Bela Gandhi is the founder and president of the Smart Dating Academy, a coaching agency that helps clients “make dating fun, inspiring and focused” in their pursuit of a meaningful relationship. You can follow her and Smart Dating Academy on Instagram.

Online dating and first dates — the mere mention of these phrases can put butterflies or knots in our stomach. First, take a deep breath and realize that most people feel this way and that the purpose of dating is to have fun and relax. Second, tell yourself that this is a marathon, not a sprint, so that you set your expectations the right way.

We want instant gratification in everything we do nowadays, so tell yourself that it may take 10, 25, 50 or 100 dates to find someone you connect with. And, most importantly, it’s easier than you might think to get from messaging on an app to a bona fide date in a week or less.

Here are six ways to do it:

1. Don't be afraid to send the first message

The first step after seeing someone you’ve liked or matched with is to message him/her proactively. In today’s age, it’s fine for either the man or woman to initiate contact, so fire away. Don’t overthink the message — you don’t need to be Shakespeare or an “SNL” comedian. Just look for things in the person’s profile that are interesting or things that you have in common. And, you can use lots of things as clues, including their photos, profile text, interests, etc. If there is nothing you can connect on (which is unusual), start with a fun icebreaker, like “Peanut butter: smooth or crunchy?” Or “Love dogs or cats?” Remember, the goal is to get from the site to an actual date, so don’t get caught up in overtexting.

Online dating is a game that moves fast and you want to spend time on people who actually want to meet up versus having a pen pal.

2. Good banter is like a game of tennis

A great way to gauge if someone is interested is thinking about a tennis match. One person serves the ball, the other person hits it back, then you hit it back and so on. Good messages have a frequent cadence and a good exchange of information and fun banter. Keep in mind if someone seems fairly unresponsive or answers your thoughtful questions with a “yes” or “no” repetitively, take this as a sign that you should move on. Online dating is a game that moves fast and you want to spend time on people who actually want to meet up versus having a pen pal.

PHOTO: A stock photo of a couple holding hands at a table.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images
A couple holds hands at a table.

3. Pay attention to red flags

When we feel that we are talking with someone highly desirable, we often overlook obvious red flags because the person is super hot, successful, funny, etc. Always trust your gut. If the person you’re talking with seems too sexual for your liking, negative, angry or controlling, trust your gut and stop communicating with them.

4. Make a phone call

After several good exchanges, the next step is to take it to the phone. Talking on the phone does two things: screens out “crazies” who can’t keep their crazy in the closet for more than 10 minutes and builds connection. It’s way less awkward to meet someone you’ve even briefly chatted with than meeting someone cold. You know what to expect and can even build some chemistry on the call. It shouldn’t be long, anywhere from 10-20 minutes. Even if you’ve got a great connection, don’t spend hours on the phone. You want to leave something to talk about on the date.

One note: just because someone might be shy or not great on the phone, that’s not always a good reason to eliminate them. Often, people feel weird about talking on the phone and will be better in person. One of my clients was talking to a guy for the first time. He was from Spain and quickly said, “I’m much better in person than I am on the phone. Would you be open to meeting me for coffee today?” They are now engaged to be married this year.

5. Get to the first date

Once you’ve chatted and think the person is a good fit, ask for the date. Great first dates are short and sweet — no more than two hours. Getting active is always fun: go for a walk, a hike or a bike ride. Don’t offer or commit to an “epic” first date like a sports game or a concert and dinner, because you’ll potentially be trapped for hours. A great way to set boundaries for the date is to say, “Could we meet for a drink from 6-7:30 p.m.? I’ve got dinner plans at 8 and would love to meet you beforehand.” This gives you a smooth way to exit and, even if the date is going wonderfully, feel free to leave on time — and leave them wanting more!

6. Stay patient and positive

Dating is a long game that could take months or years for most of us. Finding the right partner is the most important thing you’ll ever do, so staying patient, positive and perseverant are everything in this endeavor. Tell yourself that “love will definitely come to me and I’m in it for as long as it takes,” and strap in for a fun ride.

Happy dating!

Editor's note: This was originally published on Jan. 4, 2019.