Tips and tricks from the experts on how to stay on track for your fitness goals and building habits the right way.
How come some people love going to the gym while others just can’t see to get their butt there more than once per week?
And we know we need to work out. We know we need to eat healthily.
And to sleep 8 hours every night. And be active during the day. And to take the stairs over the elevator. And get up right when the alarm clock goes off. And to walk more. And to skip the after work drinks. And to watch less TV.
We know all of these things. And we know they will make us healthier.
And we want to be healthier. We want to be healthier and stronger and slimmer.
We know how to get there.
So why can’t we get that coveted “healthier” goal? When we know what we should do, why can’t we seem to do it? Why is it so dang hard to resist those donuts at the office or get your butt to the gym? WHY?!
Let me tell you a little secret that will blow your mind. The secret about why we can’t stick with our healthier goals.
Because in truth, it shouldn’t be hard to make healthier choices.
It’s not hard to say “no” to donuts. It takes one word (or two if you want to follow your momma’s direction and say “no thanks.”). Spitting the words out isn’t hard.
Going to the gym isn’t hard. You have a car. You know how to drive. You even have gas in the tank most of the time. Heck, you even have a free hour to do the workout. So why is it so hard to get your butt there some days?
You know you need to. But you just can’t.
Welp, here it is.
The secret. The truth about why you struggle.
Yep, you have habits that keep you from hitting your goals.
Your everyday habits don’t align with your fitness desires.
That’s it. Sure, you make healthy choices sometimes. Sometimes you say no to the cake at the office. Sometimes you make it to the gym for that killer workout. But these healthy choices aren’t your habits. They aren’t part of your normal routine.
When someone brings donuts to the office, is your norm to say yes and chow down or say no and pass them over. What is your unconscious response?
For me, it’s to say yes. To indulge, even if those dang donuts are brought daily, I still want them. When I have the willpower to resist, I know I made a healthier choice. But that healthy choice was not my norm. That healthy choice is not my habit. It’s more of a rare occurrence.
Or take your workout. You want to want to the go to the gym (reread that sentence again slowly to really understand). But what you really want is to sit on the couch and watch House of Cards. Your habit is skipping the gym. It’s your unconscious choice and desire. Your regular routine. And skipping the workout is the decision that comes easy (albeit with a backpack full of guilt because you know you should be working out instead).
So your current habit is to eat the donuts and skip the gym. And to watch more TV. And take the elevator. And hit snooze. That’s why you struggle. You have to force yourself to resist your habits in order to make the healthier choice. No, it’s not the sugar from the donut calling your name. It’s your habit of giving into the temptation. The temptation of sugar-laden junk and couch-potato-itis.
Yes, you have the desire to eat healthily and workout. But your habits don’t let you.
Your habits suck.
Alright, the secret is out. You need to change your habits. You need to start living with healthier ones.
But don’t fret because we’ve got you covered with expert tips on how to change them!
Because if your habit is to go to the gym, you’ll never miss a workout. And if your habit is to skip the donuts and instead have eggs, you won’t be fighting the sugar temptation. And let me tell you, if those are your habits, your fitness goals will come a looooootttt easier and faster. Because of course, something that is routine is going to happen.
So we want to make going to the gym and healthy eating our norms. Our unconscious habits. The addictions that we never have to fight.
So let’s start changing our habits. Let’s get addicted to hitting the gym, getting crazy wit it’ and eating healthy. The struggle will be gone and it will be a piece of cake to hit our fitness goals!
After all, it can’t be too hard to change your habits, right? It should only take a few weeks! I heard about a program that only takes 21 days to change my nutrition and lose all the weight! It even comes with some fancy tupperware…
So in 3 weeks, I can become a slim, gym junkie! Right?
Wrong oh so wrong.
Despite the many claims out there, habits take more than 21 days to form. Three weeks is not long enough to change a habit and overcome your already unconscious desires. Sure, it’s a good starting point. But there is no chance that it’s the ending point if that habit is a big one.
Some super fancy researchers did a study to see how long it really took a habit to form. And they measured different types of habits. If you wanted to change a small habit, sure you can boast the 21-day habit mark. But these small habits are things like drinking water at breakfast. Seems simple, but it still took people 20 days to form the habit. Want to eat fruit every day with lunch? Well, it took the participants almost 40 days to turn it into a habit! And thinking of making 50 push-ups each day your new habit? It could take you over 80 days!
So sure, some things might become habits after just 21 days. But for most people, that 21-day line is a big fat myth.
So how long does it really take a habit take to form? I am a black and white thinker so this is not my favorite answer, but here it is: it depends.
Yep, how long it takes you to form a habit depends on you. On your personality, on the habit you are changing, on your motivation, your goals, your environment.
Not a very crystal clear answer, unfortunately.
And that clear as mud answer doesn’t make for a very a good book title: Transform Your Habits in an Uncertain Number of Days…
Nor does it give you a catchy sales pitch: Turn your nutrition around in however long it takes you to change! But that’s the truth. No one knows how long it will take you to create a new habit. And what’s worse, research shows it takes even longer to try and replace an old, bad habit with a new one.
So if you really want to change your habits, you are in for the long haul. No, I don’t mean it will take you years, but it will take more than 21 days. So why is it so hard to change a habit? Especially when we know better! We know we should get off the couch and into the gym, but we just don’t. The Greeks call this “akrasia” – when you know the best course of action (going to the gym), but you do something different (watch TV).
So why do we keep suffering from this?
But back in the day (like the caveman era), times were simpler. Your sole job was just to stay alive and take care of your family.
If you were hungry, you went to find food.
If a predator came to your cave dwelling, you took off running.
If your population was dwindling and you needed to reproduce, you…uh…took part in some adult festivities.
All of these things kept you alive! And because they kept you alive, your brain told you to keep doing them!
That kickass survival chemical in your brain is your dopamine. Click To Tweet Dopamine has tons of super important roles in your brain. But to boil it down to the nitty-gritty, dopamine is our reward center. Click To Tweet
Remember back to your elementary school spelling tests? Where the kids that got 100% of the words right got to pick a prize. Well, those prizes are just like our dopamine.
The classroom teacher wanted the students to learn their spelling words. So when they got all of them right, they got a prize. Well, our dopamine wants us to survive. So when we make a choice, like eat food or outrun a predator, our dopamine rewards us for making good choices! For staying alive! And that reward is a dopamine flood that gives us a euphoric feeling.
Our dopamine today is a little different than our cavemen friends experienced. Yes, it still teaches us how to survive. But the chances of being attacked by a wooly mammoth are much less possible today than for our cavemen ancestors. So dopamine not only teaches us to survive, it teaches us to be happy. Dopamine pushes us to feel pleasure. So when we do something that is enjoyable, we get a rush of dopamine. That rush teaches us to keep seeking out pleasurable experiences so we can feel that rush more and more often.
Dopamine teaches us to find something pleasurable and to work for it.
But in today’s culture, we don’t want to have to work very hard or wait very long for that pleasure. We want instant gratification. We HATE when we have to wait for something!
Want a cheeseburger? Good thing Mcy-Ds is just around the corner and has a drive through!
Want to order that new shirt? COOL, get your credit card out and pick one-day shipping!
Want a slim body in 21 days? Just buy our product.
We want instant results. And dopamine loves the instant results! Because we get to feel that rush and euphoria constantly! We are constantly rewarding ourselves!
And when we make a choice that feels good (or keeps us alive) we feel good! And we learn to do that thing over and over and over again, until it becomes a habit. Something we unconsciously do because we already know that we will feel good after!
So our dopamine teaches us to be hooked on instant results and instant gratification.
So when we want to start a new habit (or change a bad one) we want results instantly!
You know what I am talking about. You decide you want to become a master at pushups. You already work out regularly, but you want to be even better at pushups to impress everyone at the gym. So to become the push-up master, you decide you are going to do 100 push-ups every night! Surely you will become the Master in no time!
- So evening one, you get your 100 pushups in no problem!
- Evening two, you are a little sore so tonight is just 75 pushups.
- Evening three, let’s just change the goal to 50 push-ups per night.
- Evening four, you can’t move your arms. You want a rest day after all.
- Evening five, it crosses your mind but you skip it.
- Evening six, you feel guilty because you know there is no chance in Hell you are doing push-ups tonight.
- And by evening seven, you forgot all about becoming the push-up master. Instead, you are going to become Vegan! So you dive into how to eat entirely vegan. Cold turkey (minus the turkey ha).
So what’s the problem? You had a goal and you had motivation. But you didn’t have a good plan. And your dopamine levels were low because you didn’t get the reward you wanted as quickly as you hoped. So instead of sticking with your goal, you moved on to something new. Something else that might give you that pleasure reward.
Your habits have taught you that you don’t have to wait or work for something you want. Your motivation and willpower were not going to last you long enough to hit your goal. And your habits told you to move on to something else.
Once upon a time (back in the 1960s and 70s), researchers at Stanford did The Marshmallow Experiment to study delayed gratification.
Here’s what they did:
They would bring a child into a room free of distractions. They would give that child one marshmallow (or cookie or pretzel) to enjoy. But they would tell that child that if they waited for 15 minutes without eating that reward, they could have TWO rewards!
The researchers would then leave the room. Some of the kids ate that marshmallow instantly. Some of the kids tried to wait the 15 minutes but failed. And about a third of the participants resisted temptation and were rewarded with two marshmallows!
Well, these researchers followed these kids for awhile and found that that the third that was able to resist temptation had higher SAT scores than the other kids.
Does this mean smarter people are more willing to wait for gratification? Not necessarily.
But it does suggest that some people are better than others at delayed gratification. And that probably has an impact in all areas of our lives, including school and cognition.
It also shows that most of us have a constant battle in our heads between instant and delayed gratification.
Watch TV or go to the gym? Eat the donuts or skip them? Go out for drinks or go home and sleep?
We always have choices to make.
But if your life habits are built around healthy choices, those choices are easy. And when you do make those choices, you won’t have to rely on willpower to make them because it’s second nature to you.
Here’s the thing about willpower. It’s like any muscle. You have to use it to strengthen it. So yes, in the short term, you may have to resist the temptations of immediate gratification. But as time goes forward, that resistance will become easier and easier until it gets to be second nature. That is when it becomes a habit. The unconscious decision to resist instant gratification and wait for the reward you truly want down the line.
And when it’s a habit, the choice is easy. You don’t need willpower to make it.
How do we start changing our habits?
How do we get ourselves addicted to our workouts and un-addicted to those donuts?
Of course, there are tons of books and programs for habit building and habit breaking. If you don’t believe us, hit up a local bookstore or look up Amazon and find the habit section – you will find dozens (or hundred depending on the size of your bookstore) of different books ready to tell you how to get there.
But here is what every habit breaking or habit building plan has in common:
1. Start with a Plan
If you want to create a new habit, you need to plan for it. After all, those who fail to plan, plan to fail (cliché, I know – but it’s true!). Planning gives you guidance. It’s your roadmap to ensure success.
We often want to create a good habit or change a bad one, but we don’t give ourselves a way to achieve it or a way to even know when it’s achieved.
“Be healthier” is not a good goal. What does healthier mean? How will you get there? And how will you know when you got it?
Instead, find something measurable that you can turn into a habit. Like, make it to the gym 5 times per week. Then make your plan – get out your calendar and write down the days you will go to the gym. The more specific and detailed your plan, the easier it is to follow.
And when will you know you succeeded? When you make it 5x per week for 3 months? What is the end measure? To have a successful plan, you need a clear and measurable goal and a clear and measurable endpoint.
2. Start Small
To work for a big goal you have to start small. So start at the beginning. The very, very beginning. You want micro quotas and big goals.
Quotas are the things that only require a small amount of work that you must get done regularly. The first small step forward. And for most of us, these small steps should happen every day (or almost every day but on a planned schedule). And your quota should be even smaller than you think!
Goals are the big picture items you are working to accomplish. What your small steps propel you toward.
The developer of this Micro and Macro technique, Nathan Barry, practiced what he preached. His goal was to be a published writer. He set a quota: to write 100 words each day. It didn’t matter if he was sick, tired, cranky or had 4000 other things on his To-Do list. Every day he wrote. If he wanted, he could write more than 100 words. But 100 words was the minimum. Every day. And he stuck with his small daily quota to work toward his larger goal. Sure enough, he got there (because we clearly read his work). The small steps moved him forward.
So if you want to be that Push-Up Master, you can’t start with 100 pushups each night. Your willpower will run out and your dopamine will tell you to jump ship for something more pleasurable! But if you set a quota for 5 pushups each night (or heck, even 1), it’s much easier to achieve that goal. Your dopamine is a little happy you hit your goal, even if it was just a small one. And as you slowly get stronger and your nightly pushups become an unconscious practice, you can add more and more pushups. Soon, 100 pushups each night is not big deal. It’s your norm. It’s your habit.
3. Increase Gradually
Once you master the small micro quotas, you can start building gradually toward the bigger healthy habit goal. If you can hit your 5 push up quota successfully for 2 weeks, increase to 10, or 15, or 20 pushups per night. Whatever is the next step up the ladder for you. Gradually build toward the end healthy habit goal.
4. Plan for the Slips
If your healthy habit goal is to follow your nutritional macros, and you already made a plan (one includes meal prepping and grocery shopping), you are off to a good start! But what do you do if you don’t make it home in time to cook dinner? Or you have a work dinner you forgot about?
In order to stick with your newly forming habit, you need to plan for challenges.
For most of us, when we run into an “Oh crap!” moment that throws us off our plan, it’s easy to give in to temptation. So that work dinner turns into an all you can eat (and drink) buffet that clearly misses the macro mark (and leaves you feeling like crap and hungover at work the next day).
But this is not helpful! It’s the same as dropping your phone on the ground and because you notice a little scratch, you smash the entire phone. One little slip or challenge does not have to get you off course. So plan for slips and challenges so when they confront you, you already have a response.
5. Stick to the Plan and Become a Little Boring
In order to keep your habit forming, you have to stay consistent. And yes, consistency can seem boring. By being boring in other parts of your life, you can save your willpower energy for when temptation hits.
Remember our willpower muscle? The one you have to exercise to strengthen? Well, your willpower muscle gets tired if you use it too much – just like overtraining any other muscle. If you are constantly faced with temptation, eventually your willpower will run out and you will give in.
So eliminate temptation or exhaustion in other areas. Limit the choices you have to make in a day.
You know that person who eats the same sack lunch every day? Or wears the same outfits every week? Or that person that has a predictable schedule at work – you know the guy, the one who gets his coffee at exactly 9:06 am. These people don’t leave room for temptation. And they save their willpower for when bigger challenges hit.
It eliminates any surprise changes to fall off course and it saves your willpower reserves. As you stay on course, your new habit grows stronger. Eventually, that practice of going to the gym or skipping the donuts becomes second nature. It becomes an unconscious decision. Once you can’t stray from because you don’t want to.
It becomes a true habit.
So, you want to become a gym addict and health nut? Start forming your plan to make these real habits. Find out what small steps will get you there. And as those small steps get easier and easier to complete, increase your steps and your plans. Always have a plan for when things don’t go your way and stay committed to the course. Only then will those become true habits. Healthy habits that will guarantee you get your fitness goals. Healthy habits that don’t suck.
And if you want to know the real tricks of the habit trade, click below to check out the Top 11 Best Habit Building Tips and Hacks from the Experts!
Already making small steps toward your big fitness goals?
Share with us! Leave a comment below and tell us what small steps you are already (or planning to) take to build the healthier you!