Reposted from: https://forge.medium.com/amp/p/2a0253a83974
Written by Laura Vanderkam:
On December 24, 2016, I went for a run. This wasn’t unusual — I’d gone running four to five times a week for years. But after I managed to run every day for the following week, I decided to keep going. I decided I would run at least a mile, every day. I’d long been fascinated by streaks; my father, a now-retired professor of Hebrew scriptures, has read Hebrew every day since 1977. I suspected I lacked that sort of staying power, but I did hope my running streak could last a month or two.
It wound up lasting for three years. I ran through bad weather, international travel, and — a personal point of pride — nine months of pregnancy. I went for a run on December 28, 2019, and then delivered my fifth child at 5 a.m. the next morning (at which point I let the streak expire).
While we normally think that habits are about willpower, my 1,100-day streak taught me a different lesson. Committing to doing something daily actually removes all question of motivation — and that makes a habit more likely to stick.
“When” is the magic word
In the past, as I thought about my schedule, I would ask myself “Am I going to run today?” Once I knew I was running every day, I asked a different question: “When am I going to run today?”
“Am I going to run?” would send me down a rabbit hole of introspection. Do I feel like running? Maybe I was tired. Maybe I ran the day before. Maybe the forecast called for freezing rain. Maybe the day was busy, and my husband was traveling, and I didn’t have childcare, and… you get where this is going. There is always a reason not to run.
“When am I going to run?” — on the other hand — was just a question about logistics. I would look at any given 24 hours, and the day’s constraints, and figure out where I could find the 10–12 minutes necessary to run a mile. I almost always ran more, but by switching the question, I took the energy I would have brought to the matter of motivation and focused it on logistical problem-solving. That, in turn, unlocked all sorts of creativity. Sure, I could run laps around a hotel room, or a parking lot, or at 4:00 a.m. before a full-day flight. That mindset made the habit relatively easy to stick with.
Not all habits need to happen daily, of course. Aiming for three times a week, especially when you’re new to a habit, can be wise. A family hoping to eat together regularly might more realistically aim for three family meals a week than a 6 p.m. formal dinner all seven nights. I’d also note that many people who claim to do things “every day” in fact do them four to five times a week — they’re just not building weekends and holidays into the mental models of their schedules.
But committing to doing something every single day has the effect of turning the desired habit into something like brushing teeth. Most of us don’t sit there every morning arguing with ourselves over whether we feel like brushing. We don’t note that we brushed yesterday, or that brushing requires time and we’re too busy. We simply do it. We don’t always do it at the exact same time — there is flexibility for different situations — but we do it.
So if there’s a habit you’d like to make a more regular part of your life, consider the magic of the word “when.” When am I going to study Spanish for 10 minutes today? When am I going to floss today? When am I going to do 10 push-ups or a one-minute plank pose? The question of “when” can be more helpful than “if.” Of course you’re going to stick with your habit — now it’s just a matter of working it in.