How I changed my exercise habits

In June 2013, I didn’t do any ex­er­cise be­yond bik­ing the 15 min­utes to work and back. Now, I have a ro­bust habit of hit­ting the gym ev­ery day, do­ing car­dio and strength train­ing. Here are the tech­niques I used to do get from not hav­ing the habit to hav­ing it, some of them com­mon wis­dom and some of them my own ideas. Con­sider this post a case study/​anec­data in what worked for me. Note: I wrote these ideas down around Au­gust 2013 but didn’t post them, so my mem­ory was fresh at the time of writ­ing.

1. Have a spe­cific goal. Ideally this goal should be rea­son­ably achiev­able and some­thing you can see progress to­ward over medium timescales. I ini­tially started ex­er­cis­ing be­cause I wanted more up­per body strength to be bet­ter at climb­ing. My goal is “be­come able to do at least one pull up, or more if pos­si­ble”.

Why it works: if you have a spe­cific goal in­stead of a vague feel­ing that you ought to do some­thing or that it’s what a vir­tu­ous per­son would do, it’s harder to make ex­cuses. Skip­ping work with an ex­cuse will let you con­tinue to think of your­self as vir­tu­ous, but it won’t help with your goal. For this to work, your goal needs to be some­thing you ac­tu­ally want, rather than a stand-in for “I want to be vir­tu­ous.” If you can’t think of a con­se­quence of your in­tended habit that you ac­tu­ally want, the habit may not be worth your time.

2. Have a no-ex­cuses min­i­mum. This is prob­a­bly the best tech­nique I’ve dis­cov­ered. Every day, with no ex­cuses, I went to the gym and did fifty pull-downs on one of the ma­chines. After that’s done, I can do as much or as lit­tle else as I want. Some days I would do equiv­a­lent amounts of three other ex­er­cises, some days I would do an ex­tra five reps and that’s it.

Why it works: this one has a host of benefits.

* It pro­vides a sense of free­dom: once I’m done with my min­i­mum, I have a lot of choice about what and how much to do. That way it feels less like some­thing I’m be­ing forced into.

* If I’m feel­ing es­pe­cially tired or feel like I de­serve a day off, in­stead of skip­ping a day and break­ing the habit I tell my­self I’ll just do the min­i­mum in­stead. Often once I get there I end up do­ing more than the min­i­mum any­way, be­cause the real thing I wanted to skip was the in­con­ve­nience of bik­ing to the gym.

3. If you raise the min­i­mum, do it slowly. I have some­times raised the bar on what’s the min­i­mum amount of ex­er­cise I have to do, but never to as much or more than I was already do­ing rou­tinely. If you start sud­denly forc­ing your­self to do more than you were already do­ing, the change will be much harder and less likely to stick than grad­u­ally ratch­et­ing up your com­mit­ment.

3. Don’t fall into a guilt trap. Avoid as­so­ci­at­ing guilt with do­ing the min­i­mum, or even with miss­ing a day.

Why it works: feel­ing guilty will make think­ing of the habit un­pleas­ant, and you’ll down­play how much you care about it to avoid the cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance. Espe­cially, if you only do the min­i­mum, tell your­self “I did ev­ery­thing I com­mit­ted to do.” Then when you do more than the min­i­mum, feel good about it! You went above and be­yond. This way, do­ing what you com­mit­ted to will some­times in­clude pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment, but never nega­tive re­in­force­ment.

4. Use Time­less De­ci­sion The­ory and con­sis­tency pres­sure. Credit for this one goes to this post by user zvi. When I con­tem­plate skip­ping a day at the gym, I re­mem­ber that I’ll be fac­ing the same choice un­der nearly the same con­di­tions many times in the fu­ture. If I skip my work­out to­day, what rea­son do I have to be­lieve that I won’t skip it to­mor­row?

Why it works: Even when the benefits of one day’s worth of ex­er­cise don’t seem like enough mo­ti­va­tion, I know my en­tire habit that I’ve worked to cul­ti­vate is at stake. I know that the more days I go to the gym the more I will see my­self as a per­son who goes to the gym, and the more it will be­come my de­fault ac­tion.

5. Eval­u­ate your ex­cuses. If I have what I think is a rea­son­able ex­cuse, I con­sider how of­ten I’ll skip the gym if I let my­self skip it when­ever I have that good of an ex­cuse. If let­ting the ex­cuse hold would make me use it of­ten, I ig­nore it.

Why it works: I based this tech­nique on this LW post

6. Tell peo­ple about it. The first thing I did when I made my re­s­olu­tion to start hit­ting the gym was tel­ling a friend whose opinion I cared about. I also made a com­ment on LW say­ing I would make a post about my at­tempt at form­ing a habit, whether it suc­ceeded or failed. (I wrote the post and for­got to post it for over a year, but so it goes.)

Why it works: Tel­ling peo­ple about your com­mit­ment in­vests your rep­u­ta­tion in it. If you risk be­ing em­bar­rassed if you fail, you have an ex­tra mo­ti­va­tion to suc­ceed.


I ex­pect these tech­niques can be gen­er­al­ized to work for many de­sir­able habits: eat­ing healthy, spend­ing time on so­cial in­ter­ac­tion; writ­ing, cod­ing, or work­ing on a long-term pro­ject; be­ing out­side get­ting fresh air, etc.