If you want to change your life, willpower isn’t enough. Wanting it really badly isn’t enough. Brute force and sweeping declarations of how you’re positive that “this time will be different” aren’t enough. Determination alone won’t get you from where you are to where you want to be. It took me 26 years of unused gym memberships, unopened workout DVDs, and half-completed “body bootcamp” challenges to finally develop a regular exercise routine. TWENTY SIX FUCKING YEARS.

And now that I’ve been running consistently for 21 months, people often ask how I did it. How I changed my life so dramatically. What the “secret” is. Where my motivation comes from. And those are all such familiar questions, aren’t they? I mean, think about the last person you know who made a big change – the blogger who quit her job to travel the world, the friend who lost 50 lbs, the co-worker who got out of debt – significant life changes that, all of the sudden, just seemed to happen. Your dad used to smoke and now – poof! – he doesn’t. I used to drink almost every night and eat a diet loaded with sugar and now – poof! – I don’t. You look at your dad and you look at me and you’re all, “How did they do that so easily? I couldn’t do that. What’s wrong with me?”

Well, let’s clear up a couple of things. First of all, nothing is wrong with you. Second of all, making those changes wasn’t easy. And, most importantly, there’s no “poof!” moment. And yet, when we’re looking in from the outside of someone else’s big life change it’s easy to see what we want to see. We lay things out in a two part “now and then” timeline. Part one: I ate and drank an insane amount of sugar and completely avoided exercise. Part two: Now I don’t. For someone on the outside, that’s what it might look like. That I just woke up one day and was all, “Meh, you know what? I think I’m done with this shit. Poof!” But nothing could be farther from the truth.

Take exercise, for example. Do you want to know my truth? Here’s a snapshot of what really happened:

On January 1, 2011 I set a goal of doing 20 minutes of exercise three times a week. January went by and February went by and March went by and I was trying, doing my best to integrate exercise into my life, but I couldn’t manage to stay consistent with it. I’d work out once or twice a week, sometimes even three times a week, but never three times a week for more than one week at a time. April 2011 was the first month I was able to do 20 minutes of exercise three times a week for four consecutive weeks. It took me three months of “failing” at my goal in order to turn what I wanted into a habit. Because that’s the thing: Changing your life is really about changing your habits.

It took me 120 days in 2011 to get to the point where I was consistently working out. That’s 120 days of exercising, not exercising, thinking about exercising, feeling like a failure, wanting to exercise but not being able to get myself to do it, crying about why I’m so unmotivated, and beating myself up about the fact that millions of other people seem to exercise every single day without all the fucking emotional drama. 120 DAYS, YOU GUYS.

Like I said, there’s no “poof!” moment.

So, if we can accept that things don’t change overnight and that there’s nothing wrong with us and that other people’s changes weren’t as easy as they might seem, what does that really mean? And, most importantly, how do you actually change your life? I’ll tell you how: One small step at a time.

Societally, we glorify huge life overhauls. TV shows like Clean Sweep and The Biggest Loser give us the impression that we can completely transform ourselves in a relatively short period of time. Magazine headlines promise that you’re just “30 days away from an entirely new body!” At the heart of it, we’ve become a culture of people who demand enormous results in a fraction of the time, but the problem with that mentality is that it leads us to setting unrealistic goals. I can’t even tell you how many times I swore to myself (and truly believed) that, come Monday, I’d be an entirely different person. “Starting Monday I’m going to exercise every single day!” “Starting Monday I’m throwing out all the unhealthy food in my house and I’m just never going to eat like that again!” Sound familiar?

In my experience, the biggest problem with these types of “starting Monday” goals is that they don’t address what’s really going on. The focus is on the end result instead of on the individual habits we need to change and build in order to transition from our current lifestyle to the lifestyle we actually want. And that’s the key: transition. The single biggest reason my previous attempts at exercise never stuck is because I didn’t give myself the time I needed to transition from “Person Who Sits On The Couch A Lot” to “Person Who Exercises.” I figured that if I wanted it enough, it would just happen (poof!), but of course it never did.

You have to give yourself time to transition. In 2011, I had to realize that even though there were weeks when I would only workout once and was therefore falling short of my 3-times-per-week goal, it was once more than I was working out at that same time the year before. In December 2010 I didn’t work out at all, and in order to go from not working out at all to working out three times per week, I had to give myself permission, time, and space to make that transition. January – March was my transition period, and by April I had formed the habit of regular exercise. Does that mean three months is the magic transition period? Of course not. Other habits – like living sugar-free, for example – have been much harder for me to build, because every situation is different and every person is different and there’s no such thing as being “just 30 days away!” from anything.

What I’m saying here is that there’s a lot that goes into creating new habits. We’re all different, and being an asshole to yourself about why your transition is harder or longer than someone else’s is a waste of time. First of all, you have no idea what that person’s truth really is. Second of all, who the fuck cares? Take the time you need to create the life you want. It took me 303 days to go from being a Couch Person to lining up at the start of my first half marathon. Maybe you want to run a half marathon, too. Does that mean it’ll take you exactly 303 days? Of course not. It might take you half that amount of time, or double that amount of time, but you know what? The time is going to pass anyway, so you might as well just fucking go for it.