Any habit you try to change or develop is going to require a degree of effort on your part. You’ll have to find some way to force or encourage yourself to follow the habit for a certain amount of time until you’ve adapted to the new habit and it becomes “natural.” There are a lot of ways to encourage yourself to keep at it, and I’m going to devote full articles to each of them, but here’s a quick overview you can skim and link to the other pages (once they’re posted).
Don’t Break the Chain
Imagine you’ve gone running every day for the last year. When you wake up tomorrow, it wont matter how poorly you feel, you would not want to ruin a 365 day perfect streak. But you have to start that perfect streak somewhere, and every day you tack on will make it harder and harder to quit. When you start on a new daily habit, keep track of how many days you’re successful at it and keep trying to beat your past record. Once you get into high numbers, it will be very hard to let yourself stop.
When I started working on being an early riser, I started telling people I was waking up early. At a university this is an odd thing since students tend to sleep in as late as possible, and I quickly developed a reputation as someone who was not only in control of my sleep, but who helped others sleep more effectively as well. Now that I have that reputation, I can’t let my early rising habit falter. Develop a reputation around your new habit among your closer friends and it will be much harder to let yourself fail.
Start Small, Make it Easy
If you want to start a fitness habit and say “I’m going to go lift weights for an hour and then run 5 miles tomorrow” you’re going to fail. Not just that you’ll not be in sufficient shape, but that’s a 2 hour change in your schedule that you’re not used to and will be entirely unsustainable. Even if you’re trying to make a big change, do it incrementally to increase your commitment to it. Start with 30 minutes at the gym 3 days a week, or moving your wake-up time 15 minutes early. If you do it incrementally, you make a lot of small wins early on, and it will be much easier to keep going.
Change the Environment
A lot of times, depending on what you’re trying to change, changing what environment you’re in can make a huge difference. I talk about this in my Starbucks post, but you can create habits specific to an environment. This means that you probably have habits already ingrained for your kitchen, office, living room, etc. and you might need to alter those environments or abandon them entirely. For example, if you’re trying to eat healthier, you need to empty all of your usual junk food from the pantry. Or if you’re trying to spend less time mindlessly surfing the internet, practice it somewhere away from home where you won’t have your normal browsing habit influencing you.
Look at your Bright Spots
If you’ve been trying to develop a new habit for a while and been unsuccessful at fully adapting it, you can learn a lot by looking at those times when you went through it successfully. Look at those times you did get up early, did go to the gym, did resist junk food, and try to figure out what from those situations you can recreate. What do the successful days have in common that you can take advantage of?
Set SMART Goals
SMART goals are: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Timely. “I’m going to be fit” is not a SMART goal, but “I’m going to stop eating refined sugar and go to the gym at least 3 days a week for at least 30 minutes each time is. This second version is Specific: there’s no ambiguity. Measurable: you’ll know quite clearly if you fail. Actionable: you can actually do it. Relevant: it’s something you want. Timely: it’s something you can do now.
If you have a number of smaller habits you’re trying to develop that can be done sequentially, it’s useful to create a habit string. The best example of this is in a morning routine. You have your initial cue: waking up in this case, but then you make part of the response to that cue a cue for another habit. In this example, you wake up, and that’s your cue to make coffee. Finishing your coffee is your cue to get in the shower. Getting out of the shower is your cue to do one small task on your list for the day, etc.
It’s easier to commit to things in the future than to things in the present, and it’s easier to do things at present if we committed to them in the past. One way to get yourself to do something you might not otherwise take action on is to set a trigger for it, such as “when I finish dinner, I will not order dessert” or “when I get to work, I will complete one small task right away.” These triggers, based on different cues, can help you make sure you’re starting the good habits and stopping the bad ones in their proper times and places.