New year, new goals: Two simple tricks to embed new habits

Happy 2018! It’s New Year’s resolution time! Are you trying to make a healthy change in your life? Maybe you want to meditate or stretch more. Maybe you want to eat better, go to bed earlier, or give up sugar.

So you start trying, but somehow things keep getting in the way. Eventually, you notice you’re doing your new activity so infrequently that you’re not getting any results. Frustration ensues.

I recently encountered this problem myself: I needed to do some exercises from our amazing physio Kerrie Roberts to fix my hamstring pain and improve my running form.  I was especially motivated to do them because I run in a group with Kerrie, and as she floats past me, I’m sure she can see at a glance whether I’ve been doing them or not …#ExternalAccountability! Plus, hamstring tendinopathy hurts, so that was another motivation.

But, apparently I was too busy.

I’d wake up each day with “do physio exercises” high on my mental to-do list, but then other tasks would take priority.

By the end of each day, I felt disappointed in myself—I’d done only a couple of perfunctory physio exercises—or none at all.

Luckily, these two tricks got me on track:

  1. Committing to just doing my physio exercises every day, like brushing my teeth.
  2. Tracking them on a wall chart

It may sound overly simplistic, but somehow this resulted in success: after a while something just feels wrong if I don’t do the exercises — kind of like having furry teeth (eeuuw!).

Doing stuff every day

The great Russian trainer Pavel Tsatsouline applied the “do it every day” idea to weightlifting, calling it “greasing the groove.” He advised athletes to lift less than their maximum, several times a day, as a way of dialing in new neuromuscular patterns.

Think of whatever it is that you want to do — meditate, stretch, work out, eat fewer carbs — as a skill. If you do it every day, you’ll get better at it.

Jonathan Beverley, former editor-in-chief of Running Times magazine, puts it well in his new book, “Your Best Stride: How to Optimize Your Natural Running Form to Run Easier, Farther, and Faster” (my bolding):

A few years ago, after a bout of high hamstring pain, I started doing the lunge matrix [an exercise series in the book] every day. Not just on hard workout days, not just on days when I had more time, not just the days when I thought about it—every single day….I’ve found that trying to remember to do something 2 or 3 times per week usually means doing it once a week at best—when you remember that you’ve forgotten

Each day I plan when and where I can do the stretches Kerrie showed me.  I discovered there’s a surprising amount of “found” time in the day. I do down dogs at work at coffee break or lunch, and hip flexor stretches while working at my desk – who says you can’t kneel on the floor while typing?

Other stretches can be squeezed into the half hour before spin class (my husband and I get to the Y early to snag a bike); while watching TV in the evenings; or while Skyping our son.

I do squats while the kettle boils in the morning, and I stand on one leg on my super-fun SlackBlock and do balance exercises while drying my hair and brushing my teeth.

Tracking it on a chart

When I complete a stretch or exercise, I fill in its little square on the wall chart shown below, which I find incredibly satisfying. (It’s akin to the resolution chart author Gretchen Rubin used in her book The Happiness Project.)

IMG_2872.JPG

If your chart is posted somewhere where others can see it, or if you plan to share it with others (as I did here), this significantly helps with accountability too. Mine’s on the kitchen wall.

Most of the days, I do most of the things

Because life STILL keeps happening, I end up doing my physio exercises only about 5 times a week, but I’m fine with that — it’s way better than my previous tally (basically zero times!). Most of the days, I do most of the things, and that’s awesome!

And best of all, I’m seeing results. I feel more flexible, it doesn’t hurt when I run, and I think my hamstring tendon is slowly starting to heal.

Plus, thanks to all the stretching, I had zero hip flexor stiffness after our first cross-country ski of the year. Zero! Definitely a first.

Consistency is a hard thing for me to learn, because I’ve always been an all-or-nothing person who tends to do things right before their deadlines, but so far I’m really enjoying this.

And really, there’s no way to improve your flexibility except by consistent steady practice. You can’t cram a whole week’s worth of stretches into one day and end up anything but sore and probably more injured than before.

Do you think these tricks would work for you? Have you tried anything like this? How do you get a new habit going? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for reading, and best wishes for a happy 2018!

 

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