If I had to make my list of the top 10 problems people have with starting a program, finding time for exercise would definitely be at the top of it. But here’s the thing: if you’re looking to find some spare time when you can fit exercise in, forget about it. We’re living in the early part of the 21st century. No one has spare time. It’s like “spare money.” You can choose to budget money and time any way you want, but none of it is extra, none of it is spare.
Time is the great equalizer. The poorest person on the planet and the richest have exactly the same amount of it, 24 hours per day. No more, no less. So let’s forget about finding extra time. (Where are you going to find it, under a rock?) Instead, let’s talk about developing a budget. Let’s talk about creating our life the way we want it to be.
As a writer, I’m always fascinated with what the writing process is like for other writers. Writing is right up there with exercise in the procrastination sweepstakes. There are thousands of failed writers all over the place who are sure that the only reason they’re not successful is that they “couldn’t find time,” or didn’t have the right computer, or the right quiet room, or because they had too many other responsibilities. But successful writers-like successful exercisers-don’t have any more minutes in the day than unsuccessful writers. My favorite writing story is the one about the lawyer who wrote a novel in the wee hours of the morning before proceeding to go to work, where he put in a 60-hour week while supporting a family with three small children. It took him three years to complete the novel. The novel was A Time to Kill and the lawyer was John Grisham.
Oh, and did I mention the almost destitute young housewife with a young child and a burning desire to write no matter what? She’d sit in coffee shops and write by longhand while the baby would nap. Did it for a long time, by the way, with little support from the university. Her name is J.K. Rowling. Maybe you know her. She wrote the Harry Potter books.
So let’s dispel this notion of “I can’t find the time.” Of course you can’t. Neither can I. The problem is not one of time, it’s one of habit development. It’s about taking something that you’re not used to doing-exercise-and turning it into something that you’re not used to doing without. Work on the plan for habit acquisition and believe me, time will take care of itself.
So how do you build a habit?
Suppose you’re playing catch with a little kid. A real little kid, one who can barely get her hands around the ball and is just learning to throw. What do you do? Do you throw the ball as hard and as fast as you can? Of course you don’t because it would be impossible for her to catch it and she would get completely frustrated and give up. Sometime watch a father teaching his kid to hit a baseball. How does he pitch those first balls? Easy and gently. Underhand.
Now why do you do it like that?
Because you want the child to develop her skill. Because the one thing you don’t want is for her to feel defeated. Because you don’t want her to be frustrated. Because skill building has to start slowly, a little at a time. When she gets good at catching the ball with an easy throw, when he gets good at hitting the ball with an easy pitch, then you make it marginally harder. You keep the challenge level just slightly above the skill level, so that the skill can grow organically, step by step and the learner is always reinforced positively with a feeling of accomplishment.
And why, at the risk of repeating the obvious, do we do it this way?
Well, if I can be blunt, because no one likes to do what they suck at. If you keep having an unsuccessful experience with something, you just stop doing it. It’s not fun to fail. And that’s what most people have done with their exercise programs. They cut off a big chunk right at the beginning they can’t chew it and they spit it out. And they stop.
And blame it on not having enough time.
You are going to teach yourself something new, a new skill, a new habit, just as surely as you would teach a child to catch and throw a ball. If you start with some ridiculous goal like “I must do one hour of jogging every day,” it will be like throwing a fastball to the kid who never played catch before. You’re going to be frustrated, you’re going to think you stink at this game and you’re going to give up. That you can take to the bank. So you have to do something different. You have got to stack the deck in your own favor.
You have to set the game up so you win.
See, the subconscious mind is very simplistic. It’s very digital. It knows two states: on or off. Win or lose. Success or failure. If you set yourself an initial goal like “30 minutes on the treadmill” and you only do 20 minutes, whether you are aware of it or not, your subconscious mind logs that as a failure. You aimed for 30 and didn’t make it. Somewhere in your subconscious is a little voice sticking out its symbolic tongue and yelling “loser!” But if you set a goal of five minutes and you do five minutes, guess what? Your mind logs that as a win. Which it is. Does it matter that it’s “only” five minutes? Not on your life. What matters is that you had a positive experience.
In the first months of exercise, all we’re trying to do is to log those positives. We’re in a habit-building mode, not in “how much exercise did I do?” mode. It is not important how much you do-what is important is that you do something. Consistently. That’s how we build a habit successfully. That’s why the intro level “Shape Up” program begins with only 10 minutes of walking three times a week. What you’re really trying to do here is condition your subconscious. You want to trick it into thinking that exercise is always a “win” situation for you. Maybe for you, right now, that means just doing five minutes a day. No problem. Your conscious mind may be saying, “Five minutes can’t possibly make a difference,” but it’s dead wrong. What makes a difference-and believe me, this is the most important difference of all-is that you keep your word to yourself. You said you would do five minutes . . . and you did five minutes. You said you’re going to walk half a block . . . and you walked half a block. It may not seem like much but on a subconscious level you were learning the most valuable lesson in habit development; you’re learning to believe your own words.
I once trained a woman named Marnie, an absolutely lovely and charming occupational therapist who weighed around 250 pounds. She had never exercised successfully, hated the concept, didn’t see how she could possibly fit it into her extraordinarily busy life, but had reluctantly come to the gym on doctor’s orders. She had tried working out several times in the past and had been given long routines of weights and aerobics that she found both difficult and dull and had abandoned within a matter of days. She had very little hope that this would be different but had promised her doctor that she would give it one more shot.
The first training session we did nothing but talk. I didn’t even let her change into her gym clothes.
At the end of our meeting, I gave her her first assignment: Show up for the next session. Which she did. Early, actually.
The second time we talked some more. What was her job like? Where did she want to be in a few years? What was her health life? How, if at all, did she feel her weight held her back? How did she feel about her body? You know, stuff like that.
The third time I showed her how the treadmill worked. She actually got on it and we walked together on adjoining treadmills.
For three minutes. Yes, you heard me right. Three minutes. And that was her assignment for the next two visits. Three minutes on the treadmill. No more, no less.
She had now logged in five successful trips to the gym. I upped her assignment to four minutes.
See where I’m going with this? The biggest mistake people make when it comes to incorporating exercise into their lives is concentrating on the amount they do and how quickly it will produce results. It’s the wrong focus. Until it becomes something you can’t imagine living without, the focus should be simply on doing something consistently. Do you realize that if you started with as little as one minute a day and over the next two months added no more than 30 seconds each day, you’d be up to a half hour of daily exercise in 60 days? You can always up the ante once you develop the habit. The trick is developing the habit.
In case you’re wondering what happened with Marnie, she became one of the strongest athletes I ever trained. When she finally left me to move out West, she was regularly lifting weights, running in Central Park, going mountain biking on weekends and looking forward to learning how to ski.
You can do it, too. Or any version of it that suits your life.
If exercise is new to you, treat this part of the program as a remedial course in the power of your word. Trust me that it does not matter how little you do right now. What matters is that you promise to do it and then you keep that promise. Keep the bar low for now-in fact, I insist on it. You can always raise it. You will raise it.
When you say so.
But first you have to learn to negotiate this skill at the beginner’s level, just like the little child learning to throw a ball. You have to believe in your own word again.
And if that little voice in your head tells you that a few minutes a day can’t possible make any difference, well then, please tell her she’s more than welcome to her opinion, but to please stop chattering for a few minutes while you go work out.