Every few days, I run into someone I know, and they say something along the lines of:
“How do you do it, Marcella? You work out consistently, and you run for so long. What’s your secret?”
Little do they know that my “secret” is this: while I’m running or working out, my mind is completely absorbed my something else.
If I’m on the treadmill, I daydream about playing the drums onstage or reliving my TEDx Talk. (I like being onstage, apparently?)
If I’m working out at home or following an exercise DVD, I play an episode of my favorite TV show on my laptop to pass the time.
My fitness “secret” is distraction. There’s nothing complex about that — or is there?
In this post, I want to share just how I stick to this kind of “willpower hack” — what I call my System — to run my life without letting my willpower waver.
I’ll also share the new habits I am trying to form, and how I practice them each day.
Why Systems Work
Let’s face it: willpower is not enough. It’s the weakest slinky I’ve ever experienced, waxing and waning with little regard for our needs.
There are times when we don’t even flinch at being offered ice cream, and we’re proud at our self-control.
There are times when we’ll buy the donuts in the supermarket aisle, even if we know we shouldn’t.
But why do we react one way or the other? What causes that change?
I recently read a book titled, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg who describes at length how to override bad habits and form good ones. He writes:
“The brain can be reprogramed. You just have to be deliberate about it.”
Without knowing it, I’ve been using so many of the tactics Duhigg mentions for years. But there are some habits that are seem out of my reach.
No matter how hard I tried on my own, I couldn’t make it stick. To accomplish them, I put in place a System. Correct, a system runs my life. Here’s how it works:
Learning New Habits
I’ve recently discovered a few apps that have helped me immensely to form positive habits — the kind that make me feel happy and free.
One of them is very affordable ($2.99) and the others are free. Let me tell you more about them.
When I first came across the Commit app, I was hesitant to spend $2.99 on bettering my habits. I figured I could do it on my own, right? But, after a few days of messing up big time, I decided to take the plunge — and it’s made a world of difference.
Commit helps me create new habits by telling the app which activities I want to do daily and then reporting back whether or not I actually did. The point of the app is to get a streak going. For example, if I want to floss every day, I let the app know that YES! I flossed today, and it lets me know that I’ve flossed for 10 days in a row. Win!
Right now, there are four habits I’m trying to create through the Commit app. Maybe my list will give you an idea of what you could do with Commit. These are the things I want to do each day:
- Be grateful for three things (which I jot down in a journal)
- Use moisturizer
You know all those dreams you wish you could accomplish but seem too far out of reach? Like learning to speak Italian or running a marathon? May seem daunting but dreams are usually only a few steps away from becoming reality.
This app is in the business of making dreams come true. Holy awesome.
Though I’ve been waiting for this app for months, it’s only been released for a few weeks, and I have noticed some kinks. I’m sticking with it, though. Charting my dreams through to reality is so worth it.
Right now, I’m charting these dreams using Everest:
- Write my second book
- Run a marathon
- Visit Italy again
Backed by Twitter investors, this app has gotten a lot of attention from the personal development crowd lately, including a strong endorsement from blogging heavyweights like Tim Ferriss, too. Makes me think Lift has a great chance of sticking around.
Apart from the techie gossip, Lift is an awesome platform to really focus on living a healthier life. It taps into the encouragement that communities can provide, too. Friends can give you props, which is basically like a pat on the back.
My use of Lift is more like a daily to-do list of healthy activities. For example, each day I log onto the Lift app and check off whether or not I accomplished these goals that day:
- Low carb lunch
- No sweets
- No soda
- Drink more water
- Give a hug
- Give thanks
Staying On Track — Enter the System
But what about the habits that I think already have down pat — until I don’t? Everyone falls off the wagon, but the trick is knowing how to get back on.
Duhigg tells us that the root of the “off the wagon” problem is simply stress. In various examples, he shows us that:
“During crucial high-stress moments, everything falls apart.”
I navigate the waters of Real Life by following this very specific (and surprisingly forgiving) System.
Google Calendar tells me when I work out — and I listen. At the start of each week, I schedule in my workouts. Usually, that means four workouts: some running, some bodyweight, some cross training.
If I have a date with the treadmill on Monday morning, I don’t miss it.
When I have a date with P90X on Saturday afternoon, I’m there and ready to roll.
Why? Because it’s a priority. And I don’t question priorities.
My alarm clock is not to be distrusted — both my internal and external one. The alarm goes off each morning at 6AM, and I do not press Snooze — not even once.
But the flexibility and compassion I have for myself is the key.
If I go to bed past 10PM, I know that the wake-up time is going to be killer, so I plan accordingly (setting the alarm back). I know my body, so I let it rest when it needs to. (Yes, I need more than 8 hours a night. Shush.)
I aim to wake up each morning without an alarm. Sticking to my System’s routines helps that happen naturally more and more.
I challenge myself and tell everyone about it. In November, I announced that I wanted to write 10,000 words per day for two months straight. (At the same time, I made drastic changes in my business.) I never hit the 10,000, but I did feel the pressure to try — and I wrote more than I had in a long time.
Now, using the Everest app, I’m writing 1,000 words per day — and I surpass that number most days. But my focus is on hitting that number, day in and day out. The quality of those words doesn’t matter too much because I can edit later. What matters is forming the habit.
I also publish a blog post here on TPV each week twice a week, no exceptions. I know that I have those deadlines to meet, even if they’re self-imposed. I imagine the audience waiting for them — and I can’t let you all, my adventurers, down!
I have a set of rules that I don’t break 99% of the time (because nobody is perfect).
I live my life by these rules so that I waste no brain power on weighing my options. A rule is a rule, and willpower doesn’t stand a chance against them:
- I workout 4 times a week for 45 minutes.
- Lunch is a salad with chicken.
- Junk food is not allowed, including: rice, pasta, soda, chips, desserts, and any excess sugar or salt.
- Bedtime is between 9 and 10PM. (You must be very cool if you get me to stay up later.)
- When I do work (like writing), I am deliberate, focused and intense.
Applying A System In Your Life
The reason I am able to pull of this off is due to a few factors. Let me explain them, so they may help you in your path to designing an awesome day:
- Pain Over Pleasure: I associate acute pain with bad habits. Going to sleep late hurts me, just like not going to the gym makes me feel sluggish. Another example: skipping my writing routine will cause me great pain because it means reaching my goals (or finishing my second book) will take longer than I wish.
- Accountability: Telling everyone my crazy plans helps me to achieve more, faster. Without my random announcements (like “I’m going to read a book a day!”), I don’t believe I’d get as much done as I have so far. Right now, I’m spreading the word that I’m writing my second book — so that I’ll feel pressure to finish it soon. (This sometimes sucks in the moment, but it feels awesome when I get it done.)
- Distraction: If anything gives me too much pain (like not eating the birthday cake!), I’ll distract myself with something else. If I don’t feel like working out, I’ll watch some TV while I do my jump rope routine. I find ways to keep the mind happy, so that nothing goes astray.
In what seems to be the greatest metaphor for building your System, the psychologist William James tells us:
“Water, in flowing, hollows out for itself a channel, which grows broader and deeper; and, after having ceased to flow, it resumes, when it flows again, the path traced by itself before.”
What are the habits you’d like to build in your life? If a system runs your life, could you better achieve awesomeness?
Leave your ideas in the comments, adventurers!