Re-writing your mental scripts to cultivate good habits

TL;DR — You can re-write your mental scripts (the thoughts behind your behaviors or reactions you have to certain situations) with steady effort and purpose in order to cultivate better habits and achieve greatness.

Creating a long lasting habit is no small feat. The exercise habit has been one of the most elusive challenges of my life! Well, that’s what I would’ve said a couple years ago. Today is different. Today I regularly exercise 4–5 times a week for 30–45 minutes per session.

A huge part of my success is due to the principle mental scripting. Let me tell you about my journey to re-write my mental scripts about exercise.

The Backstory.

For most of my life I would have short bursts of intense focus on having intense workouts. This was great for the short-term, but after a few weeks or, at most, a month of this, the same thing would keep happening: I would get burnt out and fall off the exercise wagon. Then came the guilt of not exercising. Then came the guilt-driven exercise that would be low intensity and I would be miserable while I did it until I just stopped.

To make a long story short, my exercise habit never really stuck.

I began to be motivated to change this a few years back when I began to realize that the habits I form in my 20’s will largely be the ones I take with me throughout my life. There were many individuals close to me who were excellent examples in the habit of exercise and it made me wonder why I always struggled to make it stick. I knew I was no less capable than them, but there was definitely something I was doing that made the exercise habit really difficult to cultivate.

The old scripts.

Being moved to cultivate this habit, but also being intimidated by my impressive resume of failures, I did my best to move forward. However, I was extremely careful not to fall into the high-intensity, burn-out-bound regimen.

My journey to cultivating this habit started in my mind, and then it eventually turned into action.

Instead of rushing to be at the finish line of cultivating a strong habit of 45–60 minute exercises several times a week, I took a step back and evaluated what mental scripts I have been telling myself about exercising and overall my health.

What is a script? It is a mental reaction that triggers a physical response to a specific scenario or situation. It is a way for your brain to create shortcuts to a certain set of behaviors to reduce the amount of mental work necessary for a situation. Instead of having to analyze a situation and decide how to react, you’re brain calls up the script, runs it, and your reaction happens.

You usually created these scripts through repeated experience or continuous reinforcement. Just because you have a script doesn’t necessary mean it’s true, it just means that is what you have consistently told yourself (or been told by others) over several similar experiences. A classic example is saying to yourself: “Oh I’m not a math person”. If you’re like me, you’ve had experiences in grade school where math was your hardest class, and with repeated exposure to this difficulty and low grades, you began to tell yourself that “it just isn’t something you do very well”. Because of this mental notion I had towards math, I didn’t try as hard. I would also see members of my family claim that they too were not math people, so I figured it was a family thing. The truth is that I didn’t learn how to learn math very well.

Alternatively, a different script you might tell yourself is “I am definitely an art person”. This script has most likely been created because of repeated good experiences and positive reinforcement from external sources.

So you must ask yourself: What habits have I always wanted to cultivate but always seemed to struggle with?

Re-writing your scripts. (the good news!)

As you’re thinking about the habits that you’ve always wanted to cultivate but struggled with, take heart! The good news about these scripts (which are inherently tied to your habits, in most cases) is that you can re-write them. It takes time and effort but it’s worth it.

Here is a completely unofficial roadmap of how to re-write your scripts and my experience going through these steps:

First, identify your old scripts. This involves looking into your past to discover experiences that shape your current view.

What do you tell yourself when you think about cultivating a certain habit? (Examples: “I’m just not a morning person”, “I’m not a math person”, “I’m not an athletic person”….to name a few).

When did you start believing this unofficial, personal mantra?

When it comes to my exercise habit, I had some poorly written scripts from past experiences. Here are a couple of my scripts regarding exercise:

  1. It isn’t a good workout unless I am near death at the end. If I can’t make work that hard in a session, it’s not worth my time and I’m just a panzy.
  2. I can exercise later, there are other things that are more important right now.

Second, write down what script you want to replace your current scripts.

For any bad habit you want to kick, you need to know what to replace it with. It isn’t any different with mental scripting. If you want to re-write a mental script, you need to know what you will be re-writing it with.

The scripts that I wanted to trigger in my mind when faced with exercise were simple:

  1. Any amount of exercise is better than none.
  2. I feel fulfilled and energized after I exercise.
  3. I want my body to remain healthy after my peak years of physical health so that I can enjoy life more fully.
  4. I need this habit now.

Third, break down which script you’d like to re-write first.

This is no secret to success. Break down the problem into manageable chunks.

I decided to tackle the first one on my list: the weird requirement that I had of needing every exercise to be a near-death experience. My second script was relatively easy to combine with my first, but I didn’t focus on it nearly as much as I needed to

Fourth, create a plan.

Creating a plan can be daunting. The biggest show-stopper is perfectionism. You may want to create an infallible plan, but that most likely won’t be the first plan you come up with. Create a solid footing and define the first couple steps. After that, your plan may get hazy, but that’s ok. Sometimes the only way to clear that haze is to walk towards it.

Don’t wait until your plan is perfect. Just act.

My plan was really, really simple. I committed to one week of exercising 4 -6 times a week for 5–10 minutes per session. Some of you health junkies out there may laugh, but hey, we’ve all got our starting places. The idea behind this plan was to train my mind that I actually do have time for exercise and that it is ok that I’m not dying at the end of my exercise. Physically, I could’ve done a lot more than 5–10 minutes. But I didn’t want to turn exercise into a stressful experience again.

At the end of these short sessions, I didn’t always feel energized or fulfilled . But overtime, those feelings of satisfaction came in small doses. As I began to physically feel the minimal impacts of my minimal exercising (for instance: increased ability to think clearly, greater amount of discipline in other areas of my life, and overall greater confidence), I began to want more of it. I pushed my exercise time to 10–20 minutes per session. Again, I went through an adjustment period where I felt a nagging sensation of needing to do other things. My determination was stronger because of the new scripts I was wanting to deeply implant in my mind. After a stretch of time, my mind once again began to recognize the positive impacts of 10–20 minutes. I followed this pattern up to this point in my journey. I now crave exercise and anything less than 20 minutes is okay….but I really crave a good exercise of 30–45 minutes. I successfully re-wrote my mental scripts about exercise!

The take-away.

There are many more principles that I could talk about when it comes to cultivating habits (read “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg if you’re really interested in habits and how they work). For me, mental scripting is a huge part of defining my habits. My journey to re-writing my mental scripts about exercise has empowered me to discover other areas of my life where I want to change. Sometimes we get stuck in the past and don’t allow ourselves to grow because of mental scripts that are deeply embedded in our minds. Usually, we don’t even realize they are there until we take time to examine them.

The challenge? Take time to examine your mental scripts to unlock more of your massive potential.