It’s been just over a month since I completed my first marathon. One thing has become clear to me during this time:
I’m not very good at running just for the sake of it.
Many people talk about a low after achieving a goal in athletics. I haven’t been feeling down, but I have found myself wondering what is next. Do I keep running long distances? Or longer runs (marathons aren’t that big of a deal in our age when so many people are doing ultra marathons in extreme climates)? Get into running with groups? Focus on speed? I’ve spent several weeks feeling unsure about the entire topic.
But what I’ve realized is that I enjoy the sport a lot less when I don’t have a goal to focus on.
A big part of my enjoyment in running has come from having a mark to aim for and getting closer to it each time I lace up the shoes. This is probably why I enjoy Strava so much — the stats are a big part of my running experience.
So now I have decided on some goals — improving my personal bests at several lengths:
5KM < 20 mins (less than 4 mins per KM)
10 KM < 42 mins
21.1 KM < 90 mins (half marathon)
I’m excited to get back to running with a specific purpose in mind. But the past month also allowed me to think about the sport overall and what I get from it. And I wanted to share with you a lot of what I’ve been reading and pondering.
To autopause or not to autopause
Related to my goals, one thing I have started to wonder about is the merit (or lack thereof) of using the Auto-Pause feature in Strava.
Early in my running “career”, I discovered this feature and loved how it worked. As I’ve always been into the stats of running, I hated to increase my time while waiting for a traffic light or for the dog to do her business. I would often pull my phone out of my pocket and hit pause in those scenarios. In comparison, Auto-Pause was wonderful — it accurately stops recording once I stop running and starts again once I resume.
And that worked great for my early runs of 5–15 KMs.
But once I started getting into longer distances, say anything over 15 KMs, I realized this feature can be a little deceitful. As I started to train for a marathon, my runs over 21 KM (half marathon) would often include stops. Sometimes you need to do your business, sometimes you just need a breather, and I struggle to take in carbs while on the run (whether in liquid, gel, or semi-solid form).
I started to wonder what other runners do with timing. Maybe more people aren’t preoccupied with their pace like I am? But eventually, I noticed that Strava itself tracks two different times for your activities: moving time and elapsed time.
You can see here that my running time was 1 min 32 secs faster than the actual elapsed time. And while the activity stats use the run time, Strava uses the elapsed time to track your personal bests and any monthly challenges you’ve joined.
And this makes sense. The runner who runs 10KM, takes a 15 minute break, then runs another 10 KM, should not have her stats compete with the runner who runs 20 KM straight.
The result? I still use the feature on my shorter runs when I’m in town or running with the dog or a family member. But on my long runs, I began to turn it off this spring so I could have a more accurate reflection of my performance during the run.
The social aspects of running
Strava has become my favorite social media tool. It’s a community where everyone is working towards something and rather than put each other down, people are lifting each other up. I find myself opening the app on occasion just to see what my fellow athletes have been up to.
But running itself? While I have enjoyed the social aspects of sharing my runs and discussing training techniques, I have not yet embraced the “running group”. You have likely seen these in your own town, ten or fifteen people running together down the side of the road. I live in a town with quite a number of groups but have never made an effort to join.
There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that I’m almost always focused on running quickly. Not always my top speed, but fast enough that conversation is not an option. Second, running is a solace for me. As a father of four who works all day with various communication tools on (Slack, Basecamp, email etc), I go for a run to get away from the noise and spend time in my head (as Ryan Holiday describes above).
Running is a time to think through problems, to meditate, or to come up with outlines for articles or classes. And I cherish the solitude.
However, I do think there is a place for running with others. Specifically for trail running. Last year, the majority of my running was on trails. I would take the dog and leave the road behind without a second thought. This year, as I focused more on distances and pace, I spent almost all my time on the road. And now when I want to hit a new trail, I’m a little hesitant to do so alone (thanks in no small part to an article I read about a fellow hiking the Appalachian trail that I can cannot seem to find, but… bears are the real deal around here).
I’ve had a few invitations to go for a run with people, both those I know IRL and those from Strava that live in my town. It might be time to accept a few of those…
Back to my goals. As I look back on my running over the past two years, I realize that the most enjoying times were in the 10–21 KM range. I quite enjoy the half marathon and improving on my performances for those distances (5, 10, 21 KM).
But when I was training for the marathon, runs over 25 KM were really just a grind. A focus on survival. While I appreciate having done it — and I may do another marathon at some point — I find more pleasure in running faster than running farther. And while I appreciate the tenacity of ultra-runners, I don’t feel any pull to join them in their efforts.
So, for now, I’ll focus on improving my speeds. But also to learn to get on the road and slow down and just enjoy the pleasure of putting one foot in front of the other. Those two goals are somewhat at odds, so I also look forward to the challenge of taking both on at the same time.
Way back when I first started using Strava, I came across this excellent post on Reddit by Jimmy Daly (not a source I link to often … Reddit, that is). In it, he describes how he exported all his Strava runs to Airtable and uses IFTTT to add any new ones (his base is listed here).
I am perpetually dissatisfied with training logs. For years, I used notebooks, then Google Spreadsheets and more recently have relied on Strava to track all my runs. And as great as Strava is, there are a few things that really bug me:
You can't categorize your runs (long run, intervals, hills, etc.)
You can't easily filter out important runs (like races)
You have to pay for some basic features (like training plans)
I love my Garmin and I love Strava, but I wanted a better way to track and analyze all the data, so I've been working on a better training log using Airtable. I used the Strava API to import a few years of running into Airtable, then started slicing and dicing. I then setup IFTTT to send new runs from Strava to Airtable.
I immediately loved the idea and started to test it out myself. Unfortunately, I could never get the IFTTT applet to work: it always errors out. And when this scenario happens, you quickly learn how bad of an experience IFTTT can be when your services do not play nicely together.
After several attempts over a few months, I gave up on the idea. But it kept coming back to me, specifically because of the second reason he mentions here. It’s a pain in the butt to find my PRs.
So I finally started from scratch building my own running log.
I had to sit down and ask myself what I wanted from such a thing. I came up with the following:
The ability to review all my runs and sort them by various criteria
To quickly see my PRs in different lengths
To track my goals and see progress for each
To have runs where I establish a new PR automatically populate a Day One entry
To track how I feel for any run where I want to make a note of it
Ideally, this is all populated automatically (except for the parts that have to be manually)
At this point, I have two IFTTT recipes for my runs. One populates an entry in my Day One running journal. The other adds a task to my Things inbox to log the run. I still cannot get Airtable to take my activities from Strava via IFTTT and contacting IFTTT support was not any help.
But since I have to manually add some information anyway, taking five minutes 3–4 times per week is not a problem. It's not perfect yet (it's not automated at all and I do not track my goals in it), but it's far better than searching through all my activities in Strava.
Can our digital tools help build habits?
Well, sure they can. I’ve mentioned several times here how I use a combination of paper and digital tools for journalling. And a big part of my journalling is tracking the activities that I want to turn into regular habits. That has been taking place on paper for me.
But I was recently intrigued by what Google has been doing with Calendar. If you use Google Calendar on your computer, you may not have seen what I’m referring to. An old post from David Kadavy recently resurfaced in my Medium feed (things must be slow). Titled What I Learned About Productivity While Working on Google Cal, he shares about Google’s acquisition of Timeful and how they were incorporating these features into Google Calendar. It caught my attention when I first read it and did so again.
The catch? These features have not been added to all versions of Google Calendar. Just on mobile.
The key feature is goals. On the mobile app, you can add 4 types of items to your calendar: events, reminders, goals, or an out of office period. Three of these are quite self-explanatory.
But the goals option is unique. With it, you can choose an activity you want to incorporate into your life on a regular basis. You tell the app how often you want to do it and for how long. It then finds spots in your calendar where the activity will fit.
I’ve enjoyed letting the app choose the days and times when I run. As I tend to look at my weekly schedule (usually a part of my weekly review) and pick 3–5 times myself, letting the machine do that for me has been a time saver. It’s just one less thing I need to do.
But what about when it chooses a time that doesn’t fit? This is what has made the tool a good experience for me so far.
First, I’m pretty flexible. So when I see that I have a run scheduled for the day, I don’t have to think about it much. If it’s a work day, I know it will happen around midday: I run on my lunch break and the exact time depends on booked meetings or my energy levels on meeting-less days.
Second, since the app itself can integrate with iOS’s Health app, I can just forget about the time. If GoogleCalendar chooses 8–9 AM for my run, I can run whenever I want, and the app adjusts itself accordingly.
You can see here that I ran around 12–1 PM. But while the event itself was originally scheduled for 8–9 AM, the integration ensures things are updated to reflect reality. And without me having to do anything. That’s a good experience.
Last, the app is supposed to learn from your tendencies over time and get better at picking those spots. I haven’t been using it long enough for that to happen, but based on the early experience, I’m betting it does this well.
So, can our apps help us build habits? Well, without the internal desire, no. But if you have a desire to change, then yes. By removing some friction and being adaptable, digital tools can help. I’m a big fan of Fantastical (it’s a great app and nicely ties together all my calendars from various sources), but I’ve been using both tools over the past few weeks.
I don’t see that changing any time soon.
3 ways to make the journaling habit stick
My most read piece on Medium is How I Journal. Since writing that, I’ve received a lot of questions about my journal, Day One, and how I put it all together. But there is one question that comes up more than all the others.
How can I start journaling and make the habit stick?
A lot of people see the value of keeping a journal, but struggle to fully adopt the habit. It’s very easy to try out an app like Day One, add several entries over a week, then forget all about it for a month. The world is full of empty paper journals with a couple of notes scratched into the first 3–4 pages.
So how does one adopt this habit?
There are plenty of good articles on this topic. And people like James Clear spend a lot of time talking about how to start a new habit. But as someone who has struggled with journaling regularly, I can share you with you what has helped me make this an almost daily occurrence.
If you do not journal at all, envisioning yourself suddenly scribbling 800 words per day is not realistic. The best way to start journaling (or any other habit) is to start small.
This could mean a quick couple of lines at the end of your work day to sum up what you did. This would also apply at the end of the day before you go to bed, but you write about anything in life. Or it could mean adding a couple of images of your kids to an app like Day One without any commentary.
The important thing is to get started and to get some entries into whatever tool you’re going to use.
One great way to achieve this very goal is to use some automation. There are activities you perform every day that can make good journal entries.
The perfect example for me is my reading journal. I have 5 journals in Day One, one of which is where I put quotes that resonated with me. I sometimes take pictures of a physical book I’m reading, but most of the entries are populated automatically without any work from me.
Using tools like IFTTT, I can populate my journal based on my reading habits. When I read an article in Instapaper, I can highlight sentences that I enjoy the most. A few minutes later, that highlight is added to Day One by an IFTTT recipe.
I’ve done the same with my runs in Strava or my daily Fitbit summaries. The options are vast: your posts to Instagram, your tweets, posts to your blog.
With workflows like this, I’m building up a library of information that is of interest to me, but with no effort required on my part.
Review your entries
As I mentioned above, I have struggled myself to adopt the habit of journaling consistently. From 2012 to 2014, I wrote a lot of manual journal entries in Day One as a part of my morning routine. For whatever reason, I dropped that habit in the years after.
I still had Day One on all my devices. And when special occasions took place, I would tend to make a note or add some pictures. But I was not writing regular daily entries.
However, I was seeing the On This Day banner in Day One.
And it was this banner that helped me see the value of keeping a journal. Every time I opened the app, I could see the 3–4 entries that had been written over the years on this specific day. The nostalgia from these captured thoughts and events immediately showed me how wonderful it is to have a repository for things your mind has forgotten about. Not every entry brings this feeling, but there’s value in the mundane daily activities as well as the special moments.
It’s all gold.
Over the past 3–4 years, I’ve persisted in increasing my use of a journal based largely on the value I’ve gotten from regularly reviewing my journal entries from the past. This is why starting small and using automation is so vital: you simply need to get some entries in there to see the value.
This is why building habits is hard. The return on the investment can take time. Even with Day One, you’d have to create a few entries and wait one year to see the value using On This Day.
So in order to see the value more quickly than that, force yourself to add some short entries, add some automation, then ensure you take some time to review what you’ve added.
Why Day One is so effective
I’ve mentioned the app enough times here already, but it’s worth pointing out why it’s so good. But let me state it plainly.
Day One makes it easy to get started, enables some nifty automated workflows, and even works well if you prefer a paper journal.
How I Journal now is a mix of paper and digital entries. But they’re all in Day One. When I sit down for morning devotions, my journaling starts in paper. But I always snap a picture of my notebook in a Day One entry. And my weekly review habit is also on paper, but each week also exists in Day One.
It's really the best option.
And that's how I've been able to keep journaling a regular part of my life over the last 8 years.
The Doist team continues to put out good content about topics that interest me. Single-tasking is the focus of this one and while they do not make any surprising points, it’s a great summary of why this is an important habit to develop.
They do give one tip that I personally don’t agree with: using multiple spaces on the desktop (a macOS feature).
I limit myself to four desktops only: one for communication windows (Gmail, Slack, Todoist, Sunrise Calendar) and the other three for the windows associated with different projects I plan to work on that day. I add a different background to each desktop so I know exactly which task I’m focusing on at any given time. I’ve found that this decreases the likelihood that I’ll switch tasks mid-way into working on something else.
I find this made things worse for me. CMD+Tab is already problematic enough. Switching between Spaces is even more of a time-waster. When I used them, I also attempted to give different Spaces a different purpose. But I would just end up switching around at all times. For me, full screen apps enables better behaviour.
The Power of Regular Reviews
I’ve written about the value of regular weekly reviews before, even going back as far as 2008. It’s a key part of GTD or any other type of system you use to keep yourself organized. If you have a system that is not reviewed (and regularly), then you have a system you don’t fully trust because you can’t be sure that what’s in it is up-to-date and accurate.
Open loops are killer, yo!
After a lot of years of inconsistent weekly reviews, my using a paper notebook improved over the last two years enough so that this is now a regular habit. However, I’m finding value these days in even more frequent reviews.
The weekly review is great for reviewing the whole picture and envisioning what a successful week would look like. You pull out 3–4 bigger goals you want to accomplish. But if you wait until the next week before you look at this once more, it’s very easy to get lost in the details and to miss your mark.
But if you take time to do smaller reviews, it’s a lot easier to ensure that your week does not slip away from you. And while any habit can be hard to adopt, daily reviews are quick and easy enough that they’re easier than making some big change.
Taking 10–15 minutes at the end of each day can bring a lot of peace of mind to your following morning.
One of the nice aspects of Things is the Anytime list. It shows you all tasks listed by Area of Responsibility and Project. You can quickly scan this list (quickly is relative — the time required is dependent on how many projects/tasks you have in there) to plan what to work on the next day.
Until recently, I did not make much use of the Anytime list and it’s been a wonderful addition to my workflow. And if you have a smart (yet simple) system of tags (review this article for an example of tagging in this manner), your can very quickly narrow down the Anytime to list to get to the important stuff.
As I go through my day, I send items to the Things Inbox. Towards the end of the day, I then open Things and process that Inbox. From there, I also review the Anytime list and see what items might fit well for my following day.
Again, this is not a long process — it’s nothing like a weekly review. But there is a lot of peace in taking a few minutes to check back in with my weekly review and ensure I’m still moving towards the goals I came into the week with.