Building new habits is one of the most challenging and most rewarding processes we’ll experience in our lives. The tips below are specifically about starting new (and hopefully healthy) habits, but you can also adapt them to support you in breaking existing unhealthy habits.
1. Find your motivation
Habits are far more likely to succeed if they are based on intrinsic motivation, rather than extrinsic motivation. Entire books have been written about this complex topic so, in a nutshell, the difference between the two is that intrinsic motivation is internal, while extrinsic motivation is external. For example, perhaps you want to create a new exercise habit. An intrinsic motivation for doing this might be wanting to be healthy (an internal motivation that just concerns yourself). An extrinsic motivation might be wanting to lose weight so that other people will perceive you as more attractive (an external motivation that is based on the perceptions and judgments of others).
To give yourself the best chance of creating a sustainable habit, take a good, long look at your motives before you even start working on this new activity. You might find that your motivation is intrinsic to begin with (great!), that you need to shift your thinking slightly, or notice that this particular habit is something you’re doing for someone else, rather than for yourself.
Even if you realise that you’re engaging in this particular habit for someone else, that doesn’t mean you have to ditch the habit entirely, it just means that you need to think more about whether you have a personal, intrinsic motivation you can use to sustain the habit in the long term.
2. Start small
The easiest way to sabotage a new habit is by taking the ‘all or nothing’ approach and going from 0 to 100 in the first few days. Starting small and increasing the frequency and intensity of the habit will make it far easier to sustain in the long-term than leaping right in. This is especially the case if you are starting something like a new exercise habit, where throwing yourself into a rigorous training regime before your body and mind are ready could result in injury and set you back more than it helps you.
Setting the bar low also reduces the likelihood that you’ll get discouraged and drop your habit because it’s ‘too challenging’ or because you’re not making the progress you’d hoped you would. Which leads onto the next tip…
3. Be compassionate, not critical
If you only pay attention to one tip in the entire post, this is it: Internal criticism is the kryptonite of building new habits and you’ll find it much easier to create a sustainable habit if you’re on your own side. That doesn’t necessarily mean getting rid of the inner critic (in my experience, that’s not a realistic goal), but being mindful of it.
When we’re mindful of our inner critics, we hear what they say but we’re not controlled by what they say. Maintaining this distance can take some practise (and you might find yourself with ample opportunity to do just that while building your new habit!). At the same time as maintaining distance from your inner critic, take the opportunity to strengthen your internal ‘nurturing’ voice—the voice that tells you your best is enough and supports and encourages you on your journey.
4. Enlist support
Feel free to ask trusted friends and family for any help and support they can give you while you’re building your new habit. External support is especially helpful when you’re building habits that require lifestyle changes, such as changing your diet or your exercise habits. If you are around other people who have a similar lifestyle to you, asking them to support you in making your lifestyle habit changes by, for example, not bringing sugary foods into the house, will make it easier for you to maintain a new habit.
5. Be accountable
Declaring your new habit to others is a great way of getting support from people around you, and it’s a great way of adding a healthy dose of accountability to your situation too. Being accountable might involve enlisting the help of a dedicated accountability buddy that you check in with on a regular basis, or going public with your new habit to your wider circles of friends.
6. Set a regular schedule
Making your new habit a regular part of your daily or weekly routine from the very beginning will give you a much greater chance of sustaining it over a longer period of time. Dedicating a specific block of time to your habit on the same day and hour each week will make it easier to integrate that habit into your life than just waiting until you feel like doing it.
In addition, some habits are easier to implement first thing in the morning, particularly activities like exercise, meditation or keeping a journal. Setting aside time for a new habit first thing in the morning not only makes it easier to remember but it also gives you the satisfaction of moving on with your day, knowing that that particular activity is ticked off your to-do list.
7. Have a goal in mind
Having a specific goal to work towards can help maintain your new habit and give you a challenge to work towards. If you choose to create a habit-related goal, make sure it is SMART: specific, measurable, appealing, realistic and time-based. For example, ‘start running more’ is a goal, but it’s hard to know when you’ve achieved it and what ‘more’ looks like in practical terms. Instead, setting a goal like “Run that charity 10K in September” is a SMART goal and therefore easier to work towards. It’s specific, measurable, hopefully appealing and realistic, and it’s time-based.
What are your tips for creating new habits? Leave a comment and let us know.