If you’ve ever tried to implement a new habit, you may know how difficult it can be to make it stick.
You may recognize the initial excitement that comes with deciding to make a positive change in your life. For the first few days, it goes smoothly. You drink enough water, or wake up early and go to the gym, or read every night before bed. Whatever your chosen habit, for those first few days you do the thing you set out to do. Then somewhere along the way, something happens.
It could be that something unexpected happens to derail your routine, or it could be that the initial excitement you felt has started to wane and you’ve forgotten why you started this habit in the first place. No matter the reason, this attempt is suddenly grouped in with other failed attempts you’ve made in the past.
It can be discouraging to know where you’d like to go in life, begin to take action, and then have an obstacle or distraction get in your way.
The truth is behavior change is incredibly difficult and obstacles & challenges are just a part of the process. The good news is with a strong will to make a change, and more importantly, a good strategy it is possible.
If you’ve ever struggled to form new habits and make them stick, use this guide of tips & tools to help you build lasting change and transform your life.
Write Everything Down:
During this process, it’s important to write everything down. Writing your strategy down, whether that be in a notebook or a Word doc, puts your thoughts and feelings into words and allows you to be more objective. It also serves as a record, something you can look back on, in those moments you need a reminder of why you’re doing this.
Begin by writing down all of the things you would like to change about your life. Think of your long-term goals & where you’d like to be in 5 years. Be detailed and specific and try to include many different areas.
Here are a few examples to consider:
- Your Physical Health
- Your Mental Health
- Your Financial Situation
- Your Social Life & Relationships
Start Small & Doable:
Now that you have your list, look it over and pick just one area to focus on.
It’s extremely tempting to try and do it all at once, especially if you are ambitious and have big goals, but setting too high expectations for what you can accomplish will quickly lead to overwhelm. Starting small will allow you to first build consistency and add layers of complexity later.
When choosing what to focus on now, consider the following & write it down:
- Consider which area would make the most impact and give you the greatest ROI (return of investment) on your time and energy.
- If you were to boil that area down into one daily habit, what would it be?
- An example of this would be choosing to improve your physical health. Some habits you could choose are starting a beginner’s Pilates class, drinking more water, or eating more home-cooked healthy meals.
- Learn the basics of starting this habit and break it down into small steps.
- Consider how to start ridiculously easy. Think of your schedule and commitments for the next week and ask yourself “How likely am I to complete this new habit?” If it’s anything less than “Yes, I can definitely do that”, make it easier.
- As an example, let’s say you’ve decided to eat more healthy home-cooked dinners. How likely are you to do this every day in a week? If it’s anything less than “Yes, I can definitely do that”, shrink the goal. What about 3 days a week? What about 1 day a week? The idea is to start with what’s comfortable to you and your current routine, and build as you go.
Analyze the Habit & What You Will Gain:
If you are considering building a new habit or making a lifestyle change, there is probably a good reason and that reason is individual to you. Take some time to analyze this behavior change & write it down. Use this list in the future as a reminder for why you are making this change.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- What do you expect to gain from this new habit or lifestyle change?
- What are some of the negatives if you don’t make the change?
- How long would you like to keep this up? Is it permanent or just until you meet a specific goal?
Make Your Habit Clear:
Your new habit shouldn’t come with question marks. Define a clear picture of what your habit should be, so you will know what to do and when to do it.
For instance, the goal of “I will drink more water” is unclear & undefined. How much water is more? How do you know when you’ve completed the goal?
Be clear with the requirements. Instead think “I will drink 64oz of water every day, which is 4oz every waking hour”.
When defining the requirements for your own habit, ask yourself:
- How will I do it?
- Where will I do it?
- When will I do it?
- Will I do it at the same time as something else? (This is called Habit Stacking)
- What will make this habit complete on any given day?
Form a Strategy to Overcome Obstacles:
Life is unpredictable. Even with the best laid plans & intentions there will be obstacles, distractions, and challenges to face. Considering now what those might be and how to handle them will help you overcome them when the time comes.
Evaluate these questions:
- What are some obstacles & challenges you expect to face with this new habit?
- What has gotten in your way in the past when starting a new habit?
- What can you try to do differently?
- What is the right strategy for your unique personality & situation? Someone who is just forgetful may need a different set of solutions than someone who is overwhelmed with responsibilities.
Change your Environment:
How can you make changes to your environment so that it will reduce the difficulty of starting a good habit or increase the difficulty of starting a bad habit?
Examples of Reducing the Difficulty:
- Put your vitamins on the counter near your coffee maker or somewhere you will see them every morning.
- Use a large 64oz water bottle so you only have to fill it once per day.
- Place the instrument you need to practice in your living room or area you most frequently are.
Examples of Increasing the Difficulty:
- Place daily limit timers on social media and other distracting apps. Most smart phones have this option built into the app settings and will alert you when you’ve reached your daily limit.
- Place the gaming controllers in a closet or drawer you are not usually near.
- Put the junk food or snacks in a hard to reach place, or refrain from bringing them into the house entirely.
Make Your Habit More Enjoyable:
It’s important to realize that you won’t want to take part in an activity that you absolutely detest doing.
Instead, make the system work for you. When we approach our habits in a way that is more enjoyable rather than strictly efficient, we are more likely to stick with them.
Are you able to pair this habit with something you already enjoy doing? If not, what are other way you can make it more enjoyable?
- Only drink your favorite coffee while reading a book.
- Buy a pair of ridiculously comfortable yoga pants and only wear them while working out.
- Listen to your favorite podcast while doing the dishes or folding laundry.
- Put in that extra study session at your favorite cafe.
- Go to dance class rather than lift heavy weights.
Build a Reward System:
For most of human history, our ancestors weren’t able to depend on the future. Living a hunter-gather lifestyle and not knowing where the next meal would come from taught them to prioritize what they could get in the moment.
Although modern society allows us to plan for the future, our brains are still wired for instant gratification. Because of this, building a short-term reward system is beneficial when trying to achieve a long-term goal.
There are a few ways you can do this. You can implement a small reward right after completing a habit, and/or a reward after completing a set of habits or reaching a particular goal.
- Once completing your habit, add a sticker to your calendar (a way to track your habit progress that’s also satisfying)
- If you’ve eaten a healthy dinner, allow yourself a small sweet.
- If you go to that evening workout class, watch an episode of your favorite show when you get home.
- After you’ve completed your habit 10 times, go to that restaurant you’ve been wanting to try.
- After completing your goals for the month, spend a day in the park.
- After hitting that financial goal, buy an item for your business.
However, try to avoid rewards that counteract your good habits -such as, if you’re trying to lose weight, maybe don’t reward yourself with a whole cake.
From the time you wake-up to the time you go to bed, your consistent actions in-between are what truly define and characterize your life. Because of this, the true secret to success is consistency. Doing something once doesn’t make much of a difference. The compounding effect of doing something every day, with patience and persistence, is where you’ll find real change.
You may find it helpful to create reminders in your environment. This can be as simple as setting an alarm on your phone, putting a post-it note near where the habit takes place, or setting an item needed for the habit in an obvious place such as the kitchen counter.
Keep it Flexible:
It’s a fact of life that our days very seldom go according to plan. You may get stuck in traffic on your way to spin class, or an appointment runs longer than you expected.
So what happens when this causes us to miss our scheduled time to complete a habit? More often than not, we’ll call today a bust and just won’t do it at all.
It’s a good idea to build a routine for your habit, but being too rigid with it can can often lead to inconsistency and ultimately in failure to build lasting behavior change.
To combat this, come up with a flexibility plan. Take some time to come up with a second and third best time to complete your habit. Where else can it fit into your daily routine?
If you miss this morning’s spin class, can you instead come to a class before dinner? Or if there aren’t anymore classes today, can you go on a 30 minute walk instead?
Of course there will be days where it seems everything has gone wrong, and you still miss your habit. That’s OK too. It’s just a part of the process. Just make sure to dust yourself off, take some time to rest, and try again tomorrow.
Spend Time Experimenting:
Once you put your habit plan into action, you may find your first idea of how, when, or where to complete your habit doesn’t work for you and your daily routine. That’s why it’s a good idea to spend the first few weeks finding what works the best.
You may find that you have a better work-flow right after waking up, or that you prefer going to the gym after putting the kids to bed.
Every so often check in with yourself. Ask:
- What did you do well?
- What didn’t work?
- And what can you do differently?
Adjust your habit routine accordingly until you find what works for you.
Track Your Habits:
During this process it can be helpful to have a record of your accomplishments. This will give you a bird’s eye view of your progress and help you better determine what’s working and what isn’t.
It can also be motivating just to look back on what you’ve done so far, and help you keep going.
You can do this with:
- A simple calendar with check marks or stickers.
- A more complex bullet journal system. (There are many Youtube videos with examples of how to get started with this.)
- A habit tracking app such as Habitica.
Have an Accountability Partner:
Telling someone about your goals is a great way to hold yourself accountable. Once you say it out loud to another person, you are much more likely to stick to it. Plus, they will be able to give you advice and encouragement from an outside perspective.
You can also create a goal with someone. You may find you are more likely to complete a habit while doing it together. Every so often check in with each other, talk about your struggles, and offer support, advice, and accountability to each other.
You can also look online or on social media for people with similar interests. There are many accountability groups on sites like Facebook and Reddit, and if you can’t find what you’re looking for you can create your own.
The most important thing to remember is to just keep going. This process will not be perfect, and that’s OK. Keep pushing through the failures and just keep going.
Be relentless and never lose hope that you can do it.
Helpful Reads & Resources:
- Atomic Habits by James Clear (affiliate)
- The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg (affiliate)
- The War of Art by Steven Pressfield (affiliate)
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