I rolled over in bed, wearily planted my feet on the floor, and yawned. I fumbled around in the dark for my gym clothes, pulled on two different socks, and started my workout.
The sun still hadn’t risen.
Those workouts were brutal. I would wake up with my stomach growling, two hours earlier than usual. I grabbed my set of dumbbells and went through my 20–30 minute circuits. I did this every day for a month.
And then I quit.
I had done it every day, but it wasn’t a habit.
When most people think of habits, that’s what they think of—something you do every day. But that isn’t actually what makes something a habit.
Take a look at this story, from a writer on Medium:
“All this literature on habits sounded good so I tried it out. For 66 days I did 50 push-ups. That’s an easy habit if you think about it. But that was the point. I wanted to start small and prove the theory.
Day one, I could barely do ten push-ups. I had to take breaks to complete 50. After day 30, I had to do more than 50 push-ups just to stay interested. Most the time I’d do all 50 in a row a few times a day. I’ll tell you, exercising for one minute a day is not going to do much for you. I decided to throw in a bunch of other exercises such as burpees, crunches, dips, etc.
I noticed that after day 66, I really didn’t see much of a change physically or mentally. The science wasn’t working. Still, I kept going because I knew in my mind it was not a habit yet. In truth, I didn’t feel better or worse for doing these micro-workouts.
However, I stuck with it. 100 days passed by quickly. So did 200 days. On day 365, I thought I would feel relieved or accomplished. I felt nothing.”
Was the science truly not working, or was it just applied in the wrong way?
(clearly this is the right way) via GIPHY
What Makes a Habit?
There’s research, frequently cited, that it takes 66 days to form a habit. As is often the case in psychology the research itself is fine (if incomplete), but the way people talk about this research is wrong.
First, “it takes 66 days to create a habit” is a silly statement. This experiment found that it took an average of 66 days for their participants to create a habit.
That average time almost certainly depends on what the habit is. It depends on what steps people are taking to establish the habit. It probably depends somewhat on the life circumstances of the people being study.
And, most importantly, it’s an average. The researchers found that some people established the habit as quickly as 18 days. Others took 254. It can take more or less than 66 days to form a habit, and that number isn’t the important part of this study.
Second, “habit” has a very particular definition.
The researchers behind that experiment have given this definition of a habit:
“Habits are behaviours which are performed automatically because they have been performed frequently in the past.
This repetition creates a mental association between the situation (cue) and action (behaviour) which means that when the cue is encountered the behaviour is performed automatically. Automaticity has a number of components, one of which is lack of thought.”
Some researchers even argue that the frequency of habits is unimportant! To those researchers, a habit is something that occurs automatically in response to a cue, whether that cue is frequent or not.
Our Medium writer was completing an action every day, but was he completing it in response to a specific cue? Was he doing it automatically in response to a particular environment?
He doesn’t give much detail, but I’m going to guess the answer is no. He says “Most the time I’d do all 50 in a row a few times a day,” so unless this environment is occurring multiple times a day, it seems more likely that he was “forcing himself” to do the push-ups.
Instead of forcing yourself, create an environment that tells you exactly when to work out.
Set up or define cues that make the decision to work out for you.
Use small, relevant rewards to create good feelings after your habit (so you don’t, like this Medium writer, get bored).
If you set up a truly automatic habit, you’ll never have to force yourself to work out. You’ll just do it, and feel good about it.
Feelin’ good via GIPHY
So What Does it Feel Like to Have a Fitness Habit?
When you have a fitness habit, you don’t need to “force yourself” to do anything. At the beginning there will be a degree of discipline and “forcing” yourself, but that fades as you remove barriers to working out and the habit becomes ingrained.
For a lot of people, habits get derailed by moment-to-moment thoughts; when you have to make a decision every time you want to complete your “habit,” it’s easy to get distracted by what’s going on around you.
One common example is struggling to work out after work. When you leave work, the thought is “ugh I’m tired and hungry. I should just go home and eat dinner and relax.”
But when you have a workout habit, the automatic thought is different. It becomes “ugh I’m tired and hungry. I can’t wait until I finish my workout so I can go home, eat dinner, and relax.”
The difference is subtle, but having a fitness habit means that your automatic thoughts are different. They assume that you’ll be working out no matter what, so the decision to not workout never enters the equation.
Another example comes when a fitness habit gets disrupted. Because a habit is cued by your environment, changing your environment is a great way to disrupt your habit
This works for both good and bad habits, and is why changing environments is a huge part of treating substance addiction and abuse.
The recent holidays are a great example of a disrupted environment. Travel takes away your environmental cues, days off work remove structure, and before you know it you’re downing whiskey on the rocks and your fitness habits are dashed against the rocks (this is my attempt at being clever).
But if habits are firmly established, you start to feel different. After the holidays, one friend of mine commented that he “needed to exercise” because his “legs were antsy.”
Now, this is an active guy, but he isn’t a meathead or huge exercise fanatic. When a habit is strong enough, it tries to self-correct even if it gets disrupted.
If you’ve ever heard people say that they feel terrible if they don’t work out, this is what’s happening. Their habit is trying to correct itself. That they haven’t given up is a sign of how strong it is.
And how strong yours can be.
How Can You Build Habits?
I’ve written about each of the elements of creating habits. Here are some of the top articles if you want to learn more.
- Learn how to create rewards that actually work
- Why you set unrealistic goals, why that’s sometimes a good thing, and when goal setting alone isn’t enough
- “Just do it” isn’t helpful. This 5-step process is an alternative.
- If you ever feel uncomfortable in the gym, learn the psychology of overcoming gym anxiety
- Everything you need to know for your first day at the gym