Get Back on that Treadmill

How to still be at it by January 15

Photo by Humphrey Muleba on Unsplash

Regular gym-goers hate January 1. All of a sudden they can’t use their favorite machine whenever they want. There are lines and sign up sheets. They have to get to classes early, before spaces fill up. There are new people everywhere who don’t know the ropes. They are called “New Years Resolutioners.”

This is the time when the resolutioners start dropping out. The gym quiets back down as those new people stop exercising. Dieters begin to slip. Crowded yoga classes have more space. The resolutions we all embraced with such fervor on December 31 are becoming onerous and boring two weeks in.

New Years resolutions are a great way to motivate yourself to initiate change, but only if you can find a way to stick with them.

The very idea of a new year with a fresh start implies you’ll change into that new person at 12:01 am January 1. But unfortunately, change takes work and time.

All the usual goal-setting advice is relevant here: break your goal into smaller, achievable tasks. But I’d add another suggestion: baby steps. Get back on that treadmill, but take it super-slow this time.

Start so small that failure is impossible.

Too much change all at once is intimidating and scary. You are almost guaranteed to talk yourself out of even trying. But if you make incremental changes gradually, each new phase will become “the norm” before you add another change. So at any time in the process, you’re only ever making one change.

Plus, ticking off all those tasks will increase your dopamine, which, according to Christopher Bergland of The Athlete’s Way is the secret to perseverance. “Having a checklist of things that you want to accomplish every morning and literally checking them off your list will systematically release a hit of dopamine,” he wrote in Psychology Today. And that dopamine will cause you to associate perseverance with pleasure, motivating you to keep going.

Not everything can be broken down by task, but everything can be broken down somehow. Goals can be broken down into stages, or into blocks of time, or by location.

Give yourself the entire year to achieve your goal. Take those smaller, achievable portions and tackle them one at a time, maybe one a month. Don’t try to do it all at once. Wait until the first task feels easy before you take on the second.

And start so small that failure is impossible, at least at first. You want to jog a 5K by 2021? Start by jogging for 10 seconds. Next week, 20 seconds.

In order to take advantage of that dopamine rush, it will help if you can keep an actual, literal list of the stages you’ve chosen to take, so you can check them off as you accomplish them. The Harvard Medical School even suggests the first item on your list be “Make list:”

If you start every plan with “Make list,” you’re guaranteed to check one box off quickly. That’s no joke: a study on loyalty programs that aim to motivate consumers found giving people two free punches on a frequent-buyer card encouraged repeat business. So break hard jobs down into smaller line items, and enjoy breezing through the easy tasks first.

If you hate one of the tasks on your list, bribe yourself. I used to get myself to the gym by rewarding myself with a sushi dinner or a glass of wine afterwards. After a while, I enjoyed going to the gym so much that I didn’t need the bribe.

Maybe you see yourself as a socialite host or hostess. Personally, I think entertaining is incredibly intimidating. There are lots of books about entertaining, but you need one that is more than just menus and decorations. You need a book that has a template for preparation that you can copy (figure out where to put the coats, make ice, that sort of thing). So task 1: find a book that has good party prep suggestions. Task 2: make a list of prep tasks and keep it somewhere handy (mine’s on my phone and includes things like “select menu,” “choose and wash serving dishes,” and “clean bathroom.”)

While you’re studying up on how to prepare for a crowd, invite your two least-judgemental friends over for pizza or potluck (Task 3). You can tidy up some first, or not; maybe get their opinions on your space and what needs to be done before you host your first party. Then, a couple of weeks later, invite those friends AND another person or two, still for pizza (Task 4). The idea is to keep the intimidation factor down, but also the costs. Entertaining is expensive — if you’re serious about this, you’ll need a budget, too (Task 5).

Photo by Kelsey Chance on Unsplash

When you’re finally ready to host that party, consider doing it with a friend. You’ll get a more interesting mix of people and the two of you can share the costs and the work.

I’d like to eat healthier meals. I’m not ready to go full vegan, though, and neither is my husband. I’m looking for ways to substitute animal products with vegetables. This week I made shepherd’s pie, mixing lentils in with the ground beef. We both thought it was delicious. Next time I make shepherd’s pie, maybe there won’t be any beef at all. I’ve been making a lot of lentil soups for lunch, too, but keeping to my usual meat-eating dinner schedule. By the end of the year, both my husband and I should find tofu less frightening, and I should have acquired enough vegan recipes to really make a go at it.

Or maybe you want to organize your office. If you don’t already have a system set up, it’s probably too much work for one day, or even one weekend. Not to mention, it can be boring, tedious and you get a lot of paper cuts. If you can’t break it down by file cabinet or by task, break it down by time: commit to spending a half-hour a week clearing clutter and setting up a system.

Then, at the end of the year, you will have gotten accustomed to spending a half-hour weekly organizing your office. Now you’ll use that time to stay on top of things: filing documents, backing up computers, entering expenses.

But that’s a goal for another year.

Researched thinkpieces on trends and current events. If there’s a bandwagon, I’m probably on it.