If you think about it, it’s a little insane that so many of our self-improvement plans launch on some arbitrary January date. It’s New Year’s, let’s stop eating sugar! Oh, it’s New Year’s, let’s take ukulele lessons! Hey, it’s New Year’s, so let’s finally stop listening to this Adele record over and over again! (Oh, what, like you don’t have feelings now?)
Regardless of when you board the self-improvement train, you’ll find that goals like “becoming a gym person” are less about timing than willpower. So to learn how to do this for real, we checked with Roy Baumeister, a noted professor of psychology at Florida State who wrote the book on willpower. No, really: It’s called Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, it was co-authored by New York Times columnist John Tierney, and it’s all about the science of training your brain as you train your body. (And it features cameos by Eric Clapton, Amanda Palmer, and Drew Carey, somehow.)
Willpower, says Baumeister, is simply a muscle that can be strengthened and trained. But the end goal is to automate yourself, so your willpower to work out (or climb a mountain, or avoid meatballs, or leave the Krispy Kreme drive-through) is less a decision than it is muscle memory. “It takes less willpower and less energy to carry things out by habit than to decide to do them each time,” he said.
Follow Baumeister’s lead with these 5 steps and you’ll still be using your gym membership on Feb. 1:
1. Congratulate yourself for getting on board.
”The tradition of New Year’s resolutions has a long and checkered history,” Baumeister says, laughing. “I’m in favor of self-improvement, and New Year’s is a good excuse to do that. It’s good to take a point every year and assess oneself, to become a better person.” You are doing a good thing here. Nice work.
2. Spend money on it.
If you’re like me, or anyone containing shreds of my DNA, the idea of wasting money makes every muscle in your back twist into unnatural cartoon angles, which is also probably a workout of some kind, but let’s focus here. Practically speaking, if you get a gym membership and then fail to attend said gym, you’re wasteful. Think of it as betting on yourself.
3. Make yourself accountable.
”The easiest first step is to keep records,” Baumeister says. “Make yourself write down every day whatever you exercise, so you can see the checkmarks adding up.” Remember, it’s impossible to regulate something if you don’t track it.
4. Be as consistent as you can.
”Having a regular exercise schedule helps it become a habit,” says Baumeister, who works out at the same time every morning. It’s the same principle that drives people like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs to wear the same outfit every day: You have to decide enough stuff every day; take “When should I go to the gym?” out of it.
5. Make peace with the (mildly) uncomfortable part about your food.
First, be prepared to eat more at home. “When you’re home, you’ll automatically be more restricted by what you have,” says Carissa Bealert, an Orlando-based registered dietitian, nutritionist, and trainer. Second, identify the number of dumb empty calories you’re ingesting a day. Sodas and high-calorie coffees are the first giant targets to go. About 3,500 calories make up a pound, so if you can drop that many a week, you’ll lose a pound in seven days. Mind your portions—you only need a palm-size amount of protein with every meal. It may not be the T-bone of your dreams, but as Bealert says, “You haven’t suffered, you haven’t starved.”