3 (New-To-Me) Things That Have Changed My Perspective on Habits

I’m sitting here, writing this post on my couch in my yoga pants. But for the first time in years, I’m wearing them for the actual purpose for which they’re made: yoga. As soon as I hit publish, I’m doing my workout. And then they’ll go back in my workout bag, when I’ll get them out tomorrow to do my workout routine again. Five days a week, sometimes six.

Who am I even? 

For the longest time, I’ve thought of myself as a health-conscious adult but have had the hardest time sticking to exercise. I could easily spout out a bullet point list of benefits for moving your body, but I personally would find it excruciatingly difficult to actually move my body myself.

In fact, there was a season when I had a membership at the Y, and I’d get dressed in workout clothes, send my (then) little kids to childcare, and use that time to get some work done. I’d write, computer and latte on the table, in my sweat-free workout clothes.

I knew there was some key ingredient missing in all this, because I intrinsically cared. I really did. I’ve eaten well habitually for a long time — whole foods, paleo-ish, no sodas, and the like. I drink water all day long. That part of the equation is instinct to me.

I even knew from personal experience how much better I’d feel when I would work out, even in small doses. So, I knew upstairs the benefits to movement.

But I still wouldn’t prioritize it. Days of “I’ll do it tomorrow” turned into weeks, then months. Then seasons would whoosh by when I promised it’d be the year I’d focus on my health, and before I knew it, an entire year would be in the books, when I worked out maybe once a month on average for the entire 12 months.

Cut to today, late March 2019: I’ve worked out almost every day this year. And I have no desire to ever stop. What’s different?

Here’s my theory. Actually, I’m pretty sure there are three mindset shifts that have been key for me.

1. I shifted from outward to inward.

I’ve already mentioned how much I love Atomic Habits, by James Clear. I listened to the audiobook over Christmas break, and I loved it so much I bought the hard copy so I could take notes and re-read (which I did the first week of January). If I could point to one foundational manifesto on habits that guided me to my current mindset shift, it’s this book. I plan to make it an annual read.

atomic habits identity-based habits

Early in the book, Clear talks about something simple and obvious, but it had never occurred how it applied to me personally before. He points out that if we’re focused on either outcomes or processes, we’re focusing on the wrong thing. Instead, to make a habit truly intrinsic (meaning, deep-rooted, from within), we should focus on our identity.

For example, if someone wants to lose weight, they might naturally want to focus on the outcome (to be thin) or the process (stick to a diet). But those won’t last, long-term, because the goal becomes an outcome-based habit. Behavior incongruent with your inner self won’t last. 

Instead, the person should focus on their identity, that inner self: I want to be a person who is healthy. I want to be someone at their ideal weight. I want to be someone who daily makes healthy choices.

It’s the difference between when offered a cigarette, someone who says, “No thanks, I’m trying to quit” vs. “No thanks, I’m not a smoker.”

This mindset shift has been everything for me, because up to this year, my focus has (unintentionally) been either an outcome or a process. The problem for me: whenever I no longer cared about either of those (even for one minute), I wouldn’t care about cultivating the habit necessary to get there. So I wouldn’t do it.

Turning this around into an identity-based habit has been key, because as I mentioned, I’ve always thought of myself as a health-oriented person. I care about what I feed my body, what I put on my body, and getting enough sleep. By those earmarks, I was a healthy person.

But my lack of movement throughout the day said otherwise. Take those things away, and I was near-sedentary, sitting with my laptop for huge chunks of the day. Even at a standing desk (which I’d use and then lose interest in), I still wouldn’t move. I wouldn’t do things to get stronger, which has ultimately been my desired outcome.

I want to be someone who exercises. I want to be a person who moves her body all throughout the day. I want to be someone whose lifestyle matches her philosophy. I want to be a physically strong woman. I want to be a mother who models for her kids what it means to be active in our ever-increasingly sedentary world. 

I want these identities. I want my outsides to match my insides.

As soon as I realized I was tracking the wrong goal, I changed my focus to an identity-based habit, using a growth mindset (vs. fixed) to prove to myself, with small wins, that I am the type of person I already want to be.

2. I started ridiculously small.

This is key — it’s those small wins that have kept me working out almost daily since January 1 this year. Because I’m no longer focusing on a big outcome-based goal (“be in shape”), I have full permission to start small. 

Clear suggests starting your habits ridiculously small, laughably small — as in, instead of running a mile when you’ve never made it around the block, your first goal should be to put on your running shoes. Seriously.

Now, I say I was sedentary — I wasn’t in the truest sense. I did go on daily walks, usually twice a day, so I did move. I just didn’t push myself into an active state of movement. So, my first baseline target was 15 minutes of movement, three times a week. I gave myself freedom to make said movement easy. And it worked.

At first, I eased into basic beginner’s Pilates (I used to do ballet, and Pilates scratches that itch still in me). I did this with no specific outcome-oriented goal; I simply focused on noticed how it felt. And it felt great. It became easy.

So I increased the amount, moving to 15 minutes, five times a week. This whole time, I kept it reachable, small, easy — the very opposite I assumed my goals needed to be if I were going to reach them. (Heck, I teach goal-setting in my class, and my mind was exploding with this approach.)

I then shifted to a different type of movement, one that I felt had more capacity to make me stronger. And it officially kicks my butt, in a good way. It’s not so hard as to be unreachable; in fact, one of the premises is to half-ass it if you need to.

Starting small has given me permission to do it my way. I’m not trying to impress anyone, I’m not in this to do anything beyond getting stronger, so that my outside lifestyle matches my inward values. And because it’s small, it’s doable.

3. I keep it fun.

Because it’s small, and because my focus is on being on a person that prioritizes my health in both words and actions, working out has become a thing I enjoy instead of a torture device I try to endure “because I’m a grownup.”

For me, movement needs to be something I enjoy doing. It needs to be a form of self-care, not a thing to whip myself as a form of punishment for being sedentary. And when I define self-care as “doing the things that help me be most like myself,” well then, I’ve got myself a win-win-win situation.

Working out almost feels like a game to me now. A hard game that pushes me, yes, but one that makes me the person I know I am inwardly — it makes me a better person. I enjoy marking my progress as I get better. I focus on the progress, the act of the habit itself, not a goal.

These three mindset shifts: making movement an identity-based habit, making it doable, and making it fun, has made all the difference for me. And I look forward to seeing where this takes me.

A few helpful resources:

Learning anything else new lately about habit formation?

Reading Time:

5 minutes

 

 

 

31 Comments

  1. Kathleen

    I recently read Atomic Habits and loved it too. Now I need to go through all the passages I marked, do some reflecting, and come up with a more detailed plan on how I want to implement some of his strategies in my own life. I too really appreciated how he emphasized the importance of starting really small and his focus on identity. And thanks for the rec on MommaStrong. That looks like a great program and something much more easy to implement than others I’ve tried – plus, super affordable and approachable.

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      It’s low price-point was THE reason I went ahead and tried MommaStrong — and now I love its approach to health and wellness, I’m a die-hard fan. Tell me if you try it, Kathleen, I’d love to hear what you (and anyone else) think!

  2. Rebecca

    Thanks for this. I’m curious to learn more about MommaStrong as well.

  3. Amy

    “Working out has become a thing I enjoy instead of a torture device I try to endure ‘because I’m a grownup.'” More of the world needs to know this is an option. Also, this post is something I needed to read! Since I stopped running for a team after junior year of college, it has been hard to find a form of “exercise” I will willingly do more than once a month – and part of that is unpacking the 9+ years I identified as a “runner” – something that I expected to continue forever, but hasn’t. Figuring out what identity I can realistically embrace to stay healthy is something I want to explore.

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Yes to the identity thing! If you haven’t yet read Atomic Habits, I bet you’d really get good stuff out of that part. Identities like “runner” or “dancer” (for me) are no small things… It’s really helped me to embrace a new identity of something as simple as “a physically active person” to get me to actually get off the couch. Weird, but true.

      Thanks for sharing, Amy!

  4. Ann H

    Such a subtle shift in thinking, but it makes all the difference! Just what I needed to hear to pull me out of my workout slump. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go to the gym because I want to BE an athletic person! Thanks for the reminder!

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Yes! Go get it, Ann. 🙌

      • Sarah K

        Love these thoughts. This makes me curious whether you’re familiar with Gretchen Rubin’s concept of the Four Tendencies related to how people tend to form habits? Your thoughts remind me of the strategies she describes as working for the Rebel tendency.

        I’ve been a runner for years (I consider it my form of therapy) but a transformative mindset for me in the last year has been saying “I GET to exercise” rather than “I have to”. It’s a helpful reminder to me to not take for granted the gift and privilege of having a healthy body capable of doing this work. (I learned this mindset from Dr Sarah Villafranco, founder of the company Osmia—she’s a very inspiring IG follow in this regard!)

        • Tsh Oxenreider

          Um… You better believe I’m a Rebel. 😉I’ve even had Gretchen on the pod where I told her I used to think I was a Questioner, but then I realized I was, indeed, a Rebel — and then she said, “Well, I could have told you that.” Confirmed!

          • Amanda

            I was just about to comment “written like a true rebel” because I remember that episode with Gretchen Rubin! Then I figured I probably wasn’t the only one 😉

          • Sarah K

            I love it! Do you think Atomic Habits is mainly geared for people with more of a Rebel tendency, or would it be helpful to other tendencies too?

  5. Kathleen

    I hope to embrace these mindset shifts as well. How old are your kids now? Do you think you could have explored these mindset shifts when they we’re little? I’m asking because my kids are small – 3.5 & 7 months – and our days are unpredictable and full of caregiving tasks. (My goals will have to probably start smaller than even putting on running shoes!) I’m tired of making my kids be my excuse, but at the same time, I know from having my first born become more independent that it does eventually get easier to separate from the baby’s needs. What would you tell yourself about these habits when your kids were baby/toddler small?

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Did I explore this mindset shift when my kids were younger? Sadly, no. Could I have? Absolutely, amen and forever. In fact, I think it would have done a world of good on my outlook on life, my sense of being in control of my days, and my ability to demonstrate in words and deed to my kids little ways to take care of myself. (MommaStrong really is targeted to moms of kids younger than mine, and she gets into this a lot.)

      I would have embraced an identity like, “a physically-active mama of littles” or something. And I would have given me a TON of grace, applauding myself whenever I did something as small as two minutes of exercise (no exaggeration). I’m ALL about partial solutions, which I feel like I talk about in every-other blog post and podcast episode. 😉This is a primo example of that. Hope this is encouraging, Kathleen! You really can do it.

      (Oh, and since you asked, my kids are now 14, 11, and 8.5.)

  6. Dee

    I love yoga with Adrienne! It’s been so helpful in helping me get back into exercise after a few months where I’ve let things slip..

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Yep, she’s great!

  7. Tara

    Loved this! The putting on shoes comment cracked me up… I am 6 months pregnant and have a 13 month old. Some days my only goal is get my shoes on and go to at least the mailbox. 📮😍

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      I remember those days! Going to the mailbox is legit worth celebrating when you’re in that teeny-tiny stage, Tara. 💪

  8. Christine Bailey

    So good. I’ve also read that the way to make a goal personal and to make it stick is to identify your “why” behind it. I think it goes so well with what you said that it has go be inward and personal rather than outward. Because if our goal in exercise is to just look a certain way and it doesn’t turn out like we imagined, we throw in the towel. These 3 things are so good to focus on. Lots to think about…

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Yes! And I’ve heard it’s good to revisit that super-personal “why” daily — as in, write it down every day. I think I need to add this to my repertoire… Thanks for the reminder, Christine.

  9. Kimberly

    I don’t shower until I workout. This habit has worked for 15 yrs. It’s similar to “don’t take off your coat until you’ve put away your purse/mail/etc.” This works for my life since I’m a homeschool mom and can skip a day or two without it being a big deal. But if I’m headed to storytime at the library tomorrow morning you better believe I’ll get in my sweatfest with Fitness Blender tonight!

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      That’s a creative idea!

    • Aimee

      I love this idea, Kimberly! Thanks for sharing.

      • Christina Neff

        As I was reading this post and you were describing your new workout I was thinking it might be mommastrong! I’ve been doing it, on and off, for about five years now and it holds a very special place in my heart so I always love to tell people about it. There have been times when I’ve told myself all I had to do was get dressed and watch the videos. Of course once I was dressed and turned the video on I would end up doing some of the workout, but I didn’t feel bad if I had to take a break… and it was definitely better than not moving at all. I also realized a habit I picked up was to be ok with being “sorta” something. I think I was on a blog called sorta crunchy and realized how nice it felt to sit comfortably in that definition. I’m sorta crunchy, sorta outdoorsy, sorta minimalist, etc. Right now my second baby is 1 years old and I’ve been struggling this past year to have my outer life match who I know I am inside. I had a crisis of identity when I joined a few other mamas on a kid-free hike and it was very clear that I wasn’t a “hiker.” These women were kind about my slowness and need for frequent stops, especially for being strangers, but I spent the whole hike feeling like an exhausted fraud. After a quick cry when I got back to the car to release the tension I could think a bit more clearly. I realized that I still loved the outdoors and moving outside. I’ve since been making a point of going out and enjoying hikes while slowly adding some elevation gain not so I can reach some summit, but so I can be the type of person that goes out and enjoys the nature around me while being active.

        • Tsh Oxenreider

          Yes and amen to all this Christina! What a fantastic approach to all of life.

          (And that Sorta Crunchy blog you were on years ago? That’s my dear friend’s Meg’s former blog, who was a long-time contributor here on AoS, and is now a fabulous podcaster on Sorta Awesome. You’d probably love it!)

  10. Tricia

    Your words concerning physical fitness could have been transcribed from my own thoughts running through my brain year after year after year.
    Thanks for the lead about MommaStrong. I’m on the same page as you about many things, including Yoga with Adrienne so I jumped in!

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      I’m so glad, Tricia!

  11. Ginger Hudock

    I also have been thinking a lot about habits, especially in my position as a nutritionist who helps people change their eating habits. I also like James Clear and wrote about his idea of habit stacking as a method to change your habits in a recent blog post. http://gingerhudock.com/eating-habit-change/
    I am trying to use this method to write on a more regular basis.

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Yes, I love his concept of habit stacking! So simple, but so effective.

  12. Vlijtig Liesje (busy lizzie)

    Thank’s for sharing this post. I loved reading it. Since I’m injured (knee injury from running) I have to redefine my identity (from someone who runs a lot to someone who runs smart and takes care of her full body not only by running) and since then, Adrienne is my new yoga bestie. I’ll keep your post in mind.

  13. Anne

    This is so so helpful to me .Thank you so much!

Get the weekly email called 5 Quick Things,

where Tsh shares stuff she either created herself or loved from others. (It can be read in under a minute, pinky-swear.)

You’ll also get an excerpt from her latest book, At Home in the World, a memoir about the school year her family backpacked around the world.

Join thousands of readers
& get Tsh’s free weekly email called
5 Quick Things,

where she shares stuff she either created herself or loved from others. (It can be read in under a minute, pinky-swear.)

It's part of Tsh's popular newsletter called Books & Crannies, where she shares thoughts about the intersection of stories & travel, work & play, faith & questions, and more.