“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.”
– William James
James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits, coins a term called “habit stacking.” Basically, if you want a new habit to stick, the best and most efficient way is to stack the new habit on top of the pre-existing one.
Start small, make it simple, set your expectations low, and let yourself win, early and often.
Once the new habit has stacked and stuck onto the old, MAYBE think about adding more volume, difficulty, or intensity. But in reality, take it slow.
Undesired habits form just as quickly as desired habits, and if you want the results that will satisfy your goals, building a foundation of long term desirable habits takes patience, which, ironically, is a habit in and of itself.
Start with too much, too quickly and we often quit before the desired habit has a chance to take root. Quit on new habits enough times, well, you just got yourself a new habit of quitting.
Bottom line, habits rule our lives. As the psychologist and philosopher William James, the author of the opening quote, says, “most people live, whether physically, intellectually or morally, in a very restricted circle of their potential being. They make very small use of their possible consciousness, and of their soul’s resources in general, much like a man who, out of his whole bodily organism, should get into a habit of using and moving only his little finger.”
James, the William-one not the Clear-one, suggests that we let the least important aspects of our human potential consume the majority of our attention. How mindlessly do you go through your day? Ever spend 10, 15, 20 minutes “doom-scrolling” through your social media feed to suddenly realize you haven’t actually seen a single post passing in front of your eyes? Ever drive home from work, the store, or the gym to arrive in your driveway and not remember how you got there?
That sound you hear is the flushing of your human potential down the metaphysical toilet of 21st century life.
Not to fear. Charles Duhigg explores the nature of our habits in his book The Power of Habit. He outlines the perpetual cycle of trigger, reaction, and stimulus that, given enough time, hard wires a habit deep into our subconscious. He calls this the habit loop and offers some very effective strategies for identifying, isolating, and eventually changing the key components of that loop to facilitate the creation of more desirable habits.
Think of the brain as a supercomputer designed to recognize patterns and replicate those patterns in order to trigger immediate reactions that elicit pleasurable stimuli. We may or may not be consciously aware of our reactions or appreciate the stimuli of the actions we perform, but in the end, the brain develops pathways that hardwire those habits that facilitate the physiologically desired stimuli regardless of what we may or may not consciously want.
Is it 3pm…need a cookie? Friday yet? Time for that celebratory cocktail and appetizer. Come on, you’ve earned it!
Just so we are clear, that’s your brain hard at work trying to convince you to derail your week of prudent dietary and lifestyle habits for a moment of pleasure and a boat load of guilt. In other words, the overwhelmingly powerful dopamine stimulus of that creamy, cheesy, gooey goodness served up with all its promise of ignorant bliss bombards your brain into believing that you have earned that hangover, swollen fingers, and sore shoulder in the name of a good time.
Hmmmm…I’m not sure my brain and I are on the same page.
At this point in the self help, pop culture, pseudo-psychologist world of arm-chair expertise, much of what I am saying isn’t breaking news. There’s about seventy-quadbillion TED talks that cover this topic and offer the next best solution. So why is it bouncing around in my head and causing me to have some thoughts and musings?
Well, in our version of CrossFit at Fairwinds, I have almost four years of data that suggests we continue to achieve pretty high levels of fitness by doing one workout a day in 60-minutes of deliberate and purposeful classes that use constantly varied functional movements done at high intensity four to five times a week. Coupling that movement prescription with a nutritional prescription of eating meat, vegetables, nuts, seeds, some fruit, little starches, minimal sugar and alcohol in quantities that maintain energy levels and limit excess body fat, we continue to make healthy and happy people who, shy of a catastrophic unforeseen tragedy of a piano falling from a window and crushing them to death, have the potential of living meaningful and productive lives deep into their 80s and 90s. I have no medical degrees to support that claim, but I have hope, faith, and some data so we’ll go with that.
What I am suggesting is that we don’t need strength cycles. We don’t need two-a-days. We certainly don’t need Open Gym for people to spend hours of time working on that 5-pound Snatch PR. We also don’t need goal setting. We don’t need lofty macro, micro, meso or 5 year life plans. We don’t even really need to know what tomorrow’s workout is.
All of those things might satisfy a certain urge within me as an athlete, but if I am striving towards a level of fitness that serves my life, than I am saying keep it simple, be curious, be consistent, and establish habits that keep me showing up day after day.
I will admit that there comes a time in almost every CrossFitter’s journey where we feel the itch for just…a…little…bit…more. We want that pullup, or those ten unbroken pullups, or that flowingly beautiful bar muscle up. We want those double unders. We want to run the sub-8-minute mile. We want the 200, 300, 400 pound back squat. We want it all…and we want it NOW!
Unfortunately, fitness takes work. Long, hard, patient work day in and day out and that work will have ups and downs. And as much as I hate to be the bearer of what may feel like bad news, you will never appreciate the fruits of that labor until those fruits have been harvested and the joy of the harvest has passed you by. In other words, and I feel like I have heard this before, it truly is all about the journey and not the destination.
Don’t get me wrong. There will be instances when an athlete will get her first pullup and everyone will cheer with her. We will high five. We will dance. I am an amazing coach so I will probably cry and maybe even pee my pants a little.
And then the joy will subside and she will immediately want three pull ups.
The harvest will come and the harvest will go.
But stop. Take a breath. Resist the urge to ask what more that athlete can do to get that next level of performance.
I suggest that a better question to ask is what daily habits did that athlete establish that created her ability to do the pullup in the first place. Was this just luck? A fluke? Or was this the result of small, methodical habits that she stacked into, onto, or beside an already existing habit? Can she continue to yield consistent, deliberate, and purposeful results without actually ADDING anything? Can she just do what she is already doing, or maybe even do less…but better?
I know that not everything comes back to CrossFit but it sure feels like there’s a lot of metaphorical lessons to be learned in how we comport ourselves in the gym.
You show up every day. That’s awesome. But do you show up 2, 3, 5 minutes late everyday? Over the course of the week that’s ten to thirty minutes of missed opportunities to get a little bit better. In a year, that’s a full day of lost time. What could you learn in an entire extra day? What if I gave you that extra day at the end of the year to learn anything you wanted to learn? Would you take it?
Show up 5 minutes early every day. See what changes in a year.
As the coach yells, “3-2-1…TIME ” at the end of a workout, do you flop on your back and lay on the floor in an emotionally defeated position ? What is that signaling to your subconscious? Did you TRULY give EVERYTHING you had? What if you had another minute ? Another two minutes? Another ten minutes? What’s REALLY left in there?
Stand tall and smile after every workout no matter how exhausted you might feel. See what changes in a year.
What about those of us who stop just before the clock goes beep-beep-beep in the final seconds of the AMRAP because, really, I wasn’t going to get that last rep anyway. Couldn’t you just try? What’s a few extra seconds?
Work for 1 second PAST the final beep. Then try 2. Then try 5. See what changes in a year.
Stack those habits, everyday, just a little bit. You’ve already done the hard part…you’ve shown up. That’s the habit that each and every one of us has successfully hard wired and it’s the one that makes the difference.
So thanks for showing up. Now let’s get to work filling in those holes. It won’t be too hard, it just takes a little bit of time and I’ve got the time…I’m retired.
See you on the Creek.