The Smart Way to Stick to Habits
Sticking to a new habit isn’t easy — but if you set up your habit change smartly, you can make it stick.
Starting a new habit isn’t too hard — we often get excited about starting an exercise plan or diet or waking up early, for example. But a number of obstacles get in the way of sticking to the habit long enough for it to become automatic.
Here are the usual obstacles:
- You lose enthusiasm: Probably the No. 1 reason people fail is that the enthusiasm they feel when they first start the habit, when they’re fantasizing about how great it’ll be, fades away after a few days or a week. The habit isn’t as great as you fantasized, usually. So you drop the habit before you see the benefits.
- You forget: After the habit becomes automatic, you don’t need a reminder. But in the beginning it’s easy to forget if you don’t have reminders set up.
- Your mind tells you that you can’t: When things get tough, your mind says, “This is too hard!” or “You don’t need to do this!” or “Why are you punishing yourself?” or “Skipping it this time won’t hurt!” These are just weaselly ways to get out of discomfort.
- You miss a day or two and then toss in the towel: It feels good to get a streak going, but if you miss a day or two, you get really discouraged. You feel like quitting, because now you have to start all over.
- You get distracted by other things: The Internet, for example, is so distracting that you might never do your habit. You have so many choices of fun or easy things to do that the habit seems like a less attractive choice.
- Illness or travel or a crisis gets in the way: Sometimes something comes up that takes priority, and the habit gets pushed to the background … which is fine, if you started again when the illness goes away or you get back from your trip. But because you missed it, it’s hard to get back on track.
Let’s figure out a smart system that gets around these obstacles.
Addressing Each Obstacle
Let’s address each obstacle one by one, before putting it all together into one system:
- Enthusiasm: The answer to this is making a big commitment. Let’s say you decide you’re going to eat carrots at dinner every day … after you lose your vim and vigor for this new diet, you just stop. But what if you had $10,000 bet on whether you’d stick to this habit for a month? You’d forget about your lack of enthusiasm and just eat the carrots, no matter what. Other ways to make a big commitment: tell 1,000 people about it, and commit to a really embarrassing consequence if you fail.
- Forgetting: Set up 5 visual reminders, and tie it to an existing part of your daily routine. For example, every time you take a shower, you might do the new habit of flossing … so put up signs and sticky notes everywhere, put your floss on your towel, put reminders in your phone, have your spouse remind you, etc.
- Negative thoughts: Don’t negotiate with these terrorists. Notice when these thoughts come up, and banish them. Don’t let yourself fall victim to them. Recognize them for the habit-killers that they are, the lies they are.
- Missing a day or two: Set up accountability, so that if you miss a day, you get back on track immediately. Figure out what went wrong, and address that problem. Have someone hold you accountable for getting back on track.
- Distracted: Remove choices. Don’t have any visible choices other than what you want to happen. Set up a choice architecture.
- Illness or crisis or travel: Again, set up accountability so that you get back on track immediately. Have a planned break if needed, and start again as soon as the break is over.
Let’s take these elements and combine them into a smart system for sticking to habits.
The Smart Habit System
If we have a system that overcomes all those obstacles, we’ll be more likely to stick with the habit.
So let’s put our best practices together:
- Start small. Keep the habit very small. As small as possible, until it becomes your new “normal”. Just floss one tooth. Just run for a few minutes, or get your shoes on and get out the door. Just meditate for 2 minutes.
- Commit big. Tell as many people as possible about your new habit, and commit to them big time. Set up an embarrassing consequence for failing (missing 2 days in a row, except for an emergency).
- Have a trigger. Something you already do daily — wake up, go to bed, take a shower, brush your teeth, eat breakfast, open your computer, eat lunch, eat dinner, arrive at work, drop the kids to school, etc. Commit to doing your habit as soon as the trigger happens — if you eat breakfast, then you will run. No questions about it.
- Lots of reminders. Have physical and digital reminders around your trigger — near the shower, on top of your laptop or car keys, etc., so you don’t forget in the first week or two.
- Set up accountability. When you commit, ask a friend or group of people to check in on you regularly, to make sure you don’t slip up. Tell them your commitment (from No. 2 above) and ask for their help keeping you accountable. More than one person is usually best, unless you know for sure that this one person won’t forget or let you off the hook.
- Remove choices. If there are distractions or temptations you usually go for instead of this habit, remove them from the picture so that your main choice is to do the habit. For example, if it’s time to write, set up an Internet blocker to go off during your writing time. Or if it’s time to exercise, give your laptop and phone to your partner and tell them not to give it back. Or your router or cable device. Remove tempting food from the house if that’s distracting you. Or commit to meeting someone at the park or gym to workout or run, so you won’t be tempted to skip the workout.
- Get back on track. Ask your accountability friends to make sure you get back on track if you miss a day. If you do miss a day, let them know and ask for help making sure you don’t miss two days.
- Watch your negative thoughts. Practice noticing when you’re making excuses or telling yourself you can’t do this. And see that they’re wrong. Add a “But” to the sentence: “I’m tired, BUT I’ll feel better if I do this” or “I deserve a break, BUT I also deserve to take care of my body with this exercise”. And so on.
If you set up this smart system, and do one habit at a time, really putting your focus and energy into this habit change, you’ll be much more likely to stick to it.