I tried and failed to start and stay working out more times than I can count. It is only when I consciously sat down and asked myself the question, "what advice would I give someone else in my shoes?". I listed out a series of tips, much like these, and then I did them. Low and behold! it has been well over a year and I work out almost every day and have become stronger and healthier as a result.
Tip 1: Embrace Being a Beginner
Marcus Aurelius once said something to the effect of, “ You can remain as you are with your dignity or you can look like a fool and advance in skill.” Give yourself permission to look like a fool, it is really not as bad as you think, in fact it is kind of freeing not needing to impress anyone. Maybe your pride is too much of an obstacle and you need to exercise by yourself for a while, that can be a great place to start.
Aristotle, the philosopher of common sense, would tell us to, “Bend the stick the other way.” In other words, it you naturally arch towards wanting to preserve your pride, find opportunities to do the opposite, and bend yourself towards humility. Here are some short exercises that can help you to not care if you look like a fool: Try asking someone a stupid question in all seriousness. Do you have a shirt that looks ridiculous? Where it out in public where people will think less of you. If you can bend your pride and vanity towards humility, looking like a fool and advancing in skill becomes possible.
Tip 2: Change who you are not what you do
If you are a fish, you don’t need to put, “Swim” on your to-do list. If you are an active person you don’t need to put “Exercise” on your to-do list, it is just part of life, it doesn’t take will-power, it’s just what you do. Your path to working out in the long term is to make exercise move from a task, to part of your identity. One of the mind blowing things about being a human is that we can have desires about our desires. If you ever want to make a computer fail a Turing test, ask the computer about its meta-desires, this is something uniquely human.
It is normal for your meta-desires to proceed your actual desires. As such there is nothing wrong with the “Fake it till you make it” mentality. You are simply tilling and weeding a little garden in your life for certain desires and habits to grow. It is fine if nothing has sprouted yet.
Let's say you want to start running, what does a runner wear? Go and get those clothes and when you know it is time to go running, put them on. If you plan to run in the morning, put them on first thing in the morning. Now, if you don't run you have to change out of your running clothes. This subilty raises the cost of not running. When you look at yourself in the mirror you will see yourself as a runner. What do runners do? They run.
Find a running group, read runners articles and magazines, figure out what runners do and copy it so that your life starts to look like a runners life.
Tip 3: Have a specific plan
A Specific plan is not “Work out in the morning”. A specific plan look like this: Wake up at 8am put on my running clothes, have coffee and a light runners breakfast, at 8:45 run to the house down at maple ave with the blue shutters. Afterwards log my time, take a shower and start my day.
Let's say you are strength training, a bad plan would be, “Its upper body day” A better plan would be “Its push day” an even better plan would be: Get to the gym after work on my way home, do 50 120lb overhead presses broken up into as many sets as needed, Bench till failure three times at 85% max, Parallel dips three times till failure. Log any new records. Head home for a protein shake.
Bottom line is this, ambiguity surrounding a task always makes us want to avoid it. The more clear your plan is, the easier it will be to actually do it. When you do, you know for certain that you completed the task.
Tip 4: Start too small
I can’t even imagine how many times I decided to start exercising and after a few weeks, fell off the wagon. Each time, my time horizon was too short, I had a burst of enthusiasm then it dropped off and so did my workouts. Without the enthusiasm, the workouts that I had been doing seemed like too much of a bother so I would put them off. Imagine if one of those times years ago I had paced myself, cultivated the habit and worked out till this day. Any of my previous workout attempts would be paying dividends by now.
There is an old Japanese proverb, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time is today”. The same is true of exercise. Your future self would much rather have you start small and keeping it going than have yet another burst of workouts only to give up.
Here is your first week workout plan: Get your running clothes on, open your front door and come back inside. If you are weightlifting, Walk over to the weights, touch them with one finger. That is it. Don’t you dare do any more than this! The next week will be a 2 minute run or maybe 2 sets of lifts.
I promise, at the end of these two weeks you will have two things you didn’t have before. First, you will have two weeks of habit building where you practiced setting aside time to workout. Second, you will desperately want to start doing more exercise. For the next few weeks after this, leave the gym or the trail while you still want to do more. The goal is to train yourself to begin workouts and to create a thirst to begin the next one.
Tip 5: Treat yourself
Come up with something you only do on workout days. Maybe you have a playlist of your favorite songs, only listen to them when you are working out. Make yourself a delicious protein shake as a reward for successfully working out according to plan.
Pavlov’s dog learned to associate bells with food and salivated at the sound of the bells. You, (Sorry for insinuating that you are like a dog, you may or may not be) need to associate your workout with something that you like.
Tip 6: Talk to yourself
Everyone has heard a friend talk about how a run clears their head, or how working out gives them a jump on the day. If you don’t workout, you are probably rolling your eyes, maybe that works for them but not me. It is hard to believe other people about how we would feel. That is why you need to tell yourself.
Here is the plan, when you complete a workout, write yourself a brief note about how you felt before and after. Do this every time if need be. When you feel under motivated, read the past notes. You will see in your own words that other times you felt the same way but afterwards you felt energized or accomplished. It is a lot easier to take your own advice.
Tip 7: Commit to the first 2 minutes
After you took tip number 4 to heart and are weeks into your new habit, motivation starts to wane. Preserve the habit at the expense of the workout if you must. Consistency beats intensity every time! Keep showing up and commit to the first 2 minutes of the workout. Often when you get moving in those first 2 minutes your realize it's not that bad, and you keep going. Maybe you do stop at 2 minutes, but remember tip number 1 you are a beginner that's OK. When motivation dries up, keep the habit going and revert to tip 4 if you need to.
Tip 8: Give the pain a purpose
If you are religious (and maybe even if you aren’t) You can offer up the pain and discomfort to God in conjunction with a prayer request and it becomes much more powerful. Alternatively, you can offer up the pain in reparation of your, or even someone else's sin. If that sounds strange, that is literally what Jesus did. What this tip does is transform your pain from dumb suffering into something valuable for yourself or others. Is getting out of bed and running on a cold day difficult and uncomfortable? Yes, and that is a feature not a bug.
You will quickly find that this type of attitude infects other parts of your life. If you order a meal at a restaurant and its great, fantastic, enjoy and praise God, if it is terrible and disappointing, congrats, you have been giving a tiny amount of suffering, now put it to work. If you take this tip to heart, the life becomes a win-win scenario whether life deals you good or bad cards.
Tip 9: Don’t have Goals, have themes
A goal tells you that you aren’t successful until you obtain it. However, if you are cultivating a habit of exercising, you are a success every time you stick to your plan from tip 3. It doesn’t matter if your results and pathetic and beginner level, who cares. Most people set goals that are too long term or too ambitious. It becomes a recipe for disappointment and discouragement.
Goals also insinuate that there is an endpoint, there is not, you are cultivating a lifestyle. Instead, pick a theme such as cycling. Then, train like a cyclist for maybe 4-8 weeks and track your progress. After that, you did it! Pick something new like power lifting for 5 weeks, or working on explosive strength with hill sprints and boxing drills for a few weeks.
Themes keep you focused on advancing in a specific area and they allow you to mix up your routine to keep things interesting. Often times people want to get all types of exercise packed into a week program that they can repeat forever. Chill out, you have the rest of your life. Think in terms of what you want to pack into your year not your week.
Tip 10: Nutrition
Obviously eat a balanced diet, drink water and get great rest. Regardless of the workout you are doing, you would benefit from whey protein. The studies and numerous, well controlled and long term. You will stay more motivated if you have more gains and this is a super easy way to get them.
If you are strength training throw some creatine into your morning coffee. Again, the stuff is super well studied, incredibly effective, and dirt cheap, its a no brainer. Other than those two things almost everything else is either harmful or a waste of money.
Now get out there!