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Why We Fail

Why can’t we run that 5k? Why do we struggle to write that report? Why do we delay cleaning out the garage?

I’m not a runner. I’m not a morning person. (I’m a dedicated member of the Snooze Button Club). Yet, somehow over the last six months I’ve developed a running habit. Every morning, I leave my home. A bit groggy from sleep, somehow I find myself staring down pavement at eight every day.

My goal to build a running habit has been following me for years. My bookcase, overflowing with exercise planners, will support me on this. But until recently, I was never able to follow through on these idealistic plans. My goal was to run 5 kms every morning. I knew the benefits — physically and mentally feeling better. I had the motivation. I even bought the fancy running shoes. I had everything I needed (or so I thought). Yet, over the years, the only thing consistent about my running habit was failing to run.

We’ve all been there. Pressing snooze on that 5 a.m. alarm, and postponing our far-reaching goal for another day. But the reason why we press snooze is set in science.

I miscalculated. Each morning when that alarm rang, I forgot just how tired I feel. When I sat and dreamed of my habit, I didn’t realise I’d be running late, head fogged with sleep, coffee a distant future temptress. I didn’t realise how much I’d prefer to just roll over in bed, press snooze, and lull myself back to sleep with the promise that tomorrow, tomorrow will be different.

I forgot to account for “discounting.”

In Behavioural Economics, “discounting” is the idea that when we make plans for the future, we minimise how bad (or good) the future is going to be. For me, it was always underestimating the magnetic lure of a warm comfy bed against the cold harsh whipping morning air. It was not taking into account how tired I actually am at 5 a.m. It was not realising that my fiery motivation to get running was simply a daytime thing, and not an early morning thing.

When I made my plans, I made them with the conviction that future me would just have to get over any hurdles that they may face. Behavioural science calls this “time inconsistent preferences.” This manifests when we don’t view our future self as “I,” but rather reduce “future me” to some other person. It’s that person who has to deal with feeling tired, with running late, with a lack of motivation. Not me!

Time inconsistent preferences and discounting can lead us to overestimate our future commitment or willingness to expend energy (i.e. running). This then makes us feel guilty and avoid our goals. It’s easy to overpromise and then feel guilty about not meeting your expectations or goals, prompting you to stop cold turkey instead of chipping away at your targets.*(Ostriching is another behavioural barrier that often antagonizes us as we change our behaviour)*. If I didn’t wake up at 5 a.m., then I was never going to go for a run that day, even if I had the entire day free. I was throwing the baby out with bath water.

To start running, I had to adjust my calculations.

I started the night before. Before going to sleep, I took a moment to be considerate to future me. I dragged my running shoes from the depths of the closet, and left them at the foot of my bed. I tracked down my running jacket and laid it beside the shoes. A peace deal was reached with my alarm. Instead of the ritualistic snooze battle from 6 a.m. onwards, I set the alarm to a more agreeable time — 7:30 am.

The next day, for the first time in weeks, I woke up fully awake. I looked down at my running shoes, and thought of the dark, cold morning waiting for me outside. My jacket stared smugly back at me. Sigh. Pulling my jacket on, I found myself still debating if I would actually make it out the door.

I had rarely made it this far before — out of bed, shoes on, fully awake. I didn’t want to give up, but kept thinking about how hard running actually is. I cut myself a deal. Instead of the 5k run, I’d give myself the slack to just go for a lap of my neighbourhood instead. Something was better than nothing, right? I opened the front door. The fresh air filled my lungs and outside had that early morning calm about it. That sealed the deal and outside I went. I completed a walk around my quiet, cool neighbourhood and headed home, refreshed and satisfied that I’d made some progress.

Let’s dive deeper.

What did I actually change about the process leading up to my morning that allowed me to get out of bed and onto the sidewalk? Let me introduce behavioural principle #1 that I used in my running journey:

  1. Environment determines your behaviour, not the other way around.

When I set a healthy environment, one where I allowed myself to sleep the amount my body needed, and where I set my running shoes out the night before, I was able to make it past the first hurdle — getting outside.

This goes hand-in-hand with being considerate to future me. Suddenly, running tomorrow isn’t a hardship some other me has to deal with, it’s something I can plan for and set my future self up for success. Future me didn’t have to deal with tiredly trying to find shoes and a jacket in a messy closet. By doing these small actions the night before, I removed enough hurdles to get out the door.

This was just the first half of the process. In laying the right foundation to support myself getting started, I had also unwittingly taken the first step in chunking my goal — breaking it up into smaller, more manageable pieces. This leads to the second behavioural principle, and the second half of this running saga:

2. Chunking, or incremental behavioural change, is the scientifically proven way to achieve your goals.

Breaking down your goals, or chunking, them into smaller pieces is an effective way at breaking down lofty goals into smaller bite-sized pieces. This allows you to keep moving forward, building on your consistency and levelling up when you’re ready for it.

I already started chunking when instead of running, I broke my overarching goal (running in the morning) into smaller sub-goals. 1) Get out of bed 2) Get dressed 3) Get outside. I altered my environment to help achieve these micro-goals. I made it easy to get out of bed by changing my alarm. I made it easy to get outside by laying out what I needed the night before. Once I was outside, I was able to go for a walk.

The next steps were to increase my pace, and move from walking every morning to running every morning.

Each day of walking was easier than the last. After a few weeks of walking, somehow, a 5 minute jog didn’t seem like the worst idea in the world. Soon, I was able to get out most (but definitely not all) mornings and go for a quick jog. Another couple of weeks sped past. I caught myself daydreaming about my old 5k goal nemesis. I didn’t feel ready for that big of a run, but I started to wonder if I could go just a bit longer than 5 minutes. What about 10 minutes, or even 20?

I decided to give it a go. I set myself up for the perfect morning. Woke up refreshed, shoes, jacket and headphones waiting for me. I breezed through my morning routine and was out the door. I started my normal jogging route. I was absolutely flying! Had I ever felt so good running before? Surely I could hit 20 minutes easy. I looked down at my watch, expecting 15 minutes to have gone by. A lone 6 stared back at me.

Suddenly, I was a walking corpse. Sweat was pouring, legs like lead, air like molasses slogged through my lungs. My steadfast determination from earlier scurried away, and my brain hurried to make excuses for why today wouldn’t work, but maybe tomorrow would be different. My legs were pleading with my brain to stop.

Before I acquiesced, I remembered my success in breaking my goal down into smaller pieces. Still gasping for air, I looked ahead and caught sight of a fire hydrant 15 metres down the road. Internal negotiations soon started: “If I can run 15 more meters, then I stop. That’s nothing!” I ran another 15 metres. But when I arrived at the fire hydrant, a bright pink van snagged my attention, parked down the street another 15 or so metres away. “Okay, if I can make it to the fire hydrant, I can run a bit further to the van.” At the van, as I was about to slow down, I looked ahead and a bus stop caught my attention about 25 metres down. The negotiator in me had won the war — “Fine, I can make it a bit farther, and then I’ll stop.” Before I knew it, these little leaps, little sprints had turned into an entire kilometre. Somehow, I managed to run the entire 20 minutes without stopping, even when my motivation abandoned me. Even though my legs were begging for a break, my lungs emphatically agreeing, somehow, I was able to persevere.

By breaking down my bigger goal (5k run), into smaller pieces (put shoes on, go for a walk, jog for 5 minutes) I was well on my way to achieving my original goal. I continued to break down my goals into smaller and smaller pieces. When I started to feel overwhelmed halfway through my 20 minute run, I broke down the remaining time into small, 20 metre chunks.

Chunking, like it sounds, isn’t glamorous. It’s not going to change your behaviour over night. Yet, it’s one of the most powerful ways to change your behaviour. Slow and steady wins the race.

We’re reaching the end of the story. What have I learned in this running saga?

Knowing what behavioural barriers are lying in wait to trip you up is helpful. Behavioural biases aren’t conniving. They’re pretty predictable when you get to know them. Once you do, you can master some pretty steadfast tips and tricks to overcome them.

Over the last six months, I went from my last run being over half a decade ago, to running most days for 2–3 kms. The day by day change was too slow to notice — like how the sun slowly starts to disappear after June 21st, a few minutes each day isn’t discernible to us, but by September you begin to notice the early dusky sky. That’s what chunking is to behavioural change.

Chunking isn’t a lone ranger in my story. Like a one-two punch, chunking combined with fostering a healthy environment, allowed me to take those first critical steps and knock my goals out of the park. Knowing what behavioural barriers are plotting your demise allows you to navigate around them. Facing the barriers head on and tackling them one at a time is a sure-fire way to succeed.

And for my 5k goal? Well, I’m still working towards it, but each day I’m closer than ever before.

(Other solutions to time inconsistent preferences include pre-commitment devices, planning, and envisioning your future self, just to name a few.)

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Chanelle Mather-Shapiro

Chanelle Mather-Shapiro

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In both my career and my writing, I work to empower people in the art/science of lasting behavioral change. To learn more about me, visit www.chanellems.com.