How My Exercise Goal Prevented Me From Developing A Walking Habit

It’s been two weeks since Dory and I finished our virtual hike of Hadrian’s Wall Path and I realized something surprising today. Although we covered nearly 95 miles in nine weeks, I didn’t develop a habit of taking Dory out for long walks. It’s not a habit at all. In fact, the first few days after we reached our mileage goal, I blew off our walks entirely.

Dory and I are still walking (and birding) but not nearly as often as we were.
Dory and I are still walking (and birding) but not nearly as often as we were.

I never stated building a habit as one of my goals for the project because I assumed it would just happen. How many times have I heard or read that you build a habit by repeating an action for 21 (or 28) days in a row? We didn’t walk every day, but I still thought we would develop a habit of walking because we were doing it so often.

This article about how setting a goal with a specific deadline can undermine habit-building explains what happened. The temporary deadline that motivated me to get the miles in kept me from developing a long-term habit. I developed a “just for now” attitude about our walks. I made the effort to walk the miles partially because I knew I was only going to be doing it for a short time. Walking ten miles a week for the rest of my life sounds impossible. Walking ten miles a week for nine weeks I knew I could manage.

My virtual hike of Hadrian’s wall didn’t get me into the habit of walking like I’d hoped. So how do I develop this habit?

According to Charles Duhigg (The Power of Habit), I need three things to build a habit: a cue or trigger to tell me to start the behavior, the behavior I want to become a habit, and some sort of reward.

B.J. Fogg’s TED talk Forget Big Change, Start With A Tiny Habit reminded me of the power of baby steps. Many of the biggest changes in my life were made one tiny step at a time. I weened myself off caffeine instead of going cold turkey. It took time and discipline, but I was spared withdrawal symptoms, and by the time I was only drinking a tablespoon of cola a day, I no longer wanted it.

Because I believe Fogg’s approach of tiny habits will work best for me, I’ll have to get small with my thinking. Instead of insisting on walking for a certain amount of time or distance, my only goal needs to be get out the door with the dog on a leash. For it to develop into a habit, I need to tie it to a trigger or cue, an event or other already established behavior that reminds me it’s now time to go for a walk.

We need to walk early in the day to avoid the summer heat, so I’m going to try breakfast as my trigger. I will take Dory for a walk after breakfast. It may be short, it may be long, it doesn’t matter. I can adjust it to fit my schedule and the weather. But it needs to happen right after breakfast is over.

Besides a cue and a behavior, I need a reward. It needs to be immediate and satisfying, something I do the minute I get back from the walk. Simple is fine. Fogg’s example celebrations are saying “I’m awesome” or doing a silent victory dance for just a few seconds. I’m going to give Dory a treat and give myself credit for meeting my walking goal for the day.

I have no idea if this will work or not, but I want to try it. Tiny changes that I make on a daily basis can have remarkable results. What I do most of the time has a much greater impact than what I do now and then.

And for now, my tiny change is going to be heading out the door with the dog after breakfast. We’ll see what it leads to.

4 thoughts on “How My Exercise Goal Prevented Me From Developing A Walking Habit”

  1. Brilliant, Kit! I love how you plan to approach this. So I’m going to take a page from your book here, and try it myself. Both Lord Admiral Nelson (my dog) and I need to get into this very habit. Thanks much for this inspiring post. Although, I have to admit, I wish I had something as interesting as Hadrian’s Wall to walk along. Afraid the only thing in my neighborhood is miles of suburban tract housing and interminable road construction. Thanks, again!

    1. So far, Dory and I are two for two trying this new method. It’s meant getting up earlier in the morning so I am ready to go out right after I eat. It really helps that the goal is to get out the door, not to walk a certain distance, because I’ve had to turn around sooner that I wanted to. We are fortunate to have a natural area (prairie) with path behind our house to walk in, but we also walk in the neighborhood a lot. I look for birds and landscaping ideas to help make the neighborhood walks more entertaining. Let me know how it goes for you guys!

  2. I had not heard of that ‘three things’ … thing. I had a ‘cue’ for my morning writing, that being my alarm going off entirely too early, but i had no incentive to do it, other than building the habit so I can finish my book (if I don’t get the writing in first, life gets in the way and I don’t get the writing in at all, whether I want to or not). But an alarm is not a ‘cue’, writing for an hour straight is probably too large a goal to start with, and no reward is certainly not a reward.

    I’m going to try this ‘three things’ … thing, myself, now, too. 😀 Thank you for sharing this!

    1. I think all three things are necessary to build a habit. It seems to be helping with my dog-walking, although I keep forgetting about the reward! I think developing a writing habit is even harder, because sitting down to do pure creative work requires courage and energy. Having a habit helps (I know I do better with my writing when I show up regularly) but there are days that even with a habit developed, I struggle to get to it. I am still looking at other ways to apply this to my life; I have plenty of examples of habits I haven’t built because I was missing at least one of the “three things”. Let me know how it goes!

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