Saturday, July 18, 2009

Of habits, discipline and willpower

I will admit that I have gotten to a place where exercise is pretty central in my life (some might even say it sits on the edge of nuttiness). I am pretty much at six, sometimes seven days a week, including:
  • four days of weights (I do a four day split w/ different muscle groups each day) for about 50 minutes per session
  • on 2-3 of the weight days, I will toss in 30 minutes of cardio (usually stationary bike)
  • 2 more days of cardio (again, stationary bike) for 42 minutes (don't ask me why 42 rather than 41 or 43 -- I'm a creature of habit)
  • try to bike on road at least once per weekend
  • play tennis poorly
  • walk most days from GCT to office (1 mile each way)
As a parenthetical, this much exercise is pretty close to the federal government's recommended activity levels (150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per day plus resistance training).

I almost always workout in the morning as I would otherwise lose motivation. This requires me to wake up at 4:30 AM for at least three mornings per week in order to manage my 1.5 hour commute from CT to NYC.

I certainly did not start at this level of frequency and intensity. I've gradually added days and activities over the past ten years. This whole exercise thing seems to be spreading, but I have gotten to the place where I like it and I rely on it (for sanity, if nothing else).

Yet, I would not call myself disciplined, and I would not say that I exert willpower. I would more accurately describe my exercise fetish as a habit and a routine. Every time that hideous alarm goes off in the morning, I do not make a choice to exercise. I simply go. I would claim myself disciplined if I was actively making a decision each day to exercise, but frankly, it's pretty much automatic and force of habit. Almost second nature.

Frankly, I have a big issue with the notion of being disciplined and exerting tremendous will power. To me it connotes a life sentence of austerity, difficulty and self-flagellation. None of which I support as they all seem pretty unpleasant. I have always found overly disciplined people slightly scary. It's a little bit like people who never watch TV and only read greek literature in its original language. Can they really be trusted?

Developing a habit is a much more doable concept for me. It is a function of doing a little bit of soldiering until the new habit becomes a familiar routine. This is a concept that does not require me to see myself as a superhuman with a titanium resolve. It is simply a process that if I stick with and follow will gradually become automatic.

On the particular topic of making exercise automatic, here is what has worked for me:

1) always leave my workout clothes next to my computer the night before
2) set out one Sugar Free Red Bull on mousepad next to computer
3) when alarm goes off, I immediately get out of bed and walk to computer. No staring at the ceiling or hitting snooze buttons as these would lead to decision making and second guessing.
4) I split my weight routine into 4 days with different muscle groups (insight: slight OCD makes me fear bad symmetry, requiring me to never miss a muscle group by dropping one of the four days)

In summary, discipline and willpower are for the few, but habits and routines are for everyone.


  1. If you ever want to see who the leaders in this world are, firsthand, show up at any nice gym, around 6am, and see who's there.

  2. Have you ever read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe? Perhaps that's why you chose the number 42-

  3. Great point about willpower. Especially for making big changes, willpower and discipline aren't enough. They just won't work long-term.

    Great blog, I just found it! You seem very down-to-earth about weight loss and fitness, considering your job.