What if we fail at new habits because we try so hard?

How I went from non-runner to running lover in 4 weeks of taking things easy

A right hand, holding unlaced running shoes in a green field (Courtesy Kristian Egelund, via Unsplash)

I am a runner.

I couldn’t have said this a month ago. I wasn’t even thinking about running then. But somehow, in just four weeks, I’ve made a shift from not even thinking about running to being that person who packs running gear on a trip, and not even I saw it coming.

And the most amazing thing to me about the whole process isn’t that I have managed to sustain a new habit, but that I’ve managed to attain a new identity. I’m a runner because not just because I have four weeks of regular running behind me, but because I have an entirely new way of thinking that, just a month ago, didn’t even exist.

This shift, not just in doing something differently, but in seeing myself differently is a leap I’d never made in all my previous attempts at running. And I’ve been very keen to distill what it is about this time around that I can apply to other areas where I’ve been struggling, and to others who, like me, have also struggled to not just start something new, but be someone different.

So if you’ve tried and failed again and again, I’m hoping you learn something from someone still in early days. We sometimes learn better from the person who’s just a step ahead than from the expert who may have forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner.

My Story

Like many doctors, I’m a big believer in physical activity. Unfortunately, also like many doctors, I’ve been terrible at practising what I preached. And not for lack of trying, either: I’ve wanted to run for years, and finally started two years ago. I ran irregularly over a couple of months, my longest daily streak lasting two weeks, but it was a slog. I kept it up in hope of the runner’s high one hears so much about finally kicking in. It didn’t. I tried again a few times after that, more halfheartedly and with predictably worse results. I gave up; maybe running just wasn’t for me. I did try walking, though, and high intensity cardio, but they proved little better: I was often glad to be done, and soon gave those up too.

And then a month ago I got chatting with a runner who asked if I also did, and I told her my plight. She said I was likely doing it wrong and after asking for a few details about how I was running, made three suggestions:

1. Run slower, alternating it with walking

2. Stop while it was enjoyable

3. Start the next day

A few months earlier, I’d downloaded an app called Couch to 5K because, well the name had sounded like exactly what I wanted. I’d never opened it, but during this convo it occurred to me this might be a good time to break it out. A quick look revealed that it seemed to be based on the first suggestion of alternating with working. I promised to start the next day.

It was the most delightful running experience I’d ever had.

In the version of the app I used, the process was: a five-minute walk to warm up, followed by 60 seconds of running and 90 of walking, repeated six more times, a final 60 second run and then another five-minute walk to cool down. My entire time outside totalled just under 30 minutes of which I ran for just eight. But I enjoyed the walking, and by the time I was done, I felt really good about myself.

All the previous times I’d tried I’d always believed I had to go as far as I could as fast as possible and I’d end up so achy I didn’t even try again for a week — or a month. This time I not only felt good inside, I felt great outside. I was excited about the next running day, something I’d never felt.

Convinced now, I signed up for the online community recommended in the app. That turned out to be perhaps my second most significant decision.

But this is probably a good time to get into what exactly I learned through this process about the first steps of building new habits for a new identity.

My Lessons

It begins with my coworker’s wisdom. Run slower, alternating it with walking, stop while it was enjoyable, and start the next day.

Or to put it more broadly, a habit I want to sustain needs to be simple, satisfying and start soon.

  1. Simple. I didn’t know it but running as quick as I could was how I used to end up out of breath, with stitches in my sides and aches in my calves. And that is not a feeling that makes you want to come back. What I didn’t realise was my body simply wasn’t ready for that level of activity. Now I’m realising that’s been a problem with other habits I’ve been struggling to develop: I’m trying to do them at a level I haven’t really earned yet, and it’s leading to burnout. Keeping things simple and easy is the key to sustaining enough to grow into the harder levels.
  2. Satisfying. Because I was so focused on doing as much as I could, I wasn’t allowing myself to simply enjoy performing at my real levels. So on top of the physical strain I was subjecting my body too, I was also subjecting my mind to the pressure of pushing through on sheer willpower. And while that might look good in sports movies, it doesn’t quite work in real life. After all many of the best sportspeople really enjoy doing what they do. Similarly, I was not only overlooking the importance of building fun into my desired habits, I was actively preventing it by turning things to a willpower contest — which I always ended up losing, unsurprisingly. Willpower, it turns out, is a finite resource, and you have that much less available if you’ve spent much of your reserve on dealing with life’s other issues. If you’re enjoying it, however, well you simply don’t need that much willpower. The problem though is you can’t pretend about whether something is satisfying: you have to actually find it that way. But if you make it a focus — to make your habit satisfying, then the chances are more in your favour.
  3. Start soon. Although I’ve always been a believer in starting minimally — with whatever is on hand — I still often found excuses to delay beginning new habits. I needed new clothes. Or new shoes. Just a few days to put my playlist together. Should I just join a gym? Or no, it’s a running partner I need. Blah blah blah. In the end, where I am today happened because I just upped and went on a run the day after a random convo. And applying that to other habits I’ve struggled with, I realise that being unable to start soon is often a sure sign I’m overthinking things. Starting soon offers no magical guarantee of success, but it’s a step forward. And every step counts.

On one level, this is all pretty standard habit science — nothing you won’t learn from a little reading. On another level, though, discovering its power in practice has been a revelation. James Clear says it well in his new bestselling book, Atomic Habits (emphases are mine):

Many people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on what they want to achieve. This leads us to outcome-based habits. The alternative is to build identity-based habits. With this approach, we start by focusing on who we wish to become… True behavior change is identity change. You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity.

The value of my coworker’s advice is that it didn’t just get me started: it got me hooked. Without specifically saying anything about me making a shift in my identity, her suggestions helped remove the barriers that had been preventing the shift all along.

And that’s my biggest takeaway from this: the problem with many of the habits I’ve been struggling with is I’ve often started all wrong. I was busy making complicating things by focusing on goals and doing the most. Now I’m finding that, paradoxically really get into things has come by actually taking it easy.

One of my favourite writers best sums up this approach:

Whatever is worth doing is worth doing badly. — Gilbert Keith Chesterton

It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true. The more important anything is, the more important it is we get comfortable with starting really small and giving ourselves permission to be bad at it, time to get good at it, and best of all, space to have fun doing it!

And when we recognise that each little step is one more proof that we are really becoming the kind of person we’re aiming to be, the size of the step becomes much less important than the sheer fact of it. Bigger steps stop appearing to us as the proof, and simply become the natural outcome of growing into our new identity. Even taking breaks (like the rest days between runs I’ve come to learn are non-negotiable for any runner) stops being a welcome escape from the slog and drudgery, and become simply part of the growth process. And joining a community of people like you and inviting others to participate becomes the natural sharing of the person you’re becoming, because our deepest identities, as humans, are not merely personal.

So, in summary. Consider not setting a goal for whatever habit you’ve been struggling with. Instead, see every habit, however tiny, as a definite step in the direction of whatever new identity it represents to you. And as soon as you can, find a group of people like you who do things like that.

Above all, remember: keep the habit simple, make it satisfying and be sure to start soon.


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