As I’ve mentioned here before, I have a fitness goal: my Fighting Fit Challenge.
I was hoping to announce today that I’d reached Stage 1 of that goal: to pass the US Navy’s Physical Readiness Test for a man my age, which will soon be 44. (Disclaimer as always: I’m just using this as a standard, I’m not actually planning to join any military force anywhere.)
I kind of passed and I kind of didn’t.
What I mean is that there are two passing levels. To get into the US Navy you need an average score of 60 (there are charts for each age-group to calculate the score), but to pass the test once you’re already in, you only need an average of 50.
My score was 58. And, of course, being me, I was shooting for the higher number.
I have to say, when I came back from my run having missed the goal I was disappointed in myself. But, as Oscar Wilde put it, experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want. (Except in roleplaying games, where experience is what you get when you kill things and take their stuff. But I digress.)
When I sat down and calculated it out, it’s not a big miss. Either a 3% improvement in my running time for the 1.5 miles or another 7 pushups would do it.
I know I can do that. I’ve done that many pushups before, in fact, and 3% isn’t much – especially when you consider that just a couple of weeks ago I couldn’t run a mile and a half at all, let alone in 15:10. Compared to where I was even three months ago, I’m doing great.
So I’m on track for my challenge, and I know how to improve in order to achieve it.
In fact, what I mainly want to talk about today is that in the process of working towards my fitness goals, I’ve figured out some things about achieving goals in general.
The ins and outs of motivation
My wife thinks I’m very internally motivated because I do so much personal development work on myself.
I’m actually just stubborn and rebellious. I don’t want an external force making my decisions for me. I’d rather pick my own path.
But what I’ve found is that once I’ve picked my path, I can get along it much further, much faster and much more readily if I have some kind of external motivator. Because I’m lazy, too.
Some of my best personal development changes have come from night classes, and I know exactly why this is. It’s not because of the quality of the teaching, necessarily (that’s varied widely). It’s because I’ve had a specific time set aside, a place that I have to go to, and people expecting me to turn up there to work on whatever it is together.
That gives me enough structure to stick with it and make progress.
At the end of last year, I finished a Certificate in Health Science through Massey University. Massey started out as an agricultural university, and they’ve been offering courses by correspondence for decades so that farmers could upgrade their knowledge without leaving the farm. That meant I could study in my own time while still working one and a half jobs.
Doing the course not only got me access to resources I wouldn’t have got hold of otherwise, it also got me to study them. I had grand plans this year that, just as I had studied my Massey material at lunchtime, so I would read and study some of the nonfiction books in my “to read” stack at lunchtime.
I’ve read exactly one. Without the external motivator of submitting assignments and doing exams – two things I find tedious and unpleasant – I haven’t kept it going.
While night classes and such are great, they’re not essential for me. What I do need, though, is something that’s telling me to push through and do it when it gets hard, even if it’s to meet an arbitrary goal that I’ve set myself.
On simple goals like keeping up a few minutes of daily meditation, I’ve found that I can use the Seinfeld Chain Method. The comedian Jerry Seinfeld (the real one, not the TV character of the same name and occupation who was played by him) motivates himself to write each day by marking a calendar with an X each day that he writes. Not wanting to “break the chain” gives just enough motivation to get him to keep doing it.
For harder stuff like exercise, I need to use more complex trackers. I have an iPod Touch (basically an iPhone without the phone), which makes it simple – there’s an app for almost everything. Nothing I track couldn’t be tracked with paper and pencil and a stopwatch, but the apps make it easier. (Links to all the apps I mention below are on the nifty new resources page.)
App is short for application…
My Navy fitness goal involves three exercises: situps, pushups and running.
I already went through the Two Hundred Situps and Hundred Pushups programs. I used a printed tracker for Two Hundred Situps and an app for Hundred Pushups. But when I started training for the Navy PRT it had been a little while since I did those, and I needed to build up again.
The basic way both programs work is by giving you five sets of repetitions of varying, but gradually increasing number, three times a week, with periodic tests of how many repetitions you can do without stopping. I thought I could carry on doing that for myself, but found that my progress was a bit slow, so I bought an app called Infinity Reps. It does basically the same thing as the two other programs, but keeps on going up indefinitely.
It’s not as well-designed as the other two – it doesn’t show you good form for the exercises, and it took me a little while to figure out how to work it, as it’s not immediately clear where you tap to start the exercises or what all the settings mean.
But what it does do is push me more than I would push myself.
One morning, for example, I was feeling a bit tired. The last set was 30 pushups, and I didn’t think I could do that many. I did, though – because I was going for an external goal. If I’d been setting my own target I would have stopped much, much sooner.
Same with the running. I wasn’t making much progress because I was running when I felt like it, or more accurately when I knew that if I didn’t run I was going to slip backwards rather than progressing. I wasn’t following a plan, I was just running until I really felt like stopping.
Well, now that I’m using the Couch to 5K app to tell me how to train, it turns out the the point where I really feel like stopping comes a while before the point where I actually have to stop. A friend of mine often quotes the wise words of his grandmother: “There’s a lot you can do when you’re tired.”
Couch to 5k works by starting you out alternating running and walking, and gradually increasing the running and reducing the walking until you’re running all the time. About the second time I used it, I was labouring up a hill and really wanted to drop from a run into a walk. But I was partway through a 3-minute running interval. I had 40 seconds to go – I knew this, because the app was showing me. The nice British woman’s voice hadn’t told me to switch to walking yet. So I thought, “I can do another 40 seconds.”
Using the app is just enough of a commitment that, like Jerry Seinfeld not breaking the chain, I carry on and do something hard because I’ve made a (completely arbitrary and voluntary) commitment to do so. Even though there are no consequences from not doing it – apart from disappointment with myself for not following through.
The thing about exercise is that if you’re doing it right, it’s always going to be challenging. You’re always going to want to stop, because it doesn’t actually feel good until afterwards (at least, not for me, most of the time, so far). Afterwards, it feels great – I’m fitter than I’ve probably ever been at the moment, and I feel alive like I never have before. But while you’re doing it you keep wanting to stop.
Adding in that little extra motivator is enough to keep me going.
Work on the work
Here’s the other thing I’ve learned. When you’re not getting the outcome you want, pay attention to the process.
My shorthand version of that insight is “work on the work”.
We don’t like process. We like outcome. It’s like Mark Twain’s remark on the definition of a classic – it’s a book everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read. But it’s paying attention to the process, working on the work, that creates the outcome we want.
I wasn’t getting the improvement I wanted in running, so I worked on the work. Now I can run a mile and a half, where I couldn’t before.
As a Hero Trainer, what I do is work with you on the work so you can get the outcome you’ve been missing out on. And I provide that external motivator and structure, as well.
So if your life is less amazing than you want it to be, get some hero training.
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