I left the gym at 11. I had arrived at 7. It was my second workout of the day.
Why on earth would someone want to spend 4 hours in the gym? If anything, you would usually say “I want to be fit and work out, but I don’t want my workouts to take over my life.”
I don’t spend as long in the gym anymore, and it’s been a long time since I regularly did two-a-day workouts. Turns out that much working out eventually does take over your life if you do it long enough.
I eventually eased up my workouts, but I was later able to effortlessly work out a normal amount because of what I learned by going to the extreme.
What was the key insight?
You have plenty of time – that isn’t the problem. A lot of people will tell you to watch less TV or spend less time browsing the Internet, without realizing that those activities have their own purpose.
They aren’t “essential” in the sense that you won’t have money for food or rent if you don’t do them – they represent “me time.” They are stress free activities that you don’t want to give up, just because you enjoy them.
You might be able to phase out “time wasting” activities eventually (I have not), but trying to do it right away is a recipe for failure. Instead, focus on the real reason you spend time on these things and use it to your advantage.
I was able to use psychology to consistently work out – a lot – because of the House of Cards Technique.
What is the House of Cards Technique?
When I was doing undergraduate research in college, I was at one point tasked with heavy duty data entry. I’m talking about putting hundreds of answers to hundreds of surveys into a spreadsheet. Not the most exciting work, and because of a flexible schedule and lenient professor, I was having trouble motivating myself to do it.
Then, by chance, I came up with the House of Cards Technique.
The House of Cards Technique revolves around this question:
“What would I be doing if I didn’t have to do this?”
When I was inputting data, the answer was lie in bed, browse the internet, and watch Netflix. I wanted time to enjoy myself with low energy, stress free fun.
Now, I couldn’t lie in bed or browse Reddit while doing data entry, but I could put some Netflix up in the background.
The change was drastic and immediate, and it started with House of Cards. For months I’d had friends bugging me to watch the show, but I never felt like I had time. But now I had found a way to blast through it, guilt free.
House of Cards, Scrubs, How I Met Your Mother – I watched all of them while doing data entry. Before, I had always wanted to escape the looming data entry ahead of me, but I could never motivate myself to do it.
But when I made data entry my excuse for watching TV, I suddenly was willing to enter a lot more surveys – I even got excited about it, because it meant I got to watch more shows.
It didn’t take long to realize I’d struck gold. I applied the same idea to my workouts and suddenly had time to do all the exercises I hated – mobility work, stretching, yoga, agility drills, and even running became much easier. Every new season of House of Cards means a lot more working out for Benyamin.
How to Use the House of Cards Technique
I’m not the first person to think of watching TV while you exercise – there are literally TVs built in to most new cardio equipment.
The House of Cards Technique doesn’t actually have anything to do with TV specifically. It involves your answer to the above question.
So, right now, stop reading and write down 4 answers to this question: “What would I do instead of working out?”
With your answers in hand, find some part of that activity, no matter how small, and figure out how to do it while you work out.
Unless you’re doing crazy interval training, you probably have some time to do stuff between sets. If you like to read, can you read an eBook on your phone? You may not be able to cook, but you could read new recipes or cooking blogs between sets. If you’re a gamer, catch up on the latest news or check out discussion in the forums.
The key to making this work is that it’s specific to you. There’s a huge difference between “watching TV” on some random channel on the screen of the elliptical and “watching the 7th episode of Heroes because I have to know what happens to Hiro” (sorry, I’m on a rewatch).
It also helps if it’s something that excites you. That could be anything from Netflix to Reddit stories to forums about your hobby.
Why it Works
The House of Cards Technique works because of simple classical conditioning. By pairing something that you, personally, love and enjoy doing with a habit that you aren’t sure about yet (working out), you start to associate your new habit with excitement.
Classical conditioning was discovered when Pavlov noticed his dogs salivating, but its basic principle of paired stimuli and responses can be used to have to salivating for your next workout.
Eventually, you look forward to your workout because it means you can indulge yourself.
It also works because it doesn’t mean sacrificing your “me time.” You don’t need to give up anything, and you may even start to think of your gym time as me time (that’s what happened to me).
On days when you don’t work out or have time after the gym, you can relax – and indulge in your “time wasters” guilt free, because you know you’ve already accomplished something.
When it Doesn’t Work
There are times when this isn’t the best idea. If you need to do something that requires a lot of thought, you probably don’t want to split your attention (and won’t be able to, if your technique involves reading). All the psych research shows that multitasking hurts your performance, so I wouldn’t have Netflix in the background when you are first learning new exercises or writing something up for work.
Another common mistake is picking activities that aren’t engaging enough. Listening to music or browsing social media barely requires your attention, which means they fade into the background and likely don’t excite you in the same way as other pursuits.
The House of Cards Technique works best when you use it on something that excites or engages you. Instead of just listening to music (you can also listen to it), try reading about new artists or learning lyrics. Instead of browsing social media, shoot a text to someone you haven’t talked to in a while.
Take the passive version of your activity and make it active.
7 Ways I’ve Used the House of Cards Technique
If you need a place to get started, here are 7 ways I’ve used the House of Cards Technique in the gym.
Some of these might resonate with you, some might not. You don’t need to be limited to these options, but they are broad enough that you can probably find something you like.
- Netflix – Of course I’ve done this. I like to use Netflix when the gym wifi is working well, but otherwise it’s especially great for home workouts that involve continuous activity (like intervals or long mobility sessions). I’ve found TV shows to be better than movies, and particularly like using How I Met Your Mother because it’s interesting enough to keep me going but doesn’t require a lot of mental effort to follow the story.
- Podcasts – A lot of people love podcasts, but I usually don’t. That is, until I found an Ultimate Frisbee podcast (a sport I’m super into). The lesson here is that personalization is key.
- Ebooks – I love reading. I prefer to keep fiction reading outside of the gym because it’s easier to get immersed with a big chunk of time, but I love reading books about psychology, fitness, performance, and productivity. Most recently I read “The Art of Learning” by Josh Waitzkin.
- Texting old friends – There are lots of people that I don’t talk to as often as I like because of geography and busy schedules. At first I hesitated with this (thinking it would be weird, we’ll just catch up some other time etc.), but most people have been very enthusiastic and I’ve had some lovely conversations as a result of this.
- Reddit – Not gonna lie, I’m a sucker for Reddit. Reddit has a ton of content, but I find the text based stuff to be key for keeping my attention, as images a bit too passive and not engaging enough for me. I particularly enjoy /r/AskReddit and /r/Relationships for the intriguing stories people tell.
- Memorize Poetry – I was involved with my high school’s literary magazine, but for a long time never did anything else related to literature. At some point I wanted to read more poetry, so I started learning more at the gym. Now I sometimes even recite “Invictus” before heavy sets!
- Other Reading – Every day I see a dozen articles that my friends post on social media but don’t have the chance to read. I also find myself randomly interested in ideas I come across and find myself needing to know more. So, I make a list of all the little reading I want to get to but don’t have time for. Then I use my time between sets to read.
Hopefully that gives you a place to start. I’m a guy that loves psychology and fitness, so I wind up reading or listening to things that involve those topics. There’s tons of material out there for you to choose from – you are limited only by your creativity.
What’s your answer? What do you do instead of working out?