What I Learned from My 28-Day Exercise Challenge

Learned Exercise

So, four weeks ago I decided to embark on a challenge: to exercise every morning except on Sundays. I’d alternate between plyometric training on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and strength training on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

For a long time I’ve been obsessed with crafting the perfect morning routine, but have been getting increasingly frustrated with myself for not being able to decide the ‘best’ morning routine, and so not being able to stick to anything. So I issued myself a challenge to stick to one thing for 28 days so I could actually find out if that one thing worked for me or not. In this case, I chose to exercise first thing every day.

So – did it go well?

Uh. Sort of. Depending on your definition of ‘going well’, I suppose. I did my exercises every day bar two. I switched around the days I decided to do them on (strength training became M/W/F because on weekends I’m more likely to go off somewhere/not be near my gym). But I almost never did my exercises in the morning, which was kind of the point. And I often – almost every time – took advantage of my ‘I only have to do a little bit caveat’, meaning sometimes I would just do 5 pushups and call that it.

Strangely, I was best at sticking to the plan while I was away from home, which is not usually how these habit things work. Possibly because that was during the first week of the challenge, but most likely because I wanted to exercise, have a bath, and get out the door as soon as possible so I could go on adventures and hang out with my friends. While I’m at home, I spend my days working which, while I love it, is not nearly so exciting, and is much easier to put off.

Despite not-at-all sticking to the plan for the most part, I’m glad I did this challenge. I’ve learned a lot about myself, about habits, and about human nature. Here’s the skinny:

Damn It, I Think I Might Be a Rebel

Have you read Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before? It’s a book about forming good habits, and I’m reading it right now. In it, Rubin describes the four ‘Tendencies’. They’re based on the way you respond to expectations. Do you respond better to external or internal expectations? Essentially, will you do something because somebody else expects you to do it? Or because you expect you to do it? The tendencies look like this:

  • Upholder: responds to both internal and external expectations; will pretty much do everything on her to-do list.
  • Questioner: responds ONLY to internal expectations; will only do things she believes are worth doing (but these can be things other people want her to do too).
  • Obliger: Readily does things other people expect of her, but cannot for the life of her do things she tells herself to do; finds it hard to say no to people.
  • Rebel: Doesn’t respond well to internal or external expectations; does whatever she fucking wants.

Now, I like to think I am a Questioner. Because to me, the Questioner seems like the best choice. I want to be a Questioner. Yes, of course you should only do things if you think them worthwhile. But after completing this challenge, which was something I had deemed worth doing and therefore should have been easy for me to stick to, I am coming to the awful realisation that I may, in fact, be a Rebel.

I don’t want to be a Rebel because, according to Rubin, it’s the hardest tendency to form good habits with. But on the other hand, it means I always do whatever I want, which is nice.

Historically, it seems accurate. I did appallingly at school because I didn’t give a shit and I didn’t want to do homework on subjects I didn’t care about. But come university? I set my sights on getting a first class degree, so I went out and I got one. Similarly, I’d often be late to work when I had one of those J-O-B things, until I decided I didn’t want to be the kind of person who was late any more. Being late made me feel stressed out. So I just decided not to do it any more, and it was that easy. It’s easy for Rebels to do things when they want to do them. Otherwise, not so much.

There’s No Such Thing As Perfect

I bang on and on about how trying to achieve perfection is dumb. But here I was trying to achieve that very thing with my morning routine. So long as I do the things I need (and want) to do, and feel like I’ve had a good day at the end of it, does it matter whether I follow this idealised morning routine I’ve laid out? No, of course it doesn’t. Constructing the ‘perfect’ morning routine is not important in itself. It’s simply a way to give yourself the best chance possible of having that good day. This is something I was starting to realise when I began this challenge, but this month has definitely solidified the thought for me.

Environment Matters

During this challenge, I realised that a huge part of the reason I was reluctant to exercise first thing was because I simply didn’t want to put my workout clothes on as soon as I got up. They’re not as comfortable as pyjamas, and while I’m still waking up and steeling myself for the day ahead, I want to be comfortable, damn it. I bought some new workout clothes to help with this. But… I don’t think it helped. No workout clothes will ever be as comfortable as my PJs. But at least now I have leggings to work out in that don’t have holes in the knees.

Anyway, the point here is that to give a habit the best chance of sticking, you should set your environment up for it. I know some people sleep in their workout clothes to make sure they exercise first thing (UGH THOUGH, RIGHT?). Other examples include leaving your phone in another room overnight if you don’t want to check your email as soon as you wake up, or not keeping unhealthy snacks in the house if you want to stop eating them all the time. Basically: set yourself up for success. Bam.

Finding Your Natural Rhythm is Important

Maybe when I’m 40, getting up at the crack of dawn and going for a run will feel like a dreamy way to start my day. But right now, I wake up and I think ‘Buhhhh, where’s my tea? Let me sit somewhere comfortable for a while.’ Part of the reason I decided to do this challenge is because I was sick of myself doing exactly that: sitting around in my PJs drinking tea, and not doing much else.

That’s still something I want to combat, because I hate feeling like I’m wasting my precious, lovely mornings, and I always have more enjoyable days when I’ve done something notable within the first couple of hours. Apparently exercise isn’t the right fit for me, but something else might be. The trouble is, I do want to do things when I wake up. I DO. I just don’t want those things to be too energetic, such as putting on clothes or washing my face.

As a Rebel, it makes sense that I should try to find something I actually want to do in the mornings – something I look forward to. Otherwise, evidently, I just won’t do it. I’m starting to think that focussing on how I WANT to spend my days, rather than how I think I SHOULD spend them, is the way to go, because then I can align things with my natural rhythm and tendencies. And that’s important: paying attention to how your mind and body work, when the best time for you to do things is, regardless of all the shit everyone else tells you is ‘the best way’. Listen to yourself. Trust yourself. Fuck everyone else and their ‘this will change your life!’ bullshit. Only you can figure out what will work for you.

I Prefer Exercising Later in the Day

One of the best parts of working for myself, from home, is that I get to decide how my day goes. Other people go to the gym first thing because it’s the only time they can fit it in. I don’t have to do that. Before I started this challenge, I tended to exercise late morning or early afternoon. The gym isn’t as busy then, which is obviously excellent, but more importantly, it gives me a break from sitting at my desk. Because sitting at your desk all day fucking sucks and sometimes you forget what this life thing is all about. I like to punctuate my days with nice little breaks like that: exercising, showering, cooking, eating, and suchlike.

Public Accountability Doesn’t Work On Me

Beginning to suspect James Clear’s theory of Identity-Based Habits works well on Rebels. Gretchen Rubin also says, ‘Rebels resist habits, but they can embrace habit-like behaviours by tying their actions to their choices and their identity.’ I think this’ll work much better for me than public accountability.

‘Challenges’ Don’t Sit Well with Me

I ended up feeling resentful at having to work out every day. Which is probably why I have not exercised today, and why I didn’t do it yesterday either. ‘Ha, I don’t have to do it any more! So I’m not bloody going to and you can just suck it.’ Which is ridiculous, really, because I am the one who decided to do the challenge in the first place. This confirms my Rebel tendency. I do not like being told what to do. Even by myself. God. How annoying.

Seems I cannot force myself to do something, even if past-me is the one who deemed it a good idea. From now on, I’m going to call these challenges ‘experiments’. Because no, I don’t plan to stop; judging by this past month, 28-day challenges experiments are an excellent way to learn more about yourself and what works for you.

While I was reading Better Than Before, I contemplated how this 28-day challenge was good for at least one thing: figuring out what works for me in a structured environment. There was a time frame. Specific goals to meet. There was no never-ending ‘this is how I’m going to start my days forever and ever amen’, which I believe has been my downfall in the past.

In the past I’d decide to start a new habit, then I’d change my mind from day to day, depending on how I felt when I woke up. (Rubin also says this: ‘Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. They act from a sense of choice, from freedom. Rebels wake up and think, “What do I want to do today?”‘) Eventually I would simply stop altogether, often without even noticing – at least not consciously.

My sub-conscious may occasionally bitch at me: ‘Hey Karen! Remember the time you were going to exercise first thing every morning? What happened to that?’ But other than that there was just an underlying annoyance at myself for not being able to stick to anything. (‘They resist control, even self-control, and enjoy flouting rules and expectations. They sometimes frustrate others – and even themselves – because they resist any expectation, even one that’s self-imposed,’ says Rubin.) Now I can answer the question precisely: ‘Here’s what happened, sub-conscious: I decided I didn’t want to do it any more, and here are the reasons why.’

My Next 28-Day Experiment: Writing First Thing

When I started this challenge, I said this: ‘If I don’t put the clothes on straight away, I know myself: I’ll end up sitting around drinking tea for about two hours before I actually get to exercising, and I’m so so so sick of myself wasting precious time in the mornings.’

So, the problem I have appears to be wasting my precious time in the mornings. I’ve decided to tackle this problem in a new way, one that fits in better with my natural rhythms: I’m going to start my days by writing. Just stream-of-consciousness stuff, unless I’ve got something else to say. I will stay in my pyjamas and make a cup of tea when I do so, because it’s nice and I like it, and I expect by the time I’ve finished writing I will feel like getting washed and dressed. (Into workout clothes or regular clothes? Who can say. That’s not part of the experiment.)

Right now I just want to focus on not fucking around in the mornings, because I do not LIKE doing that. But apparently I also don’t like getting dressed and exercising. So in order to overcome this fucking-around-ness, surely I have to substitute it with something I DO like doing, right? I’m trying to appeal to my Rebel tendency here.

So I’m going to write every morning, Monday to Friday. This is something else I’ve heard works wonders for other people, but that’s not why I’ve chosen it. Stream-of-consciousness writing is something that’s worked well for me in the past: emptying my brain, getting everything down on the page, helps me figure things out. It leaves my mind clear to focus on the day ahead, and it helps jettison that horrible there’s-too-much-noise-I-feel-overwhelmed-can’t-figure-out-my-own-thoughts feeling I get sometimes. Which, said succinctly, I suppose means it’s cathartic.

I’ve done this before and enjoyed it, and also not felt like a time-wasting asshole afterwards. Now I’m going to do it again and actually analyse the results at the end. I’ll check back in on, hmm… I guess June 9th, because I’m going to be in Berlin the week before and, knowing myself, I won’t sit down and write an in-depth post about this while I’m living it up Germany. So let’s call it a 5-week challenge.

Now – how about you? What are your natural tendencies? Gretchen Rubin has a quiz to help you find out.

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