I’m an avid gym goer. I go to the gym almost every day for at least an hour. But I didn’t used to be. I was never a star athlete and any exercise I got used to be pretty irregular. It took me several attempts over months to form the habit of regular exercise. In my failed attempts, one of the most important lessons I learned is that if you want a habit to stick, it needs to be daily.
The first few times I tried to install exercise habits, they fell apart. Attempting to exercise three or four times a week, simply didn’t stick. What eventually did the trick was making it a daily habit. It may seem counterintuitive that exercising more frequently is an easier habit to install, but when you look into the mechanisms that create habits, it makes sense.
Daily Habits Are More Thoroughly Reinforced
Willpower isn’t the biggest issue in trying to change a habit. Most people have enough willpower to make it through the first week or two when it is really necessary. The problem most people have is that their habits aren’t conditioned deeply enough to switch the behavior on autopilot.
To understand why, let’s compare the exercise habits of Jill and John.
John sets out a plan to exercise Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. He plans for longer workouts of about an hour. On Mondays, John wakes up to the sound of his alarm clock and heads to the gym. Without realizing it the pattern in his head that links waking up (his daily routine) to the gym is reinforced.
But on Tuesday John wakes up and doesn’t exercise at all. The pattern linking John’s daily routine to exercise isn’t as strong now. This continues for several weeks and John finds that he still needs to remind himself to go to the gym.
Jill on the other hand plans to exercise every day. She only goes to the gym for a half hour, but she is there every single day. When Jill’s alarm clock sounds she automatically reaches for her gym bag and heads out the door. Her pattern is conditioned repeatedly until it is completely automatic.
Consistency is Key
If exercising is a chore, you probably aren’t making the habit consistent enough. Nobody is a drone who executes each day identically, but you can tackle the big parts that reduce consistency. Going from a weekly to a daily habit is one of those.
Even if you don’t exercise at the same time every day, daily exercise will be linked into your brain so that your day doesn’t feel complete without it.
Making Gradual Change With a Daily Schedule
I’m a big proponent of gradual over revolutionary change. Trying to do everything at once is a sure way to fail entirely. If you aren’t exercising at all or very infrequently, shifting to a daily schedule can be tough. Here are a few ways you can gradually shift while maintaining a daily schedule:
- Cut the amount of time per session – I like 60-90 minutes for a workout, but if you are already time starved starting with a daily schedule of 20-30 minutes can help.
- Build it into your life – If possible you might want to walk or bike your normal commute to work.
- Start easier - Don’t try a marathon each workout. Making yourself sick on the first day of exercise is an easy way to give up. Start easy and progress.
Find the Right Challenge Level
When starting a new exercise plan you need to balance between making it too easy and forgetting about conditioning it or making it too hard and giving up out of frustration. Habits of exercise for ten minutes are likely to be forgotten, while two hours of exercise a day might be too hard to take all at once.
If you’ve failed to stick with an exercise habit before, try switching it to a daily routine. I’ve done this a few times with different forms of exercise and each time I found it to be amazingly effective in getting the habit to stick.