Most milestones are reached with fanfare. “It’s my 80th birthday today!”, “We’ve been married for 30 years!” or even “I’ve been smoke-free for two decades!” but this one snuck up on me. With a three-day weekend ahead I planned to go for a bike ride. I wasn’t sure where I’d go but it was going to be a longish one. I looked over the map in all four directions and couldn’t decide which way to go. Then I thought that I could get on a commuter train and start from further away for something a bit more interesting.
And then it hit me. If I did that I would break my streak. Up until now I have gone 112 days without using a motor vehicle. That’s almost a third of a year. Though I can’t tell you what the runner-up time in my life is, this is by far the longest I have gone traveling exclusively under my own power. As my fitness increased and the weather improved the distances have grown quite a bit. Here, using Google Timeline data is a reasonable estimate of what I’ve done so far.
So this looks interesting in a table, but else has this much movement changed? I’ve been measuring other things as well. My VO2Max (a measure of my cells’ capacity to absorb oxygen (one measure of aerobic fitness) went from 33 in April to 39 now, an increase of 18%. My resting heart rate has dropped about 10 points and is back down around 60 bpm. And my weight has dropped by 4 kilograms (about 9 lbs).
For most of this year I’ve also been tracking my mood on a scale of 1-5, rating the previous day when I wake up. That, also, has been tracking upward in a very interesting way:
So how did I manage this change? A few things come in to play with varying levels of effect. At a high level it was a matter of creating some habits and changing/eliminating others. To manage habits we need to have motivation, ability, and something to remind us to do it – a trigger. So for the positive habits (which also included other ones like daily meditation), I set up reminders. In the end, taking the exercise / car-free travel as an example, here are things I did to adjust those aspects of the habit:
Trigger: Reminders every day and tracking the streak. A three day streak is easy to break but now I’ve gone nearly three months with exercising every single day. If I break that I start at 1 again.
Ability: There are two sides to this. One is physical ability to do the exercise and get around without a car. That takes practice and is usually easier than you expect. But the other part, especially for exercise is to make it easy to do: to eliminate the potential excuses for not doing it. For me that means making sure I do the laundry often – there will always be clean workout gear. The other big common excuse for me is “Oh no! It’s too late, there’s no time!” So I build the time in to my schedule. 5-6 PM is always blocked out – and sometimes longer – for exercise. It is impossible to not have time because I made time.
Motivation: Here’s the secret about motivation. It’s a fickle mistress. Some days you’ll feel like running, cycling, going to the gym, or working on your novel and other days it will sound like the most hideous way to spend time. So rely on the trigger and ability to get you through. If you feel like going for a bike ride sounds stupid but all you need to do is put a pair of shorts on and go, then when faced with breaking the streak or just doing it, you’ll do it. Easy. (And here’s another secret – nine times out of ten it will be as enjoyable as always)
But, I can hear you saying already. “You’re lucky – you have so much free time, clearly! How many hours did it take to go all that distance?” Of course that’s true – but I think for me only half true. I have the time because I’ve made the time. Let me share another graph with you.
Here is a graph of my hours of social media use from the time I last rode in a vehicle. That peak, right about the time lockdown started? That is 28 hours. That’s an average of four hours a day. When I started looking at this I thought long and hard about it. There was a bit of fun coming from Instagram and Facebook, and, to be honest, a bit of stress as well – political arguments, pandemic news and worry. Was I getting my value out of those four daily hours? What could I do with them instead?
Time to get back to the habit controls – this time to make it less likely I’ll follow that habit:
Triggers: The biggest trigger for checking social media is its mere presence. I started by deleting the apps from my phone and have since deleted my Facebook account entirely. I kept Instagram but it only goes on my phone for when I’m doing something fun like a bike ride or an adventure that I want to share. Then it’s deleted again. All that’s left on my phone is email, text messaging, WhatsApp (which is low traffic for me), a meditation app and a few “loyalty apps” for various businesses like Starbucks and our local grocery store. With my phone rendered boring, I don’t want to use it as much. Instead I bought more books and left those around to also trigger me.
Ability: Deleting Facebook resulted in a huge reduction in my ability to spend time on Facebook! But spending time on my computer in general is not always productive. So simply turning the computer off all the time when not in use is helpful. Keeping the phone somewhere other than right next to me also made it harder to use it at all.
Motivation: Motivation for this habit remains pretty high. Social media is pretty compelling when the only people you regularly see are your family. This makes the previous two factors even more important. But this motivation can be reduced by finding ways to connect with others – email, zoom calls, writing blog posts, and so on does reduce it.
And of course, investing hard work early on does help make things easier. Just as pedaling uphill all day likely means you’ll get to zoom downward later, this has been my own experience with these habit adjustments. And the view from above is pretty nice.