“Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones.” Benjamin Franklin
It seems cruel how hard it can be to instil good habits, and how easily they can slip. When with bad habits, precisely the opposite is true.
How often have you decided that today is the day you’ll start a new habit, determined to make it stick? You WILL exercise more, read more books, have more breaks…
Before you know it, a particularly busy week has meant you’ve broken your desired habit. You’re left convinced that if you only had more discipline, things would be different.
The good news is, you don’t really need discipline or motivation to sustain good habits. Instead, you need to change your approach to habit formation. If you feel you’ve ‘failed’ to form and maintain a positive habit in the past, realise that it was not because of your lack of discipline. It was simply because you didn’t use the right formula.
Below is the formula for successful habit creation, and an example of how to use it. This is based on the fabulous work of B.J. Fogg, the Stanford behavioural scientist.
Step 1: Decide on your goal and the specific habit you’d like to create.
Example: If you want to exercise more, let’s make that specific and work towards creating a daily habit of exercising for 20 minutes on an exercise bike. It really helps at this point to consider why this goal is important to you. You may wish to visualise the benefits the habit would give you.
Step 2: Decide the smallest version of the habit you’d like to create.
That is important. Your job here is to consider the absolute tiniest version of the habit you would like to create. With the example we’re working towards, we may decide that just one minute on the exercise bike would work. If you wanted to go for a run every day, you may decide that the smallest version of that habit was to put on your running shoes and go outside for one minute.
Step 3: List all of your existing habits.
Now identify all the things you already do every day. For example, you probably wake up every morning; have a shower; get dressed; drink a glass of water; boil the kettle; prepare coffee or tea, eat breakfast; brush your teeth; eat lunch; etc. On weekdays, perhaps you also open your laptop; close your laptop; go for a walk… You see, there are loads of habits you already have. Write down as many as come to mind.
Step 4: Decide your ‘trigger’ habit.
You now need to choose one of your existing habits to become the cue or ‘trigger’ for your new habit. Go through your list of existing habits and note the most suitable one for you to use. Your choice will depend on the nature of the new habit you are forming. Consider when in the day you want to do your new habit. For example, if you’re going to do your daily exercise in the morning, the best trigger might be your glass of water after waking up, or perhaps brushing your teeth in the morning.
Step 5: Mentally pair your ‘trigger’ (Step 4) with the smallest version of your desired habit (Step 2).
Now you need to successfully pair (associate) your trigger habit with your new habit. Begin by rehearsing this in your mind. In our example, I would mentally rehearse my next morning:
= I imagine waking up, I imagine drinking my glass of water, I then visualise getting on my exercise bike and cycling for one minute. Remember, you are just visualising the tiniest version of your desired habit here.
Repeat this mental rehearsal at least three times: Visualise in the first person: You wake up, you drink your water, you get on the bike. Repeat…
Step 6: Physically pair your ‘trigger’ with the smallest version of your desired habit.
Now put it into practice. The next time your trigger habit occurs, immediately DO the tiniest version of your habit. In our example, the very next morning, you wake up and drink your water as usual, and then immediately get on your exercise bike and cycle for one minute.
Step 7: Track your success each time.
As soon as you’ve done your new habit, record your success one way or another. You can use a spreadsheet, a tracker app, a wall chart, or your calendar.
Why This Works
1. Your new habit is so tiny it will take virtually no effort. In the case above, you’re not trying to cycle 20km. You only need to cycle for one minute.
2. You already have loads of habits. There are many things you are already doing without thinking (or needing discipline), and you’re simply adding something small onto one of these.
3. Your brain learns by association. It won’t take long for it to learn this additional new behaviour.
4. Your brain loves dopamine. As you ‘tick off’ each successful day, it will give you a sense of reward and build your ‘streak’ of success. As your streak builds, you’ll find your motivation to keep the habit going increases.
5. As you establish the absolute minimum behavour, you will only get bigger from there. Working with our example, if every day you go one minute on your bike, some days you will inevitably feel like exercising for longer. By day five, you might feel like doing 10 minutes, the following week you may notice clocking 15 minutes.
Before you know it, you will have replaced your smallest habit (one minute on the bike) with your original goal (20 minutes on the bike). Your new habit will have become second nature and an ongoing part of your daily life.
Bottom line: Start small and build on your success. Don’t rely on discipline. Create momentum from a well-established foundation.
What I’ve found to make things even easier
1. Consider the shift in identity you need to make first. Using our example, if you can start to genuinely see yourself as an athlete, or as someone who exercises every day, half the battle is already one.
2. Use mental rehearsals the night before. Mentally rehearse (visualise) going through the correct behavioural process. As you do this you are programming your brain to follow the same sequence of behaviours and habits the next day.
3. Try to establish the habit when your natural resistance is lowest. Your nervous system has times of the day when it is more energised, and times of the day when it is more tired. For most people, the first 6 hours after waking up, you have more norepinephrine, adrenaline, cortisol and dopamine. If you plan to do your new habit then, you’ll have more natural motivation (less chance of ‘I don’t feel like doing it today’).
4. Where possible, incorporate other enjoyable activities to increase the enjoyment of your new habit. For example, when I go to the gym I use it as a time to find and listen to new music. This massively increases my desire to go to the gym.
5. Partner with others where you can. Exercise in particular is easier with an accountability partner or buddy, and most things are more fun when done with a friend.
6. Experiment with what works and what doesn’t. As you develop your self-awareness your chance of success will only increase.
Best of luck!