The Wall and I Part II – Behavior Modification For Dummies

The key to a sustainable workout routine is to move the desire from the superego to the ego

At the end of my previous post, The Wall and I, I made a reference to behavior modification (mod that behavior). But what do I really mean? Well, “I’m not a professional psychologist, but I am an amateur psychologist” – Peggy Hill, King of the Hill.

Seriously, I have no qualifications to discuss the subject, fortunately I don’t need any. If you think I’ve got it all wrong, don’t bother telling me. As long as it establishes a useful way to look at the problem then it serves the purpose; and my purpose is to present the process in a way that makes sense and will possibly persuade you to give my approach of “Just start every day” a try.

So I like to think of it in terms of the three components of personality: id, ego, and superego; I’ve liked it every since I came up with the idea yesterday.

Not to get too deep into it here’s how I see the three:

id – wants what I want with no concept of negotiation
ego – negotiates with the real world for what I need
superego – negotiates with the real world for what I want

At birth it’s pretty much all id, all the time. On being yanked out of the only home we’ve ever known we go into full discomfort alert mode and remain there until soothed into sleep. Then it’s pretty much a jumble until our senses finally unscramble enough of the input to start working with.

And so it begins. I’m not even going to get into child behavior, but clearly a baby must learn that you can’t always get what you want, and there are consequences if you try too hard to just take it. And that’s when the ego starts to develop, with the ability to perceive that acting on pure impulse often doesn’t work and sometimes results in awkward and even physically uncomfortable situations. So we open negotiations with those really enormous giants that keep looming up in our face. They seem to think they’re in charge and they’re certainly big enough to make it stick.

This approach has a big problem; in fact a problem so enormous that it’s really all downhill from there. Just getting started and it’s already the beginning of the end. But it just seems there’s no way around it and no one ever bounces back.


You never could, but you didn’t know that. Now you have to start deciding what’s worth negotiating for. That’s going to vary from person to person. We each develop our own ego which has a unique list of core requirements that we will always try to fulfill, almost instinctively and at all costs, realizing that “at all costs” also means different things to different people.

Once the needs of ego are fulfilled we start adding the luxury items. These are desires for anything we don’t perceive as absolutely necessary for an adequate existence. It can be anything from wanting to impress the neighbors to falling in love and getting married. Now hopefully that last is a need instead of a want, but think how it starts out. My superego tells me it would be nice to have a girl friend or boy friend. I start going out and I end up falling in love and getting married.

Which brings up an important point. Desires can move from the superego to the ego, or new desires can arise within the ego as the result of desires fulfilled in the superego.

But just because it’s more or less under control doesn’t mean the id just shuts up. For instance when I walk into the office in the morning I have to ignore the voice in my head screaming “GET OUT, GET OUT AT ANY COST, MAKE ANY EXCUSE, BUT DON”T BE STUCK HERE ALL DAY, ARRGGGGGGGGHHHHHH……..”.

We all have to ignore complaints from the id on a pretty frequent basis. That’s what the ego is for. Anything the ego wants the ego gets, in spite of what the id wants, because my ego, by definition, wants the things I consider essential to a life worth living, and my particular ego wants a roof over our heads and food on our table.

But, what about the superego? The things the superego wants fall into the category of desirable but not essential. For instance I might decide that a $400 car payment is worth it for the car I want when I’m making plenty of money (stupid but I’ve known it to happen – to some other guy). But if my income falls I might decide to save that $400 so I can use it to buy food that I need. And that’s the difference, need and want. I’ll do just about anything for something I really need. For things I want, not so much.

So what does this have to do with my approach to exercise?

Let’s start with the traditional approach to getting into a regular workout schedule. For whatever reason, maybe a friend gets you enthused, maybe an ad on television, but you decide you’re going to start working out every day for half an hour. You feel pretty good about your decision as you look forward to getting pumped every day and being in shape. It’s gonna be great.

Well, as it turns out it’s not so great. Either you have to get up early before work and miss the most precious sleep time, right after work when you feel like collapsing, in the middle of the evening when you’re relaxing, or just before bed when you just want to go to sleep. Oops, I overlooked lunch time, probably because that’s worst of all, having a double whammy; you not only miss lunch, but you have to go back to work when it’s the last thing you want to do, which is ironic (or maybe just an interesting coincidence), because by working out you just did the last thing you wanted to do before – so it’s a semantic mess as well and the upshot is who wants to go back to work when you feel so good. And then there’s the biggest obstacle of all, doing a workout when you’re really not into it.

Well, admittedly not so great as when you came up with the idea and actually doing it wasn’t staring you in the face, but you still want the benefits, so all you just need a little self-discipline. Ok, I couldn’t even type that with a straight face, but that’s actually true for some people – self-discipline is enough to get them going and hopefully keep them going. But for people like me, self-discipline may work for awhile, but it gets pretty tough after a few days or maybe weeks, or maybe months (ok, ok, I never made months, but I’m just saying if you did make it to months it would get to be a drag) of the same drudgery, by which I mostly mean the same old drama day after day of having to get past the wall between you and the workout. The wall is that exquisite moment in time when you need to actually start the workout. The moment when your brain says “And we’re starting riggggghhhhhhhhhhttttttttt…”, but it’s so, so hard to get to the word “now”. Most nights I would never get to it.

The problem is that you’ve added a desire to your superego list, but you’re not willing to pay the price. That was my dilemma 35 years ago. And I already knew that I wanted to exercise to feel good. But that didn’t do the trick usually; it just wasn’t enough to motivate me to get on that bike with the knowledge I was committing to 30 minutes of drudgery.

Fortunately I came up with the idea of lowering the price to fit in my superego’s budget by lowering my expectations. If all I had to do was “Just Start” every day I had something to bargain with. I personally negotiated on behalf of my superego with the ego/id coalition by pointing out that we would all benefit if this project was successful because feeling good was in everyone’s self-interest. The up-front costs were minimal. Get on the bike and pedal for two minutes every day after work and see what happens.

Ego and I had a tacit agreement that we were sort of putting one over on id, but it was for his own good, and we were careful never to speak of it; we have this strange ability to know what each other is thinking and id as usual, is clueless.

Now as I already wrote elsewhere it was still no cinch. Let me just say the id is a treacherous little backstabber when it doesn’t get its own way. “I’m too tirrrrrreeeeeeddddddddddd!!!! It’s siiilllllllyyyy!!!! Just today, skip it just for tooodddddddaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyyyy!!!’, while knowing the whole point was to not just arbitrarily skip days, and knowing if we’re really tired we can quit right away. Id was trying to sabotage the whole thing.

And was almost successful. It’s no joke that during the first weeks there were days when I was just going to blow it off with exactly those excuses. Bur fortunately I was able to shame myself into going through with it every day. I don’t know what would have happened if I’d just arbitrarily decided to skip it, but I suspect the last 35 years would have been very different, and not in a good way. One of the luckiest near-misses of my life.

Now if all this seems like simple self-deception you’re right, and the whole thing almost fell through when I caught myself out one day. I was having one of my “I’m too tired” sessions where I have to convince myself I can just quit after two minutes if I want. Id chimed in, or maybe I should say screeched in, with his invariable annoying whine, complaining that he was on to the whole scam. I’d say only two minutes, but then when I got moving it would always turn out to be much longer than that. It kept happening over and over.

Basically you just have to scam id at a deeper level. I’m like “Ok id, you got me. So today you take charge and we really will quit after two mintues.”

What a simpleton!! He fell for that one over and over again.

Obviously I’m trying to be funny. But it’s no joke. I actually went through that line of thought. As I said in the other post, when your blood doesn’t have enought oxygen and it’s polluted with who knows what stress-induced chemicals it turns you into a dullard. Dull enough to think today is actually different from all the other days. It sounds weird, because on one level you know how it’s going to turn out; that once you get moving you’ll start getting past the lethargy both mental and physical, but you can still maintain the illusion that today you’re really going to stop after two minutes – or maybe it was the other way around, who can remember – it worked, that’s all that matters. It does seem to mean you have to believe two things at the same time, but hey, people enjoy weekends even though they know full well they have to go back to work on Monday. On Friday I feel sorry for the poor chump who’ll be driving in on Monday, but it’s Friday, and that ain’t me. Until sixty hours later of course.

But at a more serious level I think as an adult you just want to keep that chain going because you commited to it and hey, maybe it will work. If you do it, it’s working. If you quit, it’s not. So it doesn’t matter what you really believe is going to happen today, it’s enough that you start. And id won’t remember what you promised anyway. It’s all about feeling good to id, such a self-centered narcissist. One good endorphin jolt and he sleeps like a baby – no point in staying awake if he has nothing to complain about – that’s the id I know all right.

The daily workout remained a superego thing for several weeks. I’d say it was about a month before I started to not struggle and just get on the bike, partly because it had become a habit and partly because I was starting to have more faith that I would feel better after I rode. It was becoming more vivid to me.

Which brings me to my ultimate point. What you really want is for the daily workout to move from being a superego thing to being an ego thing; a need instead of a want. After just a month it was starting to make the slide for me. By then I pretty much just routinely got on the bike whether I thought I was going to do just 2 minures or 30. And I started to feel really proud that I had been able to exercise every day for so long. It had never happened before in my life except in basic training, where I had no choice. It’s funny, years before, after I got out of the army, I had wished for a drill sergeant that would come around every day and make me work out but leave me alone other than that. If I had just come up with a drill sergeant that let me quit after two minutes I’d have been onto something.

I don’t remember for sure when it slid all the way into the ego category and I don’t know that I was aware; but at some point within probably 3 to 6 months I was on that bike the very first thing I got home – not because of the commitment, but because I wanted, needed, to burn off the day. The anticipation of that post-workout glow drove me even though I couldn’t remember clearly what it felt like. But daily repetition had drilled into me that I really wanted it. It was an ego thing now, so when I got home it took priority over everything else.

And now, on the occasional day when for no good reason I think I’m going to take a break, it’s very, very rare that I don’t end up working out anyway because I can’t just sit around when I know I could feel so much better; my conditioning is complete. Oh Brave New World!!!

And that, ladies and gentleman is an example of behavior modification by a dummy on a dummy.

I'll be 70 in less than 6 months (it's Dec 2016 now) and never expected to be in this kind of shape or have this kind of stamina, at any age. Then I discovered JumpRock at 55 and HoopRock at 66. Both are so much fun it's actually easy to get fit and stay that way; this blog is to encourage you to follow my example and be in great shape yourself going into old age - that's all I can promise for now - we'll see how actual old age goes. I'm highly optimistic.
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One Response to The Wall and I Part II – Behavior Modification For Dummies

  1. Sandy Siegel says:

    I love this post! My id and my ego are going to have a little sit down tomorrow morning.

    I have just recently gotten out of my rut and began exercising again last week. I didn’t miss one day for a whole week, then gave myself Saturday and Sunday off. I actually felt worse than on the days I exercised! Today I convinced myself that I shouldn’t exercise because #1 the power was out and I couldn’t use the Wii; and #2 my legs hurt from exercising last week. I think they probably hurt from NOT exercising or more likely the gardening I did yesterday.

    I know as time goes by I will be looking for excuses to skip a day here and there. I’m going to take your advice and at least get 5 minutes of exercise in. I just have to make a deal with the old id. :)