Using the Four Pillars of Habits to Start Your Fitness Journey

In this post, I’m going to focus on four strategic pillars, created and popularized by Gretchen Rubin — that you can use to support building a new fitness routine. The strategies, Monitoring, Accountability, Scheduling, and Foundation are what Gretchen calls “The Four Pillars” because they are essential and foundational. In reality, these strategies apply to the building of any habit, but I’m going to outline some ways in which you can use them to starting and sticking to a new fitness routine.

Welcome to 2018

It’s a new year, a time when many make a goal of starting a new fitness routine as well as other resolutions. Goals are a tricky thing. They are well-intentioned, but they also create a gap between who you are and who you want to be. Not reaching your goals, which happens to many people can be detrimental to your self-worth. Research shows that people do reasonably well at making strides towards their goal(s) in the beginning but, this changes very quickly.

“Researchers have looked at the success rates of peoples’ resolutions: The first two weeks usually go along beautifully, but by February, people are backsliding. And by the following December, most people are back where they started — often even further behind.” — Psychology Today

Even though many people struggle or fail to meet the goals they set in the New Year, the New Year is a great time to set goals. The New Year falls into the “clean slate” category of strategies. Clean slates inherently represent new beginnings and can be used powerfully to support building new habits. Clean slates can be any state where you are starting anew or fresh. In addition to a New Year, clean slate events include moving to a new apartment or city or starting or leaving new job or relationship.

“In one study of people trying to make a change — such as change in career or education, relationships, addictive behaviors, health behaviors such as dieting, or change in perspective — 36% of successful changes were associated with a move to a new location.” — Gretchen Rubin

The first thing you need to understand and believe is that reaching your goals is well within your control. The second thing is that you deserve whatever positive habit you’re trying to build. Even if you don’t see yourself as a fit person, you deserve to be fit. If you don’t see yourself as someone who eats healthfully, you deserve to eat healthy food. Habits take time to form, and when they do, they will change your how you self-identify. You must give it time, but more importantly, you must be consistent in your actions.

Consistency is the Only Supplement You Need

“I have a phrase that I live by: ‘Add some zeros to it.’ There is not any one thing you can do that will be enough to get you the results you want. For example, working out at the gym one time isn’t going to help you lose a lot of weight. However, if you add some zeros to it, and repeat that one workout 100 times or 1,000 times, you’re going to get somewhere.” — Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Bregman

If you consistently perform actions that support your habit, you will get results, period. As Benjamin P. Hardy says, you don’t control the outcomes of your life, your principles do.

When You Overhaul Start Small

When it comes to the gym, it’s ok to start small while also being consistent. For example, for the first few weeks — aim to go to the gym two to three days a week, then add another day. Once that routine has solidified, add one more. All the sudden you’re someone who goes to the gym five days a week!

The Four Pillars!

Let’s get into the Four Pillars and how you can use them to get fit.

Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash

Strategy #1: Foundation

The Foundation strategy is just some baseline things that are going to set you up for success. They are so foundational that you could say, they are requirements for a healthy and productive life.

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Getting enough exercise
  • Creating external order (tidy up!)
  • Managing eating and drinking

These elements are about creating an optimal environment, one that will help you be productive and successful. If you feel like you’ve mastered these Foundation elements, great! If not, don’t worry. It’s more productive to focus on one habit instead of many. Moreover, though, you can use one habit to change and improve other Foundation elements easily.

Last year I wrote a post about how I got hooked on strength training. In that post, I talk about keystone habits. A keystone habit is a habit that trickles into and improves other areas of your life naturally because you are intrinsically motivated and want to support the keystone habit. Strength training became my keystone habit. My sleep and diet patterns got better to increase the success of my keystone habit. Many people have experienced the power of a keystone habit.

“When I worked out, I wanted to eat better. Even though I could have rewarded myself with chocolate bars and ice cream, I felt like eating real, healthy foods. I also slept better. And when I was awake, I seemed more productive. Especially in the hour or two after working out, when my mind seemed to think clearer and my writing was crisper. Thoughts flowed easily.” — James Clear

The body craves what you give it and this goes both ways.

If you are having trouble with the Foundation elements, I recommend moving forward with your fitness routine as it may help you with some of the other aspects. Let’s take sleep as an example. We only have so much energy; if you get up early to go the gym, even if you haven’t had a solid seven to eight hours of sleep, you will inevitably be tired that evening. Exhaustion and consistency around bedtimes will help you get into a more regular sleep routine. Maybe your workout will be hard, perhaps you’ll be tired during the day, but these are temporary sacrifices. What you don’t want to do is wait until your sleep improves enough where you can justify going to the gym. If your sleep never gets better, then you never go to the gym.

Strategy #2: Accountability

You do better when you know someone’s watching — even if you’re the one doing the watching. — Gretchen Rubin

There are two kinds of accountability, internal and external. Internal accountability is being accountable to oneself. External accountability is being accountable to someone or something else. For many people, especially when it comes to exercise, external accountability is most helpful, but there are ways to do both, listed below.

One of the most popular methods of external accountability is a workout partner or just someone who helps monitor your gym goal. In practice, you can share a workout calendar with a friend who is checking in on you, or use an app to create transparency around your progress with a person or group of people. Working out with a partner is a great incentive to get to the gym — but if you can’t find one, don’t let this stop you from moving forward.

Here are some external and internal accountability methods to consider.

External Accountability Methods

  • Sign up for weekly classes
  • Get a personal trainer
  • Get an accountability partner
  • Get a workout buddy

Internal Accountability Methods

  • Set a specific goal (lose weight, build muscle, etc.)
  • Have a clear and specific workout plan that supports your goal
  • Put your gym clothes on as soon as you get out of bed
  • If going to the gym in the evening, pack your gym bag the night before
  • Setup a (healthy) reward system for going to the gym

Hiring a trainer is an excellent method of external accountability that can help you with clarifying your goal AND setting up a specific workout plan for you. Then, all you have to do is show up and do the work!

Strategy #3: Monitoring

Monitoring (or tracking) can be helpful when you’re trying to change or adopt a new habit; it allows you to have real data to understand how you’re doing.

I keep this in mind at all times:

Clarity creates motivation
Tracking creates awareness
Reporting creates accountability

Tracking creates awareness. One genuine experience I observed is when I (for a short time) counted calories. I weighed my food and ate mainly the same thing every day, which made tracking easier. It was part of my health and fitness plan to stay within a specific caloric window each day. When you track at this level of detail, you start to understand how easy it is to overeat or undereat. More importantly, you have excellent data to inform your journey. You don’t need to get this detailed, but there are a few ways you can easily apply monitoring to fitness.

Use the Don’t Break the Chain Method

This method also called the “Seinfeld Strategy” is a method where for each day that you work towards a goal or an activity, you mark that day on a physical calendar. It’s a visual habit tracker. People use this method to keep track of stuff that they want to every day (“don’t break the chain”). However, you can easily modify it to suit your needs. If you gym goal is four days a week, just don’t break that chain. It’s a great way to stay motivated and to also celebrate your success, visually!

Fitness Trackers

I love wearing a fitness tracker just to know how many steps I’ve taken during the day. In addition to working out, I have a target of 10k steps per day. Monitoring in this way helps me get up and go for short walks during the day and gives me the data I need to take action.

Other Methods

The method of monitoring you choose depends on your goal. If you want to lose weight, then monitor your weight, if you want to build muscle then monitor that. Some people like to take weekly or monthly photos or keep an exercise journal. Think about what methods will work for you. Also, what a great way to have some internal accountability!

Remember: you can manage what you monitor!

Strategy #4: Scheduling

Scheduling is merely putting an activity on your calendar. It has this magical way of making things happen. When something is in your schedule, you’re more likely to do it. Some people are even using calendars instead of to-do lists!

One of the most common reasons people cite for not going to the gym is lack of time. I genuinely believe that even in a busy life, one can find the time to exercise. Also, you make time for what’s important to you. If you really can’t make it to a gym, there are plenty of bodyweight exercises that require a minimal amount of room and no equipment. If you can make it to the gym but are short on time, focus on efficiency through high-intensity exercises that will burn a lot of calories fast and get your rate up quickly. Something like this can take as little as ten minutes.

I usually go to the gym in the morning, before work but I’ve also gone during my lunch break. In that case and to ensure that no meetings get scheduled during that time — I put it on my calendar.

Other Takeaways

With exercise, it’s important to find something you like doing but also have an open mind. Never in my life did I think I’d be into lifting weights. I tried it for awhile, and got great results reasonably quickly. That was about a year ago. I’m biased, but I think everyone should lift weights and have some strength. It’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had. If you need help getting into strength training, contact me.

The Power of Yes

When talking about exercise, most people say “I’ll try to do it.” I think that’s a self-defeating way to go about it! Why try to do it, just do it. There is power in saying yes.

Keep Moving

There are opportunities throughout each day to move. Take the stairs, walk up the escalator, go for walks and so on. Look for opportunities in the day to get more steps in and keep moving.

Good luck with your fitness routine, I’d love to hear from you!

“Every habit has a reward: when our brain starts to anticipate and crave the reward, it makes the behavior automatic”. — Fast Company

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