You’re driving late at night in a quiet part of town. The streets are empty. You come to a stop at a red light. There are no cars in any direction. You could drive through the red light safely, and get home a little sooner. Would you do it?
Most people in this situation choose not to go through the red light. What’s more, they don’t have to sit and stew about the decision. They’re not having an internal debate in the driver’s seat, weighing the pros and cons of running the light as sweat beads on their forehead.
Why is it so easy to not run a red light? You might think it’s because of legal consequences like getting a ticket, but in day-to-day driving you’ll find that’s not your true motivation. You don’t think about running the light because it’s a rule that you’ve been following your whole life. When you see that red light, our brain knows what it means and has deeply ingrained neural pathways that tell us, “now is the time when you stop and wait.”
Imagine you visited an alien city and were driving around in one of the hovercars they generously lent you. You get to a light, and instead of red, yellow, and green you see this. What do you do?
This is a palpably different experience than looking at your standard traffic light. Neurons are firing in all directions, looking for information about how to proceed. Could that squiggle mean go? Does the light on the right have some special significance? This is how decisions feel when you don’t have a set of rules to fall back on. The choice makes you crank through mental cycles. It makes you sweat.
The beauty of the red light rule is that you’re not having to use mental energy at every stoplight. Instead you can calmly wait and use your brainpower for other things. Thinking about what to do this weekend. Mulling over a problem at work. Or just enjoying the song on the radio or talking to a passenger.
Now let’s think about how people approach their food and exercise choices. This is an area where we see A LOT of mental cycles being used at key decision points.
“Should I have a danish or grapefruit this morning?”
“Should I go for a jog now or finish watching this episode?”
“Should I skip today’s workout and just do extra tomorrow?”
“Should I have a second serving or save room for dessert? Or maybe both?”
We get into these positions because our rules around food and exercise are squishy.
Imagine if the stop light law was, “You must stop at red lights, unless traffic is minimal, in which case you can proceed to drive through with caution.” Suddenly every intersection would become a complicated decision matrix. What qualifies as “minimal traffic?” How cautious does “with caution” really mean? How much of a hurry are you in?
And yet this is how we approach our fitness choices. We might tell ourselves something like, “I’m not eating any sweets this month, unless it’s a special occasion.” But then your friend drops off a homemade pie. That’s pretty special, right? Then you complete a work project and want something sweet to celebrate. Then it’s Friday, which is a special day, after all. Before you know it sweets are slipping through the loopholes and your original good intentions are lost.
Exercise goals have the same problems. You might say, “I’m going to exercise 5 days a week...” but what you don’t verbalize is the second half of the sentence, “...on those days I have enough time, and don’t feel tired.” You do ok for a few days, but soon enough the squishiness of the rule starts to drip out. A busy week at work makes you skip a few sessions. Then you feel run-down and miss a few more. Then a family issue comes up and two weeks go by without exercise, and you’re back in the situation of having to psych yourself up to just put your exercise shoes on. Just thinking about it is burning through cycles and making you sweat the choice.
Instead of a vague desire to eat fewer sweets or exercise more, sit down with yourself and form an ironclad rule. Avoid squishiness.
“I will not eat sweets until my birthday next month, when I will have whatever I want. Then it’s back to no sweets until our vacation the month after.”
This is a good rule. It’s firm, but has clear guidelines about when exceptions are allowed.
“I will go for a walk every morning at 6:00 am, except Sundays when, if I want to, I will sleep as late as I want. On days I feel good I will go for a jog, but no matter what I will at least get my walk done.”
This is a good rule. Even on a busy day it can get done. It cuts through excuses and gets you moving.
Here’s a structure to create good rules for sustainable fitness.
If you follow these steps, you’ll find that something magical happens in just a few days. It’s tough at first, but you’ll find you’re gradually expending less mental energy. Just like the stoplight, your brain has found the pattern and subconsciously guides you towards following the rule. You’re not sweating your healthy choices as much, and can reclaim all that mental energy for the other, more interesting parts of your life.
1. Choose an achievable goal that really matters to you.
- Start small. You can always make rules stricter as you go, but starting off too strict makes rule-breaking more likely. Once a rule is broken it’s hard to recover.
2. Anticipate the challenges you’ll face.
- If it’s a food rule, think about the situations you’ll need to avoid or have your guard up for. If it’s exercise, think through the scheduling issues that come when you carve out 20-30 minutes a day to stay active.
3. Create reminders of your rule.
- You could post something on your refrigerator or phone background. You could wear a bracelet or necklace that reminds you of the rule. You can even write the rule down and reread it every morning or evening before bed. It doesn’t matter how you do it, but for at least 3 weeks you need a daily nudge that the rule is still in effect.
Of course, if it was as easy as setting a rule and sticking with it, no one would have issues eating well or exercising. The challenge comes from rules that we set with every intention of following, but which erode over the weeks until we realize we’ve completely strayed from the path and are back at square one. This process is demoralizing and exhausting. We’ve all been there, and we should all be kind to ourselves for these missteps. But how can we break the cycle? Internal Integrity.
Here’s a good way to reframe the issue and set yourself up for success.
Imagine you had a friend that always made plans to do things with you, then canceled at the last minute with a lame excuse. After a few times of being stood up, how would you feel about this friend?
How about if you had a business associate who signed contracts, then tried to add extra provisions later, or fibbed about what the original agreement was.
Or what if you had a family member who was constantly getting into trouble, borrowing money, promising they’ve turned their lives around, and then repeating the same mistakes again and again.
We avoid people like this, and work hard to not be that undependable person for our family, friends, and colleagues. And yet, we WILL be that untrustworthy person for ourselves! Would you say that your word is your bond? Most people would.
Can you extend that same integrity inwards? If you’re able to keep your word to everyone else, why not give yourself the same respect?
Once you start seeing things like this, making and sticking to rules becomes second-nature. Just like the traffic lights, your inner rules aren’t there to trap you, but to keep you safe and headed in the right direction towards your goals. A good set of food and exercise rules unlocks unbelievable vitality, energy, and focus. Push through the first tough days of a new rule and you’ll find it’s nothing but green lights ahead.
Bonus: Here are some good inner rules we’ve heard from trainees over the years.
- “I must break a sweat every day.”
- “I only drink coca-cola on airplanes.”
- “I never take “free” food. (Things like samples, reception counter candy, or food brought in for the whole office.)
- “I only order the small size. If I want more I order another small.”
- “I never miss a Monday workout.” (Getting Monday right helped this person get the rest of the week right.)
- “I don’t eat after 8 pm.”
- “The only time I eat fried foods is on vacation.”
- “I don’t drink alcohol alone.”
- “I never go more than 3 days without some kind of workout.”
- “I keep the phone out of the bedroom at night.” (This person was staying up late on social media)
- “I only eat food from a plate.” (This person was curbing mindless snacking)
These rules are all straightforward, with clear parameters, and not overly ambitious. This is the right balance. Reflect for a few minutes and make just ONE simple rule for yourself to follow for a month!
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder