Every January, hope springs eternal in our heart that this year we might finally get into shape. We’ll shed the weight we don’t need, fit into clothes that we love, and maybe accomplish some other things we’ve been meaning to do while we’re at it. It’s a magical time when possibilities exist like no other time of the year.
The gyms and health clubs fill up with people who have made a New Year’s resolution to start a habit for fitness. For weeks, it’s crowded and you have to wait your turn to use a fitness machine. You see people outside running. There’s a charge in the air as we share energy with each other. You are convinced that, this year, it’s really going to happen.
But by the end of January, you notice that you’re not waiting quite so often for machines at the health club. The locker room is not as crowded as before. And by the middle of February, the rush is over and only the regulars remain at the gym.
Or so you guess, because you're not going to the gym to find out.
Why does that happen? Why do so many people give up on their well-intentioned resolutions.
What does it take to keep a good habit once you’ve started?
The old way of thinking about habits
So why is it that the people making a New Year’s resolution can’t stick with their habit? Is it something about January? Did they choose the wrong gym and they just didn’t have the energy to go look for another?
If you’ve ever looked into it, the conventional wisdom about forming a habit is that you need to do something for 14-21 days in order to make the habit. That might work for some people, but if the anecdote about the health clubs emptying out in February sounds familiar, you probably agree that it’s a tiny minority that can form a habit in 21 days.
The rest of us give up and move on to something else.
Why three weeks is not enough
I think it’s that three weeks (i.e., twenty-one days) went by and they didn’t feel their new habit take over, and they were distracted by something else and decided that physical fitness was not for them. That whatever they promised themselves as part of their resolution was misguided, and that agreement is now null and void.
What did they do wrong?
Should they punish themselves for breaking their promise? Should they feel bad, or that they aren’t worthy?
Of course not. But when they’re ready to try again, they just need to adjust their expectations about firmly adopting the habit.
How long will I have to do this to get the habit?
I think you need to persist for 250 days to get the habit. I got this idea from James Cleary, and my own experience bears it out.
About ten years ago, I made a drastic change in my habits, focused on fitness. I wanted to become someone who exercised every day, and didn’t take “time off” from that exercise for weeks or months at a time.
That was my habit, in fact. I’d start some exercise routine and it’d go great for a month, sometimes two, and then I’d skip a few weeks. Or a couple of months. By skipping, I turn my back on the good feelings I experience from exercise. When I’d finally restart, I’d restart from the beginning (not where I left off) and it was doubly frustrating.
When I finally made the change that led to a daily fitness habit, I decided that I’d spent 30 years (age 13 – 43) not doing it quite right, so it’d be okay to plan on taking two years to figure out how to do it right.
Somewhere around nine to ten months into it, I was confident the habit would stick.
Why so long?
You should read James Cleary’s article on the subject, but my explanation is that you have to show persistence long enough to demonstrate to your brain that you are going to be able to exercise through all the challenges you face during a year. If you are in a temperate zone, like I am, the four seasons are very distinct, and the demands on your brain are very different to get you the exercise in winter than it is in summer.
If you start in January, you have to persist right through spring, summer, and into fall so that you learn to overcome the different obstacles you’ll face.
If you have kids, you have to persist through all the different school and sport activities they will bring home.
If you have an extended family, you have to persist through all the holidays, birthdays, reunions, and visits that will challenge your schedule and your sanity.
If you have a job, you have to persist through the market phases and business cycles that impact your work life over the course of a year. There will be times when you have to travel for work, or work over time, or are so busy at work that you're exhausted at home. Any of those can blow up your routine, and break your exercise habit.
That’s a crazy amount of time to persist
Yes, it may seem crazy to persist at an exercise routine for nine months or longer. You’re going to have to plan a lot of things to get through it.
They good news is that we’ve already discussed the importance of switching routines every six weeks to break up boredom.
But if you don’t plan, and don’t consider these very real challenges, you’ll be derailed and distracted within a month. You will not have considered what bizarre schedule conflict will arise near the end of your kids’ school year when a freak storm rolls in and you still have to figure out how to visit your uncle in Cleveland. When faced with that kind of conflict, of course you skip the work out.
And once you start skipping the work out, another distraction will appear. And another. And another after that.
Pretty soon, the only habit you know is the one to skip your workouts.And you’re right back where you started.
Unless you plan to persist for 250 days, at least. Because you’re worth it, and having a daily fitness habit can truly change your life.
Now get busy planning.