Time and time again in consults, I hear stories of people trying to adhere to exercise who say something along the lines of this:
“I was going to the gym almost every day. I did this for a couple of months before I just stopped completely.”
There are many variations of this story. The person who did intense group exercise classes when the new year came around only to stop a month later.
The person who puts a significant amount of pressure on themselves to exercise every day only to break their streak at a screeching halt as soon as a barrier comes up or as soon as motivation breaks down.
In my experience, this is an all too common issue.
Most of us are going at this all the wrong way. In fact, to form a routine, most people have the script reversed. They push intensity before they achieve consistency.
If this is you, you probably know that as soon as that boost of motivation that got you started wears off, you’re going to fall back into your old routine.
Rather, to form a routine, we must focus on consistency first. That’s because routine does not care about intensity. Forming a routine only requires action. So here is what I tell people to help them make sure they do not overextend themselves and fall into the starting and stopping cycle.
Imagine Two Dials
Imagine two dials. The first dial is a motivation dial. The second dial is a task demand-dial. Let’s say your motivation dial is extremely high for exercise. You will be able to perform a task of almost any demand.
But let’s say your motivation dial drops to lower than normal. The thought of exercising for an hour does not seem attainable. So you miss your planned exercise session, the routine is disrupted, and any momentum you build starts to slow.
One of the best predictors of exercise is past behavior. So a missed session means you are less likely to do the next one, especially at the beginning of a change effort.
Most people fail to adjust their task demand-dial in accordance with their motivation dial. Rather than missing a session, you could have just turned down your task demand dial! You could have exercises for 10 minutes instead of the planned hour. The routine would have continued- you would have acted- thus increasing your odds of future action.
If we imagine these two dials, we are left with two categories of options. I call them growing yourself (boosting the motivation dial) or shrinking the behavior (reducing task demand).
Both can be adjusted to enhance the odds that you will exercise.
Boost the Motivation Dial
It’s quite challenging at the beginning of a change effort to always try to do the same demanding workouts.
This is because motivation changes on a daily basis. In fact, there is quite a bit of within-person variation in motivation strength. One day I might be very motivated to exercise. The next, not so much.
Once you have a routine, this won’t matter so much. Routine buffers against changes in motivation such that people who have exercise integrated into their sense of self actually feel discomfort when they don’t exercise. But it takes a little while to get there.
Because of this, boosting the motivation dial is actually my least favorite option of the two dials because it is more difficult to control. Yet there are tricks to boost motivation. Here are a couple of my favorites.
Temptation bundling: temptation bundling is a technique where you pair something you should do (exercise) with something you want to do (watch a Netflix show). Often people shyly admit to me how they love true crime podcasts. An example of temptation bundling would be listening to a true crime podcast as you go out for a mile walk or a 30-minute gym routine.
Treat it like an appointment: We typically don’t miss appointments. One thing very few people do is schedule their workout routines. I encourage you to put your planned workout time into your calendar and treat it as an appointment with yourself. Then don’t think of it as punishment (which people often see exercise as when they stress intensity first). Think of it as self-care. Exercise is extremely beneficial for your health.
Motivation Essential Reads
Connect your motives to the behavior: Many people exercise for some separate outcome. The strongest motives are health improvements, values, and becoming a more fit person. Remind yourself why this is important to you. I consider identity revision, the process of becoming a person who exercises, as the strongest form of motivation. Consider each exercise session as a positive vote towards becoming an exerciser.
I have more tips on boosting motivation here.
Turn Down the Task Demand Dial
This is my favorite one to adjust. That is because it is 100 percent within your control. Always let the demand of the task rise to your level of motivation. We can turn down the task in two ways. The first is mental, the second is actual.
Mentally turning down the task demand dial involves thinking of the bare minimum you need to do to get the ball rolling. Thirty to forty-five minutes of exercise may seem daunting, but getting started is often the hardest part.
Think of the first thing you need to do to get the ball rolling. In my book, I call this a starter step. Many people can get over the inertia of inaction if they just shrink the task down to putting on their workout clothes and getting in the car. Think about the first thing you need to do and only focus on that. Most of the time, when people get started, they keep going.
Actually, shrinking the task is vital for people who have competing demands and are very busy but still want to form a routine. In this case, think about what you had planned and just do the first 10 minutes. Start a stopwatch and give yourself permission to quit after 10 minutes. Again, routine only cares about action. By simply taking action, even if for a brief period of time, you are getting closer to forming a routine and practicing putting consistency before intensity.