Over the last few months, I have been learning that I’m a chain person: when trying to establish a new habit, once I’ve done it a few days in a row, I want to keep the chain going. Every X, whether mental or physically marked on a calendar, gives me a huge sense of accomplishment. (It also releases a shot of dopamine in your brain, so there’s science to back up this chain method. There are even apps to help you keep a virtual chain, since a calendar you can mark with a red sharpie is so last century, not to mention you’d need multiple calendars if you have more than one habit you’re trying to establish.) Evidently, Jerry Seinfeld used this method. The story goes, another comic asked Seinfeld’s advice about coming up with new material. Seinfeld advised the new comic to write one joke every day. Seinfeld said he did use a paper calendar, a large year-at-a-glance one. And for every day he wrote a joke, he marked an X on the calendar.
Of course, for this method to work, the daily habit has to be reasonable. Seinfeld didn’t advise the amateur to come up with a new set every day. And even if I successfully make pasta from scratch three days running, I’m unlikely to continue that chain, no matter the rush of feel-good hormones; that activity just takes too much time. And my 3-year-old likes to help, and I only have so much patience for that. Not to mention, I don’t have the space in my freezer for that much fettuccine.
In one episode of her podcast The Lazy Genius (highly recommend this podcast–especially the two episodes about creating routines), host Kendra talks about forming habits and recommends choosing something so small, you can’t possibly fail. Like writing one joke, if you want to do stand-up. Want to start doing yoga every morning? Pledge to do one down-dog. That’s it. Want to start meditating? Commit to one minute. Or if that even proves too long (because meditation is really hard and my mind wanders 400 times in one minute), maybe try 10 seconds. Anyone can focus on their breathing for 10 seconds. Take two deep intentional breaths. There. Done. And when you’ve got a chain going for that, after a few days, or even a few weeks, add to it. One down-dog and one butterfly stretch. Double the meditation to 20 seconds.
In my case, I realized I needed to get back into a regular exercise routine. Winter was…cold. So I didn’t run…at all…for several months. I just can’t run in single digits. Nor did I even do my beloved DVD workout. I just couldn’t be bothered. But at the end of April, I had just climbed our two flights of stairs and had to pause telling Mike a story because I was so out of breath. (This is always the key indicator for me that I’m out of shape. I should be able to get from ground floor to third floor without breathing hard. And I’m really in a good place if I can do that while carrying my daughter.) And my in-laws had just visited and we’d talked about our visit this summer. I want to not feel too self-conscious wearing a swimsuit (I don’t think it’s possible to avoid all self-consciousness).
So the first of May I determined to exercise for 10 minutes every day. Exercising just a couple days a week doesn’t work for me. I really need that chain effect. And as I’ve written about before, I can do anything for 10 minutes. (Except meditate, evidently. Gotta start with ten seconds, there.) Conveniently, the DVD has six 10-min workouts. I can do just one or I can do a couple. Often, I’ll get myself going by promising myself I only have to do one of those workouts but then I’ll tack on another one, because it’s only ten more minutes. But sometimes I really do quit after the first one. And that’s ok. If I’m exercising every day for ten minutes, that’s a great start.
I usually plan to exercise in the morning, since I find that’s a good way to start my day and then I’m done with my 10 (and often more) minutes and don’t have to think about how I’m going to work it in at some other point during the day. But some days, it’s just not possible, and if I didn’t have a chain going, I’d probably not bother. But I currently do have a chain going — a 19-day chain as I write this. So on Mother’s Day, when I read for an hour before church instead of getting in my workout (despite knowing we’d be out of the house all day hitting up my favorite crab shack, in Pope’s Creek, Maryland), I went for a 10 minute run that night after the kids were in bed, because I didn’t want to break my chain.
Hopefully this bodes well for achieving my summer goal of being able to fetch something quickly from our top-floor bedroom just as we’re leaving the house. And lounging happily by the pool at our Las Vegas resort.