How to build a new habit without failing

by Luis

Getting into a new habit can be frustrating. Once we build a habit, it becomes routine an automated, but the process to actually get there requires some resolve and constant repetition before the new actions do stick.

New habits

What we want to avoid

Just wanting to get into a new habit is usually not enough. Typically, we know we should change into the habit. Pretty much everyone knows working out often is a good idea. But do we all? Hell no. Sometimes we timidly try changing (“I will go to the gym every morning, watch me!”) only to find that after a week or so we are back to our old customs. We even feel bad about it and blame ourselves.

The bottom line here is: knowing we should do something doesn’t mean we will. Information doesn’t equal action.

Getting into something new can be hard without a strategy. Thankfully, we are here to define a structured and dependable method for building habits.

Defining an actionable System

That’s right. You don’ t need to read a list of “100 reasons why changing X habit is good”. You don’t need me to tell you to just go and repeat your new habit 1000 times. That could work, but mostly won’t.

In this case, there is nothing better than a full system that will keep you at it.  Something actionable.

So let me tell you straight up. After reading this post, you will take action, using all the tips and steps I’ll be outlining. The best time for starting to change is always now. Not tomorrow, and not any indefinite place in time.

If you are not willing to act, then I ask you to stop reading now, since this website is not for you anyway.

Still here? Good. Let’s get on to describing what we will be doing.

Make a specific commitment and goal

To begin with, we need to commit to change. Yet, many of us fail at the very beginning. When we start changing into a new habit, we decide to commit to changing by saying things like these:

“I’ll exercise more”

“I’ll start a more balanced diet”

“I wanna read more”

Excuse me, but what the hell do those actually mean? While they all sound so well meaning, they are immeasurable, which translates to being unreachable. How much will you work out? Does exercising more mean running 3 miles every day or is playing 15 minutes with your Wii Fit enough for you? As a rule of thumb, commit to goals that are SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound – though being smart in the usual sense of the word is recommendable as well) since you’ll want to be able to track your progress and have a well defined goal.

Don’t go overboard with your commitment. If you never read, don’t expect to suddenly be able to read one new book each week. You’ll only get depressed. Go for small wins instead, something challenging enough that is interesting, but not too much that it is exhausting. Small wins will keep you motivated and will be the base of our process.

What I recommend for acquiring most habits is trying them for 1 month. After a 1-month trial, you will know if the habit is a good fit for you or not, and maybe even decide to take it to the next level. Also, if you don’t define a time boundary, you’ll lack focus and will probably lose interest soon.

Now, take a pen and paper and write down your commitment. It doesn’t matter if you do it on a napkin or even in your hand, just make sure you do it now.

Abiding by our SMART rules, our previous commitments would look more like this:

“Starting on May XXth 2012, I’ll take a 30-minute walk every day for one month”

“Starting on June XXth 2012,  I will not eat any fast food, except for Saturdays, for one month”

“Starting on January 1st 2012, I’ll read a fiction book for 30-minutes each day prior to sleep, for one month”

You don’t want to have any doubt about what you are set to do. Being ultra specific is key for maintaining your focus.

Make it omnipresent

New habits take a while to sink in, and we will probably forget our commitment to them faster than we forget our grocery list. Not good.

Instead, we need ways of reminding ourselves of the habit we are introducing as means of keeping on track to achieve it. The reminder should be everywhere, or at least impossible to be missed. So take the commitment you wrote on the previous step and do at least two of the following (and any other idea you might think of):

  • Print it out and paste it on places you see often. Mirrors and doors are a good idea, as well as your cubicle in the office.
  • If you work in a computer, make an Outlook alert showing it to you by midday and at the end of the day. This can be done on your phone as well.
  • Take a photo of your handwritten commitment and make it your smartphone’s wallpaper
  • Get a friend or family to ask you about your progress every second day.

Be creative, do what makes sense in your case, there are far more options than these. Obsess yourself with it for a while. It will become natural later.

Make it automatic

Our goal is to make our new habit completely automatic at one point. We need to teach ourselves to act on this habit when it is needed.

Enter the power of triggers.

For certain stimuli, our body typically has a reaction pretty much set in stone. Ever burned your hand with the pan while cooking? Bet your hand flew in the opposite direction of the pan right away. The heat is a trigger that generates a survival reaction.

What’s very interesting is that we can program ourselves, creating our own triggers and reactions. Say, for example, you want to run for 30 minutes every day in the morning. You could place your running shoes next to your bed the night before, so when you get up you will see them and be reminded. The sight will trigger your run.

This is very tied with our previous step. Place a reminder, and let the reminder be your trigger. Simple and effective. Repetition will tie your habit to the trigger quickly.

The power of choice starvation

Many habits (like those concerning food) require resisting temptation. And temptation is one cruel bitch.

Lots of mistakes are made in the name of temptation and, historically, neither man nor woman is to be trusted in the face of temptation. So what to do?

Keep it simple. Get rid of the temptation. Eliminate your ability to choose whether to keep or lose your habit.

Ask yourself this question: “What in my life could potentially tempt me to break my new habit?”  Be honest.

I do a low carb diet (the one from Tim Ferriss’ amazing book The 4-Hour Body [affiliate link]). It is a very restrictive diet (except for one cheat day per week where I can eat like a pig) without much variety, and I didn’t want to be tempted by bad carbs. My solution was to immediately clear my place of tempting snacks and forbidden foods. Even if I feel like breaking the diet, I usually can’t because I don’t have the tools for it. And I found an added benefit: my grocery shopping became much cheaper.

Do you find yourself losing too much time over social networks during the day? Keep your smartphone locked inside a drawer or leave it at home. You’ll be surprised at how little you actually need a phone for.

Cut back on the things or people that don’t add any value to you. That’s something to keep in mind for your whole life.

Team Up

Getting into new habits can be made easier by having someone else do it too. Being held accountable for it will help you keep it easier and fun. Challenge someone to make the habit, make a bet or in any other way, turn it into a game. Competing is one of the best motivators there is and you should leverage that to your favor.

Take action

Summing it up, you’ll do this:

  • Define a specific and actionable commitment
  • Make it present everywhere, live and breathe your new habit
  • Automate it with triggers
  • Kill any temptations that could prevent you from making the habit
  • Find someone to hold you accountable for it

And there’s one last step, the most important one: Stop reading and act. Remember: information without action is worthless.

You’ll thank yourself for acting right away.

And if you like the system and find it useful, please be sure to share this post with your friends.

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