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When to Give Up Trying to Start a New Habit

When to Give Up Trying to Start a New Habit

Photo by Juanedc

Photo by Juanedc

By summer 2005 I had two marathons under my belt, San Francisco and Big Sur. The Big Sur race I finished in April was especially difficult with a couple of notoriously killer hills, but I finished with a respectable time of 4:14:33.

I had been training for long runs for nearly two years in SF and was feeling pretty confident, particularly about my speed on relatively flat courses. So I got this brilliant idea that I should try to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

Back then, to be able to run in the Boston Marathon you had to first finish a race in under 3:40:00 for my age bracket (today it’s 3:35:00 for the same group––one I no longer belong to, alas). So qualifying for Boston would have been a big deal for me, but I was up for the challenge.

In September 2005, I signed up to run for what I thought would be an easy, flat race called the Sacramento CowTown Marathon and gave myself just over a month to get my speed up to qualify. This decision elevated running in my mind from a hobby, to a sport. I have a fierce competitive streak in me, so with only five weeks to train it was game on.

On race day I was pumped. I felt strong and energetic, and the weather was perfect. I was on pace to finish well within the 3:40:00 requirement for Boston––until mile 25, when one slightly awkward step tweaked something in my left knee.

I hobbled to a stop and tested my knee by putting a little weight on it. Yep, that hurt. Had I not been in the race I would have certainly sat down and put ice on it, but since I didn’t see any of the race officials nearby and still had hopes of hitting my time goal I kept limping forward.

The last 1.2 miles of the race were painful. I walked most of the way, occasionally attempting a sad jog-limp to make up some time. Ultimately I hobbled across the finish line at 3:54:16, nearly 15 minutes short of my goal.

Failing sucks, but being injured is way worse. While I didn’t have any serious tissue damage, my sprain was bad enough to keep me from doing any strenuous exercise for three full months. I was devastated.

For me being active is like meditation, a daily ritual that keeps me sane amid the chaos of my life. Without it I feel weak, lethargic and a little depressed.

Yet the worst part of this particular injury was that it was entirely unnecessary. It was caused by my ego.

As I limped around for those three months I realized that I really didn’t care about the Boston Marathon, I just wanted to say that I had run it. I underestimated the difficulty of improving my time so dramatically in such a short period. I underestimated the seriousness with which one should commit to a real sport. My arrogance was what left me sidelined.

But I also gained something by no longer running. Suddenly I wasn’t spending 8-10 hours per week training (in addition to my regular workouts) and could use that time for things I really did care about like working in lab, reading nutrition books and learning how to cook (this was 2005 and I was just starting to become a foodist).

Not only did my running habit cause me an injury that impacted my quality of life for three months, it was also taking time away from more important things that I didn’t realize I had been neglecting. It suddenly became obvious that running marathons wasn’t worth it for me.

Giving up on something you have previously committed to isn’t an easy thing to do. It can feel like failure or defeat. But sometimes giving up your goal is the smartest thing to do. Sometimes the cost of achieving it isn’t worth the price of admission.

It’s fine to start something thinking that it is a good idea then decide it isn’t for you. Maybe it takes more effort or time than you were expecting, or maybe you didn’t get the benefits you were hoping for.

Before you start a new habit your idea of what you’ll gain or how difficult it will be is really just your best guess. Without firsthand experience, you don’t have enough information to know for sure if it’s something you’d like to stick with.

Of course this isn’t always true. Some new habits are worth persisting in even if they’re really hard.

How can you tell the difference?

Some aspects of self-care should never be negotiable, as they are the cornerstone of being happy and productive in every other part of your work and family life. You probably never question whether or not you should shower or brush your teeth in the morning, for example.

Other goals may sound nice to have, but unless they add some deeper benefit than “could be fun” or “I’ve heard this is good for me,” then pursuing them may take time away from other essential activities and not be a good use of your time and energy.

It gets tricky when a habit is difficult to create, but you haven’t yet experienced the value of maintaining the habit long-term.

For instance, if you’ve been eating processed food for most of your life, shifting to eating mostly Real Food can feel daunting (95% of the time, this means learning to cook). You therefore won’t realize how devastating your food choices are to your energy levels and ability to function, because you don’t know what it’s like to not feel drained and lethargic.

As a rule of thumb, your non-negotiable self-care habits are those that impact your ability to function day-to-day:

  • Getting enough sleep (rest)
  • Basic hygiene (cleanliness)
  • Eating Real Food (fuel)
  • Being active, not sedentary (mobility)
  • Relaxation (stress management)

If you let any of these things slip for too long you will certainly experience negative consequences in other parts of your life, like low energy, fatigue and poor focus. So any habit that fuels these minimal requirements should be considered essential.

Where we tend to get tripped up is when we confuse these self-care goals with related goals that are more specific, but less necessary. For instance, being active is good but that doesn’t mean I need to run marathons to be fit and healthy. Eating Real Food is important, but you don’t need to eat 100% local or organic to get the benefits.

It’s easy to lose sight of the real goal when someone you know swears by hardcore workouts like marathon training or extreme diets like Paleo (no grains, beans or dairy). They have the results you want, but seem to sacrifice a lot to get them.

You start believing that that level of commitment is necessary for basic health, but it isn’t.

For the people that love these regimens, it isn’t the health benefits that make the habit worth the effort. The vast majority of the time it is a sense of community and belonging that they get from these activities that is the primary value. This is fantastic if it works for you, but if you already have a strong community elsewhere you don’t necessarily need to join a CrossFit gym to stop being sedentary. A stroll with a friend is a great start.

The only way to know for sure if a new habit is worth your time is to give it a solid try. If it ends up not being your jam, that’s totally fine. Just remember to not give up the habit of caring for yourself entirely.

Do you feel guilty about giving up goals that are no longer serving you?

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