One of my favorite books of all time is “Willpower – Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength“. This book is full of studies, and practical information relating to focus, productivity, motivation, and the science behind them, with very clear solutions for avoiding all the usually-simple pit falls that get in our way and prevent the satisfaction of being more effective, successful, and productive.
I expect to delve very deep into all of the great gems within it until every last person I know has read the book twice, but for now I’d just touch on one of the many great examples in daily life that it breaks down. That moment, where you think about something you’ve been meaning to do, perhaps an item on a written todo list, and then the moment after where you pass it off for something else, or just get distracted and move on without completing that thought.
Roy F. Baumeister breaks down from a psychological perspective what’s happening in that moment, and backs it up with studies. Essentially, when that moment happens, and we pass off the action required to pursue and execute the said todo task, it’s most likely because there is an unclear amount of sub-steps between the desired action and the current state we are in.
For example, perhaps a door in the house is squeaking, you know it needs something to make the squeaking go away, probably some general lubricant oil. Or perhaps even this basic solution isn’t known. Either way we can all agree on the desire to make it go away. Every time the door swings open, it squeaks and for that split second, the thought occurs “I want to fix that”. Just like looking in the mirror and thinking “I want to go workout today”. So what happens the next moment after that? Why does that motivation die?
Usually, Baumeister explains, there is another thought following the “I want to do X” thought, in which the very first sub-step to achieve and finish the over arching goal is identified, or attempted to be identified. And usually that sub-step actually has a subsequent step, in fact there probably several. Like, “to fix the squeak, I’ll have to find the oil” and then “I don’t know where the oil is”, or even “I know I don’t have oil, so I’ll go to the store”. That’s where the problem really lays. Because, this chain of mysterious steps, leads to even more steps, like “what kind of oil do I need?” and “is this the best price for the oil?”. It can go on an on, and usually the time, effort, and costs involved with each of these steps is much less minimal than my given example. It’s exhausting to think about, and as you probably already can relate, is too much to just do on the fly.
It’s these sub-steps that trip us up, unless we begin at the first sub-step, and focus on what comes after, we get lost in that moment, thinking about fixing the squeak, thinking about other things it requires, which make this tiny task seem like too much to deal with right now.
The solution to this problem, as outlined in Willpower, is to stop at that moment when you are focused on the issue, break down all the sub-steps, and write them down. This way, you outline a clear path to solving the problem. With this simple method, instead of thinking “I need to fix that squeak” each time you hear it, you will remember the list of steps to fixing the squeak, and if you haven’t already executed each one from #1 to completion, you’ll make a point to take the next sub-step – instead of getting lost in the indecision and fatigue that comes from having too many unknown variables packed into a tiny action. In most cases, just committing to doing the next sub-step, is an easy thing to do, and getting it done creates a feeling of satisfaction, now, there is just the next simple step, and then it’s finished, more feeling of accomplishment, and less things to think about doing. It works, try it.
Now – to make this oh so more relatable for everyone, let’s transfer this to working out. Unless you’re a personal trainer, someone who already loves exercising and has broken down all those sub-steps to make exercise a part of your life, or you’re one of the genetic-jackpot few who can eat anything and remain slim, and whose body becomes jacked after climbing a set of stairs; more likely you are one of the 75% of all humans (with an ectomorph or endomorph body type) who see’s their body in the mirror and thinks, I need to stay in shape or “man I have really let myself go these last weeks”.
I should mention that a new wave of lifestyle is on the rise where everything you do is essentially a work out, i.e. “movement”, but that is a topic for another time. And way too big of a leap for most people if they are even still following along with me in this post.
For now, let’s say, you consider a couple hours of playing some sports as your exercise, or going for a run with a friend. Maybe in your mind going to the gym is how to best get into shape for your preference. Are you doing this regularly? Maybe you realize it’s not enough, or something’s changed, you moved and you don’t know the nearest gym. Perhaps, your friends who you play sports with have all been too busy to play recently. Your work schedule could have changed and the time that you used to workout is gone, early morning is all you have and that is painful – trust me I’ve been there. I have a lot of friends who prefer to work out with a partner, and I hear frequently about said workout partner being unavailable, and this becomes an interruption for both peoples’ schedule. In any case, it’s easy to understand that once a routine is broken, making a new one doesn’t just happen while we sleep, and once again the door is squeaking…
Suddenly, the sub-steps to your workout are gone; you’re starting from square one. My biggest pet-peeve sub-step is needing to go to the gym. Most of the time, the hours in my day required to get to the gym, check in, change, use equipment that is shared with other gym members, then shower, and go home – is a huge whopping put down, it seems like a massive hassle for what may amount to be 30-60 minutes of exercise total. I just can’t deal with that much time wasted, at least in the past when free time was short, it was too much time to give up to be an acceptable option.
To make working out easier I started running. Running is great, for me the sub-steps are: free time, and running shoes. What changed in my life that made it hard was first A) having a full time job where suddenly I had to get used to running at the end of the day instead of lunch time, as I used to do when I worked from home, and then B) having a serious running related knee injury. My condition made it painful to even walk until I got through physical therapy and rehabilitated my knee back to a point where any kind of exercise, let alone walking, was possible without a shooting pain in my meniscus. Once again, I was back to square one. How could I exercise without injuring my knee again? I was terrified for years to even go for more than a short sprint, the pain from my knee injury, even after it was gone, had me convinced I may never run again (I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true) I just couldn’t imagine a life where I had to go through that again.
Initially, I was living in a building with a gym, so I started lifting weights, learned workout routines, and the use of machines which didn’t have impact on my knees (elliptical, stationary bikes, etc), but after I moved out of that building, for the next 16 months, I had no weights or machines, or nearby gyms to use. To make matters more complicated I was working at a new startup where as co-founder, exercising was not a planned part of my typically 12-14 hour days. Now I was sitting at a desk, for long periods of time, usually eating lunch at my desk, the only exercise was my walk to work in the morning, and back again at night. I gained a lot of weight.
Eventually I came to my senses and realized all those hours at work were no good if I felt like shit. Without energy, though I might have been very excited about the company we were building, over time the effects of my crappy physical lifestyle would catchup and take a toll on my ability to be effective at work too. Sleep, diet, mind, body, work. They are all connected, you cannot just deep dive into work and have a crappy diet, little sleep, and still expect your mind or body to keep up. Even in a start up, where things move super fast, you need to have a marathon mind. Sleep under your desk all you want, the best ideas come to those who have had a good nights sleep, I promise.
So, I’m 15 pounds over my “good weight”, still need to work from 10am – 9pm or 10pm daily, what was I to do? Weekend Warrior might come to mind, the type that just hits the gym hard on the weekends. But I’ve read enough fitness studies to know this is a fast road to sports injury, that was off the list. Going to the gym or running were not an option, didn’t want the injury, didn’t want a gym membership. That’s when I got creative, I found that for the price of one months gym membership, I could have a full set of weights to work out with at home. A bar bell, two dumbbells, a little creativity in use of my home space, and suddenly there were dozens of different ways to build muscle. It wasn’t cardiovascular, but it was something. And now the sub-steps to working out were make time to work out, go to livingroom, assemble weights, workout.
I ordered the weights, they came within a week. I started waking up 2.5 hours before I had to be at work, which gave me enough time to assemble the weights, work out for 30-40 minutes, then make breakfast, then shower and walk to work. It wasn’t totally ideal, but actually the results came fast. I started building muscle. Building muscle actually helps your body burn fat instead of storing it, so my waistline started to shrink and there was even a hint of muscles in my torso, which had been gone for a long time. I started feeling stronger and better about myself. I’ve always slept well so I can’t say this improved, though I’m sure my sleep cycles had a net improvement. I started getting into the habit of waking up early which seems impossible to many, I know, unless you’ve had children (or so I’m told) getting up early unless you have to be somewhere, is not fun, or seemingly unachievable. I started to be motivated to do other physical things that improved my condition including eating healthier, where before it seemed pointless to have some sort of a fitness oriented diet, seeing signs of improvement in my condition, helped edge me further to apply that healthy mindset to other parts of my life. The absolute most important thing though was I had lots more energy, my mood was improved, and I woke up with a positive feeling, which typically didn’t emerge out of my usual grumpy self until 10 or 11. Now it took a few minutes to open my eyes, decide to get up, start lifting weights and already I wanted to take on the world.
I’ve read Willpower nearly three times, I love to dive back in and reference things in it. That being said, the act of breaking down the arduous problem of being out of shape didn’t happen with pen and paper, but in my head, as I identified the problem and had too many mornings of looking in the mirror and seeing how unhealthy my body looked, I finally did what seemed ridiculous.
I never thought of myself as a weightlifter. I don’t want to have a huge neck, or big arms. But I knew there were health, work, and life benefits to come from being in shape, not to mention being happy about how I looked in the mirror. So I thought deeper into the over-arching goal of being in shape, and realized my sub steps. Here they are as I believe they came together:
- Step 1: I’m out of shape, I have to have a way to work out at home.
- Step 2: I have to identify something that allows me to work out at home.
- Step 3: I can buy a set of weights, and workout at home with those.
- Step 4: I should shop online for a affordable weights set that I could fit in my closet or somewhere that its presence isn’t a nuisance.
- Step 5: Wait for the weights to arrive, and assemble them.
- Step 6: Create a routine for using the weights, ideally 2 groups of muscles to workout, alternating 2 days a week.
- Step 7: Search on Youtube for some weight lifting routines I can do.
- Step 8: Look up the workouts I’m going to do and make sure I can do them without hurting myself. (Seriously consider meeting with a personal trainer before doing these things on your own folks)
- Step 9: Wake up an hour earlier twice a week, and work out.
- Step 10: Repeat step 9.
So, that’s it, as you can see, the thought “I need to work out” can easily break down into many smaller steps, and usually it’s step 2 or 3 where we get lost, distracted, and allow something else in our lives to become the new focus of the moment. But this is how you break the cycle of incomplete todos. It works. If you don’t believe me, read Willpower and start on the chapter about this phenomenon, the studies should be proof enough.
In summary, I want to go on and talk about all the other great things that came to my life. As a direct or indirect result of finding a new way to stay in shape (so many seriously wonderful things), most obvious of all though not least important, is that the muscles I built lifting weights at home, re-enabled me to go running again within a few months! The most important and only take away from this post I hope you have if it’s just one, is the extremely effective art of avoiding your own self destructive habits, and decision fatigue, by separating out the many unexpected steps within that one todo item on your list which keeps getting put off. It will change your life I promise. People who can get things done stand out from the others, since so many suffer from the problems associated with not getting things done. If you show of this simple skill at work, with friends, and other settings, you will be recognized and rewarded. It’s just too valuable to not to be.