This article was originally published on Oct 15, 2015 and was updated on July 12, 2017.
Forming positive habits, like eating healthy or exercising regularly, is probably the most repeated new years resolution. Many try and many fail. Trying, and failing, to get started with exercise is particularly common and for some there is a constant cycle of working out and relapsing back into inactivity. The reason for many of these failings is that there is no system to creating new habits. People are literally running around without any idea of what they’re doing hoping that their will power alone will work until the behavior sticks. Unfortunately relying on sheer will power alone will inevitably lead to burn out. There needs to be some sort of guided approach, a system tending towards the 4 or 5 most important actionable items that will greatly increase the chance of success.
Research indicates that there are four key factors that are conducive to forming new habits: reward, consistency, environmental cues and low behavioral complexity (Lally & Gardner, 2013). Put simply: to increase the likelihood of introducing a new habit successfully it must offer some reward, be repeated regularly, have outside cues and, perhaps most importantly, it must be simple. In this article we will look into each of these four factors, analyze them and synthesize the means to applying them towards our goals. The goal we will focus on specifically is to exercise regularly (at least 180 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise) but the principles we explore in this article may be applied towards any number of new habits we wish to form.
Reward and why are drug habits so easy to form?
Let’s take a moment to analyze what are socially accepted to be the worst habits: illicit drug use, alcoholism, smoking, j-walking, and ditching school/church/work. Why are these habits all such slippery slopes?
It is easy to respond to the drug-specific aspect of this question: addictive chemicals. However with most drugs the addictive properties aren’t potent enough to work from a small number of exposures and there is the case of marijuana which is supposedly not physically addictive, just habit forming. So what is it if not addictive chemicals? The common thread underlying the habit formation of all these actions is their reward. The rewards of each of these actions is immediately gratifying and are without unneeded complexity: drugs get you high, j-walking gets you across the street faster and ditching your responsibilities escapes boredom, 3rd graders can (and some do) understand the allure of each of these concepts.
This creates sometching of a dilemma: good habits are usually associated with delayed gratification and they’re usually somewhat complex rewards. Exercising and eating right is great to for feeling healthy but that takes a while and it’s a more complicated concept to interpret “feeling healthy” as a reward than that sugary fat-laden taste-gasm experienced with each bite of a maple covered donut. So if your reward for exercising and eating right every day is that you’ll look and feel much healthier. STOP. You’ve likely already failed.
I’m not saying it’s hopeless, far from it, but I am saying that we need to give diet and exercise a reward system similar to the rewards of recreational drug use and other bad behaviors; we need incentives that are immediate, simple and consistent.
My own experience with rewarding my exercise behavior came in the form of food. When I was a new gym-goer I did not always want to go to the gym and after a while I found it somewhat difficult to get myself to go. After a particularly grueling workout I stopped at the deli next to the gym afterwards and indulged in a club sandwich with some chips. This become something of a regular routine. I didn’t always do it but let’s just say they knew me by name before long. This became an incentive to go to the gym; I knew that if I went to the gym I could then go across the parking lot and get a sandwich afterwards. Even though the sandwich was not the healthiest treat it worked to get me to the gym regularly and after a while I no longer relied on it as an incentive. Once I hit that point I was able to focus on cleaning up my eating to go along with my newly formed gym-habit. It was much more important early on to establish a consistent gym routine.
To emphasize the importance of consistency: In their study “Naïveté, Projection bias and Habit Formation in gym attendance“ researchers Dan Acland and Matthew R. Levy offered new gym-goers $100 if they managed to go to the gym 8 times in the next month. As you would expect there was a lot of attendance that month. In the time following the incentivized month gym attendance was higher among the experimental group than the control group but not by much (approximately 1/5 more sessions at the gym per week). Furthermore, after enough time had passed the attendance patterns of the two groups were nearly indistinguishable! It’s not surprising that this did not work long-term, the incentive merely lasted one month and the average time needed to successfully establish a new habit averages 66 days (Lally et. Al, 2009).
Consistency and why it doesn’t matter that the tortoise was slow
We’ve all heard the story about the tortoise and the hare with the classic moral of “Slow and Steady wins the race.” In this story the hare is much faster than the tortoise and soon becomes bored with the race and gets caught up doing other things. Meanwhile the tortoise continues on and eventually wins the race because his opponent was distracted. The one thing that always bothered me about this moral is that going “slow” didn’t help the tortoise win, being “steady” did. So let’s revise the moral to be “Steady wins the race.”
Research shows that the more a specific behavior is repeated the more likely that behavior will form into an automatic habit (Judah, Gardner & Aunger, 2012) and this is certainly true with exercise. A study following new gym-goers found that individuals with a high frequency of attendance (4 or more sessions per week) maintained their gym attendance while those with a low frequency of attendance (less than 4 sessions per week) had attendance rates plummet after 6 weeks (Kaushal & Rhodes, 2015).
It is certainly worth mentioning that consistency works both ways, consistent lack of exercising or active exercise avoidance can also be habit forming. Actions beget themselves and once you begin to find excuses to skip out on exercising it becomes easier to continue to skip until all efforts to initiate the new behavior are forgotten. For the consistency aspect of initiating a new behavior to work it must first be unfaltering. Think of it this way: for every day you consistently reinforcement the new behavior you gain 1 point, for each day you do not reinforce that behavior you lose 3 points. As you can see it is much easier to lose all those points than it is to build them up.
Behavioral cues and keeping fresh socks in your car
When trying to get people to start flossing researchers found that if people added them to the end of an already established brushing routine they were more successful than trying to lead with flossing (Judah, Gardner & Aunger, 2012). Nesting new behaviors into established routines provides a solid framework for the when and where a new routine should take place. Effectively placing new behaviors in relation to established ones can be tricky, after all it’s easy to go through an established routine on auto-pilot, what’s needed to open up a space for new habits are behavioral cues. Behavioral cues are the conscious or subconscious triggers (usually visual) that remind us to engage in our desired behavior.
For instance if you wanted to get into the habit of reading regularly before bed you would place your book on your nightstand. In fact this is what I’ve done for a while, I always have a book on my nightstand to remind me to read before bed; I see it and I instantly grab my kindle and read a book. The trigger itself does not have to be involved in the new behavior but it must be a solid behavioral cue.
How this relates to exercise is easy: many people put a gym bag in their car to remind them to go to the gym after work (always change the socks before you do this!) or keep a pre-workout supplement in their lunch box to take before leaving work. When someone sees these items and is reminded to go to the gym after work they are effectively attaching their new desired behavior to an established routine, in this case: leaving work.
Behavioral cues are subject to the same caveat as consistency (refer to the points system described in the previous section). If a cue is put into place and promptly ignored it quickly loses potency, however if a cue is followed repeatedly it will become more and more powerful over time and less susceptible to missed days down the line.
Simplicity and why you’re failing before you start
Let’s look at the most common pitfall of all. We all know someone that has said this (usually after a few drinks):
… and on Monday I’m going to start eating healthy and going to the gym everyday and drink less and quit smoking…
And by Wednesday they’re using their gym card as a beer coaster and ordering pizza. They didn’t fail because they’re destined to be unhealthy, they simply tried to change too much at once. Why does this usually result in failure? Well if we examine the quote above we see 4 difficult goals all brought under one umbrella. 4 goals disguised as one where failing one sub-goal means failure of all four… Suddenly failure seems like a certainty.
We need to make each goal distinct, breaking that up into even smaller goals and then focusing on one at a time.
Let’s look at eating healthy. It’s a knee jerk reaction to think “Eat less junk food, eat less in general” when you think of eating healthy but I want you to ignore that. What usually makes a diet unhealthy is there isn’t enough good stuff and there’s too much bad stuff (speaking strictly scientifically of course). If you start with eliminating junk food then you of course have to increase the amount of good food you eat to balance it out. This is clearly two goals and to be effective we must only focus on one at a time.
Make your first step in eating healthy adding something to your regular diet that’s healthy. For instance try and eat 20 – 40 grams of protein within an hour of waking up. That’s it. Don’t change any thing else just add one healthy intake. Make this a new habit every morning and before long the effect can snowball to snacking less during the day or making healthier options at lunch. As you include new healthy habits you can start to keep a look out for opportunities to improve. I’m only going to give you a way to make the first step with starting to eat healthy, the rest will come organically as long as you continue to make one change at a time.
Initiating behavior change is difficult when the attempt is aggressive and blunt. Will power and resolve quickly fade and old behaviors remain. Successful initiation starts gradually, I go over my own real life experience with beginning to run regularly here. Building momentum here is key. These small wins are imperative to creating lasting change in our behavior. As time progresses these changes will snowball into better habits.
There are four key pillars conducive to forming new behaviors/habits: rewards, consistency, behavioral cues and simplicity. Rewards and behavioral cues are particularly important on to create consistent behavior. Simplicity is the most important of all four pillars. Each of the other pillars should adhere to this advice: rewards should be simple and immediate, consistency should be simply judged (did you exercise yes/no?) and behavioral cues should be simple reminders to engage in the desired behavior.