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Kathy Whelan

Posted on September 09, 2021

There’s no way around the fact that habit change takes time and effort. A new health behavior usually takes at least 3 to 6 months of consistent repetition to become a practice that will endure. Time passes on its own, leaving the consistency part to us.

Suppose you know that and are up for the challenge. You’ve thought long and hard about changing and why it’s important to you. You’ve considered the sacrifices you’ll have to make and the time you’ll have to spend. You’ve read enough to know you should create a very specific goal and design small, specific steps toward your goal. Having done all that, you’re excited and ready to go. It’s time for the rubber to meet the road.

Let’s say your 3-to-6-month goal is 30 minutes of brisk walking five days a week, Monday through Friday. This would put you in line with the US Department of Health and Human Services’ recommendation in its Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Your initial step: do this each Monday.

You feel encouraged when the first few weeks go smoothly. You’ve had to shift exercise days once or twice, but you’ve made the adjustment. As the weeks pass, you add another exercise day and then another. You notice you’re sleeping better, eating better and experiencing less stress. You’re on track and things are looking good.

Then, along comes trouble. Life gets in the way and you don’t have time to exercise, not even on a different day. You’re discouraged, frustrated, disappointed in yourself. Luckily, there are things you can do to help yourself keep going. Here are a few:

1. Let go of perfection. Remember the saying, often attributed to Woody Allen, that “80% of life is showing up.” Put on your shoes and just show up. Walk for five minutes if that’s all you have. An all-or-nothing attitude can lead to guilt, shame and reasons to quit, so let go of it for a day (and please don’t call it cheating). Do it again the next day if you have to. This will take some self-compassion. Think of all the good work you’ve done and cut yourself some well-deserved slack.

2. Understand that it’s normal. It should help to know that it’s not realistic, nor consistent with brain science, to expect behavior change to follow a linear path. Instead, according to a well-known behavior change model, it usually takes on a spiral pattern as you move through several stages of change in which relapsing (or “recycling”) is to be expected.

3. Remember why you started. If you’re tempted to give up, review the reasons that motivated you to begin making the change. Imagine your future in a few years if you stop now (your “default future”) versus your future if you keep going until you reach your goal (your “ideal future”).

4. Don’t steal your own identity. You’ve worked to build a new identity, or a new dimension to your identity, as a regular exerciser. Since we often behave in ways that align without our identity, this new, healthier identity-in-formation will help motivate you in the future. By allowing yourself to let go of perfection in order to keep going at a tough time, you can preserve that advantage. Spending time with people who have similar identities will help you stay motivated and can be a source of support.

5. Learn from every outcome. With non-judgmental curiosity, ask yourself, “How could I have planned my week differently?” or “How else could I have responded when so-and-so asked me to do such-and-such that kept me from exercising?” Most “failures” contain some measure of success, so focus on that: “What did I do right in this situation?” As long as you are learning, and modifying your plan accordingly, you are still progressing.

6. Get back on the path soon. In Atomic Habits, James Clear warns that repeated lapses can themselves begin a new, unintended habit. To avoid this, return to your plan as soon as possible. If circumstances have changed so much that the original plan is no longer appropriate, make a new plan and begin right away.

7. Don’t forget to enjoy the journey. Whatever health habit you are working on, you will learn from everything you do. Relish that. It will never go to waste.

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