Don’t Think. Get Up.

I’ve dreamed about getting into a morning workout habit for a long time now. But mornings simply suck. 😫

I have never been a morning person and I am not an athlete. There’s no simple reason why I’d need to go to the gym. But I do know how effective exercise can be in cultivating mental energy. No matter how many times I set the intention, though, I could never get my butt out of my cozy bed.

This is a story about how I got over the love for my bed and got into a surprisingly stable morning workout routine.

First, I cheated

One early morning last summer I lay awake in my bed with severe jet lag. I had just returned from Botswana, 9 hours ahead of Cali time.

I didn’t know what to do with myself. It was 5am – an hour I am very, very unfamiliar with. “What kind of psychopath would get up when it’s dark out? What do these crazy people do at this hour???”…For some wild reason, I decided to get up. I rationalized to myself that it would be more productive to just get up and do something.

I went into my kitchen and saw a container of pre-workout powder, and that triggered the age-old intention I’ve had to workout. I know, what a concept. I decided to take a scoop of that pre-workout, and now I was handcuffed. I couldn’t walk into the office with a huge dose of caffeine (and who the heck knows what else is in there). I ran to the gym and knocked out the first workout I’d done in… quite a while.

The walk back makes it all worth it.

The workout itself was not good. But performance wasn’t the thing I focused on. I focused on the beautiful city sunrise. The calming walk to and from the gym where not a soul was around. It was a strange feeling, but a refreshing feeling.

When I got back to my apartment, I knocked out a quick 5-minute meditation, showered up, and headed to the office before anyone else was there. I immediately noticed that my mental energy and sharpness were at an all time high, and I was much more present in all of my meetings. It was one of the better days I’d had in years.

That’s when everything connected for me. I needed to get in this habit. I not only owed it to myself, I owed it to my team.

Step 2 – Don’t think

That night I made a commitment to get my butt to the gym the next day. I laid out my gym clothes, got a pre-workout mix ready, set my alarm.

I wanted to remove any possible roadblocks – remove any thinking required to get me to the gym.

When I heard my alarm at 5:00 am, my brain immediately started thinking of countless reasons why I should stay in bed.

“I’ll have more energy if I sleep.. I worked out yesterday, I don’t need this today.. How much progress will I really lose if I miss just one workout..”

So I simply stopped listening. No amount of reasoning would solve my problem. I just needed to trust in the habit, trust in the process, and get my feet on the ground. And it worked.

It was this simple insight that drove me to one of the healthiest periods of my life. And it gave me a whole new appreciation for Nike’s motto – “Just Do It.”

Step 3 – Make it tangible

I’m a performance oriented individual. I constantly want to get stronger, jump higher, work better, be better. As a Product Manager and Entrepreneur, I’ve learned a lot about progress. And how to do it quickly. One thing that I know to be true – both from personal experience and a few insightful books – is that what you measure you can improve.

So when I think about my workouts, I wanted to make a plan and track progress towards that plan. Over the years I’ve iterated on how I’ve organized my workouts including using little notebooks, weekly schedule printouts, a whiteboard in my room, and even spinning up a quick Google Sheet.

Last summer, right around the time that I started this new morning workout routine, I discovered a clever app called Volt, which combined a lot of what I had been doing on paper and spreadsheets with a neat feedback system that made the whole process a lot simpler and (equally as important) fun.

Volt develops personalized workout plans based on your experience, the sport you’re training for (or if you’re like me, you can select “All-Around-Athlete”), and the feedback that you provide it along the way. After each set, it will ask you to rate the difficulty from 0-10 and it will adjust your next set based on what you entered. If you do a set and it feels easy, it may respond with a friendly and fun “You’re getting stronger!” message and increase the weight in the next set. This simple message adds an element of fun, and makes progress feel just a bit more tangible.

While Volt is awesome, I’ve found that it doesn’t really matter what app or system you use. What matters is that you make an effort to 1) Make a plan 2) Track progress against that plan and 3) Continuously adjust your plan. Not only does this make progress more tangible (keeping you motivated), but it also reduces the amount of thinking you need to do. So that when you’re lying in bed at 5:00 AM and the only thing your body is telling you is “HIT SNOOZE ONE MORE TIME” – you can go on autopilot, ignore your rationalizing brain, and fall back on your plan.

This is one important lesson that I’ve learned from designing products. As designers, a big part of our job is helping our users get tasks done easily and intuitively by designing intuitive interfaces. There is a commonly referenced book by Steve Krug called “Don’t Make Me Think” that explains how by removing the decision burden for users you can drive higher engagement. I apply this principle to my own habits to create positive, healthy behavior change – like my new morning workout routine.

Bonus: Meditate After

For me, my biggest priority is my mental energy. I need to cultivate my mental energy to perform at work, be present in my relationships, and stay balanced. Throughout my life, I’ve found meditation to be the most practical tool to chill out, clarify what’s important, and build up my mental energy. More recently, however, I’ve discovered how effective it can be to meditate after a workout.

Meditation combats your body’s stress response by activating your Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). It’s this mechanism that leads you to experience a state of calm in your body. After a workout, your body really needs to activate the PNS system in order to effectively recover. Meditation helps you do that more quickly.

Your meditations will likely feel a lot easier after a workout as well since you’ll be transitioning to a “rest and digest” state faster and you’re more engaged with your physical senses. I like to think to myself that my post-workout meditations “count double” for this reason as I’m often able to get my mind to a place of calm and clarity that much faster. So while meditation not only helps your body recover from workouts, it also helps you build up your mental energy for the day effectively.

I’ve stuck to this habit and I’ve felt healthier, stronger, and happier every day. I have yet to come across a better morning routine than this, but if you have (and are still reading 😜) drop me a comment below!

In Summary…

  1. Find a way to your first workout. Use jet-lag to your advantage, leverage your fiery new New Year’s Resolution energy, find a workout buddy. Find something that will get you over the initial hump.
  2. Ignore your brain. In the morning, your rationalizing brain will always push you to sleep another hour.
  3. Make it tangible. Use an app. Build a plan. Write it down. Do something to make the intention more real.
  4. Meditate to maximize your energy.

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