66 days : Goals Into Habits

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I used to hate running (and most other physical activity); I couldn’t tolerate the burn in my muscles, shortness of breath, and drudgery. In my early twenties I had a boyfriend who pointed out that my physical activity level was basically zero. I didn’t really care that I was so inactive. Being young, it didn’t seem to impact my waistline, so why bother? However, my moods were a bit unreliable–I was pretty grumpy. And who likes to be grumpy? I witnessed the joy on people’s faces following physical activity and, whether I liked it or not, the need to start moving more began to creep into my consciousness.

It’s shocking to think a couch potato like I was can now say that I’ve been a runner for two decades. I’ve had highs and lows, and lazy times and obsessive times, but it’s a habit I formed and I have stuck with it. Running strengthens my body, clears my mind, and balances my emotions. It takes me outside, and affords the opportunity to spend time with friends. It has shown me how much I am capable of. And, except for the cost of the shoes, it’s free! I am so grateful for its benefits.

How did I go from someone who was allergic to physical activity to being a lifelong runner? I can blame it on a group of seven-year-olds.

At the time, I was a second grade school teacher. One of the daily tasks we did was to each come up with a goal for the day — student’s choice — and then assess how they did at the end of each day. The kids selected their individual goals, and were free to judge their own success. The only rules were that the goals had to be specific and realistic, and they also had to include an action plan. For example, a goal might be “I will learn how to draw a dog, by working on it for 20 minutes today during free time.” This kind of goal is easy to assess at the end of the day. Was it possible? Yes. Did it happen? Yes or no.

In order to support the kids by being a good role model, I created daily measurable goals and shared them with the class. One of my first goals–actually the first conscious goal I can remember setting as an adult– was to learn to play the harmonica. My plan was broken into itty bitty steps. First, I would get a “Teach Yourself to Play the Harmonica” book and then had a plan to practice for twenty minutes a day until I could play the songs in the book. I shared this goal with my students and they frequently inquired about my progress. Of course when you have a group of seven-year olds holding you accountable, you’ve got to follow through!

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After a couple of weeks, the students asked for me to play for them. I was just learning, so I was quite terrible at it still, and it took a great deal of courage to get up and play “Oh Susanna” for them as I missed many notes and made my way miserably through the song. At the end of my performance (if you can call it that) they burst into applause and gave me a standing ovation. What an amazing feeling it was to see their faces beaming up at me, huge smiles and cheering wildly. It was probably the first time in history that “Oh Susanna” played badly on harmonica got such an enthusiastic response.

It wasn’t that the kids actually thought my harmonica playing was any good – I think they really just understood the effort and courage, and were thrilled to see an adult take such a big risk. You see, kids have to do something everyday that we forget about as adults. They are constantly asked to learn new things and to display their uneven progress in front of other people. We ask them to do it all the time (they are new at everything!) and forget how much effort and courage this takes. Doing something new is hard, and requires stepping out of our comfort zones. And therefore, because we can get away with it, we tend to stick with what we know–for better or for worse– and try new things less and less as adults. But what cost will our old habits inflict upon us?

Back to the running. As I began to see how effective (and easy and rewarding) setting daily goals was, I began to use this technique even in my “off” time. Setting simple goals had become a very effective tool for making wanted changes in my life. At the start of one summer, I decided my goal would be to be able to run two miles by the end of the summer. As I said, I hated running. It was hard. Two miles was a long distance for me at the time. So, treating myself gently, in the way I’d encouraged the kids, my plan was to begin by running 75 feet — basically from my driveway to the neighbor’s driveway. The next day I would increase by 75 more feet, etc., until I reached my goal of two miles at the end of the summer. The only thing this really required on my part was a short commitment.

I remember the first day I began running. Reaching my goal was so easy it was almost laughable. All I had to do was put on my shoes and run to the neighbor’s driveway. I did it, and was able to check off my success for the day. Even with such a small goal, there was a big sense of accomplishment. Increasing the distance each day by such a small amount made the whole thing easy, manageable, and gradually increased my physical endurance. The positive feedback of accomplishing my goal day by day was enough motivation to keep myself going. Plus, I shared my progress with a few encouraging friends.

By the end of the summer, I had easily reached my goal. I couldn’t believe it! It worked. I — the lazy bones who was allergic to exercise– could run two miles with ease! And by the end of the next summer? I had run a marathon! A byproduct of this feat was that my moods became much more cheerful, and for the first time in my life I actually had good lung capacity and began to develop noticeable strength, endurance, and muscles!

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In the intervening years I have read some research about goal setting and discovered that my running goal met many of the “research proven” requirements for setting a good goal – it was…

measurable
specific
broken down into very small increments
rewarding
positively framed (instead of saying what I wasn’t going to do (“I will stop being so lazy”) I said and envisioned what I was going to do (run everyday))

Perhaps most important, my overall goal required approximately two months to achieve it. After much research, behavioral scientists have determined that new habits form after practicing them for approximately 66 days.

Twenty years later I am still a runner. It is just a part of my life. There are highs and lows– I’ve gone through dry spells– but I always return to it. And it all started with just 75 feet.

It’s the beginning of the New Year. 2015 lies ahead ripe with possibilities. Dream a little. Decide what you’d like to cultivate. Break that goal down into small, easy steps. Commit to it. Have patience and fortitude. If you can “stick to it” for 66 days (and if I could do it, you certainly can!) you will build yourself a new healthy habit — or at the very least become a mediocre harmonica player!

Need help? Need a fan club? I am happy to help you develop and assess your health goals. Acupuncture and herbs can do a great deal to pave the way to make it easier to achieve your goals through support of mind-body-emotional balance and vitality, as well as help to curb cravings, boost metabolism, assist digestion, and relieve aches and pains. Regular appointments serve as signs of your commitment to yourself and to your health.

Making positive change doesn’t have to be hard!

For a free ten minute phone consultation to discuss your health goals, or to make an appointment to get started, give me a call – 510-919-5689 – or send an email inquiry to crowheartacupuncture@gmail.com.

Wishing you the best of health and happiness in the New Year!

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http://crowheartacupuncture.wix.com/crowheart

510.919.5689
crowheartacupuncture@gmail.com

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