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Actions, Routines and Habits

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We are creatures of habit. We have all heard that, but it is really a profound statement. What exactly is a habit? Let’s turn to Wikipedia for a working definition: “Habits are routines that are repeated regularly and tend to occur subconsciously.”

A habit formed—by working out every day before or after your job, for example—becomes automatic. A habit grows by repetition and is imprinted in your neural pathways. Your brain changes.

That’s one reason that change is so difficult. Your habit of working out at a certain time each day didn’t just happen. You created it by repetition.

On the purely physical side, you didn’t build your biceps with one set but rather with the accumulation of work over time. We’ve all experienced working out for several months with no gains in arm size, and all of a sudden it seems to happen in one day.

According to people who study this process, the “imprinting” of a habit can take as few as 18 days and as many as 254, with 66 days being the average to make the behavior automatic. Haphazard workouts never become productive because the essential number of consistent repetitions don’t occur—you’re always starting the imprinting process all over, and the habit is never embedded. I have always felt that it is better to do some workout rather than no workout.

I know that some people feel that if they don’t have 100 percent effort, the workout is “wasted.” I disagree. The lighter workout may not build more strength or muscle, but it helps to keep the habit intact.

Just as repeating the act builds the habit, missing a workout weakens it. We have all experienced the creation and, if not the destruction, at least the diminution of the habit of working out by the almost magical power of repetition. Miss a week’s or a month’s workouts, and getting into the gym becomes a mind-bending task. You can stop the slide only with action—action that is almost physically painful to take.

The same rule applies to every habit we possess, and we have hundreds of them. Habits free us from making decisions by creating and nurturing positive, almost automatic actions (some might call the barbell addictive), and with the habit of training, we lower our stress levels and conserve our psychic energy.

I’ve barely scratched the surface on the subject of habits. For more, see The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg (New York: Random House, 2012), a very interesting book on the subject.  IM


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