Creating New Habits

Creating New Habits

“Successful people are simply those with successful habits.”
– Brian Tracy.

Reaching a goal often means creating new habits. Once you’ve got a clear goal that you’re passionate about, you can break that into small steps that are more approachable. It’s often the system that you apply to accomplishing a goal that defines how successful you will be. Building progress into your daily life as a habit can drive you toward your goal and beyond.

Start Your Habit with a Goal in Mind

When you’re ready to start creating new habits there are a few steps you can take to increase your chance of success. First write down your end goal and be as specific as possible. Instead of general goals like “Floss my teeth”, “Workout more often”, or “Read more books” find a specific target that seems reasonable like “Floss my teeth every night”, “Run a 7 minute mile by July”, or “Read 8 books by the end of the year”.

You can set aggressive goals, but it’s a good idea to make sure they are possible. For workout goals you might check where you’re at and compare it to fitness levels for your age range; for other goals try breaking it down to see what you’d need to do each month/week/day to reach the goal and if it is reasonable.

Begin Your New Habit with a Small Change

Next, find a small win that you can start with on the path to reaching your goal. This is just a starting place that should require very little effort. For example, don’t try to start working out by heading to the gym every day; instead try doing 5 pushups somewhere convenient. You’ve just eliminated a whole bunch of unnecessary barriers (gym membership, travel time, etc) that might stop you from reaching your goal. Some other examples of starting places: “Read for 10 minutes before bed”, “Floss 1 tooth”, “Eat 1 vegetable”, “Get up 10 minutes earlier”.

You’ll want to decide the what, when, where, and how’s of starting work on your habit ahead of time. That way you can dive right into it without any distractions. According to this article in the NY Times, willpower is like a muscle that you need to build. It slowly depletes throughout your day, and when it is weak you’ll tend to compromise more often. As you develop this habit, it’ll take less willpower. For this reason you’ll only want to try and build one habit at a time. You might even consider removing some decisions you currently make and replacing them with a system. These might include what you eat, scheduling your day, or what you wear. For example President Obama always wears blue and gray suits to eliminate an unimportant decision from his busy day (Steve Jobs did the same thing with his famous jeans and black turtleneck).

Visualize to Strengthen Your Goal

“Brains are in the business of gathering information and steering behavior appropriately. It doesn’t matter whether consciousness is involved in the decision making. And most of the time, it’s not.”
– David Eagleman, Neuroscientist

Once you’ve got your goal and your starting place for your habit, you can try some helpful visualization exercises. Visualization will give you insights into how to reach your goal and how you will benefit from achieving it. Having a picture of success will help you stick to it when you inevitably find difficulties or temptations. Start by imagining yourself achieving your goal, just like watching a movie. What do you see? How do you feel? How is your life better?

A UCLA study found participants were more successful when they visualized the whole process of reaching a goal, taking each small step on the path to success. Building a habit is a journey, and you want to visualize this as a process of growth. Many top-performing athletes like Wayne Gretzky, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods used visualization as part of their training. Focusing on success trains your brain and helps make that image come true.

Use a Trigger

Habits are initiated by something triggering them. Most people have routines they do everyday without thinking. An alarm clock is often a trigger for people to start their daily routine which usually consists of a series of items that trigger each other. If you commute the same route to work every day and find yourself taking that route for another reason, visual cues might trigger you to head off your intended path and toward work instead without realizing it. According to researchers at Duke, 45% of everyday behaviors are repeated tasks set in the same location. You can use these location triggers to help establish your new habit. (Note that these triggers are equally important to remove or disrupt when trying to change a bad habit.)

Try finding something that is consistent in your current patterns to leverage for the new ones you’re trying to create. For example, Ramit Sethi was trying to build a habit of working out and found that setting out his workout clothes at night, so they were right there when he jumped out of bed in the morning, helped him get right into his new habit. You could try adding something in your environment like he did, setting an alert on your phone, or placing your habit in the sequence of your current routine (e.g. when your alarm goes off, now you make your bed before continuing on with your routine).

Build a Routine

Success is a few simple disciplines, practiced every day; while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated every day.
– Jim Rohn

Now that you’ve started your habit, you’ll want to slowly build on it. Set a specific timeframe to stick to this new habit. For example, think of it as a 30 day experiment to get started and then see how you’re doing. There is a common misconception that it takes 21 days to create a habit, but the time varies greatly depending on the person and the habit. Research by Phillippa Lally showed that creating new habits took people anywhere from 18 to 254 days. Remember your visualization of success to stay motivated.

Only try to make small improvements upon your initial simple habit (e.g. increase your number of pushups by 1 every day). Even if you only make a 1% improvement each day, it has a compounding effect, which will end up being outstanding over time. These small wins will help improve your willpower and reenforce the habit. Start thinking of yourself as a person who already has this habit (e.g. “I am a healthy person” “I am an athlete” “I am successful in business”).

Deal with Failure

Fear of failure and past failures can prevent you from creating new habits. This is why it’s important to start simple and take small steps. Researchers at University College in London found that missing your habit one time doesn’t affect the habit formation process, so don’t let it throw you off. Realize that top performers also make mistakes and get off track; they just adjust for the current reality and don’t give up.

A better way to think about it is to plan for potential failures and decide how you will overcome them. Tim Ferriss uses a “cheat day” in his diet plan where he can eat absolutely anything he wants for one day each week. This helps prevent slipping during the rest of the week because you know in only a couple more days, you can eat anything. If you’re struggling, look for a way you can make your habit easier. What things are making you feel like giving up? Can you eliminate them or work around them? It’s important to keep a growth mindset; it isn’t about being perfect, it’s about continuous improvement.

Celebrating Success in Creating New Habits

As you’re building your habit, consider rewarding yourself afterwards. It’ll give you something to look forward to and help the process. A reward might be a smoothie after a workout, a cheat day on a diet (like mentioned above), or using some of the money you’ve saved for something fun.

Once you’ve established your new habit it should start to feel automatic, but don’t take it for granted. Take a look back at where you started and reflect on how far you’ve come. Use that momentum when you’re considering taking on your next habit.

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