Dear Lifehacker, I recently joined up at the gym (again) and had a few regular weeks of working out, until other things seemed to get in the way of going consistently, and now I haven't gone in three weeks! How can I stay motivated to keep going after the initial thrill is gone? From Gym Junkie Wannabee
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What you're referring to is a matter of habit forming, which has been the subject of a number of studies — both scientific and less evidence-based claims. Habits are hard to make, but they're also hard to break, which can be a good thing if you manage to form a good one. To begin with, it's useful to know a couple of the most common myths about habit forming. For one, there is no 21 day rule. In fact, 21 days is the figure that was originally introduced as the minimum time needed to form a habit. The truth is that it can indeed take much longer to form a habit, depending both on the habit being formed and on your individual quirks. Having a cup of tea every morning may become a habit within a week, but setting up a weekly gym schedule could take a lot longer to become ingrained as habit.
This may be thanks to the fact that the rewards of a gym-going habit may not be as immediately obvious as the rewards of, say, a daily cup of coffee. If you want to get yourself to the point where you're automatically lacing up your sneakers to go to the gym every evening, you'll have to develop a habit loop. This involves the cue (ie, getting home from work), the routine (going to the gym) and the reward (which may be something like a sense of accomplishment, or alternately a physical feeling of wellbeing). The trick, according to The Power of Habit author, Charles Duhigg, is to get to a point when your brain begins to expect and even crave the reward enough to perform the routine automatically on cue.
One Psychology Today study also supports the method of incentivising yourself with promises, such as "if I go to the gym, then I can watch a movie". Peter Gollwitzer, a psychologist at New York University, has found that making these kind of "if/then" promises can double the rate of success in forming good habits. Unfortunately, as most of us know already, the only thing that can truly make a habit stick is repetition. Keep at it, don't beat yourself up if you miss a day, but try not to fall by the wayside either!
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