Everybody wants good habits but they seem to allude us.
Around 40% of your daily behaviours are completed out of habit according to research at Duke University. As Aristotle poignantly stated, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit”. It makes sense to build good habits that set you up for excellence.
Here are 10 tips to help you build a good habit that sticks:
1) Use science
If you know what causes a habit, you can use this knowledge to build a good habit.
A habit is made up of three parts, the trigger, the routine and the reward. For a simple example of a habit consider breakfast. The trigger is the time of day, the routine is filling the bowl with cereal, pouring milk on it and eating it. The reward is that you feel fuller and energized. This routine is completed on auto-pilot, there isn’t much thought if any.
To build a good habit, you need consistent repetition. If you perform the routine at the same time every day, there is far more chance of the habit sticking. This leads me to the next tip;
2) Habit stack
Habit stacking is leveraging an existing habit. A new habit has a far greater chance of sticking if added to an existing routine as this negates the need to “remember” to complete the task at random times.
Once you have identified an existing habit (such as brushing your teeth) use it as a trigger to complete a new routine by attaching a reminder to it (visual reminders like sticky notes are simple and effective.)
3) Make it tiny
Make the routine so small that you can’t justify not doing it. By making the routine so incredibly easy, you increase your chance of consistently following through and actually building a habit. Put too much on your plate and you’ll feel overwhelmed.
Often the hardest part of any task is just starting. Tiny routines are less intimidating which in turn makes you more likely to start. If you want to make a habit of reading, set a minimum target of just one page a day. Invariably you will do more than one page but on those days that you are tired or busy, you can still fit in just one page.
4) Use Accountability
This is perhaps the secret weapon for building a good habit. Accountability is a ubiquitous part of life. Deadlines help us get work done, grades make us study and penalties make you pay your bills on time. Accountability is effective.
There are two forms of accountability, public and private accountability. Public accountability can be achieved by telling your family, friends or co-workers, using social media or even blogging about your intentions and progress.
Private accountability can be just as effective and this is mainly achieved through technology. There are accountability apps (Habit reCode), coaching apps and websites that enable you to have a kind of anonymous but tracked accountability. Wearable devices can be linked to websites to enhance compliance.
It’s important to celebrate wins as they encourage us to repeat or continue the behaviour. It is equally important to discourage poor performance as this discourages an unwanted behaviour.
Positive and negative rewards must be proportional to the effort excreted and it is a good idea to identify daily incentives as we respond to immediate consequences more than long term potentials.
These daily rewards can comprise of your existing behaviours. For example, that daily caramel macchiato can be a reward for completing your tiny step. Consequently, failure to complete the small step means no caramel macchiato today.
If you want to beef up your chance of following through, put money on it. Studies have shown that we are 2-3 times more likely to follow through if we put a financial wager on the outcome. It’s called loss aversion and it’s a powerful psychological motivator. Make sure that you have accountability as well for this to be effective.
This may sound like a strange tip for building good habits but studies have shown that mental practice affects the brain as much as performing the physical action.
Visualize yourself completing the process of what needs to be done to achieve the goal as you will be far more likely to stay consistent with the behaviour.
Add visualization to your morning routine as this is an easy way to set the tone of your day for success and achievement.
7) Don’t throw in the towel at a single slip up
There will be the odd slip-up, accept this and don’t beat yourself up when it happens.
Think of it this way, if you drop your phone and crack the screen, you don’t decide that the phone is a right-off and stomp on it out of frustration. You just keep using that phone until you can fix it or replace it… being more careful along the way. You might even buy a protective case which leads me to tip 8;
8) Have contingency plans
Contingency planning if often referred to as ‘if-then’ planning. There will be times when your day does not support your new objective. Last minute meetings, overtime, special events etc can catch you off guard. Failure to plan for these moments could result in an undesirable routine.
Deciding in advance when and where you will take specific actions to reach your goal can double or triple your chances for success. Identify potential problems and nominate a specific course of action.
It is also a good idea to plan for low willpower. Willpower is often lowest in the afternoon. This can be managed by conserving willpower earlier in the day (Steve Jobs did this by wearing the same shirt every day) and eating a low GI snack to boost blood sugar in the early afternoon.
9) Change your surroundings to support the objective
Many of our routines are triggered by our surroundings. Alcoholics and addicts have long been advised to avoid things that trigger their cravings. Same goes for building new habits. If you want to exercise more, having the treadmill in the basement is not going to encourage you to do the activity. If you want to be successful, you need to surround yourself with successful people.
Aside from the influence of your surrounds, a changed environment will remove familiar triggers and take you off auto-pilot.
10) Be patient
It is important to note that the old “21 days to build a habit” is a myth. Research has shown that it takes more like 66 days but this is entirely dependent on the person, environment, behaviour etc.
If you consistently repeat the same small behaviour, it will become a habit. Once the habit has taken hold, you can build on it. A slow rate of improvement is best. Try the 1% rule; whatever you are trying to achieve, do just 1% more than your last effort.