How to Create Healthy Habits That Last

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“At some point, the pain of not doing it becomes greater than the pain of doing it.”

Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

Eat healthier. Exercise more. Drink water. Limit social media. Spend less money.

No matter what healthy habits you are looking to form, many people have the best intentions when they start working towards a new goal, but then fall short months, weeks, or even days later. Why is that? 

At the gym, a very common reason we hear why people either don’t show up as often as they were planning to, or don’t commit to starting at all is a “lack of motivation.” 

If motivation is what is keeping so many people from reaching their goals, a good place to start is to think about what this term actually means. 

The dictionary definition describes motivation as “the general desire or willingness of someone to do something.” However, there is so much more to this definition that makes the difference between people sticking to their goals long enough to reach them and the ones who don’t. 

We’ve all been there before: we get to a place where we don’t feel great about ourselves mentally and physically. We haven’t been eating right or moving as much as we should and it shows in our energy level and the way our clothes fit. 

This inspires us to do SOMETHING. We hatch a plan to finally get in shape. We have the best intentions and we really want to do it. The negative way we feel has motivated us to take action. And this is a great start, but it is not what is going to get us out of bed first thing in the morning to workout or to choose a salad instead of a burger and fries for our next meal. 

Creating Healthy Habits: Success Precedes Motivation

In fact, one of the most surprising things for people to learn is that motivation actually comes AFTER starting new behaviors, instead of before. Let’s recall Newton’s first law of motion: An object at rest stays at rest while an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. 

We can also generalize this law to include habit formation, which can help us figure out what keeps people moving towards their goals weeks, months, and even years after they make them. 

Therefore, motivation is the RESULT of action, not what causes it. We need to get started, even if in only a small way in order to turn what first inspired us to start into motivation. From there, we can naturally produce the momentum to power us through those early mornings, tough workouts, and temptations around every corner that threaten to derail our progress. Nearly all the friction is at the beginning or before you begin a task. After you get started, the progress happens much more naturally. 

What does this mean for you and your health and fitness goals? How are YOU going to take action and create these healthy habits? The simple answer: you need a plan, and you need to make it as easy as possible to begin. According to a recent study, it takes on average 66 days to form a habit. So what will you do in those two months to turn that healthy inspiration in to motivation and then in to lifelong, sustainable habits? Here is a good start: 

Make a Schedule and Stick to it

Before you get started, sit down with your family, your friends, your pets, anyone who may be affected by this new event in your life. Don’t leave anything to chance. Don’t wake up in the morning wondering “what time will I get my workout in today?” 

Figure out a time that works for you and stick to it. Write it in your planner, put it on your google calendar, remind yourself with a note on your refrigerator. Every day, make a time for exercise. If that can be at the same time every day, even better. 

The bottom line is that you need a plan, and it needs to be SCHEDULED. That way, regardless of your level of “motivation” on a given day, it makes it more likely that you will follow through because your decision-making is already on auto-pilot. 

Build a Ritual

What do successful people have in common? They have a “pre-game routine” to get them started, a mindless way to initiate a behavior to ensure they have the strength to finish when things become challenging. 

Every morning my routine is as follows: feed my dog, make the bed, get dressed, eat a snack, get in the car.  This isn’t dependent on inspiration OR motivation, but it shows the value in having a consistent pattern, or routine, because it eliminates my need to make any decisions. I do the same thing each morning, no matter how tired or groggy I am. 

Most people never get moving because they can’t decide how to get started. Decide on a routine that works for you around your workout time so that getting that initial momentum is so easy that you can’t say no to it. Remember, the most important part of a task is starting. If you aren’t motivated to begin, you can use your “pre-game routine” to get going to the point where motivation kicks in. This will get you moving toward your end goal: healthy habits and a happier life.

Rest and Repeat

The goal of your ritual or routine is to make it so ingrained in your life that you don’t need to find “motivation,” you just need to start your routine. There are days I am so tired when my alarm goes off I struggle to not hit the snooze button a couple of times and miss my early workout. 

But then I tell myself: just get up and feed the dog, if you want to get back in bed after that, it’s ok. But guess what happens? After feeding my dog, my “pre-game routine” has already started and then the motivation kicks in to help me finish the job and get my workout in. 

By getting up and feeding the dog, I kick-started my habit I wasn’t motivated to do in the first place. If I didn’t have a sound ritual in place, it would be too much work to figure out what to do next. Since I can relatively mindlessly go through my morning routine, I know exactly what needs to happen. There’s no debating or decision making. 

Lack of motivation doesn’t matter. I just follow the pattern.

Your New Healthy Habits

It’s time to reap your rewards.

With a good plan, a set schedule, and a routine that can get you moving in the right direction, you are setting yourself up for success when it comes to creating permanent healthy habits. Stay consistent and before long, you will find that the pain of NOT getting your workout in will be greater than the pain of doing it. 

All those early mornings I felt like skipping my workout? I always feel energized, happier, and ready to tackle the rest of my day. The intrinsic rewards I earned from doing a hard workout serve as further motivation and momentum to continue showing up.  

Creating Healthy Habits

Graphic based on Charles Duhigg’s “Habit Loop” in The Power of Habit. Created by James Clear.

Motivation is a powerful, yet tricky thing, especially considering that it doesn’t actually kick in until AFTER you begin moving towards your goal. By creating better rituals, we can make motivation into a habit and get you moving in the right direction towards a happier, healthier life.

Further Reading

If the House is on Fire, Don’t Worry About Mowing the Lawn

Kick the Habit of Emotional Eating

Stress and Social Distancing