This is a guest blog by Fredrik Jonsson. He is an Asian Efficiency customer, marketer, freelance writer and sports nerd with a soft spot for 90’s music. He normally blogs about everything sales and marketing at www.membrain.com/blog.
“It is not what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.” – Jane Austen
“Doing something well does not make it important.” – Tim Ferriss
We’ve heard it a million times – exercise is good for us and should be at the top of our priority list. Yet it’s something we continuously push down our personal agendas in favor of what we perceive to be more pressing matters. Unfortunately, implementing an exercise regime or a healthier diet (New Year’s resolutions, anyone?) often resembles a roller coaster: highs of discipline followed by lows of reverting to old habits.
Is there a way to get off this not-so-fun ride and implement something sustainable? While there has been much research around the most effective workout schedules, doing some type of exercise for a short period of time each day is a tried and tested formula for our wellbeing. Now, everyone can carve out a little time every day for exercise and we know the benefits it would bring – more energy, better sleep and increased productivity to name but a few – so why aren’t we doing it?
Following the birth of my son I’ve experimented with this approach and what started out as a 3 month fitness challenge in the busy months has now become a permanent lifestyle. In this guide I’m going to share the tips and tricks I found helpful for creating a system to sustain this practice, and the pitfalls to avoid.
A Little Background
Previously, I have always exercised in a particular format and structure, namely through playing team sports. However, a lot of my circumstances changed recently, which made it harder to stick with my previous exercise regime. I was going to become a father; we moved to the suburbs; my new job was nowhere close to a gym and involved a long commute. I realized that, for the foreseeable future, the time and travel commitment involved with team sports was not something I could realistically meet.
To remain healthy, I needed to do things differently. The question was, how? Being an analytical person, I immediately fell into the trap of analysis paralysis: I spent considerable time reading books, health blogs and forum threads, and became so overwhelmed by the options that I ended up implementing… nothing. Then, one of my role models came to mind.
What Jamie Oliver Taught Me
With his 30 and 15 Minute Meals projects, Jamie Oliver wanted to help people eat healthily and get away from their dependence on take away junk food. How could this be achieved? His solution was to put together a framework that gave people the basic knowledge and skills they needed to implement a balanced diet in their day to day lives. To make it work, the meals had to have high nutritional value, yet also be affordable, quick and easy to prepare.
I realized I could use the same principles to create my own system for exercise. I had successfully used a similar approach that gave me everything I needed to sustain a 10 minute daily meditation practice. Now I needed to find the right ingredients, recipes and teachers to do the same with fitness (more on this later).
However, before designing my system, I needed to make a couple of mental adjustments.
Revising Ambition Levels
Whenever your circumstances change – and change is inevitable – you need to adapt and find new ways to reach results. How do you stay productive when you become a parent, or stay disciplined when given the chance to work remotely? You adjust and retool. I couldn’t run out onto the football pitch with my mates every weekend, but that didn’t equate to me quitting exercise altogether. This was an opportunity to embrace a new fitness format.
Scarcity as Enablement
While my changed circumstances meant I had less time to do a lot of things, it didn’t change the fact that I could still do the important things well. If anything, not having an abundance of choices would actually help me focus on the things that really mattered. Priority is the first step to productivity and I realized the new limitations proactively narrowed my scope and forced me to implement a solution that was achievable.
Systems Versus Goals
As James Clear writes, systems are more important than goals for long term success, but goals are still crucial for motivation as they give you something to work towards. When I played team sports, our system was made up of practice sessions, progress was measured through competition and titles were the end goal. Now I needed a new system, and a new set of goals to go with my new life situation.
The Power of Challenges
When it comes to health related goals, I like to introduce short term challenges (1-3 months). It’s basically an extended version of the procrastination-busting solar flaring technique – for me, framing it as a time limited challenge makes it easier to get started and establish a lifestyle change that may appear dramatic at first. However, what would be a reasonable challenge to set in this context?
When reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done for the 167th time, I came across the ‘four criteria model’ for choosing actions in the moment. They are:
- Time available
- Energy available
While these criteria were not developed specifically for the purpose of setting challenges, it helped me formulate a framework adjusted to my new life situation. I had already decided to make exercise a priority, but I didn’t have much time and my energy levels would often be low. Context made me think about the physical environment – where exactly would I be doing my exercise now that team sports were off the table? With an infant, anything that involved transport and lead times wouldn’t cut it. I needed activities that I could do at a moment’s notice.
Combining the ideas from 30 Minute Meals, the daily meditation project and Getting Things Done, I formulated my challenge as follows:
Doing 25 minutes of exercise every single day for three months.
Now I needed to put my system in place.
5 Questions for System Design
I started with these 5 questions:
- What can I do in or near my home?
- What can I do close to work?
- What forms of exercise are bound to a time and place, but still easy enough to get done on a weekly basis?
- Can I take the opportunity to learn something new and have fun as part of this process?
- What can I do virtually anywhere – even for only 25 minutes – no matter what?
This question refers to my fall back activities. Or put differently, what things can I do when everything falls apart and I just want to drink red wine and binge-watch HBO shows while forgetting about the world?
My answers were as follows:
- Weather permitting, I can bike or jog from my door step. I can join the local YMCA and take a lunch body pump class when I work at home once a week. I can sign up for a 1 hour tennis lesson once a week.
- Long walks in a nearby park (running is not an option as there are no shower facilities at work) and table tennis in the common area.
- Tennis, classes at the YMCA. For my personal situation, my criteria for “easy enough” were as below.
- The location of the activity cannot be more than 10-15 minutes away from where I live or work.
- The activity must take maximum 1 hour effective time to complete.
- What works for you?
- I can use virtual personal trainers on Youtube to learn pilates and yoga. Right? Right. And I can learn to play tennis with a coach.
- Yoga and Pilates. At home: weights.
Laying the Foundation
After struggling through the first week, I realized I had missed one key component: make it as easy as possible to exercise. Practically, that meant having all my exercise options set up so I could get going at a moment’s notice. If you don’t do this, you may not have the time or energy available and the friction you’ll experience may overpower your motivation and willpower. Here are the things I needed to prepare to make this a reality:
- Unpack the weights (1 barbell, 2 dumbbells). Get back in high school mode and buy some protective mats for the floor. Set up in a corner of the house. Find 3 exercises that can be done for each muscle group. Put together 3 programs and alternate between them (there are lots of sources for this online – to minimize time sink, I asked a friend who knew about weights training help me put together a program). Make sure I don’t need to shift weights around between exercises.
- Buy a yoga mat. Find a virtual personal trainer with their own Youtube channel that focuses on power yoga, core and pilates. Pick 5 videos that are between 25 minutes to 1 hour long and rotate between them. Download to smartphone so I can do them anywhere, even if an internet connection is not available.
- Join a beginner’s tennis class at the local club (also a great way of meeting people in the local community). Buy a racket, some balls and shoes.
- Ask if someone at work is interested in a walk and table tennis once or twice a week.
- Buy a 10 x day pass at the YMCA so I can attend body pump classes.
- Fix up the bike so it’s ready to go at a moment’s notice.
- Buy new running shoes. Research 4 jogging routes from my doorstep that will take me between 25-45 minutes to complete. Buy some winter running gear.
- Going back to Jamie Oliver, I now had the ingredients (my equipment: weights, bike, jogging shoes, tennis gear, yoga mat, YMCA pass) recipes (my bike and running routes, weight programs and recorded training sessions) and teachers (tennis coach, virtual personal trainers, bodypump instructor) that would sustain my system for the 3 month challenge and beyond.
I wanted a few other tools to make sure I stayed the course. Here are some additional supporting pieces I adopted to stay motivated.
Create a Sense of Urgency (a.k.a Blackmailing Yourself)
The trick here is to move everyday exercise up the agenda by creating leverage. You need a deadline, an expense that hurts and a physical challenge that does not allow you to ignore exercise as preparation.
If you’re not a strong runner, sign up for a fun run. Better yet, ask someone else to sign you up so you don’t procrastinate. Pick a distance that will be painful for you to complete without training for it, but that does not require an amount of preparation time you can’t achieve. I signed myself up for an 8 km charity run as the end goal of my challenge, which I figured I could survive if I ran 40 minutes twice a week for 2 months. There was an entry fee, it required travel arrangements and I gave my friend $100 that I would only get back if I completed the race. Running this distance without having trained, or failing to show up while losing a bunch of money weren’t awesome propositions. Raise the stakes and your skin in the game to stay disciplined.
Bonus Tip: This can also be used for travel. If you feel you’re not out exploring enough, make arrangements (don’t doubt it – just do it) and spend the money you can afford but that hurts. Like magic, you’ll plan around it because you’ve made a financial and logistic commitment about going to a certain place at a certain time. What gets booked in gets done.
Track Your Progress and Reward Yourself
Much has been written about the advantages of tracking your achievements. Whether you journal or use one of the numerous apps available, track and review your results. For every week you complete, reward yourself in some way.
A way to add fall back options is to plan and implement incidental exercise. Park your car and walk the last 2 miles to work. Jump on your bike to get to the train station. Use the stairs. Lift something. Stand up at your desk. Anything is better than nothing and the compound effect over time is huge.
Make it Fun
Exercise doesn’t have to involve going to a gym and feeling self-conscious. Or getting a stitch while running in cold weather. If you like dancing, dance. If you’re a ball sport person, join a social sports league. Maybe swimming floats your boat? It should be fun, so pick stuff you enjoy. Put on some music, or a podcast, or a comedy special while you’re doing it. However, remember to pick things you can do locally at a moment’s notice. Be prepared to revert to your fall back activities a lot during certain busy periods. At least one of your fall back activities must be something you really do enjoy – otherwise it’ll turn into a chore and friction builds up.
Have One Activity that is Social and Interactive
Sometimes you just need to engage with other people in a social setting to get motivated. Pick one activity – even if it’s something you can only do once every 2 weeks – that allows you to interact with others while you get your exercise in. For me, I managed to combine this with one of my scheduled activities, which was the group tennis lesson. However, for you it can be a social sports league, a running group or a boot camp morning class.
Two more points on this:
- Note the emphasis on interaction, which is very different from simply being around other people while doing your routine. My solitary yoga in the park is not interactive, neither is going to bodypump. Tennis is.
- Secondly, remember that it’s still about getting some form of exercise. Hanging out at a driving range with your mates and hitting a few golf balls every 12 minutes may be social and bring many benefits, but it does not qualify as exercise.
Pick an Environment you Like
I love being outdoors. I do my yoga in a park, even if people stare. I try to find biking routes with changing scenery. Find a local environment you enjoy and it will be easier to go and get your exercise. Remember that this environment can’t be too far away from your home or work, as that will nullify the “at a moment’s notice” requirement.
The Importance of Planning
No matter how many options you make available, and no matter how small the scope, this still requires planning. A couple of pointers:
- Make it a constant agenda item of your evening ritual to plan when, where and how you will exercise the following day. Also write down what fall back activity you will revert to just in case your planned activity does not eventuate (you can’t control everything: maybe the class at the gym is full, or you get stuck in traffic for longer than expected). If you’re travelling, is there a gym at the hotel? A park? Do you need to get it done first thing in the morning before a flight, or late at night after a bunch of meetings?
- Get it done early whenever you can and have the discipline to say no to things that will stop you from getting your exercise in. Try not to schedule it as the last activity of the day unless there’s no other way – it will increase the chances of events arising that will stop you from completing your 25 minutes. Maybe your friend needs a hand with an urgent project, or someone invites you to drinks after work. Every once in a while, you may need to resort to skipping rope at 9.30 pm, but this should be an exception and not the norm.
The Weekly Routine
Going back to the 30 minute meals analogy, I had my ingredients and recipes but still needed to do my weekly meal planning. Same for my exercise routine, which looked like this:
- 1 x / week: 25 minute weight session at home before work (part of morning ritual)
- 1 x / week: 25 minutes of yoga or pilates at home before work (part of morning ritual)
- 1 x / week: 60 minute body pump lunch class (when working at home)
- 1 x / week: 60 minute tennis class (9 pm on Thursday nights)
- 2 x / week: Long and brisk walk with the stroller
- 1 x / week: Walk in the park at lunch and table tennis (at work)
- Additional options: Jogging and mountain biking
Note that I have 9 different types of exercises to choose from. This works really well for me as I like to do different things every day to mix it up. However, don’t try to reach a high number just for the sake of it – adding new things you don’t enjoy doing won’t help. Options are good, but it’s better to rotate between a few things that are doable and enjoyable.
I didn’t find a rigid time-boxing approach helpful to making the system work. At the beginning I started putting in exact times (yoga Monday morning at 7 am, walk with stroller every Tuesday and Wednesday evening) and while the intention was good, I ended up failing miserably.
Why? Well, I have a baby boy. If he’s not in a great mood, he shows incredibly little regard for my morning ritual. Other times I’d wake up with a headache, or it was pouring down with rain when I wanted to go for a long evening walk. Stuff happens. The beauty is that the only firm goal is to get your activity done at some point in the day. The only exceptions in this routine are my tennis and body pump classes, because they both have a no-compromise location and time attached.
This system also works really well for exercising when travelling – no matter what, you always have your fall back options. Even without a yoga mat, I can do 25 minutes on a patch of grass, or in a hotel room. Had I only relied on one form of exercise, which in turn required a specific set of circumstances (a tennis court and playing partner, a gym and a spinning instructor etc.), it would have fallen by the way side. And of course I am allowed to skip a workout if I’m sick – which funnily enough hasn’t happened since I started this routine.
Where to From Here?
I’d like to propose a 25 for 25 challenge – for the next 25 days, challenge yourself to get 25 minutes of exercise in every single day. Use the ‘don’t break the chain’ method to stay on track (I always wrote this off as a gimmick, but it’s actually really powerful). Doing this every day will soon become a habit – like eating that frog, or using OmniFocus or not answering unimportant emails right away.
Here’s how you get started:
Answer the 5 questions outlined in this post:
- What can I do in or near my home?
- What can I do close to work?
- Can I start a form of exercise where I learn something new (virtual personal trainers with YouTube channels highly recommended)?
- What activities are bound to a time and place, but still doable on a weekly basis?
My definition is max 1 hour to complete and max 15 minutes transport from work or home – work out what’s achievable for you.
- What are my fall back activities (you’ll need at least 2, preferably 3 and you need to actually enjoy at least one of them)?
Next, add your incidental and social exercise options to your tool box:
- What incidental exercise can I get done (minimum 2, preferably 3 or more)?
As a rule of thumb, view these as complementary activities rather than relying on them as your main form of 25 minute exercise for the day).
- What’s my one social exercise activity?
This can take place on looser time intervals, but once every 2 weeks is recommended, once per week is preferable.
Lastly, answer these final 3 questions:
- What must I prepare to make the exercise available to me at a moment’s notice (buying equipment, downloading instruction videos, mapping jogging routes, signing up for classes etc.)?
- What will my weekly routine look like?
- How will I track progress?
You’ve got this – good luck!
Do you want to see more examples of our personal systems and workflows? We reveal them all on our Personal Systems seminar. It’s completely free and you’ll get to see the exact step-by-step systems and workflows that we personally use to be insanely productive. Register for the next available seminar here.
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