Every single year, gyms see a huge rise in the number of people working out in January. These people are hoping to turn over a new leaf with their resolutions. But, before long, the gym occupancy is back to normal, and the people who started out so motivated, eventually fall off the wagon and give up on their goals.
Why is it that so many of the people fail to achieve new fitness or health goals?
I think it is because people misunderstand how new habits are formed, and accidentally set themselves up for failure."It’s not about willpower. Good habits happen when we set ourselves up for success." ~ Tara Parker-Pope of the New York Times Click To Tweet
If you have goals that involve getting more fit and healthy, you have to build healthier habits. It is our habits that make up our lifestyle. So how do we make habits that stick?
This article will identify one of the biggest mistakes that people make when trying to change their habits, and provide a blueprint on how to set yourself up for success so that you can achieve your goals.
To understand the process of building habits, let’s look at the example of the boulder and the snowball.
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We have likely all heard the story of Sisyphus, the man who tries with all his might to roll a boulder up a hill. But no matter how hard he tries, the boulder ends up rolling back down, and he has to start all over again day after day. This is a story of wasted efforts.
You have probably also heard about the snowball. In this scenario, a person stands on top of a hill and shapes a handful of snow into a small ball, which is then rolled down the hill. As the snowball rolls, it collects more and more snow, growing larger and picking up speed as it goes. In this story, the initial effort was low, but as time went on it grew and gained momentum, producing the desired result.
Now let’s take a look at two case studies, to see how the boulder and the snowball applies to changing one’s fitness habits.
Meet Carol & Jane
Let’s imagine that Jane and Carol are sisters who have always been inspired by adventurous people and lifestyles. However, they haven’t been on many adventures due to the fact that they didn’t feel fit enough. So one day, the sisters make a pact – they vow that they will get in shape, and in 6 months time, they will backpack the Grand Canyon.
Neither sister has been exercising regularly, but they have plenty of time to get in shape and achieve their goal. However, the two sisters both take different approaches to meeting the goal by setting different short term goals.
Carol starts big. She has the “go big or go home” mentality, and wants to start seeing results right away. Her short term goal is to go to the gym after work, 3 days a week, for an hour each day.
Jane assesses where her fitness is at now, and decides to start off slow since she hadn’t been previously exercising. The short term goal that she decides on is to pick one body weight exercise per day, and to do 30 reps of that exercise at home every day.
Carol starts off really strong. She is really excited about the new goal, and works hard at it for about a week. But she quickly finds out that these workouts were maybe a little too much for her, and now she’s extremely sore. So sore, that she had to skip workouts here and there the next few weeks. Then life starts happening, things get busy, and she isn’t able to make it to the gym some days after work. She starts to feel discouraged as the failures pile up, and ultimately ends up quitting the gym.
Jane, however, starts out small and finds she is able to find time for her new habit in her busy life. After a couple of weeks of getting her 30 reps in every day, she’s starting to feel pretty proud of herself. With this new found confidence, she starts to bump up the number of reps she does each day, a little at a time.
Before long, Jane starts to see that she’s making some real progress towards her goal, and this motivates her even more. She continues to work hard, gradually increasing the amount of exercise she is doing over time. When her trip date arrives, Jane is ready for the Grand Canyon!
Carol’s story is one I have heard so many times. So what went wrong?
Although Carol’s intentions were good, she started out with too big of a short-term goal. She tried to take too much on, and make a radical change all at once. She had unknowingly set herself up for failure. In short, Carol was trying to roll her big boulder of a goal up the hill.
However, Jane recognized this situation as a marathon, not a sprint. She realistically assessed her current level of fitness, and started with a short-term goal that was right for her. Jane started with a small snowball that grew and grew as it rolled down the hill.
The lesson here, is that we want to set ourselves up for success by starting small, with the understanding that our efforts will grow over time.
With a goal like backpacking the Grand Canyon, there is a lot you need to prepare for. You need to be strong to carry a pack the 10+ miles up the very steep canyon wall. You will also need the endurance to go the distance, and a number of other things.
But you don’t need to start with everything all at once. Pick one small thing, and once you’ve got that down, incorporate the other things.
You don’t want to try and make a drastic change all at once and overwhelm yourself. If you want to cross the finish line, you must have patience and a plan.
How to Start Small
- 1 – Pick one thing to focus on first – strength or cardio for example.
- 2 – If you’re going to do strength, pick a number of reps you feel confident you could do every day. If you’re going to do cardio, pick an amount of time you can do every day.
- Ex, 30 reps of strength exercises per day, or 10 minutes of walking.
- If you aren’t confident you can do it every day, it’s too big – step it down a little.
- 3 – Try to make it something you can do at home. For those that haven’t been exercising regularly, body weight works well to start.
The idea here is to make the initial goal as easy as you possibly can so that you can have successes early on. Picking one small task makes sure you don’t get overwhelmed. Doing it at home makes it easier too. A lot of times going to the gym is a big enough hassel that people will skip it.
For example for a new strength goal, this might look like:
- Monday – bodyweight squats x30
- Tuesday – push-ups (hands elevated) x30
- Wednesday – crunches x30
- Thursday – lateral lunges x30
- Friday – chair dips x30
- Saturday – Russian twists x30
- Sunday – mountain climbers x30
I know this doesn’t seem like much exercise and you might worry that it’s not enough to make a difference. But there are a number of benefits to this start-small approach.
Benefit #1: Starting Small Makes It Easy to Have Time For Your Goal
Some of the most common reasons why people are unable to stick to new fitness goals are a lack of time or motivation, or being too tired after work.
But a small goal like 30 reps per day might take about 3 minutes to complete. There are 1,440 minutes in a day, surely you can spare just three of them to work towards your goals!
Also, on a day when you are feeling tired or unmotivated, it’s so much easier to talk yourself into 3 minutes of exercise at home than it is when you have to drive to the gym and work out for an hour, as in Carol’s goal.
Benefit #2: Starting Slow Means You Can Work on Your Goal Every Day
By choosing to start small, you can work on your goal every single day. Habits are much easier to form when we can work on them every day as opposed to just a few days per week.
The problem with starting out with a goal like Carol’s, where she wants to do long workouts only 3 times a week, is that this introduces decision-making into the equation.
Each day, she has to decide if that is the day she wants to go to the gym. This opens the door to the possibility of procrastination.
If you are not feeling highly motivated, it can be easy to say, “I’ll do it tomorrow” a couple of times, and then all of the sudden you are behind and feeling overwhelmed.
Doing a little bit every day takes away that decision making process, and it takes away the opportunity for procrastination, which makes it easier for you to be successful in your goal.
Benefit #3: Starting Slow Means Less Soreness
Another common reason people have trouble sticking to their fitness goals, is that they try to change everything all at once. They go from not exercising much at all, to all of the sudden working out for hours per week. This huge increase in the amount of exercise makes them so sore it hurts to walk or sit down!
By starting slowly, the amount of soreness will be much less. And if you do feel sore one day – don’t be afraid to allow some flexibility in your routine. For example, if it’s supposed to be your day to do squats, but your legs are sore, no need to skip your workout, just switch it up and do an arm exercise. If your arms are sore, do a core exercise instead.
Allowing for this flexibility makes it so that you can switch things up according to your needs, as opposed to the alternative of having a rigid schedule where you might just skip leg day all together if your legs are sore.
At this stage, the most important thing is consistency.
Benefit #4: Starting Slow Builds Confidence
This is probably the most important benefit of starting small. The whole point of starting small, is to set yourself up for success right from the start.
By choosing an amount of exercise that you feel confident you can do EVERY day – you start to plant the seeds of that new habit. And as you go through the first couple of weeks, and are successful at completing 30 reps every day, you will build confidence. You will feel like you are ready to take on more, and be excited about it! Once you have gained a little bit of confidence, it is much easier to start increasing your reps, or adding in other things like cardio or nutrition.
Things to Keep in Mind About Starting Small:
- Remember, small is just where we’re starting – pretty soon you’ll start seeing some success and gaining some confidence, and you’ll gradually progress to bigger and bigger goals on the way to your ultimate goal – like the snowball rolling down the hill.
- It’s better to start with something small that you can stick to, than to start too big and feel like you’re pushing a boulder up the hill.
- Be patient! Making new habits, and changing your lifestyle takes time! Enjoy the process and results will come.
- If you happen to be feeling good on a particular day, feel free to add some extra reps of an exercise! Just make sure you don’t over-do it so that you’re too sore to do your next workout.
- Be gentle with yourself, you will slip up, but it’s not the end of the world. If you miss a day of working out, it doesn’t mean you have to throw out your whole goal. Just learn from your mistakes, and start again tomorrow.
Can you relate to the stories of the boulder and the snowball?
Have you had experiences in the past where you’ve started out too big and ended up failing?