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.
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.