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Willpower is overrated: try these habit-forming techniques instead.

(Co-written by me and my coach, Michael Bebbington)

Many of us commonly have intentions to become more physically active for a vast number of very positive and powerful reasons. Our understanding of the benefits of exercise, and our desire to reap them, often leads us to make grand plans to get started at milestone moments, for example in the new year, in preparation for an upcoming social event, or after the weekend, as a fresh week begins.

However, as common as intentions to be more active are, it is just as common for us to have difficulties initiating these plans or keeping them up if we do get started. This can be referred to as the intention-action gap; the observation that, as humans, we have trouble turning intention into action.

So, if you’re wanting to become more active and stay more active, what can you do to cross that pesky intention-action gap? Time and time again, the fitness industry makes it sound super simple: you’ve just gotta want it badly enough. Often, coaches blame those who fail to act on their intentions or stick with them as lacking willpower and discipline, for being lazy, and for not trying hard enough. This is - ironically - LAZY coaching. If we look instead to habit-forming, this reduces the need for motivation, discipline and willpower to complete the action. If you have a goal to become more physically active, familiarise yourself with these five behaviour-change techniques first:-

1) Implementation – Intentions

The first step is to make our intention more likely to happen by turning it into a clearly defined, actionable plan. Thoughts and plans such as ‘I’m going to start running next week’ or ‘I need to do more yoga’ are far too vague. If one hundred people said they were going to start running next week, it could look entirely differently for each person. Likewise, ‘do more yoga’, while well-intentioned, is meaningless from a behavioural perspective. Vague plans that aren’t clearly defined can all-to-easily be assigned for our future selves to deal with because they technically aren’t routed to a specific moment.

So, what to do instead?

If your goal is to walk more, when will you do this walking? Be really specific here: which days of the week, what time of the day etc. How often will you do it? For how long will you do it? And when will it fit into your routine?

A simple statement to complete after answering the above is:

  • After doing _______(existing action already in your routine), I will_________(next specific action). For example: After doing the school drop off, I will walk the longer route back home on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

In addition to these initial plans, it is wise to plan for situations that are likely to throw off our intentions, such as being short of time, feeling tired, classes being fully booked etc. To deal with these, IF-THEN plans are advised:

  • IF________(situation) happens, THEN I will ________. For example: If it is raining, then I’ll make sure I am wearing waterproofs and have my umbrella with me.

2) Graded task

The first step (Implementation-Intention) is a helpful starting point because we naturally have to consider our routine and what we can achieve. However, we humans tend to be a bit optimistic at the start, so further adjustment may be needed. A goal that isn’t realistic can keep us frozen in inaction, which is not helpful!

If you have failed to start your current plan, then adjust your goals to make them more realistic. The key here is that we need to start doing something. If you were planning to do three workouts each week but it’s been two weeks and you haven’t made a start, reduce it to one workout each week. Or maybe reduce it to just getting changed into your workout clothes. It really doesn’t matter how small or seemingly pointless the step is, there just needs to be something to initiate the process. We can build on that.

3) Self-monitoring

Self-monitoring is quite self-explanatory but essentially describes the process of actively paying attention to what we are doing relative to our goals. To be successful in self-monitoring, you should know what you’ve done in a given time (let’s say a day, but it could just as well be a week) in comparison to what you planned to do.

By monitoring what we are actually doing we can identify if we are smashing it, or if we need to adjust our approach because it’s been 2 weeks without achieving what we set out to do.

Self-monitoring includes:

  • Habit-tracking apps

  • Step-counts

  • Workout logbooks

This self-monitoring step highlights the need to be specific in your Implementation - Intentions step. If we are too vague with our intentions, it’s hard to monitor and know whether or not we actually did what we planned to do or not.

This step isn’t here to elicit guilt or shame if you aren’t able to complete what you planned to do. It’s not a stick with which to beat yourself but a tool to help you to be kinder to yourself and more realistic moving forwards.. If we see we haven’t been able to do what we planned to do, we need to consider adjusting our approach rather than blaming ourselves and saying: ‘I just need to be more disciplined, I’ll start next week’.

4) Social support

When we are trying to increase our activity levels, we frequently try to do it alone. However, the reality is that it will be much easier to be more active if your social environment supports it. This is easy to say but challenging to do!

Things to consider:

  • Is anyone else in your family trying or wanting to be more active and could you do it together? How about your friends or work colleagues?

  • Have a conversation with those close to you about your plans and importantly why these plans are important to you – this is to make sure you have the support in this process.

  • Are there any social challenges you can sign up for that are focused around being more active?

  • Is there a programme that you could join, where you’re part of a community? Grab a half-price trial for my online LIFT programme if it’s accessible to you.

5) Prompts/Triggers & make it easy

It makes sense that having loads of cigarettes around will make the process of quitting smoking harder which is why people often throw out their existing cigarettes when looking to quit. However, we rarely utilise this insight about prompts and triggers to our advantage when trying to become more active.

Look for the key moment when we are trying to be active, (e.g. after finishing work and leaving the office or after getting out of bed), and make sure there is a prompt or reminder in that precise moment. This could be an alarm on your phone, a post-it note on your laptop, your walking shoes left by your bed, your workout gear on the sofa for when you return from work, or something else entirely.

For a prompt to be effective it must be a) timely (occur in the moment of action), b) salient (do we actually take notice of it – not like our bottle of water we leave on our desk the whole day without taking a sip from), and c) specific (it has to remind us of the thing we are meant to be doing).

To conclude:

The moral of the story of habit formation is that it’s not easy, despite what social media might have us believe! There are so many forces that influence our behaviour and even when we know about them, it doesn’t remove the impact they have. But don’t lose hope. Generally speaking, the more attempts we take, the more we learn about what works and what doesn’t, which makes us more likely to be successful with another effort. Try not to be hard on yourself. Try the techniques above and really focus on that first step or action. Oh, and just for the record, no, you’re not lazy, undisciplined or weak-willed if you’ve had trouble getting started or sticking with it. Any coach who makes you feel that way is, in fact, a LAZY one.

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