If I could go back to my childhood and change one thing, it would be to make discipline an integral part of my life
Growing up in a rather liberal household, discipline was the last thing that was enforced at my home. Values were important, morality was important, but discipline, not so much. Truth be told, I did not start valuing discipline until much later in my life - much much later. As I whiled away my weekends watching TV, sleeping (till noon) and eating, what I didn't realise was that if not curbed at the right time, laziness could become your addictive lifelong friend. I wouldn't want to put the blame completely on my parents because I wasn't all that excited about discipline myself. When ever I was asked to wake up early on weekends, I rebelled saying that I needed some time to relax and have fun. My concept of a weekend was a fun-filled holiday doing nothing, which is probably why, even now, I struggle with managing my time on weekends.
In fact, any form of structured activity as a child would have helped. There were options, but I never stuck to anything for long. I attempted playing the guitar, painting, public speaking, poetry, drama, all in vain (incidentally, I never attempted any physical activity). I wanted to do multiple things, but most of it was my own rather lame attempts at being someone important.
In contrast, my family was all about studies, as was the case with most of the middle class families around that time. Their objective in life was to ensure that I'd find a decent job after my graduation. So obviously I didn't get a lot of support from my family for any other extra-curricular activities. The attitude was: you can do whatever you want for fun, but don't let it get in the way of your studies (or, they might have thought that I wasn't talented enough to excel in any other field because I was not exceptionally good at anything, read, naturalness bias). So anyway, in school, I was this aimless wanderer who wanted to do everything, but did nothing. I used to win poetry competitions but never took it any further, I used to participate in speech and painting competitions, but I knew I didn't stand a chance. My friends were all getting mentored by adults (either their parents or were taking private lessons), getting their strokes and speeches corrected, spending more time improving themselves and practicing, while I was trying to do everything by myself. I never had any structured approach or supervision on any of my activities except for studies.
For studies, I got enough and more support, and for that, I'm grateful to my parents. When I struggled with math in my 5th standard, my mom enrolled me for private classes after school. She also sent me every Summer (for years) to do certificate courses in Hindi, India's national language. But even in studies, I wasn't disciplined, I was just going with the flow. Though I did end up being in the top 3 in every class, I was still envious of my friends who were doing great in multiple areas - my friends were all singers, dancers, painters, actors (yes, some of them were even doing TV shows as child artists), who also did superbly well in their studies. Now I understand that it is possible that your effort and discipline in one area can spill over to other areas of your life as well!
As you can see, discipline is something that I've always struggled with. But I also knew that changing habits is not very easy, especially, the deep-rooted ones. So naturally, when I first decided to hit the gym, I was doubtful of my consistency. I'd tried to go to the gym before, but after a while, I would find some reason or the other to drop out. What was different this time? This time, I was aware of my limitations. Like they say, awareness is the first step in changing a habit. So aware I was. But then what?
My initial days involved a lot of cribbing, as I struggled to maintain my routine of going to the gym every day. Everyday, my husband would ask me: aren't you going to the gym today? and I would respond with a slow or rather indecisive 'yes'. He would then follow it up with an emphatic 'yes' and say that I cannot miss it. I had to fight, coerce or even plead with my myself, at times. But it was just a matter of getting used to the rhythm or falling into the groove.
Here are the 4 things that helped me stabilise my gym routine:
- Keep a fixed time for exercising - This itself did wonders to my schedule - my schedule is from 7:30 - 9 pm every day. The initial days were hard, but once my body got used to the routine, I was more mentally and physically prepared to hit the gym at the stipulated time - my mind and body would accept the plea more easily. Took me almost 3-4 weeks to get into this rhythm, but till then, I had to have that positive self-talk every single day before going to the gym.
- Understand more about the subject - I started watching fitness videos which helped me understand the science behind muscle building. One thing was clear to me - I had to tone down and build muscle mass, I didn't have too much of fat to lose. So I started focussing on that outcome. Slowly and steadily, my interest developed - I knew why I was doing something, instead of blindly following what my instructor told me to do. As I started seeing the result (even a teeny weeny improvement in biceps or triceps, slightly stronger abs, thighs and calves are all motivations enough to keep going), I became more and more interested in spending time at the gym.
- Have positive associations with the activity - I started listening to my favourite podcasts while I was at the gym. Most of these podcasts were inspirational, funny and thought-provoking, all at the same time. Slowly, my mind started associating gym with ideas like motivation, drive and self-improvement. Initially, when I used to hate going to the gym, one of my main motivations used to be the fact that I could listen to my favourite podcasts. Audio books would do just fine. Find the genre of audio book/podcast that motivates you, and use it to establish a positive association with what you don't like.
- Come up with small rewards if you complete some activity - One of my favourite rewards is the crunchy chicken salad at my favourite pasta place. I go there only after gym, and it has this aspirational value which motivates me to go to the gym regularly.
I'm still a work in progress, but it's been almost 2 months now, and I don't think I'll have a lot of problems sustaining this momentum. In fact, I really enjoy going to the gym these days. I re-arrange my other activities around my gym time, and even go there on weekends!
(I might very soon add a 5th point saying, publicise your intentions so you know that you can be held accountable. This blog is my way of ensuring that I continue with this endeavour no matter how demotivated I get after a while. Follow-through is a skill we all need to master)
Scott Adams, the famous cartoonist, in his book: 'How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big' says,
Once exercise becomes habitual, you won't need the will power to keep going because your body and brain will simply prefer it to being a couch spud
From experience, I can say that what he's saying is right. But what about on those days when I really find it daunting to exercise? Apparently, there is a trick to manipulate your brain in such situations, which I learnt from Scott. On a day when Scott feels dull and droopy, instead of trying to do what he can't, he tries to do what he can - which is, put on his exercise clothes and lace his sneakers. Central to his method is that he grants himself 100 percent permission not to exercise, even after getting suited up for it. This is important because we won't take the first step of donning the exercise clothes if there is a commitment to do exercise, which seems impossible in our current frame of mind.
Once the sneakers and shorts are on, a funny thing happens and it happens quickly. The physical feeling I get from my exercise clothes triggers the going-to-the-gym subroutine in my brain, and my energy kicks up a notch. It's like Pavlov's salivating dogs. The exercise clothes cause me to think positive things about exercising, and that boosts my energy.
At this stage, the idea of exercising seems possible, but there is one more step and this too requires granting yourself permission to back out at any time. Go to the gym, walk in, look around and see how you feel. As per Scott, about 95% of the time, this set of cues will put us in a sufficiently energetic mood to go ahead and exercise, and that in turn will boost our mood. But sometimes, quite rarely, you will go to the gym, look around, turn and leave. And that's okay too! The bottom line is, you should never stop trying.