Make it simple. Rinse and Repeat.
I’ve been trying to build a daily exercise habit for, I don’t know, EVER. Before, I’ve been successful enough to run a marathon. (Ok, only once.) Other times, like now, I’ve repeatedly tanked and can just make it from mailbox to mailbox. I value being somewhat healthy and fit. Yet, it’s still a struggle to prioritize exercise.
Why is starting a new daily habit so hard?
Inertia — continuing in a state of rest, unless that state is changed by an external force.
Yes. Moving from doing nothing to doing something requires you to overcome inertia. It’s so much harder than tweaking something you’re already doing. If it requires force to move out of a resting state, I’m seeing two options:
- Conjure up extra force powers.
- Figure out how to need as little force as possible to make change.
I vote for #2. Path of least resistance and all…
While it’s true that starting anything new will require some degree of effort, I’m curious what’s the least amount possible? I propose that the most simplified version of success will reduce overwhelm, support starting, and make continuing possible.
So, what’s next?
In my coaching practice, I believe in helping others build on what they can already successfully do. Helping someone remember their own capability can sometimes reveal a pattern or template for success with a new situation.
I decided to apply this technique to myself. I asked myself, “What’s a daily habit that’s so automated, you don’t even think about doing it any more?”
My most honest answer was brushing my teeth. It happens, twice daily, without effort, planning, or discipline. I would say, for me, it’s automatic.
According to the CDC, over 70% of Americans are with me, practicing twice daily brushing. Apparently, I am also with the majority of Americans who do not consistently exercise. Only just under 20% of us do.
Duh. Toothbrushing is far more simple than exercise.
Here’s why I think the habit of toothbrushing works:
- We brush our teeth at regular times.
- Typically, in the same place, every time.
- Everything we need is kept together.
- It’s a quick, repeatable process, every time.
Now what’s so different with other habits, like exercise?
Think about it. We can exercise any time of day or night. It can happen at the gym, in our homes, in a class, on the street, in the forrest, in the water, almost anywhere. We need equipment or clothes or special shoes or memberships or trainers. It can happen in a group, in a pair, with a pet, or alone.
There are so many choices. It’s overwhelming.
To keep it simple, we need to reduce perceived effort and emotional overwhelm. Remember, the goal is to simplify enough to overcome inertia. The plan can always be tweaked later after the habit is becoming established.
How can I set the bar just low enough so I’ll actually do it?
Logistical parts help reduce perceived effort:
- Time of day — Choose a time of day that is the most easily repeatable.
- Location — Choose a location you already have access to on a daily basis.
- Resources — Choose supplies you already have access to.
- Process — Choose a short, simple success.
Emotional parts help reduce overwhelm:
- Set the bar low — Choose the smallest action possible that moves in the direction of your ultimate goal. Choose one. One lap, one push-up, one dollar, one paragraph, just one. Stephen Guise calls this the concept the “golden push-up”. The hard part is getting down there to do one. That’s overcoming inertia!
- Eliminate decisions — Choose just one way to do the new thing. Habit formation is not the time for variety.
- Organize supplies — Keep everything you need for this new habit together and visible. (just like the toothbrush & toothpaste)
- Be OK with sameness— Choose a process that you can identically repeat daily. Creativity can come later. (rinse & repeat)
I understand this sounds all so robotic. I seek variety, resist routine, and rebel against order regularly. That’s probably why building new habits is such a struggle!
When you’re brushing your teeth, you’re not thinking about all of the possible ways you could be doing this. All the colors and styles of tooth brushes, all the brands of toothpaste, all the sinks and water sources you could choose from. No, you just stand there and do it. It’s not an emotional experience. It’s just done.
Sure, not all habits can be this straightforward. I believe there are just many more that could stand to be simplified, started, automated and done!
To get my daily exercise habit built, I’ve committed to running just one mile a day. This is just a low enough bar for me. The same loop, same time, in the same shoes & running clothes I already own. Sure, there’s a voice in my head that says, “but you should be running way more than 1 mile.” That voice does not get me on the pavement.
“It’s only one mile.” THAT’s the voice that gets me out the door, around the block, and into a new habit.
Use this simple chart to help build your plan: