I’m asked all the time, "How do I start the habit of…" It might be exercising after a long hiatus, writing that book, meditating, meal prep, or reading. Regardless of the habit, big or small, I’ve got one secret to ALL successful habit change. And in part one of this two-part series, I’ll lay it out for you just in time for the new year.
I could be all dramatic here (like in those trending TikTok videos where they promise a big transformation but save the reveal until the very end of the video). I hate those—just show me what I came for. So right now, without further ado, I’m going to give you the secret to enacting successful habit change:
It’s showing up.
Become a member today and see what you’ve been missing!
The science of habits
Yes, finding your "why" is super helpful. So is getting an accountability buddy, linking the new habit to an existing habit, and implementing the "five minute rule." Yes, yes yes, all of these are great ways to help you create a new habit. But the baseline—the one thing all of these require—is that you show up. Day in, day out, you just SHOW UP.
This is how I got into the habit of exercising in the morning before work more than 20 years ago. I told myself, "All you have to do is check in at the gym, five mornings a week. If you want to just turn right around and leave, fine. If you want to lie around on a mat for ten minutes, then leave, fine. But you have to wake up, get dressed, drive to the gym, and check in on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Every ‘on’ day, unless you’re sick, you’re going."
The big secret is that you just have to show up. At least, in the beginning. But since the beginning is the hardest part, this is great news that you an all take advantage of!
Habits are built on consistency. Not motivation. Not accountability. Not planning and preparation (although all of those help). The brain learns by repetition, forming neural pathways (connections between neurons) that get stronger the more often we perform a task. When we perform that task enough times, it becomes a habit.
Habits are beneficial because they require far less executive function to carry out the same task. Brushing your teeth is no longer a conscientious act of willpower, it’s just something you do before you go to bed. Same with putting on a making coffee, tying your shoes, and putting on your seat belt. Can you imagine how much harder life would be if you had to DECIDE each one of these actions? All my shoes would be Velcro.)
This is why starting a habit is hard—but continuing it is much easier. The hard work is shifting the behavior from conscientious to automatic, and you do that with consistency. And to be consistent, the big secret is that you just have to show up. At least, in the beginning. But since the beginning is the hardest part, this is great news that you can all take advantage of!
What about motivation?
One barrier to habit creation is motivation—or at least the way people think about motivation. Most people assume that motivation drives action, and if you want to create a new habit, you have to be motivated to do that action day after day. If this was true, it would be very bad news, because I don’t know anyone who’s MOTIVATED every single day. I’m sure not. But this is where showing up comes in yet again!
You become someone who goes to the gym. You become someone who writes, someone who meditates, a reader. You begin to absorb that behavior into your identity in a positive way, which makes it easier to continue showing up for yourself.
The truth is, motivation doesn’t drive action, but action does drive motivation. In order to be truly jazzed about your habit (or at least transfer from the "ugh this sucks do I have to do this every day until I die?" phase to the "this feels pretty easy now and though I don’t love it every single day, but I do love how it makes me feel so I’ll keep going" phase) you need to complete the action, consistently. Which sounds a lot like SHOWING UP.
By committing to showing up, you take motivation right out of the equation. Feeling motivated to put your gym clothes and shoes on? Cool, that’s a nice bonus. Not feeling motivated? Doesn’t matter, because you’re showing up anyway. And because that goal of showing up is just so easy and accessible (a "tiny habit," according to author B.J. Fogg), you can get it done.
Show up consistently, day after day, and all of a sudden the way you think about yourself and this habit starts to change. You become someone who goes to the gym. You become someone who writes, someone who meditates, a reader. You begin to absorb that behavior into your identity in a positive way, which makes it easier to continue showing up for yourself.
You don’t need to be motivated, although that part will come. You just need to show up.
In part two, I’ll talk about exactly how to show up for each of these habits, how to layer other habit tips on top of these for even greater success, and what your long-term habit goal should look like. (It’s probably not what you think… or maybe it is, because you’ve been paying attention.)
I think I'm going to show up on my Pilates mat this week and give it 5 minutes, with the caveat I can stop after 5 minutes if I want to.
This always sounded kind of hokey to me ... but it REALLY WORKS. I finally got to the place where I can go to the gym and do just a little and call it not just good but GREAT. Now I have the habit in place and even my minimal workouts (mostly PT as I'm injured) are really showing results!