On Tuesday at 7:13am, I accomplished a goal after eight long, painful months. I ran two miles. I am not a dedicated runner, preferring indoor cycling after five knee surgeries. Until this year, however, if I wanted to run two miles, I could. Then, one morning in February, I woke up with my hip in agony, barely able to walk. I assumed it would be fine in a week or so if I rested. Three weeks later with minimal improvement, I went to the very last in-person appointment with a hip specialist before lockdown. My quarantine started with a diagnosis of hip flexor tendonitis, a labral tear, and arthritis, plus a prescription for six weeks of physical therapy.
I was finally able to see a physical therapist in person in early May. She asked one thought-provoking question: “What do you hope to be able to do that you can’t do now?” Some answers were easy, like get in and out of a car pain-free and resume dance classes. But that was the moment when I realized, with cycling studios closed, I also wanted to be able to run two miles. Her answer to this big goal: “Great. Let’s start small.”
In behavior change, one of the most important lessons is to set “right-sized” goals. We humans have lofty aspirations and dreams. We get excited about running marathons, losing 20 pounds, writing a book, or being a concert pianist. The challenge is that those dreams can take years. We grow weary and disillusioned along the way. So we often quit altogether.
What James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, recommends is to first focus on building the habits that help you accomplish your goal. So if you want to write a book, you establish a habit of writing for a period of time everyday. If you want to lose weight, establish the habit of shopping on the “outer ring” of a store. In my case, I had to establish a habit of doing physical therapy (PT) everyday before I could even begin to think about running. James Clear is also a big proponent of habit-stacking. I moved my walk to the morning and stacked PT right after, knowing that was the safest time of day to ensure it got done.
Often in establishing these habits, an obstacle or set back occurs. After twelve weeks of PT, my hip was improving. But even a few tentative running steps would cause significant discomfort. I considered giving up on the idea of being able to run again.
In behavior change, it is important to be honest with yourself about when you need “an assist.” For people in recovery, it is why you get a sponsor; for writers, a good editor or writing partner. In my case, my assist came by going back to the specialist to explain the limitations. He said it was completely reasonable to expect to be able to run and recommended a cortisone shot.
Once you have the habit established, the next step is to break your goal into smaller goals and scale up. If you want to lose 20lbs, first set a goal to lose 5lbs. Achieve that goal first, then set another 5lbs goal. After the cortisone shot, the specialist said to start with a minute of running, followed by a 5 minute walk, then another minute of running.
Everything started out well. It felt amazing to add a minute to each segment each week. Then, at seven minutes, my hip flared up badly. The thought went through my head that I had hit my limit. But my physical therapist reminded me that sometimes to go forward, you have to go backward. I took a week off to rest, then restarted at 6 minutes. Then I tweaked my back rowing. I took a few days off, then restarted at 8 minutes. After success at 8 minutes, I completely skipped 9 minutes and went for it. I have never been so excited to do something as simple as run two miles.
I am sharing this journey with you knowing that we all have goals that we have given up on. I came close on this one several times. Sometimes, it is because the goal wasn’t “right sized” from the start. I can definitively say a marathon is not on my to do list. Other times, we didn’t start small enough chunks to feel successful along the way. Maybe we never developed that daily building block habit you need to make progress. Or maybe we never asked for or got that assist—the coach, the teacher, or the friend to hold us accountable or help us overcome a barrier.
If by following these principles, I can run two miles, I am confident you too will be able to do whatever you would like to as well. Dream big, start small, and focus first on the habit that matters.
Quote of the Week: “If your habits don’t line up with your dream, then you need to either change your habits or change your dream.”John Maxwell