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What to Do When You Want to Build Better Habits (But Can’t Get Started)

What to Do When You Want to Build Better Habits (But Can’t Get Started)

It was 1978.

In the years that would follow, Dean Hovey would meet with Steve Jobs and design the first mouse for Apple Computer. But today, he was a junior at Stanford University, majoring in Product Design, and he was sitting in drawing class.

His professor, Jan Molenkamp, asked if Dean could draw the roof of Stanford’s famous Hoover Tower from memory. “Without looking, can you draw Hoover Tower’s roof? Can you recall its shape, color, and texture?”

Hovey was surprised. He wasn’t sure what to draw. Years later, he would write…

For the past three years, I had been a student at the University and ridden my bicycle or walked by Hoover Tower hundreds of times. Yet I couldn’t confidently state the roof’s shape or its color, or composition. While I’d seen it a hundred times — I really hadn’t. (Source)

Even though Hoover Tower was part of Dean’s daily life, he wasn’t really aware of it.

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I find that our habits often work the same way. We fall into certain patterns and routines — sometimes good, sometimes bad — without really being aware of the factors that are driving our choices and actions.

More importantly, just as Dean Hovey couldn’t draw the tower without first being aware of it, you and I can’t master our habits without first being aware of the decisions and actions we are taking on a daily basis. Awareness is the first and most critical piece for building good habits and breaking bad ones. Without awareness, even the most intelligent and talented people can struggle to make the right decisions on a consistent basis.

This may have you wondering…

What can you do to raise your levels of awareness? How can you change your bad habits if you’re not aware of them in the first place?

Again, I don’t claim to have all the answers, but here is one tactic that has worked for me…

For Better Habits, Measure Something

What gets measured, gets managed.
—Peter Drucker

If you’re serious about making change, then you can’t sit around and hope to magically become aware of the important things. Instead, you need to make an active effort to measure and track what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

This is much simpler than you might think and it’s also one of the best ways to kickstart new behaviors. Here are a few examples…

Exercise — I have a good streak going with weightlifting right now. I’ve trained at least once per week for over a year (which includes travel to IstanbulMoscowItalySouth Carolina, Portland, and a handful of other places). And for the last four months in particular, I have been in the gym at least 3 times per week.

It all started when I began tracking my pushup workouts. That simple action prompted me to track the rest of my training with a more watchful eye. It sounds so simple, but writing down how many days I was training each week helped me get my butt in the gym more consistently. (And along the way, I doubled the amount of pushups I could do.)

Further reading: 6 Truths About Exercise That Nobody Wants to Believe

Writing — Before November 2012, I thought that I was writing consistently, but I wasn’t. Eventually, I decided to measure my writing output and realized that I was unpredictable and erratic. I wrote when I felt motivated or inspired, which turned out to be about once every three weeks.

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After becoming aware of how inconsistent I was, I decided to set up a Monday and Thursday publishing schedule. It’s been 10 months now and I haven’t missed a week. (You can look back in the archives and see every article I’ve written.) My Monday and Thursday posts might look like an old habit now, but the only reason I started writing on this schedule is because I measured my output and discovered my inconsistency.

Further reading: The Difference Between Professionals and Amateurs and What is Your Average Speed?

Money and Business — According to many historians, John Rockefeller was the richest man in the history of the world. Recently, I read about his life and learned that Rockefeller was known for tracking every single penny across his massive empire. After reading about Rockefeller’s strategies, I was inspired to track my own finances even more closely.

What happened? I quickly became more aware of my finances and discovered a handful of places where I could cut costs and increase earnings. Furthermore, my increased tracking and measurement has helped me learn about things like tax efficiency and asset allocation, which I had previously thought very little about.

Notice that in each example above, I didn’t start by worrying about all the improvements I needed to make. I simply started by becoming more aware of my behavior. I tracked and measured. And by paying attention to what I was doing and how I was spending my time, ideas for improving my habits naturally presented themselves.

Your Challenge

It is all about paying attention.
—Dean Hovey

Nothing happens before awareness. If you aren’t aware of your decisions, then you can’t do anything to improve them — no matter how smart you are.

With that in mind, I’d like to challenge you to measure something in your life for the next week.

Pick something that is important to you and make an effort to be more aware of the things that drive your decisions and actions. Don’t worry about changing your whole life. Don’t judge yourself for not being as good as you want to be. Just pick one thing that’s important to you and measure it. Take stock of it. Be aware of it.

Your awareness and your habits go hand-in-hand. The simple act of noticing what you do is the first step for improving how you do it. If you recognize how you’re spending your time, then the next step will often reveal itself.

Featured photo credit: Chris Tse via flickr.com

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James Clear

James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

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Last Updated on September 28, 2020

How to Create an Action Plan and Achieve Your Personal Goals

How to Create an Action Plan and Achieve Your Personal Goals

There’s no denying that goals are necessary. After all, they give life meaning and purpose. However, goals don’t simply achieve themselves—you need to write an action plan to help you reach your goals.

With an action plan, you’ll have a clear idea of how to get where you want to go, what it will take to get there, and how you’ll find the motivation to keep driving forward. Without creating a plan, things have a way of not working out as you waver and get distracted.

With that in mind, here’s how you can set goals and action plans that will help you achieve any personal goal you’ve set.

1. Determine Your “Why”

Here’s a quick experiment for you to try right now: Reflect on the goals you’ve set before. Now, think about the goals you reached and those you didn’t. Hopefully, you’ll notice a common theme here.

The goals you were successful in achieving had a purpose. Those goals you failed to accomplish did not. In other words, you knew why you put these goals in place, which motivated you to follow through.

Simon Sinek, author of Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Finding Purpose for You and Your Team, explains:

“Once you understand your WHY, you’ll be able to clearly articulate what makes you feel fulfilled and to better understand what drives your behavior when you’re at your natural best. When you can do that, you’ll have a point of reference for everything you do going forward.”

That, in turn, enables better decision-making and clearer choices.

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I’ll share with you a recent example of this in my life. Earlier this year, I decided to make my health a bigger priority, specifically losing weight. I set this goal because it gave me more energy at work, improved my sleep, and helped me be a better father—I really didn’t care for all that wheezing every time I played with my kids.

Those factors all gave me a long-term purpose, not a superficial short-term goal like wanting to look good for an event.

Before you start creating an action plan, think about why you’re setting a new goal. Doing so will guide you forward on this journey and give you a North Star to point to when things get hard (and they inevitably will).

2. Write Down Your Goal

If you really want to know how to create an action plan for goals, it’s time to get your goals out of your head and onto a piece of paper. While you can also do this electronically through an app, research has found that you’re 42% more likely to achieve your goal if it’s written down[1].

This is especially true for business owners. If they don’t schedule their time, it’ll be scheduled for them.[2]

When you physically write down a goal, you’re accessing the left side of the brain, which is the literal, logical side. As a result, this communicates to your brain that this is something you seriously want to do.

3. Set a SMART Goal

A SMART goal pulls on a popular system in business management[3]. That’s because it ensures the goal you’ve set is both realistic and achievable. It can also be used as a reference to guide you through your action plan.

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Use SMART goals to create a goal action plan.

     

    By establishing a SMART goal, you can begin to brainstorm the steps, tasks, and tools you’ll need to make your actions effective.

    • Specific: You need to have specific ideas about what you want to accomplish. To get started, answer the “W” questions: who, what, where, when, and why.
    • Measurable: To make sure you’re meeting the goal, establish tangible metrics to measure your progress. Identify how you’ll collect the data.
    • Attainable: Think about the tools or skills needed to reach your goal. If you don’t possess them, figure out how you can attain them.
    • Relevant: Why does the goal matter to you? Does it align with other goals? These types of questions can help you determine the goal’s true objective — and whether it’s worth pursuing.
    • Time-bound: Whether it’s a daily, weekly, or monthly target, deadlines can motivate us to take action sooner than later.

    Learn more about setting a SMRT goal here: How to Set SMART Goal to Make Lasting Changes in Life

    4. Take One Step at a Time

    Have you ever taken a road trip? You most likely had to use a map to navigate from Point A to Point B. The same idea can be applied to an action plan.

    Like a map, your action plan needs to include step-by-step instructions on how you’ll reach your goal. In other words, these are mini goals that help you get where you need to go.

    For example, if you wanted to lose weight, you’d consider smaller factors like calories consumed and burned, minutes exercised, number of steps walked, and quality of sleep. Each plays a role in weight loss.

    This may seem like a lot of work upfront, but it makes your action plan seem less overwhelming and more manageable. Most importantly, it helps you determine the specific actions you need to take at each stage.

    5. Order Your Tasks by Priority

    With your action steps figured out, you’ll next want to review your list and place your tasks in the order that makes the most sense. This way, you’re kicking things off with the most important step to make the biggest impact, which will ultimately save time.

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    For example, if you have a sedentary job and want to lose weight, the first step should be becoming even a little more active. From there, you can add more time to your workout plan.

    The next step could be changing your diet, like having a salad before dinner to avoid overeating, or replacing soda with sparkling water.

    Learn these tips to prioritize better: How to Prioritize Right in 10 Minutes and Work 10X Faster

    6. Schedule Your Tasks

    Setting a deadline for your goal is a must; it prevents you from delaying the start of your action plan. The key, however, is to be realistic. It’s highly unlikely, for example, that you’ll lose 20 pounds within two weeks. It’s even less likely that you’ll keep it off.

    What’s more, you should also assign tasks a start and end date for each action step you’ve created, as well as a timeline for when you’ll complete specific tasks. Adding them to your schedule ensures that you stay focused on these tasks when they need to happen, not letting anything else distract you.

    For example, if you schedule gym time, you won’t plan anything else during that time frame.

    Beware the temptation to double-book yourself—some activities truly can be combined, like a run while talking to a friend, but some can’t. Don’t trick yourself into thinking you can both write and catch up on Netflix simultaneously.

    While you can use a paper calendar or planner, an online calendar may be a better option. You can use it to set deadlines or reminders for when each step needs to be taken, and it can be shared with other people who need to be in the know (like your running buddy or your mentor).

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    7. Stay on Track With Healthy Habits

    Without healthy habits, it’s going to be even more challenging to reach your goal. You could hit the gym five days a week, but if you’re grabbing burgers for lunch every day, you’re undoing all your hard work.

    Let’s say your goal is more career-oriented, like becoming a better public speaker. If you practice your speeches at Toastmasters meetings but avoid situations where you’ll need to be unrehearsed—like networking gatherings or community meetings—you’re not helping yourself.

    You have to think about what will help transform you into the person you want to be, not just what’s easiest or most comfortable.

    8. Check off Items as You Go

    You may think you’ve spent a lot of time creating lists. Not only do they help make your goals a reality, but lists also keep your action plan organized, create urgency, and help track your progress. Because lists provide structure, they reduce anxiety.

    There’s something else special about lists of tasks completed. When you cross off a task in your action plan, your brain releases dopamine[4]. This reward makes you feel good, and you’ll want to repeat this feeling.

    If you crossed out on your calendar the days you went to the gym, you’d want to keep experiencing the satisfaction of each bold “X.” That means more motivation to go the gym consistently.

    9. Review and Reset as Necessary

    Achieving any personal goal is a process. Although it would be great if you could reach a goal overnight, it takes time. Along the way, you may experience setbacks. Instead of getting frustrated and giving up, schedule frequent reviews—daily, weekly, or monthly—to see how you’re progressing.

    If you aren’t where you’d hoped to be, you may need to alter your action plan. Rework it so you’re able to reach the goal you’ve set.

    The Bottom Line

    When you want to learn how to set goals and action plans—whether you want to lose weight, learn a new skill, or make more money—you need to create a realistic plan to get you there. It will guide you in establishing realistic steps and time frames to achieve your goal. Best of all, it will keep you on track when you stumble, and we all do.

    More on Goal Action Plans

    Featured photo credit: Estée Janssens via unsplash.com

    Reference

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