Category Archives: habits

5 tips for getting through the Couch to 5K program

Well, it has been a long time since I blogged.  A ton of things have changed in my life, which are probably better covered in another post.  So, for now, let’s just dive in to my current pursuit- completion of the Couch to 5K running program.  I’ve done this program a few times- sometimes all the way to the end and sometimes giving up in despair after a few runs.  There are a few things I’ve discovered that make the program much easier (for me, at least).  So, here are 5 tips I’ve discovered that make the learning to run via the Couch to 5K program much easier.  Very small tweaks can be the different between success and failure.

5 things that make learning to run easier

  1. Run on a treadmill.  This makes pacing so much easier.  You don’t suddenly hit a hill and then cannot complete the week, like you would running outside.  And yes, even very small inclines can totally wreck you if you aren’t fit.
  2. Get an app.  I’ve done this by manually tracking the time, but that is too much mental effort, especially if you are being physically challenged.  I’ve been using the Couch25K app by Zen Labs.  The free version tells you when to switch between running and jogging.
  3. Set a consistent time to run. Yeah, habit building 101!  The last time I did most of the program, I ran in the afternoons on weekends, and at 6:30 am on weekdays.  In practice, I frequently overslept on weekdays, and could rarely get in 3 runs per week.  I also am much looser and more energetic later in the day, so later times makes runs much easier for me,
  4. Don’t run fast.  This is the most common piece of advice out there about the program, and it is totally true.  If your run was a total nightmare, then back off the speed.  This is much easier if you are using a treadmill. I walk really fast (~ 4 mph), so the first few tries, I decided that running had to be at least 6.5 mph, or else it was not really running.  This time around, I’m being more gentle, and using a running speed of 5.2 mph.
  5. Pay attention to your body.  Does something feel tight or weird when you are running?  Does your left whatever feel different than your right whatever?  Google it, and make sure you are doing an appropriate stretch to fix it.  Even if you are following a suggested stretching program, such as the one recommended by the Cool Running site (“Stay Loose”), it may not have the stretch you need.  And personally, I very much dislike stretching, so running through a 12 stretch program is unlikely to happen at this point in time.  But, I do feel a huge difference in tightness between my right and left calves.  So I tested a bunch of stretches for tight calves, and found one targets exactly the tightest part.  One stretch I can do, and because it is targeting a specific problem, I can see improvement with every run.  This sets up a nice feedback loop that keeps me stretching.

Things we avoid…

The flip side to understanding what values drive you, is to understand what pain points you strive to avoid.  These can often be much more powerful than the positive values we may wish to embrace.  Rather than maximizing our pleasure, we go out of our way to avoid pain.  This can be okay, but sometimes our pain values actually prevent us from acting on our positive values.

My big 3 drivers are:

  1. Fear of Rejection
  2. Fear of Loss of Control
  3. Fear of being disrespected

These are all interrelated, and all carry the poison pill that  the more you strive to avoid these things, the more likely that you are to experience them.

No one can be in control 100% of the time.  Trying to do so just leads to a more catastrophic experience when you finally do lose control.  (Which can also lead to a real and deserved loss of respect from people around you and possibly also rejection).

Fear of rejection prevents you from being able to share your true self with others.  You have to construct a facade, and too much effort goes towards controlling your image so that you won’t be rejected or disliked.

Fear of being disrespected also leads to the projection of a persona- either of power of expertise so that you have sufficient “standing” that you won’t be disrespected.

Again, failure in one mode leads to failure across the board.

Finding out how to reframe or release negative drivers isn’t easy.   The first step is just to be aware of them and when they are driving your actions.  Journaling is a great place to record these observations and later look for patterns.  This is what I will be doing over the next month as I try to modify my mindset.

Starting again…

So, I haven’t been writing or blogging at all for the past, what, month?  6 weeks?  Something embarrassingly long.   So, I thought I would restart this habit, and do a public postmortem of why it failed the first time around.

I had two separate, but related habits for this year- the first was to blog 3x per week, and the other was to write 30 minutes each day for myself (not work related).  I’m going to talk about the writing one today and the blogging one later in the week.

Writing 30 minutes every day

Initially, I thought the writing would mostly be blog related, but I expected that eventually there would be space to work on a book or some sort of writing that would become a second source of income.  I also wanted to create more this year, and I thought that writing would be a natural and easy way for me to express myself.  So this tied in to two bigger picture goals (second source of income and creating) that I set for myself.

So why did setting this habit fail?  There are two things I identified.

  1.  No solid home on my calendar.  I didn’t like writing in the evening, because I was tired after work and it felt more like a chore that had to be accomplished before I could do something fun (like surf the internet).  I moved it on my calendar to the morning before work, but I never actually managed to write in the morning.  I mostly overslept and had no time to sit down and write.  Then I didn’t do it at night because I already over-scheduled myself there as well.  🙂
  2. Weak sense of reward or accomplishment.  I had a few different things in place to provide a reward.  I’m unusually motivated by checking things off a list or getting a sticker or whatever other trick you would use to motivate a 5-year old.  So, I set it up as a recurring task on my on-line habit tracker (I’m using Habitica currently) and I wrote it on my planner as an entire block of time that could be colored in when completed (yeah, weird, but this is almost as motivating as a sticker to me).  Apparently neither of these are sufficiently motivating given the magnitude of the task.  I also thought that starting a blog would serve as accountability.  However, the only people who read my blog are spammers and that is (unsurprisingly) fairly demotivating.

So, I am approaching this in two ways since there are two problems.  First, massive bribery.  I like pen and paper and ink, but I realized that my rate of purchasing these items vastly outstripped the rate I used said items.  So I’m on a temporary ban until I use up some supplies.  If I successfully write for 7 days in a row, then I get to buy some fountain pen inks for myself.  I already loaded my online shopping cart  with an excessive amount of ink- all I have to do is write everyday for a week and many bottles of ink will come my way.  (The bargain is actually that I need to check off all items on Habitica daily to earn the ink, but in practice, most days the only unchecked task is writing/blogging.  I don’t want another habit to slip as I ramp this up.)  The second approach is to put writing back on my calendar in the evening.  While there were a lot of reasons to put it in the morning, it didn’t actually ever happen.  So, hopefully back to evening will work.

Being a writer

I’m a writer.  I write technical documents for work and volumes of personal musings for myself.  I’ve also written a book-  50,000 words slammed together a decade ago as part of National Novel Writing Month.  I’ve never read it.  Writing the book was a project- a temporary endeavor.  When I accomplished the goal, the project was done, and I filed the book away as “complete”.

But lately I’ve been thinking about my book lately in the context of habits and goals.  The end point- writing X number of words by the end of November- isn’t the natural endpoint of a book.  It is at best a midpoint.  Next comes editing, workshopping, ???  I actually have no idea.  National Novel Writing Month was a huge amount of fun.  More importantly, it provided a framework (write X words in X time) that was easy to follow and easy to win. (Yes, I like to win.  No, that isn’t the point of NaNoWriMo.  Writing that much in a month is tough, but the endpoint is so close and so clear, it is pretty easy to power through to the end.

There is a lot of contradictory information out there about what to do next.  So,  I thought I would document my experience as I complete my book.  I’ll be looking at a lot of different resources ranging from traditional books to Reddit.  I’ll post my reviews of the resources here on the blog, and I’ll also let you know how things go as I progress.  I hope that this blog will be a useful resource for others when they decide to publish their books as well.

Along the way, I’ll digress and talk about habits, productivity, “side hustles”, and whatever else I try to apply to my life.   The end goal is a peaceful, productive, and creative life.  Getting there might be rocky, but hopefully I’ll find some tips and tricks that can make the next person’s life a bit smoother.

Psychological Obstacles & Habits

The last block to good organization according to Morgenstern is Psychological Obstacles.  Again, I think that this applies more broadly to habit building in general.  This can be heavy stuff, but extremely rewarding.  I’m not sure that these obstacles can be easily categorized, but I’d like to focus on one category where I think a lot of people might have a block- alignment of goals & habits with personal vision & values.  A wordy title for sure, but I cannot come up with anything snappier at the moment.

Our goals, habits & resolutions paint a picture of who we think we should be.  However, in some cases this isn’t the same as who we want to be.  We put down goals that don’t actually resonate with our values or personal vision.  We put these goals down because something external is telling us we should.  Or we put down a goal that does align with our values or ideal self-image, but actually has no resonance with us.

Let me give you an example.  For years “Learn a second language” has been a goal of mine.  I work in a multi-cultural environment and I’d say at least 80% of my colleagues speak at least 2 languages, and a sizable fraction of them speak three or more.  I’d like to show my non-native English speaking friend and colleagues respect by talking to them in their native language.  I think that would deepen our relationship & friendship.  In my mind, learning another language would make me more worldly and sophisticated as well.   This would suddenly turn me in to one of those adventurous people who backpack across the globe staying in the homes of people they met while chatting at the local market.  Knowing a second language (in my mind) is also a signal that I’m not closed minded- I’m not an ugly American.   There is a lot of stuff behind this simple goal!

Yet, I still don’t speak a second language.  This resolution has been broken more times than I can count.  I’d buy CDs or download programs, commit to a practice schedule, start building the habit of practice, and break it within a month.  Why?  Because I don’t like learning languages.  It is a horrible, horrible slog for me.  I took years of French in school, and worked hard to get good grades, but it was my least favorite subject.  I also don’t like travel.  I’m not a spontaneous person, and backpacking across the world sounds horrible to me.  The underlying values (multi-multiculturalism, open-mindedness, respect, relationship building, sophistication)  are important to me, which is why this goal re-appeared on my list for so many years.  To not learn a second language seems like a refutation of values that are important to me.  But, there are other ways to live in alignment with those values that fit better with my life, my personality, & my preferences.  And now, this goal doesn’t appear on my list.  Occasionally, I think “I should learn a second language”, but a few moments reflection convinces me that this goal is still not something I actually want to do.

The converse could be true as well.  Upon thinking about a goal and seeing the deep connection to your values and your ideal self, you may realize that it is a much higher priority than you thought.  As an example, keeping up with household chores may not be the funnest thing for most of us,  and might seem like it is dictated mostly by outside expectations.  However, when I thought about how I felt when I walked in to a clean room, I realized that house-cleaning enabled tranquility.  For me, I experience increased calm in a neat and clean room and increased anxiety walking in to a messy one.  Housekeeping is something that I struggled with fitting in my schedule.  It seemed cleaning took too much energy.  I either didn’t have that energy, or I preferred to spend it elsewhere.  The last year I lived pretty chaotically.  However, as I started reflect on my values, and ways to reduce my stress and anxiety levels, I realized that housework was actually a really simple and important path towards calm.  And since I’ve starting thinking about these benefits of housework, it has been easier to do the habit of doing some cleaning & tidying up every night.

So, is there a Zombie goal on your list?  A goal that you’ve never managed to accomplish, but yet keeps coming back year after year?  Perhaps taking a few minutes to think about why you want to accomplish the goal, and if it is really something you want to do, will finally slay the Zombie goal- one way or another.



External Realities & Habits

In Julia Morgenstern’s framework, the second level of difficulties with organization are those she dubs “External Realities.”  These are things beyond your control such as unrealistic workload or uncooperative partners.

This is a tricky category, despite the fact that there are really only two options- acceptance of the external reality and mitigation of the external reality.

Mitigation of the external reality is commonly suggested strategy.  For example, if you want to take a gym class at 6:30 pm, but your boss frequently wanders in to your office at 5:45 pm to have a long brainstorming session, then signing up for a 6:30 am class instead is a work around.  For those of you with understanding bosses and no fear about setting boundaries, go ahead and tell your boss you have to leave at 6 pm exactly.  Then sign up for the 6:30 am class after being late for class 3 times running due to traffic.  🙂

Mitigation of external realities can be empowering.  You manage to accomplish your goals or habits despite the huge obstacle.  Go you!

On the other hand, sometimes it just isn’t possible to mitigate the issue.  You have to accept the external reality and perhaps abandon the goal.  This is a horrible feeling since it feels like admitting defeat.  But it is so corrosive to continually “fail” at something.  Better to accept the reality and focus your attentions on something you can accomplish.  Treat yourself with kindness and compassion and let go of the habit or goal.

In general, things that require other people to change fall in this category (unless there is a clear way to mitigate, per our chatty boss example).  You have no control over others, so let it go.  Easier said than done, but inability to change others is probably something that experience tells you is a truth.  Other external factors that may fail in this category are poor health or limited time.  These can be really hard to recognize and accept, since there is a cultural narrative of ‘gutting through it’.  Just because Thomas Edison worked 20 hour days doesn’t mean that work pattern is healthy for you.  If you are ill, if you are tired, if you cannot do it right now, accept that and move on.  In this case, prioritizing the goals and habits that are essential and letting everything else go is a perfectly sane and healthy approach.


Easy to Fix Habits & Technical Errors

Habit building is hard.  It is frustrating as you struggle through the process.  There is a growing body of research about building habits out there, which I’ll review in another post, but sometimes despite following the recipes, the habit doesn’t stick.  Or a habit you had before suddenly becomes broken.

A useful framework I found for diagnosing problems with habit formation came from the book “Organizing from the inside out” by Julie Morgenstern.  She claims that organizational problems stem from three different causes- Technical Errors, External Realities, and Psychological Obstacles.    Keeping one’s space organized is a habit itself, so this applying this schema to habits perhaps isn’t a revolutionary leap.  But I’ve not seen it presented in this way before, so I thought it would be useful to share it.  Today, I am going to focus on technical errors.

Technical errors in the context of Morgenstern’s work are “simple, mechanical mistakes” and are thus the easiest to fix.   For example, a house filled with cluttered stacks of books might be easily organized by buying more bookcases.

So let’s apply some easy fixes to our habits!  Our habits are frequently sabotaged by simple technical errors.  These often appear to defy logic, so you’ll need to pay attention as you do your habits, rather that just thinking through it in the abstract.  I’ll give a few examples that I’ve found in my own life.

Habit 1: Taking my laundry out of the dryer and folding it
When I moved in to my new apartment, I had a hard time remembering to complete the laundry.   I’ve always been diligent about completing laundry and folding/ironing/ putting stuff away promptly, so I was a little confused about why this habit was broken.

Here is the sequence of the habit:
A) Get basket (for clean laundry) from bedroom
B) Go to laundry room & get Laundry
C) Take laundry to bedroom
D) Fold laundry on bed & put away clothes
E) Put basket back in the proper place in the bedroom

This is apparently impossible to do.  My mind could not get behind this (logical!) sequence.  Nothing I did worked.  I spent more days that I would like to admit dressing out of the dryer because I had no clean clothes in my closet.  This led to other problems, like dirty laundry piling up & wet laundry mildewing in the washer because the dryer was filled with clean clothes from a week ago.

However, the following sequence is a piece of cake for my mind.  Habit firmly in place and effortless.  Other problems related to laundry disappeared once the dryer bottleneck was fixed.

A) Get basket (for clean laundry) from bedroom
B) Go to laundry room & Get Laundry
C) Take laundry to bedroom
D) Fold laundry & put away
E) Put basket back in the proper place in the  bedroom laundry room

Why did this work?  I’m guessing getting the basket was just too much effort to overcome to do a chore, but moving the basket to the laundry room at the end of folding was just a continuation of  “laundry flow”.  Who knows?  (Applying some introspection to why the changes worked might be useful for fixing other problems, but for now I’m happy with leaving with a (yet untested) hypothesis.)

Habit 2: Drinking water at work
Impossible approach:  Keeping a glass on my desk and periodically walking 6 feet to the water cooler to fill it.

Magic approach:  Keeping a 1 L bottle and a glass on my desk.  Filling the glass from the bottle, and periodically walking 6 feet to the water cooler to fill the bottle.

The way that is effortless involves more steps.  Why should that be easier?  In this case, I think this is actually the ghost of habits past.  🙂  I never worked in an office close to water before, so I always brought water bottles/ thermos to work.  So drinking by pouring water in a glass from a bottle is the “right way” to do this.  I suppose I could choose to try and deprogram the leftovers of the old habit, but making the small change of having a bottle and a glass is a small enough inefficiency that I don’t think it is worth the effort to break the old habit.    There are cases where the cost-benefit analysis will lead to the opposite conclusion, but for now, focus on _simple_ tweaks that make a habit work.

Probably, the best approach to find these easy to fix habits is to look at habits that fall in the following categories:

1) Habits that you had before, and are now broken.  Frequently it is a small mechanical difference between before and now.

2) Feelings of frustration when trying to do the habit.  For me, going to the dryer and then remembering I needed to get the basket was very frustrating.  I think this frequently comes at the start of the habit sequence and that it is fairly common, which is why there is a lot of advice along the lines of “pack your gym bag the night before”.

I’d love to hear if you’ve ever experienced technical errors with habit building.  Do they fit the categories above?  Or is there another place we can be looking for easy to fix habits?  Let me know in the comments!