This article was written by Dan John and originally appeared on danjohn.net
I am a big fan of Tony Robbins and his system of incurring “instant” change. His work has taught me what a big lever I have as a coach with pain. Pain motivates people better than any golden ring somewhere in the future. In my life, losing my ability to function normally to both illness and injury has provided more motivation than all the “Win one for the Gipper” talks I have ever heard.
Sadly, if I can get an elite athlete to think about all the pain of failure, it seems to give them the motivation to continue to push forward. And, honestly, I hate to do it. It works, it is a valuable tool, but it diminishes the journey for all of us.
For years, I didn’t know a better way. Then, I was told about making small changes.
For most of us, we need to try another path: we need to improve our fitness and health one habit at a time. I’m a big fan of the work of Josh Hillis in this area, but the work of B J Fogg of Stanford University made me realize that we need to make our habit setting even easier than I ever thought.
I would love it if you told me you were going to add eight different vegetables to your diet every day. I doubt you will even get to the store. And, when you do, you might find yourself frustrated without the knowledge of what to do with all these veggies. Let’s make it easier:
Let’s commit to adding ONE vegetable a day to my diet.
If you buy canned veggies, only buy them with the pop-top lids to save that extra work of opening the can with a can opener.
Buy the precut, prewashed veggies. Yes, they are more expensive, but you can just drop them into your eggs, soups or stews without a second thought.
You want to drink more water? Convince yourself…and congratulate yourself…that for every cup of coffee or adult beverage, you will have a sip of water. Why not a glass of water?
Good question. I know this: I can always have a sip of clear water. Just rinse out the mug, splash a little extra in my mouth, say “Yes!” loudly to myself and carry on.
Here is the funny thing: most of us think we are walking hulks of discipline. Actually, you are just a mass of habits and part of the flotsam of the community you float around in. In high school, we had Sixth Period P.E. and all the athletes went to Varsity practice. At 1:30, a mass of the school population headed over to the locker rooms.
It wasn’t my self-discipline marching off to war; I was caught up in the current of people going to practice. For most of us, the day high school ended, so did our training.
Fortunately, I was in the “habit” of training in my backyard. Later, I got caught up in my college track team and the Pacific Barbell Club training schedule.
Years later, with two kids, a dog and a cat and a mortgage, I would come home every night and lump down.
But, it was time to train! I just had to “show up!” in the gym and get going!
Simple to write, simple to say and simple to follow but few people adhere to fitness programs for the “simple” reason they fail to show up. Even if you go to the gym or walk over to your fitness equipment and just wave a few things around for thirty seconds, I think you are doing better than staying on the couch, bed or computer chair. Trust me: if you just show up, you will do more than just a few waves.
Twyla Tharp said it best in her book, The Creative Habit (Courtesy of James Clear):
I begin each day of my life with a ritual; I wake up at 5:30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.
It’s a simple act, but doing it the same way each morning habitualizes it — makes it repeatable, easy to do. It reduces the chance that I would skip it or do it differently. It is one more item in my arsenal of routines, and one less thing to think about.
Then, finish the program. No matter what you are going to do, whether it is a two weeks to bigger biceps or six weeks to ripped abs, I want you to finish the program. Charles Staley noted years ago “the best program is the one you are not doing.” The diet you are going to start next Monday is miles better than what you are doing today and the thing you just read online is far better than the program given to you by the world’s finest trainer. Rarely is this true, but we tend to do it.
And, that is fine, of course. Just finish the program you are doing. You might want to remind yourself that just a few weeks ago, THIS program was the greatest workout ever devised.
Do NOT criticize, condemn or correct a training program that you are doing until you complete it.
Years ago, I followed a strict and disciplined diet that involved only protein shakes and 28 days of hard living for everyone around me. Upon completion, a friend told me: “Now that you have finished it, you can criticize it.”
The insight was so simple and clear that now I use it as a tool. Finish it; then fix it.
I put together a 10,000 Kettlebell Swing Challenge featuring two training programs for two different tasks. I undertook this 10,000 swing challenge twice to figure out what rep schemes worked best for doing the entire twenty day program.
Upon publishing the article, that day I began receiving emails and posts with “better ideas.”
“Wouldn’t it be better to do twenty sets of twenty-five reps to get 500 a day?” No, because you can never keep track of the sets as we tried it and you simply get lost after 12 sets or so.
“Wouldn’t this rep scheme be better (insert a bunch of random numbers)?” No, you see…wait, I just realized something: you are asking questions without even trying the 20,000 reps. On Day One of the article’s publication, the readers were already coming up with “better” ideas without doing a single swing.
It reminded me of something my brother-in-law, Craig Hemingway, told me: he works as an EMT and often gives presentations to schools. He has a rule just before the question and answer period. He simply explains two things: when you raise your hand, I want a question. A question finishes with a question mark. A story, on the other hand, is when you tell us about your grandpa has been in an ambulance. We only want questions right now.
You see, most people want to tell their stories. They don’t really want to follow my programs or anybody else’s program; they want to tell me about their programs. It’s funny: in our gym, we don’t often follow “our programs” because we are often experimenting with ideas that we find other people doing.
If you know your history, reflect on this quote by Amelia Earhart: “In soloing, as in other activities, it is far easier to start something than it is to finish it.”
For nearly every single goal you have in mind, someone else has cleared that path before you. Why not just follow it?