Racing The Sun Part 1: How to Set Goals and Form New Habits.
I looked up at the sinking sun from between the silent walls of the Grand Canyon. Sun burnt, exhausted, and with only 12 oz of water left to my name, my brother and I made the desperate decision to race the sun and attempt to ascend the 2500 ft of elevation back to the rim. And if we made it, we would still be 12 miles from any rescue. With uncertainty as our only reward, we began the hike. In this 3-part journey, I will detail the lessons learned from one of the toughest adventures of my life: how to set a goal, rely on discipline, and conquer fear.
In 2008, I was 17 years old. New to fitness, the outdoors, and adventure, most of my “worldly” exploration occurred within my back yard and the video game Morrowind. I had only been on two laughably inexperienced camping trips, which boiled down to carrying a bunch of tuna cans and junk food into the woods, and acting like teenagers. The biggest challenge in those days was figuring out how to survive the night without smothering my incessantly-snoring friend in his sleep.
CHOOSE YOUR ADVENTURE
That summer, my family took a trip to Arizona. We would be spending two days at the Grand Canyon - a chance for me to experience rugged wilderness and high adventure! My older brother, Jason, and I set a goal to hike The Grand Canyon’s most popular and well-traveled trail: The Bright Angel.
This trail, while strenuous, had been completed countless times by people of all ages and ability levels. It was going to be hard, but I was confident that I could complete the trail. After all, if they could do it, why couldn’t I? There were several water sources, patrolling rangers, and we had planned to split the hike up over two days. This way, we could experience a night in the Canyon and not over-exert ourselves.
Any time you attempt a new habit, exercise program, or life change, your goal becomes an adventure. When it comes to goal setting, confidence in completion is key. Choose a goal that is outside of your comfort zone, but firmly within the realm of possibility. In the fitness world, going from 0 to 5 workouts a week is a big challenge. Going from 0 to 2 or 3 per week is more realistic.
Before setting any goal, assess how realistic it is and how confident you are that the goal can be completed. Set yourself up for success based on your willpower and ability! For many of my clients, completing only one exercise per day, not even a full workout, is all they can realistically afford in the beginning. The best goal is one you can complete.
MAKE THE ADVENTURE FUN
For Jason and I, the chance to experience unforgettable wilderness, bond over the campfire, and come back with a story was our definition of fun. When choosing your adventure, motivate yourself by making the journey as fun as possible. I knew the hike itself was going to be uncomfortable, difficult, and even painful at times. But the companionship, physical activity, and natural beauty made the goal worth it. When forming a new habit, how can you make the discomfort worth it?
Let’s say you set a goal to walk for 30 minutes a day for one week. Rather than focusing on the daunting task of forcing yourself to be active, create a list of all the ways you can make this task more enjoyable. Make a 30 minute playlist of your favorite songs, walk among nature, find a podcast or audiobook to listen as you go, recruit a walking companion, or use the time to reflect on the positive aspects of your day. Before you know it, exercise becomes the thing you do while engaging in the things you love.
This tip has powerful research backing it up. Like a Pavlovian response, tying new habits to activities that already interest you or bring happiness greatly increase your chances of repeating the activity. Your brain associates the positive feelings of doing what you love with the task you are forming into habit.
To speed up this association, practice mindfulness. At the end of your task, take a minute or two to pay attention to how you feel. How did the new task alter your mood? Do you feel more energetic, or calm? Does your body feel more relaxed, or primed for more activity? How do you feel about setting the goal and completing it for that day? Taking a minute to reflect on your mood and condition will solidify the positive connection in your mind.
IT DOESN’T MATTER WHEN, WHERE, OR HOW YOU BEGIN. JUST DO IT.
As my brother and I checked in at the ranger station, we discovered that all campsites on the Bright Angel Trail were full. In fact, all the campsites in the park were full, except for one trail: The Grand View to Horseshoe Mesa. We looked over the brief description that read something like this:
The ranger added that there were the ruins of an abandoned mining operation, as well as some caverns on the Mesa. My brother and I looked at each other. Very experienced adventurers? An 11-mile round-trip hike into the canyon, complete with cave exploration and ruins? It wasn't our original plan, but we were sold. The hike itself had no water, but if you doubled back down a spur, to a place called Miner’s Springs, you could refill there. We signed up for the campsite, paid our dues, and suited up for the trek.
My brother and I had one tent and two sleeping bags between us. I wore a pair of busted New Balance tennis shoes, cotton shorts from Old Navy, an Under Armour shirt, and a thick leather cowboy hat (for the look). We carried three 12 oz bottles of water, each. If 36 ounces doesn’t sound like enough water for the Grand Canyon - you’re right. But, we would refill at the spring and be sure to hydrate that night.
In retrospect, we were the quintessential tourists who end up dying or paying thousands of dollars to get helicoptered out of the Grand Canyon. Nonetheless, with my bulky, military-surplus bag packed to the brim, we drove 12 miles from our lodge to the trailhead. Our family would drop us off there and pick us up around noon the next day. The time was 3pm.
From the unexpected change of plans, to the lack of proper supplies, to the late start time, my brother and I began under less than ideal conditions. Still, we committed and moved forward.
As a strength and conditioning coach, I am constantly encouraging others to set goals and form new habits. Because of this, I am constantly hearing excuses. “Well, I have a birthday party on Friday, so I should start next week.” or “Let me get through the holidays, then I can focus on my fitness.” From weight loss, to taking care of kids, to retirement, I have heard it all. People wait for life to calm down, or they set grandiose start dates and hope that’ll help them mentally prepare.
In reality, life will always get in the way of your goals. There will always be temptations, the derailing of plans, and low motivation. There is never a perfect time to start something - so just start! While starting a diet or exercise program at the beginning of the week might sound good, strike while the iron is hot and the idea is fresh in your mind. How can you work towards your goal, today? How is starting your workout on a Monday more beneficial than starting the day you decided to make a change?
Any step towards your goal is a victory. If you plan to walk 30 minutes a day, for a week, but it happens to be a Thursday, start your week then! Think of this as putting discipline in the bank. Despite being the middle of the week, you chose to strike while the iron is hot, put some success (no matter how small) under your belt, and make an immediate change in your life. When forming new habits, consistency wins over all. Even if you can only afford a 5-minute walk on day 1, the fact that you started at all is a huge victory!
My brother and I had no choice but to make the most of our situation and begin the hike. With the sun already beginning it’s descent from the sky, I took my first step into the adventure that would change me forever. Set your goal, make the journey enjoyable, and strike while the iron is hot.