Touching the treadmill



Are there things you want to get better at but haven’t made much progress?

Here are a few from my life list:

  • Play the piano
  • Speak another language
  • Dance ballroom-style
  • Do yoga (and have the lean, flexible body that comes with it)

Some of these learning goals have been on my list for decades, and I haven’t gotten very far.

Yet I’m optimistic that I’ll do all of these soon because I recently discovered a simple trick that’s changed how I think about change. Maybe it can help you, too.

“Touch the treadmill”

Getting started

Getting started

As a life coach, Martha Beck routinely works with people who have personal development goals but feel unable to make meaningful progress.

“I want to get in shape”, for example, is a common goal. But that seemingly simple, practical goal can be problematic for several reasons. We may have negative associations with the effort required to get in shape. (“Ugh. I hate exercise.”) We may not believe we’re capable. (“I’m not an exercise person.”) We may not have the knowledge or the environment we need. (“I just don’t have the time!”)

Any of these is enough to stop us from making much progress. Combined, you won’t get off the couch. What Martha Beck taught me was to break down the goal and begin with a small step so simple that it verges on ridiculous.

Can’t go for a run 4 times a week for an hour? Try once a week. Still too much? Go for 5 minutes. Not working for you? Walk to the treadmill and touch it. Every day.

Martha’s 2013 New Year’s resolution wasn’t “Get in Shape” but “go out to the barn where the exercise equipment is sitting and go touch it.”  Here’s a 23-second video of her fulfilling that resolution. Success!

Why it works

What the brain sees when it sees change

What the brain sees when it sees change

While touching the treadmill won’t improve your cardio-vascular function, it will make it possible to bypass your hard-wired aversion to change.

In a recent talk at Jiveworld, Dr. Eddie Obeng described change and our reaction to it in evolutionary terms. Early in the history of human beings, major changes were a threat.  When we’d see a saber-toothed tiger, the blood would flow to the base of our brain that regulates our fight-or-flight mechanisms. And the thinking parts would practically shut off.

Even today, when faced with big, audacious goals, our bodies react that same way. Seth Godin refers to it as the “lizard brain”. Steven Pressfield calls it the “resistance”. It’s a common and natural reaction to change.

The more evolved part of your brain really does want you to achieve your goals – to develop new capabilities that can make life richer (and longer). But the part of our brains we carry with us from long ago is trying to protect us. So we have to re-frame our goals in ways that make them less scary and don’t activate that fight or flight mechanism.

Re-framing anything

What change could be

What change could be

Here, for example, is how I’m trying to eliminate the fear and anxiety associated with my own learning goals.

Want to play piano? Sit at the piano and play a scale each day for a minute.

Do yoga? Do the child pose (the easy one that I like) each morning.

Get better at Japanese? Sit with my daughter and do her 1st-grade Japanese homework together.

The basic idea isn’t new, of course. It’s why we have cliches like “Nothing breeds success like success” andThe hardest part of any journey is the first step”.

But for so many of us, we never start. So if you find you’re avoiding your goal, keep breaking it down until it’s simple and fear-free – even to the point where it seems ridiculous. By transforming your goals from saber-toothed tiger food into small, achievable steps that are easy and appealing, you’ll greatly increase your chances of making progress.

Want to develop a new skill or habit? Touch the treadmill. Change your life.

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
This entry was posted in Self awareness and improvement and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Touching the treadmill

  1. Alex says:

    I do this! I love writing, it’s starting that’s hard (Steve said that to me once – it’s hard to start doing something) so I sneak up on it. I write a to do list and tell myself to do the easy parts first. and by the time I’ve completed the three easy things I’m into the project and can work 9 hours a day. And I need to because I’m in school for UCLA Screenwriting. And I have a day job and sailboat racing. But it works! I just need to start and then I’m a go. I’ve been doing that for years as a playwright. Screenwriting is harder! Now if I could only do this to keep my apartment neat.

    • John Stepper says:


      It’s fantastic that you’re writing more!

      I find even simple goals like flossing or cleaning the apartment (my closet!) are easier to reach when I sneak up on them. 🙂

      Up to 1-2 times a week doing yoga. Progress!

  2. Irene Johansen says:

    This is so cool. I “touched the treadmill”, just a few days ago. I started a “Lean Thinking” open group on our intranet site. I wasn’t sure what would happen. I had the excuse to create the closed site, for the people piloting lean in the company, but I was afraid to share with the whole company, for many many reasons that I don’t need to go into. Instead of trying to put all kinds of “stuff” out there, wow people, etc., I just opened the door and offered the place to explore. Today, on looking: 6 members, two good questions. That led to a forum on tools (with only one simple post – I don’t want to overwhelm them!). Here’s to getting started and keeping it simple!

  3. hmaitland says:

    Hey John. Great post!

    I like to set goals and, like you advised, I like to break them down into very attainable mini-goals. Actually, some of my friends and colleagues laugh at me because of the utter “smallness” of my mini-goals that I check off as I complete. I don’t mind, however, because I like to make people laugh! 🙂

    I like to start with large, life goals (the saber-tooth tiger type, I guess). For example, I’ll set a goal like, “I am fit into my old age and able to enjoy activities such as hiking.” Then I’ll break this down into an annual level goal – something like, “By the end of the year, I have run two 10 KM races, hiked 5 times, generally ran more consistently and have less pain in my knee.” Then I set the mini-goals, which are usually weekly. For example, a mini-goal would be to run two times during a week, research and sign up for an upcoming race or stretch my knee for 10 minutes once a week. Small, not scary, totally doable. Doing it this way makes me feel like the goals are achievable and that I am moving towards my larger life goals.

    We should more explicitly talk and teach people about goal setting. It is not for everyone, for sure – some personality types are more into goals than others. But I think there are many who feel stuck simply because they have never learned about effective goal setting. As you wrote, the goals always seem to be too saber-tooth tiger-like to tackle.

    Thanks again for the post.

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