At the age of 44 I was 15 stone. Had I been 6ft 8, this would have been fine, but at only 5ft 9 I had a problem. A big problem.
My expanding waistline shouldn’t have been a surprise given that my favourite foods were Easter eggs and pancakes – though not together, I wasn’t quite that off the rails – so my challenge was not only getting the weight off but also changing my lifestyle. Even thinking about it now is painful.
The catalyst for change arrived in the form of a visit to the Doctor and a photo. The Doctor told me I was overweight, but it was the photo of my son pointing at my stomach curiously as if to say ‘is there a baby brother in there?’ which really confirmed the problem. The good news is that I changed my eating habits and lost two stone, though like everyone else it fluctuates around Easter and Christmas. The weird way that I did it is the lesson here; one that I also use to help me tick items off my Getting Things Done(GTD) system. If you’re like me, human, with failings and a penchant for creme eggs, it could help you too.
Fuelled with motivation and guilt after seeing the photo, I joined the gym, bought a spin bike and joined a judo class. I was on it! The first two weeks went well, with five pounds lost. Then I missed a session, then another and before I knew it, despondent and in need of immediate comfort, I had some chocolate – which incidentally provides the same dopamine release as completing something like going to the gym. I felt good… for an hour, and then felt bad again. This went on for a few weeks, the judo suit was put in the closet and though I still used the bike every day, it was now to hang shirts on.
Rapidly falling back into my own ways, by chance I watched a video on building habits (Tiny Habits – YouTube), and decided to set myself what I thought was two ridiculous goals:
- Burn one calorie daily on my bike
- Open the Weight Watchers app on my phone (note the goal was so small it wasn’t even to enter the food into the app)
And then something amazing happened. Every day I got on my bike, literally and metaphorically. And once I was there, I almost always burned more than one calorie. And because the resistance to doing it was so low I’d open my Weight Watchers app and, wait for it, actually enter my food and exercises for the day. I was now aware of what I’d eaten and how many points I had left, so I stuck to my diet. I did it. I lost the weight. Buoyed by success and in a fit of bravado, I started building other habits, for example:
- Three times per week I’ll drive to the gym
- I’ll have one healthy thing for breakfast every day
- I’ll write 10 words every day – blogging etc… wild eh?!
Notice I didn’t say work out, just drive to the gym. As I learned more about setting new habits, I also used it to break bad ones. For example, I’ll delay eating that chocolate for 60 seconds, and often that is enough to avoid it completely – unless it’s Galaxy chocolate – no one can resist that.
The key to my success was that the willpower required was so low that I always, at the very least, got started. And once I did, I’d generally go on to do more. Today for example, I got up for a flight at 3:15am, I got on my bike and burned 1 calorie. This made me feel good so I boiled and ate one egg (instead of coffee and three Jaffa cakes), then I entered one item into my food tracker, and since I’m writing this blog I can tick off that I wrote 10 words. Low effort beats willpower every time, because even though it was the middle of the night I actually did more than my small habit demanded.
How does this help us if we want to stick to or get better at our GTD practise? David Allen says GTD isn’t free… it takes effort to write stuff down and keep it out of our head. Even the most disciplined of people have off days, which can turn into off weeks and months. So when It comes to GTD I have a very simple agreement with myself – ‘every day I’ll commit to doing just one action from my list.’
Again, I’m sure you’re thinking – ‘does that really that allow you to be productive’? Absolutely. I consider myself to be a busy person and it would be easy to put things off but here’s what happens: I commit to doing one task and then I go on to do more, every time. It gets me out of my inbox and into my GTD system. Sometimes the real challenge is, like exercising, simply getting started. And, when I do more I get a little hit of that lovely dopamine and I feel motivated. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. Even on an off day I still do the habit and before I know it, I’m motivated again.
When it comes to being productive, most of us are human, and we need every help we can get to keep doing GTD and other things that require at least some willpower. Jim Rhon, the personal development guru, said that we must all deal with two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. Wise words indeed, but I prefer to use the low effort, low willpower principle so I never have to suffer the pain of either.