Successful people tend to do the same things repeatedly (AKA habits and routines). As I gear up for year-end and New Year planning, I’ve been researching how we form habits for an update to tools in Succeed in a FLASH, a module of The Maximum Productivity Makeover. One thing is clear to me:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle.
To change your life, you must transform yourself and to do that, you must change your habits. If you have a habit of watching TV from the time you get home from work until you go to sleep, you’ve become a couch potato. If you want to run a marathon, you’re going to have to change that habit. You’ll need to choose a habit that allows you to progress toward this new objective… perhaps running!
Unfortunately, new habits can be difficult to form. Self-help gurus have been saying it only takes 21 days to form a new habit. Of course, you believe there is something wrong with you if you aren’t able to meet the 21-day deadline, but there is no evidence to support the 21-day rule.
The Real Deal About Habits
In fact, an article published in the European Journal of Social Psychology in October 2010 by Philippa Lally & al. who conducted research on how we form habits, states that is takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form a new habit, depending on the habit. Other studies show it takes an average of 66 days to form small habits. Though you have your work cut out with you, at least now you know there’s nothing wrong with you!
Our brains are wired with pathways of varying strengths. The strongest pathways are habits you currently hold and they are very difficult to break. Even that is good news, because once you form a new, more progress-oriented habit, you’ll be more likely to keep it.
However, you might feel discouraged at having to work this hard to break or form a habit. Take comfort in knowing that it won’t take that long to gain the benefits of making these changes. And if you focus on the benefits, you’ll find it motivating to continue.
So, let’s say you’ve decided to adopt a new habit because you’d like to run the marathon. You’ll need to break your bad habit of watching TV and start a new habit of training for the marathon. What’s next?
Breaking a Habit
You’re more likely to break a habit if you replace it by another one. However, it’s important when trying to break a bad habit to consider the need this habit was filling, and to address this need by finding another more positive way to fill it. If your TV watching fills your need to unwind after a long day’s work, you’ll need to find a different way to unwind or your efforts to change that habit are wasted. Read, play music, dance, or chat with a loved one; whatever re-energizes you. If you ignore this need, you’ll soon be mindlessly watching TV again in no time.
Make Sure It’s Important to YOU
It will take a lot of work to adopt a new habit. It might even be painful at times. You’ll often be tempted to slip back. So if you expect to stick with it, you really, really, really need to want it badly, very badly (is that enough emphasis!?) Your new goal and the habits required to achieve it must be for your benefit and not for someone else’s. If someone else is dictating that you create a new habit and the objective is not important to you, you will not likely make the change or, if you do, you won’t sustain the change. You must create a goal that is compelling, emotional or fun. Ask yourself why it’s important to you to run the marathon. Ask that question until you find an answer that moves you (in this case, literally!)
Journal about it, visualize it, act as if you had already achieved it. These activities engage your emotions and help you stay the course.
Make new habits easy to adopt
To adopt a new habit, you’ll need a reminder or trigger. You can use a reminder on your smart phone or better still, use a trigger. A trigger is an event that already happens consistently in your life. For example, every day you get home from work at 5:30 pm. Arriving home from work can be the trigger that reminds you it’s time to don your running clothes.
Other triggers can be other habits you already have, such as having breakfast, brushing your teeth or having lunch. Anchoring a new habit to one you already have is a powerful way to improve your chances that your new habit will stick.
How can I use this now?
- Set a goal and identify the habits that will help you achieve that goal;
- Identify the habits you currently have that don’t support this goal. Determine what need they fill and find different ways to fill that need that will allow you to change your habits to those that will help you progress to whom you want to become;
- Make sure your goal is something you want and is emotionally compelling to you;
- Change your habits one at a time. Start with one habit, and anchor it to a habit you already have or an event you live every day.