The lesson of the first domino
|March 24, 2022||Posted by Melinda under Uncategorized|
The problem is the time I have available for running, horses, and any of my other
hobbies the-things-that-give-me-purpose-in-life is after dinner.
Yes, that time in the day when I want to collapse on the couch after a long day of ER or surgery, after picking up the kid from school, and making dinner. Most days it’s the first time I’ve sat down and breathed since I got up that morning (I’m fixing that. But it remains that it’s my first extended down time of the day).
That is when I’m supposed to drag myself out of the house and run, bike, ride, and swim.
It’s really really really hard. Especially when there’s other *important* and equally enjoying things I could choose to do in that time, like writing.
But, I think I’ve found the secret.
Make the first domino so simple there is no reason not to do it.
Think of each ritual or habit as a line of dominos. The first one must tip, and then the rest go down without any further effort.
That isn’t the secret.
That piece of advice is in every article ever written about how to make running a habit… when you first get up (put your shoes by the door) or after you get home from work (leave your workout clothes on the couch and immediately put them on. Or even better, change at work!).
Here’s what was missing from all those articles for me.
The first domino in any chain of behaviors must be so easy there’s no reason to not push it over.
The second secret is that the first domino doesn’t even have to be directly related to the end behavior.
Combining these two things has literally been life-changing.
It’s so simple that my brain scoffs at its effectiveness and is sure it doesn’t work.
Even when it worked like a charm to get me out of bed early consistently, I still couldn’t believe it until it also fixed my running after dinner problem.
I downloaded an app that promised productivity and happiness through creating better routines blah blah blah and the first thing it wanted me to do was focus on my mornings.
Great. I like mornings. I’m a morning person that…doesn’t want to get out of bed. I do want to get up earlier. I really do. I love being up in the mornings before everyone else. It’s secret stolen time that feels much better for my brain than taking that same time after everyone goes to bed (which tends to trigger anxiety). But I’ve never been able to make early mornings stick. I just won’t consistently get up any earlier than is necessary to get to work on time.
But, this app promised to fix that. OK. Show me what you got. Prove to me I should pay for you after the free trial. Because if you can fix my mornings, you probably can probably fix everything else.
And then I read what they wanted me to do and almost threw the phone across the room and deleted the app.
The thing they wanted me to do was insanely easy.
But it was so gimmicky I almost sprained my eyeballs I rolled them so hard.
When my alarm goes off, drink some water.
Look. I like drinking water. I do. After a cup of coffee or two in the mornings, I am a water person. But I don’t believe that hydration will fix all my problems in the world and I don’t subscribe to the belief that a certain quantity of water needs to be drank to be “healthy.”
This was not the app for me.
But somehow (probably because I like apps that allow me to check off boxes and are a bit gimmicky) I decided to try it for 3 days like the app asked. Reach over and take a sip of water when my alarm goes off.
And damn if it didn’t work.
Alarm goes off.
Take a sip of water.
Get out of bed.
Since that first morning I have, without fail, gotten out of bed at my planned time easily and without feeling like every shred of willpower was being ripped from my soul in that first moment of the day.
A week later I realized why it worked. Taking that sip of water had nothing to do with getting up, so it was incredibly easy to do. So, there was no reason not to do it. Reach over and take a sip of water with my eyes half closed after my alarm went off.
Because it was so simple, I didn’t have to think about it. There was no emotions attached it. There was no baggage attached to the action. It was a pure simple action that could be executed with zero mental energy. It has nothing to do with crawling out from underneath the covers, it’s simply a drink of water, so my brain doesn’t try to talk me out of it.
It is the first domino. So easy to push over when my alarm goes off that there isn’t a reason not to do it.
And that simple action is enough (for me) to disrupt any learned pathways in my brain that include the snooze button or self-justification for staying in bed. It’s so easy for my feet to hit the ground after that it’s basically magic. The line of dominos begin to fall and my morning ritual starts.
You have to find the right first domino. Something so easy you can’t talk yourself out of it, that inexorably leads you to the next step.
That’s not when I learned the lesson of the first domino.
After completing and nailing down my morning ritual (sip water, make coffee, update my bullet journal, zero inbox, yoga, brush teeth, pack lunch) I launched the exercise module.
“Choose a pre-run ritual.” The app prompted after having me commit to the days and times I would run.
That is f*ck*ng stupid.
*Cue Mel missing several runs*
I tried a couple of things. Mindfully lace my shoes. Didn’t work. Stretch? I hate stretching pre run. 10 min yoga flow? Too time costly. It had to be something that was easy to do, I didn’t feel subconscious in public doing, and was specific to running – I didn’t do any other time other than prepping to get out the door to run. It had to be short. It needed to be the first domino that led to me getting out the door instead of pausing to talk to family, or tidy up “that one last area.”
So, I finally tried the thing that people always suggest that I secretly think is as stupid as drinking prescribed water.
Play a certain song.
I know I know I know. You all hate me now. All you’all listen to music when you run, drive, or just exist in life.
It fills my brain and makes me distracted and irritable if I’m trying to do something else (cooking too many things at once, writing, focusing) , and it doesn’t distract me enough when I’m doing something repetitive (running, walking, riding). Podcasts and audio books are my go-to listening things, and silence is my friend for focus.
It took me a couple of days, but I finally decided to stop half-assing the run ritual and actually try something, and the easiest thing I could think of was to pick a song.
It was a 99 cent experiment and I already knew the song I wanted to try.
I know you know where this is going.
For a couple of days, when it was time to start running I dutifully pushed play on my phone and listened to approximately 3 minutes of “the song” before switching to whatever podcast or book that was going to keep me company.
Having music playing kept me focused and reminded me what I was supposed to be doing – putting my shoes and shorts on. Not putting away that pile of laundry. Knowing that I should be out the door before the song finished gave me a sense of urgency. Everyone around me recognized what I was doing and was less likely to interrupt me.
The first domino was falling.
It wasn’t until an evening earlier this week that the pieces of the psychological puzzle fell into place and realized what was happening and and the secret of first dominos.
It was after dinner. There was a movie I wanted to watch. I was tired. I was sore. My arm hurt from the tetanus booster. My brain and body is so tired from all the extra shifts I’m picking up.
I was on the couch.
I had started phone scrolling.
The first mind weed popped up. “That run isn’t happening tonight.”
I literally felt my eyelids get heavier and my arm get more sore.
I looked at my phone which was already in my hand and I was clicking on aimlessly and opened the music app, and clicked play.
There was no reason not to. It was so easy. Music is not running. It didn’t cost me anything in terms of mental or physical energy to simply press play.
The song started.
I got off the couch. I put on my running clothes. I went out for a 30 minute run.
It was like an out of body experience.
The run sucked. I stuffed a bunch of walking into the run and finished feeling better than I had left the house, not just because I had spent some time out side moving, but because I had lived up to my expectations and promises to myself.
All because of a stupid song.
The power of a routine and letting yourself flow from one thing to another is not a secret. Most articles out there that are trying to help people get into any habit hammer the importance of linking it to something else consistently.
In the past when I’ve had a sustainable habit, like running consistently or horse-time, it’s because I linked it to something else in my day that absolutely had to happen, like a lunch break or driving home from school/work. Without that kind of event to anchor those activities to (welcome to my current chaotic life), I didn’t know how to create an effective first domino. It turns out it’s easier than I thought, and more importantly, easy is the key.