Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 20

When you don't have 14 minutes

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Hi this is Reinhard from everydaysystems.com. As you may know from earlier podcasts, my exercise routine, shovelglove, takes just 14 minutes every weekday. Schedulistically insignificant time, is what I call this. Just a quick recap, 14 minutes is one minute less than the smallest granularity of time you'll find on any calendar. You never have a meeting that starts at 9:05 or 9:14. You have no excuse not to do this. I don't want to bore longtime listeners by going over it in great detail, so please dig up the shovelglove podcasts if you want to hear more about this. Today I'm going to talk about what to do on days when you don't even have these 14 minutes -- or think you don't. And I'm also going to try to sell you on the idea of using this time structure -- 14 minutes every weekday -- for your workout routine even if you're not doing shovelglove. So it might be worth paying attention even if you're not into the idea of swinging around a sledgehammer.

First off, when you find yourself thinking "I don't even have 14 minutes" today, try a little enlightened self mockery. Do you really not have 14 minutes, or are you just feeling a little lazy? 14 minutes is a comically short amount of time for something that is, big picture, very important. Let the ridiculousness of that arbitrary 14 remind you to ask yourself, am I being ridiculous? And to an extent, it's a rhetorical questions. Of course you're being ridiculous. If there's not a baby that needs to be rushed to the hospital or a terrorist bomb about to explode you have 14 minutes.

If, after giving this a shot, you fail to see the humor in the situation, try sober calculation. Your excuse may be silly, but the problem is serious. It may not seem like it, but missing just one day in your routine can have serious big picture implications. Because you're not just losing one day's calorie buring and muscle building, that wouldn't matter so much, the real loss, or potential real loss, is the habit you're risking. Because when you're good, every time you do shovelglove or whatever your exercise routine is, when you're supposed to do it, it's not just a good in itself, the calories burned or whatever, it's a link in the chain of habit. When you skip it, there's a link missing, the chain is broken. The linking aspect of your behavior is actuallly more important than the physical results of the behavior itself. Unlike an ordinary, you know, metal chain, habit can recover from this kind of thing. But why risk it? Why play roulette with not just today's exercise, but all future exercise? You think "oh, todays 14 minutes of exercise doesn't mean much in itself." And you're right. But nothing is just in itself.

The philosopher Imannuel Kant had this moral idea called the categorical imperative. It goes like this: something is right for you to do if the result of everyone doing it would be good, bad if the result of everyone doing it would be bad. You take a particular action and imagine what would happen if everyone started doing it, and that's how you distinguish good from evil. There are some obvious problems with this line of thought, but I think it's still useful, even when just applied internally, to yourself. Imagine a personal categorical imperitive. What would happen if the decision you are making now, this once, whether to exercise or not to exercise, applied not only to just this once, but also to all the times in the future when you're in this same situation? Forget about other people, we're just considering you yourself. I think you'll realize, if you reflect a bit, that it's not such a hypothetical question, because in a way your decision now does affect all future decisions. When you make the decision to be lazy, you make it easier to be lazy next time, and easier, and easier, as you keep deciding that way. That's the way habit works. If you decide to be virtuous, you make future virtue easier and more likely.

If neither enlightened self mockery nor sober calculation is sufficiently persuasive, tell yourself that anything is better than nothing and just start swinging that sledge (or start doing whatever your exercise is). Tell yourself that all you have to do is 10 minutes. Or 5 minutes. Or 1 minute. Whatever pitifully low number it takes to seem non-threatening enough to get you started. Because starting is by far the hardest part. Once you start, your outlook vis a vis the 14 minutes may change completely. And even if it doesn't, even if all you do is 10 or 7 or 2 minutes, you get some exercise, and you've kept the habitual link. It may not be the strongest link in your chain, but it's there. That is hugely important.

If you're tracking your habit using the habit traffic light or negative tracking like I've talked about in previous podcasts, tell yourself that if you just get started, you'll count it as a success, even if you don't wind up doing the whole 14 minutes. This is a big motivator, because no one wants to mess up their winning streak, and all you have to do to keep it going is to just start.

9 times out of 10, I'll finish the 14 minutes then, even if I didn't think I had them. The world changes after that first swing of the sledge. Reality changes. And since the 1 time in 10 I don't quite finish enables the rest (plus gives me a few minutes of exercise which is better than nothing) I'm willing to count it as a success with a clear conscience.

For those of you listening who don't do shovelglove and realistically aren't ever going to start swinging a sledgehammer around, 14 minutes every weekday can still be a very useful structure to regulate your exercise. It's long enough to give significant physical benefit, and short enough so that you'll actually do it. In fact, I'd go so far as to say if you had an exercise routine where the only explicit requirement was that you do *something* for 14 minutes every weekday, without even specifying in advance what that something should be, just exercise of some kind, you could get into great shape -- without any equiptment. I speak from some, limited experience, because when I'm on vacation, traveling, and I don't have access to my sledgehammer (airport security can be a real pain about sledgehammers), that's exactly what I do. Pushups, squats, jumping jacks, the wall of pain. Whatever I can think of from high school gym class. And I'm usually completely exausted halfway through. 14 minutes doesn't seem like a lot of time, but think about it. I don't care how strong you are, how many pushups you can do, 14 minutes is more than enough time for you to do them to utter exaustion, and then some, and that will get you very strong. Making the time, that little bit of regular time, is by far the most important component of an exercise routine. What you actually do, the movements, is a detail. It's funny because every exercise routine, makes the movement or the device seem most important. But it's really the time. So why not explicitly say, I'm doing the time, the 14 minute exercise plan instead of the movement, whatever it is.

That's all for today. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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