What A Computer Programmer Taught Me About Getting In Shape

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Recently I’ve been working on a new project with my friend Leo Babauta of Zen Habits. The project is called Habit Labs and it’s an effort to learn the secret of forming amazing new habits by running a series of experiments to test out different habit theories.

One of the coolest things about this project is that it has forced me to learn a lot of interesting things about the way Apps and programs are developed. 

What’s been even more interesting is how many of the theories and principles for building a better App apply directly to building new and better healthy habits.

So today, I’m going to share with you some of those principles and how you can use them to make better habits and live a more fulfilling, mindful, and healthy life.

Principle 1: Don’t Spend More, Just Do Less

One of the biggest mistakes I see people make when trying to form a new habit, is they do too much.

Say you decide to go to the gym everyday. That’s great! But if you haven’t worked out in a few years, by day four you’re going to be so sore you won’t be able to walk. Then you’ll miss a few days, end up feeling like a failure, and never go back.

But what if instead of making a huge promise you felt iffy about, you made a smaller promise you knew you could keep.

Commit to going to the gym once the first week, twice the second week, and then three times the third week. Then increase the amount of time you spend at the gym, by 10 mins each visit.

By using a more conservative approach, you can build a durable habit without making yourself miserable

Principle 2: Build Smaller, Faster, Sooner, and Simpler

Another mistake I see people make when trying to build a new habit is that they make the process overly complicated. They sign up for a bunch of classes, buy a bunch of new gear, and create really complex workout plans.

But the truth is that the biggest challenge is just being consistent. So instead of spending so much time and energy finding the perfect gym, the perfect outfit, and the perfect workout, SIMPLIFY.

Just pick an activity you love and do it a few more times a week. The best exercise plan is always the one you actually do.

Principle 3: Focus on Your Core User

For healthy habits this means understating the needs of the person you are trying to change, namely YOU.

Whenever I try to make a change for purely external reasons, it never sticks. While pressure from the outside world can support my internal commitments, the desire to change has to come from inside.

Before, during, and even after you start forming a new habit, it’s essential that you take  time to understand why you want to make the change. If you are able to connect your new habit to one of your core needs or values, you are much more likely to succeed.

Principle 4: Break Big Problems, Into Little Ones

When I was training for my marathon last year I found that whenever I looked over my whole training plan, I wanted to quit. The reason was that the big plan was intimidating.

But I also found that when I focused on each individual week it seemed very manageable.

When you are trying to make a big change, it’s important that you have an idea of the big picture, but it’s just as important to break that big picture down into smaller steps and focus most of your attention there.

Don’t worry about how much exercise you have to do over the next few months, just worry about what you have to do this week, or even just today. By taking big change and breaking it down, you can overcome huge obstacles you never thought possible.

Principle 5: Shoot For 80% Perfection

All diet and exercise plans are an approximation and it’s up to you to customize them. Which means that if you start an exercise program and it feels too hard, it’s better to pull back a little bit, than burn out and quit.

The fitness world tends to be a bit of an all or nothing culture. And it’s easy to think you have to stick to your diet 100% of the time and you have to do 100% of your workouts or you’ll fail. But the truth is, that kind of attitude will not help you last long.

Instead of shooting for 100% perfection, shoot for 80% compliance. This way you will be able to give yourself a break, while still making progress.

Principle 6: Instead of Making a Plan, Tell a Story

The fitness world loves plans, but plans are cold and inhuman. So instead of making a fitness plan, tell a story about how you are going to change your life. And make sure the story isn’t just about how you will succeed, but about how hard you will work along the way.

Start with once upon a time and then talk about the challenges you will face, the obstacles you will overcome, and the spirit you will embody along the path. Tell yourself that story again and again, changing the details as you go.

Stories do something that plans never could. They inspire us and give us context for our changes. While plans are linear, stories never are, because stories always have setbacks and triumphs. So, take the time to write a story of change that will keep you going when times are tough.

Reprogram Your Life

The biggest mistake people make when they try to make a program is they over build, over spend, and don’t follow their heart. And  they end up with an flashy app that doesn’t do anything meaningful.

The same could be said for our lives. When all we seek are the coolest new features, the fanciest programs, and the slickest designs we lose what’s really essential.

So instead of chasing the dream of some fancy new life, start by creating a really simple habit program to focus on what’s important. Not only will it be more effective, but you are much more likely to end up with one very satisfied user.


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