I found my off-brand fitness tracker a while back, so I charged her up, half expecting it to be completely busted. To my surprise, it was busted. The first day, I registered just over 1,100 steps. I waved my arms, walked in place, and took a stroll around the living room to see when / how it tracked. I watched as the numbers ticked up with each actual step. As it turned out, the tracker was working, and I had indeed taken just 1,100 steps in what I considered an “active” day.
Determined to prove that I was more active than my first day suggested, the next day I made a concerted effort to walk more. By 10:30 PM, I had less than 1,500 steps. Over the course of the next two months, I averaged 1,200 steps a day. One day, I had just over 700. That’s right: seven, zero, zero. I found myself sitting at my desk for hours working away, taking breaks only to use the restroom. My back hurt, my legs were tight, and I was ashamed for anyone to see how inactive I really was. Worse yet, I was ashamed to know myself how inactive I really was.
Just earlier this year, I challenged myself to walk 10,000 steps every day for a month, and I did! For some reason, challenges work really well for me. They give me a goal to shoot for and what feels like an “end” date. It feels easier knowing that the challenge is for a short period of time. Deep down, I don’t want to just stop once the challenge is over, but it helps me to mentally view the challenge as a temporary point in time. I want to prove to myself that I can do it, and knowing that it will be over soon is simply the light at the end of the tunnel. Not that I want to go back to my old ways, but knowing that I can makes the initial challenge a little easier.
Unfortunately, regardless of how many challenges I complete or how good I feel when I am engaging in the new behaviors, I almost always revert back to my old ways. Why isn’t a month enough to reinforce my new behaviors?
For one, we often think 21 days makes a habit. It doesn’t. The idea that 21 days forms a habit is based on the statement by Dr. Maxwell Maltz in 1960 after years of observation. His statement was that it was his observation that it takes a minimum of 21 days to form a habit. Well, you know how humans are. We took that 21 day idea and ran with it all the way to 2019, despite research that suggests it can take 18 to 254 days (or more) to form a new habit.
Regardless of the true number of days it takes to form a habit, recent research has drawn attention to the impact that the way we think about and view goals can have a negative impact on retention. Huang and Aaker (2019) examined the impact of viewing a goal as a journey versus the destination. Those who viewed the goal as a journey they completed were significantly more likely to continue the behavior after the study than those viewing the goal as having reached a destination or the control group who did not engage in the metaphor at all. (Huang, S. & Aaker, J. 2019)
By focusing on the light at the end of the tunnel, it was perhaps a little easier to get through the immediate task of completing my activity for the day, but I was interfering with my brain’s ability to form a new habit. It was like I was putting a road block in my neurons, stopping the connection from being completed. I also imagine it like one parent going against the other’s decision when they are asked by a child to eat chocolate before bed. “Shhh. Don’t tell Mom.” Rather than reinforcing the behavior, the brain (or child) stays confused about what it should be doing. Instead of building pathways that will ultimately make the “right” behavior easier in the future, we are learning how to avoid doing what we know is right.
In this challenge and the rest of the challenges this year, I will consciously focus on viewing each monthly goal as part of a journey and not a destination. My goal is not to get to the end of the month so I can quit but to lay the foundation for a new habit. This month, I will step into who I was made to be…one step at a time.
Huang, S.-C., & Aaker, J. (2019). It’s the Journey, Not the Destination: How Metaphor Drives Growth After Goal Attainment. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 117(4), 697–720.