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.
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.
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.
Creating sustainable habits isn’t easy. But you probably know that! This simple method outlined above does work if you stick to it. In working with students of The Habit Course (that I conduct with Leo Babauta and Katie Tallo), we have seen firsthand how this method slowly but surely establishes habits that really stick.
Give it a try. You may start 2012 with a life-long new habit!
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