Remember back when you wanted to start that exercise program?
Maybe you wanted to learn Italian, or start eating more vegetables, or write a book.
You were so excited and determined when you began. “This time, I’m going to do it. This time I’m sticking to my guns, and I won’t quit no matter what.”
Day one: you’re totally gung ho and ready to take on the world.
Day two: still feeling great and announcing your success to everyone.
Day three: not so excited but still determined.
Day four (or seven, or ten): you don’t have time to do it today — but tomorrow for sure.
Tomorrow: Why did I start this habit? I just don’t have the time to do this anymore.
Yep, everyone does it. We start with a bang and end with a whimper.
We have great intentions to develop a new, positive habit. We know we want it. We know it’s good for us. We know we’re smart enough to make it happen. But somewhere between “Yes I can!” and “I’m quitting,” something breaks down.
Why We Don’t Stick With New Habits
Is it a lack of self-discipline? Is it a personal flaw? Is it really any of the excuses we come up with to stop doing what we really, truly want to accomplish?
No. It’s none of these. It’s simply a lack of knowledge about what it takes to create new habits that stick.
Creating new habits is more than just “willpowering” your way through it. You actually have to change your brain chemistry.
No, it doesn’t involve taking mind-altering drugs, but it does involve altering your mind. You see every habit you’ve ever formed in your life has created solid neural pathways in your brain.
Your Brain on Habits
Neural pathways are like highways of nerve cells that transmit messages. The more you travel the highway, the more it becomes your automatic route.
Many habits you formed early in life and can’t even remember how you launched them. For example, when did you first start brushing your teeth? More than likely, your parents started that habit for you.
They brushed them every morning and evening when you were a toddler, and then one day they handed the brush to you and stood over you while you brushed. And they did that until the habit was formed, and you were old enough to take the reins and do it by yourself.
The toothbrushing habit is old and solid. You probably brush without even thinking about it. This is why habits, good or bad, are so hard to break — the mental highway for the habit is the only route to take, or so it appears.
But you can break old habits or create new ones by forging new paths in your brain. It’s not as easy as following existing paths, but it can be done if you have the skills.
Think about taking a hike in the woods on a trail that’s already been forged. The walk is easy and straightforward because the path is clear. But if you hike in the woods with no path, you have to create one from scratch, and that’s a lot harder. You’re conscious of every step, every new turn, and every obstacle. You can’t plow through the woods full steam ahead, or you’ll lose your way, trip over branches, and lose energy.
So what do you do? You plan ahead, you gather the right tools, you start slow, and you inch your way forward. That’s exactly what you do when you create new habits.
If you seriously want to create new habits that are indestructible, here’s the simple method.
How To Create (And Stick To!) Habits
Step 1: Plan ahead
One of the most common mistakes people make with habit creation is jumping in too quickly without any preparation.
Let’s say you want to start running. The temptation is to start out on day one running full steam ahead for thirty minutes straight. You end up sore and tired, and want to quit.
If you spend several days or a week planning out your strategy and the steps outlined below, you increase your odds of success exponentially.
Step 2: Start small
I’m talking really, really small. For the first week, practice your habit for no more than five minutes a day.
Seem ridiculous? It’s not. In fact, this five-minute rule is crucial to your success. The purpose is to simply establish the routine with something so easy and fast you have no excuses or reason to quit. You can do anything for five minutes.
If you’re habit is running, this means putting on your running clothes and shoes (two minutes), and running for three minutes. Then you slowly increase your time every week.
Step 3: Create a trigger
A trigger is a previously established habit that’s rock solid (like brushing your teeth) that you attach to your new habit. Your trigger reminds you it’s time to perform the habit.
So if you’re trigger is getting dressed, and your habit is meditating, you’d meditate immediately after you get dressed. This helps reinforce the new habit in your brain, which begins to “view” the new habit as part of an old one.
Step 4: Establish a reward
A reward is yet another way to solidify your new habit. As soon as you complete your habit work, give yourself something you really enjoy. It could be a few minutes of reading, a piece of chocolate, or even putting a gold star on your calendar.
If it’s something you already crave (your morning coffee, for example), all the better. Just be sure the reward is positive and healthy — not something you want to quit eventually (like smoking a cigarette).
Step 5: Create accountability
The urge to quit is always lessened when we know someone else is paying attention to our actions. Tell people about your habit plans and report to them daily about your success or failure to follow through.
You can do this through social media, a blog, a forum related to your habit, or simply emailing a group of friends.
Accountability is essential for your success, as it provides a “no excuses” insurance policy against quitting.
Step 6: Remain flexible
You will encounter disruptions and setbacks with your habit routine, so expect them and plan ahead for them. What will you do if you travel, get sick, or need to move your habit to another time?
Having a plan for these situations will make it easier to stay on track. If you have to miss a day of your habit work, just begin again the next day. If you miss several days, go back to the five-minute timeframe to reestablish the routine.
Be patient with yourself, and don’t use setbacks as a reason to quit altogether.
If you follow this formula of planning ahead, starting small, and creating a trigger, reward, and accountability, you will form a new habit in six to eight weeks (sometimes longer for more difficult habits). You can use this method to create as many habits as you wish, for as long as you wish. In fact, as your new habits get more solid over time, you can use them as triggers for other new habits. Learning these skills gives you the power to change your entire life, one small habit at a time.
Barrie Davenport is a personal coach, author of several self-improvement books, and founder of the top-ranked sites Live Bold and Bloom and BarrieDavenport.com. She is also the creator of Sticky Habits Course, teaching the simple formula for sustainable habits.
Photo by HASLOO