As a change agent and sustainability advocate, I spend a lot of time asking people to change their habits. I would love to see all of us (me included) adopt lifestyles that are healthier, more fulfilling and have less environmental and social impact.
Of course, I know from my own personal experience how hard it is to change habits. So I think it is important to celebrate successful behaviour change and try and reflect on what makes successes possible. Here, then, is a reflection on my own recent success in taking up exercise after a long period of poor fitness.
Six months ago, I was not doing any exercise other than walking to and from the train station. A few weeks ago, I completed the Noosa Half Marathon in a time of one hour and 43 minutes. What made this fairly rapid change in behaviour possible?
Working out your goals
I started running along my local beach in November 2011. My first runs were fairly half-hearted affairs, with little real purpose to them. In partnership with my wife I had committed to a better diet and had started to lose some weight, and I knew I wanted to be fitter and healthier, but those were vague objectives. Some of the impetus for starting came from wanting to set a good example for my kids so that they would grow up healthy. Some came from wanting to look better and lose the ‘spare tire’ developing around my waist. But I lacked a clear goal.
My attempt to start a new habit of regular running could have easily failed early on if I hadn’t found a more specific goal to aim towards. My wife wanted to run in the Noosa Half Marathon with some of her training group from Thirroul and we decided to travel up there as a family and have a holiday afterwards. I made a commitment to run in the 10 kilometre event. This felt like a stretch goal for me, given that I couldn’t even run 5 kilometres at the time. But it felt achievable – I had 5 months to train and prepare after all.
Having a clear goal to work towards helped me to take running more seriously and to measure my current behaviour against a desired future behaviour. It helped me make sense of what I was trying to achieve and provided strong motivation.
Reflecting on this experience, I think it’s rare to wake up one day with a clear goal to change your behaviour and then to successfully act to achieve that goal. Life is messier than that. We often get started on a change with little more than vague intentions and it’s our success in clarifying our goals along the way that helps to determine whether the change sticks. Certainly, that’s been the case with my running.
Flexibility and adaptability
While it is great to have a clear goal, the goal you start out with may not be the right one. Or it may turn out to be just a stepping stone on the way to the next goal. In my case, I found that my running improved rapidly and that my goal of being able to run 10 kilometres wasn’t challenging enough. I needed a revised goal that would provide a continuing challenge. I committed to running in the Half Marathon (21.1 kilometres) alongside my wife.
Now that I’ve met that goal I will again need to adapt. While the goal was crucial to get me started, I now feel like I will be able to keep running regularly because I enjoy it. The habit is established now and just needs to be maintained.
As well as being flexible with our ultimate goals, I think it’s important to be flexible and forgiving along the way. There were plenty of weeks when I didn’t quite manage to fit in all of the training runs I was supposed to. But I did enough to keep making progress and listened when my body was telling me to ease back in a particular week. This became particularly important when I started to battle with injuries.
Timely feedback about a behaviour can be really important when you are trying to change your habits. It’s helpful to know whether you are improving and how you are tracking against your goals. If the feedback is positive and rewarding, then it can help to reinforce and strengthen the new habits.
I used a mobile phone app with GPS to keep track of each run and to maintain a record of my progress over time. Before a run, I could set a target time or distance to achieve. There were plenty of times when I wanted to stop during a run but having set a specific goal at the start I managed to push myself to keep going.
During a run, I received verbal feedback about the distance I had covered, the time I had taken and the pace I was running at. As I got to know my capabilities better, this feedback became increasingly important to help me to pace myself over the course of a run.
After a run, the app provided words of encouragement, delivered by well-known athletes, particularly when I had achieved a personal best. While the messages were a bit cheesy, it became quite motivating to try and beat my records and see what message I would get each time. The messages we each got became a bit of a running joke between my wife and I, but having this instantaneous feedback added interest to the process and allowed me to clearly track my progress over time.
Whenever we’re trying to change our behaviour, we need to know that we’re heading in the right direction and the sooner we get the feedback, the more useful it is. Immediate, positive feedback helps to reinforce our behaviours and establish new habits.
A supportive group
Another factor that helped me a lot was having a supportive group around me. My wife was training for the same race so we supported each other along the way. We each had to fit in 3 or 4 runs a week and this meant a lot of juggling in our schedules. If we hadn’t been in it together, it would have been much harder to make it work.
There was also a whole group of people from Eager Fitness in Thirroul that were travelling up to Noosa for the race and we all egged each other on. There is plenty of evidence that publicly committing to do something and having a supportive group to hold you accountable is one of the most reliable ways to change your behaviour. It certainly worked well for me in this case. We shared running tips, commiserated when a run didn’t go so well and had a lot of fun along the way. Running became a social activity, instead of just an individual pursuit.
One habit at a time
One of the strategic decisions I made when I started running was to focus solely on running. I knew from past experience that it’s easy to try and change too much at once and to end up doing none of it well and slipping back into old habits. So I decided to focus on changing just one habit at a time. I wanted to get good at running and establish it as a habit before I tried adding in other types of exercise.
At times I would have liked a bit more variety in my exercise regime. But to be honest, it would have been hard to fit it in – training for the half marathon meant 3-4 runs per week and towards the end they were getting up to two hours long. I’m glad I had a singular focus on running so that I didn’t get distracted.
The right habits for you
None of the things above would have worked if running hadn’t been a habit that I enjoyed. We’re all different and the kind of exercise that we enjoy varies too. Running turned out to be the right habit for me – something I enjoyed enough to stick at through the hard times when every step hurt and I wanted to give up. For someone else, it might be cycling, or swimming or gym work.
The tricky thing is working out which habits are right for you and I think that this means you need to stick with something for at least a few weeks. My first few runs were agony. People kept telling me about the ‘runner’s high’ but all I seemed to be getting was a ‘runners low’, which made we want to collapse on the couch for the rest of the day. I stuck with it because there were patches during each run that I really enjoyed, when I had a rhythm going and it was a beautiful day. I was getting enough out of it to sense that running might be something I could get really good at. Eventually, I did start to experience a runner’s high and to enjoy my runs more and more. But if I hadn’t started to enjoy it after a few weeks, I would have dropped running in favour of another exercise.
Because my work is about creating change, pursuing this personal change in my habits has been a very reflective experience that has helped me to empathise with others that are trying to change their behaviour. Living sustainable lifestyles is not easy but it is possible to make big changes if you can surround yourself with supportive people and mechanisms like those I’ve described above. I would love to hear about your own experiences with changing behaviour in the comments.