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Published on November 26, 2018

10 Steps for How to Change Habits When You Feel Stuck in a Rut

10 Steps for How to Change Habits When You Feel Stuck in a Rut

We’ve all been there.

We wake up one morning and realize that we’ve repeated the same day, over and over. Wake up, go to work, eat dinner, go to bed. Maybe we sprinkled some family time in there. An occasional trip to the gym. But we long for so much more. More time. Time for self-care. Time to work on that dream project that we’ve thought about for so long. But we feel stuck. We are on a hamster wheel and we don’t know how to get off.

What we don’t realize is that repeating the same day, day in and day out, is simply a habit.

According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, habits are a three step loop. First, you are given a cue (for example, a time of day like 3pm), you perform a routine (walk to the vending machine), and you receive a reward (candy bar).

Understanding how habits work is a key to understanding how to change habits. Once you change your habits, you can take control of your life and your time. And finally reach those goals that you’ve dreamed about for so long.

Here are 10 tips for how to change habits when you feel stuck.

1. Start with awareness

You march through your day without a thought, because it has become a habit. But take some time over the next few days to write down everything you do during the day, and when. Include the time you spend on your phone (many phones now have a Time Tracker on them). You might be surprised at what you see.

Are you spending more time on activities than you realized? Are you mindlessly performing tasks that you don’t need to perform? Once you see a few days in black and white, you can better understand what you are doing. And how each habit does or does not align with the larger goals of your life.

2. Stop saying YES to everything

Another parent at your child’s school asks you to make brownies for the bake sale, and you say yes. Even though it means that you will have to stay up late, and be too tired to go to the gym the next morning. Or the marketing team asks you to sit in on the 2pm call even though you’re not on that project, and you say yes; even though it means you won’t finish a big report today. And will have to use some family time over the weekend to get it done.

Saying yes is a habit. The cue is someone makes a request. So, of course you say yes. And the reward is that you get to avoid a feeling of guilt. Or you get to enjoy feeling needed. But the habit is not serving you. Because you are pinging around like you’re in a pinball machine. And you’re not getting to all the things that are important to you.

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The next time someone asks you to do something. Take a minute. Break the habit loop. And actually think about the request. Before you respond.

3. Figure out what is important to you – and what isn’t

Let’s say you find yourself spending a lot of extra time volunteering at your kid’s school. Time that is spent away from your children and your job, and doesn’t improve your health.

But when you sit down and think about what is important to you. You realize that you need to prioritize work, family life, and a health goal. So how does that volunteer time fit in? Is it important to you, or not? You realize that much of what you do is not related to your own personal priorities.

We are all busy. But we need to learn how to change habits that involve doing things that don’t align with our larger goals. So it is important to take the time to figure out what your larger goals are:  family, work, health. Or, work, health, and writing that book you’ve dreamed about.

Be mindful of what is important to you. So that you can prioritize your days accordingly.

If you aren’t sure how to prioritize your life, this guide can help you:

The Ultimate Guide to Prioritizing Your Work And Life

4. If you don’t have a productivity system, create one

A productivity system doesn’t have to be complicated. It does have to be something that works for you. Basically, a productivity system is a way to make sure that:

  • You are doing tasks that align with your goals
  • You know what those tasks are
  • You know when you are going to do them

Everyone has a different system. Some love to use beautiful paper planners, others prefer an app on their phone. It doesn’t matter how you want to do it. But you need to take control of your own schedule.

Make a new habit of planning out your day or your week on a regular basis. Figure out a cue for it. Every day at 5pm I will take 15 minutes to plan out the next day. The cue will be the time of day. The routine is to plan. The reward is to create a day full of intention.

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5. Start slow – 1% change a day can add up to powerful results

When something is a habit, it is well ingrained into our routine. We perform a habit almost mindlessly. So, when we think about how to change habits, we need to start slow.

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, talks about the 1% rule. He says:

Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. They don’t seem like much on any given day. But over months and years their effects can accumulate to an incredible degree.

Basically, you only need to figure out how to change habits by 1% per day to see a significant benefit over the course of a year.

So start with one, small habit. When it’s 3pm and you find yourself walking to the vending machine, make your way over to the water fountain instead. Or, go outside and walk around the block. Pick one thing and make a change. And then go from there.

6. Stop listening to all your negative thoughts

“I don’t know how to do this.” “I don’t have enough time.” “I’ll fail and then people will judge me.” Do any of those thoughts sound familiar?

For many people, those thoughts play on a constant loop. Telling you what you can’t do. It’s too hard. Don’t even try.

Change is scary. The idea of doing something new, or something that people could judge, can make your heart pound and make your mouth dry. To your body, it feels exactly the same as if you are a caveman being chased by a tiger. So your brain wants to respond the same way. It wants to run away and hide.

But guess what? Those thoughts are a habit, too. The trigger is that you want to try something new. The routine is to tell yourself you can’t do it. And the reward is to stay in the same routine. One that is safe. Where you might not make any progress toward your goals. But you won’t be eaten by a tiger, either.

So the next time you hear that voice in your head telling you that you can’t do it. To run away from the fear. Remind yourself, it’s a new habit, not a tiger.

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7. Make a plan for when things do go wrong

The psychologist Peter Gollwitzer came up with the powerful concept of “if-then planning.”[1] The basic idea is this: make a plan that says, if X happens, I am going to do Y.

Gollwitzer showed that this behavior has can have a huge impact on the success of changing habits.

Let’s say you usually sleep until the last minute before you have to get up for work. But you are looking to start a habit of running in the mornings. And your plan is to run 2 miles tomorrow morning. But when you wake up, it’s raining or snowing. Enough that you don’t want to be outside. What do you do?

Without an if-then plan, you will probably roll over and go back to sleep. But if you made a plan the night before. If the weather is bad, I will go to the gym down the street. And run on the treadmill. The reward will be that I get to watch 30 minutes of a”guilty pleasure” TV. Then, when you look out the window and see the rain, you know exactly what to do. And you won’t fall back into your old routine.

8. Focus on your effort

Here’s a secret about everyone you know. Everyone has failed. Everyone from Steve Jobs to the co-worker in the cubicle next to you.

But what makes the difference is how you manage that failure. Do you take failure as a reason to give up? Or do you reframe it as a learning experience? Accepting failure is a way to stay in that rut. To keep doing what is safe. Even though it doesn’t make you happy. Accepting failure is a habit.

But if you can focus on your effort. Your attempts to change. Then you can continually learn from any missteps. And keep moving forward.

Carol Dweck found, in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, that the most successful people in the world focus on their effort, not on the outcome. That they frame failures as learning experiences. And, as she says in the book:

John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach, says you aren’t a failure until you start to blame. What he means is that you can still be in the process of learning from your mistakes until you deny them.

9. Celebrate small wins

One of the most powerful ways to reinforce how to change habits and make new ones is to give yourself a reward. As Charles Duhigg wrote in The Power of Habit:

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Studies of people who have successfully created new exercise routines, for instance, show they are more likely to stick with a workout plan if they choose…a clear reward, such as a beer or an evening of guilt free television.

So don’t downplay any positive changes that you make. Reward yourself and celebrate:

How To Celebrate Small Wins To Achieve Big Goals

10. Keep trying

Let go of the idea that you need to be perfect at this, or that you need to do it all at once. Learning how to change habits takes a long time and will need to be refined continually.

But when you are feeling down or frustrated, remember this is not about getting on or off a wagon. If you slip up, that doesn’t mean you need to give up and fall back into your old habits.

There is no wagon. There are just good days and bad days. If you keep your bigger goals in mind and remember how you long to find more time, work on that side project, or focus on your health, you can do it.

Keep going and find what works for you!

More Articles to Help You Build Habits That Stick

Featured photo credit: The Journal Garden | Vera Bitterer via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Deb Knobelman, PhD

Neuroscientist and C-Suite business executive who writes about the intersection of mindset, productivity, entrepreneurship and how to reach goals.

How to Set Goals and Achieve Them Successfully The Most Effective Way to Measure Your Team’s Productivity How to Start a Small Business That Thrives (From the Ground Up) 10 Steps for How to Change Habits When You Feel Stuck in a Rut

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Last Updated on April 23, 2019

How to Set Stretch Goals and Keep Your Team Motivated

How to Set Stretch Goals and Keep Your Team Motivated

Stretch goals are a lot like physical fitness. When you adopt a physical sport such as running, continual practice leads to increased stamina, growth and progress.

While commitment to the sport improves performance, true growth happens when you are stretched beyond your comfort zone. I know this from personal experience.

For years, I was an avid runner. I ran with a variety of running groups in the Washington, D.C., area and in Columbus, Ohio, where I lived prior to moving to the nation’s capital in 2011.

While I was initially fearful about slacking off on my exercise habit when I moved to D.C., running enthusiasts in the area provided continual motivation, inspiring me to lace up my shoes day after day. Much to my surprise, many of the area’s running stores (including Pacers and Potomac River Running) boasted running groups that met in the mornings and evenings. So, it was relatively easy for a newcomer like me to connect with like-minded peers.

I was never a particularly fast runner, but I enjoyed the afterglow of the sport: being completely drained but feeling a sense of accomplishment; setting and reaching goals; buying and wearing out new tennis shoes. The sound of throngs of feet pounding the pavement in semi-unison is still enough to bring tears to my eyes. Yes, I sometimes tear up at the start of races.

Of all the groups I ran with, the Pacers Store group that met on Monday nights in Logan Circle boasted the fastest runners. I met up with the group week after week only to be the slowest runner. It was difficult to muster the courage to get up every week and meet the group knowing what was waiting for me: sweating and watching the backs of fellow runners.

Each time I joined the group, I was stretching myself without even realizing it. Instead of feeling like I was transitioning into a better running, for a long time I felt I was torturing myself.

Then something remarkable happened. I went for a run with a different set of runners and noticed my time had improved. I was running at a faster pace and doing so with ease. What was once uncomfortable for me I now handled with ease.

The reason I was becoming a better runner was because I was taking myself out of my comfort zone and challenging myself physically and mentally. This example illustrates the process of growth.

Fortunately, we can create situations that stretch us in our personal and professional lives.

What Is a Stretch Goal?

A stretch goal – as authors Sim B. Sitkin, C. Chet Miller and Kelly E. See detail an article “The Stretch Goal Paradox” in Harvard Business Review[1] – is something that is extremely difficult and novel. It is something that not everyone does, and it’s sometimes considered impossible.

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In general, you establish stretch goals by doing things that are difficult or temporarily challenging.

For instance, when I was first promoted to a senior communications management role, I knew I needed to beef up my relationships with media personalities. I set a goal to once a month book a day of media interviews in New York City – which is home to many media outlets, including SiriusXM radio, CNN, NBC News, HuffPost, VIBE.

This was a huge goal because it meant not only identifying the right people to meet with but convincing them to meet with me and my team. While I didn’t end up meeting the goal of doing a full day of media interviews in New York City, I met more people than I would have met had I not established the goal and instead stayed in the comfort of my D.C. office.

It is important to note that just because you establish a stretch goal doesn’t mean you’ll achieve the goal each time. However, the process of trying is guaranteed to provide some level of growth.

The Importance of Creating Stretch Goals

The beginning of the year is a perfect time to assess where you are excelling and where there is room for you to grow. I typically start the year by creating a yearlong strategic plan for myself.

I think about the things that are necessary to do and things that would be cool to do. I assess the people I should know and think through how to meet them. Then I ask myself if the goals are realistic and what would need to happen for me to achieve them.

Over time, I have learned that there are five things I can do to set stretch goals:

1. Get Outside of Your Head

If I exist within the confines of my imagination, I imperil my own growth and creativity.

If I examine my accomplishments and celebrate them in isolation of others’ accomplishments, my vantage point is limited.

I want to be comfortable with what I accomplish, but I also want to be motivated by watching others. In some respects, stretching is about expanding your network of friends, associates and mentors. These are the people who will propel or slow your growth and development.

Since two are better than one, I always value being able to share my progress with others, seek feedback and then map a plan for success.

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2. Focus on a Couple Areas at a Time

When setting goals, it is important to focus on a couple of areas at a time. Most of us are only able to focus on a few things at a time, and if you feel you are unable to tackle all that is before you, you may simply disengage.

I see this in so many areas of life:

When people get in debt, if they believe the debt is insurmountable, they refuse to look at incoming bills for fear of facing down the debt. Unfortunately, many businesses go awry when setting stretch goals.

In “The Stretch Goal Paradox,” Sitkin, Miller and See note:

“Our research suggests that though the use of stretch goals is quite common, successful use is not. And many executives set far too many stretch goals. In the past five years, for example, Tesla failed to meet more than 20 of founder Elon Musk’s ambitious projections and missed half of them by nearly a year, according to the Wall Street Journal.”

Goal-setting is like a marathon, not a sprint. It doesn’t all need to happen at the same time, and pacing is extremely important if you want to get to the finish line. It is better to focus on a couple goals at a time, master them and then move on to the next thing.

3. Set Aside Time Each Year to Focus on Goal-Setting

When I was a managing director for communications for the Advancement Project, I spent the first part of every year facilitating a communications planning meeting.

The planning meeting began with the team members assessing the goals the team had established in the preceding year, and whether those goals were realistic or not. If we failed to meet certain goals, we broke down why that happened. From there, we brainstormed about possibilities for the current year.

For instance, one year we set a goal of pitching and getting 24 opinion essays published. This was audacious because no one on the eight-person team had the luxury of focusing exclusively on editing and pitching opinion essays to publications around the world. We would need to focus on pitching in between the rest of our work.

We hit this goal within the first eight months of the year. Remarkably, in total, we ended up getting 40 opinion essays published that year, which was an indication that our original goal was too low. We upped the goal to 41 the next year, and amazingly, we hit 42 published opinion essays or guest columns.

From this experience, we not only learned what was feasible, we also learned the power of focus.

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When we focused as a team on getting the commentary on our issues out in the public domain, we were successful. The key in all of this is that there was a ton of discussion around which goal we’d pursue and why.

Equally important, as a manager, I didn’t set the goals alone; the team members and I established the goals collaboratively. This ensured buy-in from each individual.

4. Use the S.M.A.R.T. Goal Model to Set Realistic Goals

S.M.A.R.T.

is a synonym for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. For the sake of this article, the realistic portion of the acronym is most important.

While you want to set audacious goals, you want to ensure that they are realistic as well. No one is served by setting a goal that is impossible to accomplish.

Failing to meet goals can be demoralizing for teams, so it’s important to be sober-eyed about what is possible. Additionally, the purpose of setting goals is to advance and grow, not depress morale.

For instance, my team would have been discouraged had I begun the year asking it to pitch and place 40 opinion essays if we didn’t already have a track record of placing close to two dozen essays.

By using the S.M.A.R.T. formula, we were able to achieve all that we set out to do.

5. Break the Goal up into Small Digestible Parts

I am a recovering perfectionist. As a writer, being a perfectionist can be counterproductive because I can fail to start if I don’t see a clear pathway to victory.

The same is true with goal-setting. That’s why I join Lifehack’s fellow contributor Deb Knobelman, Ph.D., in noting that it is critically important to break goals into bite-sized chunks.

When I had a goal of doing daylong media meetings in New York City, I had to think through all the barriers to achieving that goal and all the steps required to meet the goal.

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One step was identifying which reporters, producers and hosts to engage. Another step was writing a pitch or meeting invitation that would capture their attention. Another step was thinking through the program areas I wanted to highlight and the new angles I could offer to different reporters.

Since reporters want to cover stories that no one else has written, I needed to come up with fresh angles for each of the reporters I was engaging. An additional step was thinking through who from my team I’d take with me to the various meetings.

I was clear that, as a talking head, as public relations reps are sometimes called, I needed the right spokesperson in order to land repeated meetings with different outlets.

A final step was thinking through what I needed to bring to each meeting and which reports, videos and testimonials would buttress our claims and be of interest to media figures.

As I walked through what was needed to bring my goal of doing daylong meetings to reality, I realized that not only was the idea within reach, but I was excited to tackle the challenge.

From that point until now, I have learned to break down goals into smaller parts and tackle the smaller parts on the path to knocking the goal out of the park.

The Bottom Line

These are my recommendations for setting stretch goals, and there are a ton of other resources to support you in the workplace and in your community.

For instance, LinkedIn’s Lynda.com platform has a wonderful suite of leadership development videos, including ones on establishing stretch goals. This is a paid resource but may be worth the investment if you lead a team or want to invest in tools for your own growth and development.

Featured photo credit: Avatar of user Isaac Smith Isaac Smith @isaacmsmith Isaac Smith via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Harvard Business Review: The Stretch Goal Paradox

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