How To Create An Exercise Habit That Sticks
Whether you realise it or not habits are the foundation of your life.
They are the things you do repeatedly, every day, over and over. They run in the background and determine the path you take and the progress you make.
They contribute to your successes and underpin your failures.
Imagine crushing your workout at the gym instead of sitting on the couch playing video games or binging on the latest Netflix sensation thinking “I’ll go tomorrow.”
How would that feel?
What about sticking to your diet plan with ease without binge eating every weekend and continuously undoing all your hard work but actually making the progress you want?
How would that feel?
How about waking up and feeling confident, comfortable with who you are and how you look? Knowing that your daily actions are taking you closer and closer to your goals.
You get the point, it would feel great, awesome even and this is what the right habits can do for you.
Good habits can give you the power to go further and do more than you thought possible, but bad habits can drag you down and keep you firmly at square one.
The good news is that habits are not set in stone if you wish to change existing ones or make new ones, you can.
Habits can be made and they can be broken.
What Is A Habit & How Do You Make One?
A habit is best described as a regular pattern of behaviour, performed automatically and almost involuntarily, formed over time through consistent and repeated behaviour.
To create a new habit you have to adapt or change your behaviour to create the desired outcome.
Stanford University Behavioural Psychologist B.J. Fogg presents 3 steps for making this behavioural change;
Be specific about the behaviour you want to have (you need authentic motivation to change)
Make it easy (the behaviour must be as simple as possible to perform)
Trigger the behaviour (there needs to be a prompt to signal the behaviour)
Let’s look a little deeper at each step to better understand this habit making process.
Step 1 - Be Specific About The Behaviour You Want To Have
This means you must dig deeper into why you want to create a new habit. Without having an authentic motivation to create a new habit you’ll struggle to make it happen. To avoid setting yourself up to fail you need to understand your motivations for building a new habit, my favourite way to do this is using the 5 whys method.
The 5 Whys Method
Originally developed by the Toyota Motor Corporation as a problem-solving method the idea is to ask why 5 times to understand both the problem and discover a solution. Since its birth in the 1950s the 5 whys method has become widespread, particularly in the start-up and lean development world.
However, it has its uses for understanding your own motivations and will allow you to get to the root of your desire to create a new habit. To use the 5 whys, you need to identify the habit you want to create and then ask yourself why 5 times.
New habit: I want to start preparing my lunches in advance
Why do I want to do this 1? It will stop me from buying high-calorie takeaway lunches every day
Why do I want to do this 2? It will give me more control over what I eat and how much I eat
Why do I want to do this 3? It will make me healthier
Why do I want to do this 4? It will help me change my body composition
Why do I want to do this 5? It will help me become more body confident
By doing this you arrive at your authentic motivation for creating the new habit.
This will help you validate your motivations so when you don’t feel like following through on your new habit you can use your big picture reasons to help push forwards regardless.
Step 2 - Make It Easy
Make your new habit as simple as possible and build it up progressively.
No one ever climbed a mountain in one step so don’t expect to create a new habit in full overnight.
To help you adjust to the new behaviour you want to make it as simple as possible to do. This may mean changes to your environment, the behaviour or even yourself.
If your goal is to start working out at the gym your environmental change could be keeping a gym kit under your desk at the office and in the hallway at home so you always have one packed and ready to go. This removes a potential barrier and makes it easier for you to follow through.
As for the behaviour, you could start with one workout a week and slowly build it up or you could do several shorter workouts a week and grow it from there.
Then when it comes to changes to yourself (the participator in the new habit) you might do something like altering your route to and from work to take you past the gym. Whatever you need to do to make the new habit fit better with your lifestyle and feel less like an alien behaviour.
Another way to keep your habit super simple is to use the ‘tiny habits’ method from BJ Fogg. The tiny habits method has you start with a tiny habit and build it up incrementally over time.
For example, if you wanted to be able to run for 30 mins every day you would start by running for as little as 1 minute a day, adding another minute every day until you reach your goal of 30 minutes, at which point it would be a fully-fledged habit.
Step 3 - Trigger The Behaviour
Now that you’ve worked out your authentic motivation for habit creation, made any environmental, behavioural or personal changes and broken it down into ‘tiny habits’, the next step is to create a trigger than prompts you to perform the new habit.
One of the most effective ways to create a trigger is to anchor the behaviour to something you do every day.
Start doing this by creating a list of things you do every day.
Wake up on the alarm
Go to the toilet
Have a shower
Leave the house
Eat a meal
You now have a master list to draw from when trying to anchor a habit to a current behaviour to create a trigger.
For example, if you wanted to start weighing yourself daily to keep better track of your fat loss or muscle building progress you could anchor the behaviour (weighing yourself) to your current behaviour of using the toilet first thing in the morning (the trigger).
How Do You Make Your New Habit Stick?
Now we have everything set up, it’s time to ask “how do we make it stick?”
It’s all good and well understanding your authentic motivation, making behavioural, environmental or personal changes and implementing tiny habits but if you can’t stick to it then it’s all for nothing.
This is where your trigger comes into play as part of a dynamic sequence; trigger, action, reward.
It’s this sequence that will help you stick to your new habit. It’s a positive feedback loop that helps not only signal the behaviour but reinforce it by providing a reward for completing the action.
Let’s look a little closer.
Charles Duhigg a Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times reporter and author of The Power of Habit presents this sequence as;
For example, if you wanted to create a habit of working out during your lunch break, the sequence could look like this:
Alternatively, if you wanted to create a habit of preparing your lunches for the week in advance you could set it up as follows:
Maybe you just want to start your day in the best possible way. No problem, that could be done like this:
These examples are meant as a guide to show you how you can begin to anchor specific behaviour to a cue that you encounter every day.
Combine this with the inclusion of an appropriate reward and you create the all-important positive feedback loop which helps to reinforce the behaviour that you wish to make a habit.
Think about the role habits play in your life, the way they happen near automatically, shaping your day to day life and the direction you’re heading. Undoubtedly there are some you take for granted, some you love and some you want to change.
With the methods and framework set out in this post, you can begin to shape the habits you want and reform the ones you don’t.
Whether you want to go to the gym more often, cook more and eat out less or just start every day in the best possible way, habits are the key to getting you there.
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