I usually dream up new habits in bed before going to sleep. At that time it’s easy to kid myself about how energetic I’ll be when I wake up. “Tomorrow I’m starting a new routine of getting up at six, meditating for twenty minutes, then running five miles.”
Notice how my brain focuses on the outcome rather than the process. It was the same twenty years ago when I contemplated revising for exams. I’d get fired up thinking how it would feel when all the revision was done, ignoring the hours of work that lay ahead.
This way of thinking lends itself to starting big and fast. Why meditate for two minutes when twenty is better? Why run once a week if you can run every day? Rather than cutting down on sugar, how about eating none at all?
As a result, I’ve taken a long time to realise consistency beats speed-to-goal.
Consistency trumps short-term progress
Good habits compound over time, like interest in a bank account. And like a bank account, if you keep pulling money in and out, you don’t achieve anything. As James Clear points out in Atomic Habits, something that makes you just 1% better each day makes you 37 times better over a year (1.01365 = 37.8).
For me, running was the habit I kept screwing up. I’d start too quickly, ramp up the miles and get an injury. This would force me out the game for a few months, until I was inspired to try again. Rinse and repeat; all the while just treading water. Yet in my mind, I was always imagining the near future, where I was effortlessly running five miles a day.
Diet also fell into this category. My tendency towards binary diets – 100% compliance to “the rules” – was the equivalent of starting at a sprint. It was doomed to fail within a few weeks, leaving me exactly where I was. A more moderate approach, played out over a longer time span, would have considerably bigger results.
Slow is fast
The US Navy SEALs have a saying: “slow is smooth, smooth is fast”. It’s better to glide at low speed under high control than sprint into trouble. It’s the modern-day equivalent of The Tortoise and the Hare.
This is the mantra I now repeat to myself when setting up a new habit. Take it easy, squash the impatience and trust the results will come soon enough.
I began thinking this way when planning yet another running habit. This time I decided to explore the idea of a slower start. I created a spreadsheet to calculate how quickly I’d get to five miles, based on different rates of progress.
It dawned on me I could start as slow as I like, provided I stuck with it. Take a look at the graph below: even a modest 5% increase would have me running the full distance by day 34.
Even a slow start compounds quickly.
This slow-burn approach features in many prominent training plans. The StrongLifts 5x5 program is a good example – slow incremental improvement minimises the risk of injury and ensures each workout happens. I got in the best shape of my life following this program several years ago, yet I forgot the lessons it should have taught me.
Slow is fun
The other benefit of starting habits slowly is that it’s more fun. I believe running should always be easy. There’s no need to go and break yourself, leaving you dreading the next outing. Slow growth is a pleasant experience, like taking the car for a spin.
This year I’ve started several new habits slowly and it’s been a revelation. Despite having several weeks out of action due to illness, I’ve run more miles by April this year than the entire previous year. I’ve meditated far more often by doing short guided sessions each day, resisting the urge to do any more than ten minutes. As Einstein said, “compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world”. Apply it to your habits and make slow, happy progress.