3 Ways to Build Habits and Stay Motivated

Science says mental legwork keeps you consistent in the long run.
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Frau liegt müde im Bett ©Geber86

Nothing will get you stoked to go out for a run quite like a new pair of sneakers. Just opening the lid and folding back the paper gets your adrenaline pumping. But you can’t unbox a new pair of running shoes every time you go out. So you need to find other ways to stay motivated. Same goes for all of the parts of your healthy lifestyle — workouts, good nutrition, even things like recovery, meditation, and commitment to the other parts of your life that are important. 

Related: First time runner? 4 ways to make the new sport stick

The other component? How to make these good-for-you actions a habit, because that can put you on autopilot. So we’ve got some science-backed tips to crank up the motivation, stoke your grit, hold your interest, and ensure you’re keeping up with all your hard-won habits. 

Location, location, location

It’s the motto for real estate, and can be the motto for creating consistency in your day. A pair of studies from researchers at University of Southern California and University College London found that an important part of habit creation has to do with “context clues.” Essentially, it means that, when we’re in certain spaces, we’re cued to do certain things. 

Picture the moment you walk into a gym. You scan your pass, make a beeline for the locker rooms and you’re off to your workout — what the researchers called “automatic associations in memory.” By the time you’re crossing the gym’s threshold, you’ve got your motivation for working out pretty well covered. You’re already in the door! What’s the hard part of gym-going? Getting off the comfy couch at home and then out the door. The association you have with the couch is not breaking a sweat — it’s relaxing and unwinding. So the hurdle you’re overcoming is the couch moment. Same goes for eating habits. Let’s play a word association game with “road trip.” Do “snacks” come to mind? 

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This all happens without you thinking about it. Desk=work, bed=sleep. Try associating your kitchen table with “healthy meal,” which might mean not having your meals in front of the TV, which is easier to associate with takeout, pizza, or popcorn. Or keep all your workout accessories in one place (sneakers, headphones, water bottle) and associate that with “going out for a run.” If it’s still tough to go to the gym, pack a bag and don’t even change into workout togs — just get yourself to the place. The automatic associations in memory will take over from there.

And it doesn’t have to be a location, necessarily. There are other cues you can teach yourself to make healthy associations come easier, such as music. The brain control center can learn to associate music rhythm with a certain movement pattern — called audio-motor synchronization, according to a paper in Frontiers in Neuroscience. So if you always listen to the same up-beat tunes on leg day, just throwing on that playlist can get you in the mood. Try picking music that you want to associate with different activities, like cooking, HIIT workouts, even things like cleaning or doing laundry — anything that can feel like a drag. Then groove and move to the music.

“Perseverance without passion isn’t grit, but merely a grind.”

That was the finding of a meta-analysis of 127 studies and two field studies to understand how people stayed passionate enough to achieve their long-term goals. The paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also uncovered that a person’s performance was better when they were passionate, and that passion and perseverance got a boost from immersion in their quest. 

How to put these findings into practice? First, pick something you’re passionate about. If you’re trying to change your habits for external motivators — pressure from social media, for example — you could find motivation to be hard to find. Instead, pick a goal you’ve always wanted to achieve, such as running a half marathon or climbing the Alps. Or even choose a new goal that has immediate importance, like getting off your newly prescribed blood pressure meds, or switching to a plant-based diet. 

Related: 23 excellent sources of plant based protein

Now, get immersed. Ask friends or family to join in on the fun, or find a group of like-minded people who are already working toward the same goal, such as a running group, a weekend bouldering squad, or even a cooking club. Not only does that help with accountability, but you’ll learn more about your new activity which will keep things fresh and motivating.

What do you want to be working toward? Take our Body Check here! 

3 Weeks, 59 Days, 2 Months…it depends

If the way to circumvent dips in motivation is by habit building, it begs the question: how long does it take to build a habit? There’s a myth that it takes 21 days, but it seems to be based on old research about plastic surgery patients adjusting to their new appearance, according to a paper in the British Journal of General Practice. In another study, 96 participants decided to either pick a daily habit related to eating, drinking, or activity. It took those volunteers between 18 days and more than 8 months to make that activity a habit, the research published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found. And yet another study looked into whether people picked up habits easier when it was linked to a routine or a time of day. An international group of researchers assigned the 192 participants to focus on creating a routine around their habit, or linking it to a time of day. There wasn’t a big difference between the two groups, and the median amount of time to build that habit was 59 days. 

It’s hard to predict how long a habit will take to stick, and you probably can’t find the answer in a study, anyway. It comes down to you, your personality, schedule, and whether your life and lifestyle supports the habit. And, importantly, the difficulty of the habit makes a difference. It’s easier to make a vow to drink water and foam roll for 10 minutes in the morning than it is to commit to bumping up your running from once in a while to once a week. The answer is patience and perseverance — with a little grit for good measure. 

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