My Two Week Rule

My Two Week Rule

I’ve been chatting with a long-time friend about exercising and other life goals we’re working toward. She and I are both working on defining our practices and getting healthier. So the deal is to report to each other how things are going so we can keep track of each other’s progress. It just seemed like a good idea at the time. I find that communicating what we’re doing really helps focus our energies.

One of my friend’s goals is to regain the strength she lost after recovering from a car accident. She just wrote me to say after two weeks of exercising, she feels noticeably stronger and was able to walk for a much greater distance than she could before. Fantastic! I was noticing something similar myself; I’ve been doing some exercises at home in the “crunch” and “pushup” variety, getting used to the idea of sweating and resistance. It’s also been about two weeks, and while I haven’t lost any weight, I appear to have gained some muscle. I also noticed that my posture is a bit better from having a stronger stomach. I’m still swaddled in a soft layer of lard, but underneath that is the beginnings of actual muscle. I’m starting to see veins that weren’t there before. I’m absolutely astonished that my body can change without the application of technology; I of course knew this in the abstract, but seeing it actually happen is very cool and a little freaky. It just took two weeks.

You can probably guess where I’m going with this: two weeks seems to be a good “medium term” passage of time to wait before assessing results. It’s sort of a companion to the two minute rule from Getting Things Done. If you’re not familiar with the two minute rule, it’s applied when you’re going through your “in-box” of stuff you need to do. You take an item from the in-box and assess it. If it’s something you can do in under two minutes, you just do it. It’s amazing how productive this mentality is; before, I used to “cherry pick” the “important” tasks first, and this just lead to gridlock.

Two Weeks is Just Long Enough

I’m not a big fan of waiting, though now that I’ve become re-aware of the need to parent myself I’m better at sticking to it. Still, waiting for something to happen can be demotivating in itself. What transforms this from suckage to excitement is when you’re guaranteed something in return for your pain.

For tasks like dieting, exercising, and even technical activities like learning 3D modeling and programming, the transformations are not immediately obvious until some time has passed, and until that happens we have no real idea about the outcome. For the newbie exerciser / dieter, there’s the hope that something good will happen, but we really have no idea what it’s really going to be like. And our end-goal probably is many months out…even more depressing! And maybe, we’ve tried this before and we didn’t finish. We feel like we’ve wasted our time, and the next time we try takes a LOT more energy. That’s where teachers and trainers come in: a great one will know that this is what you’re going through, and be able to point out the things that you’re doing that you couldn’t do before.

In the absence of having a trainer, I’m postulating the following exercise rule for myself:

  1. When I exercise, I must perform to the point of muscle exhaustion. If I haven’t pushed myself through the “argh, I want to stop” barrier at least 3 times, I’m not done. If I’m not pleasantly sore the next day, then I need to push a little harder until I do. That will build muscle.

  2. After two weeks have gone by, assess progress. How’s the weight? How do I feel? Can I open bottles more easily? Try something new that is in the problem domain and see how it feels.

Of course, one can make assessments like that all the time. My point, though, is that you can start the two-week cycle of expectation yourself before you start. If you’ve picked a good metric to guide you during those two weeks, then you’re guaranteed to have results. I think there might be something special about the two-week cycle. There’s a word for it in English (the fortnight). Vacations start at two weeks; anything less feels like a rip-off. This might be the minimum period of time for a more serious commitment, or maybe there’s a natural body adaptation cycle that triggers after about 14 days. I’ve heard the idea that it takes 21 days to establish a habit; I’d be curious to know the psychological or neurological basis for that.

The No-Money-Back Guarantee

Like all tightly-drafted guarantees, this one says that if you don’t do what you know you are responsible for, the guarantee is null and void.That’s why it’s important to have a tangible metric and be uncompromisingly true to it. By tangible, I mean something you can experience and count. You either did it, or you didn’t. If you cheat, you cheat yourself out of the prize. With the exercise thing, if I don’t push myself past that “gaaaAAaahh I think I should stop” place, I know I’m not going to have appreciable results. If I am not sore the next day, I know I haven’t worked the muscles to the point that they are rebuilding. I could make a Concrete Goals Tracker chart for this if I were more organized about this, but I think I have a simple-enough metric that I don’t need to.

Concluding Thoughts

I’m not saying anything earth-shattering here:
  • Have an activity you know works toward your goal in a measurable, countable way. And also know when you have NOT done what you should have. This is where having an expert around is helpful.

  • After two weeks of practicing the above on a daily or otherwise appropriate basis, look back at what you’ve done, and just be aware of what you’re doing now. You should notice some kind of change, if you’ve really done what you said you would.

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p>While I had this thought just with exercise, it would be applicable to any goal that requires training instead of thinking. Activities that fall into this category are dancing, drawing, singing, sports, listening, speaking…heck, everything falls into this category. Duh, this is the fundamental idea of practice makes perfect.

In the past I’ve gotten away with thinking most of the time, and I’ve evolved a lot of personal tricks to do this fairly efficiently. I have trouble learning when I don’t know the underlying theory. I’m especially turned off when faced with an authoritarian teacher/coach/trainer that can’t fully navigate the spectrum of theory and practice for their own field. Now that I’ve had this realization, I can understand their frustration: they knew that practice led up to mastery, it was so obvious to them. I can even understand why they thought I was stupid. I just couldn’t see their point until now, because I’ve been mindful of how my body adapts, and it’s pretty amazing that bodies can do that. Everything else I’ve learned has worked “in-the-head”: graphics, writing, programming, 3D, for example. I can get by on pure brainpower in these areas because my eye is relatively sharp, but I probably will never be as smooth and fast as I’d like without a lot of practice.

So the takeaway for me is to, again, consider whether or not I should be thinking or training, and don’t let them get too mixed up together in my activities. This is turning out to be a major summer theme.

9 Comments

  1. Larry Myers 16 years ago

    David,

    I’d also like to suggest that people should try to stick with something for at least 2-3 weeks before quitting due to the fact that it takes around 21 days to form a habit.

    It definitely took me that long to make going to the gym something I had to motivate myself to do to just something that was worked into my schedule and seemed normal.

    ——-

  2. Lauren Muney 16 years ago

    Yes! Two weeks is a little soon to see changes, but this means that you are a genetic natural. This means that when you do a full program and also start eating healthier, you’ll make great changes!!

    And, reading your “While I had this thought just with exercise, it would be applicable to any goal that requires training instead of thinking” statement, you finally realize the concept of the mind/body connection… sometimes you have to simply DO the thing (zen!) and not think about it—yet.

    I’m rootin’ for you, David!

    fitness, wellness, and executive coach,
    Lauren

  3. Robert 'Groby' Blum 16 years ago

    I recommend at least reading a good book on exercise if you’re not willing to go for coaching.

    Simply pushing to muscle exhaustion is not necessarily a good plan. In fact, depending on the weights you work with, you might be setting yourself up for an injury. (I did get some sort of an education in this, since I was a professional dancer and dance coach. But don’t take my word for it – research it for yourself)

    Apart from that, thanks for your continuously great posts!

  4. Bill Busen 16 years ago

    From my own distance training program, lost in the mists of time, I recall that you should alternate hard and easy days.  You get stronger while you are resting after exercising, not while you are exercising; the exercise does nothing but warn your system to rebuild stronger during your resting.  Hard day after hard day after hard day leads to burnout or injury.

  5. Sam Browning 16 years ago

    As the above people have commented, I’m of the understanding you should have a few break days each week for the body to recover and rebuild etc. But the “pushing past the I’m dying I should stop point” is also true, as that shows you’re pushing the muscles past their limit so they know to get stronger sorta thing.

    Steve Pavlina suggests a 30 day trial for trying to start habits, to “test drive” the habit.. not directly in line with the 2 week rule, but 21 day habit cycle was mentioned a few times so I thought I’d post this incase it’s of interest:
    http://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/2005/04/30-days-to-success/

  6. Rob Dubas 16 years ago

    Dave,
    Really interesting post!  Actually, I’ve noticed that 3 months seems a good time period for longish term goals.  For myself, thinking anything longer than that is too frightening!

    The exercise routine I’ve been following, “Body for Life,” is in 3 month increments.  I also noticed that as I’ve been focusing on developing better work habits, 3 months was about all it took before the goal became a habit and I lost motivation for working on it.  I still continued doing it because it was a habit now, it just wasn’t as exciting anymore.

    Breaking things down into smaller chunks is essential too- I’ve been trying it monthly goals.  Never tried 2 weeks as a time period though, but what you say makes a lot of sense.

  7. CharlesOS 16 years ago

    David,
    Following on from what has already been said – minimum time for a trial is one month, 2 weeks is the minimum to start getting into your stride not to see results.
    Hard exercise breaks down muscle, the rest days rebuild it stronger than before.
    From a weight perspective muscle is heavier than fat so your weight may actually increase but so should your fitness and as muscle tones and gets back into shape you should start to look physically better (more in shape).
    Coninued exercise and controlled (reduced but don’t overdo it – change to more fruit veg, etc) diet will mean weight loss but that takes a little while to achieve. You have to be fit enough to maintain 1/2 hour exercise at 60% effort for fat burn.
    When you do get fit and are training regularly it takes approx a month to completely lose your fitness.
    Keep it up its worth it

    Charles

  8. Dave Seah 16 years ago

    Thanks for all the advice, everyone! I do have a few books on this, so I’m not just thrashing myself blindly or pushing myself too hard. The big insight I had was that when my muscles start to feel like they’re tightening up, that this was something to push THROUGH, not an indication to stop :-) I had up to then assumed that the sensation meant something was wrong.

    I might not be seeing results after 2 weeks, but certainly I am noticing that I can do MORE of these reptitions than when I started. Keep in mind that I was starting from practically nothing: I could barely do 2 or 3 crunches, not even knowing what they were supposed to be like, and now I can certainly do more of them. Mostly I am noticing an increase in stamina, and I am actually learning to enjoy the sensation of making my muscles do things. They haven’t had a lot to do before.

    I’m still quite round, but these small things are very encouraging, and it’s enough to keep me thinking positively about the experience.

  9. Mark Hutton 16 years ago

    Hi David,

    Interesting and insightful post – just wanted to comment on the exercise portion of it..

    Hopefully you’re still at it and will continue to progress, just wanted to inform you of a resource myself and a few friends have made to help beginners et al with exercise technique.

    It’s an exercise encyclopedia.  Basically you click the muscle you’re interested in and you’ll be taken to a list of possible exercises.. each one then links on to a video with instruction

    Hopefully it will be of some use to you :)