When I talk about my daily habits, people call me disciplined and act as if I have ability they don’t. Nobody looks at a bodybuilder and believes he or she was born that way. Nobody hears a musician playing and thinks he or she was born playing.
They developed their skills by practicing. I practice too.
Sometimes the practice involves hard things and things you don’t feel like doing but you want to. How do people consistently do things they don’t feel like?
I can tell you from experience that doing burpees never becomes easy or fun. I’m always satisfied and glad after finishing them, but never have I felt toward doing burpees how I feel toward eating a mango. Yet I’ve done a lot more burpees than eaten mangoes.
I’ve written before that I develop tricks to do things I don’t feel like but want to. I suspect everyone develops their tricks for their challenges—actors to go on stage, weight lifters to go to the gym, runners to start their runs, and so on. They’ll generally want to continue them once started, but starting is hard. Tricks may evolve into rituals, but they start as tricks.
Effectiveness and mental freedom
I do what works. I care about results. Some people will dismiss my abundance of tricks as OCD or some cavalier put down. Some of the same people will admit to paying hundreds of dollars a month for trainers, which is their trick, and often less effective. Or they’ll weigh more or be weaker than they want, blaming circumstances instead of doing what works.
You know who I bet wouldn’t dismiss the tricks? Successful people. I bet most of them have their tricks and the more you ask when they feel comfortable sharing, the more they’ll find and reveal.
Beyond working, tricks bring mental freedom. Few things improve your life more than freeing you mind from unwanted, unhelpful thoughts. Trying to do something you don’t feel like leads your mind to go around in circles, arguing with itself, one part berating another. People who don’t succeed often convince themselves they can’t do things they can, complacently concluding they are helpless for invalid reasons.
If you want to succeed at a challenging task, I recommend not saying, “Arnold Schwarzenegger loves lifting weights, that’s how he does them” implying that he’s fundamentally different than you and if only you were so lucky to be born with a gene that made weight lifting fun and not painful, you would work like he does.
No, it was hard and painful for him too.
I recommend instead recognizing it’s hard for everyone. Then develop your tricks.
As far as I can tell, you can only develop them through practice, meaning you have to start the practice with willpower, but eventually you only have to do the trick with willpower, which is much easier.
In general, the trick changes your environments, beliefs, or behavior in the moment, which I cover in unit 3 of my book, Leadership Step by Step.
I don’t think I’ve listed mine, so here are my main ones.
I’m sure I’ve discovered more, but I’ll put the ones I can think of, in three categories:
- Starting exercises
On the next breath: For years, before starting a set of burpees, I would stand, about to start, thinking thoughts like
Okay, ready to start. . . okay, start now! . . . [after not starting] . . . okay, start now! . . . [after not starting] . . . maybe I should make my bed first . . . no, I said I was going to to my burpees, the bed isn’t going anywhere, I can do it later . . . okay, start now! . . . [after not starting] . . . maybe I should exercise later and do emails now . . .
and so on. Does it sound familiar? I could stand for ten minutes that way.
Finally, by chance, I found that if I told myself to start on the next breath, it worked. I allow myself little conceits, like holding my breath or breathing slowly because I know that only gives me a few seconds more. The trick applies to many situations now. I tell myself, “do it on the next breath,” and it limits my procrastination to under a minute.
One-minute wake-up: I developed this one accidentally when a student in my leadership class said waking up quickly was hard. I told her that whether it was or not, believing it was would make it so. At the time I would take thirty minutes from waking up to get out of bed, so I tried waking up in under a minute for a month.
I found I could do it and that it led me to enjoy my mornings more, not less, and I started my day with purpose, since I made my bed in that minute too. Part of the trick is putting my alarm across the room so I have to get up. Attaching quality to the result of making the bed gives me that purpose.
I would never have believed I could do it and love it until I did it enough. Now my one-minute wake-up sidcha starts my morning routine.
Each exercise leads to the next: I started my calisthenics with burpees—that is, my daily exercise only included burpees. Over the years, I saw that burpees didn’t exercise everything, so I added other parts—stretches, back exercises, biceps exercises, etc.
Starting each exercise used to go like my burpee-starting quote above. Over the years, I’ve developed patterns for each exercise to flow into the next. For example, after my hamstring stretch, I move my hands in the same way to lead into my L-sit. After my L-sit, I move my body the same way into my plank series. After planks I move the same way into the next exercise.
That flow removes the mental effort of starting. In effect, my 15-minute routine of about 10 individual exercises becomes one activity needing only one mental effort to start, which I described above: starting on the next breath.
Once started, it’s easier for me to finish than it is to watch TV for 15 minutes. I used to watch TV for hours each night. Now I can’t imagine it since I’ve made calisthenics more rewarding and easier.
Mopping the floor: I have a 45-minute weight lifting routine I do regularly too (every five days, though I did it every four days for a few years). It was harder to start than calisthenics since it’s harder.
Since I don’t have a bench, my physical trainer friend showed me how to bench from the floor. Spending time on the floor taught me that I prefer a clean floor, so I started mopping my floor before the exercise. Then I discovered that mentally, deciding to mop the floor was easier, even trivial, compared to deciding to do a 45-minute routine.
Now, I don’t decide to start lifting weights. I decide to mop the floor. Mopping flows into lifting. About an hour later I’m done.
Creatine: I’ve discontinued this one, but it worked for as long as I had creatine capsules. People told me creatine helped build muscle and improved mental activity, especially for vegetarians, so I bought a container of it. The container recommended taking a capsule thirty minutes before resistance exercise like lifting.
Like mopping, I found the decision to swallow a capsule trivial compared to starting lifting. Once I swallowed the capsule, I wouldn’t want to waste it or reduce its potency so I would start thirty minutes later, having mopped in between.
(I discontinued it for a few reasons. Mainly I didn’t notice any difference. I read that creatine’s effects may have resulted from the change in starting using it, which suggested taking it regularly might decrease its effects. I also read that about half the creatine tested were tainted, which is consistent with an unregulated industry. Finally, I couldn’t find creatine without packaging.)
Stand in position for the exercise: I haven’t developed the weight-lifting routine to where I can flow one to the next as I have with the calisthenics. For now, each exercise leaves me too winded or exhausted to flow into the next and when I can do them easily, I move to a heavier weight.
What works is to get into position for the next exercise. Being out of position allows me to move around the room, get into thinking and analyzing mode, check my phone, and other distractions. In position, it’s only a matter of time, rarely more than a minute, before I put my hands on the weight, and then I do the exercise.
Putting my hand on the weight is stone-cold effective. I don’t know if I’ve ever taken my hand off a weight once on. Yet it’s trivial to do.
Put on running shoes: Lots of people use this one. Choosing to run is hard, especially when it’s over 90 degrees out or I know I’m going to run 8 miles or more with hills. Now that I plog more, which leads to my thighs burning, starting has become even harder.
Yet I find that if I just put on my running shoes and shorts, I’ll start my run within the hour.
As you guessed, I don’t decide to run. I decide to put on my running shoes. Same result, easier decision, more mental freedom.
Get out the rowing machine: This one is the same as putting on running shoes. I store my rowing machine against the wall most of the time. If I get it out and put it across the middle of my apartment, I’ll row.
Hence, I achieve my most challenging but healthiest activities with little mental effort and great mental freedom.
I don’t decide to row. I decide to get out the machine. Same result, easier decision, more mental freedom.
These results include a resting pulse bordering on Olympic athlete level for working out a fraction the time Americans average watching TV and cost nearly nothing (I bought the rowing machine used from Craig’s List for $500 almost ten years ago, so it’s under 50 cents per use by now and it works as well as ever so I expect the per-use cost to keep dropping).
Hot and sweaty exercise before cold shower: I’ve found cold showers improve my life nearly as much as exercise, yet take less time, money, attention, or any other resources. Actually, they give time and use less resources compared to hot showers.
Starting a cold shower is hard. I haven’t found it getting much easier with practice.
You know what I found makes it easier with practice? Coming off an exercise that makes me hot and sweaty. You know what does that? Running and rowing.
So I learned to run or row before my cold shower, which I start by deciding to put on my running shoes or getting out the rowing machine.
Hence, I achieve my most challenging activities with little mental effort and great mental freedom.
As soon as I get home: I wrote about starting my morning calisthenics. What about my evening ones?
I found them especially hard after dinner, especially since eating so much fiber means eating a lot of food.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like wearing street clothes at home. I tend to change into comfortable around-the-house clothes as soon as I get home. Since calisthenics meant changing back out of comfortable around-the-house clothes into what I work out in, I learned to change into my exercise clothes as soon as I got home.
Coming home and climbing the four flights to my apartment used to lead me to want to eat and rest. Burpees at that time seemed, and still seems, incredibly difficult, but since I get out of street clothes anyway, getting into exercise clothes is just as easy as getting into around-the-house clothes.
But this way I do my evening calisthenics without mental effort.
Other side effects beside the mental freedom? Mainly, my end-of-the-day rest is more satisfying. I avoid the automatic eating that used to come after walking in the door. I enjoy eating a full dinner more, knowing I’ve already exercised. I’m less likely to eat unhealthily after exercising.
My food tricks are no longer tricks. I’ve lost the taste for most packaged and fiber-removed foods so rarely need tricks or willpower to avoid them. Doritos and Coca-cola evoke more disgust than anything else, which I prefer feeling toward those things. I don’t like that people manufacture such products and promote them to children as treats displacing fruits and vegetables.
Fill fridge with green leafy vegetables: I used to have ice cream, chips, and pretzels in my house all the time.
Choosing not to eat foods in my apartment is hard. Choosing not to eat foods that aren’t in my apartment is easy. So is not buying them, especially when I almost exclusively shop at farmers markets.
So I don’t use willpower to avoid eating unhealthy foods, which I failed at. I just don’t buy them, which takes little willpower.
Call cabbage “chips”: Cabbage leaves are crisp, easy to eat by hand, flavorful, and satisfying. I used to have chips and pretzels around all the time. Now I snack on cabbage and things like it. Calling cabbage “chips” makes me see the vegetable as snack food and eat it that way. Delicious, healthy, saves money.
Brush my teeth: I could eat forever if I followed my impulses as opposed to what I want or even if I’m full. Brushing my teeth is an easy way to stop eating when I’m full and don’t need any more.
Low standards first time: I motivate doing new things by giving myself low standards the first time I do something. High standards the first time I do something discourages trying. Low standards motivates trying.
Make lists: I think this one is common. I make lists every few days of my priorities. I’m not sure if something most people do counts as a trick. I’m including it because I find that trying to remember three or more tasks to do makes me feel swamped. Writing them down so I won’t forget any allows me to work on one.
“Have I heard from”: When I email someone and want to make sure I’ll follow up, I’ll think of when I should follow up if I haven’t heard back and put in my calendar on that date: “HIHF John Smith”, where HIHF is my shorthand for “Have I heard from.” I haven’t used customer relationship management software, but I suspect timely reminders like this are one of its main purposes.
Sometimes I put notes to remind me what to say or how to follow up so I don’t have to think about it and will still follow up professionally and effectively.
Write it on my blackboard: I have a large blackboard on my apartment wall. I found that some goals stick when I write them on the board. For example, one goal it says now is “No daily or faster sites before first draft,” meaning that until I sent the first draft of my next book to my editor, I would avoid going to any internet sites that refreshed daily or faster, which includes most news and social media sites.
I discovered that writing things on my board worked when I put an instruction to avoid reddit and a few other sites that wasted too much time relative to their benefit. I take care to save the board for goals it works for, not just any goals, not that I could distinguish now which would work or not. I just have a gut feeling that using the technique too much would reduce its effectiveness.
Public accountability: I saved possibly the best for last. Few things motivate me like knowing people will see or know my results. I make public things like my burpee streak, picking up garbage daily, posting here, and my commitment to avoid flying so that people will know when I slack on them.
What people can see, gets done, so I make many important things public.
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