I don’t like exercising.

I know what the fitness buff response to this is:

It’s not that you don’t like exercising. You just haven’t found the right exercise for you.

Please allow me to humbly disagree. Because I’ve tried pretty much all the things. And there are some healthy things I love doing that technically qualify as exercise — going for leisurely walks or bike rides — but to me those don’t really count.

And yet, I go to the gym regularly, and I’d like to say that I’m in pretty good shape.

How? Am I just pushing through the misery of dragging myself to the gym every day?

No.

In fact, going to the gym is one of my favorite parts of the day. And my day is kind of ruined if I don’t go to the gym.


Habit stacking

“Habit tagging” is a term that I first coined when writing an article for NativShark. In that article, I was attempting to help my fellow language students build good study habits. A student later called it "habit stacking," and I thought that sounded better, so I'm changing it!

Here, we’re talking about going to the gym, but the core process is essentially the same.

Habit stacking involves taking well-established habits or routines and attaching new, desirable habits to them.

Here’s how going to the gym fits into my current routine:

  1. At 8:30 am, I take my son to his grandma’s so she can babysit him while we work. (We pay her.)
  2. I turn on a podcast after I drop him off.
  3. I go to the gym right by her house, exercise while listening to podcasts.
  4. I shower at the gym.
  5. I go to a café near the gym and get my morning coffee.
  6. I put on music and work for a few hours at the café.

This routine is filled with both things I have to do and things I love doing.

I need to drop off my son. I need to shower. And I need to work.

I love listening to podcasts and music, drinking my morning coffee, and spending time at cafés.

So I just threw the gym right into the middle of it.

Removing barriers

It’s kind of ridiculous how the smallest of barriers will prevent us from doing the things we want to do.

I noticed that I read my Kindle less often when it had a protective cover on it because it was just the tiniest bit of a hassle to open it and start reading a book using only one hand — for example, while brushing my teeth. Thus, no cover! Maybe I'll drop it and break it someday, but at least I'll have used it.

Food in the fridge that I can eat without doing any heating, cooking, and only minimal unwrapping is more likely to get eaten.

For something like going to the gym, we’re faced with a lot of barriers — Packing the gym bag, getting dressed, leaving the house, going all the way to the gym, parking your bike or car, actually working out, showering, getting dressed again.

Barriers everywhere!

I was sure to remove as many as I could:

  • Packing a bag: I have to bring my laptop with me in a bag anyway, so I just have to throw in some underwear, socks, and a shirt to change into after the gym. I paid extra for a locker to keep my shoes in at the gym. I wear the same pants before and after the gym with my gym pants/shorts under them. I bought a separate stick of deodorant that stays in this bag at all times.
  • Getting dressed, leaving the house, going all the way to the gym: I have to do all of these things anyway to drop the baby off at his grandma’s. So I just picked a gym nearby.
  • Parking your bike or car: I live in Tokyo at the moment, so I ride my bike. I had a few options for a gym, and I specifically chose the one with the most convenient and spacious bike parking. I don’t have to worry about where I’m gonna park my bike.
  • Actually working out: I mostly just use weight resistance machines and free weights. I up the weight as much as I can without straining or risking injury because then I can do fewer reps, and it’s less work. I hardly think about what I’m doing at all. If I do this right, I’ll be sore the following day.
  • Showering: I pay extra for the gym to give me towels (no laundry!) and they have shampoo and body wash already there for me.
  • Getting dressed again: I’d be kind of fucked if I didn’t get dressed at this point. I can’t go home naked!

I’ve only taken the time to create a reliable gym routine with minimal barriers twice in my life — once in Sapporo in 2015, then again in Tokyo in 2020.

I’ve joined and frequently gone to many other gyms between these two — in Chiang Mai, a different gym in Tokyo, San Diego, Portland, San Diego again — but I never managed to achieve the consistency that you get with a well-thought-out system of habit stacking and boundary removal.

Building your own routine

You’ll have to figure this one out on your own.

I’m sure you already have a routine. Maybe you love it. Maybe you despise it. Maybe a bit of both.

But with a bit of creativity, I think you could insert something you want to do — whether that’s going to the gym or studying Japanese — between a number of things you must do and enjoy doing. Remove enough boundaries and it should stick.

Good luck!