I am never lacking in goals but my success in moving towards achieving them varies significantly. There are moving targets like staying fit that are inherently ongoing and can require adaptation; in the case of staying fit, because our bodies and metabolism change over time. Then there are discrete goals which once achieved cannot be unachieved, like learning Spanish or climbing Mount Everest. Discipline is helpful but hard to rely on. Habit formation is a better strategy than discipline, and we can design the physical layout of our lives to maximize our chances consistently working towards our goals.
As I’ve written before, there’s a clear link between geographic proximity and the likelihood of going to a place and completing a task. In the past I have noted that when I was in college, I worked out much more when I lived in dorms that were closer to the gym, and much less when I was further. I realize now that the driver of this difference was not merely proximity; though I fully acknowledge that I can be quite lazy at times, my college campus was quite small so the further away gym wasn’t really that big an issue.
What I suspect made a bigger difference was that at some dorms I walked by the gym regularly to get back to my room, while at others I tended not to walk by the gym as much. Walking by the gym was a constant reminder that I should work out. I replicated this accidental college strategy with intention when I lived in San Francisco, always ensuring my gym was along the walking path from my office to home. Unsurprisingly, I consistently worked out with that lifestyle spatial design. This can work well when at home.
Exercise machines are home are good, but body weight workouts can be problematic. I have never gone to a gym and not worked out. That’s the advantage of going somewhere else to work out. Having a trainer and scheduling appointments with them weekly is even better as you hold yourself accountable to that person. But an at home machine like a Peloton can also work well, particularly if you position it so that you always walk by it. I personally find it hard to remember to do push ups and other plyometric workouts, as there aren’t clear visual clues. Even a pull up bar is better; when ever I have one at the office or in a doorway I regularly walk through, I end up doing push ups, sometimes as many 100 per day just casually because it’s there. When I was on a cruise ship last weekend and there were metal handholds for doing push-ups on an upper deck, I did push-ups almost every time I walked by. I should consider installing some of those at home. Proximity applies to other skills development as well.
Currently two big goals are learning to play the piano and becoming fluent in Spanish, as I wrote about recently. I took my first piano lessons at around the age of 12, so it’s been roughly twenty year since I’ve started and I only just recently crossed the threshold normally attained after about six months of consistent practice. That’s not a great statistic, but I would say about 80% of that progress was made in the last three months. That’s a better statistic. I noticed one small change set me on the course for success.
I currently live in a large house with other people and have two rooms in it to myself. The second of those who rooms is my office and sitting room. Initially, I had my digital piano off in a far corner of the room. I somewhat forgot about it there and didn’t necessarily see or think about it too often. Then, for reasons unrelated to the pace of my learning, I rearranged my room so that the piano ended up right next to my writing and computer desks. All the sudden, I began to practice everyday, and my learning rate went up dramatically. I realize, this wasn’t a coincidence; simply putting the piano next to my desk, making it impossible for me to not see it all the tine, led to me practicing significantly more. Eventually, this practice tipped into a habit. I would have never guessed such a small change could so significantly alter the trajectory of a goal I have had for so many years. Better yet, I’m just started to get out of that valley of being so mediocre at playing that it’s not fun. I’m no virtuoso, but I can fluidly play simple songs that I enjoy, creating a positive feedback loop of practice. I would now advise that if you want to do something, put it in front of you.
What is by me even more than my digital piano is my phone. For the Spanish learning I can’t reiterate how helpful it is to have learning apps that are gamified on the phone. I only spend about three minutes per day on Instagram, mostly posting stories, and that is the totality of my social media use. I spend about another five minutes reading the news, and a various amount time on email, usually for work or communicating with others. The majority of my time is spent in learning apps, mostly language learning. We usually think of addictions are bad, but we can also use them in our favor, whether an endorphin addiction for working out (sadly I don’t seem to get this even with endurance training) or a dopamine addiction to a gamified learning app. The phone, for better or worse, is our most proximate tool, and can be very helpful for moving towards any goals that can be aided by it.
One currently challenge for me is that my lifestyle remains in a fair amount of flux geographically. I am not home a majority of the time, and I travel to different places. That makes habits tough. I play the piano every day when I’m at home, but now I’m away, so I won’t be playing for a while. As I will eventually make it back to my desk in Austin, I’m hoping that proximity will continue to work as it has. Perhaps if I didn’t travel so much, the proximity wouldn’t matter as I could stick to a habit more easily even if required a few more steps. But given my current reality, spatial design when I am at home lowers to friction to getting back into lock step.
In brainstorming about how to spatially design for goal achievement when traveling, I’m wondering if I could better design my suitcase, like traveling with small pieces of exercise equipment like push-up handles that would remind me to work out. That might be a good experiment for the next journey.