Habit Creation For Beginners

people at the gym

“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 conditions that will make success possible, even probable? There are some specific steps you must follow:

Start small.

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.)

Just one.

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.

Allow time.

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.

Positive Feedback

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.

Create Accountability

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.

I am partnering with Leo Babauta of Zen Habits and Katie Tallo of Momentum Gathering to create The Habit Course which will launch at the end of May. (Read Katie’s post today for more ideas on habits.)

We’re looking for a group of 50 beta testers to test our simple method for creating habits.

We’ll be using this data to help form our brand-new course on forming habits. As a beta tester, you’ll get a sneak peek at the course materials and a head-start on creating a new habit in your life!

If you would like to be a beta tester, please click here:

The Habit Course Beta Test

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Comments

  1. One thing I have learnt Barrie that one of the best ways to remove a bad habit is to replace it with a good habit.

  2. Jane Rochelle says:

    Very cool! Congrats on an exciting project! I’ve signed up to be a tester … though I love healing touch, I don’t always give to myself, so my habit will be to do a chakra connection each day … just for me. Lovely that this habit will also be a way to give goodness to the people I treat! ;)
    Thanks, Barrie, Katie, and Leo!

  3. Hi Barrie,
    What a super idea! Working on one thing until it’s ingrained makes much more sense than trying to do to many things at once. It’s more manageable and the chances you’ll succeed improve. I’m sure this project will be a great success!

  4. Barrie,
    You and I must think along the same wavelengths as I have written a post about a very similar subject scheduled to post later this week!
    Habits are vital to reaching goals, and so many of us have bad habits that could be easily replaced with good one! Unfortunately I missed the beta testing, would’ve loved to been a part of that!
    Will just have to wait and see when it is released!
    Bernice

    • Please let us know when it comes out so I can link to it! I’m sorry you missed the testing. I hope you are on the waiting list so you can be one of the first to get info on the course.

  5. Justin | Mazzastick says:

    I recently quit drinking coffee in exchange for tea. It was easier for me this way than quitting cold turkey with nothing to fill the void.

    • That’s a great idea. Tea is really good for you anyway. When I was pregnant with my kids, the smell of coffee made me sick. So I started drinking tea instead. But I don’t recommend that as a way to change a habit!

  6. I like the way you broke it down, and I agree that the prep and the triggers are key.

  7. My blog is also about habits and I lead a monthly discussion group on the topic of developing habits to grow a joyful spirit. We focus on one habit a month. I would love to be one of your test subjects. Also, I’m going to send this post to my discussion group–some of them might be interested as well. –Galen

    • Hi Galen,
      So sorry you didn’t make it on the beta test, but I hope you got on the waiting list as we’ll be sending out updates about our course and other good info on habits, We will check out your blog to see what you are doing with your group and the topic of habits. Thank you for sharing this!

  8. PS–I tried to register but I see that it’s already full. Darn.

  9. I found that once I had VISION for my life, the habit creation became much, much easier. It became harder NOT to do the goals I set for myself than to do them. So many people try to skip over the important internal work that needs to be done before we set goals for our lives.

    • Hi Jennifer,
      I absolutely agree with you. That is definitely something we will address in the course. In fact, I have an existing course called Discover Your Passion that takes students through the process of that internal work and creating a life vision, Good for you that you have developed that for yourself!

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