There’s a magic bullet in life. You might be ignoring it – even though I know of it, I go through phases where I refuse to use it. But if you’re looking for the keys to the kingdom, they’re right here.
Exercise: every single day.
If you’re already about to close this tab and go back to “inspirational” pictures on Instagram to avoid actually taking any action, you’re an idiot. If you’re about to stop reading because you know this already, then I ask you: do you actually exercise EVERY SINGLE DAY? 99.9% of people don’t. If you’re in the 0.1% then congratulations, but I’m guessing you’re not.
“Yep, I’ve penned in my workout on the 21st, two weeks from today. I fully understand this post and need no more information. Cheerio!”
Pay attention here: I’m not just telling you to exercise, I’m telling you to do it every fucking day. Every day. No days off, no excuses — every single day. It’s Christmas? Fuck you, exercise. Hungover as fuck? Fuck you, exercise. Rushed off your feet all day, finally got home, and you’re just too tired? Fuck you, exercise.
I’m going to go ahead and assume that you know about the health benefits of exercise. Here you go. Literally thousands of results. That’s not what I want to talk about in this post. Instead, let’s look at:
The psychology of daily exercise
Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, calls exercise a “keystone habit” – it’s the lead domino that, if you get it right, spills over in to every other area of your life.
When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. 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. It’s not completely clear why. But for many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change. (emphasis added) “Exercise spills over,” said James Prochaska, a University of Rhode Island researcher. “There’s something about it that makes other good habits easier.”
– Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit
There’s a great reason for this. While it’s tempting to think that you can change your life just by changing your attitude, it’s usually not the case. How many times have you tried to “get motivated” — maybe watch Rocky a couple times, look at some amazing pictures with inspirational quotes on them, and then ended up doing nothing?
Not pictured: inspirational music, subsequent self-loathing
One of the most self-destructive things you can do is describe yourself as lazy, unproductive, or any of those type of negative terms. If you do — even in a joking manner — it forms a small part of your identity, that becomes very hard to shake. It’s a pernicious form of self-destruction and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But what you can do is change your behaviour first, and your attitude will follow. If you exercise every single day, you will soon start to think of yourself as “someone who exercises”. If you also describe yourself as lazy, that creates cognitive dissonance — you hold two conflicting ideas at the same time. Your brain hates doing that, so it will push one of them out of the way. By maintaining the regular exercise habit, you force yourself to shed the idea that you are lazy.
And bingo! You slowly stop identifying as a lazy person, so you shift away from lazy behaviours like not doing the dishes, or binge-watching Friends for hours on end, getting up only to pee or fetch more beer, and you start doing things that fit with your new identity of a healthy, regular exerciser, like posting ab selfies on Instagram. I’m kidding, that part is optional.
There’s one more powerful reason behind exercising every day:
It creates a small win that means you accomplished something. Even if the rest of the day was crappy in every single way imaginable, hey, at least you exercised.
I can’t overstate how important this is. Look, we all have shitty days where we feel like crap, lounge around the house, and put off things we know we have to do. That’s life — it happens.
But if you exercise EVERY SINGLE DAY, then at the end of that crappy day you can say “Well, at least I exercised.” Retired four-star General Stanley McChrystal and bestselling author Tim Ferriss talk about exactly this principle in a recent podcast.
That creates a small win in your life. You got something done today. It’s something to feel good about. The rest of your life might be going to shit, but you’re making strides in at least this one area.
Exercise every day.
What type of exercise should I do?
Whatever you’ll stick with.
I tried to create a regular running habit last year, but I failed (for a lot of reasons). One of the biggest was that I simply don’t enjoy running. I do like lifting weights, so I do that.
If you like cycling, jump on your bike If you like jogging, lace up your shoes and hit the road. If you like boxing, join a boxing gym.
“OK, good. Now chase this chicken around for 45 minutes.”
What I will say is this: don’t do the same thing every single day, and don’t work out to full intensity every single day either. That’s a recipe for fatigue, burnout and injury. You have to work up a sweat — you don’t have to set new PRs every day.
Mix in a variety of different types of exercise, as well as a variety of intensity levels. Here’s what a typical week would look like for me:
- Monday: Lift weights
- Tuesday: Push-ups and sit-ups at home for 15-20 minutes
- Wednesday: Lift weights
- Thursday: 2 mile walk at good pace
- Friday: Lift weights
- Saturday: Push-ups and sit-ups at home
- Sunday: Play tennis
Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are always the days I lift weights. On the other days of the week I find something to do that I enjoy and want to do. If I haven’t done anything all day and I’m really pressed for time, I’ll do a quick bodyweight workout at home, some combination of push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, bodyweight squats. Whatever I feel like doing to work up a sweat.
How do I make sure I stick with this?
There are a few different things you can do. I recommend a combination of all of these.
1. Make it easy to win to begin with
Don’t expect yourself to run 10 miles a day, 7 days a week. Not going to happen. Start off just working in some short workouts each day, like push-ups and sit-ups. You can do this in 5-10 minutes when you wake up in the morning. Slowly build up the habit, and create momentum.
2. Be accountable
In my company we have a chat channel called #daily-intentions, where we each post what we plan to accomplish each day. When we’re all done with work for the day, we go down our list and say what from that list we got done, and what we didn’t get done — and why we didn’t do it — as well as our goals for the following day. This works for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it keeps us accountable. I HAVE to write down a daily to-do list, and I HAVE to go down that list each day and track my progress. Secondly, it’s public. Having to explain to someone why you failed at a goal is a powerful motivator – an idea I got from Legacy by James Kerr. But we also help celebrate each other’s successes. There’s positive and negative reinforcement.
3. Play for stakes
A recent addition to our company’s #daily-intentions was the idea of the “fun jar.” If there’s a big item that I’ve been putting off for a couple of days that I really want to get done today, I’ll tag it as a “fun jar” item. If I don’t do it that day, I have to put $50 into the company’s fun jar, that gets spent on fun stuff at our regular company meetings. It’s a way of adding stakes to daily life — and again, loss aversion is a powerful motivator.
4. Track it
Lastly, you want to be able to look back and see all the good work you’ve done. You can use the Jerry Seinfeld calendar method, that works pretty well. I used an app called Streaks that is perfect for tracking up to 6 regular habits that you want to maintain. Or you can use an old-fashioned notebook, whatever you want. I also created the Daily Practice Journal to track this and a couple of other things. But long as you have a visual record of your progress, that’s fine.
Working out every single day will literally change your life. Just remember everything I’ve taught you here:
- Exercise is a keystone habit that will spill over into other areas of your life, which is why it’s so important.
- Doing it every single day gives you a small win — no matter what life throws at you, at least you exercised.
- Make sure you’re doing activities that you enjoy, and vary the intensity all the time.
- Create systems like accountability, playing for stakes, and tracking, to make this easy and fun.
If you do this for 6 months — exercise 180 days in a row — then I guarantee your life will be better in so many ways.
Any other advice on how to build the regular exercise habit? Have I missed anything? Do you disagree? Leave a comment below!
Want to change your life in six months? Check out the The Daily Practice Journal for more on how to become a better, healthier, happier person.