Making working out a habit is the most powerful way to get in killer shape. And yet, so many of us struggle with it. Here is your guide to locking down the exercise habit.
Habits, good and bad, form a massive part of our day.
Whether its brushing our teeth (yup, that’s a habit), to spending compulsive amounts of time on Facebook and our smartphones (another couple habits), or the way in which we decide to wind down after a rough day at the office, our day can be spliced into a number of different habits and routines.
Once set into motion, our habits dictate how we perform, for better or worse.
Unleash the Power of Making Exercise a Habit
There are few things more powerful than developing the habit of exercising. It, for instance, can—
- Eliminate the mental argument of “should I go to the gym” vs. “should I not go to the gym?”
- Once in place, actually doesn’t require a lot of maintenance.
- Doesn’t need a lot of (exhausting) willpower once set into motion.
- And of course, it has the nice, added bonus of creating favorable outcomes.
Which, when bundled all together, sounds pretty magical, doesn’t it?
Making exercise a habit is one of the most powerful things you can do in service of your physical, mental and emotional health, and yet, why do so many of us struggle with it?
Mainly, it’s because we go about it the wrong way.
Whether it is trying to do too much too soon, having unrealistic expectations, or not having an environment that greases the wheels of our habits, we stumble blindly into trying to make change without understanding the best way to make it happen.
As a result, our failed attempts at making working out a habit conditions us to believe the process is flawed, that we aren’t deserving, or that we aren’t cut out to achieve hilarious things in the gym.
Listed below are a series of proven methods you can use individually or collectively to unleash the power of putting your workouts (and the results you subsequently want!) on auto-pilot.
I also put them together into a nice little PDF that you can view at your own leisure, print out, use as the background on your cell phone, whatever. It’s found at the bottom of the post.
1. Chain your new habit to something you are already doing.
Want to boost the likelihood of making working out a habit by 200-300%?
Institute something called if-then planning. It’s pretty straightforward, but as you will see with habit formation, simple is better (and powerful like He-Man).
Essentially what if-then planning—or, implementation intentions—boils down to is planning your habit according to something that you are already doing (getting off work) or that is bound to happen (like a time, for instance).
Here are a few examples:
- If it is 7:30pm, then I will go to the gym.
- When I get off work, then I will go for a run.
- When the Seahawks game is over on Sunday, then I will go for a hike.
Just how well does this type of habit planning work?
One study had participants sit down and write out when and at what time they would exercise. Several months later 91% of the if-then planners were still holding true to their workout schedule, while only 39% of the control group were still exercising.
- See also: The Ultimate List of Workout Routines. Our every growing database of workouts and routines from some of the top strength coaches and personal trainers on the planet.
2. Make the thing before the thing the habit.
On days where I am truly struggling to maintain the discipline to work out, when I am tired, sore, and am hearing the sweet whispers of “It’s okay, we’ll workout tomorrow” I lean on this one simple way to utterly trick myself.
The goal becomes the thing before the goal.
- If your goal is to work out for two hours today, make the goal walking through the doors of the gym.
- If your goal is to eat healthy today, make the goal laying out the ingredients for your healthy meals on the counter.
- If the goal is to swim 5,000m, the goal becomes getting in the water and warming up.
In each case, once you are there, and baby-stepping your way into doing what ya need to do, your brain’s natural and uncontrollable desire to finish what it has started kicks in and takes over.
Your brain hates unfinished tasks, and generally once you are set into motion, you’ll finish what you have started. That Newton guy had something to say on this— “an object in motion tends to stay in motion.”
(On a side note, the regret you usually feel when you look back with remorse at the things you didn’t complete? That’s the same kind of tension and nagging sense of need-to-finish that we are tapping here. Your brain, being the funny little thing that it is, is shockingly needy when it comes to unfinished tasks.)
3. Keep things as simple as possible.
Complexity and choice has a way of overwhelming us. We like to believe that it is choice that we want, but more often than not excess decision making zaps the limited reserves of valuable self-control we carry around with us.
Even boring day-to-day decisions like what kind of clothes you should buy, what type of chocolate bar you should eat, or whether we should single scoop or double scoop our protein chip away at the finite amount of mental energy.
The loss of self-control resulted in reduced physical stamina, added procrastination, and less persistence when faced with challenging circumstances.
Understanding this, how can we decision-proof our workout habit so that even if we are mentally gassed from picking out chocolate bars we can still hit the gym as planned?
Here are some ideas:
- Have a set time for training. None of this “if I feel like it” or “if I have time.” Carve out a very specific window of time for your workouts and design your morning, afternoon or evening around it. Choose a time and schedule and use it as a trigger.
- Have a plan for the gym. Know what you are going to do when you get there. It’ll keep you focused and on track to doing what you need to do and avoiding the water fountain convos.
- Wear the same things to the gym. Have clothes that you wear for the gym and the gym only. Think of them as kind of like your superhero costumes. No thinking required, throw them on and throw down.
Aspire to automate the entire process of working out so that it minimizes any likelihood of having to make any willpower-zapping decisions.
4. Commit for the super short term.
There’s no need to make grandiose projections. Seriously.
“I will workout every day, for 2 hours, until the day I die!”
No one in their right mind would say that this is realistic, but sometimes we force ourselves into these sweeping, dramatic goals in moments of over-blown bravado.
Start smaller, like two weeks, or even one week. Commit to working out every day for a week. That seems kind of easy, doesn’t it? Almost like it is too easy?
Good, that’s the point. Easy means you will actually do it.
After all, the biggest gains in automaticity are during the opening weeks of developing your new habit. After that, the gains tend to taper off the longer you go.
After you’ve stayed true to your commitment for a couple weeks, and you are feeling good about yourself and your ability to follow through, renew the contract with yourself.
5. Lapses are okay, but get back on track ASAP.
We’re not perfect. We’re prone to screw-ups, injuries, and a myriad of life-altering changes that are completely out of control.
Life happens, man.
Perfection doesn’t exist, so put the expectation of having 100 flawless workouts in a row back to bed. Long term consistency is the mitigating factor when it comes to habit formation, not never screwing up.
Research has shown that one-off misses are not a deal breaker when it comes to habit formation. Which should make sense at an intuitive level, as you no doubt understand from real life experience that it becomes harder to get back on track the longer you are off.
If you miss, get back on track as soon as you can. Your habit will still be there tomorrow, waiting to be tended to. (That being said, this isn’t a carte-blanche to start missing left, right and center, capiche?)
6. Seriously, don’t beat yourself up over one missed workout.
For many of us, it’s not the excitement of building the workout habit that drives us. It’s the terrifying fear that we will sink back into the destructive habits of our past.
When we miss one workout, over-eat at a social outing, or otherwise violate the terms of our new habits it’s natural to feel disappointed.
It’s what happens next that matters most.
- That one cheat meal turns into a week-long bender of fast food, leaving you slouched with mid-riff exposed on the couch, Dorito crumbs littered across your shirt and beard.
- That one missed training session results in three weeks of missed workouts because, well, screw it, amiright?
Disproportionately angry and depressed with our initial slip-up we tend to slide back into familiar and comfortable patterns. For some it is a trip, and for others, as described in the examples above, it is more of a triple jump off a cliff of bad decisions.
How long it takes for the reality to kick back in varies from person to person.
This unreasonable reaction to what is a reasonable hiccup in our habits is known as abstinence-violation effect. After a slip-up we slide back into the familiar habits of old in order to assuage the feelings of guilt and shame of screwing up. (Our brains are frigging weird. And in moments like this, super infuriating.)
A slip-up isn’t the end of the world.
Like I mentioned in the previous point, those who succeeded with forming automaticity with their habits slipped up on occasion. The difference was that they got back on track right away instead of letting themselves slide.
7. Fantasize about the grind.
It feels pretty flipping good to sit around daydreaming about the big things we are going to achieve in the gym.
Fantasizing about the shape we are going to be in is fun, but if you want to truly leverage the power of your imagination, wield it on the process it will take to get you there.
In a study done at UCLA students were separated into two groups:
- Group 1 was instructed to visualize a good outcome for an upcoming midterm.
- Group 2 was tasked with visualizing the process of doing well on the midterm (studying, preparing, you know, top-notch study habits).
The second group, the students who visualized what it would take to do well and not just doing well, performed better. They also experienced less anxiety and planned and studied better (obviously) compared to group one.
Spend some time visualizing what it will take to make working out a habit. Picture yourself showing up every day and doing the work.
8. Dictate your environment.
Among the things that impact our behavior, environment tops the list.
(Which doesn’t really explain why it’s all the way down at number 8, but I digress…)
When we are in the bathroom we perform specific habits. Same for the kitchen. Or the living room. Repetition and time grind these habits into stone making them really difficult to adjust.
It’s why dietitians recommend to not eat in front of the television. Or why you shouldn’t leave junk food out in the open. Or why working out in a gym is a better idea than working out at home.
When you look around at your environment, can you say that it is promoting good habits or enabling bad ones?
By changing your environment and the circumstances surrounding your habit, you increase the likelihood of making it stick.
Here are a few examples of changing things up:
- Avoid the things that trip you up. If you lack the control to eat “just one” cookie, don’t buy the box. You probably already know the things that send you hurtling into “I’m eating my feelings of shame” mode, so avoid them altogether. Save yourself the agony of trying to willpower your out of not tripping up. Humbly accept that we aren’t as mentally strong all the time as we like to think we are and remove the temptations altogether.
- Association. There are things in your life you associate with certain activities and behaviors. The couch = Netflix and snacks. Your friend Tom = long winded stories. There are songs that I only listen to when I am at the gym. So when I blast some Euro-dance trash at full blast (don’t judge me), just like Pavlov’s dogs, I begin to salivate for some iron. There is clothing that I only wear to the gym, so when I slip them on I can’t help but start to get primed to train. Build a couple associations and dedicate them solely to your exercise habit.
- Make it harder to do the stuff that sets you back. There are certain things that we cannot entirely avoid. In these cases, ya gotta make it tougher on yourself to make the wrong choice. Want to eat smaller portions? Buy a smaller spoon and a smaller plate. (Seriously. Science says it works.) If you are spending time liking Instagram photos into the wee hours instead of resting up leave your phone in the other room when you go to bed.
- Surround yourself with enablers. If you want to eat healthier, it’s not enough to say you want to eat better. Throw out the crap in your fridge and fill it top to bottom with fish, veggies and fruit. If you need to drink more water have a water bottle on your person at all times. It’s not enough to avoid the temptations, you need to replace them with enablers.
9. Keep a workout + diet journal.
G-r-reat, you might be thinking. Now I have to keep a workout journal?
If you want accountability and results, research would indicate absolutely.
In a study done at Duke University and John Hopkins University weight loss doubled among the 1,700 participants who kept a daily food journal compared those who kept no records whatsoever.
Tracking your workouts and nutrition, and taking a few moments to reflect on the day’s activities, help shine a light on your daily habits that might otherwise fly under the radar.
We love to think that we have perfect recall when it comes to what we are eating and what we are doing in the gym, but when we reflect on it and write it out often a much different reality presents itself.
Tracking your performance in the gym and in the kitchen helps you become more self-aware and more likely to change behaviors.
10. Choose your homies with care.
Our friends, family and co-workers influence our habits in a host of different ways.
They can act as a trigger (“When I see Thomas I know it is beer-o-clock”), influence us with ideas and thoughts (“Your body can only absorb 30g of protein in one sitting, bro”), and even help grease the wheels on our commitments (“I’m picking you up at 10 and we are going to the gym, no excuses”).
In a myriad of different ways we absorb the behaviors and habits of those we spend time with. I understand the temptation to believe that we are exempt from the careless actions and shoddy life choices of our friends, but that is sadly not the case.
When you hang out with people who are doing excellent stuff excellence becomes the new normal. When you hang out with people who eat doughnuts from dusk till dawn doughnut becomes the new normal.
Again, our environment plays a critical role in how effective we are at developing and maintaining our habits, and the people we choose to spend the majority of our time with have a direct impact on our habits and behavior.
- Seek out people who are doing what you are doing. Get in touch with people who are achieving at the level you want to be at. You don’t necessarily need to become BFF’s with them, but add them to your social circle, even if it is just following them on Instagram or Twitter.
- Spend more time with people who support your goals. Habits are tough enough, but when you have friends and loved ones who understand and are supportive of what you are doing it makes things a whole lot easier.
- If you are having a hard time finding people in your crew that inspire you, turn to the pages of the greats. Getting lost in the biographies of the high performers of history has an indelible and subtle way of telegraphing their drive, commitment and habits into your own behaviors. (I’m currently working my way through Titan, a biography of heavyweight industrialist John D. Rockefeller.)
11. Eliminate friction.
One of the biggest a-ha moments I have had when it came to figuring how best to achieve my own goals was understanding that I didn’t necessarily need to get myself more motivated when I was struggling.
I simply needed to make carrying out my habit or goal easier to do. The “thing before the thing” goal was born out of this realization.
It was understanding that self-control and willpower are a limited resource.
How many times have you been stepping up to the line, about to pull the trigger on a workout, but then pulled back with a shrug and a dismissive, “ah, whatever” because something hijacked your plans?
The source of friction was something undoubtedly minor, but strong enough that it caused you to miss.
Here are some personal examples:
- When I was a high school athlete, and had a double the next day I knew the chances of me getting out of bed at 5am were dramatically improved if I pre-packed my meals and clothes the night before.
- When I started supplementing with Omega 3 I found that I was missing doses regularly. Why? Because it was tucked up in the cabinet. By placing it on the counter it was impossible to miss.
- When I found myself checking my phone too much while working out, and spending more time texting than lifting, I started leaving it in my truck when I got to the gym.
If you are having a hard time making your habits stick, consider that it is not that you aren’t motivated enough, you simply aren’t making it easy enough on yourself.
12. Build your own habits, your way.
For the last point, I want to emphasize something that causes a lot of problems with people seeking to create solid fitness habits.
And that is to not be afraid to do things your way. Look, there is no one way to go about building the workout habit.
What worked for me won’t necessarily work for you and vice versa.
When embarking on a process of change we often look outwards to see what worked for high achievers. Learning the routines and “secret habits” of elite athletes and your peers might be good for a shot of inspiration, but the way they go about things won’t always work for you.
And that’s totally okay.
This means that you don’t have to be a morning person if you aren’t one. Or try to fit in a workout at lunch just because your friend Bob who gained 10 pounds of muscle does it. Or follow the exact workout routine that your favorite lifter or athlete does.
Think back to the times that you were able to make a change stick. Extrapolate the lessons from those victories. Feel free to experiment with and learn what else suits your particular situation.
If it works for you, do it. If it doesn’t, evaluate, and move on.
Putting it all together
Like anything, good advice is pointless if it is not put into practice. Otherwise it is just wasted time reading another listicle on the inter-web. Give a couple of the pointers above a shot for a few days and let me know how it goes.
I also created a little PDF checklist with the main points from this list. You can view it by clicking on the image below.
You don’t have to opt-in, or submit your email address or anything. It’s free to download/print and it’s yours to do with what you wish.
Click the image to get the PDF or simply click here if you are all old school and prefer the old text link.
If you enjoyed this article and the checklist feel free to share it with someone who you think would benefit from it by clicking on one of the handsome social share buttons to the left or bottom.
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