How to never give up

Breaking and forming habits


Habits are notoriously hard to break.

Many of us fall into unhealthy habits. In the US, the most common unhealthy habit is probably lack of regular exercise. Until recently, I was as guilty of this as anyone.

In college, freshmen experience a sudden increase in personal freedoms, and a huge expansion of possible activities and new ways to spend their time. At the highest-ranked schools, students often overlook exercise in favor of rigorous academic competition. At ‘party schools,’ regular exercise can gradually and unintentionally be replaced by regular drinking. There’s good reason for the oft-repeated warning of the ‘freshman 15’ — the average weight students gain during their first year of college.

Just like in high school, students at my alma mater are required to take at least one phys ed class before graduating, so I took this opportunity to get back into the weight room. The university gym is peppered with some bigger folks who have been at it for years, along with the scrawny, average, and overweight.

Ramsey weight room, University of Georgia. Image credit: UGA

In particular, though, I would notice a certain type of person with great regularity: that guy carrying around a notebook, making marks after every set.

For some reason, I instinctively looked down on this behavior : ‘Oh, you need to mark down each rep? I’ve memorized my workout routine. And I know what kind of progress I’m making.’ I didn’t think there was a need for that sort of paper-copy logging obsession. But after reading some Tim Ferriss, this perception vanished. In the 4 Hour series, he poses a powerful analogy:

Imagine attempting to swim the English channel.

Such a feat takes even the most experienced long-distance swimmers more than eight hours.

Looks cold and unforgiving, no?

Imagine the merciless cold of the sea, biting at your skin for hours. You’ve been swimming for 10 long, unceasing hours, and you take a break, pop your head up out of the water and look around.

All you see is the expanse of the water, shrouded in fog. There’s no land visible in any direction.

Freezing, exhausted, and starving, you expected to have arrived by now. Do you flag down the nearest boat for respite? You could always come back and try it again another day, when the current isn’t as strong, when the winds are less fierce.

What if the boat’s captain informed you that you were less than an mile from the shore? How would that impact your mindset, your morale?

It would motivate you to push through that final stretch. You wouldn’t give up right then, after all that effort, that incredible expense of energy, after what you had already been through. Why give up now?

Swimming and space travel: more related than you might think.

Logging gives you an unbiased perspective.

Such is the power of logging. It gives you perspective — an objective reference point — which is incredibly valuable when you’re trying to change a behavior.

You’re not going to become Arnie overnight in the weight room. When you get discouraged after putting in weeks of time and effort, because you don’t see the results you are after, you may be tempted to break your healthy gym habit — ‘What’s the point?’

When you have that log, you know better.

Forget the mirror. Your progress is right on these pages.

Ask any investor (or scientist) — there’s something incredibly powerful about cold, hard, objective numbers.

The data keeps you from giving up, because exercise doesn’t make you muscular or enable you to reach your personal fitness goals overnight. Slow, incremental progress adds up over time.

Making minor behavioral changes — getting started with 30 minutes of weekly exercise, instead of ‘committing’ to a full hour of exercise every day — is the easiest way to impact long-term habits. The only risk is giving up on your efforts, solely because you cannot see how far you’ve come.

The only risk is giving up your efforts, solely because you cannot see how far you’ve come.

If you exercise regularly for just a couple of weeks, you will certainly make quantifiable progress, if not visual progress. And those numbers are surprisingly motivating. However, it’s likely that you actually have made visible progress. It just happens so slowly (weeks, not hours) that it can be imperceptible when you look in the mirror every day. And if you go visit friends or family who you haven’t seen in a few months, they will certainly notice the difference.

I have become a firm believer that you cannot change what you cannot track, and I now see this principle in action everywhere. Consider credit card spending, before the internet made it possible to track your balance in real-time on your phone. What would happen if you couldn’t keep track of your spending? And what happens now, if you don’t keep track of your monthly spending?

Whether it’s focused on exercise, credit card spending, or smoking, logging is essential to making conscious behavior changes.

I’ve been discouraged by the mirror for a very long time. But, in addition to the obvious progress presented by my personal workout logs, my DEXA scan results are undeniable.

Small changes can have huge impact over time — if you don’t give up.

My DEXA scan results, before and after only 60 minutes of regular exercise per week.

Yours in numbers,

Mike