From ‘weekend warrior’ to podium finisher: how my husband set the example for building a sustainable lifestyle
When I think of sustainability, the first thing that comes to mind is my husband. I came to this conclusion because when I picked upJames Clear’s Atomic Habits at the beginning of the year, I found that so many of the tips and tools provided by Clear were already being implemented in my home – by my husband, in particular. I am a Work In Progress, especially when it comes to exercise…
Six days a week, this man gets up at 5am and gets onto his stationary trainer to complete a grueling session on his bike. There are many mornings I check on him, convinced that he has keeled over because the pace and intensity of the session sounds like it has gotten the better of him. But no, there he is, sweating it out and seeing it through to the end.
I remember taking his ‘before’ photo in 2018, wondering how long it would be before the new indoor trainer (yet another expensive bike toy) would find a permanent home in the black hole that is my garage. It never did, and I’m thrilled that he proved me wrong. He went from ‘weekend warrior’, training only on weekends, to winning races and becoming a provincial mountain biker.
It got me thinking about what it took for him to get there, and how I could apply some of James Clear’s tools for building sustainable habits:
1. Your habits shape your identity (and vice versa)
Many people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on what they want to achieve. This leads us to use outcome-based habits – i.e., changing results, such as losing weight, writing a book, etc. The alternative is to build identity-based habits. With this approach we start by focusing on who we wish to become. This layer is concerned with “changing beliefs: your worldview, your image, your judgments about yourself and others”, and is the deepest layer for creating and sustaining change. This is the layer we should begin with.
I heard my husband’s narrative change from ‘I ride mountain bikes’ to ‘I am a mountain biker’ – every action he then took supported this identity, from his diet to his social media presence to his relationships.
2. An accountability partner can change everything
At this point, I am going to acknowledge that it is difficult to create sustainable habits without the support of people in your circle. Yes, I’m referring to me, and more recently, our daughter – the support team, holding the sweat towels, energy drinks and snack bars at race time, standing at the start line on a freezing winter’s day to watch our athlete conquer another mountain, and then documenting his success at the finish line and on the podium.
Also, the daily support from his coach has been key to his success: Darrin sets the workouts, builds in milestones to maintain and elevate performance (I have heard endless complaining about the dreaded FTP test), and provides expert feedback on progress.
On the weekends, his friend, Richard, would join him on his rides around Joburg, helping to set the pace, hold him accountable for showing up, and talk about post-ride ride statistics over a cup of Seattle coffee. This partnership was key in helping him sustain momentum through to the end of each week. Their ‘habit contract’, as Clear refers to it, included consequences for not showing up or arriving late – coffee was on the offender.
Richard has since emigrated, but because my husband is now accountable to a team, he continues to get up and show up, even when he may not feel like it. The post-ride analysis still takes place though: through a tracking tool called Strava, they can view each other’s stats and provide well-deserved kudos to each other and those in their cycling community.
3. Make the cues of good habits obvious in your environment
It’s simple: if you want to exercise more, create a space to exercise with all the equipment available so that it makes the process of exercising easier. If you want to eat better, fill your fridge with healthy food and make the cooking equipment needed to support you easily available.
When we moved my husband’s indoor trainer to our spare room, we created a dedicated space for him to close the door and focus only on his ride in the morning. The room is set up for riding success, with the cupboard filled with all his cycling gear, so that everything is easily accessible, and he doesn’t have to spend time in the morning trying to make the environment conducive for riding.
Wherever possible, avoid mixing the context of one habit with another – the mantra ‘one space, one use’ helps to focus your energy on the specific habit you’re wanting to build so that you’re less likely to get distracted. If you live in a small apartment, where one room needs to play multiple functions, Clear recommends dividing your room into activity zones – a chair for reading, a table for working, a corner for exercising. You can arrange the same with your digital spaces as well – for example, use your tablet for reading, your laptop for working and your phone for social media and calls/texting.
4. Professionals stick to the schedule; amateurs let life get in the way
Clear highlights that the greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom. “We get bored with habits because they stop delighting us. The outcome becomes expected, and as our habits become ordinary, we start derailing our progress to seek novelty.” Those who are able to successfully create and sustain habits are those that can handle the boredom of repeating the habit day in day out. I saw that once my husband’s initial progress on the bike plateaued, it felt as though he had lost the motivation to do much more than what he was already doing.
I then saw what Clear refers to as the ‘Goldilocks Rule’ in action. The Goldilocks Rule states that “humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are just right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.” To motivate himself, my husband decided to set new, small milestones for himself: he would enter a race and aim to be in the top 10% of the field, and this required a slight change to his training schedule. He then aimed to finish in the top 5% after a few races, which required more adjustments, and then top 3, and then 1st. Had he set his sights on completing the Tour De France right out of the starting blocks, it is likely that he would have never made it out of his training room. These smaller milestones were challenging enough to keep him interested in continuing but were not too challenging to keep him out of the ring.
Wherever you may be on your journey, I think that perhaps the most important tip is to just get started. Small changes applied consistently can make all the difference to achieving success.
I am incredibly proud of the example my husband is setting for our daughter, and know that if “habit maketh the man”, then I’ll continue to support his habits – because they’ve made a pretty good guy!