Tag Archives: habits

3 Simple Steps to Build Habits that Stick

Following through on new year’s resolutions,  heading in the right direction, meeting goals, or making creative shifts requires the ability to build sustainable, congruent habits. While self-discipline, willpower and a growth mindset all play a role in making your dreams and wishes come true,  it’s habit formation that makes the process easier.

A habit is an automatic tendency, behavior or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.  It is formed through regular repetition and is a natural consequence of how the human brain works. Healthy habits keep you on the path of worthwhile pursuits, despite obstacles and setbacks.

Whether you seek to finish an innovative project, make time for daily exercise, develop an essential skill or just get more sleep,  you will benefit from building habits that trigger positive change and continuous progress.

Follow these 3 simple steps to build habits that stick: 

1. Start small. Having Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) can be highly motivating, but moving toward them often involves taking incremental steps. Likewise, to implement a new behavior that you want to become a habit, start with a small, doable action from which you can build momentum. As Leo Babauta of Zen Habits says, “Make it so easy you can’t say no.”

Need to create a writing habit that will help you complete your sci-fi novel and become a published author? To start, you could commit to writing a page or for 15 minutes each morning. Then, after this becomes ingrained, add another page or an additional 15 minutes. Keep building on the practice until you’re up to a chapter or two-hour writing blocks a day (or whatever maximum you can handle).

Start with super small actions that you can expand upon as they become habitual or routinized. Your forcing yourself to write a chapter or for two hours, right off the bat, won’t work. Instead, you’ll likely find yourself checking emails, updating your social media posts, scrolling through online news feeds or giving in to other distractions to alleviate tension or boredom.

Depending on who you ask, it usually takes 21 days, 28 days or 30 days, to form a new habit. In one 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, a University College London research team found that it takes an average of 66 days until an action becomes automatic.

The researchers recruited  96 participants (a statistically insignificant number) who were interested in forming a new habit such as eating a piece of fruit with lunch or doing a 15-minute run each day. Participants were then asked daily whether their behavior was “hard not to do”or could be done “without thinking.” The study found that on average, the “plateau of automaticity” was reached after 66 days.

Despite the research studies, there is no magic number of days to form a habit. Some behaviors are harder to adopt than others. It’s much easier to write an article than to finish a whole book. Eating a salad for lunch each day is less challenging than completing a daily, one-hour workout at the gym.

For most people – no matter how long it takes to form a habit – starting with a small action is more effective than going for bold changes at the outset. In Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done, Jon Acuff suggests you cut your goal in half or double the timeline to avoid the perfectionist, now-or-never mentality that stops follow-through.

To incorporate mindfulness meditation into my evening routine, I started with 15 minutes.  To implement a tai chi practice into my morning rituals, I began with just 10 minutes. Shooting for 30 minutes or 1 hour would have led to failure in making them into daily habits. A regular practice, even for a minimal amount of time, provides significant benefits that I would not otherwise get if I didn’t do it at all.

Lower the bar and reduce your expectations if you’re having trouble making consistent, lasting progress. Set yourself up for success by taking small actions you can readily accomplish and will give increase your sense of control.

2. State your “if-then” plans.  Positive thinking helps you learn from failures and recover from setbacks. But it’s not enough to get you where you want to be, as  Gabriele Oettingen, psychology professor and author of Rethinking Positive Thinking,  Inside the New Science of Motivation, points out.

Oettingen discusses a four-step process called WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan) to  think about potential obstacles, contrast them with your dreams and goals, and design a plan to overcome them to attain preferred outcomes.

In one research article, Oettingen and her colleague, Peter Gollwitzer, explain that making if-then statements is a powerful way to create a desired future behavior or outcome. They state, “While goal intentions (goals) have the structure ‘I intend to reach Z!’ with Z relating to a desired future behavior or outcome, implementation intentions have the structure ‘If situation X is encountered, then I will perform the goal-directed response Y!'”

Using an if-then format, you specify plans on where, when and how you want to act  in certain situations. Oettingen and Gollwitzer note, “For instance, a person with the goal to reduce alcohol consumption might form the following implementation intention: ‘And whenever a waiter suggests ordering a second drink, then I’ll ask for mineral water!'” This helps to close the gap between having goals and reaching them.

If-then statements establish patterns that prompt healthy behaviors and responses to specific situations. They are based on critical cues (opportunities or obstacles), such as your emotional state, the time, your location/environment, and the preceding action, which are linked to the goal-directed response.

When faced with the critical cue, you have a pre-planned, automatic (habitual) response to deal with it. For example, instead of telling yourself “I will get enough sleep everyday,” you could say, “If it’s 9:30 p.m., I’ll start winding down to go to bed by 10 p.m.” Rather than commit to “I will maintain a clutter-free home,” you could specify, “After dinner, I’ll clear out the junk mail.”

Oettingen has a related WOOP app designed to help you fulfill your wishes and change your habits with if-then plans. The process is based on environmental triggers and current routines you can use to build a new habit or to add to an existing one.

3. Suck at it.  Don’t be in a rush to become an expert or a master; embrace the beginner’s mind, in which there are many possibilities and nothing is all figured out. If you miss a day or two of taking an action that you want to become a daily habit, just get back to it.  No need to count this as a break in your streak.

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg states, “Some habits yield easily to analysis and influence. Others are more complex and obstinate, and require prolonged study. And for others, change is a process that never fully concludes. But that doesn’t mean it can’t occur.”

Even when you fall short of your ideal behavior or preferred outcome, getting things right 5%, 20% or 50% of the time is overall better than 0%. By cutting yourself some slack, you get to continue your efforts rather than abandon them at the first slip-up.

Over time, and with sustained effort, you can make better informed decisions on whether to continue the action or habit. If it’s not truly purposeful or enjoyable, you can not only suck at it, but you can give it up altogether.

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If you have trouble fulfilling resolutions or achieving goals, try these 3 simple steps to build habits that stick and will help you make sustainable progress without beating yourself up.


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Struggling to make a change? Here are key questions to help you gain traction.

change 4-26-15Whether you want to create a new habit, drop unhealthy patterns, achieve a big goal, or transform the way you live, change can be a gut-wrenching, nail-biting, teeth-grinding struggle. It doesn’t have to be this way.

If you’re struggling to make a change, ask yourself these key questions to help you gain traction and move you in the right direction:

1. Do I really want to make this change?

You first need to determine whether the change is something you really want. Is it important or valuable to you? Will it make a worthy difference in your life?  Do you have the fire in your belly to go after it?

Real and lasting change is not possible unless you truly want it. You could still take a halfhearted stab at it and motivate yourself with external rewards. But without the inner drive, you will lose steam more easily and find it much harder to go the distance. Going after something you don’t really want depletes your energy and steals your joy.

Sometimes the change is not actually for you. Is it being forced upon you? Does it stem from unhealthy obligation rather than true aspiration? If that’s the case, do what you can to let it go and focus on your real priority. If you can’t drop it (because it’s necessary to keep a job you enjoy, maintain a friendship you cherish, etc.), stay open, consider the big picture, and cultivate your own reasons for the change.

Sometimes the change is really for you. When your commitment to change is unwavering and inner-directed, you welcome it as an opportunity to learn, grow, and align your actions with your values. When you appreciate the benefits of the change, and the consequences of the existing state, you are more willing to break through resistance and move in the desired direction.

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” – Anais Nin

2. What can I do to make this change? 

You next need to determine what to do (and not do) to create the change you seek. Change starts with breaking old patterns, practicing new habits, and making conscious choices.

Although you can dream big, you generally need to start small. Break down your big goal into manageable baby steps. Then take the first step (and the one after that).

Success arises from dedicated effort, consistent practice, and effective processes and techniques to propel you forward and recover from setbacks. Success does not come from wishful thinking about the results.

In building and sustaining a yoga habit, the hardest part is rolling out the mat. If you commit to getting on the mat at a certain time of the day- without fail, without excuses – you will start to form a habit (or at least a regular practice).  Even when you don’t feel like it, you can still commit to doing just 1 Sun Salutation or just 5 minutes of yoga. Once you start, you often end up doing more. With small, deliberate steps, the full behavior will naturally emerge.

Instead of staring up at the mountain, look at the the individual steps you can take to climb it. Get the appropriate equipment and gear. Talk to experienced people. Map out your route. Steer clear of irresponsible and unnecessary risks. Tweak your processes and techniques, based on the feedback you get and the lessons you learn, along the journey.

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it now. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.” – Goethe

3. What is holding me back from making this change? 

When you truly want to make the change, but you engage in contradictory behavior, you need to look at what’s holding you back.

Some obstacles are real. They can include people who put you down, sabotage your efforts, and encourage you to keep your old patterns. (Find ways to minimize or eliminate contact with these people.) They can include old habits that get in the way of your accomplishing what you want. (Find ways to drop the old habits and make way for new ones. You can’t become an early riser if you stay up late at night surfing the Internet, checking emails, and watching TV.)

Some obstacles are excuses you make, based mostly on fear of discomfort, fear of uncertainty, and fear of failure.

Your excuse could be that you don’t have enough time. But if you track how you spend your time, you will likely see how much of it you waste on mindless activities. You also have pockets of time that you might consider too short to get things done, but all together really add up. You can make time to write your thesis, practice piano or take a nature walk for 15 minutes a day, even if you can’t devote a full hour to it.

Your excuse could be the labels you put on yourself or the life scripts you follow. When you tell yourself things like “I’m a nice girl,” “this is just who I am,” “I’m not cut out for this,” or “this will never work for me,” you stay stuck in old patterns. There are many parts of you that are due to conditioning that can be altered, circumstances that can be reshaped, and habits that can be broken. Stop blaming your DNA or the way you were raised.

Your competing commitments also lead to obstructionist behaviors. You want to become more fit, but you keep sitting on the couch eating bonbons. You want to be more considerate of others, but you continue behaving like a narcissistic jerk. You want to set boundaries, but you don’t speak up and stand up for yourself when someone stomps on your toes.

In their book, Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey note that competing commitments often keep you from achieving your goals. Unless you become aware of these competing commitments, you will be immune to change.

Kegan and Lahey provide an Immunity Map Worksheet, which helps you define your improvement goal, identify behaviors that keep you from achieving your goal, uncover hidden competing commitments, and pinpoint big assumptions that support the competing commitments and lead to behaviors that undermine your goal.

If you’re lounging on the couch and eating bonbons, rather than going to the gym, your hidden commitment could be to maintain comfort. If you’re constantly attacking others, instead of having a meaningful conversation to understand their perspective, your hidden commitment could be to protect your own turf. If you’re giving in to demands and not standing up for yourself, your hidden commitment could be to keep the peace.

Once you unearth your competing commitments and test the assumptions behind them, you can shift your mindset and start taking positive action. By understanding what you really want, committing to new patterns, and beginning with small, concrete steps, you can make the change you seek.


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 Photo by: ashley rose