7 Steps to Develop Habits That Stick in 2019

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“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”

― Jim Ryun

It’s a new year and many of us kicked off on the 1st of January proclaiming ‘new year, new me’. However, with only 8% of people making annual actually sticking to them, it seems we may be approaching habit-building the wrong way [1]. The good news is: if you want to change your life, you simply have to change your habits. The bad news is, developing habits can be extremely challenging and recent studies reveal that it could take up to 254 days in order to make a habit [2]. That is, to repeat an action so repeatedly that it is done unconsciously. In this article, I present is a simple 7-step strategy to help you become a part of that superior 8%.

1. Focus on one or two habits at a time

In order to successfully develop new habits, we need to operate in ‘the learning zone’. There are three zones that humans operate in: the comfort zone, the panic zone and the learning zone [3]. The comfort zone is the one most of us are familiar with and it is the zone in which we demonstrate skills and abilities that we already have. No learning takes place here. The panic zone is characterized by a feeling of discomfort and is usually abound when we set up a task that is far beyond our immediate reach. No progress takes place here. The learning zone is the sweet spot in between where there is a balance of comfort and discomfort such that the brain is comfortable enough to acclimatize and yet is challenged enough to focus intently. Know thyself. Figure out what scope of habit(s) places you in the learning zone.

2. Identify your debilitating belief system

Recurring patterns of behaviour stem from entrenched belief systems that permeate our lives in almost every imaginable way. Throughout our lives our minds have made strong pain and pleasure associations that dictate the way we navigate our lives. These pain and pleasure associates constitute our belief systems and are enforced by our subconscious mind. In order to identify what debilitating belief systems may have prevented habits from sticking in the past, the following approach may be used [4]. The approach is demonstrated using the example of excessive drinking to deal with social anxiety:

  • Identify your emotional triggers. What are the events or incidents that lead you to feel the most angry, hurt and afraid? e.g. I feel most uncomfortable when I am out in public places and don’t have anyone to speak to.
  • Trace the emotional process. How do the triggers identified above lead to negative emotion. e.g. When I am out and I have nobody to speak to, I feel as though I am uninteresting and start to pay attention to how much more exciting my friends are than I am. This leads me to feel very insecure.
  • Identify sources of the belief system. What events happened in your past that have led you to carry this strong negative association? Was it how you were treated by friends or family? e.g. When I was in high school, people in my class laughed at me for talking to myself. Being young and unsure of myself, this led me to feel like I was an outcast when all I wanted to do was fit in.
  • Examine your body for physical responses. Most often when we relive the moments that triggered intense negative emotions, it brings about a physical reaction in the body. We may experience a tingling sensation or an elevated heart rate. If these signs occur, you have successfully identified your debilitating belief process. e.g. When I remember the day the my entire class laughed at me, I feel blocked up in my chest and short of breath just as though I am back in eleventh grade.

Okay now that you’ve established what some of your limiting belief systems are; it’s time to write them down! One of the most effective ways to do this is expressed in Tony Robbins’ book, ‘Awaken the Giant Within’. Get out a pen and piece of paper (we’ll be doing this a lot on this blog) and write down your beliefs. Use a combination of ‘if-then’ beliefs and global beliefs. An example if-then belief is: ‘if I spoil people with lavish gifts, they will like me more’. An example global belief is: ‘I will never get a high-earning job because I never went to university and have no tertiary qualification’. Take 5 minutes to write down all the beliefs that hold you back relating to the habit you want to change. This is a fantastic exercise to do for your belief systems in general so if you have more time, don’t stop there.

3. Actively change your relevant underlying belief system

Now that you have actively identified your disempowering belief system, it is time to flip them on their head and create empowering beliefs. Imagine the best possible outcomes if you manage to build or break the habit of interest and write down a list of beliefs using a combination of ‘if-then’ and global beliefs. An example ‘if-then’ belief could be: ‘if I manage my expenditure throughout the year then I can treat myself to a trip overseas for Christmas’ a global belief could be, ‘because I did not go to university, my mind is open to creative ways of thinking which opens up a plethora of possibilities.’

4. Plan for your habits (timing, obstacles)

“Every minute you spend in planning saves 10 minutes in execution; this gives you a 1,000 percent Return on Energy!” ― Brian Tracy

The things that get scheduled are the things that get done! Planning for your habits requires taking an honest look at the way you spend your day as well as an understanding of what your circadian rhythm is. Your circadian rhythm is the 24-hour internal clock that is in the background of your brain and alternates between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals [6]. Generally we are sleepiest just after lunchtime and between 2.00am and 4.00am. This varies slightly from person-to-person so figure out what the hours are in which you feel the most energised and allocate your most challenging activities to that time. If you want to develop a habit of running daily, you may decide to do this within your first hour of waking up when you have the highest energy levels. Again; know thyself. Aim to carry out your habits at the same time everyday. This will embed a routine and remove decision fatigue regarding when to do an activity. If you’re not sure when the best time is to practise your habit, start with a ‘plan-do-check-act’ cycle [7]. Develop some possible strategies, test them out for a few days and embrace the strategy to works best for you. When it comes to planning habits, it is important to build habits incrementally. As we discussed in Step 1, learning takes place when there is a balance of challenge and comfort. If you wake up at 8.30am everyday, you most likely will not be able to start waking up at 5.00am immediately. Start by setting your alarm 15 minutes earlier each day. The habit is much more likely to stick this way.

5. Monitor your habits

The things that get measured are the things that improve. Now that you have established when to carry out your habitual activities, the next step is to track them. Using a simple calendar that you’ve printed out and pasted on the wall (trust me there is a big difference between keeping a digital calendar versus a physical one when it comes to these things), mark an ‘X’ on the days that you achieved the practised the habit. Now, we’re human, we all make mistakes so be compassionate with yourself when you slip up. However, it is useful to create powerful pleasure and pain associations related to carrying out and missing a habit, respectively, so that you are inclined to stick with it. For example, if you know that you will feel low on self-confidence and energy if you do not work out at least three times a week, enforce a strong negative mental association with the act of missing a workout day during the week. On the other hand, create powerful sensations and imagery related how you feel when you exercise- you feel strong and sexy and you know you will live a longer and healthier life if you keep up with your exercise schedule. Track your habits, have self-compassion and never let yourself skip more than a day.

6. Reward yourself for big (and small) achievements

Humans are complex but we are also essentially animalistic. The same way a dog can be trained by using treats, we can entrench behaviours by offering a reward after reaching milestones on the way to developing habits. Take out a pen and paper (that’s a trick request, you should already have them in front of you) and write down some small, medium and big rewards that you could give yourself for work well-done. They don’t have to be expensive, involve other people or require a huge amount of effort to see through. Rewards can be anything from watching an episode or two on Netflix to taking a drive around the town to visiting an old friend. Plan for your rewards as part of the overall habit planning phase in Step 4. The trick is to be generous but not to award a prize too frequently or indulgently such that they shift focus from your overall productivity and negate the effect of embedding the habit.

7. Create a new identity

If you really want your habits to stick; you will have to shift from doing to being. That is, the habit needs to become a part of your core identity [8]. Only at the point that it is part of who you are will you no longer need to reinforce the action. James Clear refers to Identity-Based Habits which involves developing habits that make you a unique person [9]. Most goals are focused on a specific outcome such as achieving an award however if habits are embedded as part of your identity, every small win contributes to reinforcing the person you really are. This requires a shift in mindset and a healthy dose of positive self-talk. Tell yourself that you are the type of person who thoroughly enjoys exercise, then embody this quality by exercising three times a week.

With the new year upon us, there is ample reason to craft an amazing life by developing good habits. Quantum leaps can be achieved by working incrementally and consistently. The best time to start was 10 years ago; the second best time is now.

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