Tag Archives: setting goals

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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Big Goals: Tell or Don’t Tell?

When it comes to big goals, your perseverance, follow-through and focus are key factors to achieving what you want.

But motivation and progress can fade over time, especially in the face of setbacks and obstacles.

To make your grand plan happen, do you tell others about it or do you zip it?

Conventional wisdom states that you share your goals with others to sustain your motivation for meeting them. The idea is that social pressure and outside accountability will help you stay on track.

But in a viral 2010 TED Talk titled “Keep your goals to yourself,” Derek Sivers argues that telling someone your goals makes it less likely they will happen. He says the good feeling you get from sharing your new plan can keep you from doing the real work. He notes that acknowledgment from others makes you feel like it’s already done, so you become less motivated to do it.

Gollwitzer’s Study

To support his talk, Sivers cites to the work of Dr. Peter Gollwitzer, a leading authority on goal achievement and a psychology professor at New York University. In a 2009 study, When Intentions Go Public, Gollwitzer concluded that when others take notice of your intentions, your performance of the intended behavior is compromised.

Sivers summarizes the study as follows: The 163 subjects were asked to write down a personal goal. Half of them announced their goal to the room and half of them didn’t. They were then told they had 45 minutes to work toward their goal, but they could stop at any time.

Those who kept quiet about their goal worked the entire 45 minutes on average. When time was up, they reported that they still had work to do to reach their goal. Meanwhile, those who shared their goal quit after 33 minutes on average. They believed they were already close to reaching their goal and didn’t need to use the entire time working toward it.

In truth, Sivers pulls data from just one of the four tests in Gollwitzer’s study. That test included only 30 law students who were committed to a career in law. They were asked to complete a questionnaire, which included this critical intention item on the first page: “I intend to make the best possible use of educational opportunities in law.” Students responded to this item on a 9-point scale ranging from “definitely yes” to “definitely no.” Half of the students then placed their surveys anonymously into a drop box. The other half had the item acknowledged by the researcher.

The students were then given 45 minutes to conduct complex legal analysis, but were told they could stop whenever they wanted. Those who stated their intention to make the best possible use of educational opportunities in law worked less intensely when their response to the item was acknowledged by the researcher than when it was not. They worked for 41.52 minutes on average. The others worked for 45.65 minutes on average.

It’s not clear how Sivers came up with the 33-minute number. The students also did not announce their goals to the room as Sivers claims in his TED talk. Gollwitzer’s paper also does not discuss how the students felt about their progress toward their goals.

Sivers himself later published a post clarifying that the studies only referred to identity goals (goals that are “usually related to personal development” and “that would make you a slightly different person if completed”). Identity goals include I want to be a marathon runner, I am a world class chef, I want to be fit, I am a good parent.

Gollwitzer generally concludes that announcing an intention goal can lead to complacency and an inflated self-image.  Both talk and action create identity symbols in your brain. If you mistake talking for doing, you might experience a premature sense of completeness that stops you from pursuing your goals.

But it’s not always possible (or wise) to keep your mouth shut about your big goals. Your line of work might require you to go public with your strategic plans and long-term vision. And in many cases, it helps to share your goals with others to get their support and input.

How do you reap the benefits of outside accountability without sabotaging your efforts?

1. Know that your mind frequently mistakes talking for doing.

Discussing how you bought running shoes, joined a gym and created a diet plan is different from becoming a marathon runner. Talking about how you will churn out 1,000 words each day is different from writing your book.

Don’t get so caught up in the social gratification of talking about what you will do that you neglect to do it. Sivers notes that if you do tell someone about your intention, state it as dissatisfaction (“I need to train five times a week for this marathon, so if I don’t, call me on it!), instead of as a satisfaction (“I’m going to run the marathon!”).

2. Do not confuse accountability with judgment.

Share your plans with family, friends, colleagues, mentors and coaches who you trust. Encourage them to ask you about your progress and give them permission to hold you accountable.

Decide whether you will discuss your goals daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly or yearly. Regardless of the frequency, it helps to have a set date for when you will reveal your progress.

Choose people who will tell you when you are off track, but won’t judge you for it. You value their opinion and you appreciate the high standard they set for you. But they don’t beat you down or infuse negative energy if you’re struggling.

3. Practice good timing.

Tell your trusted circle about your goal only when you are truly interested in achieving it. If you lack commitment, getting cajoled by others will have little effect. Accountability can start to backfire if it feels like you’re being nagged or forced to do something that’s really not right for you.

Typically, going public on Facebook and Twitter or on your blog and website is not ideal if you’re still deciding what you want. Such online forums can be good for sharing ideas, getting feedback, and generating solutions.

But before you go public with your goals, make a specific plan and commit to follow through. If you have the interest and the commitment, social pressure can give you the extra boost you need.

4. Get specific with your intentions.

Don’t just state what you want to do. Say when, where and how you will do it. Create actionable, discrete steps. Without a good roadmap and the right tools to get you where you want to be, you could wander off course, lose traction, or perish from the elements.

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Putting yourself out there carries risks, such as being criticized or getting your ideas stolen. But your trusted circle will help you bare the brunt of judgment. And it’s hard for thieves to break down your ideas into actionable steps and actually execute them. Outside accountability often boosts your perseverance, follow-through and focus.

What’s your approach to achieving your big goals? Do you tell or don’t tell? Does it depend on the goal? Experiment and see what works better for you.


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Photo by: spo0ky, Anne-Sophee Liens