — or at least most of us can’t. Practicing patience is what we have the most trouble with I think. We are so accustomed to immediate results with so many things in life. But so far, nothing can speed up habit creation.

  4. Nice topic Barrie!

    Yes indeed, if and what we really want or desire, we always do find ways to do those or accomplish those tasks. I think what really matters is that you set your goal and aim for the right thing, and go for it.

    I guess we make excuses when either we fear doing those things, or get lazy, or have other priorities in our mind. However, to proceed ahead and achieve something, you need to let go of such thoughts and get down to taking action.

    Yes, sometime there are things that even though we want to do and they are at the back of our minds, yet due to time constraints, or health reasons etc. we aren’t able to achieve those tasks.

    Thanks for sharing. :)

  5. Hi Barrie,

    Awesome post. You have really caught the whole essence of the issues around starting and staying connected to a new life goal. I have been a past master of the two week project initiative as I always would shoot for the moon instead of getting to the runway first.
    The whole method of breaking things down requires patience to do though I find, as I tend to get swept away with the excitement of the intended destination and forget about the pleasure to be found in the journey.
    And I have to say thanks to Glori because I have never thought to apply this technique to learning coding. Genius, the pair of you! Now I shall return to Javascript! Watch out web…lol!

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Steve,
      You’ve brought up a super important point that I neglected to address in the article. It is hard to be patient when you are looking forward to a goal. But the journey should be enjoyed as much or more than the outcome. The journey is what life really is. Outcomes are just brief moments in time!

  6. This post was especially helpful and timely for me. I’m glad I’m not the only one who struggles with this. Your tips are simple yet make a lot of sense. Thank you!

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Tania,
      No you are not the only one — there are millions of us!! :) I’m so glad the ideas resonated with you. Let us know how they work if you try them out.

  7. Thanks, Barrie. I have been having a bit of the dilemma around exercise myself, lately, and this helps me clarify my approach a bit. The other thing that helps is when I give myself this type of permission: “Just start and do it for 10 minutes. If you can’t tolerate it after 10 minutes, it’s okay to stop.”
    Very rarely have I stopped!

    • That’s great Bobbi. You are basically implementing your own time limitations. I have tried that before too, and sometimes I have a problem when I know I can go longer. I feel like I have to prove something b y going longer, but then the next few days, it feels harder. If you force yourself to stick to 5 minutes, even if it seems way too short, your brain becomes accustomed to the activity at that particular time. Then it is much easier to slowly increase your time.

  8. Hi Barrie
    What you mentioned in this aricle is correct because sometimes I give myself excuses for not doing somthing however we should challenge difficulties !!!!!!!!

    • Hi Lilia,
      I think excuses are just a salve for our wounded egos when we don’t follow through. But we all have the power to create habits if we approach the process correctly. :)

  9. Hi Barrie,
    I’ve been a subscriber for a while but today I just had to say thank you! I come across goals, new year’s resolutions and all sorts of list with the same content on them and think to myself I must not really want “it” because I’ve been saying it forever and haven’t made it happen yet. But the truth is I do really want but I make it too hard on myself to succeed with far reaching goals and deadlines and when I’m not perfect I feel like a loser and give but. I took into consideration what you said about essentially warming up to new goals and realized that everything I’m good at started organically, over time time step by step and I’d have some immediate need or desire to master those things and likes them and keep working at it. So thank you. Thank you for explaining that I’m not a hopeless failure I’m just approaching the whole thing all wrong.

    • Hi Sequoia,
      You are NOT a hopeless failure!! :)
      Creating habits is so difficult for everyone. It takes patience to tackle a new habit correctly, but if you take the time, you will be rewarded with a system that works for life.

  10. Maybe I expect too much of myself, and this is why I end up doing nothing. Thank you for this post. I need to start somewhere <3

    • Hi Nikky,
      Anything great that is ever achieved began with one small step. Just pick something, anything, that you’ve wanted to accomplish and test this method. Take it really slow and break it down into teeny tiny pieces. Do this as a test with no pressure. You’ll be amazed at what you accomplish.

  11. Hello Barrie,
    Like always you have come up with yet another great post that set one thinking. More often than not we all find ourselves in situations where we know we should be doing one thing but as you rightly pointed out we postpone or start with a lot of enthusiasm that quickly burns out like a shooting star. I have noted that at times people need a painful stimulus to set them going. For example in my line of work I have seen people ignore a clinician’s advice about their lifestyle until the risk of a serious health condition (like high blood pressure or even a heart attack) becomes a reality. Thank you for reminding us that we can start small and build up momentum without waiting for a life-threatening condition to set us in motion towards the direction we know we ought to be following.
    Kwaheri.
    Murigi

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Murigi,
      Thank you for your kind comments. I agree that negative consequences can be a huge motivator. But in some circumstances (your health for example), waiting for a negative motivator can be dangerous. People who are creators of their lives, rather than reactors, want to take the bull by the horns and make things happen. But you have to have the skills to do that. It can be so frustrating for the creators among us to experience repeated failure because we don’t really know the proper way to create habits. That’s why this information is so important.

  12. One of the things I really appreciate about this site is the fact that it has made me change my internal dialogue with myself. Before it was always, “I’m not good enough” or “I’m too lazy”, “I’m not that kind of person”, until I found this site and started to change my perspective on myself and my habits. One day I woke up and started the usual negative dialogue but suddenly I stopped and said, “Why not?!”. It is still a challenge that requires persistence, but I am slowly learning patience and the way to change.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Kate, I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to hear that! We are our own worst enemies sometimes. I’m so glad you are rewriting your script! We all suffer from the same doubts, fears, and concerns that we don’t measure up. But if you view life as an exciting game or puzzle in which you try different moves and techniques to move forward in the game, you will enjoy it so much more. We aren’t perfect and we don’t have all of the answers, but the journey to learn is so much fun. :)

  13. I can totally relate! I’ve had this dialogue with myself many times, over many different “its.” Sometimes “it” was healthy eating or working out, but most recently, it’s been meditation. I’ve really been slacking. I know I want to meditate and reap the benefits, but I don’t want to sit there for 15 minutes. I think what you said is important – breaking it down and starting small is key. It’s probably time to reset my practice, starting small and re-establishing the habit.

    Thanks Barrie!

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Kaylee,
      I think we all struggle with patience when it comes to establishing new habits. We want things to happen fast. But this is one area where fast doesn’t work. You have to be thorough and slow to give your brain time to adapt. A realistic goal for new habit creators is one new habit a quarter. That gives plenty of time to practice and reinforce. :)

  14. irockmylife says:

    As for me, I think it’s because I have self-doubt. I really want to achieve this goal of mine. I’m willing to stay up all night, forego weekend get-togethers with friends, put in double time etc. However, when I found myself repeatedly not doing the necessary actions to achieve my goal, I realized the problem was self-doubt. Even an ounce of doubt on whether you can do something or not, can hold you back. So it’s very important to believe in yourself, without any single drop of doubt!

  15. Hi Barrie! It doesn’t help that I have Adult A-D-D and lose patience with that process. We tend to get overwhelmed with details like you said, but I think there’s also an impatience that comes with it. That part I really need to get a handle on. Great post. I needed it today.

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  1. […] It isn’t that you’re lazy or you don’t want it enough. You simply don’t have the tools right now. From Bloom’s “If You Don’t Do It, Does That Mean You Don’t Want It?” […]

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