Quit tomorrow by Craig Weller
If you’re struggling with your fitness goals, feel free to quit. Just do it tomorrow. In Special Operations Forces selection we used to have a saying: “Finish out today and quit tomorrow.” Selection is essentially a system of heavy-duty hazing, ruthlessly tormenting a bunch of people until most of them drop out. During this intensive process, it’s so tempting to tell yourself that The run is too far.The water is too cold. My arms are too weak to do one… more… pushup… unnnggghh. It’s so tempting to tell yourself: It doesn't matter. It’s not worth it. Nothing is worth this pain or boredom. So what’s the secret to staying the course? Quitting. Later, that is.
My buddies and I promised each other we’d never quit in the middle of an evolution. At least, we’d wait until the end of the day, when the intensity of the moment had passed. The carrot of quitting dangled enticingly in front of us. A little treat, the promise of eventual relief to keep us going. It was just a little farther away. Of course, at the end of the day, we’d look back on the incident that had made us want to quit, realize it wasn't so bad – and feel good about our decision to continue. Invariably, this simple trick would pull us through. We didn't quit today. And every one of us made it through selection.
Great, you might be thinking – but what’s the carry-over to ordinary life? How do small daily decisions (like my decision to postpone quitting) support or detract from our longer-term commitments, like a commitment to fitness and health? In The Upside of Irrationality, author Dan Ariely describes a phenomenon he calls “self-herding.” “Herding” is what happens when we follow what others are doing. “Self-herding” occurs when we allow our own previous actions to govern our current behavior. Sounds pretty innocuous. But here’s the thing: Many of our small, daily decisions are governed by our emotional state in the moment. And self-herding is such a powerful force that each decision has the potential to establish a habit, which in turn could help or hinder our long-term goals.
Suppose your favorite team wins a game just before you head out to your mother-in-law’s for supper. In your excitement, you stop to buy her flowers on your way. Two weeks later, on your next visit, you find yourself buying flowers again. What’s going on here? The underlying reason for your initial purchase (excitement about the game) is gone. But without necessarily meaning to, you use your previous actions as a template for what you should do next and the kind of person you are. Thus, a passing emotion ends up influencing a long string of decisions and helps to establish a habit – and to shape a character. Now what if, in that initial moment of happiness about your team’s win, instead of buying flowers for your mother-in-law, you chose to stop at the pub for five or six pints? Or what if your team lost and you chose to kick the dog – or open a bag of cookies? Self-herding can turn you into the kind of person who finishes a demanding course of training or brings flowers to your mother-in-law – or the kind who drinks too much, lashes out at others, or eats for comfort.
The small, seemingly unimportant decisions we make in the moment can have far-reaching consequences for the kind of people we become. That’s why it’s so important to pause and think before we act. To harness the power of self-herding so it works for us, not against us. To finish out today and “quit tomorrow.” The Opposite Rule Most of us have told ourselves: I’ll start ___ tomorrow. [Insert one or more of the following self-improvement projects: running, getting up early, eating healthy, being nicer to my in-laws, learning Swahili, etc.] “Starting tomorrow” — while it’s a great way to begin — also often lets us justify poor decisions today. So what about trying the opposite? Instead of “start tomorrow”, how about: “Quittomorrow”? Quit tomorrow to keep fit.
Did you just start eating a clean diet and give up processed foods? Did you just start a new and more intensive exercise program? Here’s some news: It’s going to suck sometimes, and there is nothing you can really do about that until your body adapts. You’re going to have moments of weakness when you want nothing more than a bag of crisps or chocolate bar. Days when you can barely drag yourself to the gym. It’s only once. It can’t really hurt. It’s not so bad. The mind is remarkably adept at coming up with justifications. But – as the theory of self-herding demonstrates – this decision won’t stand on its own. Every choice you make lays neural groundwork that will bias your future decisions. Eventually, you’re the sum of your habits. No more, and no less.
So, my advice when you want to give up is this: Quit tomorrow. Nourish yourself with healthy food today. Get yourself to the gym and do that set today. I’m betting the urge to quit will be gone. Instead, when tomorrow dawns, you’ll feel just a bit healthier, a little less dependent on sugar, a little stronger. You’ll have harnessed self-herding in your favor. And you’ll be one step closer to your goals.