Something kind of radical has happened in my life over the last six months. Something so crazy and out of character for me that I can hardly believe it myself.
I’ve been working out. A lot. I feel amazing, and it’s all Gretchen Rubin’s fault.
Let me rewind a bit.
Every year, around late winter/early spring, I decide that I need to start working out. Swimsuit season is coming up and pumpkin pie/Christmas cookie season has not been kind to the parts that go unhidden come summer. And so I come up with some sort of haphazard plan to get in shape. One year I signed up for a half marathon. One year I joined the gym. One disastrous year I put my fitness in Shaun T’s hands. Each was different and had its own possibilities of changing my body and my life, but they all had one thing in common: they didn’t work for me.
As soon as I finished the half-marathon I went back to doing nothing. After a few trips to the gym I realized I was really good at finding every single loophole for not going to the gym. And I hated everything about Shaun T, which made it really easy to stop working out with him.
This year my grand plan was to get back into running again. (Eighth time is a charm, right?) I set my sights on a 10K for Memorial Day weekend and started running. At the same time, I followed another blogger’s link to the Bikini Body Mommy workouts. (I hated the name, but liked the structure.) I got this crazy idea in my head that I could do both! At the same time! Each week I came up with a plan: on days A,B, and C I’d run, and on days X,Y, and Z I’d do the Bikini Body Mommy workouts.
It sounded foolproof.
Except on some days the weather would be icky and I wouldn’t want to run. But then I didn’t want to run two days in a row later in the week. Or I would tell myself, “Hey! You just worked out 3 days in a row. You can take a day off.” It shouldn’t have been a surprise that a few weeks later, not feeling any better physically and definitely feeling worse about my inability to stick to my elaborate schedule, I was ready to quit.
This is where Gretchen Rubin comes in. I’d just gotten a copy of her latest book about habits, Better Than Before. I’m a Gretchen junkie – I’ve read both of her previous books on happiness and have incorporated several of her ideas into my life. But from the introduction, this book felt different to me. There weren’t just little lightbulbs going off, there were explosions and fireworks. This book was going to change me. Dammit.
It was this thought, specifically, that made me realize I was desperate for insight and help in forming an exercise habit:
“Habits make change possible by freeing us from decision making and from using self-control”
And then this one sealed the deal:
“When we change our habits, we change our lives. We can use decision making to choose the habits we want to form, we can use willpower to get the habit started; then – and this is the best part – we can the extraordinary power of habit to take over. We take our hands off the wheel of decision, our foot off the gas of willpower, and rely on the cruise control of habits. That’s the promise of a habit.”
Once you form a habit, by whichever strategy you use that best fits your tendency (more on that in a minute), it’s pretty much over. You don’t have to decide anymore – it’s already decided. I work out every day but Sunday. I only make one cup of coffee and then I drink water. I get dressed as soon as the coffee is made. By freeing ourselves of some of the myriad of decisions we have to make every day, we free up our self control and decision-making powers for other things that matter. Each good habit formed and followed is, quite clearly, one less thing to worry about.
As I continued reading, I decided that I was going about the exercise thing all wrong. I was making it too easy for myself to give up because my plans were so elaborate. There were too many decisions to make. What was today going to be? What will I do when the 10K is over? What if it’s raining? What if I miss a day? Every time I pondered a decision, I gave myself an out.
I decided to ditch the running and only do the Bikini Body Mommy workouts. Each session lasts 90 days. You work out 6 days a week, alternating cardio and strength training. The workouts are free, available on YouTube, and the only equipment you need is a set of weights. As of now, she has three 90-day sessions available (2.0, 3.0 and 4.0), along with a maintenance program. I decided I’d start with 2.0 and work my way through all the sessions, doing them exactly as prescribed. No excuses. No more deciding. I started at the beginning of May, and since then? I’ve missed a grand total of 3 workouts.
Never, not once in my 40 years of living, have I made a change to my physical fitness routine that has stuck for this long. In the process, I’ve learned so much about the power of habit and what it really means to make exercise a priority.
I don’t really look that different, and I’m completely fine with it.
In the past, I’d have a set goal in mind, whether it be to lose a certain amount of weight or fit into a certain size of pants. I had no end goals of the sort this time around, I just wanted to make exercise a habit. If you saw me in January and saw me today, you wouldn’t do a double take. I don’t need a new wardrobe. My clothes do fit differently, and I definitely look better naked (bonus!), but that’s not what makes me feel good. What makes me happy is that, six months into this, I feel off if I don’t get my workout in. A skipped workout used to feel like a reward, now it feels like I’m cheating myself out of feeling better for the rest of the day.
The number on the scale doesn’t matter like I thought it would.
If you had told me back in May that I would stick to this plan for this long and not lose more than a couple of pounds, I would’ve said, “WRONG ANSWER.” And yet that’s the hard truth. I haven’t lost a significant amount of weight. Now, that probably has more to do with my other habits, namely my beer and chocolate habits, but I’m okay with that, too. I feel healthy inside and I feel good about the way I look outside. I feel strong, and feeling strong makes me feel sexy. I’d much rather show Elena by example that it’s how you feel, not what you weigh, that matters.
I don’t need the whole world to know, but I do need to tell someone.
Remember when I talked about finding a strategy to build good habits based on your tendencies? That’s another nugget of wisdom I gleaned from Rubin’s book. In the book, she details how we all fall into one of four groups based on how we respond to outer and inner expectations: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers and Rebels. (You can take a quiz to see which Tendency you identify with.)
I’m an Obliger, which means I do a fantastic job of meeting outer expectations, such as a work deadline, a family expectation, or a coffee date. When it comes to the inner expectations I have for myself, though, such as exercise, I struggle. I need some form of external accountability to hold me to my inner expectations.
It makes me nervous to announce to the whole world that I’m going to start working about, because then, “Dear God, all these people will expect me to work out! And report back in! And what if I fail?” But at the same time, if I don’t tell anyone, I’m likely to find reasons why I can’t do this thing for myself. This was a HUGE a-ha moment for me. Every single time in the past when I’ve thought about watching what I eat or committing to exercise, I tell myself some variation of, “I’m not going to tell anyone what I’m thinking just yet. I’ll wait and see if they notice.” I prided myself on my self-reliance, but what I was really doing was giving myself an easy out. This time around I told Mike and a handful of friends. Did they do exactly what I was afraid they would do, and inquire about my new habit? Yes. And did it help me to stick to my habit? Clearly.
Oh, and Gus knew. He creeped in on my “Before” photo session as I was using the timer app on my phone’s camera.
I’m worthy of investing in things that will make me feel better or make better choices.
Another interesting fact I discovered about myself while reading the book is that I’m an Underbuyer. I don’t love shopping, and I have a hard time spending money on myself. I never realized how much this distinction about my personality undermined my good habits. You know what makes working out more pleasant? Shoes that feel good. Clothes that fit. Sports bras that support. You don’t have to go out and buy everything in Lululemon, but having a couple of things that fit and you feel sporty in will go a long way. I also bought myself a Fitbit . It seemed like kind of silly expenditure. Once I realized how well I responded to outer expectations, I knew seeing the number of steps I’d taken (or not taken) during the day would motivate me to move more. It’s worked – most days I hit 10,000 steps, and often it’s because halfway through the day I realize I’m not moving enough.
It’s been a fascinating journey, and one that I finally felt compelled to share (before pic and all), because I’m sure that I’m not the only Obliger out there. I just wrapped up Bikini Body Mommy 3.0 last week and am looking forward to starting 4.0 next week. No matter what kind of habit you’re looking to work on, I highly encourage you to take the Four Tendencies Quiz and read Rubin’s book. I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t get something out of it that would improve their life in some way.
If you take the quiz, I’d love for you to comment on which Tendency you are. Does it surprise you, or does it explain so much about you and your habits?