How to Make Habits That Stick

Love working out, hate working out, love working out, hate working out. The never ending cycle of inconsistent work outs is the bane of your existence. One week you’re a workout machine. Meal prepping kale and roasted sweet potato salad galore, 6:30 AM spin class, actually eager to lace up your sneakers for a post-work run.

Then, you hit a wall. Next thing you know, your feet are propped up on the couch, glass of wine in hand, binge watching The Bachelorette. At first you feel ecstatic you’re not running, which slowly turns to guilt, that is then
comforted by another glass of wine and since you’re not working out, a small pint of ice cream finds it’s way into your mouth.

If you’re human, then you know this struggle all too well. That is why today’s post is dedicated to breaking down the science behind habits and motivation. Make exercise a habit! So easy. Um, I actually hate when people say that. What does that even mean?

Habits relative to brushing your teeth, eating sugary foods, and obsessively checking social media are easy to form. They have a clearly defined reward. Your teeth feel sparkly clean after they are brushed, your sugar cravings are satisfied after eating a donut, and your afternoon boredom is cured after a few finger flicks down your Instagram feed.

Habits are driven by cravings. Most of the time these cravings emerge so gradually that we’re not really aware they exist, so often blind to their influence.

Having the slightest understanding of how habits actually form, makes them easier to control. Once you break a habit into it’s components, you can fiddle with the gears.

First things first.  The three components of a habit are: Cue -Routine -Reward. This is known as the habit loop.

The easiest way to explain this is through an example. To understand your own habits, you need to identify the components of your loops. Let’s say you have a bad habit, like I did when I worked in an office, of going to Starbucks everyday and buying a $4 400 calorie coffee. This habit has caused you to gain a few pounds and taken a toll on your wallet. You’ve tried to force yourself to stop going, you even told your co-worker to hold you hostage if you try to get up. But every afternoon you manage to ignore him, get up, wander to Starbucks, buy a latte, and while chatting with co-workers in line, drink it. Tomorrow, you promise yourself, you’ll muster the willpower to resist.

How do you diagnose and change this behavior? By figuring out the habit loop. In the latte scenario – as with most habits – the routine is the most obvious aspect: It’s the behavior you want to change. Your routine is that you get up from your desk in the afternoon, walk to Starbucks, buy a latte and chat with your co-workers.

What is the cue for this routine? Hunger? Time of day? Boredom? Tiredness? You need a break?

What is the reward? The latte? The change of scenery? Temporary distraction? Socializing with co-workers? Burst of energy?

To figure this out you’ll need to experiment. By experimenting with different rewards, you can isolate what you are actually craving, which is essential in redesigning the habit.  Rewards are powerful because they satisfy cravings. We’re often not conscious of the craving that drives our behavior. I experimented with different rewards. Walking around the block by myself without drinking anything, grabbing a plain latte, and also went to Starbucks with my co-workers but didn’t buy anything (lame-o).

After a few days of experimentation, it became pretty clear I craved social at a certain point during the day. It didn’t matter whether I drank a latte or not, I felt satisfied with the temporary distraction that came with chatting with co- workers. I changed my drink to the $1 tea and felt just as satisfied. The brain cannot differentiate between a good and a bad habit.

The same habit loop can be used to motivate yourself to exercise. If you want to start a new workout regimen you need to identify a simple cue and a clear reward. The routine is, of course, the workout.  Your cue can be as simple as a 6:00 AM alarm ding telling you to go to barre class.  The reward can be a post-workout Starbucks trip.  (Okay, um I might be obsessed with Starbucks).

On the days you are feeling motivated to workout, start to take notice what drives you. Is it intrinsic motivation? Like receiving the rush of endorphins after a spin class. Or is it extrinsic motivation? Like seeing the slightest flattening of your stomach.

Allow yourself to anticipate the reward. Eventually, craving the reward will make it easier to push through the gym doors every day.  Figuring out exactly how to spark this craving will make creating habits easier.

The motivation behind my workouts is mental clarity.  Sure, looking better on the outside is a side effect, but I know if I spend 60 minutes practicing yoga before I start my day, I am likely to have a calmer, more patient, present mind. My mind actually craves this state of calmness. If I haven’t moved by 12, I start to get cranky, antsy, and irritable.  I notice a very distinct difference between my post-workout self and my pre-workout self.  Post-workout I see my mood elevate, my focus increase, and my tolerance for annoying tasks to be much higher.

Knowing how habits work won’t immediately change them, but will benefit you when building new ones.

I cannot take all of the credit for this mind-blowing information.  It all comes from the book, The Power of Habit, which I highly recommend. Charles Duhigg thoroughly explores how habits function and shape our lives in a
whole new light.

Hey, I'm Steph. I used to work in finance and now I teach yoga. I created Steph Yoga to help you