I got an Apple Watch four months ago and my friends think I’ve become a physical activity fiend. Especially because almost no one else I know closes their rings regularly.

The truth is I’m a bit of a slacker when it comes to habit building. I’ve just learned a few things about avoiding getting stuck. Some of my friends don’t believe me, though: they think I’m just talking myself down. And I get it, anyone getting regular notifications of my Apple Watch awards might be forgiven for thinking me a productivity ninja. What they’d be missing is all the struggle that led up to today.

That’s the point of this essay: a few things I learned in my latest habit about not just building habits but not getting stuck.

You can learn a lot about habit-building from any number of books, and I’ll share my favourite at the end of this essay. But if I’ve learned anything about learning, it’s that when you get stuck, more knowledge isn’t helpful—it’s more frustrating, even. No, what you need then is to figure out why you’re stuck and how you can come unstuck. And in those moments I’ve found the most help in those who’ve struggled too. Sometimes by insights from their own experience, other times from just the kinship of knowing my struggle isn’t unusual. I’m offering both.

There were 3 areas I tended to get stuck on: goals, streaks and stats.

I’ll be sharing from my experience becoming more active, so this is perfect if you’ve just got a fitness device or are struggling with maximising one. But I think you’ll find it helpful for all kinds of habits, too. Let’s look at the 3 areas I used to get stuck on.

Don’t let goals lead you astray

Some goals won’t get you where you want to go.  

I tend to get tech and then figure out what I want to do with it. But with the Apple Watch I was very clear upfront what I wanted: to level up my physical activity. 

I’d started running seriously in December 2018 and completed a 10k in under an hour five months later. Then I started a new job a couple months after that and tried to work running in, but between the stress of work and a long commute, it was a struggle to keep up. After a while I just stopped. But when you’ve been fit, you can feel the difference when you’re losing it. I knew I needed help. Plus what with the pandemic and me not getting younger, I figured it was time to get tech help. Enter Apple Watch.

And then I only narrowly avoided a serious mistake in setting it up.

The key feature of the Watch is the Activity rings—Stand, Exercise and Move. Stand is activated by being on your feet at least 1 minute per hour, Exercise by any activity that raises your heart rate significantly, and Move by you, well, moving at all. Part of the setup process for the Watch is setting goals for your activity rings, which you can change later, and to help you along, the Watch suggests goals based on your age, height and weight which it collects just before this.

In my penchant for overreaching, I selected the highest activity level from the options I was given at setup. Lucky for me a friend who was with me pushed back: “Why don’t you start with a lower goal and you can always step it up later?”

I was going to choose an aspirational goal. That’s what we tend to see goals, isn’t it, with goals? We go big, convinced that that’ll motivate us. It took my friend’s advice to refocus to what I think of now as a continuational goal. 

It’s not that I think continuational goals are better, mind you. There are people who seem to do better aiming for aspirational goals. My guess, though, is those people are naturally better at being consistent. For those of us who struggle with consistency, though, it makes more sense to make consistency itself the goal. Forget big hairy goals and aim for little repeating goals.

(The Apple Watch even helps here: if you repeatedly miss closing your rings, it suggests you reduce your goal. That’s not meant to shame you: it’s just encouraging you to do something very sensible. Small goals you can repeatedly reach are better than big intimidating ones that you don’t.)

It seems obvious now, but it took that challenge from my friend to give me pause. I still wonder sometimes how the months since might have been different if not for that moment. As it turns out, I’m still working with the suggested goal for moderate activity—670 active kcal (resting calories not included). I go well beyond it on most days but it’s enough of a stretch that on days I’m less active I have to workout—or at least take an hour’s walk—to close it. More importantly, though, I keep it up. 

And speaking of keeping up…  

Don’t let streaks trip you

Streaks are a single point of failure—you need something resilient.

One of the things the Apple Watch is brilliant at is awards. You get awards for all kinds of little things, starting with one for each ring you close every single day. There are the monthly challenges which change each month: last month’s was to do 23 workouts of 15 minutes or more, this one was to match last month’s 230 km distance. There are awards for when you complete a perfect week or month of closing your rings. And there’s the streak award: how many days in a row you’ve closed your Move ring.

Dec 19: The day my streaks broke

My highest is 89 days in a row. That’s how far I took my streak before breaking it watching—of all things!—a movie. A delightful movie, to be sure (it was Wolfwalkers, if you want to know), but I was also only 14 kcal from closing my ring that Friday—I just happened to miss that the passing of midnight in the tension of the film’s climax. 14 kcal!

And yet, I’d known this was always going to happen. I didn’t know when exactly—it might be after the 50, 100 or even 1000—but I knew the day would come when my streak would come to an end. And what then? If you’ve ever had a long streak come to an end, you know the sinking feeling.

Streaks are a single point of failure. No matter how far you take one, it takes just one day to break it all. It’s all or nothing. For a long term habit, a lifestyle change, that’s just not good enough: you need something resilient. So before my streak broke I came to terms with the inevitability that it would. And so while it still hurt when it did, it didn’t catch me unawares. 

After a couple days mourning, I realised two things. For one, even if my 89-day streak was broken, the 89 days hadn’t simply vanished. The next day I closed my rings would be my 90th, even if that was a week later. Realising that set me free. I decided to focus on monthly challenges (because they’re fun!) and I had to check right now to realise my current streak is 34 days—I don’t really care anymore. What’s more important? Closing my rings everyday.

As of today I’ve closed them 125 days—not in a row, but who’s counting?

You don’t want something that fails when you do. In fact you don’t want to make it about failing at all. You want it to be about learning, which means you want something that gives you space to learn. 

And speaking of learning…

Don’t let stats get you stuck 

Avoid stats for stats’ sake.

Like streaks, stats are great for habit-building—until they’re not. The basic stat you want for any habit is the tick sheet, of course. In fact when I talked about how helpful I found my Watch on Twitter, a friend pushed back that everything more than a tick sheet was superfluous.

The Watch gives all kinds of stats. It’s nuts. There are the well known ones: the kcals, heart rate, oxygen saturation, ambient noise. And then there are interesting stats like my walking stride and speed, how fast I go up and down stairs, my average resting and walking heart rate and heart rate variability. 

But Ben’s right: data for data’s sake is really just novelty. 

Which brings it full circle to the original point: knowing your why. For one, the numbers you track are the numbers you’ll follow, so you want to pick them carefully. Data shapes behaviour. Also if you’re going for continuational rather than aspirational goals, you want stats that will encourage you on that path. Which means you want to pick numbers you can maintain more than large ones to aim at.

So for example, I noticed a Fitbit-using friend of mine was focused on steps. After we talked about it I realised the Fitbit showed steps by default. The problem with steps, however, is it doesn’t account for non-walking activity and workouts, which represented a lot of my friend’s output. So I suggested choosing a face that spotlighted daily active minutes.and calories. The data you see is the data you’ll work on.

Right now, the data I’m focused on, besides closing my rings daily and meeting my monthly challenges, is improving indices like my heart fitness.

That’s it: be clear about why you’re building a habit and avoid the traps of aspirational goals, streaks setting you up to fail and stats for stats sake.

All the best!

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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