“I know I should, but…”
“I really want to, but it’s too hard…”
“Sure, it would be good for me, but I could never…”
If any of that sounds familiar, you are not alone. Our modern life is full of “shoulds”, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the health and fitness space. Most of us understand the basic guidelines for good health, but how many of us actually measure up? According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics only 5.5% of Australian adults consume the recommended number of servings of fruit and vegetables. Sixty-three percent are either overweight or obese, while 16% of us smoke and 1 in 5 of us drink alcohol at levels that can cause harm.
Now I’m guessing that since you’re reading a fitness blog you’re probably not a chain-smoking, binge-drinking, junk-food guzzling couch potato. You know better. But sometimes the further we fall down the “health and fitness” rabbit hole, the more we realise how far we are from optimising our lifestyle. The “shoulds” only increase. Leaving aside the dangers of a “high-fact diet” (that’s a topic for another post), I’m willing to bet that most of us can easily identify areas of our lives that have room for improvement.
So what’s holding you back? Is it lack of time? Lack of energy? Social pressures? Bad habits? Lack of willpower? Whatever your excuse, in essence it comes down to one thing – you’ve decided it’s TOO HARD.
Sound familiar? Well, listen up, because today I’ve got a piece of advice for you that cuts to the core of this exact problem. A profound, yet exquisitely simple statement that might just blow your mind (I know it blew mine). Here goes:
IT’S ONLY EFFORT UNTIL IT’S ROUTINE
Think about it. Can you see how much is contained in that deceptively simple statement? This is no superficial, “no excuses,” fitspiration slogan. It acknowledges the complexity of real life. Yes, the change you want to make will take effort. It will probably take time, energy and willpower. But that’s not the end of the story. There is a solution. A simple, scientifically proven solution.
Routine. For some people that’s a dirty word. “If you think adventure is dangerous,” they quote, “try routine – it’s lethal”. Sorry Paulo Coelho, but like it or not we all have our routines which we rely on to get us through daily life. Imagine for a moment that you had no routine; that every decision of your life had to be made in the moment. You wake up: “Will I get out of bed today? Will I shower? Will I get dressed? What will I wear? Where will I get dressed? Will I eat? What will I eat? When will I eat? How will I prepare the food? Where will I eat it? What will I do while I’m eating it? Will I brush my teeth? Where will I brush them? Will I go to work? How will I get there? What time will I leave home?”
You get the idea. I’m exhausted just thinking about it! Most of us have a morning routine that we can execute on autopilot, thus saving our brain-power for more important tasks. It also reduces the risk that some important task will get missed, and we will wind up at work dressed in a unicorn onesie.
Likewise we rely on routines throughout the day to reduce the number of decisions we need to make. Psychological research is increasingly supporting the concept of “decision fatigue” – the idea that the more choices we have to make, the more our decision-making abilities become depleted, which corresponds to an increased risk of making bad decisions. Judges are proven to make fewer favourable decisions later in the day. In one study, participants who had made lots of choices at a shopping centre performed more poorly when asked to solve maths problems.
A related idea is “willpower depletion” – the theory that our willpower is a limited resource and the more we use, the less is available for subsequent applications. Thus study subjects asked to resist eating chocolate gave up sooner when asked to solve a difficult geometric puzzle. Volunteers who taxed their willpower by deliberately suppressing their feelings while watching an emotional movie subsequently performed less well on a test of physical stamina.
All this helps to explain why routine is so important when it comes to making life changes. For example, if exercise is integrated into your daily routine, then it bypasses the need to make a decision – “will I go to the gym today?”. Instead you go because that’s what you always do on the way home from work on Tuesdays. Not only does this remove the element of willpower surrounding exercise, but research suggests it may also help you perform better in the gym, or increase your self control when it comes to reaching for that second helping of dessert. Win-win!
Of course, this is all easier said than done. There is effort involved in integrating any change into your routine. This is the point where I have to admit that I did not, in my own infinite wisdom, come up with the statement above. Credit must go to Sarah Ballantyne, known to the internet as The Paleo Mom.
About 4 years ago I discovered Paleo. I was immediately drawn to it – it made intuitive sense and I loved the emphasis on food quality and ethics. But changing your eating habits overnight is not easy, and it is even harder when you have a family to cook for. Gone were the days of cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and pasta for dinner. I needed to learn a new way to cook!
The Paleo Mom was just one of many luminaries of the paleosphere that helped me navigate this difficult phase. But one of the most helpful things Sarah did was encourage me to put in the effort, knowing that it would be temporary, and soon these changes would be as natural to me as brushing my teeth or taking a shower. And she was right. Now I don’t even think about eating eggs, avocado and veggies for breakfast, leftovers for lunch, and meat and veggies for dinner.
So now it’s over to you. Think about those things you’ve been wishing you could change. Maybe it’s eating more vegetables, swapping daily junk food and alcohol for healthier alternatives, or incorporating more movement into your day. Whatever it is for you, I acknowledge that it’s going to take effort. You’ve probably tried before, and given up because it got too hard. But my challenge to you is to think about ways you can integrate the change into your daily or weekly routine. Make a deliberate effort to reduce the number of decisions you have to make, thereby reducing the chances that you’ll make a choice that is not consistent with your long-term goals. And be encouraged! It won’t be long before your new, healthier lifestyle will be as natural as breathing. Remember – it’s only effort until it’s routine!
 Australian Health Survey: updated results, 2011–2012. ABS cat. no. 4364.0.55.003. http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/C549D4433F6B74D7CA257B8200179569
 Australian Health Survey: first results, 2011–12. ABS cat. no. 4364.0.55.001. http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4364.0.55.001Chapter1002011-12
 Danzigera, et al (2011), Extraneous factors in judicial decisions, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108 (17), 6889–6892. http://www.pnas.org/content/108/17/6889.full
 Vohs et al. (2008), Making choices impairs subsequent self-control: a limited-resource account of decision making, self-regulation, and active initiative. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(5), 883-98 http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/psp945883.pdf
 Baumeister, et al. (1998). Ego depletion: is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252-1265. https://faculty.washington.edu/jdb/345/345%20Articles/Baumeister%20et%20al.%20(1998).pdf
 Muraven, et al. (1998), Self Control as Limited Resource: Regulatory Depletion Patterns Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 774-789 http://persweb.wabash.edu/facstaff/hortonr/articles%20for%20class/Muraven%20self-regulatoin.pdf