We’ve all heard them before: clichés about beginnings. “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” “How you start is how you finish.” “The first step is the biggest step.” “Getting started is the hardest part.” “The secret to getting ahead is getting started.” “What is not started today is never finished tomorrow.” “All glory comes from daring to begin.”
These and a slew of other quasi-motivational truisms bring home the point that, for much of recorded history, people have struggled with beginnings. In my clinical and sports psychology practice, I can’t begin to count how many times I have given someone what I thought was a great suggestion or recommendation for overcoming an outdated and ineffective solution, only to learn the next time I see my patient that he or she never even gave it a try. The “start” never got started. When we talk about what happened over the previous week that prevented the application of a recommendation, I get the sense almost every time that my well-meaning and sincere patient was not deliberately resisting change, being intentionally non-compliant with treatment, or even lacking in willpower. Rather, he or she got caught up so much in the warp and woof of their lives that it never even occurred to them to give something new a try. In short, they simply forgot to press the play button.
Of course, it is quite possible that sometimes my therapeutic suggestions are not nearly as effective, compelling, or helpful as I assumed they were. But I think there’s something more going on here. Humans are creatures of habit, regardless whether we’re talking about good habits or bad habits. And the sticky wicket about bad habits is that they’re really, really hard to break! Not impossible, but doing so requires a healthy combination of discipline, focus, commitment, courage, restraint, and yes, sometimes luck. On the micro-level, when we try to start something new (like a diet or exercise program), we’re literally working against thousands, if not millions, of neurons that are all too accustomed to process information according to predetermined (i.e., old) patterns and to initiate sequences of familiar, well-worn, and sometimes non-optimal behaviors. Let’s face it; at the level of our neurons, we’re all like water—we all operate according to the principle of economy.
As everyone knows who’s started an exercise program, we face an uphill climb in the initial stages, all the way from our delts and traps down to our synapses. Before we’ve hit our stride, before we’ve overcome the inevitable muscle soreness and aches, before we’ve resolved to make time and not just find time to exercise, and before we’ve begun to see the results of our efforts, we have to get our old selves moving in a different direction in order to get transformed into our future selves. This is nowhere near impossible. The human mind and body are distinguished by the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. It’s just that we have to battle entropy, gravity, inertia, laziness, and a mountain of immobilizing excuses to get those adaptive juices to flow. So how exactly do we do that?
The question of how to promote sustained behavioral and emotional change has vexed psychologists for as long as the clinical arm of the profession has existed. In my practice, I used to think that helping people feel better would eventually lead to positive behavioral changes. Over time, however, I have come to believe exactly the opposite. Positive behavioral changes, I’ve found, are integral to—if not necessary precursors for—better feelings. The catch is that, while everyone who comes for counseling wants to feel better, very few people actually want to change. Long-term change requires, well, long-term change. It’s just that simple. And just that difficult.
So what about that new exercise program you promised to start and continue that has already gathered cobwebs? If you’re like a lot of people, chances are that you let a great idea suffer from a lack of planning and execution. So let’s talk about some of the elements of a good plan, one that can be used not only for exercise but for virtually any change you want to make. Having a workable plan is essential for sustained change—a plan that not only looks good on paper but produces results in the real world. What I’ve put together is not a comprehensive list of all the necessary elements of a good exercise plan. Rather, I’m offering a way to begin trouble-shooting where good plans tend to break down.