Many focused sweaty faces welcomed me as I entered my gym this morning. I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised to see so many of the class of 2018 sticking around into the second month. I know it’s only the dawn of February, but I’m hopeful! These brave souls are MOTIVATED!! Being confronted with the reality that it can take 21 days to make a habit can be tough to anyone, especially to someone who might be looking to see rapid progress.
As I moved through my own torture fest of a 4 mile dreadmill run, 1500 meters rowing, and sets of squats, deadlifts, curls, and handstand presses, I reflected on my fitness goals this year. I was reminded that I am often self motivated to get things in gear, (I enjoy the agony and accomplishment, and especially beating a personal record) but even when I’m not feeling my own motivation, habit keeps me going. That’s not the case for everyone, but it doesn’t have to be sentence to failure. There are a few key things anyone can do to build habits for the long run, figuratively and literally.
I’m a planner, so most of my life is organized into little lists with boxes that I relish checking off. I take a pretty task oriented approach to any goals I have, no matter how large or small. It helps to break huge goals into smaller manageable bits. What does this mean for establishing habits?
- Break a large goal down into tasks that can be done daily or on a smaller scale. Want to lose 20 pounds? Instead of saying I’m going to eat healthier and exercise more (which is great! But very vague and easy to put off), try planning something specific and for a small block of time, for instance, eating fresh veggies at 4 meals a week. Focusing on this smaller task is easier and every time you do it, you feel the bump of success.
- Make it convenient. Do you want to establish a habit that you say you want, but constantly fall short of doing because the effort to overcome other obstacles gets in the way? Make it easier to do. I prefer to run in the morning before I do anything else in my day. I’m most successful at doing that when I lay my clothes and gear out the night before. When I wake up, I have absolutely no excuse to not get out the door.
- Obvious alert: Create a routine that build upon things you already do. Obviously starting a habit is hard enough just make it a bit easier by linking it to something you already do. Having a routine creates a ready built pattern for you that shuts down having to make a lot of decisions and is easily repeatable, especially if it connects with something you already have to do. When I drive to work in the morning, I take the exact same path and do the exact same things in the car everyday, and try to run down my list of things to jump into the office ready to go. I used to do things haphazardly, try to find shorter paths through backroads around traffic and generally ended up at work already frustrated and a bit tired. My new routine is automatic and I don’t have to waste valuable decision space in my mind that I’ll need to draw on later in the day.
- Protect your habit! Since it takes so long to establish a habit, one or two detours could derail your plans. Be mindful of things that impact your ability to fulfill that habit. If possible, set up “protections” around your habits while they’re still new to ensure that you stay on board. I have a friend who has decided to cook more regularly, but her main problem was never having anything in the fridge, making it super easy to just order something. She started out by defining what she wants her habit to look like – her cooking at least 4 times a week. She then came up with a list of meals she’d like to cook ranging from quick and easy to elaborate and complex. Now she does her weekly grocery shopping based on the list of what she wants to cook that week. I stand ready with fork and knife in hand to support her new habit!
- Make the path to your habit fun and competitive! Being competitive doesn’t have to translate into a reward or punishment, but if it works for you, then do that. My competition is with myself. Can I do something faster? Better? More? Less? I find personal joy in besting myself and checking off accomplishments. When I’m thoughtfully starting a habit, like drinking a green smoothie every weekday morning, I like seeing that row of completed checkboxes for everyday that I stuck with the habit. If you’re building a habit with a friend, a little friendly competition and mutual encouragement sweetens the deal.
So, go forth with your motivation in hand, take charge, and joyfully build some habits!