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Ed. note: It seems like a rite of passage to post about habit forming on a personal growth blog. But the primary reason I’m posting this is because I feel I have something to add to the conversation, not just because I have Leo envy! Hopefully you pickup a trick or two from this post.
Forming new habits is hard. But it’s absolutely possible for everyone due to the plasticity of the brain and the core of human nature. If we are what we repeatedly do, then it serves to reason that our habits are somehow a part of us. What we focus on from minute to minute and day to day has a large part to do with who we are – and more importantly who we want to be.
It’s not uncommon to see people with ambitious goals and aspirations who haven’t formed any of the required habits to achieve them. For 23 hours and 59 minutes each day they’re mired in bad habits, struggling to understand why it is they just can’t get motivated or can’t make progress. The 1 minute each day they spend thinking about and focusing on their goals can’t help overcome the inertia of their habits.
Habits are the single most important ingredient to achieving real focus and real growth.
Social psychologists have been studying the process of habit forming for quite some time. In the late 1970s, researchers James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente came up with a model to help frame the various “Stages of Change”. While this model was formed out of a desire to cure smoker’s addiction, it’s useful to help identify which stage someone is in with respect to one or more of their habits, good or bad. People are often unwilling or resistant to change during early stages, but eventually become more proactive and committed to forming or replacing habits.
Here are the 5 stages:
- Precontemplation. In this stage, “ignorance is bliss”. There’s no motivation to change and in many cases, there may not even be an awareness of a problem or opportunity. At this point, it’s important to put off taking any major action until you understand the benefits (or the risks) and are able to successfully evaluate your own behavior.
- Contemplation. “Sitting on the fence” without motivation to consider change for the next month. It’s likely a “someday task”; no commitment has been made. If you’re in this stage, you recognize the need to change but may not understand all the pros/cons of it.
- Preparation. “Testing the waters” and are ready to take action within the next month or so. Ready to take small initial steps towards change.
- Action. Practicing the new habit or behavior for 3-6 months. To get to this point, real time and energy has been given to the process and you’re “in the thick of it”, although there’s still the possibility of “relapse” if you stop paying attention.
- Maintenance. Habits are ingrained. Usually takes a full 6 months to really sink in.
Wait a minute… does it really take 6 months to get to the final maintenance phase? Yes and no… or maybe. It really depends on you and how quickly you’re able to internalize change. Everyone’s different. And every habit is different. It’s far easier to add a simple habit like flossing before bed to your nightly routine than it is to kick a 30 year smoking addiction (although this is totally conjecture – I floss but have never smoked!) The key with this is to make sure you don’t have self-limiting beliefs with respect to what it will take, but that you’re realistic with yourself at the same time. Focus on your habits day to day and don’t worry about how long it will take (what’s the point?)
Now the “Stages of Change” model can be a great way to frame habit forming and give you a mini-barometer to help indicate which stage you’re currently in, but it doesn’t really help you determine a next action. Once you’re placed yourself into a stage and are ready to take action, it’s time to get to business.
Here are the 15 tips in no specific order:
- Don’t start today, give yourself time to plan first. The absolute worst day to start is today because you haven’t prepared yourself mentally, physically, or emotionally yet. The second worst day to start is tomorrow. Give yourself enough upfront time to plan out your approach in detail before jumping in headfirst. You’ve waited this long, another few days won’t hurt!
- Give yourself a positive goal. Always frame your goal in a way that inspires you and motivates you to greater heights. If your goal is to exercise everyday first thing in the morning, you could write “Wake up energized and ready to exercise for at least 30 minutes” instead of “Force myself out of bed to get to the gym”.
- Start small, focus on one at a time, and build on successes. Take on one habit at a time and always start off small. If your goal is to lose 80 pounds, start by focusing on your first 5 pounds – and don’t worry about the 7 other habits you’re ready to change or adopt. What’s important is that you get this one right first before moving on. Spend the time to get it right.
- Dream big but look to kaizen. Never limit the dream your habit change can bring – dream as big as you can, write it down, and go for it. But you should utilize the kaizen principle of incremental progress. This is when you challenge yourself more each day to strive for “continuous improvement” using smaller than normal increments.
- Be OK with the awkward phase. Many new habits have some level of awkwardness involved. You don’t know what to do or how to do it. Everyone goes through it, you’re not special! Just move through the awkwardness knowing you’ll come out OK on the other side.
- Create systems to make yourself more efficient. This is critical. If you’re fighting yourself every step of the way, forming a habit is going to be hard. You need to “grease the skids” by creating systems to help you out. Example from a previous post: get in the small habit of packing your gym bag the night before to keep you from having an excuse for the big habit (exercise).
- Reframe your negative self-talk. Don’t identify with negativity! Whenever you have a moment of weakness, think, “Those thoughts aren’t me, they’re just passing through. I don’t actually believe that.” There’s more detail about this in my series on Flow.
- Allow for imperfection; realize that not everything will be perfect. “Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.” (Harriet Braiker). There’s never going to be a perfect time to start, and there’s never going to be a perfect implementation. You need to take what you can get, and most of the time that’s not perfection.
- Compliment your lifestyle. Do you like to stay up late or wake up early? Chances are it isn’t both ;) You need to understand if you’re a morning lark or a night owl, and schedule your habit at the appropriate time for you. This isn’t pseudo-science – it’s been shown that people can have strong tendencies, even though many people don’t. If you do, leverage it.
- Be in it for the long-haul. Never start something with the expectation that it will be short-lived. There’s no way you can possibly motivate yourself knowing that something is so short-term as to not be a real life change. Do it for you, and do it for life, even if it involves some subtle changes to your approach.
- Create contingency plans. Adversity will hit, it always does. If you’ve prepared for it ahead of time, you can be in a better position to continue making progress over the long haul. At Harvard Business School they teach a thing called scenario planning – this is a micro version of that for risk management. Always know where your slip-ups may come from and you can have a plan to get through it.
- Schedule priorities rather than prioritize schedules. In other words, make time for it! If it’s important to you, don’t let your schedule get in the way. That’s just starting off on the wrong foot.
- Tell other people and hold yourself accountable. It’s always a smart thing to tell people what you’re doing (other than your own ego) . Ask them to ask you how you’re doing with it from time to time knowing that you won’t always be as motivated to change as you are at that moment. People who have a support system almost always find it easier to make things happen.
- Start off doing it every day for 21 days. Studies have shown that lasting habit change can occur in as little as 21 days (and in some cases fewer). In order to get the most of it, even if your habit isn’t something you ultimately will do daily, start off doing it every single day for 21 days. It should be much easier afterwards.
- Write it down and track it. This accountability trick works wonders to keep people on track. When you know you’re being watched, even if only by a piece of paper or an Excel spreadsheet, you may have a stronger sense of commitment. Speaking personally, if I can’t track and measure it, it usually doesn’t happen for me. This is a real motivator.
These 15 tips will get you 95% of the way there, but there’s still the possibility of your mind sabotaging your progress in various ways. Here are a few things you need to look out for throughout the process of forming a new habit and some ways you can mitigate their power. You can’t let these things affect you!
When you attribute superpowers to someone else, you’re taking power out of your own hands and jumping to an unproven conclusion. This is common when it comes to forming habits. “Of course Sally is able to do it, she’s always been the smartest person around – I could never be like her, she’s different”.
When you generalize, you’re taking a single situation and applying it to all situations. “I wasn’t able to do this yesterday, I guess I wasn’t meant to do this after all”.
Black or White Thinking
This is thinking that there’s no middle ground. You either succeed or fail, there’s nothing in the middle. “There are only winners and losers – there’s no way to win if you don’t do it all right, all the time”.
Excluding and Filtering
When you’re excluding, your invalidating or disqualifying your progress. This is often “putting yourself down” or not giving yourself the credit you’re due. “I may have gotten this far, but 6 weeks is nothing – it won’t matter until I hit 6 months consistently!” Filtering is when you only see negatives in a situation and no positives: “I didn’t make it to the gym 6 times last month! Sure I went 24 times, but so what?”
Overreacting and Dwelling
You’re overreacting when something small becomes something major. “I can’t make time to write today because I have a board meeting. This is the worst possible thing that could happen to me right now! It’s horrible!” You’re dwelling when you do this for an unhealthy period of time.
Hope this helps! Remember the ice cube tray analogy; if you already have something that works, that’s great! If you use some of this information to fill in some gaps, that’s great too – and if you’re new to habit forming and want to get started, hopefully this information is enough to get you going.