We all know someone who bounces out of bed at the crack of dawn, hits the road for a 5km run followed by some sun salutations and meditation before they chug a green smoothie and arrive to work 30 minutes early to get a good head start on the day. The rest of us have a love affair with the snooze button, an on-again, off-again relationship with the gym and can only dream of what we might achieve if we could garner some of that focus, dedication and self-discipline.
So how is it that some individuals are so much more internally driven than others, and how can we have just a little bit of what they’ve got? Fortunately, there are some things we can all do to cultivate more self-discipline and it doesn’t require a complete personality transplant. You can work with what you’ve got and make small changes that will eventually reap big rewards.
Too much change can be overwhelming so it’s better to let go of any grand notions you might have of overhauling your life and focus on one goal at a time. The benefit of this is that some new behaviours can be what’s known as ‘keystone’ habits which trigger a whole cascade of other new healthy habits. For example, if you resolve to increase your activity you’re more likely to drink more water and make healthy food choices. If you need to get up a little earlier to exercise, you’ll be more inclined to get to bed early.
Choosing just one point of focus to begin with means you conserve your willpower but still gain a lot of spin-off benefits.
Almost half of what you do every day is done out of habit. That is, there is no conscious decision making involved as the part of your brain associated with decision making is offline and you are effectively on ‘autopilot’ much of the day. The key to instilling new healthy habits is to tie them to your existing routine. Simple tricks like having your workout gear next to your bed so you don’t have to go looking for it make it so much easier to “automate” healthy behaviours.
If you’d like to replace coffee with juice, put the juicer where the coffee maker normally sits. If you get up and go to the vending machine at 3pm every day, get up and walk outside and around the building instead. The more you can tie new behaviours to existing routines and habits, the more likely you will be to follow through until eventually, the new behaviours become automatic.
Willpower is a finite resource and every time you resist a temptation, you use up some of those limited reserves. If you’re changing your diet, remove everything from your pantry and refrigerator that you don’t want to be tempted by. (You might also want to avoid people and social situations that place you in the way of temptation until some of your new behaviours have become habits.) Knowing what you know about habits, it can also be helpful to stock your shelves with healthy alternatives to your current favourite snacks so that when you’re old ‘snack habit’ kicks in, you have something healthy and satisfying to replace it with.
The bottom line is that the most successful people aren’t relying on self-discipline every day; they’re simply following patterns of behaviour that have become so routine they no longer even have to think about them. The key to you achieving your own fitness goals is exactly the same. Automate it, remove the temptation and focus on those cornerstone habits that are the foundation of a healthy lifestyle.