It’s 10:45am, and I just returned from a two-mile walk, the third in three days. As I was just about done I recalled Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity secret, which can be summed up as “Don’t break the chain.” That is, when it comes to sticking to a project, it can be a great motivator simply to extend an unbroken chain of successes, no matter how small those successes are.
Living a disciplined life has been much on my mind lately—where I’ve succeeded, where I’ve failed, the disciplines that are worth adding, what it takes to add one, how and why a discipline can contribute to building one’s character. I’ve dredged up some old, partly dormant knowledge, and learned a few new things. I’ve been trying to distill what I know (or think I know) into something coherent, and to test it out as well.
I’m lazy by nature, and so my habits tend to be sedentary. Fortunately this hasn’t resulted in major health problems, and I can handle moderate exercise when the occasion arises—last fall I accompanied my oldest three, one at a time, on a 4-hour walking tour of Carlsbad Caverns, and didn’t suffer any ill effects. But I generally don’t go looking for opportunities to be active, and I’ve suffered in various ways as a result, shying away from work that needs doing (this was a major problem when we lived on the farm) and ranging from fat to very fat.
This fall a number of factors converged, including my interest in discipline, and I finally decided to try losing a significant number of pounds. It’s not the first time—I’ve successfully lost major weight seven or eight times before, “success” meaning that I lost the pounds I intended to lose. Only to gain them back, of course. I began this diet on October 3, and there are some reasons to think that this time I’ll get to where I want to be and stay there. But those reasons can wait for another blog post.
I knew when I began the diet that I should also add in some amount of physical activity. I also knew from reading that physical activity plays a minor role in weight loss. It is much more practical to restrict calories than to burn them off—eliminating, say, 500 calories a day from the menu is a lot easier than adding a daily activity that will burn 500 calories. But adding some physical activity to the mix was an important part of my deeper goal, which was not simply to drop weight but to get healthier, dropping the weight being an important part of that. A daily walk was the ideal increment, for many reasons.
Still, various excuses came to my aid in avoiding getting started. For the first three weeks of the diet I was happy to tell myself that it was enough to get the diet established, plenty of time later for walking. The next three weeks were spent in El Paso—ideal weather for walking!—and yet I continued to procrastinate, the main excuse being that I wanted to find someplace nice to walk. At the very end of my stay I did manage a morning of walking in a terrific nature preserve, hard up against the US/Mexico border, but it was a 30 minute drive from the house, not practical for a daily walk. And for the nine weeks after that I was back in Frankfort, where it was cold enough day by day to let me put off starting.
A week ago I returned to El Paso for another 3-week stay, and walking was on my mind—at least I thought about it every day! And finally events converged: I noticed people walking around the neighborhood, and lowered my standards for a walk to merely being able to spend an hour away from the computer in the fresh air and sunshine; a cold and snowy (!) weekend yielded to a beautifully warm and sunny 3-day stretch, to be followed by a cool and rainy weekend, i.e. pressure take advantage of the nice break in the weather. So Tuesday after lunch I headed out to find a decent circular route. After returning I spent a little time with Google Maps, adjusting the route to be exactly two miles. Wednesday I headed out after lunch again spending about an hour walking in perfect 70 degree sunny weather. Today the forecast called for rain in the afternoon—but rather than using it for an excuse, I took the walk this morning. Tomorrow it is supposed to rain all day, but so as not to break the chain I will probably take unusual measures, perhaps find a mall or big box store to walk around indoors.
All along I’ve been reminded of the outsized power of both procrastination and habit. I actually like walking, enough that I don’t need anything but my thoughts to accompany me. I feel somewhat better physically, as I knew I would. I definitely enjoyed the enforced break—and it’s not like I wouldn’t have frittered away the time in other less healthy ways, probably exploring the internet. And I know that regular walking will add to my good health. All upside, no downside, yet all those things together were not enough on their own to get me started. However, I’m fairly confident that, once started, it won’t be difficult to establish a habit of walking daily, and at that point it will take hardly any deliberate effort at all to continue.
Of course, at this point my walking is a pitiful thing, not nearly what it might be. I don’t mean as exercise—a couple of miles is plenty of activity for now. I mean as an experience. Fortunately, I’m not tempted to take along earbuds and an audio device to distract me—my own thoughts are plenty for that. Unfortunately, my own thoughts are more than up to the task, and as a result I’m not a very observant walker. That’s something I’d like to change. But one thing at a time.