[Video download & audio download]

I’m going to quickly review the main obstacle to forming a lasting exercise habit:

Not doing the habit when you’re tired, feeling lazy, busy, or procrastinating with distractions.

This happens because we believe doing those things will make us happier than exercising.

We allow ourselves to forget our deeper reason for exercising, and we focus on our short-term comfort. And deep down, we don’t really believe we can do it, because we see ourselves as someone who doesn’t like exercise.

OK, that’s what we talked about before …

Now, how can we overcome all of this? It turns out the secret is fairly simple: small, gradual steps.

So you already know that, from reading my blog. But let’s take a look at why small, gradual steps help us overcome the main obstacle to creating a lasting habit.

First, if you focus on taking a very small step, you can overcome procrastination. For example, if you want to start writing a book, instead of focusing on writing the first chapter, just focus on writing the first paragraph. That’s so small you can’t say no. For exercise, you just have to get your shoes on. For meditation, just put your butt on the cushion. Don’t focus on all the steps you have to take, just the smallest first step, and procrastination becomes much easier to beat.

Second, if you’re tired, doing a small step isn’t that hard. Instead of walking for 30 minutes, just take a walk for a few minutes. Instead of doing a whole strength workout, just do a few pushups. Even if you’re tired, taking a small step is doable.

Third, if you’re busy, you can fit in a small step. If you have a busy life, lots of work to do, or perhaps little kids to take care of … it’s easy to push back your workout. But if you’re doing small steps, a workout can be 5 minutes, or perhaps 10. Even the busiest person can fit a 5-10 minute workout into their day, and you’re much less likely to push it back.

Fourth, it’s easier to keep going for a longer time if your steps are small and easy. If your workout is an hour every day, how long can you keep that up? Most people will quit after a few days or a week. But we want to keep going for life, not just a week. So at least for the first month or two, the key is small steps that you can keep taking every day. Once you have that habit firmly planted, you can increase it, but focus on creating a lasting habit, not getting immediate results.

Fifth, small steps overcome your mind’s resistance. The biggest obstacle to sticking with the habit is the mind’s resistance to doing it, not only each day but over the long term. Small steps means you gradually adjust to the exercise, so that you don’t have as much resistance.

Sixth, small steps makes it easier to restart if you miss a day or three. One of the most important skills in forming habits is restarting if you get stalled. Small steps makes it much easier to get started again, overcoming the tendency to avoid thinking about the habit and to quit.

Seventh, lasting change is more likely to happen when you change gradually. It’s very common for people to dive in and do as much as they can with a change like exercise or diet, but then revert to their old ways after some initial success. The method I’ve found to create a change to your lifestyle is gradual change, where you make a small change, adjust to that, then make another small change. This become incorporated into who you are, instead of being seen as something you’re enduring temporarily.

Eighth, it’s easier to make all the small adjustments to your life you need with gradual change. Most people don’t realize that making a change involves much more than the action itself. For example, if you’re going to exercise, it’s not just a 10-minute run or a 20-minute weight workout — there’s the part where you have to get dressed, go to the place where you’re going to work out, sometimes shower afterwards. You might want to log your workout, look up videos on how to do it, set reminders, and so on. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, but these many small adjustments to your life are much much easier when you’re taking small steps. It all fits into your life better, rather than becoming a big production.

There are actually many other small reasons that small, gradual steps work best. But I think you see how important it is by now.

How to Make Small, Gradual Steps

It’s best to start any new habit with the smallest step possible. For example, you might meditate for just 2 minutes, or do 5 pushups. Whatever seems easier than you can do. Do that for a week or two, even if it seems ridiculously easy, because it’s the most likely way to succeed.

If you’ve already started bigger than the smallest possible step, you can continue doing what you’ve been doing … but if you run into any problems, decrease your habit to something smaller. For example, if you’re exercising for 20 minutes, but you’re struggling to do it every day, drop it down to 10 minutes. Yes, that will seem too easy, but that’s what you’re shooting for.

Only increase gradually, in small steps. And only increase if it’s getting easy and you’re pretty consistent. For example, if you start with 5 minutes of exercise, and you successfully do that for a week … you can increase to 7 minutes, or 10 if you think that’s pretty easy. There’s no need to increase too quickly, take your time. And don’t increase if you’re having trouble.

Over time, you’ll gradually increase as you get more and more consistent. But the increase is not the important thing … the important thing is to stay consistent and keep going. So again, be patient, take your time, and don’t rush your increases.

If you ever miss the habit for a few days, or get stalled for some reason … drop your habit to a smaller iteration. Don’t be afraid to dial it back to the smallest possible version of your habit. If you’ve been running for 20 minutes, go ahead and say that you only need to do a 5-minute run, if you’ve been struggling to get out the door. Yes, it will seem ridiculously easy, and that’s the point. Just get started again.

The actual size of your steps is not important. It’s important to keep them small, seeming too easy, and increase slower than you think you can. Over time you’ll adjust and this will become your new normal. That’s what we’re aiming for — a change in who you are, one small step at a time.

Exercise for Today

If you haven’t already, take your first small step today (or tomorrow if it’s too late for today). Either way, consider whether you’re taking a step that seems too easy — if so, that’s perfect! If your first step doesn’t seem too easy, consider dropping it down to something easier.

If you’re already a regular exerciser, how can you gradually step it up from where you are now?

Consider whether small steps or big steps have worked for you in the past. Discuss in Slack.