Decades ago I discovered a terrific ab crunch routine; it’s quick, easy, shows results within days, and it isn’t even especially painful or uncomfortable…and yet…

I haven’t been doing it.

And I dislike the realities that stem from my slacking. I always love the treat of un-boxing my summer clothes; this June I was so disappointed to find several of my favorite dresses were too tight around the middle.

I miss that trim feeling of having a firm tummy. And I find that when my abs are looser, I tend to overeat; my belly feels stretchy and so I pack in more food.  A tighter tummy seems to naturally limit my food intake by making me feel full on fewer bites.

I know, I know, I know all the good reasons…and yet I delay and excuse and put off and often simply forget until the day is over and I’m just too tired…

Is this some unconscious Freudian-style self-defeating mechanism?

Nope. It’s lack of habit.

I live a wonderful yet relatively unstructured life, with a schedule that shifts and morphs with the weeks and seasons. This variety keeps me stimulated and happy, but it’s not so great for maintaining routines.

Habits are automatic behaviors, triggered by environmental cues. The way to build a good habit is to locate a reliably-occurring external cue and then attach the new, desired behavior onto that cue.

I don’t have a lot of those consistent, established cues in my life, but finally I thought of one: BREAKFAST.

I eat the same breakfast every day: A bowl of oatmeal, which takes six minutes to microwave…and that’s enough time to roll out my yoga mat, do 100 crunches, roll the mat back up, put it away, and grab my spoon!

This is so mundane, I know…but it really works. I do my crunches every day now. I’ve only missed two days in the past four weeks, and both were on mornings when I hectically ran out of the house without eating breakfast.

I’m fascinated to observe my body now just going through its new paces on autopilot. I no longer ponder or argue with myself over whether or not to do my crunches; I just mentally stand back and watch myself do them.

Turns out this is how Olympic athletes’ bodies work, on a grandly more rigorous and elegant scale. All that exquisite diving and jumping and running is habit. And you can see what happens when athletes’ automatic routines get disrupted: they start consciously thinking about their performance and the routines fall apart.

I “should” be doing 400 crunches per day, but for now I’m doing 100, because 100 is easier and so I’m way more likely to stick with my plan. The biggest mistake people make in trying to form good habits is being too ambitious at the beginning and setting grandiose expectations that set them up for failure.

I’ll eventually work my way up to 4oo crunches per day. Or not. 100 crunches, every day, has already improved my posture and and curbed my appetite and helped me fit into two of my beloved dresses. So maybe instead  I’ll now pick out some other small, good habit to develop.

[photo taken at the Olympic park in Barcelona]