Hack the Brain, Move the Body


The autumnal season is probably the worst 25% of the year for outdoor folk. While Summer and Winter both have clear ideas of what we can do to get outside, and Spring at least has an overlap of a ski/bike season, there’s always a mental slump when it comes to Fall. The rain is cold and constant, and when the options are a) getting up early to go for a wet run, or b) having a second helping of breakfast, and returning to your book in bed, the latter can tend to take precedence. Once in a while is ok, especially when the weather is lashing down from the heavens, but too often and you risk looking less like Han Solo (or Leia) and more like Jabba the Hutt. And maybe it’s just my projection, but Jabba does not look like a particularly agile skier.

A sexy beast, perhaps, but no skier.
A sexy beast, perhaps, but no skier.

So how to break the cycle of running out the door and away from your couch? Enter Science.  In 1927, Bluma Zeigarnik, along with a group of fellow university students, visited a restaurant in Berlin. The waiter, despite the large party and special requests, neglected to write any of the orders down, yet to the group’s surprise, everything arrived as expected – that is, perfectly.

Later that afternoon, Zeigarnik realised she had left her scarf at the restaurant and so returned to find the same waiter. He met her with a blank stare, as though he had never met her before. Indeed, the waiter had no idea about any scarf.  “How can you have forgotten” she asked him incredulously. “Especially with your super memory!” The waiter replied matter-of-factly: “I keep every order in my head – until it is served.”

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The so-called Zeigarnik effect is more to do with the waiter than the Russian psychologist. In their book, Social Psychology and Human Nature, Roy Baumeister and Brad J. Bushman describe the Zeigarnik Effect as “the tendency to experience intrusive thoughts about an objective that was once pursued and left incomplete”.

Simply put, human beings are likely to complete a task or a habit if it has been started.  Many years after, a study was conducted where participants were  asked to solve a difficult puzzle, then were interrupted halfway through, being told the study was over. Almost 90% of the participants continued to solve the puzzle without the perceived motivator (the study) being present.

What does this have to do with eating cake for breakfast and binge-watching Archer? Simple. By making it easy to start a new habit, it’s easy to follow through to complete said habit.  For example, to go for a bike ride in the cold around the park, you have to get up early, put on your gear, get your bike out of storage, bike (or drive) to your preferred bike area, then exercise, do it all in reverse, and only then continue on with beginning your day.

Tempting, right?
Tempting, right?


The trick with the Zeigarnik effect is to make it the beginning of your day – to make it so easy to do, it’s almost harder to say no. You can do this by not thinking about the routine part of the habit loop (exercise), but to commit to the pre-requisite action in the sequence. In the above instance, you could put your outdoor gear by your bedroom door, thereby forcing you to move it before leaving the room… You may as well put it on, right? Then, maybe the night before, you put the bike at your front door… Well, you’ll have to put it away anyway, may as well go for a spin.

Soon enough, it will become part of your day, and you’ll feel uncomfortable not doing it, incomplete if something interrupts your routine.

So get on out there – the snow’s a-comin’, and every morning out in the cold will remind you that your legs will be far more use to you when they’re toned.