Jan 21, 2020
I’ve been thinking a lot about motivation, habit, and successful, sustainable changes in both. On The Hidden Brain, an NPR radio show, I heard a researcher talking about the fact that successfully developing strong habits like everyday workouts and healthy eating isn’t a result of better self-control or motivation, it comes from developing the habits themselves.
As a person who developed a habit of nearly-daily hiking year-round on the mountain behind near my home, I started to wonder how it happened. I’ve never considered myself particularly outdoorsy. I was born in Washington DC, a city not known for healthy habits and a natural environment, and lived in LA for my early formative years. We moved to Colorado Springs when I was in junior high school, and I started to explore the Garden of the Gods, a beautiful natural park with HUGE red rocks when I got a car and driver’s license.
On any warm afternoon after school my junior and senior years, particularly after stressful days, I could be found bouldering on those rocks by myself, barefoot.
And as an adult, when I moved from Washington DC to Montana, I was determined to spend more time outside with our infant son. We moved in April, and all summer long the baby would be in a backpack on my back, hiking in the hills nearby, or fly fishing the streams just over the mountain from our little town. – But I still didn’t consider myself “outdoorsy”, probably because the women I connected with over the years were far MORE outdoorsy and hard core than I was. Those women would backpack into wilderness areas by themselves or in small groups for a few days at a time, carrying 30-40 pound packs and cooking on a campfire. And they were outdoorsy year-round, where I considered myself a “fair-weather” hiker and angler, only exploring the trails and rivers when I didn’t have to bundle up and wear warm gloves.
That version of hiking worked for me until recently. You see, we adopted a big chocolate lab mix a couple of years ago, and he is very different from our previous dogs: He won’t “do his thing” on a tether or leash in our yard or driveway – he requires a walk of a minimum of about 4 blocks.
We adopted him in March, and the weather had started to improve by then, so taking him on daily walks up the mountain nearby wasn’t too much of a chore. As a matter of fact, it became a welcome part of the mid-morning after I left my full time job to be self-employed that July. I found myself returning to my home office with more energy and inspiration, even if I left the house feeling obligated for the walk.
And then it got cold. REALLY COLD. And icy. And sometimes blowing snow. And the dog STILL required his long, daily walks. I don’t enjoy our walks in the neighborhood on the sidewalks nearly as much as I enjoy getting onto the mountain only two blocks away, so I purchased Yak Tracks, rubber & wire attachments for my shoes that would help with traction on ice and packed snow. In early winter those worked pretty well, but when the ice on the trails started to get thicker and more slippery, the lightweight Tracks just weren’t effective enough for me to feel safe walking up the mountain.
I found myself avoiding my walks, asking one of our boys or my husband to take the dog to the park nearby to throw the frisbee instead – which was an alternative that worked to get the dog to do his thing.
It took me a few weeks of those intermittent walks to realize I missed doing it more regularly. I’d dive into my work, lose track of time through distractions, and suddenly it was the afternoon and I felt all used up. Little motivation and almost no inspiration. I needed that time in nature to recharge and get out of my head.
As you can imagine, we have a great selection of outdoors stores here in Montana, and two are within walking distance of our house, so I walked into one that I love, and walked out with heavy-duty ice grippers – spikes that attach to my hiking boots that are super-effective at improving traction on ice. (If you visit my blog, you’ll be treated to pictures and even a video of how these things work.)
They sat in their box for months because I was intimidated by them. I didn’t even open the box until the beginning of the following winter. I’d put on the less effective ones for periodic walks, and was able to get back into my routine soon after – because it was spring and I didn’t have to worry about slipping anymore.
Winter arrived early last year, our first significant snowfall was in late September, which is highly unusual where I live. It warmed up a bit, snow melted, and then WHAM – we were hit with another significant snowfall. Those storms combined to create seriously slippery conditions on my mountain trails.
I was determined to try out the heavy-duty spikes, took them out of the box, and put them on my hiking boots. With my trusty dog, Toblerone beside me on his leash, we walked up the two blocks of the alley to the trail and started our ascent.
“What the heck was I afraid of?! These are AWESOME!”
When we got back to the house I hung those spikes up on a hook next to the back door where I would see them every morning as I made coffee. And every day I’d smile, knowing I had the gear to make my hike more pleasant – even under the worst conditions. It could be blowing snow and in single digit temperatures and I would bundle up in multiple layers, a warm hat and gloves, and my awesome spikes.
I’d get to the top of a hill, and even to the summit a couple of times each week, look around at the fantastic views, smile, and feel like a total badass. This was a feeling worth repeating. Often.
Here’s what I’ve realized about developing sustainable, emotional and physical habits:
You have to have the right gear, you have to create the right environment, and you have to take every opportunity to celebrate small wins.
By “gear”, I’m not just talking about physical gear like those spikes I described. I mean you have to surround yourself with the things and people you need to be successful. If you want to eat a more healthy diet, make sure you have the food in your home, and tools you need to make habits stick. If you want to get physically more fit, make sure you invest in the gear you need, don’t go cheap on this – comfortable workout clothes, good shoes, easy to use equipment or a great gym to do that. AND for your “people” gear, make sure you’re surrounding yourself with other people who want to be healthy, people who can be your accountability partners, supporters, and encouragers.
When I say create the right environment I mean this: If you buy a fancy Pelaton and put it in your basement or an unused guestroom – out of sight – you’re unlikely to create a habit around that gear. I had to put those spikes in a place I’d see them every day in order to inspire me to put them on. If you sit in an office that doesn’t inspire you, you’re not in an environment to create and sustain good, productive work habits. If you surround yourself with people who do not inspire you, who create an environment that’s tense and bitter, you’re highly unlikely to make sustainable change.
And last, when you reach a high point – lose 5 pounds, make the choice NOT to buy the potato chips when you’re at the grocery store, get to the top of the hill, or the summit – no matter how many times each week you DO THOSE THINGS, celebrate yourself. Take a moment to congratulate yourself on your good choice. Take that moment to be grateful for yourself and your hard work to make that memory strong and sticky, to keep you company for the next challenge.
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