How to make your new habits stick

It is not what you know, it’s what you do consistently.

Tony Robbins

Our daily habits, behaviours and choices ultimately shape our life. Changing our personal habits is often tough as there are plenty of distractions that can lead us of the way and right back to our old ways. We want to be consistent with our workouts, but struggle to make it. We know we should eat healthy, read more, work more, but can’t seem to find the motivation to get it done. We all like to achieve our personal or professional goals, but still procrastinate on them. Even though most know what it is that they want to change about themselves be it unhelpful personal or eating habits or unproductive working patterns, very few resolve to take the necessary steps to incorporate helpful habits into their life and stick with those changes.

Most of us start the year with a natural renewed enthusiasm and make new resolutions to change some of our old patterns, yet there are some who always disagree and don’t really believe in resolutions. But in fact, whether a bad habit you want to break or a goal you aspire to achieve, resolving to work on your goals is always helpful and new year is the prefect time to start working on those changes you want to make. According to a psychological study conducted between two groups of people who were interested in making personal changes, the first group made new year resolutions where the second made no such resolutions but were still interested in pursuing positive personal growth. Over the next six months, researchers found that resolvers had higher rate of success than the non-resolvers. This is because our minds have the ability to create any mental state we impose upon it. Resolving strengthens and creates more cognitive behavioural processes in congruent with our resolve to persevere. So, resolvers stick with their goals longer than the non-resolvers.

What makes Habit change difficult
Habits activate a separate part of our brain form our conscious, thinking selves. Even when we make a decision to change, we continue to go old ways because our habit memory persists and brings to mind what we have done in the past to get a reward. In the process, most of us struggle to stay motivated and come up with reasons to avoid change. We try to make excuses. We rationalise and harbour beliefs that trigger resistance and denial. Even when we resolve, some of us feel it hard to get started on their new habits, some of us give up because unexpected interruptions whereas some give into their busyness, desires or distractions. As a result, we push off the resolutions which we said were once important and continually fail to stick to our goals.

When we associate new habit or change with deprivation or as boring routines, we give into instant gratification or temptation or urge. Sometimes we let distractions control our day and only make decisions based on how we feel, we fail to keep up with the changes we want to make. In other words, we forego a future benefit in order to obtain a less rewarding but more immediate benefit. When you have a desire for something pleasurable, it’s natural human tendency to want good things and to want them now and so does our choices that hinge on immediate benefit far more than those intended for long-term gain.

Also, most people don’t take personal change as seriously as they would like other tasks because they consider it easier. However, personal change is just a complex and detailed as any and requires you to stay committed to the process. Taking the easy way is always tempting, and because most don’t know how to strategise implementing change, they give up on their resolutions in the early stages.

Understanding the habit loop..
Habits emerge because the brain is continuously looking for ways to save effort. The natural tendency of brain is to make almost any routine into a habit. Charles Duhigg, the author of the power of habit, suggests that most of us fail to adopt new habits because we do not understand the structure of habits and more specifically, we fail to adequately reward ourselves for taking action on a habit that is beneficial. The psychology behind habit formation is what helps us create new habits and helps us break bad ones. If you understand this, you can fully control what you get accustomed to in life.

All of our habits can be broken down into three basic components. First, The Cue that triggers us to take some sort of action in our internal or external environment. Trigger tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Routine, the physical and mental sequence of actions on the habit you want to adopt or drop and can be physical, mental or emotional. the reward or the benefits for taking the desired activity. Reward helps our brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

Over time, this loop-cue, routine and reward becomes more and more automatic and thus a habit is born. When a habit emerges, the brain stops participating in decision making and drives our focus to other tasks. So unless you find new routines, the pattern will unfold automatically. This is the reason, why some habits never really disappear and can be only replaced. When we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be set. The problem is that your brain can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits, and so, if you have a bad one, it’s always lurking there, waiting for the right cues and rewards.

Most of the addictive or bad habits have a built in reward system that requires little or no input from us and they induce pleasure chemicals. They naturally reward our brain and encourage continued usage even though they are bad for our well being. On the contrary, positive habits such as exercise, focused work and healthy eating doesn’t immediately reward us, but does so only after extended practice. Finding motivating reward can be applied to habits that you want to build into your life, but to build such positive needs conscious practice.

How to create new regular habits that stick

We make bold resolutions to start making healthy lifestyle changes or build on our skill, or secure that promotion we are longing for, without a proper plan in place or taking the steps needed to set ourselves up for success. Sometimes, despite the best of our intentions, our motivation to stick with our new habits kind of fades away within a month or two of creating them resorting back to out old patterns. This is because we try to create habits the wrong way. Habits are effectively just daily goals. And when we lack awareness of how habits are structured and how to use that structure to our advantage we fail to adopt and stick with them. Whether you are experiencing a complete loss of motivation, or always seem to give into temptation, these tips can help you stick with your new resolutions.

Start small instead of too big too fast

We all usually approach our habit change by writing everything we want to achieve and then attempt to change them all at once. We are always motivated when we start with a new habit and try to make big changes to our routines and schedules. But having gone through repetitive cycles of building a habit in wanting to achieve too much too quickly, we eventually fail to keep up with them as we run out of the will to do and motivation that is required to keep us going. One of the strategy you should have to make your habits stick is to start small.

It is difficult to adapt to a habit if it takes more effort to do the routine. Begin small and after you have mastered the small tasks, build momentum to approach the bigger goals. Find ways in the day and have them incorporated as part of your day’ activities. For instance, if your resolution is to run a marathon, begin walking for half hour. After you have mastered the task, take it upto one hour. Then run can replace the walk. You don’t go from walking half hour to running half marathon. If it’s reading, increase from single chapter to two. You cannot integrate big habits immediately. So, the real key to making a habit stick is to start small and winning smaller victories.

Break habits into manageable chunks

To stick with your habits, it is important to work on tasks of just manageable difficulty to begin with. Most of us rely on our will power and motivation to get thing done. Whereas studies show that our will power is like the muscle that gets fatigued over extended usage. Motivation is like a wave with an ebb and flow. You may not find it when you require it the most. So, picking up a habit that is easy enough can get you started even when you are low on your motivators. Making your new habits easy to achieve makes them impossible to fail. Start with a version of the habit that is easy for you. Increase the difficulty level of your habit each day, but in an incredibly small way.

To build long-term habits, they have to be easy so you can’t excuse yourself from doing them. Break down your habit into manageable chunks, even though these small gains can seem almost meaningless in the beginning, they actually make a larger difference in being consistent with your goals and resolutions. Get comfortable with your habit loop before you make your tasks harder. Make small improvements by making small changes to your routine and then slowly increase the difficulty.

Set an upper limit

Set an upper bound limit for your change. We are used to focus only on the lower bound. For instance, “I want to lose at least 5 pounds.” and we think if we can do more than the minimum, then go for it. But adding an upper bound to our goals, like “I want to lose 5 but not more than 10.” can make them more real and attainable. Specific resolutions set you up for more success. Raise the difficulty of your tasks but not so much that they are unsustainable or unattainable. Our brains love challenges, but only if it is within an optimal zone of difficulty. We tend to peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of our current ability. Not too hard or not too easy. By setting an upper limit, you make the process of getting started and sustaining your behaviour much simpler. Once you establish the routine and repeat it, you can raise the limit as needed.

Set schedules instead of deadlines for your new habits

Setting schedules to operate is much more helpful than setting deadlines when it comes to habits. If we fail to make it with in the time, we feel like a failure. And we often give up if we don’t reach our goal by the initial deadline. You tend to make more progress by focusing on the practice than on your performance by sticking to a schedule. Practice your new habit at the same time every day. Be it your workout regime, preparing for your next project or learning a skill, the key is consistency and your timing. It’s important to set at a particular time and be accountable. Don’t judge yourself if you miss out on one or two, have a plan to get back on track quickly instead.

We mentally assign certain habits to a particular location. Practicing your new habits at the same time and location makes it easier to stick to it on a regular basis. For instance, exercising at the same time every week, practicing a new skill at the same time every day may prove more productive in sticking with your habit. Make your routines fun enough to keep yourself going back to it. If it’s not, redesign it, make it enjoyable and easy to sustain.

Use Habit stacking

The best way to form a new habit is to tie it to an existing habit. Use your existing habits to create new, positive ones. Our brain builds up connections that get used more frequently. The more you do something, the stronger the connection becomes. One of the way to build new habit is to identify a current habit you already have and stack your new behaviour on top. Rather than time and location in the above instance, you can pair it with current habit. For instance, your morning routine can be a great place to stack on a new habit. meditate after sipping your coffee or journaling post dinner. When we have patterns of behaviours that are strengthened over years, by linking your new habits, you are more likely to stick to the new behaviour or habit. This also creates momentum that comes from one behaviour leading into the next.

Identify your habit loop

Break down your habit into its cue, routine and reward. Your cues can be location, time, emotional state or other people. Be specific to associate the routine with the cue, but be general enough that it doesn’t make the habit impossible. Making your cues too specific or too general, you may not associate your routine with your cue. For instance, using waking up at 5 a.m as cue to exercise may not work for long if you aren’t an early riser. Similarly, rewards make your habits worth building and sticking to them. Choosing healthy routines already have some intrinsic benefits that act as rewards. Reflecting on how your habit is going to improve your life can act as a reward for you to stick with it.

Be mindful of your triggers

Most of our unhelpful habits are a way to cope with stress and boredom. Sometimes we hold onto such habits because they address certain needs in our life and provide some sort of emotional or physical comfort. So, if you expect yourself to simply cut out bad habits without replacing them, then you will have certain needs that will be unmet and it will become equally difficult to stick to a routine of not doing for very long as we revert to old patterns in order to fulfil that need. But to do this, you need to be mindful of their triggers and your response to them. For instance, stress or boredom that prompts your procrastinating habit or urge to indulge in unhealthy habits.

Some of your habits are triggered by time, location, environment, people around or the emotions. Understanding your triggers can help you find a new habit to fill the void. Emotional states of depression or boredom are a common cue for bad habits. Be aware of your emotional triggers to replace them with positive ones.

Work on your distractions

Distractions are everywhere and they make it easy to engage in them and rationalise our habit of procrastination. A busy day or unexpected delays prevent most of us from sticking with our gaols .If-then technique helps you create a strategy for reducing the scope of missing your routine with unexpected events and distractions. We all have vulnerabilities that can sidetrack us from reaching our gaols. Recognise the times when you are most likely to give into temptation and make it harder for such moments to sabotage your best efforts.

Practice self-discipline

Self-discipline is important to be in consistent with your new habits. It is human to have discipline in certain ares of your life but not other. Think of one area of your life where you have discipline and how can you apply that to other areas of your life. If you stick with the mindset that self-discipline equals deprivation, you might hold yourself back when it comes to areas you want to improve. Focus on creating discipline especially around habits you want to break, long-term habits like building on your skills or working on your projects. For short-term goals like healthy eating habits, productive work habits, be aware of the benefits rather than forcing yourself into doing them daily.

Track your progress to remain committed
Keep track of your progress. This motivates you to keep going even when you don’t feel like it. Visual cues makes it easier to stick with new habit and show the progress that acts a motivation to continue with the new habit. When you measure how many pages you read, you can read more. When you feel the resistance to repeat the habit whenever it becomes boring, ask yourself, as to how has the habit improved your life and Is there something better you could spend that time doing? Do not expect that each habit you integrated into your life to reward you with everlasting happiness. Being ignorant towards your improvements keeps you unsatisfied. Be aware of the improvements to see how your habits are changing you while you are doing them.

Space for self-reflection

How can you raise your level of self-discipline and achieve your gaols this year?
Are you stuck in any of your unproductive behaviour or habits?
What is holding you back from pursuing your new habits?
Is there something you are procrastinating on in your life? work?health?
Do you resolve to make a change in your unhelpful habits or behaviours?
How often do you find yourself struggling to keep with your new habits?
Are you aware of your habit loop — cue or triggers of your bad habits?
Do you set routines for the habits you want to build?
How consistent are you with your routine you have set for yourself?
How often do you give into your distractions — What are somethings that are likely to get in your way or is it daily busyness that is likely to pull you off course?
How often do you measure the progress of your new habits?

To Conclude,
Making resolutions to change your habits or behaviour is easy, but sticking with them is difficult. Start small or start with a challenge that is manageable, measure your progress and repeat your habit loop. Success comes with completion of task. Rather than trying to be perfect, be consistent. You can change the habit by changing any part of the habit loop. Change the cue of never allowing yourself to be bored or routine by switching to another activity. Cue, routine and reward structure can be applied to any area of your life. Find unique activities that work for you and experiment with turning them into habits.

Habits are powerful in building a healthy and happy life. Above strategies can help your reduce the scope to miss out on your new habits and help you stick to your schedule even when your days get off-course. Old habits still persist sometimes, but with self-discipline, you can accomplish your goals and resolutions without giving into distractions. Focus on developing new habits and approach them with positive attitude. The key is to grow and committing to the process through self-discipline, and a strict adherence to your schedule.

]Consciously create habits because habits unconsciously dictate your life.[ Anonymous

Related link: Align your expectations with your goals

Reference: The power of habit , Atomic habits

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