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Habits can help us build a solid foundation of good health, low stress, and readiness to act. For scientists, as Isaac Asimov noted, few discoveries are of the “Eureka!” variety but instead something closer to, “Hmm, that’s funny…” combined with having a sense of good questions to ask to figure out what’s happening. You, too, need to start with a few questions.

The most important question you can answer is: Why do I want this? Almost all the messages we see about good eating and exercise habits focus on appearance-related goals like “abs” or a certain dress size, but people who succeed in exercising regularly point more to the way it makes them feel. If that seems hard to relate to, take a look over this list from Greatist of ways you can benefit from exercise and better eating.

Questions Can Help You Identify Your Next Steps

— What kind of exercise do I enjoy, or want to try?
— What kind of exercise do I hate?
— Does going to a gym sound like fun?
— Can I add more activity in my daily life, like walking or biking as part of my commute?

— What foods are absolute favorites that I never want to give up?
— Do I ever feel a sense of regret or shame after eating?
— Do I like to plan my meals, or do I grab whatever?
— Do I want to learn some cooking skills?

If this is all brand new, you may think “Enjoy? I hate exercise!” Be honest with yourself about the most negative responses you have. Those negative reactions can help you understand your personal obstacles. What, exactly, do you hate? If you think “exercise” = “exhaustion in the gym,” it may help to know that the daily activity we need for health is pretty moderate and doesn’t require special equipment, long hours, or complex routines. (Breaking Muscle has a nice list of “bare minimums” in “The Lazy Person’s Workout Guide.” I think the rest of it misses the “Lazy Person” point, though!)

There are thousands of recommendations out there for establishing a new habit, but the odds of success are low if the habit you try to establish is unpleasant. BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits system asks you to start really small — with something that can be completed in 30 seconds — both as a way to make it easy and, importantly, as a way to try out the new habit and see how it goes. If it’s not working (“I want to do one push-up every morning, but it’s stressful to get down on the floor and get up again”), revise it (“I’ll replace it by lifting a bag with books in it overhead”) — the ability to say “This doesn’t work, so I’ll find something that does” is part of having healthy habits.

When we’ve finally decided to make a change, we may find ourselves in a rush to get results. It’s understandable, but that rush can lead to burnout. A good alternative is start living like the person who already does what you want to do. Big goals are well served by small, specific actions that point you in the right direction. Do you want to make healthy food choices, get some exercise every day, or (ideally and!) get more sleep? Start small, with the easiest good choices, and get into the habit.

Image: Leo Collum, in the New Yorker, from 1998

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