It seems to me that a person is made up by three layers:
1) The natural endowment of traits
3) The acquired endowment of traits
Everything that determines who we are and what we do can be thought of as these three layers interacting. Obviously, the first layer is more fundamental. The second layer and the third one are closely interrelated in that they mutually reinforce themselves and build upon each other. Still, the acquired endowments are less an obstacle to change than habits, and those are less an obstacle than what you are born with.
Health is a function of how we are born, what our habits are and as a consequence where we stand today. Success in life depends on innate factors (intelligence and “beauty”) , on our habits (doing sport or not; procrastinate or not; getting up early or not) and then on what we achieved already (because what we got opens doors that may be closed otherwise). There cannot be an imbalance too pronounced when seeking to successfully improve our lives or ourselves. Seeking good health when born with a crippling disability is destined to fail, but so is seeking it with bad habits (but to a lesser degree). And acquired traits of bad health can be overcome automatically by changing habits. And time. Time will reinforce any habit (Nelson and Winter, 1982: The evolutionary theory of change) that we choose or not choose to establish.
As can be seen, habits are the ultimately most important tools to realize our aspirations or change in more desirable directions. There cannot be lasting change with spontaneous, tumultuous change that after a while settles back into the old, comfortable pattern. That’s the problem with routines. They feel good. They feel familiar. They are here to stay. We tend to shift back to them because they are ingrained in our subconscious. Willpower alone may be able to overcome them for a while, but not for long. Our subconscious is stronger than our consciousness. So, they cannot be overcome by will alone, but only by time, slowly. But they can be overcome. New routines can be established, slowly trained and, at the end, will be executed automatically, just as the old ones. And they will feel as good. And they will have the desired outcome that the previous had not.
But then, if willpower alone is not enough, how can they be “slowly trained”? Easy. By SMALL steps. Willpower is enough for small steps towards the establishment of a new routine. The smaller the steps, the smaller the willpower needed, the longer the time it takes to establish a new habit. Surely, we will prove a surge of willpower when deciding to change our old ways, because we are excited by the prospect of the new. But how can this initial surge be used best? Drops the seeds of change. Built a framework to analyze and prepare the path to change. Waking up? Changing your habits from sleeping in to early riser all in one go requires an inordinate amount of willpower and, if this willpower comes to miss one time, relapse is instantaneous. Thus, do not use the willpower surge to set the clock 4 hours earlier tomorrow. Use it to prepare a schedule where you can chart your future wake-up times. Then, setting your clock 5 minutes earlier, then 10, then 15, while enjoying the small successes and ignoring (yes, ignoring) the occasional relapse will, over time, lead to the desired outcome. The initial willpower will provide you with a framework and the resolution necessary to begin the process. Over time the initial surge will abate, but you will always have enough left to master the small steps on the way to the top. Think of it like a long voyage. Your enthusiasm to commence it may be praiseworthy, but using it to begin running like hell towards the final destination will soon leave you without energy and unable to complete the voyage. Your enthusiasm should be used to plan the daily routes, seek out shelters along the way, prepare everything necessary for the time that lies ahead.
It’s the over time part of habit building that proves difficult. It seems as we might have lost the ability to wait for something. Our collective habit seems to have made us incapable of thinking that, in order to achieve something, time is required. We want it all, and we want it now.
So what to do? Well, while a quite fundamental habit, it’s still a habit. And it can be changed. Remember the three layers? They have a hierarchy inside them too (Wollis, 1999). Habits, especially, are built upon other habits. You want to change one of your habits? The way you attempt to change your habits is a habit too. The ability to accept that it may take time and prolonged, low-level willpower to achieve change and that a sudden surge of volition is not enough can be trained.
So, you better start on a higher hierarchical level of your habit layer if you find yourself unable to change even basic things such as establishing and maintaining the habit to go to the gym. How? Well, that’s a good question. My guess is, that is so personal that there can be no normative guideline and that all you can do is observing yourself and noticing small change in your ways. It is probably a ever-so-complex interplay of learning by doing, learning to change by attempting to change. Still, remember: although the paths to new habits are different for everyone, the outcome is always the same: success or failure.
What is your path? My path is to write about it.
On a wholly unrelated note: http://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/2008/05/how-to-be-a-man/