The best way to start a new habit

As someone who’s jumped around between many interests over the years, I’m very familiar with the process of beginning new habits.

And failing miserably at maintaining them.

Why are habits so hard to establish and maintain?

Too much motivation

This might seem paradoxical, but attempting to establish a new habit when you have an abundance of energy and enthusiasm can be a recipe for disaster.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve fallen victim to this one myself. I’ll latch on to an idea, like working out with kettlebells, and I’ll have so much motivation that I’ll go all out at the very beginning, coming up with hours-long exercise routines that effectively target all muscle groups.

Once that initial burst of energy wears off — and it always does — you’re left with a routine that seems so absurdly over the top and intimidating that you’d be lucky to get through it one more time.

Focus on process, not results

Most habits are born out of a desire for a certain outcome. With kettlebells I was focused on losing weight and getting in better shape.

That’s a fine, admirable goal, but it’s not really all that helpful when it comes to establishing a new habit. If your focus is on being 20 pounds lighter but you can barely do 10 kettlebell swings before you feel like you’re going to fall over and die, these long term goals can actually be very demotivating.

So what’s the alternative?

Keep it simple, keep it easy

And try to consider the actual establishment of your new habit as your final goal.

Right now, I’m trying to establish a near-daily exercise habit. As most of my long time readers know, I’ve long struggled with the conundrum of whether or not to buy a rowing machine. The conclusion I came to is that I can’t buy a rowing machine until I have a solid exercise habit. Why? Becuse I’ve previously fallen into the trap of thinking that just having the right piece of equipment was all I needed to become a regular exerciser, but that’s never actually been the case.

So what does success look like for me right now? What do I need to do in order to say I did my exercise for the day?

  1. Put on my exercise shoes
  2. Throw down an exercise mat
  3. Do a single set of kettlebell floor presses

It takes about 3 minutes from start to finish, and I do it right after I wake up, so I don’t have any excuses like having had a bad day at work.

What you want to do is make the actual performance of the habit so simple and so easy, it would feel absurd to try to talk yourself out of it.

I’m not concerned now about losing weight, or gaining muscle, or anything other than performing this simple little routine every day that I can.

Get some feedback

I’m tracking my goal with a pretty great app called HabitBull. It lets you see your streaks and stats, which can be highly motivating. Whatever you do, whether it’s using an app or a piece of paper or just telling someone you know if you were successful that day or not, positive reinforcement can be key.

My progress so far

Ok, so I have to admit, I’m not as far along with this new habit as this post may imply. As of today, I’ve been successful 5 days in a row out of 5. It may not sound like much, but this is the most consistent I’ve been about an exercise habit in my entire life, and I’m looking forward to continuing it.

The future

If I keep this up for long enough (a month, maybe 2) then I’ll have the confidence in the habit I need to be able to justify getting some top of the line exercise equipment and shifting my goal from the establishment of the habit to using that habit to improve my life.

The key here is doing things in the right order. An exercise routine is no good if you do it twice and then give up for a year because you started too intensely. Establish the habit first and then move on to the bigger picture.

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