The Art of Creating New Habits that Stick

Creating new habits is a struggle for almost every person on the planet. Have you ever met anyone who said, “I wanted to do this…and so I did. Boom! I’m perfect.”? No? Neither have I.

If you are this unicorn, I’d love to meet you!

For the rest of us, habit building is a constant cycle of start, joy, frustration, stopping, and restarting. Even if the new habit is small, like a skincare routine. Why?!

Well, because you’re rewiring your brain, that’s why! If changing or creating new habits was easy, we’d all be perfectly fit, kind, organized, productive, skilled, fabulous people.

However, there are two main reasons we fail on the path of creating or changing habits:

  1. We’re aiming too big/broad.
  2. We’re focusing on the end characteristic – not the behavior.

Let’s explore this a little more.

Aiming Too Big/Broad

To explain this, I’m going to go for the most obvious and relatable failed habit in history – getting fit. When we seek to get fit, we go all in, whether declaring to get to the gym five days a week or cut out all sugars and white foods. Maybe we join a fitness challenge or nutrition program. We buy new fitness clothes and shoes. Set alarms. Shop at an organic grocer to get all the healthiest food we can get our hands on. We’re all in. This is our time.

Then we do well for a week…maybe two. But then something happens. We fizzle out. We lose our motivation. We’re suddenly hitting snooze and spending our days elbows deep in a bag of Doritos. (No? Just me?)

What has happened is we attempted an aggressive overhaul. We’ve seen this happen in other areas of our lives – like at work – and we immediately react defensively. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. What is going on? Too much!” This is exactly how your brain and body are reacting to your attempts at new habits.

Focusing on the End Characteristic

When making changes, we often make overarching declarations of who we want to be.

I want to be more…

  • fit
  • organized
  • productive
  • kind
  • outgoing
  • social
  • reliable

… etc, etc. The problem is you can’t solve for a characteristic, and if you try to, you end up with a laundry list of changes to make that leads to the above mentioned aggressive overhaul and burn out. A person isn’t fit because they have declared it so. They are fit because they have built numerous habits over time that have led them to own the characteristic of “fit.”

So, how do we build new habits that stick?

To build habits that actually stick, we need to focus and get micro. We need to avoid big, overwhelming declarations and overhauls and instead hone in on the behaviors that would result in real change. Additionally, we need to focus on only one or two at a time until they stick before taking on more.

For example, in college, my roommate and I were both late for class – a lot. We would wake up with plenty of time to get ready, eat breakfast, and get across campus, but somehow we were always running behind. How?! Why?!

Well, in all our preparedness, we’d always forget something – our cellphone, keys, or wallet – and would be rushing back to the room (or the RA) ultimately late to wherever we needed to be. We tried a number of methods for remembering our belongings – putting them in the same spot every day, putting everything on a lanyard together, etc. After a little reflection, we realized what we weren’t doing was pausing to check before we headed out the door that we had our three key items. So we hung a sign on the door, right above the handle. A plain piece of computer paper that read, “Cell phone, keys, wallet.” Every day, as we reached for the door handle to leave, we’d see this note and it would trigger us to pause. Do I have my cell phone, keys, and wallet?

Sure enough, from day one, we never forgot our essentials again. We found an effective way to change our behavior so we could be on time. We sought to embody a new characteristics (being on time) by tackling a hindering behavior (forgetting our essentials). To this day, not only do I repeat “cell phone, keys, wallet” to myself as I’m walking out the door, I say it to my husband. The habit hasn’t left or failed me yet.

So, as you’re looking to build new habits, dig in to evaluate the micro behavior that will get you to the person you want to be. Here’s a few examples to get your brain started in the right direction.

Characteristic: I want to be more organized.

Problem Behaviors: I am disorganized because…

  • I allow mail to pile up.
  • I forget where I write things down.
  • I constantly miss due dates.

Possible Behavior Changes:

  • To prevent mail from piling up, I will implement the one-touch rule – discarding and handling mail right when I bring it into the house.
  • To ensure I can find what I need, I will write down all notes (of any kind) in one notebook.
  • To meet deadlines, I will immediately mark the due date in my calendar with a pop-up reminder two days before.

You will notice that none of the behavior changes include characteristic language or complicated behaviors. I could say ” I will write down all notes in one notebook, organized by tabs and color coded by need” but that’s overcomplicating the solution. What I need is all my notes in one place. One day, I may want to get fancier, but let’s solve the issue first.

Start small. Keep it simple. Focus on behavior.

If you take anything away from this post, I want you to remember that action leads to being.

Using this method you will master small behaviors that lead you to being the person you want to be. And therefore, you will master the art of creating new habits.

May the force be with you!

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