You stick to your fitness routine about as well as butter sticks to a teflon pan… covered in melted butter. So how can you turn fitness into something that holds your attention? Learn from the single most addicting thing in your life: your smartphone.
Consider just how attached people are to mobile devices. Whether the impetus is a catastrophic terrorist attack, or just sheer boredom, we’ve all been conditioned to respond in the exactly the same way: whip out your cell phone, and open the most relevant app. And this is no surprise, because unbeknownst to you, every successful app developer devotes entire teams to make sure that’s exactly what you do.
While these apps apply a variety of tactics to keep users addicted, most impact revolves around your first few experiences. And although fitness may seem like a completely unrelated field, the same basic tenets can be applied your exercise routine.
Understand Your Window of Opportunity
Every company wants you to use their app for the rest of your life. But they also know that trying to design an app that will appeal to you through every chapter of life is a gargantuan task and, quite frankly, a waste of time. Instead, they focus on a specific “window of opportunity”. This is how many days (based on their data) users need to consistently use the app before they’re hooked. If they can get a user to use the app daily for that time period, the probability that the user stays on the app for life (or at least a very long time) skyrockets.
For example, if the app’s window of opportunity is one week and you’re still flinging birds or swiping right by day seven, whoever’s running the show knows there’s a high chance you’re going to be a loyal user for a long time. And this applies to your workouts too.
From what I’ve seen, the window of opportunity for fitness is about 21 days. While this coincides with the oft-cited myth that it takes 21 days to build a habit, rest assured my conclusion is based on anecdotal evidence, not Tumblr posts.
If you find you’re still excited to hit the weights by day 21 (or at least not cursing the ground your gym was built on), there’s a high chance you’re going to be able to stick with it.
However, I often see people make the mistake of thinking of fitness as a challenge they’re going to have to battle forever. They will throw themselves into it — gung-ho at first — but as they slowly begin to realise the true magnitude of the challenge, their resolve weakens until it breaks. Kind of like Saruman and the orcs in the Battle of Helm’s Deep.
But you need to be realistic. Sure, it would be awesome if you stuck to an exercise regimen for life, but it’s a mighty intimidating task to hold yourself to. Instead, try to stick to it for 21 days. It won’t scare you off, and you’re more likely to build up the mindset that will help you keep going.
Focus on Automation, Not Customisation
During this window of opportunity, app developers minimise any sort of friction or decision making required on the user’s part. Think about the most addicting apps: they keep the user’s first time experience simple and save the nuts and bolts for later. For example, Tinder has the ability to create “moments” for advanced users, but it just focuses on getting you to swipe left or right at the very start. Snapchat has more advanced features like a discover page and stories, but you probably won’t get that far unless you get your feet wet sending messages back and forth.
Fitness is no different. There is an innate urge for many to embark on their own customised exercise regimens or buy follow exercise routines with the most technical jargon. They might even go as far as tweaking the minor details in their own. Basically, they focus on the nitty gritty rather than seeking out the fundamentals of exercise in nutrition and not sweating the minor details.
Instead, focus on learning about the basics of calories and protein and simply finding an exercise program you can stick to. Further reduce friction within the window of opportunity by automating things like exercising at lunch or setting an alarm to remind you to go to the gym ten minutes before your session.
The most important thing is to answer the “what” and “how” of getting into shape, before diving into the “why” behind everything you do. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t learn more about the minutiae of fitness, but if you make exercise a habit for life, you have all the time in the world to do that. The hard part is making it a habit. After all, Angry Birds wouldn’t be addicting if the app made you spend 90% of your time on the settings screen.
Relentlessly Seek Your “Aha!” Moment
But all of the notifications in the world won’t get you fit, because there’s one last important step — activation. I’ve previously written about the concept of activation and how it relates to fitness:
The best apps are famous for getting users to stick and create habit around using them every day. One of the ways that they do this is through a concept known as activation — the magical “aha” understanding that causes someone to start using a product repeatedly. For example, Facebook’s “activation” is getting seven friends in the first ten days, whereas Dropbox’s activation is uploading your first file.
You can exercise for 21 days in a row, but unless you activate (i.e. achieve a faster mile time, lose weight on the scale, etc. depending on your goals) you will never be able to receive the sense of achievement that can make fitness stick.
Of course, once you do make fitness sticky, you can (and should) do things like tweak your diet down to the macro-nutrient percentages (e.g. the advanced options using Swole.me’s diet calculator), or pay more attention to process rather than just the outcomes.
But that’s the easy part; it’s easy to obsess over the nuts and bolts of something that you’re already passionate about. It’s not that you shouldn’t worry about the long haul, it’s that if you are concerned about your long term fitness, be disciplined enough to be mindful about the short haul instead.