“Thoughts lead on to purpose, purpose leads on to actions, actions form habits, habits decide character, and character fixes our destiny.” ~Tyron Edwards
There are two sides to habits: dropping undesirable habits and creating new ones.
Let's focus on the creation part, because when you are successful at creating positive new habits, it gives you the momentum and enthusiasm for dropping old ones and replacing bad habits with good ones.
You probably have something on your mind right now that you've wanted to incorporate in your life. Maybe exercise. Or eating healthy. Or starting a project. Or meditating. If you are like me, you've likely started on one of these new behaviors with high hopes, only to watch it fizzle from your daily life after a few weeks. Then you feel bad about yourself, you make excuses that don't feel real, and you sink back into inertia.
If you have not been successful at incorporating habits, and you are not sure why, I'd like to share some good news.
There is a straightforward, practical method for creating new habits and sustaining them. You can be successful at creating new habits without too much pain or shame.
My friend and fellow blogger Leo Babauta of the blog Zen Habits has been studying habit creation and habit change for many years now. If fact, he created his blog around his own experiences with habit change. Take a look at his story and all of the habits he's created and changed in the last six years.
I have spent enough time with Leo to know he is a regular guy with the same life difficulties and stresses that all of us have. He isn't some uber-disciplined guru who doesn't have to struggle to make change. However, he did take the time study habit change to figure out how he could be successful rather than fizzling out.
In my work as a personal coach, I work with clients frequently who are trying to adopt new positive behaviors and actions. We all dream big dreams and sincerely desire to be better, but I have found a primary and consistent roadblock that nearly everyone encounters when they are trying to create a new habit:
They don't create the proper conditions in advance to ensure success.
Creating the Conditions
When we decide we are going to start a new habit, most of us begin with enthusiasm and determination. We decide, “Today is the day I'm going to begin.” So we charge forward, full steam ahead with our new behavior.
- Day 1, we feel great.
- Day 2, things still going well.
- Day 3, it's kinda hard but we're committed.
- Day 4, it wouldn't hurt if I skip one day.
- Day 5, do I really want to do this?
- Day 6, maybe I should start this next month when . . .
Or some variation of this process whereby we started full-on, but at some point before the behavior is a habit, we give up. And we find ourselves going through this same process over and over again, every time we want to adopt a new habit, expecting a different outcome. (Isn't this the definition of insanity?)
So how do we create habits that will make success possible, even probable? There are some specific steps you must follow in habit creation:
There are several studies that suggest you have more success with an easier, small habit than with a larger one. You will increase your odds of succeeding. If you are a beginner at creating habits, pick something easy, and build your confidence and experience. If you have a big habit you want to adopt, then break it up into smaller, easier habits. (For example, if you want to eat healthier, don't change your entire diet. Just incorporate one small eating change.)
In the beginning, work on one small habit at a time. As you already know, creating a habit is difficult. Increase your odds of success by not overwhelming yourself with too many new behaviors all at once.
Many studies show that it can take from 4-9 weeks for a habit to become fully automatic. Easier habits take on the lower end of that range and harder ones on the higher end. There is science behind this. The brain changes and grows with experience. What you do or think can cause your brain to rewire itself. This science is known as Neuroplasticity.
When neurons activate at the same time as a response to an event, the neurons become associated with one another and the connections become stronger. The more you practice something, the more ingrained your neural pathways become. Your brain can actually change with repeated experience, changing a behavior into a habit.
Have a trigger.
Triggers are a little-known key to forming a new habit (or breaking an old one). These are life events that will stimulate automatic urge to do a habit. For example, waking up can trigger habits such as taking a shower, brushing your teeth, meditating, exercising, or anything you want.
Once we’ve created a bond between the trigger and the habit, the habit will become automatic. The stronger this bond, the more ingrained the habit. So each time the trigger occurs, you need to consciously perform the new habit. It has to be very deliberate at first, but over time it becomes easier as the new habit becomes almost automatic.
It's easy to do things that we feel good about and that provide validation and interest. You want to build that positive feedback into your habit creation plan to help ensure it will stick. When we hate doing something (like exercise perhaps), we don’t stick with it long enough for the habit to form because there’s too much negative feedback and too little positive feedback.
Find ways to make the habit more enjoyable and pleasant. Share your successes with other people immediately so that you get instant positive reinforcement. Or do something you really enjoy right after your habit so that you associate it with something positive.
It's very easy to quit a habit if no one but you knows about it. But when the world is watching, you will be more likely to stick with it. You’ll be motivated to report your accomplishments to the group. This is an essential element of sustaining your commitment.
Find a group of friends on Facebook, Twitter, or even your blog readers. Email friends, family, or work colleagues. Or you can join a related forum online and get to know the people there. (There are tons of them.) Introduce yourself and ask questions. Tell people about your new habit, and pledge to report to them daily.
Build in support.
There will be times when you want to quit, or you are feeling lethargic or overwhelmed with the process of creating the habit. You need supportive people who will build you up, remind you of your goals, and listen to you when the going gets rough. Ask a trusted family member or a couple of friends to serve as your support system during the habit creation period. Be sure those you live with know about your habit change plan, and that they don't try to undermine your efforts.