Adopting new habits is only ever difficult for one of two reasons:
- You don't understand how habits are structured and how to leverage that structure to your advantage.
- You are attempting to do too much too soon and setting yourself up for failure.
Let's break both of these points down in greater detail.
1. The Structure of Habits
All habits can be broken down into three basic components:
- The Cue or Trigger: This is the part of the habit loop where you are triggered to take some sort of action through a cue in your internal or external environment.
- The Action: Good or bad, this is the part of the habit loop where you actually take action on the habit you want to adopt or drop.
- The Reward: This is the part of the habit loop where your brain receives a reward for taking the desired activity (or not as you will see in just a second).
Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, and an expert on behavioral psychology suggests that most people fail to adopt new habits because they do not understand the structure of habits.
More specifically, most people fail to adequately reward themselves for taking action on a beneficial habit.
Think about it this way...
Most addictive and destructive habits have a built in reward system that requires little or no input from you.
Smoking a cigarette, snorting cocaine, or drinking yourself into oblivion are all easy habits to adopt because they light up your brain with the neurotransmitter dopamine (and a slew of other pleasure chemicals).
These substances naturally reward your brain and encourage continued usage even though they are detrimental to your overall health and well being.
On the other hand, many positive habits such as exercise, meditation, focused work, and healthy eating don't have immediately obvious rewards.
Yes, after extended practice, exercise, meditation, and focused work will all become activities that naturally stimulate your brain in positive ways and reward you for taking action.
But they need a little bit of help to get started.
For example, studies have shown that consuming a small amount of chocolate post-workout releases similar chemicals and neurotransmitters to those that will eventually be released by the workout itself.
Finding a motivating reward can be applied to any habit if you are creative enough:
- Eat dark chocolate after your workout.
- Buy a time based coffee maker that has a fresh cup brewed when you wake up.
- Reward yourself with 15 minutes of gaming after an intense 90 minute work session.
If you are struggling to make a new habit stick, then you probably are't aware or consciouly applying the habit loop.
Before moving on to the next point, ask yourself three simple questions.
- What are some cues that I can setup in my environment to remind me to take action?
- What are some ways I can limit the barrier to action for my desired habit? (E.g. working out from home so you don't have to commute to the gym.)
- How can I reward myself in a positive way that will encourage me to continue pursuing these habits?
If you have seriously contemplated and applied all of these questions and you still can't make your habit stick... Then you are probably making this mistake:
Setting Unrealistic Goals and Expectations
What would you say if one of your friends came to you and shared the following goals:
- "I'm going to build a $1 Billion business in 12 months even though I've never even launched a profitable company!"
- "I'm going to run a marathon in 3 months even though I need to lose 50 lbs. and haven't gone running since high school."
- "I'm going to go out and successfully date a Victoria's Secret Model even though I'm terrified of women and haven't gone on a date in 2 years"
I don't know about you, but I would probably laugh them out of the room (lovingly of course).
These goals seem absurd and completely unachievable to the outside viewer, however, these goals are very similar to the habits that most people set.
Think about it.
Habits are effectively just daily goals and most people's "goals" sound something like this:
- "Even though I haven't worked out in years, I'm going to train 6 days a week for 90 minutes and become a bodybuilder."
- "Even though I eat fast food 4 times a day right now, I'm going to eliminate all processed foods and eat salad 5 times a day."
- "Even though my body is used to waking up at 9 a.m., I'm going to start waking up at 5 a.m. every single day starting tomorrow."
When you think about them in this way, most people's approach to forming new habits is so blatantly absurd it's not even funny.
So what are you supposed to do?
Well, if you really want to make your new habits stick, then you need to be honest with yourself and approach your new habits in a realistic and progressive way (after all life is a marathon, not a sprint).
Here's a simple 5-step process for creating any habit (courtesy of Mr. James Clear).
1) Make it So Small You Can't Fail
Most people try to change too much too quickly.
The real key to making a habit stick is to make it so small that you can't say no.
If you want to get in shape, start by doing one push up.
If you want to become smarter, start by reading one page.
If you want to build a business, start by prospecting for one minute a day.
Set yourself up for success and make your new habits so easy to achieve that they are impossible to fail.
2) Apply the Compound Effect to Your Habits
If you were to take the habits listed above and compound them by only 1% each day, in one year you would have improved each habit roughly 37%.
While that might not seem like a lot, if you compare this progress using something easy to understand - say finances - that's the difference between making $100,000 a year and $137,000 a year!
If you were to extend the compounding effect to 10 years, you would start off earning $100,000 a year and $1,370,000 a year!
3) Break Big Habits Down
If you continue compounding habits, you will make dramatic improvements in the first 2-3 months.
But it's important that you keep your habits easy and reasonable.
For example, if your goal is to write your new book for 60 minutes a day, break the 60 minutes in four 15 minute chunks that you complete throughout the day.
If you want to do 100 pull-ups a day, do 10 sets of 10 to make the habit easier to complete.
4) Never Miss Twice
Look, you WILL mess up and slip on your habits.
And it's OK.
The rule of thumb is that when you fail, you get back on the horse immediately so that you never miss twice.
It's ok to miss one workout this week, but don't you dare let it extend to 2 or 3.
It's fine to miss one day of meditation practice, but you had better plant your butt on a yoga mat tomorrow.
If you follow the rule of "Never Miss Twice" you can fail your way to any goal you desire.
5) Be Patient and Find a Sustainable Pace
If you are reading this and you are under the age of 40, then chances are very high that you will live past 100 years old.
So why in the world do you feel the need to rush everything in your life?
Greatness takes time, building an exceptional life takes time, and building exceptional habits that make you an exceptional human being take time.
Instead of fighting this law, work with it.
Play the long game, be patient, and go at a sustainable pace.
As you've already seen, even a 1% daily improvement will have a huge payout if you stick with it for long enough.
So be patient and remember that slow and steady wins the race.
I hope this helps.