In June 2013, I didn’t do any exercise beyond biking the 15 minutes to work and back. Now, I have a robust habit of hitting the gym every day, doing cardio and strength training. Here are the techniques I used to do get from not having the habit to having it, some of them common wisdom and some of them my own ideas. Consider this post a case study/anecdata in what worked for me. Note: I wrote these ideas down around August 2013 but didn’t post them, so my memory was fresh at the time of writing.
1. Have a specific goal. Ideally this goal should be reasonably achievable and something you can see progress toward over medium timescales. I initially started exercising because I wanted more upper body strength to be better at climbing. My goal is “become able to do at least one pull up, or more if possible”.
Why it works: if you have a specific goal instead of a vague feeling that you ought to do something or that it’s what a virtuous person would do, it’s harder to make excuses. Skipping work with an excuse will let you continue to think of yourself as virtuous, but it won’t help with your goal. For this to work, your goal needs to be something you actually want, rather than a stand-in for “I want to be virtuous.” If you can’t think of a consequence of your intended habit that you actually want, the habit may not be worth your time.
2. Have a no-excuses minimum. This is probably the best technique I’ve discovered. Every day, with no excuses, I went to the gym and did fifty pull-downs on one of the machines. After that’s done, I can do as much or as little else as I want. Some days I would do equivalent amounts of three other exercises, some days I would do an extra five reps and that’s it.
Why it works: this one has a host of benefits.
* It provides a sense of freedom: once I’m done with my minimum, I have a lot of choice about what and how much to do. That way it feels less like something I’m being forced into.
* If I’m feeling especially tired or feel like I deserve a day off, instead of skipping a day and breaking the habit I tell myself I’ll just do the minimum instead. Often once I get there I end up doing more than the minimum anyway, because the real thing I wanted to skip was the inconvenience of biking to the gym.
3. If you raise the minimum, do it slowly. I have sometimes raised the bar on what’s the minimum amount of exercise I have to do, but never to as much or more than I was already doing routinely. If you start suddenly forcing yourself to do more than you were already doing, the change will be much harder and less likely to stick than gradually ratcheting up your commitment.
3. Don’t fall into a guilt trap. Avoid associating guilt with doing the minimum, or even with missing a day.
Why it works: feeling guilty will make thinking of the habit unpleasant, and you’ll downplay how much you care about it to avoid the cognitive dissonance. Especially, if you only do the minimum, tell yourself “I did everything I committed to do.” Then when you do more than the minimum, feel good about it! You went above and beyond. This way, doing what you committed to will sometimes include positive reinforcement, but never negative reinforcement.
4. Use Timeless Decision Theory and consistency pressure. Credit for this one goes to this post by user zvi. When I contemplate skipping a day at the gym, I remember that I’ll be facing the same choice under nearly the same conditions many times in the future. If I skip my workout today, what reason do I have to believe that I won’t skip it tomorrow?
Why it works: Even when the benefits of one day’s worth of exercise don’t seem like enough motivation, I know my entire habit that I’ve worked to cultivate is at stake. I know that the more days I go to the gym the more I will see myself as a person who goes to the gym, and the more it will become my default action.
5. Evaluate your excuses. If I have what I think is a reasonable excuse, I consider how often I’ll skip the gym if I let myself skip it whenever I have that good of an excuse. If letting the excuse hold would make me use it often, I ignore it.
Why it works: I based this technique on this LW post
6. Tell people about it. The first thing I did when I made my resolution to start hitting the gym was telling a friend whose opinion I cared about. I also made a comment on LW saying I would make a post about my attempt at forming a habit, whether it succeeded or failed. (I wrote the post and forgot to post it for over a year, but so it goes.)
Why it works: Telling people about your commitment invests your reputation in it. If you risk being embarrassed if you fail, you have an extra motivation to succeed.
I expect these techniques can be generalized to work for many desirable habits: eating healthy, spending time on social interaction; writing, coding, or working on a long-term project; being outside getting fresh air, etc.