Habits are the little things we do repeatedly, often subconsciously. They end up shaping our lives. Day after day, they make us who we are. Eat healthy and you get slim, exercise and you get fit, read and you get smart, etc.
“Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.” – Mahatma Ghandi
Building habits is arguably the most impactful skill we can acquire in life. Can you imagine that 16 million deaths could be avoided every year by simple habit change? It is hard though to break old habits and form new ones. People seem to believe that they can transform their lives by simply making a wish when comes the New Year. But 92% of these resolutions fail. Could it be that modern life makes us lazy? In our on-demand society, food gets delivered to our place in 10 minutes. We have a taxi waiting at our door 30 seconds after we ask for it. Everything has to go fast. We don’t accept that certain things take time and give up easily when we face challenges.
Let me tell you the ugly truth: forming habits does take time and it requires efforts. It’s not going to happen just by hoping for it. It’s not going to work if you are not genuinely prepared to change. And there will be obstacles on your way. You can try and reject this ugly truth. It’s up to you. You then risk to get stuck in your old ways and fail to build the life you want. New Year after New Year, you will be making the same resolutions over and over again. In 10 years from now, those who don’t change their poor eating habits will be obese. Those who fail to introduce regular exercise in their life will be unfit. And those with bad financial habits will be poor.
As a teenager, I went through a deep crisis which left my life as a mess. I had to reprogram myself and rebuild my life habit after habit. That’s when I realized that we can become the architects of our lives. Over the years, I refined my approach to setting goals and building habits. It has been my passion for 20 years now. And it has helped me live a dense and meaningful life. Here are a few examples:
- I have written more than a 100 songs while I’m not a particularly gifted musician.
- I represented France in the 2015 ITU Triathlon World Championships while I am not the most athletic person.
- I have launched a promising startup called GOALMAP while I am not very business savvy.
- I have also gathered the biggest dream journal in the world (I’m getting close to 10,000 dreams)!
This was all thanks to habits. When you are able to form habits, you can steer your life in the direction you want. If you are keen to try this approach for yourself, you can follow this step-by-step guide.
1. Assess your readiness for change
According to James O. Prochaska’s transtheoretical model of behavior change, there are 6 stages involved in changing:
- Pre-contemplation: People at this stage do not intend to start the healthy behavior in the near future (within 6 months), and may be unaware of the need to change.
- Contemplation: People at this stage intend to start the healthy behavior within 6 months.
- Preparation: People at this intend to start the healthy behavior within the next 30 days.
- Action: People at this stage have changed their behavior within the last 6 months.
- Maintenance: People at this stage have changed their behavior more than 6 months ago.
- Termination: The new behavior is ingrained, no risk to relapse.
If you jump straight into the action phase while you are not yet ready for it, you are most likely to relapse. In order to progress through the stages of change, you need:
- A growing awareness that the advantages (the “pros”) of changing outweigh the disadvantages (the “cons”).
- Confidence that you can maintain changes in situations that tempt you to return to your old, unhealthy behavior.
- Strategies that can help you make and maintain change. These strategies are called the “processes of change”. Different strategies work best for different stages.
Don’t put the cart before the horse. If you are not mentally prepared to change, any effort you make will be counterproductive. If you realize that you do not intend to start a new habit right now, try and figure in which stage you are and apply the “processes of change” which are most relevant for that phase.
If you are keen to find out more, I recommend you read Changing to Thrive by James O. Prochaska. If you are ready for change, keep reading!
2. Have a grand vision for your life
Make sure that the habits you decide to work on are aligned with your personal values and the long-term vision you have for life. If there is no deeper meaning in the things you do, you might find it hard to make them stick.
Before rushing headlong, dig inside of you and get in touch with the powerful vision beyond your desire to change. If you have aspirations such as eating healthy or exercising, what is your vision beyond these goals? Maybe a vision of yourself in good health, fit, slim and happy… Take a moment to visualize the person you aspire to build.
With this vision in mind, you can see meaning in everything you do. After all, why would you put your sneakers on and go for a run rather than watching a TV series? The sofa might be more tempting than the effort! But get back to your vision and the choice will come effortlessly. When your vision is anchored deeply, it is easy to light it up. The closer the vision is to your heart, the stronger it will be, and the more easily you will push through the obstacles. Get back to your vision, when you fail or when you succeed – it will show you the way.
3. Start small
When we think about changing our life, we are tempted to change everything at once and come up with a bucket list of 20 things to work on at the same time. It’s so exciting! It rarely works though. If we try to do too much, we soon feel overwhelmed. Chances are great that we will give up.
This doesn’t mean you have to focus on a single habit. Actually, taking action on one behavior increases the odds of taking action on a second behavior. This is called “coaction”. Start with the top 2 to 4 habits you want to build.
Don’t set the bar too high at the beginning. When you get on a bike, you should start with an easy gear, and shift up gears as you build speed. It’s all about momentum.
4. Make a plan
You need to plan how you are going to weave the new behavior into your life. For a habit to stick, it has to become part of your routine. You need to turn it into some sort of automatic process. The key to building a habit is repetition. Try and build a ritual: same day, same time, same place, etc.
Make sure you have the basic questions answered in advance: When will you do it? Where? How? With whom?
If you want to exercise more regularly, you have to plan how this is going to happen. Which sport? Which days of the week? Will you go straight after work? Then you need to take your gear with you. Do you have all the equipment you need? If not, go get it. Do you have a friend who could go with you and become your motivation partner?
B.J. Fogg, a psychologist and researcher at Stanford University who has studied behavior change for more than 20 years, has a great trick: attaching the new behavior to an existing one. For that, use “after”: after I wake up, I meditate for 10 minutes; after I get back from work, I do 10 push-ups; after I finish my breakfast, I take vitamins, etc.
5. Set goals
If your aspiration to change remains too vague, you are likely to fail. Set instead proper goals for the habits you want to build. These goals must be S.M.A.R.T.: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound.
Have clear, quantified targets. Instead of “drinking more water”, set a goal to “drink at least 2 liters a day”. Instead of “playing music again”, set a goal to “play the piano 20 minutes per day”.
Set daily goals wherever possible. If you do something every day, it becomes much easier to make it stick. Let’s imagine for instance that you want to read more. You have more chances to make it a habit with a daily goal (20 minutes) than a weekly one (2 hours).
Read more about how to set yourself the right goals in my other article Why I Can Be the Only 8% of People Who Reach the Goal Every Single Time
6. Track your progress
A study of nearly 1,700 participants in a weight-loss program showed that those who kept daily food records lost twice as much weight as those who kept no records. Tracking fosters self-awareness. When you understand yourself better, it becomes much easier to change.
“That which is measured improves.” – Karl Pearson
Track your progress in a systematic fashion, not just in your head. You can use a piece of paper, an Excel spreadsheet, an app, etc. Make it simple to update and easy to access.
7. Analyze your progress and adjust your habits
Your habits are not meant to be cast in stone. We said earlier we have to start small. Then, as we gather momentum, we can add another habit, or raise the bar higher.
On the other hand, when we go through tough times, we can momentarily revise our ambitions down and avoid hitting the wall. That’s part of the journey. You shouldn’t judge yourself. Stay flexible, shift to a lower gear and your habits will pick you up.
With quantified targets, you can easily keep track of your progress against the goals you had set. It is then time to take a step back, draw conclusions and reset your habits. Here are a few examples:
- Add: “I started with two habits, drinking water and going to bed early. I’m now fairly comfortable with those two. It’s time to add regular exercise to my routine.”
- Adjust down: “Running three times a week was too ambitious. I manage to go once a week, two sometimes. I’ll change my target to twice a week instead and build up from there.”
- Adjust up: “I have consistently hit my target of reading two hours per week. I enjoyed reading that much and learned a lot. Let’s increase the target to two and a half hours.”
- Stop tracking: “I used to drink too much coffee some days when I hadn’t slept enough the previous night but over time I managed to ingrain a new habit. I don’t drink more than two cups a day anymore.”
- Replace: “I liked the idea of practicing martial arts but I fail on this goal week after week. I realize that I don’t enjoy the process as much as I liked the idea. It’s time to switch to another sport.”
Try and do such a review of your habits at least every other month. It will help you adjust your trajectory over time.
Forget about the magic potion
Rome wasn’t built in a day, I know it’s cliché but it’s always true. There really is no shortcut to a happy and fulfilled life. One has to be persistent, and walk day after day. It’s incredible how far we can get when we walk in the same direction without stopping, even at a gentle pace.
Forming habits definitely requires effort, especially at the beginning as you have to overcome inertia. Please keep fighting. If you don’t fight, you run the risk of going through life without really living.
Make this effort, focus on repetition, and day after day it will get easier. The habit of doing will replace the habit of not doing. It’s challenging to get started, but it’s also difficult to stop once you get started.
Featured photo credit: Picjumbo via picjumbo.com
|||^||Forbes: Just 8% of People Achieve Their New Year’s Resolutions. Here’s How They Do It.|
|||^||Pro Change: The Transtheoretical Model|
|||^||Science Daily: Keeping A Food Diary Doubles Diet Weight Loss, Study Suggests|