How I built a running habit (and the framework you can use for anything)

In a perfect world, we’d all be fit, hot and rich.

There’s no shortage of self-help books and programs, and the number of us who buy into that and never do anything don’t lag behind either.

I’ve been the person everyone knows to pant just sprinting 300 meters to catch the train.

My crappy stamina isn’t something I’m particularly proud of.

In 2019, I strapped on a new pair of running shoes and told myself that if I were to emigrate, I’d better learn to find things I enjoyed doing.

To start with, I’d run 1km up a steep hill. It worked. I panted a little, but things felt good. So I kept it at multiple 1km spurts for 8 weeks. 12 months flew by. In-between traveling, emigrating and life in general, my shoes were untouched.

Segue to Week 2, February 2020. I found myself running 2km at a go, without panting, on my first try. Gobsmacked, I decided to create a system to train myself up, based on how I’ve trained myself through other habits, and my clients.

In 4 weeks, I am proud to announce I easily hit 7.5km non-stop.

My friends are gobsmacked. I am a little stunned too. But we know the system’s always worked. It’s just a matter of tweaking it and actually getting off the couch to run.

Here’s a breakdown you can use for developing any habit.

Do it at the right time for you

I will never wake up at 5am to do anything, apart from take a plane. There’s no way I’ll wake up to run. Whilst people I know wake up at 4am to cook, I’m the person who stays up till 4am to finish prepping her feasts.

All this information isn’t frivolous, it’s data based on your personal patterns. Sticking to the delusion of waking up would mean I’d never run.

So I knew it’d have to be at night, between 9-11pm. Because I’d have let my dinner and serotonin overload settle down, and I generally feel energised in that time window.

Boot competing habits and schedule it in

I’m the sort of person who schedules in journalling and laundry, otherwise it’ll never get done. In a perfect world, there’s a zillion beneficial or fun things to do.

In reality, I’ll give myself loads of excuses. That can wait.

Especially if I’m not used to running. It’s not me, it’s human nature.

It’s inertia. Just google Newton’s First Law.

To run, I had to slash my dinners outside by 1-2 times a week, and watch for the urge to nap through that time frame.

Admit your true-st motivations

Yeah, we know ‘be healthy, eat clean, live long’. They’re uttered by everyone I sometimes wonder how much we really subscribe to those.

Because actually, they aren’t anywhere on my list of priorities.

Most of us have our truest and fieriest motivations that we aren’t exactly proud of.

So what if we want to ‘make more money’, ‘look good’, ‘be rich’. These aren’t frivolous, no matter how people may judge you.

And then there’s all these sermons on how we shouldn’t be driven by fears, but rather by abundance. And yes, it’s good to be driven towards our aspirations. But it’s silly to pretend that fears do not motivate us either.

In the field of health research, they’ve found that to get people to change their habits, you need both fear and a method they can use.

So, the Not Too Politically Correct motivations:

  1. Looking good, the way I know my body to be.
  2. Not wanting to change my entire wardrobe. It’s expensive, plus Bottega Veneta and Shanghai Tang aren’t making that same dress again!


And deep down, I also knew that if I’d given up on my body, it’s the ultimate sign personally that I’d given up on life. Not good.

Envision your future self

There’s a limit to what motivation and willpower can do.

There’s a limit to how much I can Rah Rah! Cheerleader talk myself through a run, because I refuse to buy my own bullshit.

But when I envision my future self and the way she looks, that propels me forward.

Get real about your current situation and the cost of keeping your old habits

We prefer lies than honesty, except that honesty gives us bigger returns whilst lying to ourselves has a long-term cost.

So, get honest about your current situation. What about this isn’t working anymore?

For me, I knew that after traveling, months of non-stop eating, and elevated personal responsibilities, my body wasn’t happy. Something had to give.

In other words, I’d wisened up to the reality— I love to eat, I’m at a point in my life where I have the resources to eat better and richer than ever, so it’s delusional to expect myself to magically stay thin.

I was also ready to stop having spurts of diets to ‘get to my ideal body’ and then regress. I wanted consistency, because I’ve never been the kind who only wants to be skinny for an event.

And I wanted to know that I have the strength and endurance to see myself through.

Creating a running habit meant I’d see myself as even more disciplined and strong. And if I could run more than 5km non-stop, it meant I was no longer the weak panting girl I’d been for my whole life.

Don’t tell anyone (or most people)

My business mentor Ramit Sethi says that when you tell people about your plans to execute a change, most will dissuade you. He reckons that’s because this throws the spotlight on what they themselves are not doing, so they unconsciously seek to keep you where you are.

Another bunch of people will be telling you about all the tactics you should be doing instead. Even those who really have no place telling you. They get caught in what he calls $3 solutions instead of spending time on what creates $3000 solutions— the big wins. So you’re stuck in tactical hell.

Whilst others will be giving you an unwanted counselling session— “WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS?? You look beautiful, why are you succumbing to social pressures?”

But the truth is, only we know our own benchmarks and how we may have slipped.

For instance, a client tells me that just because she has no eye wrinkles doesn’t mean she doesn’t go to a facialist for intensive treatment the moment she sees a hint of a micro-line developing. Whilst people will tell her to shut up and be thankful for her skin, only she is qualified to tell you where she wants to be, because she knows her own trajectory.

Or in my DrP words, “We are all allowed our own version of body dysmorphia, as long as it doesn’t consume us”.

Choose your ideal environment

I love a certain degree of stimulation when I’m doing something like running or walking.

So a treadmill is out of the question.

I run along the roads, meandering past one of my favourite restaurants, taking in the glorious aroma of fried chicken some 500m later, feasting my eyes on the windows of Christian Louboutin and Alexander McQueen, and then up and down a hill full of beautiful old heritage houses whilst watching people drink. These sights inspire me to keep running.

In my neighbourhood, I run past condo after condo where people are working out on weekend evenings in their gyms. It feels good to know I’m not the only one.

In other words, environmental design is a key part of the equation for success.

Consider this mental health analogy. You can give someone the best or most expensive medicine for depression, but if this person has been cut off from their social circle for years and has zero activities they enjoy doing, then all that tweaking of their neurotransmitters via medication will have limited use.

But, if you help them reconnect with themselves and others, and gingerly tread into expanding their world again, rediscovering the things they loved and some more, that’s way more valuable than what a pill can do.

What can you cross train with?

An accomplished musician once told me that his secret to mastering classical was cross-training with jazz. They activate different abilities and parts of his brains, and the gains from each skill transfer to one another.

Deliberately living in the heart of the city means I walk everywhere.

This is complemented with some body weight and kettlebell exercises.

And, I also make sure I have stronger body foundations.

Notably, eating vegan, gluten and sugar-free twice or three times a week, and training my respiratory muscles.

Baby steps

“Think about it this way. You’ve just bought a really amazing gym— great ventilation, best smells, good soundproofing and lights, and enough space. But we’re not gonna throw a zillion different machines. You’ll run away. So every week, it’s as though we’re adding a new equipment into your mental gym. You become proficient at one, it becomes autopilot, then we add another. No overwhelm”.

That’s how I explain working together with new clients.

And that’s how I went about running.

It started with 2km. Rests, and another 1km. Then some walking. Finishing off with running.

Slowly, the distances got longer.

Every time I ran, I’d have a new goal. Like, 3km in less time. Or, longer distances.

These changes all add up.

How do you know you’re going on the right track?

We all know the saying that it takes 10000 hours of deliberate practice to become really good at something.

But you can spend 10000 hours pulling the violin bow the wrong way, and you’ll never be a master.

Here’s where you have to track progress— what you’ve objectively done, what’s changed, what’s easier, and what’s more difficult.

That also helps you be proud of your accomplishments.

You can also ping it off someone whom you’ve hired, so they know you’re doing the right technique.

You’ll need to schedule in rests. Because taking time out for recovery is the hallmark for top athletes and performers. It also gives you new perspective, and allows your brain and body to consolidate your gains.

And you’ll also need to keep reviewing— what’s going right, what can be done better, and what’s the plan for improvement.

What new habit would you like to create? And what’s your plan for that?


If you’d like to find out more, join the conversation in our next open workshop.