By James Fell Ask Men
It’s a to-do list, and each item needs to be checked off as either “done” or “I suck.”
Are you one of those guys whose favorite things in his house are the couch and the fridge? Yeah, me too. But the fridge can help you ditch the couch more often. How? Because science!
Most days, I’m pretty motivated to work out. This was not always the case. But after much soul-searching and wanting to get laid more, I got in shape and have stayed that way for 20 years. In the last two decades, there has never been a time when I was not a regular exerciser.
And in my last five years of being a fitness columnist, one subject I’ve focused on a lot — because not only do I find it fascinating, but I also consider it the most critical (and often most ignored) — is motivation to work out. I’ve looked at a lot of the science, and even wrote a book about fitness motivation for AskMen. One of the things I mentioned in the book is that people who track their workouts have higher adherence rates than those who don’t. I also admitted that I don’t usually write mine down, but keep track in my head.
And yet, sometimes even I struggle with making myself exercise. When those times happen, it’s time to bring out the heavy motivational artillery: the fridge.
Or, more accurately, the piece of paper you stick to the fridge.
It’s not just any piece of paper, but a chart that outlines all your exercise for the month. It’s a to-do list, and each item on that list needs to be checked off as either “done” or “I suck.”
Well, maybe the “I suck” is a little harsh, but quitting is contagious. Missing a workout because you’re sick, injured or run-down and your body is just saying “No” are all good excuses not to exercise. “I don’t feel like it” is not such a good excuse, and you can always find a way to not feel like it. And that’s why the exercise to-do list on the fridge is such a great motivator.
I mentioned science is why this works. Let’s get into that.
The first is the theory of planned behavior, which is a well-known theory of behavior change that all boils down to intention, because most human behavior is goal-oriented. Intention is generated by two things: Does the subject have a positive or negative attitude about the behavior? And does the subject believe others close to him or her support this change in behavior?
Add to your level of intention your “perceived behavioral control,” which is how much control you think you have over your life. Creating the schedule shows both a positive attitude and exhibits a sense of control over your time management that allows for you to fit exercise in. If there are other people living with you and they see this list on the fridge, you can create a support group as well. You know, unless they’re dicks.
But there is also stimulus-response.
If you ever took a first-year psychology course you learned about operant conditioning and B.F. Skinner. There are a number of facets to this model of behavior change, but as they pertain to the chart there are two important ones:
You have a 45-minute weightlifting session scheduled for today on the fridge workout calendar. As you’re grabbing milk for your coffee you see this scheduled exercise session. After the coffee is finished you head to the gym and do your required workout. Then you get to tick that session off as “done” on the chart.
Ticking it off feels good. It will actually release some happy hormones because you accomplished a goal, and this is reinforcing. Building muscles from working out isn’t that reinforcing because it takes so damn long — the “response” of hypertrophy takes place so long after the “stimulus” of pumping iron that it’s not true positive reinforcement. Ticking that workout off as done does happen right after the workout though, so it is reinforcing.
This is about removing a negative stimulus, which can also feel good.
You skipped the morning workout. Every time you go to the fridge it’s staring at you, un-ticked, taunting, making you feel bad. "Do me… Do me…" it says. The longer you ignore it, the more it annoys you that you didn’t do this.
And there is only one way to make that annoying feeling go away: Do the damn workout. This makes you feel better. Well, I suppose you could down tequila shots until you don’t care anymore, but you’ll pay later.
Even if you do skip a workout (without a good reason), then you can still remove the negative feelings associated with that by making sure you do the next few — so you feel back on track.
How To Make Your Chart
There are a couple of ways, but you’re going to have to kill a small tree.
Don’t just take this idea and make it all electronic. Not good enough, because you can X that appointment out of your online calendar and it no longer serves as a reminder of your success or your failure. Also, doing that manual check mark with a pen feels good. Print the sucker off and stick it to the fridge, because the list of checks gives you a great sense of accomplishment, and every skipped workout sticks out like a nose pimple.
You can go calendar or list format. I recommend a monthly calendar format if you are using the chart for ongoing motivation for general fitness, and a list if you’re looking at achieving a specific goal at some point in the future.
I’ve never actually used the monthly calendar format because I’ve never wanted for general fitness motivation. However, when I’m training for a race (“a specific goal at some point in the future”), I need to list all my runs out. As of writing, I have two training runs left on my 12-week long marathon-training list. My goal is to qualify for the Boston Marathon, and I knew the only way I could achieve such a thing would be to do the fridge list.
Here is what mine looks like right now:
The ones that were crossed out I didn’t do, and I don’t feel bad about them because my body was telling me not to do them. It was an ambitious training program and at times I needed to dial it back a bit to prevent injury or overtraining. Not once did “I don’t feel like it” happen during the last 12 weeks.
The piece of paper is worn and wrinkled and folded (from taking it on vacation) and even a little food-splattered, and this pleases me. I get to look at 12 weeks of hard work every time I go to the fridge. Also, my daughter regularly looks at the list and kicks my ass out the door if I haven’t done a required run. She likes ticking those runs off almost as much as I do. Having a support group like this is more theory of planned behavior in action.
And as a final benefit, the location of the chart can help improve your eating. With every trip to the fridge you see the chart; you see the hard work you’ve done. Do you want to undo that with bad food choices?
It may change what you reach for when you open the door.