Today I’m starting a habit I hope to keep for the rest of my life.
It will help my body feel better throughout the day. It will serve as a small break from doing my work. And it will make every physical activity I do (inside and outside of the gym) more effective.
Today I’m starting to stretch at home.
And since I’m starting this new habit today, I thought it’d be a perfect time to give an inside look on how I start—and keep—new habits that are good for me.
When habits fail
In my experience, we fail to adopt or keep new habits for 3 reasons:
- We don’t feel a deep need to change and adopt the new habit; instead, it’s just a “good idea” we’d like to try
- The habit is unclear. Or it’s too big.
- We don’t have a plan or process for practicing the habit
How to break down a new habit and start practicing
Let’s stick with stretching, the new habit I want to start and keep.
1. Define why it matters
I sit or stand at a desk in front of my computer for 3-6 hours per day, depending on what I’m working on.
Even though I have an ergonomic chair, a large computer monitor, and a desk that adjusts from standing-height to sitting-height, I still feel tight throughout the day.
My shoulders slump and my head protrudes forward, stressing my neck and occasionally causing headaches. When I’m sitting, my hips are flexed at 90 degrees, causing my hip muscles to tighten. And my elbows tend to flare out when I’m typing, which over time has irritated my right shoulder.
Basically, I feel awkward and tight most of the day.
I want to start stretching because I believe it’ll help alleviate some of the pain and awkwardness I feel and “reset” my body, if only slightly.
So there’s my reason for why it matters to me.
2. Make the habit super-specific
Earlier I said my new habit is to start stretching. But that’s not quite right.
Stretching is too big. It doesn’t really mean anything. It’s not specific.
When will I stretch? For how long? What kind of stretches? What about strengthening or mobility exercises––are those covered under “stretching”? How often will I “stretch?” And so on.
So instead of saying “I’m going to stretch”, I’m making my habit super-specific:
I will do the following exercises and stretches every time I go downstairs to make a cup of tea.
There’s no ambiguity here. I know exactly what I’m going to do and when I’m going to do it. Which brings us to…
3. Set a trigger to remind you to do the habit
You’ll notice I said I’m going to follow my little routine every time I go downstairs to make a cup of tea.
Making tea is the trigger to remind me to do my new habit. A trigger is something you already habitually do, a thing you can “piggyback” your new habit on.
Since I work from home, I go downstairs to make tea at least two or three times per day. And normally I just stare into space while the water boils and the tea steeps.
By putting my new habit (stretching) on top of something I’m already doing (making tea), I’m way more likely to remember to do it. Plus, I’ll end up following my stretching routine at least two or three times per day, which my body will thank me for.
Setting a trigger is the only reason I’ve also started regularly meditating (20 minutes per day after I have my morning coffee) and reading fiction (30-60 minutes before bed).
What to try
Of course, this is just my process. You’ll have to experiment to find out what works best for you. But the next time you want to start a new habit, it may help to keep this 3-step process in mind:
- Define why it matters
- Make the habit super-specific
- Set a trigger to remind you to do the habit
Every morning, my girlfriend and I sit down to have a cup of coffee on the couch together.
It’s one small chunk of time that has had a surprisingly profound impact on our relationship and on our personal quests to become better people.
We laugh, argue, joke, and cry on that couch, sometimes all in the span of 20 minutes. And then we sip our coffee.
This morning, I told her I wanted to write about our experience. So we drank our coffee and talked about why we think this simple little ritual has made such a big impact on us.
Here’s what we came up with.
It appeases the morning grumpy gods
“Getting handed a cup of coffee and knowing we get to sit on the couch is like getting a little gift. It appeases the morning grumpy gods.” - Richelle
Richelle (my girlfriend) is not a morning person. By the time I’m up, out of the shower, and have gone through a couple light stretches, she’s just starting to stir. Maybe.
The only thing that wakes her up and beckons her downstairs is the sound of the coffee grinder and the knowledge that a warm cup will be her reward for gracing me with her presence.
I start the morning creating something
Because most of the work I do involves thinking and tapping away on a computer, I’ve found I really enjoy creating tangible things like food, coffee, tea, or cocktails.
Making coffee is a craft, a kind of meditation for me. It’s a sensory experience.
I like smelling the coffee, pouring beans into the grinder, and watching them transform into little pebbly particles. I like putting the kettle on the stovetop and hearing the water boil.
And I especially love the process of brewing coffee: the slow deliberate pour, the mushroom-like bloom of the grounds absorbing the water, and the trickle of the finished product into the glass bowl of my Chemex.
I feel like I’m my best self when I’m creating something. Especially something that’s delicious and that I get to share with others.
We connect without any distractions
Richelle and I only have one rule around our coffee-on-the-couch time: No phones, iPads, music, or other technology.
Removing tech distractions ensures that we’re both right here, right now.
We’re not reacting to any texts or emails that came in overnight. We’re not preoccupied with checking the weather or looking at our schedules for the day.
We’re just here, being a couple.
Sometimes we don’t even talk for the first minute or two. We just sit there, our hands wrapped around our cups, her legs and feet on the couch, mine on the table in front of us.
The world can wait for us to finish our coffee.
We talk about (important) things
Remove all distractions and sit there long enough and you’re bound to talk about all kinds of stuff.
Sure, sometimes it’s idle chat, like dreams we had or our plans for the day. But I’m surprised at how often we have big, important conversations over coffee, too.
We talk about our relationship, what’s going well and what we need to work on. We talk about what we’re doing individually, about the ways we’re trying to become better people. We talk about the projects that are stressing us out, the big, exciting goals we have for the future.
No matter what we talk about, we always stand up with a sense that we accomplished something meaningful.
Meditate, cook, coffee: The relationship trifecta
Along with practicing meditation and cooking meals together, sitting down to have coffee on the couch has been one of the biggest sources of personal satisfaction and positive growth for our relationship.
So much so that I encourage you to try it. You may be surprised at how good it feels to truly connect with your partner, without any distractions or expectations.
And even if it doesn’t work for you the way it worked for us, look on the bright side:
At least you’ll still get to enjoy a good cup of coffee.
Nate is currently reading Fourth of July Creek and Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.
Follow Nate on Twitter.
A young Hunter S Thompson
Hunter S. Thompson knew how to steal.
When he was a young journalist, he’d sit down at his typewriter and copy great literature, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.
Not just a few sentences or paragraphs, but entire chapters.
Of course, Thompson never actually used any of the material or tried to pass it off as his own.
Instead, he wanted to learn the writing styles of his favorite authors. He copied great writing because he wanted to be a great writer.
He knew that to become the best, you have to learn from the best. Even if they’re dead in the ground.
Stealing = learning.
If you want to learn something or, better yet, become something, it’s worth asking:
“Who’s doing what I want to do? Who’s great at it? Who can I steal from?”
Not to pass off their work as your own. Not to adopt their entire style or persona. Not to bypass hard work or original thought.
Instead, steal to learn.
Steal to skip mistakes others have made. Steal from as many people as you can.
Steal from the best to become the best.
More skills before starting a business. More clothes to reinvent our wardrobes. More Twitter followers. More money. More attention from the world.
But do me a favor: before you get more food from the grocery store, go take a look in your fridge.
What’s in there?
Half an avocado that’s turning brown? A couple eggs? An apple?
That’s your dinner.
With a little love and attention, the stuff you were going to trash tomorrow can be a nourishing meal now.
You didn’t need more. You had enough already.
This isn’t about kids starving in Africa or food waste or whatever else.
It’s about recognizing what you have and putting that to good use before trying to get more.
It’s about learning to be resourceful and creative. Because those are qualities that extend far beyond making an omelet.
Those are life skills.
So here’s some advice for you that’s really advice for me:
When you feel the need for more, stop and do an inventory of what you have already.
Maybe it’s enough.
I’m over lifting. Done with it. At least in the way you’re probably thinking about it.
Deadlifts, barbell squats, and bench presses? I’ll pass.
One-rep max? Post-workout shake? No, thanks. You go ahead.
Go hard or go home? I’ll see you back at the house.
Don’t get me wrong. I know the value wrapped up in barbells and dumbbells. I know what lifting weights can do for a person.
What lifting weights did for me
It helped me build a healthy, strong body. Back when I was in high school and taking Algebra 1 for the third time, lifting weights helped me build my self-confidence. It even gave me a career.
I’ve lifted with the best strength coaches in the fitness industry.
I’ve lifted with professional athletes and famous actors.
I’ve lifted with my younger brothers, with my friends, with my girlfriend, with my parents.
So no, I don’t hate “traditional” weight lifting. I don’t think it’s stupid. I don’t think you should stop doing it.
But me? I’m over it.
I spent years doing it. And honestly, I’m ready for the next chapter of working out. I look the way I want to look. I feel the way I want to feel. I’m strong enough.
Now all I want to do is move, maintain what I have, and not hurt myself.
I also want to get better at physical things I neglected for so long when I was too busy lifting weights.
That’s why you’re more likely to see me stretching or working on my handstands or rowing 2000 meters than grabbing a heavy dumbbell and lifting it over my head.
Weightlifter? Bodybuilder? Crossfitter? Nope.
I’m just a guy who likes to play and stay in shape.
An important addendum: What my workouts look like now
After I finished writing this post it occurred to me that people may get the impression that I don’t go to the gym any more. Not true.
When I say I don’t lift weights, what I mean is I don’t work out the way I used to where 99% of my time in the gym is spent actually lifting a barbell or dumbbell.
So what do I do now? First, I work with my friend Chris–a talented trainer–once or twice per week. And then I usually do some sort of conditioning workout on Saturday mornings. And I go bouldering once per week, usually on Sundays.
Just for fun, here’s a list of some exercises I remember doing in the past few weeks:
- Tripod headstand for time
- L-sit chin-up on rings
- Crawling push-up
- Half-kneeling kettlebell press
- Single-leg cable deadlift with a row
- Turkish get-up
- 1 1/2 Bulgarian split squat with kettlebells in the “rack” position
- Front lever progressions on the rings
- Planche progressions on parallel bars and the floor
- Dead bugs
- Hip-extension leg-curls on Valslides
- Single-leg pistol squats
- Slideboard conditioning
- Rowing on the Concept 2 rower
- Airdyne sprints
- A whole bunch of mobility exercises in between all the other stuff
- Falling off a surfboard
- Long walks around my neighborhood
I’m a recovering fitness junkie.
A couple days ago, a 19-year-old college student asked me this:
“I want to work in the fitness industry and help people. If you could go back to when you were 19, what would you do over?”
It was a good question; and I felt honored that he trusted me, a college dropout, to answer it.
Now, I don’t remember everything I told him, but I do remember one Big Point:
Don’t get loaded down in debt. Instead, get creative, help more people, and you’ll make (and keep) more money.
When I was 21, I took out a $25,000 loan to buy workout equipment and rent my own personal training studio.
The first year I was open, my mom had to bring me care packages of food and toilet paper because I didn’t have any cash left over at the end of the month.
All my money went to paying two rents (my apartment and my workout studio), bank loans and…weekly matinee movies where I snuck a couple cans of beer into the theatre and drank them in the back row. (I was a kid, after all.)
From the outside, of course, it looked like I was doing great. And to a point, I was.
I didn’t have a “regular” job. I was starting to write for fitness magazines. I made money helping people get in shape.
But I really had the illusion of success because I had the nice “upscale” studio. No one knew how much money I made…or how much money I paid to have the nice studio.
“Hey, there’s that young go-getter with the fancy workout place!”
So while I was good at training people and had some wonderful clients — the best, actually — my studio was too small to train more than one person at a time. Plus it was above a nice hair salon who didn’t appreciate the thump of early-morning deadlift sessions.
Plus, I wasn’t having that much fun eating canned tuna and wiping my ass with low-grade, single ply sandpaper.
So…if I were just starting out and had to do it all over again…
I’d buy a cheap beat-up truck and $300 worth of kettlebells and other random workout stuff, and train people outside in the sun. Park, beach, backyard…it wouldn’t matter.
No more training studio with an astronomical rent. No more bank loans.
If it rained, I’d negotiate some kind of flat-rate deal with a high school gym or a martial arts studio or some kind of community-building-thing and train people there instead.
And I would never ever train one person at a time. Only groups of 2-3.
(Quick aside: training 3 people is pretty much the same as training one person, and it’s even easier to get clients, since everyone wants to bring a friend and hang out and make the thing social.
Plus everyone gets a discount and you make more money per hour. It’s winning all around.
One person: Pays you $50 / hour to watch them do lunges. You make $50 per hour.
3 people: Pay you $25 / hour to watch them all do lunges. You make $75 per hour.)
If I was 19 or 21 or hell, even if I had to quit everything and start from scratch now, that’s what I would do. And when I wasn’t training clients, I’d be writing and hustling in other ways.
I’m not saying it’s perfect or even a good idea.
But still. It sounds kinda nice, right?
What I’m currently enjoying: Choose Yourself by James Altucher.
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