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5 tips on making habits stick

If you have read my blog post about resolutions, you know that I am not a fan. In other words, I think resolutions just leave people feeling frustrated and create self-loathing down the line. Who wants that? Exactly. On the other hand, I am a big fan of habits: of both forming new, good ones and removing bad ones from my life. I will get back to the definition of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but for now, let’s focus on habits in general: the things you do repeatedly and without even noticing (i.e. they don’t require any special effort or decision every time you do them).

I am fascinated by the fact that our subconscious runs our life 90% of the time. What this means in practice - and this was a big Aha! moment for me - is that when we are trying to change our behavior, we are doing it at the conscious level, and so we fail. Why is this good news? Because finally, we have a scientifically-backed reason for not beating ourselves up too much about our willpower or the lack of it.

Willpower is a muscle that you can train, for sure, but muscles can only take so much; they will eventually tire and give up. Willpower is similar, in the sense that you will most likely exhaust it just by staying on top of your day-to-day life (get up in the morning to start working, actually do the work, jump on the 8th zoom call, etc.). All the other nice-to-have things like not having an additional slice of cake, doing your workout, reading a book for 10mins, etc. are just hard for our willpower. When we are exhausting our willpower all day, every day, we just can’t handle one more should / shouldn’t and so we give in. This is the reality, so we might as well accept it and stop treating the idea of strengthening our willpower as THE answer.

So, that takes me back to habits. In my view, increasing the power of our good habits is the closest we can get to altering how our subconscious runs our life, without having to actually mess with the subconscious itself (if you wish to do so, you would ideally work with a therapist to change certain beliefs, thinking patterns, etc.).

One of the main reasons why we often don’t succeed with habits is because we overcomplicate the matter instead of facing the reality that we, human beings, are just simple creatures. If, after a long day, you put a glass of wine in front of me, I will drink it, no matter what fancy psychology I have learned and understood about cues and rewards. Even though I know that what I need is some form of a reward at the end of a tough day, I am not going to replace the glass of wine with a massage. Why? Because the wine is in front of me, and for the massage, I would have to make an appointment and re-arrange my logistics. It’s that simple.

I am not going into the theory of how habits work, as there are some great books written about the topic (The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg or Atomic Habits by James Clear would be my top recommendations). Instead, let me cut to the chase and share what makes habits stick and how you can set yourself up for success.

In order to create and maintain habits that serve you in the long-term, you need to ask yourself which habits (or the lack of) would help you the most to become the best version of yourself.

I am sure you have a few habits that you want to adopt, and a few that you want to remove from your life. Before you commit yourself to anything, I want you to ask yourself: ‘Why do I want to adopt this habit (or remove it)’? Most likely, you will have a reason such as ‘I want to get healthy / lose weight / get more done / feel better / have more time to do x / make xy happy / etc.’ These reasons, your ‘why’, are all focused on a goal or an outcome. The challenge is, when that outcome is far away, sometimes months or years away, what do you rely on to stay on track? Willpower?

The first thing you need to do before you start integrating habits into your life is to reframe your ‘why’ in a way so that it is not goal-driven but identity-driven. Envision the best version of you. What do you do day-to-day? What does your morning look like? What do you eat? How do you spend your time? Who do you surround yourself with? How do you spend your weekends? Etc. When you have a strong vision of your best self and you remind yourself of it (with daily journaling, meditation, visioning exercises, a bracelet that you wear, etc.), sticking to or staying away from certain behaviors becomes a lot easier.

When you have a clear vision of your best self in front of you, ask yourself: ‘What habits would help me become my best self? What habits would my best self value? What habits would my best self remove from their life?’ And that is also how you know what is a ‘good’ vs. a ‘bad’ habit. Good habits are the ones that help you become the best version of you, and bad ones are the habits that hold you back in that journey.

With that, let's look at what makes habits stick and become a part of your lifestyle.

We need to accept the reality that we, human beings, are just simple creatures who want the easy, resist the hard, and want immediate rewards. Therefore, we need to make good habits easy and bad ones difficult to stick to.

1. Set yourself up for success

A lot of it has to do with your environment, acknowledging that willpower is not something you can rely on. Remove the junk food from your house if you don’t want to eat any, leave the phone in another room and in airplane mode if you don’t want to scroll aimlessly at night, get your workout gear ready the night before to work out in the morning, etc. For example, I don’t have any of the foods I don’t want to eat on my shopping list. When I crave something and so I would need to go out and buy it, I become much less excited about it. Laziness can be a good thing, after all :)

2. Respect the 30/90 rule

I never understand when people try to change 3-4 habits all at once. This is what happens most often around New Year’s. Even though I like setting stretch goals, the aim is to adopt one habit and introduce the second one after about 30 days, when you do the first one with little to no effort. As they say, it takes 30 days for something to become a habit and 90 days for it to become part of your lifestyle. I often see how people overestimate what they can do in the short run, and claim victory on a new habit after a week, only to get off track during week 3. However boring it may sound, but consistency over the long-run wins when it comes to habits.

3. Aim for the smallest, unscrewable achievement

Again, the trick is consistency, not perfection. If you want to work out every morning, don’t set that crazy hiit training as the goal. Have a 10min stretch or jog as the goal instead, so that getting up on time, putting on workout clothes, and actually doing something for 10mins becomes second nature to you. Then progress from the 10mins and the mild activity you do. The key here is to find the smallest, simplest thing you can do that will keep you on track to adopt the ultimate habit you aspire to. Do you want to write for an hour every day? Can you start with 5mins? It is mindblowing how much we can underestimate and even look down on these small steps that will help us form good habits in the long-run.

4. Schedule, track and reflect on your habits weekly

Even if it feels silly initially, scheduling your days in a way that allows you to stick to your new habits is important. Don’t forget to use reminders; this can be as simple as strategically placed sticky notes, daily planner entries, or checklists. Tracking your habits daily can be a chore, but you probably won’t need to do it forever (thanks to the 30/90 rule). Weekly reflections are good for padding yourself on the back, and also for having a bit of a reality check to see if any of your habits are unrealistic to achieve. For example, maybe meditating for 15mins is too much to begin with, so you decide to do that for 3 mins only (in the spirit of point #3).

5. Reward yourself regularly

Finally, this one is key because, as you already know, we are simple creatures. We want immediate rewards. Even though you know that you are doing what you are doing in order to become the best version of yourself, you also know that it is a life-long journey. So in the meantime, you need rewards. And not just for sticking to your good habits and avoiding the bad ones, but also for getting back on track when you fall off track. Success isn’t about having a perfect score at the end of the week in your habit tracker. It is about the long-term game and that includes quickly getting back on track when life gets in the way and all good habits go out of the window. It happens to the best of us.

Habits can be transformational, but only if done right. It is tempting to ignore them and instead, go for the grandiose acts of resolutions or declarations that may promise big changes but, more often than not, disappoint. We love them because they are glamorous, exciting, and come with a sense of victory before we would even begin the work.

Habits, on the other hand, are quiet, small, and modest to the point of being boring. In the long-run though, having a good set of habits is what sets you up for success and helps you become the best version of yourself. Most often without you even noticing.

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