Change is difficult. Whether it is taming a shopping habit or other, more serious addictions, it all comes down to changing one habit at a time. The best advice I've gleaned from people I've interviewed on the subject is to keep it simple, allow yourself to focus, and give yourself the best chance for success. I interviewed author and Zen Habits blogger Leo Babauta, for my book, Kensho, A Modern Awakening because Babauta has mastered the art of paring down life to its bare essentials. His strategies are simple and straight-shooting, but they also require commitment and the faith to believe that the only way to a better and more meaningful life is "to know thyself." Readers of Babauta's books and articles understand that the road to a less complicated, more fulfilling life may be easier to master than you think.
Years ago, Babauta decided he wanted a simpler life but he didn't know how to make changes. Quitting smoking was the impetus for his change in habits -- which ultimately led to major transformations in his life. He realized the key was to do it in small bits, focusing on one thing at a time, in an enjoyable way. He applied these principles to other habit changes, and one at a time, he was successful in modifying his behavior in multiple ways that ultimately added up to significant, constructive shifts.
Babauta created a change "cheat sheet" to rework your habits for the better. Using the methods he designed, Babauta says he has been able to quit smoking, stop impulse spending, get out of debt, begin running marathons, awaken earlier, eat healthier, become more frugal, simplify his life, and become more organized, focused, and productive. The following exercise, reprinted from Kensho (and Babauta's website) outlines 14 points that will help you plan, change, and prosper. There are 29 all told. However, I have listed only half of Babauta's tips here to maintain the Zen Habits' "keep it simple" doctrine. I will follow with the final 15 in an upcoming article.
Habit change is not that complicated. While the tips below may seem overwhelming, there are only a few things you need to know. Everything else is just helping these to become a reality.
The simple steps of habit change:
1. Write down your plan.
2. Identify your triggers and replacement habits.
3. Focus on doing the replacement habits every single time the triggers happen, for about 30 days.
The Habit Change Cheat Sheet
The following is a compilation of tips to help you change a habit. Don't be overwhelmed. Always remember the simple steps above. The rest are different ways to help you become more successful in your habit change.
1. Do just one habit at a time.
Extremely important. Habit change is difficult, even with just one habit. If you do more than one habit at a time, you're setting yourself up for failure. Keep it simple, allow yourself to focus, and give yourself the best chance for success. By the way, this is why New Year's resolutions often fail. People try to tackle more than one change at a time.
2. Start small.
The smaller the better, because habit change is difficult, and trying to take on too much is a recipe for disaster. Want to exercise? Start with just 5-10 minutes. Want to wake up earlier? Try just 10 minutes earlier for now.
3. Do a 30-day Challenge.
In my experience, it takes about 30 days to change a habit, if you're focused and consistent. This is a round number and will vary from person to person and habit to habit. Often you'll read a magical "21 days" to change a habit, but this is a myth with no evidence. Seriously -- try to find the evidence from a scientific study for this. A more recent study shows that 66 days is a better number. But 30 days is a good number to get you started. Your challenge: stick with a habit every day for 30 days, and post your daily progress updates to a forum.
4. Write it down.
Just saying you're going to change the habit is not enough of a commitment. You need to actually write it down, on paper. Write what habit you're going to change.
5. Make a plan.
While you're writing, also write down a plan. This will ensure you're really prepared. The plan should include your reasons (motivations) for changing, obstacles, triggers, support buddies, and other ways you're going to make this a success.
6. Know your motivations and be sure they're strong.
Write them down in your plan. You have to be very clear why you're doing this, and the benefits of doing it need to be clear in your head. If you're just doing it for vanity, it's not usually enough, although it can be a good motivator. We need something stronger. For me, I quit smoking for my wife and kids. I made a promise to them. I knew that if I didn't quit smoking, not only would they be without a husband and father, but they'd also be more likely to smoke themselves (my wife was a smoker and quit with me).
7. Don't start right away.
In your plan, write down a start date. Maybe a week or two from the date you start writing out the plan. When you start right away (like today), you are not giving the plan the seriousness it deserves. When you have a "Quit Date" or "Start Date", it gives that date an air of significance. Tell everyone about your quit date (or start date). Put it up on your wall or computer desktop. Make this a Big Day. It builds up anticipation and excitement and helps you to prepare.
8. Write down all your obstacles.
If you've tried this habit change before (odds are you have), you've likely failed. Reflect on those failures and figure out what stopped you from succeeding. Write down every obstacle that's happened to you and others, things that are likely to happen. Then write down how you plan to overcome them. That's the key: write down your solution before the obstacles arrive, so you're prepared.
9. Identify your triggers.
What situations trigger your current habit? For the smoking habit, for example, triggers might include waking in the morning, having coffee, drinking alcohol, stressful meetings, going out with friends, driving, etc. Most habits have multiple triggers. Identify all of them and write them in your plan.
10. For every single trigger, identify a positive habit you're going to do instead.
When you first wake in the morning, instead of smoking, what will you do? What about when you get stressed? When you go out with friends? Some positive habits could include exercise, meditation, deep breathing, organizing, decluttering, and more.
11. Plan a support system.
Who will you turn to when you have a strong urge? Write these people into your plan. Support forums online are a great tool as well. I used a smoking cessation forum when I quit smoking, and it really helped. Don't underestimate the power of support. It's really important.
12. Ask for help.
Get your family and friends and co-workers to support you. Ask them for their help, and let them know how important this is. Find an AA group in your area. Join online forums where people are trying to quit. When you have really strong urges or a really difficult time, call on your support network for help. Don't smoke a cigarette, for example, without posting to your online quit forum. Don't have a drop of alcohol before calling your AA buddy.
13. Become aware of self-talk.
You talk to yourself in your head all the time -- but often we're not aware of these thoughts. Start listening. These thoughts can derail any habit change, any goal. Often they're negative: "I can't do this. This is too difficult. Why am I putting myself through this? How bad is this for me anyway? I'm not strong enough. I don't have enough discipline. I suck." It's important to know you're doing this.
14. Stay positive.
You will have negative thoughts -- the important thing is to realize when you're having them and push them out of your head. Squash them! Then replace them with a positive thought. "I can do this! If Leo can do it, so can I!"