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How to Create Habits That Stick

Recently one of my readers asked me how she could create habits that stick.

I’m sure we’ve all been there. We commit to a new exercise plan, a new diet, a daily meditation routine. Things go great for the first week or two.

But somewhere along the way, we suffer a setback.

We accidentally sleep in and don’t have time to exercise. There’s a birthday celebration at work and we eat a piece of cake, breaking our diet. There’s construction going on down the street and it’s too loud to meditate.

The next thing you know, we’ve lost all the momentum we created in the first few weeks. And from there, we start to make excuses.

“I’ve already screwed up my diet so I might as well keep screwing it up”. “I guess meditation just isn’t for me.” “I really don’t like exercising anyway, so what’s the point?”

And from there we completely give up. We give up on building the new habit that we committed to just a few weeks ago.

Sound familiar? Let’s face it….making changes and creating new habits is hard!

So how do you go about creating habits that stick? How do you create change that will actually last?

Below are five ideas that you can use when you’re ready to integrate a new habit into your life.

Get Clear on Why You Want to Make a Change

Often the new habit that we’re trying to create isn’t our actual goal. Because of that, we don’t feel 100% committed to making a change.

Until we tap into our underlying motivation, we will likely struggle when the going gets tough.

Let’s say, for example, that you want to create a new exercise habit. Exercising, however, is just a means to an end. Our actual goal, our true desire is something else entirely.

So how do we get clear on why we want to create a new habit?

Keep asking ourselves “why” until we can’t go any further!

Here’s an example of how to do this. Again, let’s say your goal is to exercise regularly.

Goal: Exercise regularly

Q: Why do you want to exercise regularly?

A: To lose weight

Q: Why do you want to lose weight?

A: I want my partner to find me attractive.

Q: Why do I want my partner to find me attractive?

A: They might leave me if they don’t find me attractive.

Keep going until you can’t go any deeper.

At this point, you can do one of two things.

The first option is to change your goal so that it better reflects your underlying need. In the example above, you new goal may be a relationship oriented goal, rather than an exercise goal.

The second option is to connect your underlying motivation with the new habit that you’re trying to create.

For example, you could create a vision board that links exercising with your relationship. You can then refer back to the vision board when you’re struggling with your exercise habit, remembering what your underlying motivation is.

Make Goals As Concrete As Possible

If you set a goal such as “I want to exercise more”, then I guarantee that your new habit won’t stick. The problem with a goal like “I want to exercise more” is that it’s far too vague.

When it comes time to exercise, you’ll have no idea what to do. Which means it’s very easy to come up with excuses not to follow through.

Anyone wh0’s ever been coached by me know that I make them commit to very specific actions. The reason I do that is that I know clients are more likely to follow-through if their commitments are specific.

Getting specific also eliminates any gray area regarding what action(s) to take.

Here’s an example from my own life. I recently to create a morning exercise habit that also included my dog Brandy.

When: Every day of the week

What Time: In the morning, when Brandy finishes her breakfast (normally 7-7:30)

How Long: 30-40 minutes

Activity: Walking from apartment to Palantino Mall and back

Do you see how getting specific makes it easy to follow through? I know when to walk, where to walk, how long to walk for, etc. There’s absolutely no doubt or confusion about what action for me to take.

Set Yourself Up for Success

We often assume that whether or not we succeed is 100% under our control. But the truth is that out environment can play a large role in whether or not our habits stick.

The great thing is that we can take action to modify our environments and set ourselves up for success!

There are basically two ways to do this. One is to eliminate potential distractions. The other is to add in positive facilitators.

Here’s an example of eliminating a potential distraction.

Let’s say that you want to write on a daily basis but you find yourself distracted by text messages from friends.

Just shut down your cellphone during the time you want to write and put it in a hard to reach place so you won’t be tempted to pull it out and restart it.

On the other end of the spectrum, you can add in a positive facilitator for a new exercise habit by setting your exercise clothes out the night before.

That way, you’re all ready to go in the morning and don’t have the excuse of “I didn’t have time to look for my exercise clothes.”

Start Small and Build From There

As I talked about in my recent post on creating a meditation practice, we’re often best off starting small and then building from there.

For example, instead of trying to eliminate all the unhealthy food from your diet all at once, eliminate one item a week.

Similarly, if you want to start a daily writing habit, don’t commit to writing for one hour every day of the week. Commit to five minutes a day and slowly increase the amount of time you write until you’re writing one hour a day.

Inoculate Yourself Against Potential Setbacks

No matter what habit you’re trying to build into your life, setbacks are bound to occur. These are the moments that will truly test your commit to your habit.

One powerful technique you can use to ensure that setbacks don’t derail you completely is to “inoculate yourself” against them.

What you do is this: before trying to build a new habit, brainstorm all the different things that could do wrong. Then, for each item on your list, figure out how you’ll handle that potential issue before it even arises.

For example, let’s say that you’re trying to eliminate alcohol from your life. But you’re afraid that you’ll be out with friends, they’ll pressure you to have a drink, and you’ll give in.

In this situation, you may want to practice exactly how you’ll respond to pressure from your friends should it arise.

Or perhaps you decide that you’ll only go out with your friends to places that doesn’t serve alcohol.

Or you could arrange for a friend to go with you to lend support to your decision not to drink.

As part of this, you should also be prepared for how you’ll treat yourself when you do suffer a setback.

If you truly want to build a habit that sticks, then the only way to treat yourself is with kindness and compassion.

You can do this by telling yourself that your setback was only a setback, not a complete failure, and that you’re a human being and entitled to make a mistake (or thousand!) along your journey.

Summary

The next time you’re interested in starting a new habit, I suggest you incorporate one or more of the above techniques. Chances are, you’ll find that your new habit sticks a lot better and for a longer time.

There are, of course, lots of others ways to build habits that stick and become a regular part of our lives. What techniques have you personally found the most helpful?


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