Science shows that instigation habits, or creating specific cues, is a surefire way to guarantee your workouts actually happen
Getting out the door is 90 percent of the battle, but workout motivation can be tough to find at the crack of dawn or after a long, exhausting day. (See: 21 Ridiculous Ways We Justify Skipping the Gym.) Luckily, this simple problem has an equally simple solution, according to a new study just published in Health Psychology. And that miracle fix can be summed up in two words: instigation habits.
An instigation habit, a subcategory of a regular habit, is where an internal or environmental cue—like an alarm on your phone or gym bag placed near the door—automatically kickstarts a decision in your brain.
"It's not something you have to deliberate about; you don't have to consider the pros and cons of going to the gym after work," explained study author L. Alison Phillips, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State University to TIME.
In the study, researchers interviewed 123 people about their exercise routines and motivations. While the participants reported using a variety of tricks to motivate themselves to workout—including planning workouts out in advance or mentally rehearsing what they needed to do—the most consistent exercisers used methods that all fell into the category of instigation habits.
While many of the subjects relied on audio cues (like an alarm), visual cues also worked well. For instance, putting a Post-It note on your desk, hanging a paper calendar with days you worked out checked off (don't want to break a streak!), or tacking a fitspiration picture on your bathroom mirror are all effective instigation habits. Each is a simple effort, but it can make all the difference between heading toward a Netflix marathon or an actual marathon. (Unless it's one of these 25 Good Reasons Not to Run a Marathon.)
If you're more of a Type A person, try scheduling your workout, just like you would any other activity, suggests Vernon Williams, M.D., a neurologist and founding director of the Kerlan-Jobe Center for Sports Neurology in Los Angeles. "Schedule a specific time each day, right there in your calendar, and put it on repeat. Then vigorously protect that time," he says, adding that he prefers morning workouts, as it's less likely something will interfere and you can get it done when you have the most motivation. Bonus: If you do it through your phone or e-mail, you can take advantage of audio, visual, and physical cues by setting it to vibrate, ring, and/or post an alert to your home screen. And if something comes up and you miss your workout? Reschedule it, he says, just like you would any urgent event—because your health really is that important.
Williams adds that another great instigation habit is having a workout buddy. Just seeing them can remind you of your (hopefully scheduled!) workout and inspire you to not skip it and risk letting them down. (Plus, Having a Fitness Buddy Is the Best Thing Ever.)
But one lesson the researchers learned is that whatever cue you pick, it needs to be deliberate. You have to set up your habit with the specific intention that it will be your cue to get your sweat on and shouldn't be associated with anything else, otherwise that automatic association won't kick in. (So no, you can't rely on your dog's adorable mug to remind you to go for a run.)
And, as with all habits, the more you do it, the stronger the pattern will become. So pick up your phone and schedule your workout right now—no excuses.