The science behind habits
How often have you meant to head to the gym but instead ended up getting in a good “zone” and work right through the day? Or maybe you get home after a long day and just have too many things to do and the getting to the gym is at the bottom of the list? Well what if I told you I have an incredibly simple, yet effective solution that will always get you to the gym. No more month-long workout hiatuses. And it’s as simple and mindless as brushing your teeth every day.
You use enough energy and brainpower killing it at work every day. Let your brain take a back seat when it’s time to workout.
So what is a habit exactly?
Brushing your teeth every day is almost automatic; it’s a habit. Every day before bed you brush your teeth without thinking twice about it. What if we can create the same type of routine for exercising, you’d never need to think twice about it again.
A habit is an automatic behaviour you do which once started as a conscious choice. I recently read a fantastic book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg (I highly recommend it!) which had so many insightful comments and findings on the impact of habits on our daily lives. The cool thing is, we can take this valuable information and apply it to our fitness lives.
A paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that about 45% of our daily actions are actually habits. This could include things such as eating fast food every day lunch, brushing your teeth, driving to work, or waking your dog. (Habits- A Repeat Performance).
What this means is that almost half of the day we don’t need to use our brain to make a decision and instead can save that decision-making power for more important things like making difficult decisions at work.
I won’t go into detail on willpower in this post (that is a WHOLE other post), but it has been proposed through studies that we have a limited amount of willpower each day. So let’s use it wisely.
A habit is made up of 3 crucial parts as outline in Duhigg’s book, a cue, a routine, and a reward. As I’m sure you can guess, the cue initiates the habit, such as your alarm going off signaling it’s time for your daily sweat sesh. A routine is the habit itself, such as you grabbing your gym bag, driving to the gym, and proceeding with your workout. And finally the best part, the reward, the part your brain actually craves once your cue hits. Your alarm goes off and now your brain craves your post-gym reward, that chocolatey protein shake you have waiting.
The good news, this concept is relatively simple; create a habit to get in your regular workout and you’ll be reaching your fitness goals in no time. Bad news, it’s easier said than done, so that’s why we’re going to do this together. Right now, in this article. It’s time to never miss another workout, go team!
Keys to making a habit successful
Aside from having a cue, routine, and reward, there also needs to be belief to make the habit successful. Belief in the fact that you can create and execute on this habit. If you don’t have belief you may witness something like this happen….
You form a habit to get yourself to the gym every day. However as your alarm rings signaling for you to leave for the gym, all you can think is, “Ugh, I’m so tired after a hectic day at work. I’m tired and just want to stay in and watch Netflix.” Before you know it you’ve skipped your workout….even after (attempting) to make it into a habit!
Napoleon Hill touches on this “belief” portion in his book, Think and Grow Rich. In order to have success we need to get our subconscious mind to believe in this habit. But this cannot be done by thinking negative thoughts.
Negative thoughts mean an unsuccessful habit.
By thinking positively and believing in your own success, you convince your subconscious to also believe it (i.e. lasting success). So rather than dreading your workout and making up excuses in your mind, rephrase your thought to things like, “My mind may be tried after a long day, but my body isn’t! And this workout will give me even more energy and refresh my mind so I can spend the night reading and getting ahead on work.”
Even if the positive affirmations you make are completely false in your mind, it is possible to trick your subconscious into believing they are real. I’m sure you’ve heard of the common phrase, “faking it until you make it“? Well it works, trust me. Once your subconscious is on the right page, you’ll see continued success in executing your habit, even when stress, worry, and life in general, start to pop up.
Another key part in creating a successful and long-lasting habit is to have a group or one other person to create the habit with. I’m sure you’ve heard of fitness accountability partners but there’s another key reason why having a partner is effective. Referring back to my previous point about having “belief”, when you can see the change in another person by way of the same habit, the “belief” portion becomes even easier.
For example, if you and your girlfriend Sarah decide to go to the gym every second day at 4pm (i.e. you’ve created a habit), the habit will be easier to stick to when you see Sarah executing on that habit and making progress to her goal of squatting 135lbs. Why? Because you see the positive effects of the new habit on Sarah, so now you really to start to believe in this new routine. So no matter how tired you are or how cold it is outside, you’re going to the gym and powering through that workout, on autopilot.
One last thing before we dive into creating our new habit, Duhigg refers to some habits being “keystone habits” in his book. These are habits which have a wider effect, that touch on other behaviours in your life. And lucky for us, regular exercise has been seen as a keystone habit. It is noted that when people began incorporating regular exercise into their lives they began to also eat better, were more productive work, and had less stress in their lives. You may have expected that already but now that it’s written in front of you perhaps you now have a greater belief in making regular exercise a habit. (See what I did there with the “belief” part? 😀 )
Let’s create our habit!
Well enough with the science behind habits, time to start creating our own fitness habit! Being a career-driven, Type-A women I bet your biggest struggle is just “finding the time” to get your butt to the gym, and getting there consistently. So let’s create a new habit to solve this never-ending struggle!
The first part of our habit that we’re going to set is the cue. Since we’re not changing a previous (bad) habit, our cue will be something new we’re creating. This can be something simple that you will now pair with your habit. In the example of brushing your teeth before bed, the cue is the action of going to bed. Another cue could be the feeling of “dirty teeth”, such as rubbing your tongue over your teeth and feeling a “film”. The cue can be an action (an alarm), a mental state (dreading the gym), a physiological feeling (tiredness), an outside occurrence (like a friend), really anything.
No matter what is it, the cue should trigger an automatic behaviour that requires little to no thought process.
If we’re creating a new habit to get to the gym consistently, what could our cue be? As recently noted, you could use a cue that already exists such as feeling tired after work. You could then pair that feeling with the actual action of going to the gym and working out. Isn’t that cool? We’re using a negative emotion as something that will be a positive…hitting the gym! Even cooler, instead of dwelling on that feeling of tiredness and coming up with negative thoughts that would hurt your subconscious, you would instead switch into autopilot and head to the gym; a positive affirmation for your subconscious. Aren’t our bodies and minds just the best. 😀
I’m not going to leave you hanging in coming up with a cue, so here are some cue examples that you can pull from and try out:
-Preset an alarm to go off at the same time every day (AM, PM, whenever, but no snoozing allowed)
-Base your workout off of another regularly scheduled event such as your daily job. When work ends you go straight to the gym. Or you workout pre or post lunch every day or first thing in the morning.
-When the afternoon yawns come you head for the gym (this one doesn’t depend on a time or event, just your physiological feeling…of course it depends on your work and life schedule)
-Place your gym bag in your kitchen or bathroom. You see it first thing in the morning, then grab it and head for the gym
-Join a workout group or find a friend who will join you on workouts. When the class time arrives or your friend calls you head to the gym. This one is really effective IF you continue to go to the gym at the same time even when your friend can’t go/class is cancelled. But that means it can also be ineffective if you don’t continue to go
That list should get some ideas rolling. Now you can also combine cues, where you’ll have one primary cue and a secondary one. For myself, I workout first thing every morning (the secondary cue). The main cue being a set time. Once the clock hits 8 am I know I need to be walking out of the house. The benefit of this approach is that sometimes I can’t workout in the morning, but if I didn’t use the “time cue”, it would be really hard to reschedule my workout later in the day. Since I’m familiar with the “time cue”, all I do is simply pre-determine a different time that I’ll workout in the day, such as 12pm.
And remember, whatever cue you choose needs to work for you and what you want your fitness routine to look like. If you only workout on weekends, then a cue related to your weekday job won’t work. Or if you only workout every second day, your cue needs to happen consistently every second day.
Your turn, make a short list of cues right now and when you’re done, we’ll continue on to the reward.
Time to discuss the fun part, the reward! A habit is effective when your brain starts to crave the reward when your cue hits. That “craving” is what will make you execute your “routine” and stick with your habit, meaning lasting fitness success!
Perhaps your reward is the post-sweat euphoria you feel, or a clearer mind to tackle a tough project at work, or the feeling of feeling strong and confident. As you can see, the reward like the cue, can be a physical reward, a mental reward, or a social reward, there are no restrictions here.
Take a moment right here to write down a few possible rewards that you can pair with your cues.
You’re then going to try out the different cues and rewards over the next 2-3 weeks to see what is the optimal formula for you. This is going to take some trial and error to see what works best; what reward does your brain end up craving? And remember you can use a primary and secondary cue as well as a primary and secondary reward. Just one more item to cover….read on ladies!
The routine is the actual action you want to accomplish. And with the cue and reward already in place you’ll simply insert the routine between the two and you’ve got your new (and effective) habit! Although we know what the routine is (getting your butt to the gym and working out), I want to break it down so we know exactly what actions are involved in this routine.
You’ve already removed the mental process of initiating the action of going to the gym by means of your cue. So I want you to continue that “thoughtless” process as much as you can. The less willpower you have to use to get to the gym and workout, the better. So how can you make this an automated process for yourself?
Well I’m happy to share are some ideas to get you going:
-pre-pack your gym bag and lay out your gym clothe beforehand. Heck even sleep in your gym clothes if you workout first thing in the AM
-get to the gym the same way you always do, follow the same locker room routine, do the same warm-up, preplan your playlist. Get yourself ready to hit your workout without a second thought.
-preplan your workout and write it down. No need to decide what to do/not to do when you arrive at the gym
When you preplan things or write them down you won’t need to decide in the moment what to do, it ensures reliability and consistency. So when your brain is tied up with other worries you won’t end up missing your workout. No room for a failed habit here!
This is where I leave you…
Although a simple concept there is a lot of psychology around the forming and implementing of habits. Easy on paper but a little trickier to implement. However I’ve given you all the tools today to create and sustain an effective habit for getting in your regular workout.
Here’s a summary you can quickly refer back to whenever you need a refresher:
-A habit is an automatic behaviour you do which once started as a conscious choice
-you need 3 elements to form an effective habit, cue, routine, reward
-the cue is what triggers your routine. It should be a mindless trigger that cues your brain to start your routine/habit
-the reward is what your brain will crave when the cue hits. This is what will pull you into your routine
-the routine is the action. Make this as mindless and pre-planned as you can to eliminate the need for willpower (which may fail you when under stress)
Remember lady, you’re creating a new habit which will take some trial and error before it becomes effective. So play around with different cues and rewards, record what you’re feeling and the outcomes you see, and take time to celebrate the small wins. You found a successful cue? That’s amazing, give yourself that high-five!
It’s always easiest in theory but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to execute. You have the resources, you have the drive and discipline, now it’s just time to implement and being crazy successful.
(I also highly recommend the book, The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. There’s a lot of great details on creating habits for yourself, the habits of organizations, and the habits in societies. And don’t worry that isn’t an affiliate link, so buy wherever or borrow from your library).
Building a habit is exciting and scary, so I’m curious, what is your exact habit going to be? And what are some ideas you have for a cue and reward? Send me an email or comment below I’ll be in touch!
Karen (at) strongandsmart.net