Using a Break to Groove that Habit You've Been Chasing

Quick, what are the habits you wish you had, but don’t? Get up earlier? Go to sleep earlier? Floss? Do your PT? Get to the pool? Spend ten minutes writing in your journal? Nail that morning routine Tim Ferriss keeps talking about? Has it been eluding you for months, even years? What is it costing you, NOT making that behavior habitual? For me, it might be an exaggeration, but I think not having a solid routine around physical therapy cost me the end of my professional triathlon career. For the past four seasons I’ve battled something in my left hip (diagnoses abound: crappy feet; crappy glutes; sciatic nerve entrapment; lumbar stenosis; high hamstring tendinopathy), and the consistent result has been poor or nonexistent runs off the bike in 70.3 and Iron-distance races.

Want to guess what hasn’t been consistent? Yeah, you’re right, my attention to physical therapy. Sure, I went to my physical therapy appointments, nodded along enthusiastically with my PT, and then went home and didn’t do nothing, but did fairly close to nothing. Here’s a good accounting. In the fall of 2017, deeply frustrated with this continuing pattern, I tried really, really hard to get my PT done. I scheduled it into my TrainingPeaks account. I made room for it in my life. There were about six weeks between my first visit with my PT, in October, and my second, just after Thanksgiving. On my way to see him I counted my PT sessions, hoping to proudly display what I’d done. It felt like I did PT almost every day, but after the final accounting I had…seventeen sessions in 47 days. Barely one session every three days! It felt that I’d been doing it pretty much every day, so I was surprised and aggrieved. Which brings us to our first step…

Get Real and Keep Score

“It all starts with keeping score,” says Al Gore, and that face remains true, whether discussing the imminent end of the world and tracking carbon pollution, or if you’re tracking anything you want to control. First you have to know (and accept!) the reality of what it is you’re presently doing, and for this you need to keep track, and, like, really keep track, not “oh, I’ll just remember what I did,” because science tells us that you won’t, in fact, remember accurately. SO WRITE IT DOWN. People who have been trying to change their eating habits have told us this for years, and they’re right. When you write something down, you make it real. Knowing that my strike rate for PT compliance was barely one-in-three (when I was aiming for two days out of three) revealed to me what I was actually doing, and how far I actually had to go in meeting my goal.

Make a plan for what you want

You know what you want, right? Or…maybe you don’t? I thought that what I wanted was a better PT routine, so that I could return my racing to it’s pre-injured potential. But as I thought about it more, I realized that what I wanted was more focus and more satisfaction. Racing better could certainly achieve the more satisfaction goal, but the thing actually standing in my way of doing my PT was that I had let my life (running two small businesses, a two-days-a-week blog for an apparel company, training for professional-level triathlon, running a Masters swim team, and being a halfway decent husband) devour my time and focus. I moved from one task, workout, and meeting like a whirling dervish, all sound and fury, signifying nothing. I arrived at the end of each day exhausted and frustrated, feeling as if I hadn’t accomplished anything of note, even though I’d been “Getting Shit Done” all day long. The big goals in my life (finish writing that book, increase the number of athletes in the company, and win an Ironman) seemed as remote as ever. I realized that what I wanted was a little space—a part of the day I could call my own, where I could address (in tiny steps) those big goals. In that tiny clutch of time, here’s what I wanted:

  1. Four PT exercises (banded arm pull-aparts, banded arm circles, thoracic mobility John Travoltas, internal- and external-rotation clamshells), taking no more than 8 minutes—the time it takes our coffee maker to go from dormant to pleasing.

  2. Three-to-five minutes of journaling. I’m stealing from Tim Ferriss and Best Self Journal, here, since both their routines mirror each other. Write down:

    1. three things for which you’re grateful

    2. your long-term goals

    3. three things that would make today a win for you

  3. Ten minutes of writing in any area: this blog; the novel I’ve been “writing” for years; something for Wattie Ink.; the Output Speedlab blog—anything.

shift from your normal environment and routine


Easier said than done, I know, but everybody has some kind of vacation each year, right? In my case, at the end of each year Amy and I crash out of Portland, fly to Denver, drive over the Rockies, and spend two weeks camped out with her brothers and sister-in-law in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. This was where I chose to make my stand and make some changes. But first I had to clear away my usual routine, which had been getting in my way. With little fanfare, here’s what my morning routine looked like:

  1. Wake up, make coffee and breakfast

  2. Read the news while eating (I try not to work and eat at the same time—it’s not really great for you)

  3. Get distracted by an email

  4. Lurch into putting out fires/starting to work

Not great, huh? The first change I made was the breakfast right away. Even though I usually wake up hungry, I suspect that that hunger is both emotional and habitual, and it turns out I was right—I can wait 20 minutes for my usual egg-and-avocado tacos each day. The second change I committed to was the PT RIGHT AWAY, like, as the coffee was brewing. I tried to “beat the coffee maker” each morning in order to gamify the experience. Third (and this was the big one), I had told my athletes before I left that I would be on vacation during these two weeks, and wouldn’t be responding to workout notifications with my usual alacrity. That’s the work that I usually move to right away in the morning, so by removing that urge I made some space to establish my new behaviors.

So I had made two big changes: environment (not Portland, where there is always work for me to do or commitments I could fulfill) and routine. Now came the real work: making it stick.

Get Habitual

Science tells us that if we can hit a new routine for 21 days, we’re pretty much in the clear. I had fourteen days available to me in Glenwood Springs, so I could make a good start on it that way. As I established the new routine, I discovered several things:

  1. It didn’t take very long at all. 20 minutes, max, so you can ditch all of those people who want you to spend an hour on your morning routine. Going from 0-60 (literally) minutes will just make you discouraged—it would be like sending a non-runner out the door for an hour run, and we all know how that ends!

  2. My normal experience of time and urgency changed. My usual mindset in the morning is a frantic chimp brain screaming at me that if I don’t work as soon as possible, my business will fall apart and people will realize I’m a fraud. Instead, by hitting a routine and doing the things that are important to me, first, it made the work that came after it more meaningful—I understood what I was doing it for. That made me understand what was actually urgent, and made time seem more like a resource to spend than a terrible doomsday clock I could never beat.

Reflect when you fail

Too often, when people establish a new routine, they treat it like the train schedules in Fascist Italy. Don’t succumb to this temptation! A new routine is intended to make your life work better and serve you, rather than becoming a new hurdle or stressor. If you miss a day, spend your time figuring out why you missed, rather than beating yourself up for missing. The original obligation to stick to the new habit still stands, so you’re not off the hook when you miss a day. Relapse, as they say, is part of recovery. Figure out what happened (not necessarily what went wrong), and be on the lookout for those circumstances again in the future. Fail again. Fail better.