The exercise habit

Written on 30th May, 2012
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This morning, my alarm sounded at precisely 5:50am. Within a few minutes, I was up and had my running shoes, shorts and a t-shirt on. Minutes later at 6am, I opened my MacBook Air, switched to the desktop with TextMate open and got coding. I worked for just under one hour on some important new functionality for Buffer. At exactly 6:59am, I pushed the few commits I’d made to our Git repository. I then took my octopus card and Fitness First card out of my wallet and put them in my pocket. I put my wallet in the gym bag I’d packed the night before, and headed out of my apartment door. I got the lift down from my eighth floor to the ground floor, cheerily said good morning to the concierge and headed out of my apartment building.

Once outside, I very specifically walked across the street to the 7-11. I entered the shop, said hello to the lady and went to the back where the fridges are. I knew exactly what I would buy. I grabbed a can of red bull and a small bottle of Volvic water. I went back to the counter I’d walked past, put both on the surface and waited for the lady to key in the items. I had my octopus card ready on the scanner to make the payment, and as soon as I heard the beep to confirm the payment, I cracked open the red bull, and walked away with the red bull in my right hand and the Volvic in my left.

I set off on the 3 minute journey to my gym, and sipped the red bull on the way, a little caffeine to enhance my performance during my weights session. As always, I finished the red bull exactly as I approached the Hopewell Centre where the gym is located, and tossed the empty can in the bin as I walked past.

I headed to the escalator, and when I reached the top I walked over to the lift which takes you to the 16th floor where Fitness First is. As always, when I got into the lift I opened up my gym tracking app on my iPhone and checked what my first exercise for the day would be, and how much weight and reps I did last time. As I got to the top, I knew exactly my first exercise and how much I’d aim for this time. I walked out of the lift and headed to the counter to exchange my Fitness First card for a locker key and towels. Once I got to the changing rooms, I put my bag in locker number 115 along with the octopus card and locked it. With the Volvic in hand, I was ready to start and headed straight to the bench for my first exercise: 12 reps of dumbbell bench press, with 30kg dumbbells.

After I’d finished in the gym, I went straight home and had my usual breakfast of 4 Weetabix. As soon as I’d finished, I opened my MacBook Air, turned on the Pomodoro app and set the timer ticking for 30 minutes. I spent 30 minutes replying to emails from my “to-reply” label in Gmail, and then stopped when the timer went off. I quickly packed my bag and headed to Caffe Habitu, ready for a productive rest of the day.

The power of habits

Almost all of this pattern is now completely habitual for me, Monday to Friday each week. I alternate the gym which I do Monday, Wednesday and Friday with running or swimming on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The rest, however, stays the same. It requires very little mental energy for me to choose what to do, and it requires almost no willpower for me to force myself to accomplish the routine.

By 9:30am, I’ve done an hour of coding on the most important task I have right now on Buffer, I’ve been to the gym and had a great session, and I’ve done 30 minutes of emails. It’s only 9:30am and I’ve already succeeded, and I feel fantastic. The rest of the day is a breeze. I continue to code, and I slot in a 30 minute Pomodoro to fill my Buffer, a 30 minute Pomodoro to read a startup book (right now it’s Delivering Happiness) and one other 30 minute Pomodoro for emails later in the afternoon. I usually also meet with a startup founder here in Hong Kong during lunch and help them with their current biggest challenge. If I start the day like this, I almost always have a very productive day, and in our daily standup team Skype call I have plenty of good progress to share.

Exercise as a keystone habit

The interesting part is, this routine has taken me quite some time to build up. Looking back, it all started with just the exercise. I managed to create exercise as a daily habit around one and a half years ago when I was based in Birmingham in the UK. Over time, it became such a strong habit that there is no way I would skip it. If the rest of my routine falls apart, I will always achieve the exercising.

Right now I’m reading The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg and everything suddenly became very clear. Exercise is what Duhigg calls a “keystone habit”:

"Typically, people who exercise, start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. Exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change."

Have you considered starting the exercise habit? Do you exercise regularly? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Photo credit: Tomomi Sasaki