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How to Build a Habit and Stay Consistent
How I built a workout habit that I've been consistent with for the last few months, triggering a habit cascade that changed my life.
I've been working out consistently for ten weeks now.
Getting sufficient exercise is key to several health benefits and is directly linked to longevity. It is one of the best long-term investments you can make for your long life and wellbeing. Ever since I started researching habit-formation and behavior design, working out consistently has been a goal I've pursued with mixed results. This is the first time I've got it right, and with working out now becoming a 'normal' part of my day, designing this habit is one of my proudest achievements.
The Apple Watch 6 that I purchased in April helped with its Fitness app that tracks three different goals each day- standing hours, exercise minutes, and a move goal. When you see your progress visually represented as percentages on a ring, the abstract target of "working out" is quantified as "exercise 20 minutes today", and it makes it easy to push yourself towards this specific goal.
But this isn't my first fitness tracker. I've been wearing a fitness tracker since 2016, and I'd never been able to bring consistency into my workout routines. What was different this time are two things. First was an overwhelming realization that I just could not continue living the way I was going about my days (especially during a very low point) that forced me to make changes.
The second was the amount of time I spent understanding my default behaviors and responses and carefully designing my new habits around them to make slow but consistent changes. In this edition, I focus on three of these changes that helped me build my workout habit:
1️⃣ Start Easy
As I keep saying in all my issues about habit formation, you need to start with an extremely easy behavior. However complex your final goal is, break it down into multiple steps, and identify the first and easiest step you can take to reach your final destination. Starting with a complex goal on Day 1 is the surest way to overwhelm yourself and make no progress towards forming the habit.
A habit needs small changes performed consistently over a long period. Don't expect overnight changes or results, and give yourself ample space and time to form the routine. Decompose your final habit goal into small chunks of actionable behaviors and start with the first small step in that direction. Over time, as you make consistent progress with the small action, increase your weekly goal to take the next step.
When I started working out in May, I set a small goal to do stretches for 15 minutes a day, at least four days a week. I chose stretches because I've been doing yoga since I was very young, and it comes easily for me. Further, I limited it to 15 minutes because it was an easy goal. So for the first week, I took out my Yoga mat, set a countdown timer to 15 minutes, and did stretches that I was familiar with.
Over the next few weeks, as I maintained my consistency, I upped my weekly goals to a longer duration of exercise, the number and intensity of my workouts, and the number of calories I burned during my exercise. In May, my goal was 15 minutes of stretches every day. In July, after weeks of consistent practice, I was doing 40 minutes of exercise in the morning, walking at least a mile in the evening, and burning an average of 400 KCal a day.
Over the next few weeks and months, I hope to set more ambitious fitness goals and push myself, but it all started with 15 minutes of stretches.
2️⃣ Make It Easy to Continue
It was easy to set a realistic goal, but I always found it challenging to maintain consistency and find the will to continue the habit every day. The complexity of the habit is not the only friction you will discover in establishing a habit- it is also crucial to make it easy to perform the routine every day.
To make it easy to find consistency in performing the habit, break the daily habit into components of resources you need to achieve it. These can be physical things you need to complete the routine- for me, it was my yoga mat, my face towel, my phone, and my water bottle. But don't forget to count the additional resources without which the friction to perform the action increases. I needed my willpower reserves to perform intensive physical activity and enough battery on my phone and smartwatch to keep track of the workout.
Once you have a list of the resources you need, make sure you make them easily accessible when you start your routine. For me, I made sure that my Yoga mat was rolled up and visible in an open corner of my room, hung my face-towel on my door, and filled my water bottle first thing in the morning. I set reminders to charge my phone and watch well before my workout session. Finally, I slowly moved my exercise to first thing in the morning because it was easier to find willpower reserves right as the day began.
3️⃣ Make It Work
Suppose you try to incorporate a new habit into your daily routine with multiple components that do not have much in common with what you regularly do in your day. Then, it becomes impossible to create this habit. A new behavior needs to fit into your day to become a habit, much like a piece in a puzzle. This means you need to change other aspects of your daily behavior that will slowly ease this new behavior into a habit that you perform every day.
So, forming a new habit requires time and consistency, and adjustments to other behaviors in your day to make space for this new behavior in your daily routine.
If you've read Atomic Habits, you'll remember James Clear's reminder to form habits: If you want to become fit, don't aim to lose 20 pounds; aim instead to be a person who works out every single day. Focus on the systems that help you achieve the goal. Without these other changes, this new habit remains an isolated behavior. It does not become a 'normal part of your life and does not begin to shape your identity- the definitive mark that a habit is an irrevocable part of your life.
If you wish to create a writing habit, adjust your schedule to set aside one hour of uninterrupted time to build your writing routine. If you want to develop a meditation habit, spend some time through the day reading about meditation to learn more about how to do it right, follow experts on Youtube, and adjust your sleep cycle to rest your mind well each night.
In my case, to support my new exercise habit, I started making changes to my sleep, food, and water intake. First, I got my sleep schedule in order, aiming to get at least 7 hours of sleep each night. I also started eating better, incorporating protein and other essential nutrients into my diet. I also gradually increased my water intake to at least 2.5 liters of water a day.
These have been the three changes I made to my life that helped me incorporate an exercise habit into my life. These habit-formation tips apply to all habits and not just for building exercise routines. Is there a habit you're trying to create? How will you incorporate these tips into building your new habit? I'd love to hear from you.
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