How to Make a Lifestyle Change That Sticks
Set yourself up for lasting success
It’s tempting to think that you can compartmentalize your work and personal life. It’s also easy to be so focused on your career that you don’t take care of your health, especially when you’re younger. You assume that it will take care of itself, or that you can “get back into shape” later when work calms down (Pro tip: It never does) and you have more time (Another tip: You never think you have enough time).
But, I discovered that my health and fitness levels were directly affecting my work. I didn’t feel good ever, my energy level was low, and I knew that I wasn’t doing my best work. When your physical body isn’t 100%, you can’t give your work 100%. You may think that you are, but you are not. And, when you do recover your health, you’ll be amazed by how much your productivity and creativity skyrocket.
New Year’s resolutions about health, fitness, weight loss, and other lifestyle changes are legendary for their failure rate. By the second week of February, approximately 80% of resolutions have fallen apart.
10 years ago this month I made one of those resolutions to get my sadly-aging self in shape. Over 15 years of Silicon Valley corporate cubicle life had not been kind to my health. I was overweight and out of shape.
A couple of years ago, I wrote about my fitness journey starting at 42 years old. It began with P90X at home, transitioned into CrossFit, and now has become a powerlifting addiction. I know most NYE’s resolutions don’t stick, but this one did. 10 years later, I’m still working out almost every single day and love it.
What made it stick this time?
A friend recently asked me why I thought my resolution had stuck and lasted for over a decade. It’s a good question because this wasn’t the first time that I’ve made a resolution to be healthier. It wasn’t the first time that I had tried to adopt some sort of fitness regimen. But, they had all failed. Why did it work this time?
I gave it some thought and it comes down to these 5 factors:
I’ll come back to these factors in a bit. Resolutions fail because they are made as wishes in isolation of any serious system or framework that will ensure their lasting success. Making the commitment to lose 20 lbs or work out every day at the gym isn’t the same as creating a robust system of triggers, behaviors, habits, rewards, and support that will help you adopt these changes permanently.
Stanford University researcher BJ Fogg talks about “tiny habits” and the use of triggers to remind us to take action. It took most of my life to get this right with respect to lifestyle changes. I always went too big, too fast. I only succeeded when I started small, built up a series of wins, and then gradually increased my level of effort over time. I’m still taking this approach even 10 years later! I’m happy if I add one pound to one of my lifts in a given training cycle.
It’s great to have goals, but it’s more important to establish daily behaviors and consistent habits that will support those goals. If I want to lose 20 lbs, what am I going to change in my daily life to support a new healthier lifestyle from now on? What am I literally going to do — and not do — every day?
“I’ve found that goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress.” —James Clear
We do seek and respond to rewards. The hardest part of a life change is getting started and gaining momentum. Rewarding yourself can be one of the ways you convince yourself to keep going (e.g., I’ll have a nice cup of coffee after my run).
Once you’ve fully established the change and adopted the habit, you may find that the activity itself becomes a reward. Then the whole thing is a lovely virtuous cycle. After several years, I reached that point with lifting and running. I actually enjoy it. I miss it when I don’t do it. It’s my “fix” and helps me recenter myself when I’m feeling stressed.
Another one of the unexpected rewards for me was how my body changed. I wasn’t intentionally trying to reshape my body or doing any sort of bodybuilding. That’s not what CrossFit and powerlifting are about. It’s all about performance (e.g., performing more reps, finishing faster, lifting more weight). The body recomposition was a side effect of wanting to perform better.
I’ve never shared these photos before because they were only for me to track the loss of body fat. I won’t deny that it was kind of nice to see my abs for the first time in 25+ years. I’m still embarrassed to share them, but the hell with it.
I’ve worked really hard for a really long time. These were taken at various points after I seriously started lifting weight at the CrossFit gym, powerlifting, and running every weekend. Note: this was after I had changed my diet to stop eating processed crap, and started working out at home a year earlier. So, I had lost about 20+ pounds before starting CrossFit.
Finally, having a support system is crucial for any big change that you want to last. My progress wouldn’t have been possible without all of the people who coached me and inspired, motivated, and supported me.
My wife talked me into CrossFit, Tough Mudder, and has been on the same fitness journey with me this whole time. My children have been the reason I wanted to recover my health and live to see my grandchildren one day. My coaches have guided me and helped me take my performance to new levels when I was stuck and struggling on my own.
As mentioned earlier, my own framework for making the change depended on five key factors. These were all missing from my previous efforts over the years, and I’m certain that their absence played a large role in my many failures.
Ok, I tried being flexible with my workout schedule. Sometimes the morning would work. Sometimes the evening was better if I had a busy day. Some days were just too crazy, so I pushed my workout to the next day… and the next, and the next.
If I planned on exercising after work, sooner or later something would come up and make me cancel my workout. Or, I would have a stressful day, end up with a splitting headache, and the last thing I wanted to do was lift weights.
I finally said enough of that and switched to working out first thing in the morning before work, before breakfast, before anything could come up and derail my plan.
“Consistency is more important than intensity” — Christopher Sommer
Rain, snow, or shine, I get up and head out to my tiny gym in a shed near my house. Sometimes it’s freezing and I use a space heater to warm the barbell so that it isn’t quite as painful to hold for long sets.
Are there mornings when I’m tired, it’s dark and cold, I feel like crap, and I don’t want to work out? Yes, oh yes there are. But, I know that if I skip one day, it turns into two days. If I skip a week, it might slide into a month of not working out. I force myself to be consistent and work out every morning around the same time.
Consistency is key to any change that you want to make. You don’t have to force yourself to meet some arbitrary goal every single day, but you do need to make an effort consistently. I write and some days I write pages and pages of content. Some days I’m lucky if I can complete a paragraph or two. It’s ok. All that matters is I keep at it. A small amount of progress is better than no progress at all.
For some reason, I resisted having any serious structure in place with my previous attempts at getting fit. My schedule was too unpredictable. I had a family. I traveled frequently. I just wanted to play it by ear. No wonder I failed.
The switch to having a structured training program took away the daily mystery. I knew exactly what I was going to be doing every day. I didn’t have to think. I didn’t question whether I would or would not do the workout. I didn’t let my daily feelings derail the plan. I stuck with it.
The initial structure was provided by the P90X program. Laugh all you want, but it did kickstart this whole thing. I had the box unopened for years, until the day of my resolution. The later structure was provided by my CrossFit coaches and a mix of lifting programs such as 5x5, Wendler’s 5/3/1, the Cube Method, and now the Juggernaut Training System’s AI Coaching.
I’m thankful for my coaches over the years. I have a tendency to go it alone, do my own research, and create my own plans in almost every aspect of my life. But, my performance has improved dramatically every time that I have invested in a coach. This is true for a fitness lifestyle change like this, but it was also true when I had leadership coaches during my career.
These are all things that I shouldn’t have resisted. Leverage structure, embrace coaching, and you’ll be much more likely to make good progress in the change you desire.
“That which is measured improves. That which is measured and reported improves exponentially.” —Karl Pearson
It was motivational to track progress so that I could see how much I was improving. I don’t mean tracking progress on the scale. Your body weight isn’t a great metric for measuring true fitness improvement. I kept track of performance on various workouts and I have been tracking my progress on key lifts for about 9 years now.
As with most things, short-term trends don’t matter. There is just too much variability. The long-term trends are what you need to pay attention to the most.
This is true with any lifestyle change you want to make. Keep track of your progress and use the trend over time as a motivational tool. You might be discouraged by a setback in any given week or month. But, take a look back to see how far you’ve come since the beginning and that will inspire you to continue.
You can decide how you want to track your own progress. It can be in a dedicated app, spreadsheet, Evernote, or even a paper notebook. But, I do recommend keeping one source of truth and updating it frequently.
The Association for Talent Development (ATD) performed a study on accountability and found the following probabilities of accomplishing a goal:
- 10% if you simply have a goal in mind
- 25% if you consciously decide that you will achieve it
- 40% if you set a date by which you will achieve it
- 50% if you create a plan for how you will do it
- 65% if you make a promise to someone else that you will do it
- 95% when you make specific accountability appointments with that person (this is probably why 1-on-1 career coaching works so well)
Now that I’ve been working out consistently for over 10 years, I often train alone. But, I am part of a Facebook group that goes along with my current training program. The camaraderie — and shared misery — is surprisingly addictive.
When I started getting serious about my fitness, I joined a CrossFit gym with my wife. Training with other people helped me a lot with my consistency and effort. It made me feel accountable for showing up (and they would give me crap if I didn’t).
Whatever change you are considering, adding accountability in some form will increase your likelihood of success.
Finally, I learned to be happy with the “long game” vs. rushing things and getting injured. Before this, I would get impatient and push really hard. Running faster and longer. Lifting heavier. And I would inevitably get injured, have to take a break, and give up.
Making a big lifestyle change isn’t like climbing to reach the top of some plateau. You can’t achieve your goal, stop, and have it last. The lasting changes are the ones that become part of your permanent lifestyle.
I couldn’t just work out to get back into shape. I made working out part of my daily life from now on. It’s part of my routine. It’s part of who I am.
This is true for any positive habits that you want to start. But, it’s probably even more true for bad habits that you are quitting. You will always feel drawn to that old habit. You will always be at risk for backsliding. My father quit smoking, cold turkey, over 35 years ago and has never smoked since. Yet, to this day he still craves a cigarette whenever he smells someone smoking.
There will be good days and bad days. Hell, there will be bad weeks and months. I’ve had major setbacks more than once. This may happen to you too.
But, remind yourself that this was never about a quick win anyway. This is for life and only the long trends matter. Use your tracking to look back and see how bad days are just a blip on your overall progress radar. Connect with your accountability partners for a morale boost. We all need that support and encouragement.
Be patient with yourself and any change you are making. Slow and steady progress is better than rapid progress that leads to burnout. Celebrate the small victories. Be proud of maintaining a consistent habit.
“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time” —Leo Tolstoy
Lifestyle changes are never easy
We are complex creatures. Our emotions, behaviors, and daily habits aren’t a simple case of A happens and we do B. There are so many factors impacting the choices we make, even when we logically know that we should be making better choices.
If we want to make a big change in our life, we can’t simply set a goal and say it will be so. We can’t just go for it and hope for the best. That’s a surefire way to fail.
Significant lifestyle changes require a serious framework to ensure success. The five factors that I discussed above are helpful tools within any framework that you want to create. Let me know if there are other things that you’ve done to help yourself succeed with a big change in your own life!
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Larry Cornett is a Leadership Coach and Career Advisor. He lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, two Great Danes, two chickens, and a stubborn old cat. He does his best to share advice that can help others take full control of their work and life. He’s also on Twitter and Instagram @cornett.