How to Create Habits That Stick

people at the gym

Habit is a cable; we weave a thread each day, and at last we cannot break it.  ~Horace Mann

Whether or not you make New Year’s resolutions, the beginning of a new year is a psychological trigger for starting fresh.

After all of the doodles, scribbles, and scratch-outs of 2011, the first day of 2012 is like a brand new shiny sheet of blank paper — and you’ve just been given a jumbo box of crayons.

So now what?

I’m sure you have a habit in mind that you’ve been attempting now for several years. Maybe it’s exercise, losing weight, eating better, learning something new, meditating, writing, or de-cluttering your house.

You start the new year with a bang, but around February or March, you end with a whimper.

As much as you want to create that new habit and sustain it (and you really, really do), your desire to keep at it begins to fade away. At first it’s fun, then it’s challenging, then it’s work, and finally it’s forgotten.

Why does this happen?

It has nothing to do with your will power or energy. It has to do with brain chemistry. You haven’t given your brain enough time to fully rewire itself to incorporate your habit as part of your daily routine. And that’s what has to happen — you actually have to retrain your brain.

This may feel like a Catch-22. How can you give your brain enough time to rewire itself if you can’t sustain the motivation to give it time?

It comes down to understanding exactly how habits are formed — and this is truly an art and a science!

Most of us jump into a new habit full force. We decide we have to lose weight, so we immediately change our diet, start exercising, write down everything we eat, and begin weighing ourselves.

But each one of those changes is comprised of a series of many smaller habits. By deciding to lose weight, you are asking your brain to accommodate 10 or more new habits rather than just one. Your brain can’t handle that. It’s like asking a toddler to pass advanced chemistry. No wonder we give up.

So how do we ever accomplish any goal or make any habit stick for longer than a few weeks? There is a very specific and well-researched method for doing just that. Here are the steps:

Shift your perspective

Recognize that creating a new habit is like making money. It doesn’t happen overnight. You must view it as a process, with a few starts and stops, rather than something that is going to happen just because you’ve decided to make it happen. Creating a new habit is an endeavor with many moving parts that are sometimes out of your control, so go into it knowing that your journey may not be linear. It might zig and zag at times.

Plan before you begin

Before you launch right in to your new habit, take several days or a week to plan out your habit work. Prepare for the steps I outline below. Make sure you think through the changes and adjustments you and those close to you will need to make to accommodate this new habit work. Take time to write down your plan.

Start really small and simple.

This is the most essential step in creating a new habit. If you want to lose weight for example, you can’t begin with all of the habits I mentioned above. Pick one thing, like changing your diet. Then break that down into something even smaller, like adding more veggies to your diet. Then break that down into adding one more green vegetable at dinner.

This is especially important if you’ve been unsuccessful with adding habits to your life in the past. Starting with a really small habit will allow you to practice the method successfully before you tackle more difficult habits.

Create habits one at a time

Don’t try to tackle several new habits at once. Start with one habit and work on it until it becomes completely automatic before you begin working on another habit. This could take 6-weeks to 3 months depending on the difficulty of the habit. Dividing your focus with several habits will undermine the likelihood of success with any of them.

Have a trigger

In the context of creating a new habit, a trigger is something to remind you to do your habit. Your new habit should immediately follow your trigger. A trigger should be a well-established, long-standing habit that you do regularly, like brushing your teeth or starting the coffee. Attaching your new habit to one that is already established helps reinforce the new habit in your brain chemistry.

Make it really easy

When you first begin a new habit, if it is something that takes time like meditating or walking, begin with doing your habit for 5 minutes only. This sounds too easy, but believe me, this 5-minute rule is really important. In the first week or two of your new habit, you are establishing the routine and fitting this new action into your life.

Sticking to 5 minutes, even if you feel you could go longer, makes it so easy you won’t feel resistant to doing it. Once you feel the habit is becoming automatic, then slowly increase your time.

Create public accountability

Many of us don’t tell others when we begin a new habit because we don’t want to be embarrassed if we fail. But public accountability can be a great motivator. Announce your new habit on Facebook or other social media, or email all of your friends to let them know. Then create a daily system of reporting your progress to these people.

Have a support system

In addition to having accountability, you need positive support and encouragement to keep you motivated and engaged in the work of your habit — especially when you start to get bored or tired of the work. You can set this up with friends and family. And there are many great support forums online where you can meet other people working on the same habit.

Reward yourself

Give yourself a small reward after your daily habit work. This could be anything from a piece of chocolate to allowing yourself 5 minutes to surf the net. Whatever feels like a reward for you — give that to yourself after your habit. If it starts to feel rote, then change up the reward.

Expect setbacks

Setbacks are inevitable. You might get sick. You may have to travel or change locations. You may just blow it off on a particular day. Plan ahead for as many potential setbacks as you can and have a back-up plan. For the unexpected setbacks, just start again as soon as you can. Don’t use setbacks as an excuse to stop your work.

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Give it a try. You may start 2012 with a life-long new habit!

Comments

  1. Jt Clough | Big Island Dog says:

    The Habit Course gave me such great tools to build on my already steadfast personality. Starting with 10 minutes a day honestly can change your whole life!

    Mahalo for the link to Blogging and Brain Behavior. I can’t get enough of this stuff and wish I could put more of these ideas on advertising banners rather than you need this junk food or thing to be better fort others to read! :)

    Happy New Year and to all of your intentions… go for it!
    Aloha wags!

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi JT,
      So nice to see you here! You are definitely one of the Habit Course success stories. Thanks for sharing your experience! Happy New Year to you.

  2. Hi Barrie,

    You’re right, the start of a new year is indeed a psychological trigger for starting fresh. It feels as if we begin again on a blank slate. Yet the slate is not as blank as it seems since whatever resolutions we have at the start of the year is gone halfway through it, if we are lucky.

    I like how you go into the scientific aspect about why we cannot keep resolutions. It is certainly helpful to understand the way we behave.

    For me, planning is vital, without a guiding hand, change simply cannot happen by itself. We need only look at the Arab Spring or the Occupy Wall Street protests. There is a lot of excitement, but in the end, things return to the way they have always been done, but in a slightly new form.

    Starting small and simple is certainly helpful as well. If I find a task too great to handle, I tend to put it off to a later date. But it would be wiser to simply break it down into smaller pieces. With small milestones along the way, it makes the journey easier.

    For me, I have already foreseen how 2012 will turn out for me. Simply put, it will be a year of “Biting Through” obstacles. With this awareness in mind, the word/resolution that I have chosen for myself is perseverance. It is the most natural way to deal with my situation and the thing I need the most. This is how I make it really easy for myself to stick to my resolutions this time round.

    Thank you for sharing this lovely article and a very Happy New Year to you and your loved ones! :)

    Irving the Vizier

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Irving,
      “Biting through” obstacles and perseverance sound like something difficult is happening in your life. I hope that’s not the case, but if so, I hope you will tap in to your inner strength and wisdom which are so evident in your thoughtful comments. Wishing you a peaceful and happy New Year. :)

  3. Wow, the synchronicity! I’ve decided to meditate every day for 5 minutes, I’ve blogged about it (so there’s the public accountability) and I linked up to your previous post. I will remember to reward myself and check out those support forums. Thanks again, Barrie!
    Louisa x

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Louisa,
      I am so glad this post reached you at the perfect time! Congratulations on beginning your new habit. Keep it brief and easy until it feels automatic!

  4. Holiday Greetings To You Barrie!

    Having a clear and simple plan with small successes built in will help ensure that the
    outcome of most endeavors will be positive. Being passionate about achieving the results we desire is a must…

    Damn the torpedoes :-)!

    All the best,

    Jon

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Jon,
      Damn the torpedoes indeed! That’s a huge part of habit success, because torpedoes are inevitable. But you have to get up and try again. Happy New Year to you too Jon.

  5. I love the idea of breaking each resolution into smaller bites of action—having a plan is so important for achieving your goals and making them a habit. I also believe our feelings and imagery also play an important part in sticking to your goals. For instance, losing weight—feel how good you will feel not having the extra weight on you as you tie your sneakers for exercising. Imagine how you will look in your clothes; imaging jogging in the park, etc. This is what has helped me, so I wanted to throw in that nugget too:)

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Yes, yes, yes Cris! Visualization is hugely important in habit success. It’s all part of that brain retraining. When you visualize success, you are strengthening the parts of the brain that support your new habit. It’s a way of practicing your habit without actually doing it! (But not a substitute for doing it. :) )

  6. Cathy | Treatment Talk says:

    Hi Barrie,

    Starting new habits is a challenge for all of us, but you’ve outlined some great tips on how to do it seamlessly. Giving your brain time to adjust to the new habit is essential. It takes 3 weeks to learn a new habit, but much longer to really internalize the new habit on a long term basis. Valuable information – thanks for sharing.

  7. Noch Noch says:

    one step at a time, I like what you said
    no need to be impatience :)
    Noch

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      No need at all — in fact, rushing things will only cost you time in the long run because you won’t stick to the habit!

  8. Roshawn @ Watson Inc says:

    That’s great advice! You know sometimes it can be so discouraging to attempt to create a habit and then fail. I think your start small and planning tips are great ways to mitigate those risks by increasing your odds of success. Being strategic and perhaps more paced in developing new habits rather than making big jerky movements can be more fruitful in yielding consistent success!

  9. Thanks for these pointers – I often overdo it when trying new habits, and one thing I’ve learned from my own failures and my online friends who’ve taken the Habit Course is that it needs a lot more thought, and a lot more incremental action.

    I’m learning, slowly but steadily.

Trackbacks

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