Happy New Year!
Miraculously at the start of every New Year, I seem to slide into a more productive groove. My fitness routine picks up. I am at the Gym every other day raring to go. I write more frequently. I am eager to get engaged in my boys’ academic curriculum.
At all levels of consciousness, I am thinking about and working on what’s most important to me, bridging the gap to attain my desired wheel of life.
I guess you might say that I am setting and achieving my New Year’s resolutions.
This usually works well for a few months, until something shifts in my life. When one area of my life begins to demand more attention, I struggle to maintain the momentum.
Maybe my work gets more challenging and I have to expend more energy to stay on top of my game. Or maybe my boys need further supervision. Suddenly, it becomes difficult to stay abreast of goals and resolutions in other areas of my life.
Let us take fitness as an example. This is my Fitbit graph from 2014.
I downloaded this data and graphed it to appraise my overall progression last year. (Are you a Fitbitter? You can follow these detailed instructions to map your own progress.)
It shows exemplary progress at the beginning of last year, tapering off towards Fall and regaining momentum towards the end of the year.
I am not at all surprised by this information because it was around midyear that I abandoned my well-established workout routine.
Early last year, I built a fitness routine around several factors. I wanted to lose 20 lbs. and I really did not enjoy going to the gym. Fitbit allowed me to set goals at different levels:
- A goal for weight loss – 20 lbs.
- A goal for movement – 60 minutes per day
- A goal for steps – at least 13000 steps or 5 miles per day
- A goal for calories burned vs. consumed ~ 2200 calories burned and 1200 calories consumed per day (MyFitnessPal is a great app to integrate with Fitbit and use for calorie tracking)
My routine consisted of Zumba several times a week or walking/jogging in the neighborhood. On days when the weather didn’t cooperate I would work out on the Elliptical machine at home or the gym. The key was to find workouts that didn’t feel like exercise.
I tried aerobics classes but found them boring. I also tried yoga, found it rejuvenating but it didn’t help me burn calories. Dance, especially Zumba became my go to routine for working out. With thousands of videos available on YouTube and dedicated exercise channels, it was easy to build a custom workout even when I wasn’t at the gym.
After a while it became a habit. On Saturdays, at 10:30 am, I would get dressed for the gym, grab a cup of coffee, strap on my Polar heart rate monitor (and of course my Fitbit) and head out the door at 11 am. I rarely missed the class. Neither lack of sleep, nor tiredness kept me away. Because, I remembered how great I felt after the class. Once I was on the dance floor, the rhythm would get me moving and I would lose track of time.
The only resistance I ever encountered was in driving to the gym. If the weather was nice, I opted for a walk or jog instead. Even in those instances, adhering to a routine (just lace up and GO!) circumvented indecisiveness.
This is how I was able to lose 20 lbs. and reach my goal by early Spring. But creating workout routines alone wasn’t enough. To keep me going when the going got tough, I had to build muscle memory, make my routines automatic and allow for improvement. Above all I had to strive for balance.
Build muscle memory through routines
Inspiration, motivation and willpower are crutches. The best they can do is to get you on your feet. They are unreliable because they depend on external forces. Willpower is a finite resource that is easily depleted by changes and challenges in your daily life. Muscle memory on the other hand will keep you going even on days when you are neither inspired nor motivated.
In The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp writes:
Muscle memory is one of the more valuable forms of memory, especially to a performer. It’s the notion that after diligent practice and repetition of certain physical movements, your body will remember those moves years, even decades after you cease doing them.
Building a muscle memory is all about creating a ritual that can be duplicated without conscious thought. Once you identify the steps, you simply internalize the process and evoke it when needed. The effort is front loaded through imprinting your routine on to your muscle’s intelligence, hence repetition becomes effortless.
When you reinforce your routine through muscle memory, the mind may rebel at the thought of leaving home on a chilly winter day, while the body has no choice but to comply.
There is sublime joy in traveling a well worn path, going with the flow and rediscovering your competence as you repeat a routine. Why else do dancers dance, artists paint and writers write? The power of muscle memory is that the very act of evoking a routine can inspire, motivate and strengthen your willpower.
You have done this before and done it well and so you shall again.
Make your routines automatic
The problem with resolutions is that they paint a glorious picture of the end destination without accounting for the journey. You set a goal and track it religiously every week. At first you may be obsessed, but as time passes by you get bored and discouraged. The destination seems unattainable. It begins to lose its appeal.
A part of our brain is constantly comparing our current reality to our ideal vision. This is what leads to reimagine our current circumstances; it engenders creativity and allows us to reach for audacious goals. I can’t speak enough for the power of imagination in transforming our reality. But we need to approach this business of achieving goals in a premeditated and calculated manner; we must first plan and then execute without hesitation.
Planning and execution are different processes altogether. Planning requires numerous inputs and considerations; it is often done in conscious thinking mode. Planning involves an enormous amount of deliberation, evaluation and commitment. Your brain in beta mode (conscious thinking) is adept at setting goals, developing routines and determining the resources and support needed to implement those routines.
However, once you have completed planning, it should be a matter of executing the plan consistently. There is no need to overthink the goal or worry about your progress. When it is time for your practice (be it fitness or writing) you simply do it.
This is the biggest benefit to creating routines instead of resolutions. Routines rely on your internal resources. Routines can be turned into automatic rituals, which removes any vacillation on your part.
Intellectual people are often accused of being couch potatoes, because they tend to derive joy from mental rather than physical activities. Developing a routine builds a deeper connection between the mind and the body. You begin to realize that exercising feels good in your body and your mind. With consistent routines even couch potatoes can turn into runners.
Mind training is a proven way to program yourself to implement your routines. I will be sharing more on that topic in the upcoming months.
Improve your routines continuously but gradually
“What about continuous improvement?”, you may ask. Yes, it is essential to learn and grow. This is where I advocate the agile process of continuous improvement. (Agile evolved as a software development methodology and is now being adopted worldwide in various facets of daily life. I have written about it here before.)
Agile teams set goals for a specific time period (a sprint) and develop a plan for achieving those goals. As the team validates the product being built and learns from the experience, it incorporates this “hindsight” knowledge into subsequent sprints. This ensures that the team doesn’t stagnate in suboptimal processes or waste effort building non value added features.
The same principle can be applied to a fitness routine.
For example, we all know by now that extreme dieting and excessive training seldom work. Dieting can lead to cycles of starvation and binging. Compulsive exercising can deplete your metabolism and weaken your muscles. Instead it makes sense to assess your fitness level and set realistic goals. As you test your capabilities against your goals, you can employ the Agile method to challenge yourself further.
- Create a plan for cutting down a few hundred calories every week until you reach the recommended minimum (1200 for women and 1500 for men)
- Begin with 15 minutes of workout every day until you work your way up to 60 minutes a day.
- Increase the intensity of your workout gradually
It is also essential to factor recuperation and rejuvenation into your routine. This keeps your routine fresh and enjoyable.
I arrived at the goals mentioned above through trial and error. I can easily complete 5 miles a day, anything beyond that might leave me exhausted and unable focus on other goals.
However, I do believe in the power of stretch goals. I plan to test my limits through a couple of races. By setting reasonable goals, I am willing and eager to stay in the game, knowing that I will attain my desired fitness level in time.
Remember to balance your routines
Ambitious goals are fantastic, they are key to levelling up in your life. But, once you start building routines for each of your goals, you realize that there are only so many hours in any given week. How could you possibly achieve everything you have planned to do within this short time frame?
This is when you learn the value of balance in your life. Maintaining a semblance of balance will ensure that you carve out time to cherish the small and big things in your life.
Over time as you uncover your true identity, you might willing let go of labels (runner, yogi) that don’t serve you. You might instead devote your energy to routines that make you feel good.
The daily patterns of your life shape your existence. In the end a good life is not just about goals and plans, it is also about being happy and fulfilled. Pick and choose routines that not only help you achieve your goals, but also bring satisfaction to your daily life.
Here’s to a happier healthier you in 2015!
What routines do you employ to tackle your goals? How can you view your New Year resolutions differently through the lens of routines? What insights would you like to share on the topic of fitness and routines?