How to Actually Hit Your Fitness Goals [Part 2/2: Habits]

“The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.” – Warren Buffet

In Part 1, we discussed the importance of approaching fitness with the right mindset, the value in goal-setting and the different sources of motivation. From there, we covered ‘The 5 Pillars of Progress’:

  1. Consistency
  2. Patience
  3. Recovery/Rest
  4. Quality Over Quantity
  5. Progressive Overload

In this section, we’ll go over the practical application of these ideas – how to create a roadmap towards your fitness goals while bearing these principles in mind – that is, how to build your lifestyle accordingly.

The important thing to recognise is that, advancing in fitness usually comes down to improving the quality of your exercise, diet or sleep. However, if you’re a beginner who’s never set foot in a gym, the habits you need to build are going to be very different to the habits that the intermediate who’s looking to progress to an advanced level will need to develop.

For example, a beginner may need to build the habit of actually going to the gym, out on a run, or to that class, whereas, an intermediate may need to incorporate another style of training into his existing program or carve out more time to focus on his nutrition.

The key idea is that, in either case, it’s new habits that are needed.

You will only get what you’ve gotten if you keep doing what you’ve done. Therefore, the aim of this article will be to provide the tools to build and develop new habits while providing concrete examples, no matter your starting point.

Though the specific methods may differ, the principles behind habit building remain the same. What you should realise is that these methods can be applied more generally to your life as a whole but, for the purpose of this project, they’ve been applied to fitness.

Lifestyle = Habits

Our lifestyle is really just the set of habits that make up our day-to-day. Most of our time goes to a few things that we repeat over and over. Some people consciously decide on these habits while others pay them less thought. 

In the end, different lifestyles lead to achieving different goals. To accomplish what you want to accomplish, you have to align your lifestyle (i.e. your set of daily habits) to those goals. This means taking deliberate action – building habits that support you and lead you to where it is that you’d like to go.

If you’re not currently hitting your fitness goals it’s either because you’re not following through with the correct habits or you’re being impatient – a mistake we discussed in Part 1.

If ‘impatience’ isn’t the issue and ‘consistency’ is, it’s important that you become more strategic with how you try and develop the required habits. You’ve got to be deliberate and understand that you’re not as easy to program as a computer. 

What you should consider is how you can make the process as ‘effortless’ as possible. Obviously it will require effort, but if you insist on too much too quickly, it’ll be difficult to really sustain the change and, like an elastic band that’s been stretched, you may quickly snap back in the other direction. The key, like we mentioned earlier, is to take ‘The 5 Pillars of Progress’ and apply them to habit formation.

Three Steps to Hit Your Goals

Do Your Research

Action 1: Clearly decide what it is that you’d like to achieve and, from there, use the internet to find someone (or ideally several people) who’ve accomplished that same task and have created content that is specifically designed to explain the process, so that you can find out what steps (or habits) you need to work on.

Earlier, our advice was to decide on specific and measurable goals that you’d like to achieve, so that you have a clear destination in mind. The next step is to decode the ambiguity in getting there. This is where you have to be proactive and look for the information you need.

In the modern world, resources are abundant. Thanks to websites like YouTube and Reddit, finding practical and applicable information has never been easier. Content creators pour thousands of hours into documenting their lives and sharing what they’ve learned. Once you’ve got a clear set of goals in mind, you ought to take advantage of this and hear from them.

Hearing from others helps to streamline the process as they can tell you what you need to be doing (i.e. where to focus the bulk of your time and efforts) based on what’s worked for them in their own lives.

If you’re a beginner this could mean going on YouTube and searching: “How to start going to the gym.” But it could be anything: “How to Bench 215 lbs”, “How to improve my shoulder mobility”, “How to start eating less sugar” etc. The idea is to hear from real people what has worked for them, so that you can gain a better insight into what may also work for you. With enough research you should have a clear idea of all the necessary habits that need implementing.

Map Out Your Current Lifestyle

Action 2: Write a list of the activities that take up your typical day. Focus on anything you do frequently and consider the typical order they occur in. From there, rank them by their importance and decide on where changes can be made to support you in moving forward.

After finding out what it is that you need to do, you must look critically at yourself and your current situation and get a clear picture of your current lifestyle.

Recognise that your time is already being spent one way or another – you’ve got 24 hours each day and they’re going somewhere. You’ve already got a collection of habits that make up your lifestyle, it’s just that some may be stopping you from hitting your fitness goals.

In order to implement realistic, long-lasting change, we must first understand where our time is going and for what reasons.

As we noted earlier, improving your level of fitness will usually come down to improving the quality of your exercise, diet or sleep. This is all possible to do, but it will depend on what else is competing for your attention.

By writing a list and prioritising each activity it becomes far easier to see where you’d like changes to be made. We often underestimate how much time we spend zoning out or just scrolling through our phones.

Some typical daily activities:

  • Sleeping
  • Working/studying
  • Using phone (e.g. Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Tinder, etc.)
  • Cooking/eating
  • Streaming (e.g. YouTube, Netflix, Spotify, etc.)
  • Hanging out with friends/family
  • Other hobbies (e.g. gaming, reading)
  • Commuting
  • Exercising
  • Shopping (i.e. online or in-store)
  • Going to events/partying

Most of us are probably doing all of the above, just to varying degrees. For example, the frequent gym-goer may be spending less time streaming content than the beginner, and has more hours to put towards exercise as a result.

The key idea is to map out what your typical day looks like; where your time goes – the more specific you can be, the easier it will be to see where you can move things around. Also, by taking the time to assess the importance of each activity, you become more clear about your priorities and so it becomes easier to allocate your time and money accordingly.

This is the key to productivity – if we’re clear about what is most important to us, we can plan our time to get that stuff done first. This makes us less likely to be distracted by low priority tasks that make us feel like we’re being productive, without us having moved towards our most important goals. If everything is a priority, nothing is.

Bridge The Gap

Action 3: From the list you made (Action 2), substitute what you deemed as the least important activity with a plan of action for building the (one) habit that will give you the best return, given your starting position.

You now have two roadmaps: the habits that have worked for others in achieving similar goals to you, and your current set of habits. The final step is personalising them for your own situation. Apply consistency, patience and progressive overload here: start small and slowly make more and more changes.

Again, the habit that will give you the largest return for your time will vary based on the position you’re starting from. For example, if you’re a beginner it may be more important that you create a habit of showing up to the gym, rather than obsessively tracking your protein intake. Decide for yourself which advice will be most effective given your situation and your goals and, above all, avoid looking for a complete lifestyle overhaul. It just won’t work.

You may notice that on days where you’re underslept, actually getting to the gym is far more difficult than on the days you feel rested. Perhaps the best habit to focus on in that scenario is to get better sleep as this will ensure that you’re more consistent in the future.

Always look for the low-hanging fruit. What’s the first step you need to take to get closer to achieving your goals? For a beginner it may be signing up for a gym, ordering the gear you’ll need; for an intermediate it might be paying for greater instruction or spending more time addressing your weaknesses, rather than going through the motions of what you can already do well.

Work Smart, Not Hard

Design Your Environment

As we noted earlier, establishing the correct habits (i.e. the ones that will actually lead you to your fitness goals) requires that you are strategic in your approach.

Our habits are strongly tied to our environment and so, if there are some habits that you’d like to cultivate and others that you’d like to stop, it’s important to shape your environment accordingly. You want to make it as easy as possible for you to follow through with the right steps, and make sure that things aren’t any more challenging than they need to be.

Habits follow a pattern: a cue, the routine, and a reward. We’re hungry, we eat, we feel satisfied. There are three ways of creating new habits: a) adding or removing cues in your environment, b) strengthening rewards/making routines easier, or c) keeping the same cue but replacing the routine.

Cues to add:

  • Accountability (e.g. agreeing to work out with someone else, at a specific place, at a specific time)
  • Packing your gym bag the night before and leaving it in a place where you’ll be easily reminded of it the next day
  • Apps to your phone such as MyFitnessPal, Strava, Nike Run Club
  • Put on music/watch a video that gets you motivated before going to work out

Cues to remove:

  • Distraction – having your phone nearby when focusing on a workout/having notifications on
  • Unhealthy food – having it in the house

Routines to replace:

  • When you’re bored and looking for something to watch online, find some inspiring content that will keep you focused on the things you’d like to achieve. If you use Instagram, follow some fitness influencers who motivate you
  • If you’re craving something sweet, make a nice protein shake
Strengthening rewards:
 
  • Buying some gym clothes that you’ll look forward to wearing
  • Buying some accessories that will allow you to vary and expand upon your training
  • Finding others to workout with
  • Weigh yourself at regular intervals/take progress pictures

Making routines easier:

  • If you’re working out at home, get your space ready to go in advance
  • Decide on your exercise routine the night before
  • Buy the food you want to be eating, meal prep, plan meals when shopping
  • Create contingency plans to adapt for the different moods you find yourself in
  • Simplify your workouts to a few essential exercises
  • Create rituals – smaller, enjoyable habits that you carry out in a prescribed order (often around a specific time), before or after the main habit you’re trying to implement

A lot of these suggestions take very little extra effort, but make it easier for you to follow through with your habits.

Conclusion

Life’s more fun when you’re in good shape. There are a lot of people out there who’d like to improve their fitness but they fail to implement the correct habits, often due to faulty expectations (or the ‘wrong’ mindset).

To address this, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the ‘The 5 Pillars of Progress’ so you better understand how the process of getting and staying fit works over a longer time period. From there, it’s important you build the correct habits with the same principles in mind.

The right mindset leads you to taking the right action which will then lead to the results you were after. To get your habits working for you and not against you, you need to understand how they work so that you can then build and develop the ones of your choosing.

If there’s one thing you should take away from this article, it’s that gradual and consistent improvement will take you much farther, in the long-run, than short and sporadic bursts of motivation. Use motivation in the beginning and then be strategic about designing your lifestyle in a way where doing the ‘right’ things becomes easier and easier.

In the end, fitness is a personal endeavour and one that you’ll have to continuously refine as the circumstances in your life change. If you can make a habit of always coming back to, redefining and clarifying your goals, you’ll be much more likely to make the progress you’re after.

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