Online Exclusive

Creating GOOD Habits - Part I

Last November, as we were vacationing in one of our favorite cities, San Francisco, Mike began us on a life-changing journey with this simple statement:  “Next June I want to get all Gold, especially in running.”  Now this may not make sense to you, and it didn’t to me either.  It was just that, out of the blue, and I had no idea what he was talking about.  Had he competed in the Olympics before and did he have his sights set on them again?  I knew that wasn’t true, and besides the summer Olympics had just passed us by and wouldn’t be returning until 2014.  What I do know to be true is as Mike has been approaching his AARP membership age (just 3 years off at the time of that particular non sequiter) he has begun starting conversations in the middle or the end, forgetting the beginning or any logical context or set-up, and then looks at me in bewilderment that I am not following when I ask, “What the heck are you talking about now, old man?”

So after he realized he’d not included me in his entire thought process, he explained how, when he was scheduled to take his department’s biannual physical fitness test, his goal was to achieve “gold standard” (out of a “gold/silver/bronze/fail continuum)” in each element of the test (bench press, vertical jump, sit-ups, and running).  He knew he could do well in three of the four categories, but running was going to be his nemesis.  He hates running – always has, really – and once he graduated the academy saw little reason for it unless pursued by an angry mob, zombies, or hungry fanged animals.  We’ve both always made fun of runners when we’d see them out in the rain, snow, freezing wind, and in brutal heat.  They seemed crazy to us but, secretly, I’ve always envied them and wished I was a runner.  I admired their discipline and dedication.  I liked that the outdoors was their gym instead of my elliptical machine where I stared at a wall or a TV screen.  I wanted what runners had, but I was afraid… very, very afraid.

So I began asking Mike some questions to help him better define his goal.  I began by asking him, “How are you going to train to make the gold standard in running,” to which he replied, “I’m just going to go out and run.”  Now, for some, that might be a good plan, but he has not really run since his days in the academy 16 ½ years ago.  At 47, one does not just go out and run.  It’s going to hurt and it’s going to be hard to keep going.  Frustration will set in quickly because the mind will think you should be better than you are.  When the reality of just how much digression has occurred over the years, the goal will look too large to conquer.

Then I inquired, “What shoes are you planning on wearing?” and he indicated the $25 Costco specials I had gotten him over 2 years ago would do just fine!  Mike can be a brilliant person and he is who I respect the most in regards to intelligence, but as we get older we often rely on what we used to do instead of what may be better and more current.  Mike would have never questioned his shoe choice; in his days as an athlete they did everything in their canvas Chuck Taylor high-top’s and if they were good enough then, well by golly....  Okay, maybe I exaggerate a bit, but athletic footwear has come a long way from just a few short years ago.  Mike’s plan would have yielded endless shin splints, aches & pains, plus all the frustration from not accomplishing his goal fast enough.  I know him, and he would have pushed himself too hard, tried to run too fast, and done it all too quickly for his body.  Sad to say, but the two-a-day football practices in the sweltering August heat he once did with pleasure would be good for a trip to the E.R.  His body has changed.

If Mike had started his original plan (and let’s be honest, there really wasn’t a “plan”) his goal would have been quickly abandoned.  Frustration and pain would have set in because he was making it up on the fly.  I wanted him to succeed on this, and I had always wanted to start running anyway, so I quickly began orchestrating our next challenge as a couple.  We would take up running together!  He was excited that I was going to join him and as we talked over the next day we made a key decision:  This was going to go beyond a short-term goal and instead become a life change.  It would be a lifetime habit we would sustain for as long as our bodies would cooperate. 

When people try to break a bad habit, or establish a good one, most encounter failure rather than success.  Our human nature is to go too fast, expect too much, get frustrated when the results are slow or don’t meet our expectations, become bored, and abandon the goal.  I knew we needed to be successful and, as an expert in human behavior and how our thought processes work, I began us on our journey with an organized plan.  The first step toward success was determining what changes we can make and sustain for the rest of our lives that will form into a habit.  This is not a goal to be reached and then stop, much like most people when they diet.  They focus on how much weight they want to lose and then change their behavior – or not – only until their scale displays a more satisfactory number instead of approaching the solution as, “What healthy changes in my food and exercise choices will I make that I can sustain for the rest of my life?”  

A good place to start when changing dietary habits is adding nutrition to a diet, such as more fruits and vegetables and antioxidant rich foods.  Research is showing that behavioral restriction promotes failure, whereas adding simple, healthy changes to a daily routine is sustainable.  When the mindset is focused on the rest of your life, the permanence of the change starts to become a part of your identity.  It starts to become who you are instead of this is something you are going to try for a short time and then abort.  Mike & I began to think of ourselves as people who are going to run (and eventually we became runners).  It is now how we are so it is something we do. 

People try to create good habits simply by eliminating the not-so-good from their lives, without a strategy or even understanding that the “not-so-good” might itself be an ingrained habit.  They are doomed to fail.  That’s why so many New Year’s Resolutions end up on the scrap heap of good intentions before January even draws to a close.  Good habits can be developed, however, and the bad eliminated.  You just need a plan for permanence.