Excellence is a Habit

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Fitness is complicated. (And, as we’ve said before, it’s composite.) There’s lots to get right, an almost endless array of things to consider. But as with most of life, the Pareto Principle, the 80/20 rule, applies. While getting to 'perfect' requires tweaking on all fronts, the crucial twenty percent is mostly common sense. The vast majority of us could improve just by doing simple things we already know we should be doing: moving more; exercising hard a few times a week; eating more vegetables and less processed crap. 

Of course, none of that is news. So it’s not a knowledge gap that holds us back. Instead, it's an action gap. We know we should do one thing, really mean to do it, but then do a completely different thing instead.

So how do we bridge that action gap? The usual answer: willpower. We make New Years resolutions, and plan to try harder. We get motivated, and determine to get things done. But decades of research have shown that approach just doesn’t really work. Leaning on willpower is physiologically taxing, and willpower itself is finite. It fades over the course of the day, and eventually wears out. After which we resort back to our old, poor choices. To put is succinctly, behaviors that depend solely on willpower are eventually doomed.

Instead, the more effective approach is to focus on our habits. While building new habits initially takes willpower (and careful thought), too, once they’re baked in, they run on autopilot, regardless of how much or how little willpower and motivation we bring to bear. Consider learning to drive a car. In the beginning, it’s a herculean task, requiring consciously considering an almost impossibly large number of simultaneous variables.  By now, however, driving has likely become a completely ingrained habit for you. One so simple it runs entirely in your unconscious mind. Perhaps you’ve gotten in your car to drive home, and then looked up a moment later to find you were there. You basically blacked out, as your conscious brain turned off, and your habit-based unconscious drove you home.

So, if habits are the answer, what do we know about them? 

First, let’s dispense with a myth: that making a habit takes a month, or two weeks, or 90 days. Habits are wildly variable in the amount of time they take to permanently acquire, depending on complexity, emotional valance, and a slew of other factors. Consider also that we perform some habits many times more each day than others. Learning to floss is a once-daily choice. Whereas smoking is something that inveterate smokers do dozens of time in a single day, creating a much more deeply-furrowed behavioral rut. 

Regardless, all habits are made up of three parts: a cue, the action, and a reward. The cue is something in ourselves or the environment that triggers the behavior. The action is the behavior itself. And then the reward is something, either intrinsic in the action or that reliably comes as a result, that reinforces the behavior continuing. All sustained habits have all three parts.

When people want to create (or change) a habit, they usually put all their focus on the action: I’ve decided to start going to the gym. But, in fact, the action itself is the least important of the three steps. To successfully create a habit, you need to focus most of your attention on the other two steps.

Let’s look at working out. How could you create a successful cue for that behavior? 

Perhaps you can create a time-based cue, or a sequential dependency. “I work out at 6:00am in the morning.” “I work out as soon as I get up.” In my experience, those are both excellent cues. While it’s far more pleasant to work out in the evening, for most of us, it’s too easy to push off evening workouts today, and then tomorrow, and then forever. While we hate working out in the morning, too, it’s our usual approach, as we know that doing it then is the only way it reliably gets done.

You can also create an environmental cue for your morning work out. The night before, take your sneakers and your workout clothing, and lay them on the floor next to your bed. The next morning, you’ll literally have to step over them to get out of bed. Laying them out the night before also leverages a great trick from behavioral economics: we’re more likely to agree to do hard things in the future than we are to agree to do them right now. Evening you thinks, ‘I should go to the gym tomorrow!’ Morning you thinks, ‘I should go back to sleep.’ Putting your clothes out the night before, then, is a way to let your better evening self boss morning you into making better choices. 

You can also maximize compliance by making your action small. If you want to start jogging in the morning, don’t shoot for a habitual 30-minute run. Just make the habit putting on your sneakers, walking out the door, and jogging a minimum of ten steps. Like with procrastinating work, the hardest part of most actions is starting them. Once you’re out the door and taking your ten steps, momentum usually carries people forward. But even on days that it doesn’t, by getting out the door and doing those ten steps, you’ll have still further strengthened your new habit. Which makes getting out the door easier on future days, so you’re more likely to do so, and more likely to leverage momentum on some of those future passes.

Once you’re done, then you need to reward yourself. Sure, exercise kicks out endorphins, an intrinsic reward, and leads to self-reinforcing physical changes, a good extrinsic one. But in the beginning, when you’re first getting into shape, you mostly just feel like sweaty crap after you work out. So here’s a reward to consider: eat a piece of chocolate. We know, we know; that seems completely counter to the point of working out in the first place. But research backs up the idea. In one study, people who rewarded themselves with a piece of chocolate post-workout were 97% more likely to still be working out thirty days later. More interestingly, 80% of those people were still working out, even thought they’d already stopped eating the piece of reward chocolate. Eventually, the workouts became their own intrinsic reward, or had yielded enough external results to motivate people to keep going. But the chocolate, that clear early reward, was crucial in getting the habit booted up in the first place.

When it comes to building habits, it’s also far easier to piggyback on an existing one than it is to build a new one from scratch.

When people decide to go on a diet, they’ll often try to create a completely new meal plan from scratch, or follow something cribbed from the back of a diet book. Over even two weeks, the compliance with that kind of drastic habit change is abysmal.

However, research from a long-term Harvard study on diet showed that most people actually eat in highly patterned ways. On average, we each tend to eat the same twelve or so meals, over and over again. And we can build on that fact to create a new set of habits that’s likely to actually stick.

Here’s how:

First, draft up a list of your twelve repeated meals. Literally, sit down and write out a list on a piece of paper. (You may have ten or fifteen rather than precisely twelve; the principle applies regardless.) Perhaps you buy a turkey sandwich from that place around the corner some days for lunch, while on other days you order General Tso’s from the same Chinese place on Seamless.

Then, one meal at a time, pull up the menu for the place from which you order, or a recipe related to something you already cook, and try to sketch out a new habitual meal that’s slightly healthier. You can do this iteratively, improving your choices over time, so you don’t have to go crazy right away. For your Chinese order, for example, you might replace your fried General Tso’s with chicken with snow peas, swap the included egg roll appetizer for a cup of won ton soup instead. Sure, you can do better still; but it’s a huge step in the right direction, effortlessly reducing 400 calories in a single meal. 

Do that for all twelve of your standard meals, and then carry on your life pattern per usual, simply ordering or cooking the incrementally better alternatives each time instead. The effects compound quickly, and, having tried this with a slew of people, long-term compliance is through the roof.

To recap: habits are super important, and better health depends on making better habits. So give your habits real thought. Consider how to improve the ones you lean on now, and how to build new beneficial ones in ways that are likely to really stick. Getting guidance from people who know about health and habits can help hugely. As can getting support from peers and coaches along the way. But once those new habits are created, they’ll run on auto-pilot. They’re highly durable, and over the long haul will add up do substantial, sustainable results.