It is not easy to change old habits, but it can be done. Research shows that people who are successful in developing new habits, such as exercising, tend to apply the following guidelines to motivate themselves:
1. Focus on pleasure. Frame your new habit in terms of what will give you pleasure. Remind yourself that you’re choosing a healthy lifestyle, which is more pleasurable than one of inactivity.
Choose a sport or exercise that interests you or that will bring you joy. Don’t go to the gym if you’d rather go on a walk outside. Figure out a way to enjoy the activity, such as doing it to music or with a friend.
2. Make a step-by step plan. Having a series of intermediate goals rather than one over-arching goal diminishes your fear of failure and the magnitude of the goal.
3. Implement change in increments. We can change our habits dramatically if we change them incrementally.
Consistency is key. So start with realistic expectations of yourself. For example, start with a minimum of five or ten minutes of exercise a day, though you might aspire to an hour a day. You’re more likely to develop a new habit if your goals are achievable. Starting is the hard part. Once you start walking or swimming and enjoying it, it’s easier to stay out longer.
4. Reflect on regrets and benefits. Think of how much you’ll regret it if you don’t exercise. Research shows that a few moments of reflecting on potential regret will motivate a person to get started.
5. Tell your family and friends. Telling others of your goals helps motivate you to achieve them and might also encourage them to participate. When you state your goals publicly, you increase your motivation to live up to them, and you also garner the support of others.
6. Reward yourself. Be grateful for every step you take and give yourself a reward for every intermediate goal achieved.
Exercise becomes easier the more you pursue it, because it triggers mood-enhancing endorphins, and gives you more energy, health, and vitality, making it increasingly desirable in itself.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD