For the past three months, I’ve been focusing a great deal of energy on building a daily exercise habit. Unless you’re new to the world of personal development, I don’t need to tell you why I’m doing this. The potential upside is huge: Lost weight. More energy. Higher confidence and self-esteem. Stable mental health. Improved ability to do exciting physical activities. There’s a lot at stake here.
And as someone who’s been overweight for years, this one elusive habit could fundamentally improve my life in a number of ways.
Yet, like a lot of folks, I’ve tried this before. I’ve made overambitious New Year’s resolutions, midyear “get back on track” resolutions, and spur-of-the-moment “I’m going to change my life right now” resolutions.
In my attempts to make exercise palatable and consistent, I’ve burned through gym memberships, home exercise equipment, and online workout video subscriptions. I’ve pored over blogs and books and courses. I’ve cycled through phases of inspiration and excitement and action, only to fall back into burnout, self-criticism, and lethargy.
Basically, my success to this point has been what you might call laughably lackluster. I’ve fallen off the wagon more times than you could count on 20 hands.
But this time, I’m hell-bent on making it work. There’s too much at stake not to make it work.
So I’ve been studying up on the underlying science of habit design. I’ve been digging into advice from expert habit practitioners like Leo Babauta, James Clear, Charles Duhigg, and BJ Fogg. I’ve been documenting what works and what doesn’t, and more important, I’ve been using myself as a guinea pig—applying all this information to a habit I’ve wanted for years but have struggled to build.
On top of all that, I’ve been using a counterintuitive approach to building this particular habit—something I’ve never tried before, something that at first glance seems a little counterintuitive. And it’s working better than I could have ever imagined.
Now, I don’t want to jump the gun quite yet. Three months of success do not make for a lifetime exercise habit. But for now, I genuinely feel like I have a truly automatic behavior, and with good deal of momentum and confidence, there’s no reason for me to stop. Plus, I’m finally starting to feel what people have been telling me for years — that exercise (and all the chemicals it releases in your body) eventually becomes a reward in and of itself.
And here’s the amazing part: The approach I’ve taken to get to this point has been the easiest and least frustrating experience I’ve had with exercise in my entire life. I know, I’m shocked too.
So, for the rest of this post, I’m going to show you exactly what I’ve been doing, why I’ve been doing it, and how you can start doing it yourself if you feel so inclined.
Let’s dive in.
The Counterintuitive Strategy That Helped This Habit Come to Life
I won’t beat around the bush here. This strategy can be summed up very simply as building the habit itself first and not focusing on results, at least to start.
My primary goal right now isn’t to lose 20 pounds or increase muscle. Instead, it’s to build a bulletproof habit of going to the gym every single day, whether I want to or not. Once that habit is firmly in place, I can start pushing into more strenuous and focused workouts that move me toward my goals. But not a moment sooner.
BJ Fogg calls this strategy “tiny habits,” but somehow I never allowed myself to embrace it.
That’s where I’ve gone wrong in the past. My old strategy could essentially be summed up as:
Set a new fitness goal → Do the required workouts → Hope it becomes a habit
Not surprisingly, this didn’t work. If you’ve ever started an intense new exercise regimen as an out-of-shape person, you know that the first few weeks or so absolutely wreck you — as in you spend a good deal of time feeling like you’ve been hit by a bus.
After a week or three of this, I would always find excuses not to get back to the gym. This exact thing has happened more times than I care to admit. And I let many would-be exercise habits die before they ever had the chance to take root.
As is often said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again but expecting different results. I like to think I’m not insane, so I’m trying something else.
Here’s what that formula looks like now that I’ve flipped the script:
Build a truly automatic habit of going to the gym every day → Set a fitness goal → Use my habitual time at the gym to implement the appropriate workouts to achieve that goal
It’s such a small change, but it’s a meaningful one, because it’s fundamentally about taking a long-term view of exercise. It’s not important to me to “take massive action” or “smash my fitness goals” or anything hyperbolic like that. Instead, I’m investing my energy and focus into something that will have a much larger payout in the grand scheme of things. That’s the hope, anyway.
Now, just this strategy on its own is potentially enough to help anyone build a new exercise habit. But I went further than that, layering in a good deal of research-backed advice from the most prominent voices in the world of habit design. Here’s what I’ve been doing to make this habit as sticky and permanent as can be.
Start Small (Like, Ridiculously Small) and Build Up
Everyone who writes about behavior change says you should start small, focus on consistency, and slowly and surely work your way up to bigger and better things over the long term. For example, see BJ Fogg’s great (and free) Tiny Habits course.
Now, I’ve tried this in the past, and the thing that almost always happened is that my small behaviors would begin to grow on their own. That’s what I mean about having been unable to fully embrace this approach.
I’d be uncomfortable doing something so small and seemingly insignificant. What would start as 10 to 15 minutes at the gym would become a slightly longer workout. And those longer workouts would keep growing and eventually lead back to burnout and apathy. And the habit would die before ever getting started.
This time, I not only started small, but I also put in place an airtight rule to keep my habit small.
James Clear calls this setting “upper bounds,” where you literally put a hard limit on your desired behavior. The hope is this will lower the energy it takes to start the behavior (more about this later) and prevent you from overexerting yourself and getting burned out.
For the first 30 days of this habit, I didn’t do more than five minutes of total gym time. More specifically, this has meant either five minutes on the StairMaster; or five minutes of (fairly light) squats, deadlifts, bench presses; and various dumbbell exercises. I feel kind of lazy even writing that, but I wanted to test this theory in earnest and really, truly start small and stay small with my habit.
And you know what? Some days, that limit was great and really appealed to my lazy-guy sensibilities. Other days, it was uncomfortable stopping at five minutes. Sometimes there’s a real temptation to keep going beyond those five minutes once you’ve started. Regardless, I almost always managed to stick to my five-minute upper limit for those first 30 days.
As a result, I didn’t miss a single day during the first month of doing the habit. Or during the second month, when I upped the limit to 10 minutes. And so far, during this third month, when the limit is 20 minutes, I’ve missed only one day (more about that later), and I got back on track the next morning.
In a few weeks, I’m going to bump up the limit one more time, to 30 minutes, and that’s where I plan to leave it. After another month, I’ll dive into setting specific exercise goals that move me toward a desired outcome. But I won’t be doing that a moment sooner. Habit first. Outcomes later.
This is largely why I’m feeling so confident at the moment. The future of this habit seems brighter than I could have imagined just three short months ago. There’s a solid plan in place for how it will continue to grow and morph into increasingly beneficial practices. Plus, I don’t feel overwhelmed or on the verge of burnout. For me, as someone who has crashed and burned many times before, that’s the biggest win of all.
Do It Daily, and Always First Thing in the Morning
From the start, I knew that I wanted this to be a daily habit, and I knew that I wanted to do it at roughly the same time each day.
In the past, I’ve tried to fit my workouts into different parts of my day, depending on how I’m feeling and what I’ve got going on. Sometimes this meant morning workouts, sometimes afternoon, and often it meant leaving them for the evening.
There was only one problem: It was almost impossible for me to consistently make it to afternoon and evening workouts. I don’t know why. Perhaps willpower truly is a limited resource and mine gets drained by 3 p.m. every day. Perhaps my food choices throughout the day slowly and surely sap my energy. Perhaps I need to nap more.
Whatever the reason, I knew that if I wanted true daily consistency, I’d have to fit these workouts into my mornings. More specifically, I chose to tackle this habit first thing every single morning, right after getting out of bed. It’s priority number one in my life right now, so I chose to treat it that way.
This is what the habit looks like:
After rolling out of bed (and not hitting snooze), I immediately put on my gym clothes, drink some water, and stumble out the door as quickly as possible. I walk to the gym in my apartment complex (the morning air usually feels amazing) and do my workout, not going beyond the upper limit I set. I come home, wash my face, make a cup of coffee, and go about my day.
Now, for a lot of people, early mornings suck. And frankly, I agree. About half of the mornings so far, I haven’t really felt like working out at all (or doing anything else, for that matter).
That’s why I’ve built a few more simple tactics to make this habit as sticky and unavoidable as possible.
Use Activation Energy, and Engineer the Environment for Success
The theory of activation energy comes from the world of chemistry. Essentially, it refers to the amount of energy that must be present for a chemical reaction to occur.
On his site, James Clear has a great breakdown of how this concept can be loosely applied to habit design and behavioral change:
Similar to how every chemical reaction has an activation energy, we can think of every habit or behavior as having an activation energy as well.
This is just a metaphor of course, but no matter what habit you are trying to build there is a certain amount of effort required to start the habit. In chemistry, the more difficult it is for a chemical reaction to occur, the bigger the activation energy. For habits, it’s the same story. The more difficult or complex a behavior, the higher the activation energy required to start it.
For example, sticking to the habit of doing 1 pushup per day requires very little energy to get started. Meanwhile, doing 100 pushups per day is a habit with a much higher activation energy. It’s going to take more motivation, energy, and grit to start complex habits day after day.
The practical takeaway from this is that to succeed with a new habit and do it on a consistent basis, the activation energy needs to be as low as it can possibly be. Put another way, I needed to find ways to make this habit easy on myself. I needed to remove any barriers that might get in the way.
I already talked about the idea of starting small and using upper limits to make the workouts more approachable (which is the ultimate way to lower activation energy), but I’ve also used this concept to help shape my environment a little to make my morning jaunt to the gym easier.
Here’s what I’ve done to make my environment a little more conducive to this particular habit:
- I put my gym shorts and T-shirt right next to the bed. No more fumbling through a dark room looking for something to wear while trying not to wake up my girlfriend.
- My socks and gym shoes are ready to go, right next to the door.
- My water bottle is all set and ready to go to the gym with me. No need to fill it up.
- The electric kettle is full, so I can turn it on right as I leave; when I get back, I have hot water ready to be turned into delicious coffee.
These are tactics I’ve heard a million times before on self-improvement blogs — especially the tip about laying out your gym clothes the night before — and I’ve generally written them off as being too simplistic. But I’ll be damned if they don’t make my mornings far smoother and more frictionless.
Cue, Routine, Reward… Well, Sort Of
This is the section where I have to deviate a little from popular habit-design advice.
Popularized in Charles Duhigg’s super-mega-bestselling book The Power of Habit, the habit loop is perhaps the aspect of habit creation that we’re most familiar with.
It works like this:
- The cue prompts you to start a behavior. It can be literally anything, from something you encounter in your environment to a thought to a time of day.
- The routine is exactly what it sounds like: It’s the behavior prompted by the cue. It’s what we actually think of when imagine the habit.
- The reward is a positive result of your routine. It’s something that positively reinforces your behavior and tells your brain it’s a good idea to keep doing it.
It’s so simple. So logical. And I have no doubt that it’s neurologically accurate and serves as a useful framework for people. But the truth is that for my new exercise habit, this model of behavior change hasn’t really clicked with me.
When I started on this journey, I tried architecting my own habit loop, and it looked something like this.
- Cue: Get out of bed in the morning.
- Routine: Put on my gym clothes, walk out the door, and do the amount of exercise I set in my upper limit (five, 10, or 20 minutes).
- Reward: A delicious cup of coffee when I get back from the gym.
It sounded good in theory, but it never quite worked out that seamlessly. Each morning ended up being messier than this. Some days, I really do make it out the door in a minute or two after getting up, but most days there’s extra random stuff that happens, separating the cue from the routine. I still make it out the door every morning and get to the gym, but it feels like anything but some kind of slick, neurologically programmed sequence.
Beyond that, I have a hard time connecting that particular reward with the gym itself, partly because I will make coffee every morning, regardless of whether I go to the gym or not. So it doesn’t really feel like an extension of my workout. Plus, the time between when I finish my workout and take my first sip of coffee is a solid 15 minutes, which makes it feel as if the two events are not connected in any meaningful way.
It seems the fresh cup of coffee was a poorly chosen reward for this particular habit. As a replacement, I’ve been using a habit-tracking app to record another day in my exercise habit. This is nifty, but it doesn’t feel like much of a reward to me.
For the time being, I’ve stopped worrying about crafting the perfect habit loop (whatever that means) and am just focusing on other strategies to make this as consistent as possible.
Bright Lines and Brute-Force Identity Change
“I am the type of person who goes to the gym first thing every morning.”
This is what I’ve been telling myself every day since I started this. I have it written on a sticky note on my computer, which reminds me throughout the day of who I want to be — of who I’m actively becoming in this process.
That might sound like some sappy self-help mumbo jumbo, like I’m projecting out into the universe and hoping the universe rewards me.
But this is another of those strategies that’s rooted in psychological research. It turns out that when we make up our minds in advance about who we want to be, and when we have simple rules about which behaviors we’ll do and which ones we’ll avoid, we’re freed up from having to make potentially difficult, willpower-draining decisions in the moment.
This is actually two separate ideas (precommitment and bright lines) morphed into one. These come from the phenomenal book Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.
First, precommitment is exactly what it sounds like. It’s simply deciding ahead of time what good decisions you’ll make, so that in the moment, you’ve already decided. Precommitment also goes a step further: It’s all about deciding what you’ll do and making preparations for it. This all ties into the idea of lowering activation energy and tweaking your environment for success.
“Bright lines” is a term borrowed from the world of contract law. A contract with bright lines is a contract with clear, unambiguous boundaries, where all parties know exactly what is expected of them. We can set bright lines for our behavior, too.
In my case, I not only precommitted to working out every morning, but I also set up a bright-line rule for myself stating that when I get out of bed in the morning, I will go to the gym. It’s simple, clear, and unambiguous. There’s really no way to get around this rule.
This probably seems like a lot of excessive stuff to think about in terms of building an exercise habit. But while those other strategies I’ve talked about so far are really more about the habit itself, these are about the mindset. That’s not to say they’re not practical: These strategies work even further to reduce mental strain and make it inevitable that your habit will get done every single day.
And frankly, it’s been working like a charm for me. Three months ago, a statement like “I am the type of person who goes to the gym first thing every morning” would have been patently untrue, given my shaky history with working out.
But a funny thing started to happen during those first two months, when I didn’t miss a single day of hitting the gym each morning because of my bright-line rule. I started to believe the identity statement. In fact, I would have been crazy not to believe it, because the evidence was right in front of my eyes every morning. When you’ve worked out 60-plus mornings in a row, you’ve officially become someone who works out every morning.
Now I truly feel like the kind of person who works out every day, and for me, that’s another huge win. Plus, every day I complete the habit from here on out will only bolster that identity, making it stronger over time.
That Morning When I Broke the Streak…
On Tuesday, June 13, 2017, I failed to do my morning habit of going to gym.
I wasn’t necessarily sick that morning, but I was feeling, to put it bluntly, like crap. And I made the decision to stay in bed. And by the time I got out of bed, I had work to do. And by the time the afternoon rolled around, I was exhausted. I did not go to the gym that day, and I did not make up for it with any other kind of exercise. Which bummed me out, because my streak was pretty damn impressive up to that point.
But the next morning, on June 14, 2017, I rolled out of bed and went straight to the gym, and I haven’t missed another day since.
It was Leo Babauta who turned me on to the idea of not only being kind to myself when breaking a streak, but also actively planning for it.
In that article linked above, Leo recommends some interesting accountability strategies to get yourself going again if you fall off the wagon. I didn’t choose anything quite that aggressive, mostly because the “identity-based habit change and bright-line rules” feel like a solid long-term strategy. But I did ask for a little help.
My lovely girlfriend knows what I’m trying to accomplish with this new habit, and not only is she incredibly supportive of it, but she also agreed to keep me accountable should I go off-course. So now she has permission to violently tickle me if I miss more than one day. Frankly, that’s not a risk I’m willing to take.
Wrapping Up, or How to Put All This Stuff to Use in Your Own Life
In the end, it’s really easy to intellectualize all this stuff to the point where it’s just kind of useless abstract knowledge floating around in your noggin.
I don’t want you coming away from this article thinking, “Great, now I have to master habit loops and activation energy and bright lines and my environment. And I should probably go read a few books on habit creation and truly understand the psychology of behavior change.”
None of that is necessary, my friend.
Instead, spend the next 20 minutes figuring out how to build your new exercise habit, and then start tomorrow (or, better yet, later today).
No matter how much you know about habit change, nothing will work better than actually showing up, doing something small every single day, and learning as you go. I’ve been learning my way through this process — adding new ideas, subtracting others, constantly adapting — since I started this process three months ago.
You almost certainly won’t be perfect in the creation of your habit. No one is. It’ll feel awkward and uncomfortable at times. And you’ll occasionally miss a day and be bummed out about it. But that’s okay, so long as you jump back on the wagon and get back to focusing on consistency above all else.
I’ve shared just some of what I’ve learned these past few months and what has actually worked. But that doesn’t mean it’s some kind of plug-and-play template for you. Habit creation is like a giant, ever-evolving puzzle, and I’ve given you some of the specific pieces that have fit in my particular situation.
So here are a few of the big themes we’ve covered in this piece, themes that you can mold to your life and build your own daily exercise habit—or toss out if they aren’t a good fit.
- Focus on building the habit of working out first, and really nail that habit, before investing yourself in outcome goals like losing weight, building muscle, or getting fitter. This is the crux of the whole strategy. Habit first, outcomes second.
- Start as small as you can. Set an upper limit on your gym time, and don’t let yourself go longer. It’ll feel weird, but it’s important for achieving true consistency and keeping strong even when you don’t feel like it.
- Try to do your exercise habit at the same time every single day. We tend to have the most control over our time first thing in the morning and evening, so those would be my recommendations. But again, choose something that works for you.
- Tweak your environment in ways that make your habit as easy as possible. Having your gym clothes laid out next to your bed is such a simple thing, but it makes a big impact (at least if you work out first thing in the morning).
- Start telling yourself that you’re the kind of person who works out every day. Even if you don’t believe it at first, your consistent actions, however small, will eventually prove it beyond any shadow of a doubt.
- Use bright-line rules that are clear and unambiguous to tell yourself exactly when and where you’ll do something. Form a contract with yourself, and use your identity changes to make yourself the kind of person who won’t break that contract.
- Whatever you do, don’t get bummed out when you miss a day. It happens to everybody. Find an accountability partner and get back on it tomorrow.
Alright, friend, it’s about time to wrap up this behemoth of an article. Suffice it say, if you’re the type of person who has struggled for years to build an exercise habit that actually sticks, one of these strategies (or a combination of them) will get you going again and making substantial progress toward your fitness goals. I’m confident of this.
If it works for me, it can work for just about anybody. Pinky promise.
Anyhow, it’s getting late here in Denver. I’ve gotta get ready to get some shut-eye. After all, I’m hitting the gym first thing tomorrow morning.