Habits: On Starting Walking and Biking

*This post was originally published on our family bike blog, Carfreedays

Happy New YearThe tree came down weeks ago and 2013 is already in full swing. I know I’m a bit late, but I forgot to wish you all a Happy New Year. Happy New Year, everyone! (just trying to keep the party going a little bit longer) Whoo-hoo!!!

Did you make any resolutions? Sticking to them? This is about the time of year that most resolutions fizzle out. I don’t know about you, but I’m with the 30 percent of people who break their resolutions by the end of January.

Two of mine are totally busted and the third is merely hanging on by threads:

  1. Learn and practice Spanish for 30 minutes every day. Oops, it’s been weeks since I logged on to my Livemocha account
  2. Do the Primal Workout every day. Yeah, I ran like Grok once, and did a few wall squats. But daily workouts? Busted!
  3. Write every day. I’ve been better about that, but I can’t say I do it every single day.

There’s a reason habits and resolutions are such a hot topic every year: we really, really, really want to change, but our pesky bad behaviors are difficult to break, and new routines are hard to stick to!

I should have made a book-related resolution and maybe I’d have a better track record to show for the new year. When it’s cold and dark and wet outside, reading holds more appeal than sprinting or squatting or push ups or most anything for that matter. Curling up with a soft blankie and a big stack of books? My way to endure the winter months.

Since the New Year, I’ve read Daniel Pink’s Drive, Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, and Mark’s Daily Apple Primal Workout post (I even sat on the couch and watched some of his YouTube videos to learn how to do the workouts. Bonus: watching someone primal fit running on the beach is H-O-T). I also just finished Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. (Great book about improving writing skills and getting into a writing habit).

After a month of reading, I now understand why my friend, Carrie wanted to start a competitive reading club starting in high school and continuing on into adulthood. Think adult-league soccer, but with books and wine. I’m on a tear: If a reading competition was held this month, surely I’d be in the running for some kind of medal.

But this whole habit thing isn’t meant to be a total downer. Sometimes they take, and sometimes they don’t. And when they don’t you just have to try again. But for now I’m going to put Spanish and the hot-beach-running thing on hold for a minute and celebrate an ongoing success . Six years ago I broke my bad car habit!

The Bike Trip to the Store That Changed Everything

How did I break that driving habit? It’s hard to remember all the details, but I do remember a pivotal moment/day six years ago when my biking habit began. Some memories of that day are crystal clear, others are a bit fuzzy: the sun was definitely shining, it was Spring of 2007, Tim was in his last quarter of graduate school and not home much, but he was home that day.

IMG_0144This entire scene played out during the kids’ nap time, probably on a weekend.  With two young kids at home 80% of the time, and a husband in graduate school and working, I was in full survival mode. I absolutely loathed grocery shopping with the kids: some of those bad-grocery-shopping-memories are still painful. The shame, the embarrassment. Like the time the kids were so rotten, I abandoned a full cart of food in the store and walked out, dragging both kids behind me. “Don’t mess with me kids, I meant it when I said we were leaving if you did that again”. They’d often gang up on me, the two of them passing random junk food from the shelves to the cart while my back was turned, hoping I wouldn’t notice until home. Then they’d run away squealing like piglets, weaving through the crowd of startled shoppers.

Needless to say, I seized all opportunities to avoid dragging both little kids to the grocery store. When Tim was home, I went shopping by myself!

On this particular weekend day, I put the kids down for a nap (i.e. put them in their rooms and told them to be quiet, entertain themselves and not come out for an hour), grabbed my wallet and car keys, yelled to Tim that I’d be back in a 1/2 hour and jogged to the car parked in the driveway.

Tim caught up to me as I was clicking the car’s remote:

“If you’re just going to get a couple of things, why don’t you take your bike?”

I had no response (in words). Though in my head was growing annoyance and a little voice muttering curse words. I was so close, why did you have to follow me?  I don’t want to ride my bike, I just want to go. Why don’t you ride your bike?

I thought about ignoring Tim and taking the car anyway. But instead, mostly to get him off my back, I decided to try biking and prove to him that I could do it.

 I trudged to the basement, huffing and sighing along the way, hefted my dusty road bike off it’s basement hook, found the equally dusty pump and added air to the tires, found my Sidi’s and checked the toes for spiders before putting them on (because road bike = funny shoes and clipless pedals and dark basement = spiders), grabbed my helmet, a backpack and a lock and schlepped the bike up the basement stairs.

Phew! What a pain in the ass. It took so long to get ready that had I been driving I would have been home by now. Whatever. I hopped on the bike anyway and took off down the road.

And half-block from the house, my frown turned into a grin. Hey, this isn’t bad. It’s even kind of fun.

Maybe that’s why this particular day is so clear, I can still remember the wind on my face and the freedom I felt from that ride to the store. Am I 12-years-old again? This is so easy. Look! I can park right in front of the store!  And fun too! Wait, shopping can be fun? Man, why didn’t anyone tell me, I’ve been missing out.

Captain and "cargo" ControlsThe Xtracycles followed a few months later. Flat pedals made special shoes unnecessary, the built-in grocery-carrying bags freed me from the backpack, and lots of compartments holding locks and pumps and patch kits meant no scrambling every time I wanted to ride. Since my bike was always ready to go, eventually, after some practice, quick trips to the store on bikes became easy and actually,  you know, Quick. Within a few months, riding bikes was habit and the car languished in the driveway unused for days at a time.

The key motivator for me was desire. I really wanted to ride. But I’d been driving for so long that breaking those automatic-driving habits took time. And a little push.


In the past few weeks, we’ve been encouraged by the dialogue that followed  the post, Why we ride: Thoughts on Motivation. Many of you shared ideas about what motivates you to ride. From joy to “wheeeeeeee” to beating the bus home, you shared the multiple reasons so many of you ride. If you haven’t read the comments from that post, I’d encourage you to take a glance. I know I found myself smiling and nodding along as I read.

The Meat of the Post: Breaking Old Habits and Starting New Ones

So how do you take motivation, and turn it into a habit? Take some advice from Charles Duhigg’s book and start small. If you want to, you can develop new habits surrounding transportation choices.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and BusinessDriving short distances is a habit.  For many of us it’s automatic: we don’t have to think about how to fire up a car, back it out of a driveway and take off. We just do it. In her interview with Charles Duhigg about his book, The Power of HabitTerry Gross talks about the habit of driving and the scary feeling of arriving at a destination and realizing you have no recollection of the drive. Wait, I’m here already?, I don’t even remember driving here.  How many of you have done that? We grab the keys and our basal ganglia takes over. Our brain knows how to drive, we know our routes, what to expect along the way, how long it will take to get there, how to park the car. It’s all automatic.

The power of habit is not just a pop-culture phenomenon. Scientific studies have found the same results. This article from Science Magazine, Changing Human Behavior to Prevent Disease: The Importance of Targeting Automatic Processes, (this link is to the abstract, if you want to read the full text, ask your local reference librarian to dig you up a copy) explores the discovery that automatic processes are habitual:

…..habits, which are actions that occur in response to stimuli without necessarily bringing to mind the goal of that action. Habits are contrasted with goal-oriented behavior and form one class of automatic behavior. They become established by repetition and routine, their emergence being marked by measurable changes in brain circuits….

Interesting. Habits form based on repetition and routine. And forming habits changes our brain? Cool.

If we want to change habits, we must change routines. And keep at it. Instead of taking the elevator every day, force yourself to take the stairs one day. And then the next. Take the stairs every day. Pretty soon, you won’t even think about taking the elevator, you’ll become the chick who takes the stairs. Or start walking to school with your kids. Walk every day. Keep walking. Pretty soon, you’re the family that walks. You don’t even think about driving to school anymore. You are the walkers.

So, OK, we all know bad habits are breakable and new habits are startable. If we want to, we can change. People quit smoking and drinking and gambling and eating junk food and watching bad reality TV all the time. Well, maybe not reality TV.

In his book, Charles Duhigg recounts the steps he took to break his afternoon cookie habit. His wife told him he was getting fat. Who wants their spouse to think they’re fat? He traced his weight gain to the cookie he bought in the cafeteria at work every day at 3:30. He had to train himself to stop buying cookies every day (by first recognizing he had a cookie habit hen by forming a new 3:30 routine/habit to replace the cookie routine).  And he did this over and over and over again, until the new non-cookie-routine was his habit. Goodbye cookie, hello sexy Charles!

Clear enough? The only way to train yourself is to do it. And keep doing it until your brain is rewired and the new way becomes automatic.

So You Want to a Start Biking & Walking Habit?  A Few Tips:

When you’re starting out walking or riding bikes there are so  many unknowns:

  • What do I wear?
  • How long will it take to get there?
  • How do I lock my bike to a rack?
  • What do I do if I get a flat?

And then when you involve kids, the unknowns grow exponentially:

  • Will my kids whine?
  • What do I do if they don’t want to (walk, ride)?
  • What if they walk/ride so slow it makes me late?
  • What if they stop in the middle of the road and refuse to go any further?  (true story….this has happened to me a number of times. Meanwhile the other child keeps going)

Walking to School

If you know your kid is going to whine about walking up some hills in the rain, buy an umbrella and a good rain coat and prepare a canned response you’ll give when he/she complains. Such as, “a little rain doesn’t hurt us, we have rain coats and boots.” Or, “hills will make us strong, and fast lets start timing our walks and see if we can improve the time it takes to walk to school.” 

The key is not giving in. Kids will ask/demand that you drive them to school. And they will ask over and over and over again. If you want to break the driving habit, you must resist these requests, and insist on walking. After seven years of walking to school, my kids finally stopped asking if we could drive, because they know the answer will be No.

Bike Gear

To start a biking habit, you need some gear if you don’t already have it. We touched on some of this in our post about groceries:

  • Get a working bike that’s mechanically sound (with fenders, lights, a rack and some kind of bag/system to hold your “stuff”
  • a helmet
  • a lock
  • and clothing that will keep you comfortable for each season (nothing special, just rain gear, gloves in winter)

The key to making biking a habit is to ride. Just start riding and ride some more. Ride your regular route to the store or to work when you’re not rushed. When you arrive, practice locking up your bike. Practice, practice, practice. And keep practicing. Since you’re not trying to be a biking outlier, it won’t be necessary to practice for 10,000 hours before you feel comfortable, but give it a good month before you think about quitting.

Crowded RacksSoon biking/walking will be automatic, it will be difficult to remember why you thought any of it was a big deal. These days, I smile when I think about past frustrations with locking my bike. When I started riding, I really had no idea how to use a U Lock; locking to a rack took forever. Once, I even missed my whole bike, securely locking the lock to rack and nothing else.

Thankfully that’s all a distant memory and locking along with riding is pretty much automatic for me. Sometimes I even arrive and forget how I got there. Scary in a car and scary on a bike!

If you have thoughts about starting a walking or biking habit, please share them in the comments!

 – Anne

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