Chaining the X’s

The 3 C’s of building a consistent habit.

In a world of fitness apps gone amok,

it’s hard to figure out what small handful of metrics really drives change. We’re fixated on measuring things and collecting data, but as my mentor in grad school often reminded us, quoting Albert Einstein:

“Not everything that counts can be counted; and not everything that can be counted counts.”

I’m a big fan of tracking simple data — more for the direction, less for the aggregate pieces. Direction of data over time gives you a sense of dynamic — of movement. But who has time for that, right? Didn’t someone write an app for that?

Here’s the thing: Apps don’t get your ass to the gym at o’dark thirty. Motivation does, which is nearly impossible to measure or maintain with pixels. But it also takes planning.

A friend — Sam — and I often trade email about different productivity hacks (we’re data nerds. It’s our jam.) He once mentioned a method that Jerry Seinfeld used as a cure for procrastination. Seinfeld calls it “Don’t break the chain” — effectively, use an “X” as a form of a gold star, and map out your goals on a calendar. Every time you accomplish the daily goal, give yourself a big X. Try to consistently chain the Xs.

But how to map that practice to a gym-going practice when there are so many important things on our daily to-do lists?

I had managed to stumble on some insight. I practice a martial art called krav maga. It is intense exercise, and it’s meant everything to my restored health. It’s not actually about vanity for me, it’s about overcoming potential chronic disease. But even knowing that daily movement and fitness means preserving my health was not enough to propel a daily habit. Tactically speaking, there was more going on.

I’ve been practicing Krav Maga for seven months. It didn’t become a consistent daily habit until about 2 months ago, and I only realized how consistent it had become because of passive data collection via the gym. My member account at the gym tracks my attendance. One day, I found that you could look over your past attendance on the website. When I looked over the last seven months, I noticed a really interesting pattern. I had managed to ‘chain the Xs’.

Pink squares means I got to the gym. Watching the days fill in like a Tetris game is oddly satisfying.

The chaining of the Xs was getting to an early 6:15am class on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. As the calendar shows, by December, I was hitting those three days consistently — January as well. February, I start to fill in other days in the week, and March has nice solid, nearly-daily blocks of attendance. But how did it happen?

I realized there were other things at work as well that drove that habit. I few years ago I read an insightful book called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. He distills habit formation into three distinct and powerful steps:

I realized there were three big pieces that fit into this frame of cue-routine-reward. I think of them as the three Cs of consistency:

1. Cue — or for me, calendar

Social and cognitive scientists have know for years that plan-making significantly increases your chances of completing actions. I found that if I decided on Sunday which classes I would take over the course of the week, and then also made appointments for myself on my google calendar, I actually got my butt to class. I had actually signed up for my gym membership in early September, but as the GIF shows, I didn’t get to class until late in the month. The cue was writing things on the calendar. If I put it on the calendar, I was way less likely to flake out.

The other cue I built for myself was laying out my gym clothes before going to bed (I got to a Monday, Wednesday and Friday 6:15am conditioning class.) This too is a form of plan-making. The clothes are laid out, the gym back is packed — all I had to do was get up, brush teeth and go. No excuses.

2. Community

The gym has amazing teachers and incredible fellow students. I became fast friends with many folks, and friendship included becoming Facebook friends. This created a new layer of accountability for me — I didn’t want to let my training partners down. So I had to get to class. The community propelled me to be consistent.

In Duhigg’s frame, I consider community to be both the routine and the reward. I had to go and do the work of practicing drills and so on, AND I was rewarded by social interaction with some fantastic people.

3. Calm

Yeah, ok. You might be reading this and thinking, really, Tanya? Calm? Are we stretching to fit the listicle theme of C’s? Well, maybe a little. Again, to use Duhigg’s frame, the reward was a deep feeling of calm. But it also drove strong weekly and then daily consistency. The calm I felt after class became more and more pronounced, lasting longer into my day. My back hurt less after spending 7 or 8 hours at a desk. I didn’t hunch as much over my laptop. I was more able to handle stressful situations with a more steady and stable mindset. I had to have this calm in my life. I had to get to the gym.

The more I understand people’s habits, the more I think emotions really drive lasting change.

Other rewards

Social media also helped me with accountability and reward. I started posting sunrise pictures to check in at the gym, and I would tag my training partners — both as a thank you to them and also because it felt like an accomplishment I wanted to share with them.

Fuck yeah we made it to 6:15am class and didn’t die.

I was also pleasantly surprised by how friends and internet acquaintances cheered me on, or would privately reach out to me and tell me that my posts helped them to restart their own fitness program. Posting to social media was another way I chained my Xs .I’m always worried about over-posting, so getting feedback like that helps validate my odd social media ritual.

There are also more commonly rewarded outcomes to this daily habit. I’m drinking less coffee. I’m feeling more productive. I’m strong as shit. And yeah, I did drop another pant size. (I literally haven’t been this small ever, even as a teenager. PS — I still weigh the same. It’s not about the scale.)

But here’s the truth — the takeaway I hope you remember — there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to hacking your habits or your health.

We actually are all unique snowflakes.

There is only a go-inward-set-goals-collect-some-data. Some folks call it a theory of change — a sort of if-then statement of the hypothesis you maintain about yourself and what drives you to take action. If I lay my clothes out the night before, then I will be more likely to get my ass to class. If I make friends with gym people, then I need to be there for them so their practice doesn’t suck. If I find a way to become a more calm and level person, then I’m a better spouse, friend, staffer and human.


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