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Anthony M. Zipple, ScD, MBA

Why is it so hard to develop habits that serve us well? We all know that regular exercise is good for our bodies and minds. We want to exercise more, yet a Gallup poll reveals that only 51.6% of Americans report exercising three or more days per week for at least 30 minutes. We start with great resolve and, perhaps, a New Year’s resolution to get in shape. By spring, we are part of the 80% of January gym joiners who are no longer going to the gym.

Building a good habit is a lot harder than we think. A habit is a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously. Note the emphasis on the word “subconsciously.” Habits are not thoughtful decisions that we make. They are grooved, neurological patterns. Here is how it works. We are triggered by something that causes us to initiate a behavior. A warm bed at 6:00 AM triggers us to want to sleep more rather than go to the gym and we decide to skip the gym. We respond to the trigger of “warm bed” with the behavior of rolling over and go back to sleep. That behavior is rewarded with all the comfort of more time in our beds. And when we repeat this over and over, we build a grooved response deep in our neural circuitry. Every time we complete this circuit of trigger-response-reward, the neural pathways get stronger. Before long, we are rolling over and going back to sleep without even thinking about the gym. It has become a behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously… a habit.

If we want to build a better habit like getting out of bed and going to the gym, we need to build that habit in the face of our existing habit of rolling over an going back to sleep. That can be a tough challenge. Building a new habit takes lots of repetition and it is you can be easy to be pulled off track by competing habits that are already well established. If we want to succeed with building a new habit, we need to follow four steps.

First, we need to define the habit. The more specific we can be about the habit we want to develop, the more likely we are to achieve it. Defining your habit as a “SMART” goal helps.  When you define your habit in terms that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely, you increase the odds that you will work to achieve it.

Second, build a plan to control triggers and rewards. Increasing the triggers that pull you out of bed and giving yourself small rewards to jumpstart the habit routine can work wonders.  Setting your automatic coffee maker to begin brewing 15 minutes before your alarm goes off and filling the house with great smells is an example of a trigger that may help you get out of bed ang make it to the gym. Putting the alarm across the room so you need to get up to shut it off, keeping your gym bag in sight by the bed, and simply turning on the light as soon as the alarm sounds are other examples of triggers you can control. Rewards are that simple as well. Treating yourself to new gym shoes after 50 trips to the gym or coffee at your favorite shop after a gym visit can be effective rewards that help reinforce your habit.

Third, work with an accountability partner. A great accountability partner can be someone already in your life.  For example, asking your spouse to observe the frequency of your gym visits and encouraging you to go more often can work wonders. You can also find a work-out buddy who is counting on you to show up at the gym or join a class or club. Increasing social expectation and support for your habit will increase your performance of the habit.

Finally, be a scientist and experiment with what works for you.  No matter what your plan is, parts of it will not work as well as you had hoped. Practice your new habit plan for the next 30 days and pay attention to the triggers and rewards that help get you to the gym. Build in more of the triggers and rewards that seem to work. Try new ones if your approach is not working. Get more social support and accountability. Anything that increases your tendency to perform the habit behavior is a great modification of your plan.

You will probably need to work on this habit for a long time to make it as automatic and subconscious as brushing your teeth. Rewiring your brain is not easy work! Easy habits may take two to six four months to build. Hard ones (like going to the gym instead of sleeping) may take twice as long or longer. Don’t give up. The magic is in repetition and in your plan to get it to happen regularly.