As Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.”
But how can we actually form good habits and make them stick?
Taking a long term view of success is critical. Discipline is how you get from Point A to the often elusive Point B.
You are Made of Habits
You wake up, you eat the same type of foods, do the same things, commute the same way to work, hang with the same people and dress the same way. Even you’re thought patterns recurring throughout are similar to the previous days. We are the sum of our habits we have built over time.
You need habits. Habits help free up mental RAM (random access memory) space by introducing autonomy into the system. Things you do repeatedly over time form into habits. Researchers also backed this up with experiments. They monitored the brain activity of rats and found that their brain powered down whenever a habit kicked in.
Even though habits are automatic, and to some extent unconscious series of actions, they are not impossible to change. And once someone creates a new pattern, studies have demonstrated, going for a jog or ignoring the doughnuts becomes as automatic as any other habit. Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness, or can be deliberately designed. The difficulty of (especially bad) habits is they emerge gradually, over time, without our permission.
One big myth about habit building is the false statement that it takes 21 days to form a habit. The length it takes to form a habit depends on the individual, the habit being formed, environmental factors, etc.
So How Do You Build Habits?
- Motivation & Goal Setting
Motivation is interwoven with the goals you make and the habits you plan to form in order to achieve them. SMART goal setting and motivation, persistence to follow through and take action are the cornerstones to habit mastery. The stronger and clearer your motivation and goals, the more likely you are to form positive habits that you stick to.
The best way to do this is to set “macro goals” and “micro quotas.”
- Goals should be the big picture items that you wish to someday accomplish.
- Your quotas on the other hand are the minimum amounts of work that you must get done every single day to make it a reality. Quotas make each day approachable, and your goals become achievable because of this.
What does planning have to do with habits?
As mentioned above, motivation is a key part of the formation of any habit. The step that many people skip when they fantasize about building a certain habit is they never clearly answer why they want it.
It may seem like a small detail, but it plays a huge role in keeping motivation over time. Excessive fantasizing about results can be detrimental to the stickiness of any habit. When you charge head first into a new habit without clearly defining your goals, they will start to weaken, and it will be very difficult to stay consistent.
Fantasizing and visualisation can be beneficial to motivate and inspire us to begin a habit – but it must be back up with two vital ingredients to ensure longevity and consistency.
- Planning: visualizing the process helped focus attention on the steps needed to reach the goal.
- Emotion: visualization of individual steps led to reduced anxiety.
In essence, trying to ‘reinvent’ yourself all at once can be the source of failure, and it’s probably why New Year’s Resolutions hardly ever stick. It’s better instead to visualize the process of you getting to a very achievable goal.
Tracking progress is also a vital step in helping cement new habits by reducing variability and building accountability over your actions.
- Set Up Behavioral Triggers
The tactic of creating a strong linkage between a specific situation and a reactionary action is great for habit implementation. Over time, practicing these “if this happens, then I will…” moments can cause them to become automatic, which is great for building habits. These are also called Triggers. Triggers work best when you pre-plan them into your patterns when you know you are most likely to fall off.
When we slip up just a little from a rigid schedule on a new habit, we are far more likely to “abandon ship” and give up on all of the progress we’ve made. Minor setbacks and frustrating moments are habit killers: they give us excuses to skip our habit or trick us into thinking its okay just to blow the whole thing off when we mess up. Setting up trigger behaviors to counter these moments help us not to undo all the good work and keep the good habits in check.
- Don’t Get too Hard on Yourself
Being too hard on yourself for messing up isn’t healthy. Self-blame is definitely counter-productive. You shouldn’t let the fact that you slipped up, or that you don’t want to do something make you feel bad.
In essence, part of habit formation is having the mental energy needed to commit to the new habits. For lasting change, the steps you take must ultimately change your environment and schedule to be more supportive in implementing your newly formed habits. When you change your habits, you change your life.