From our vantage point here at the top of 2013, it’s pretty neat to look out over the year ahead and imagine what changes it might bring. Many of us use the January as a time to plan some life improvements, which is a healthy thing to do. But many New Year’s resolutions fizzle out after a few weeks or months, to be forgotten in the din of everyday life until the next January rolls around.
Why does this happen to everyone, including Mr. Money Mustache? It’s probably because most of the changes we want in life are based on changes to our habits. Whether you are are hoping to become a permanently healthy athlete, an influential corporate superstar, or an ass-kicking Mustachian with full control of your finances, the realization of lifestyle dreams usually boils down to little things you do every day, day after day, the results of which build up over time to create surprisingly large changes. Five bucks a day compounds into $26,000 every ten years, and decades roll into additional decades. An extra beer’s worth of calories per day can add up to 18 pounds of surplus bodyfat per year. A few minutes of job-hunting per week can trigger lifelong changes in career (hopefully for the better).
In other words, life results depend on habits, and habits can be extremely hard to change. On the bright side, positive habits can also stick around with equal tenacity once they are established, which is like grafting a rocket booster onto your butt that adds forward thrust to your lifestyle even when you are not thinking about it.
For example, once you get into the habit of conscious spending, you’ll never want to waste money again. During our recent trip, Mrs. Money Mustache returned from a trip to the overpriced Hawaiian Safeway store across the street, reporting to me that she didn’t get toothpaste because it was all between $7 and $9 per tube. As she described the scene, I joined her in outrage and we both fired a few obscenities in the general direction of Safeway. It was just habit for us, since we practice Grocery Shopping with your Middle Finger. Eventually we remembered that even a $9.00 expense would have absolutely no effect on our financial situation, and we laughed at ourselves for creating such drama. But the habit was already in place, so it was automatic. (Epilogue: I found some toothpaste had gone “on sale” for $1.99 at the same store when I stopped by later that day). A millionaire is made ten bucks at a time, after all.
Similarly, dedicated readers might remember that I’m on a quest to gain 20 pounds by March 21st. Things like that don’t happen by buying a magic diet and exercise program, they only happen by changing habits. I needed to replace some of my strength-losing habits like reading books and typing on this computer too much, with strength-building ones like doing heavy squats and eating nice big meals afterwards. One of the techniques I tried was to create some public pressure for myself with that earlier blog post. And another was to put some unavoidable stuff into my daily routine that would remind me to do the right things every day. As a beginner forming a new habit, I need something simple and convenient.
So I resorted to some classic planning tools: the pencil and a piece of graph paper. Using the grid on the page, I wrote out the days until March 21st along the bottom, and my weight and strength along the left and right sides. I put a dot for my starting point on day 1, another dot for my finishing point in March, and drew a straight line between them. As long as I stay above the straight line as the days pass, I’m on track to reaching the goal. If I fall below, it is a signal to increase the effort. Then I stuck this piece of paper somewhere it could not be missed: right on the fridge door.
It’s ugly, it’s low tech.. and it works for me. By seeing this piece of paper every time I use the fridge, I can keep the fitness project at the front of my mind. And since I have a problem with getting sucked into a distracted la-la land while using computers, using paper and pen lets me make quick updates to the graph and move on.
The results have been good so far. I started the training here in Colorado in November, but was faced with a major test: the 7-week trip to Hawaii that fell right in the middle of the goal period. But because the goal was serious and the line was in place, I knew I could not slack off during that trip and expect to keep up. So I took a few steps, including these:
- I asked Johnny Aloha if there was a way I could do some weight training during my visit. As luck would have it, he also wanted to gain some strength and was a pretty heavy-duty powerlifter in high school, thus he would be glad to join me in regular workouts.
- Read the book “Starting Strength” by Mark Ripptoe on the plane ride over. It is an over-the top tome on weightlifting written by a man so passionate on the subject that he can write 60 pages on how to do a squat.
- As an active-duty military officer, John also has access to the amazing gym at the nearby marine base, the very same weight room that Barack Obama uses during his Hawaiian vacations. We made several highly productive visits to the gym during my trip.
- Built a pull-up bar in the back lanai (with the approval of the owners, of course)
- Set a daily requirement of 25 pullups and 50 pushups for the non-marine-base days (and taped a separate checksheet to the fridge for that too).
- Set up a little squat/press/deadlift station in their back yard using some old cast iron plumbing pipes and cinder blocks
The results of all this? So far, so good. I recently crossed 180 lbs in the morning weigh-in, which means I am up 15 pounds. Leg and chest measurements have grown by 1.5 inches, and fortunately the belly has not. On the other hand, my bench press strength is not increasing as quickly as the straight line. It has been stubborn, the weights kept feeling heavy, and I was letting too much time pass between workouts. So I know I need to speed up progress in that department. After a bit of consulting with some extremely strong dudes, I made these changes upon returning from Hawaii:
- Increasing the frequency of workouts (each area now gets worked twice per week instead of once)
- Adding creatine and protein supplements to my diet, to help compensate for the fact that I don’t eat meat as often as most weight-trainers (an MMM reader works at that Swanson company and helped turn me on to their stuff).
Just this week, I easily set a lifetime deadlifting record and a multi-year bench pressing record. So progress has returned. Will I hit all the goals before March 21st? I definitely think it is possible. Heck, even if the challenge were to end right now, I’ve already won – I have worked harder, gained fitness and strength, and learned a whole bunch about the process.
The tricky part of a long-term goal is knowing whether or not you are on track. With a long deadline, it’s easy to fool yourself into complacency and forget about the goal, until it’s too late. Some motivational experts advise you to break it down into smaller goals, which is exactly what the straight-line method does for me: every day a new expectation is set to keep ahead of it. Whether you’re gaining or losing weight, reducing spending or amassing a ‘stash that will make you financially independent in five years, following a line like this is one way to make the progress concrete and measurable.
So Happy habit-building to you too. I’ve just re-read all the comments on the earlier article where readers committed to achieving new things this year. How are you doing with your own projects? Cynthia? Tara? Holly with the Club Med preparations or Nathan with the one-armed pullup?
Since I like the straight-line program so much, I’m starting another one: 100 weekdays to get the Mr. Money Mustache BOOK done, as so far the progress has been minimal. One article a day (minimum), rewriting each of the best 100 posts to fit and flow into a book. First I’ll draw the graph, then I will share the goal when it is formalized. It will be a scary and exciting commitment.