Raise your hand if you don't find it tough to cram every workout you want to do, all the recipes you want to cook, QT with your family/guy/friends, kicking ass at work, and, of course, some much-needed solo time into every week. Yeah, didn't think so. It's really freaking hard to find time for all the important stuff.
But if you can make the most out of the hours you spend at the office, at the gym, and crossing off all your other To Do list items, you'll be able to get more done. New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg, who wrote about the importance of habits in his book The Power of Habit, dug deep into the science of productivity in his new book Smarter Faster Better. So we chatted with him to learn more abou the lessons in his book that can help you optimize your health and fitness efforts.
Write a Better To Do List
The goal here is to take control of your time, so you don't get to the end of the day with no time left to work out. "You want to be proactive, rather than reactive," says Duhigg. "We have so many things pushing us. Our phones are buzzing in our pockets, there are new emails every minute... It's easy to find yourself in a situation where you spend your entire day being busy and never get productive." To be more proactive, you need to set two kinds of goals: your big ambitions or stretch goals (like training for a marathon), and then SMART goals, which are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and have a clear timeline.
The new format of your to do list: The reach goal should be on top, followed by a few notes about what you need to do to get it done (run 12 miles this week, clear three mornings for running, coordinate with spouse so you're not responsible for school drop off those mornings...). "The most productive people take control of their lives. Writing a To Do list the right way helps people do the things that matter most to them," explains Duhigg. (Need a new stretch goal? Try one of these fitness bucket list items.)
Predict the Futures
Part of being productive is making more efficient decisions. Through his research, Duhigg found that the tactic of envisioning multiple futures can help us learn how to make better choices. For example, if you want to make better dietary decisions, think about your daily lunch routine. In one scenario, you go to the cafeteria and order a burger. In another, you order a salad. "Ask yourself, what do I have to do to make that second reality happen?" It sounds simple, but just envisioning all the possible ways a scenario might play out will help you see the tools you have in your power. You might realize that if you get to the cafeteria at 12:30, you'll be starving, and more likely to order the burger. So you think, what if I show up at noon instead or have a snack at 10 a.m.? "When we start imagining different futures, we start to see how small choices have a big influence on what ends up happening," says Duhigg.
Play with Your Data
Apps make it easier than ever to track your weight, caloric intake, the macronutrient of your meals, your heart rate, the miles you run, and more. (Find out how to get more out of your fitness tracker.) But simply having data available to you doesn't mean you'll be able to use it wisely. What Duhigg has found, surprisingly, is that to make data useful, you have to make it harder to absorb. Simply looking at the graph your app makes of your weight doesn't force you to learn anything, because it's too easy. But, if once a week, you draw a graph by hand, and add notes on diet and exercise, you start to glean lessons from the numbers.
Duhigg has seen this play out in his own life. "I was seeing that on Wednesdays, I traditionally wasn't going running and would eat terrible stuff. I started to realize that I need to exercise on Wednesday because otherwise, I lose control. And running in the morning makes it easier for me to eat healthier at lunch." You won't see the connection if a computer program makes a graph for you, he explains. "You have to use the information and play with it. That's when you really start to learn."
Find the Right Workout Buddies
Research shows that one of the best ways to stick with an exercise routine over time is to do it with other people. (It's one of the reasons why having a fitness buddy is the best thing ever.) But not all teams are created equally, says Duhigg. And it turns out that the same qualities that make a work team productive will make the best fitness team. You need psychological safety—a group that allows you to be authentic and bring your whole self—and there are two characteristics that foster that. The first is that everyone participates in the conversation and has their voices and opinions heard. The second is that the team members have "social sensitivity"—i.e. they pick up on nonverbal cues and notice when someone is having a rough day or is unusually quiet. "That's a team that you feel like is there for you, and you want to show up for them," says Duhigg. "It makes it easy to show up for every run or workout when you know there are people waiting that really care about you."