Heads-up – this is going to be a long post, but it is crucial for making our changes stick. Bear with me and take your time to read it.
We are now 14 weeks into building healthier habits for a more productive and balanced life. That means somewhere between 5 to 10 new habit changes already, depending on which ones and how many you decided to pick up.
Before we move on to a whole new area (being more efficient at your work), let’s talk a little bit about how we make all those habits stick.
How do we make them stick?
How can we avoid to flip-flop from new habit to new habit every week and bouncing back to bad behaviours as soon as we take our eyes off a recent habit change?
In the past I’ve tried to follow the rule that you have to keep a habit for 30 days to make it stick, but to be honest more often than not this didn’t work for me. More recently I came across two books that provide good frameworks that do actually work (at least for me).
- “Mini Habits”, Stephen Guise – Simple to read book that focuses on making habits so small that you cannot possibly fail to just do them.
- “Atomic Habits”, James Clear – A more scientific exploration of the topic with many suggestions on how to make habits stick.
The following is a summary of the rules I found most effective from those books. Read the books for more suggestions as well as the science behind them.
1 – One small change at a time
Don’t boil the ocean! You will get frustrated and will give up.
Don’t try to change more than one behavior or add more than one habit at a time. Don’t pick habits that reflect your end goal, but rather focus on the next immediate step that will get you there.
Don’t boil the ocean. Pick one habit at a time. Make your habit changes too small to fail.
Instead pick one habit per week and focus on it. Focus on only that habit until you reliably repeat it. Then you can add a new habit to your list. If you notice that you stopped doing the previous change, go back and add that habit back again.
Make your habit change small. Instead of trying to turn end goals into a habit, focus on the immediate next step. For example, instead of saying “I will lose 10 pounds”, make it a habit to drink a refreshing glass of water every time you want to grab your habitual can of soda.
Make your habit changes small, make them easy. Make them too small to fail.
Small changes add up. Rather than making a heroic effort and keeping it for two weeks, make incremental 1% changes and keep going at them for the rest of your life. Nothing beats the impact of consistency (the “Compounding effect of 1% changes.”, James Clear).
2 – Don’t break your streak
“You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” – Peter Drucker
Once a new habit is truly a habit you will do it naturally. Until then you need to ‘manage’ yourself to stick to it. Usually the best way to do that is to track and keep a log that holds you accountable.
Track of your progress to keep you going. Don’t break your streak. Never fail twice.
Tracking your progress helps to keep you motivated as you see the rewarding days, when you kept to your habit, adding up. It also serves to hold you accountable because once you have a chain of successful days, you don’t want to break the streak.
How you track your habit doesn’t matter as long as you do it. Find the way that works best for you: a wall calendar that you tick off, your personal journal, a jar of marbles that you fill up every time you did a specific habit, an app on your phone that you always have with you. Personally I like to use both a wall calendar for a big longterm habit that I’m chasing, as well as an iPhone app (Streaks) to keep track of my progress on the small changes throughout the day.
Try your best to not break a streak. It is motivational to see how you add day after day to your list of little wins. Try to not drop the ball, work hard to not break the streak.
Having that said, life will happen. Every now and then something will come in the way of your habit. That is a crucial point in your habit-forming. One of two things will happen: 1) you broke your streak and will now have a much lower bar to dropping the habit again the next day or 2) you get right back to your habit the next day. To be honest, the first response is much more likely and it dooms you for failure on your desired longterm changes. The biggest risk to a habit is not the start but keeping to go.
To prevent you from dropping your habit once you face the first obstacle, make it a point to never fail twice in a row. It’s ok to fail every now and again. But NEVER fail twice in a row to do your habit.
As a side note for habit tracking apps: I like the iOS Streak app which lets me track six habits at a time. If I successfully did a habit for six weeks, it most likely sticks and I can replace it with a new one. If it doesn’t stick yet, I will wait a little longer before I take on the next habit. Tracking six habits at a time is a reasonable balance between ambition and feasibility.
3 – Make it automatic
Your will power drains through the day. Have a plan. Make your habits a reflex.
We all start our days with the best intentions. We stick to our priorities through the morning and then the curve balls start hitting us. We get tired, we get worn out. We come home exhausted, drop in front of the TV, have a couple of drinks. Then we go to bed, slightly frustrated about ourselves and have the best intentions to be more disciplined the next day. The next day won’t be any different though.
Have a plan. Make good habits easy and bad habits difficult. Make your habit a reflex. Identify trigger points.
The problem is that we cannot trust ourselves as we get more and more tired throughout the day and our willpower gets depleted by the obstacles, challenges and decisions we are facing.
We need our fresh mind to make the right decisions for us. We need your well rested brain, with its full reservoir of will power and sight of the right priorities to make the decisions for us, before the tired brain can kick in and take over.
Make a proactive plan of ‘if, then’ decisions. You will be tired in the evening when you come home. Make a plan what you will do when you want to drop in front of the TV (“when I want to grab the TV remote, I will rather pick up a cup of tea and the book I started reading”). Make the plan while you still have your priorities straight, not when you’re tired. That way you will not need to decide when you’re tired, you will only need to execute.
Identifying and setting triggers for your habits is an additional technique that you can use. Put your gym bag in front of your door so that you have to pick it up on your way to work. Make fruit and veggies visibly available in your house and make candy hard to reach. Put away the remote and place a book in its place. Get the TV out of your bedroom, set nighttime timers that switch off your devices and lights.
You can also add a new habit to something that you already do habitually (“when I grab my morning coffee I will do 10 push-ups”). It’s an easy way to trigger a new good behavior through a behavior that is already ingrained in your daily life.
Make your habit a reflex, so you no longer need to make a conscious decision. Make good habits easy and bad habits difficult to start.
4 – Work backwards from who you want to be
“Identity is stronger than goals. Your believes of yourself drive your behavior.” – James Clear
So far we talked about how you can make very specific behaviors stick. It’s a very narrow approach and requires will power. After all, you want to change something AGAINST what you perceive as your natural preferences.
To take this to the next level, you need to change your natural preferences. You need to change who you think you are and what preferences that person has. You need to change your image of yourself.
Decide what type of person you are and then make the decisions such a person would make.
However, don’t get stuck at dreaming about what type of person you would wish to be. Decide what type of person you are.
Are you a healthy person? Are you a person who doesn’t drink alcohol? Are you a person that exercises every day? Are you a person that spends quality time with his kids and family every day? Are you a person that creates a piece of art every day? Are you a person who helps someone every day?
Decide who you ARE. Then make the decisions such a person will make.
Are you a person who doesn’t drink alcohol? Well, then it’s easy, you don’t need to buy beer anymore and you don’t need to mull over whether you should have a drink at the work party or not. You’re a person that doesn’t drink alcohol. Period.
Many years ago I decided that I never ever want to drive after having had a drink anymore (I neverhad an accident or issue up to then, but I also didn’t want to take the risk anymore). I didn’t know back then, but I decided to not be a person who drives after they had a drink. And I never once did since then, nor did I miss it.
For in the moment decisions, it doesn’t matter as much what longterm goals you have or what person you would wish to become when you grow up. What matters is what person you decided that you are already and what decisions such a person makes.
Decide what person you are TODAY and make the decisions such a person would make.