At some point in our lives, we’ve all made the declaration that we were going to change something about our life. We tell ourselves that we’re finally going to start working out again. We vow to eat better and remove fast food from our diet. We swear that we’re going to start going to bed on time. And what’s the first thing that most of us think about when we consider how we are going to achieve them?
“I need to get motivated”
The problem? Motivation is by far the least effective strategy for sticking to new habits. Motivation is a spark to get things moving in the right direction, but commitment and discipline are the true catalysts for rapid self-improvement.
Commitment and discipline sound like intimidating words, mostly due to the fact that we correlate these words with monstrous goals that require monk-like self-control to achieve. But the truth is, when it comes to behavior change, discipline doesn’t need to be applied in a big way, it just needs to be applied.
In other words, you don’t have to make an extreme shift in your daily routine, but you need extreme commitment to a small shift in your daily routine.
How do you ensure that you follow through on the promises you make to yourself about changing your behavior? Let’s talk about a highly practical, research-backed strategy that will help you stick to any habit that you want to implement into your life.
Developing An Exercise Habit
Unsurprisingly, one of the most common new behaviors that people want to develop is a consistent exercise habit. However, while many people want to workout, the people who actually get in shape do one thing very differently from those who don’t. In 2001, researchers began working with 248 people who wanted to build better exercise habits over the course of two weeks. The participants were broken up into three groups.
The first group was the control group. They were simply asked to track how often they worked out. The second group was called the “motivation” group. The people in this group were asked to not only track their workouts, but also read material on the health benefits of exercise. Additionally, researchers gave the group a presentation on how exercise could reduce the risk of common heart diseases.
Finally, there was the third group. These subjects received the same presentation as those in group two, which ensured they were equally motivated. However, they were asked to go one step further than the other two groups in terms of solidifying their new habit. Each member of the third group was asked to create a specific plan for when and where they were going to exercise over the following week.
They each completed the sentence: “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on (DAY) at (TIME) in (PLACE).”
After receiving these instructions, all three groups left the research center.
Here’s what the researchers found after monitoring the 248 participants who were involved in the study: In Groups 1 and 2, 35 to 38 percent of the people exercised at least once per week. In Group 3, 91% of the people exercised at least once per week.
The only difference between Group 3 and the other 2 groups? The people in the final group created a specific plan involving when and where they were going to perform their new habit. Another interesting finding in this study was the lack of disparity between the level of exercise in groups 1 & 2. As it turned out, the extra motivation provided by the researchers had zero effect on the exercise behavior of the subjects.
The Power of Planning
The sentence that the subjects in Group 3 were forced to write is what researchers refer to as an implementation intention. In the context of behavior change, an implementation intention is a specific plan that outlines when and where you are going to perform a specific behavior.
Most of us tend to believe that we lack the motivation to achieve our goals. However, studies like this one prove that what we really lack is clarity. For most people, goal-setting and habit creating are very fuzzy procedures.
We tell ourselves, “I want to get in better shape” or “I want to start writing more,” but we never specify when and where these new habits are going to happen. We pretty much leave it up to chance and hope that we will “just remember to do it.”
Pretend you’re a commander in the army planning to attack an enemy fortification. Would you tell your soldiers “Go attack that building over there,” and then send them out to battle? Of course not, because without a detailed plan for how and when to carry out the attack, you’d likely get all of your soldiers killed.
The same concept should apply to your habits. If you want to start working out, but don’t have a concrete plan for when and where you are going to workout, your brain is going actively self-sabotage you by second guessing itself all day. As you pass the kitchen counter, you’ll think “Should I go to the gym now?” As you sit down on the couch, you’ll think, “After this episode of Netflix I’ll go to the gym.” But it never happens. You never go to the gym. Not because you weren’t motivated enough, but because you never made a specific plan for going to the gym.
How to Stick to Your Habits
The easiest way to stick to your habits is to do the exact same thing that Group 3 did in the experiment described above, which is to create your own implementation intention. An implementation intention turns a foggy wish like “I’m going to start going to the gym,” into a concrete plan of action. The formula for creating an implementation plan is straightforward. Here’s the sentence that you need to fill out:
I will [NEW BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].
- Old Plan – I want to workout
- Implementation Plan – I will exercise for 30 minutes at 5:30 P.M in my local gym
- Old Plan – I want to start meditating
- Implementation Plan – I will meditate for 5 minutes at 7:30 A.M. on my couch
- Old Plan – I want to write more
- Implementation Plan – I will write for 30 minutes at 8:00 P.M. at my kitchen table.
The key is to give your habits a particular time and space in the world. Your goal should be to make the situation so obvious that, as you become more proficient, you start to get the urge to do the right thing at the right time, even if you have no idea where the urge came from.
If you don’t make specific plans for implementing new behaviors into your life, then you will end up making the classic mistake of relying on motivation and willpower. Both are incredibly unreliable catalysts for change.
Motivation is fleeting, and willpower is something that needs to be built through many years of practice, so in the short-term your best strategy for improving your life is through planning ahead and making your environment the cue for performing new behaviors. As legendary college basketball coach Bobby Knight said, “Everyone wants to win but it’s only those with the will to prepare that do win.”
Preparing doesn’t guarantee you’ll win, or in this case stick to your new habit, but it sways the odds drastically in your favor. In a world where nothing is guaranteed except for death and taxes, that’s really all you can ask for.