When it comes to changing your life, there’s no getting around the fact that you are going to have to learn the proper framework for how to create a habit.
According to a study conducted by Duke University, habits make up approximately 45% of the actions we perform every day. This means that half of our lives are essentially a programmed set of routines that happen on auto-pilot.
There’s good and bad to this phenomenon. If you can learn how to cultivate good habits, then positive behaviors like working out, eating healthy, and being more social will happen on auto-pilot, meaning they become part of your identity.
However, the problem is that bad habits are formed through the same automatic process. Smoking, drinking, oversleeping, and procrastinating, can all become behaviors that sabotage your life.
Everyone knows how important habits are, yet most new habits we try to implement never become a permanent part of our identity. I’m here to tell you that if you’ve tried to change your behavior before and failed, there’s nothing wrong with you. There’s something wrong with the system you’ve been using.
In this article, I’m going to show you a simple 3 step process that you can use to make any habit stick, no matter what area of your life you are trying to change.
Why Most People Can’t Create Good Habits
There’s two main reasons why most people constantly try and fail to change their behavior. The first mistake people make is letting ambition take over and setting huge, Mount Everest-like goals. If you pull up any semi-popular motivational video, you’ll likely hear that you need to set giant, Mount Everest-like goals if you want to be successful. This is total bullshit. It’s “feel good” advice that is in direct conflict with the fundamentals of behavior change.
Psychologically speaking, big goals don’t motivate us, they overwhelm us. Instead of acting as a motivator to show up every day and put in the work, big goals tend to have the opposite effect. They serve as a constant reminder of how far we are from our desired state, which actually demotivates us. The magnitude of the challenge prevents us from even starting to make progress.
The second mistake people make when trying to shift their behavior is not being specific enough. We tend to think we lack willpower when what we really lack is clarity.
If you want to make a change in your life, you must be black and white about it. If you’re trying to exercise, but you don’t specify when and where you are going to exercise, your brain will go into analysis paralysis and start sabotaging your efforts to change. (What workout am I going to do? should I workout before or after work? how long am I going to workout for?).
Just like setting a huge goal, lack of clarity causes you to feel overwhelmed about all of the different options available to you. In both cases, the result is the same: You never take action.
How to Create a Habit in 3 Easy Steps
Most people fall into the trap believing that there’s something wrong with them when they fail to stick to a new habit. I hope that by now, you’ve realized that it’s not a you problem, it’s a strategy problem.
When change efforts fail, it’s almost always due to a lack of knowledge about how our brain works and the fundamental principles of behavior change. That’s why I’m here! Each aspect of the three step habit creation framework I’m about to walk through with you has been proven effective through countless psychological studies, and the people who interpreted these studies are much smarter than me. So rest assured, you’re in good hands.
You can change. You can improve your life. But you can’t keep doing what you’ve been doing and expect different results. Let’s get into the three step framework that will teach you how to create a habit and actually stick to it.
Step One: Clarify The New Behavior
The first step to changing your life is deciding what kind of new behavior you would like to implement. You need to shape the path before you start walking on it.
Now, there’s definitely truth to the fact that it’s easier to reach your goals when you are specific about what you want to achieve. However, this principle usually applies to outcome based goals. Outcome based goals focus on results. Losing 50 pounds is an outcome based goal. Making $20,000 per month is an outcome based goal.
If you are trying to hit a certain target, it’s obviously common sense that you want to be specific about what that target is. Otherwise, how the hell are you going to hit it? However, you don’t need to apply the same philosophy to changing your own behavior.
Someone who is overweight doesn’t necessarily want to step on the scale and hit a certain number, but they do know for a fact that they want to lose weight. Someone who consistently procrastinates doesn’t really have a specific amount of work they want to produce in a given day, but they certainly have a gut feeling telling them that they should be more productive. These goals are called identity based goals, and they are fundamental to behavior change.
You can set a specific revenue goal for your business, but if you continue to embody the identity of someone who can’t focus on anything for more than five minutes, you’re never going to achieve that goal.
Setting identity based goals is the first step to changing your behavior. You don’t need to follow a complex goal setting process, or take an hour to answer a bunch of thought-provoking questions that help you understand your life purpose. All you have to do is declare your intentions to change something about your life. The intention can be specific, or it can be broad. It really depends on the type of change you want to make.
If you’re looking to grow your blog, it might be a good idea to set a specific goal for the number of words you want to write per day. On the other hand, if you simply want to live a healthier lifestyle, you can be fairly broad with your intention. It’s pretty counterproductive to specify the number of carrots you are going to eat every day.
Specific Intention Examples:
- I want to write 500 words every day
- I want to spend 30 minutes meditating every morning
- I want to exercise for one hour every day
Broad Intention Examples:
- I want to be more productive
- I want to start eating healthier
- I want to lose weight
- I want to save more money
Step Two: Shrink The Change
Alright, I know what you’re thinking. “Wait, this guy just told me that setting huge goals was a mistake. Why the hell are some of those sample intentions so bold?”
Setting big goals is a mistake when you only focus on the goal and not the systems required to accomplish it. You don’t rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.
Here’s the truth about trying to make big changes, explained in a simple paragraph that withholds all of the complicated, boring neuroscience that has a better chance of putting you to sleep than actually enhancing your knowledge.
Fundamentally, we resist radical change because our brain resists any kind of change whatsoever. Our brain resists change, big or small, because it’s unfamiliar. It’s unfamiliar because we’ve fallen into comfortable patterns due to thousands of previous choices that have created our current identity. So when you make the choice to drastically alter a certain aspect of your life, you are trying to convince your brain that you are a completely different person. Our brain isn’t stupid, so it doesn’t buy it. After all, it has no evidence that this new identity is real. That’s why attempting to make huge, tectonic shifts in our behavior rarely pan out.
This may sound somewhat daunting, but the part I left out is that our brain is easily manipulated. The easiest way to manipulate your brain is to shrink the change.
For example, let’s say that you have the ambitious goal to build a daily habit of doing 100 pushups daily. If you tried to do 100 pushups on the first day, you’d probably fail. Why? Because it’s such a drastic shift in your identity that your brain is going to fight like hell against it. When the time comes to act, your brain will start conjuring up a thousand different reasons about why you shouldn’t do it, or why you should “just start tomorrow.”
However, what if you started by doing just five pushups every day? The difficulty of this task doesn’t even compare to dropping down and doing 100 pushups. Even though your brain will still resist the change, the level of resistance you feel will be significantly less. That’s true power of small habits, they’re just too easy to say no too. It doesn’t take a whole lot of willpower to force yourself to do five pushups. Not only that, but the laws of physics are on your side once you force yourself into action.
Once an object is in motion, it will stay in motion unless acted upon by another force. This means five pushups can turn into 8, 10, or even 20 depending on how you feel. Even though you may be only doing 5-20 pushups per day, you are slowly proving to your brain that you are the kind of person who does pushups every day. As this evidence builds up day after , your identity starts to change.
After a month you’re most likely not going to be at your goal of doing 100 pushups per day, but all of the sudden it doesn’t seem as far-fetched because of the kind of person you are starting to become. If you can stick to your big goal on the shelf and focus on small daily habits, reaching your goal becomes inevitable.
So, how do you implement step 2?
You simply shrink the change. Take your new habit and reduce it to the tiniest version of itself.
Walking for one hour each day becomes putting on your running shoes and taking 50 steps. Writing 1,000 words per day becomes writing 50 words per day. Reading for 30 minutes every day becomes reading just two pages every day.
Step #3: Get Specific
Once you have an aspiration, and you’ve shrunk the aspiration to a reasonable difficulty, the only thing left to do is hammer out the specifics. You are going to sit down and create what psychologists like to call an implementation plan for your new habit.
Your brain is easily susceptible to getting caught in analysis paralysis. However, most of the time this indecisiveness comes from a lack of clarity. An implementation plan will remove any doubt from your mind about when and where your new habit is going to take place. That way, when the time comes to take action, you won’t hesitate.
There are two different ways to create an implementation plan. The first way is to create a time based trigger. This involves writing down the specific time and place that your new behavior will take place. The second way to create an implementation plan is to use an action based trigger. If you go this route, you will simply place your new behavior after a current habit that you already have.
Here’s the difference between the two:
- Time Based Trigger – At 6 o’clock, I will go outside and walk 50 steps.
- Action Based Trigger – After I put my bag down on the counter, I will put on my running shoes and walk 50 steps.
You can use either kind of trigger when creating your new habit. However, I will say that if you have a busy schedule and are constantly running from place to place, it might be wise to use a time based trigger since you will likely be watching the clock more often than someone who has a fairly flexible schedule.
Congrats! You’ve learned how to create a habit using a simple three step framework that can be applied to any aspect of your life.
If you follow this framework, you’ll be amazed at the impact that small habits can have on your life. One of my mini habits since starting this blog has been to write at least 50 words per day. Using this action as a starting point, I now consistently write at least 500 words per day. It turns out that once I get going, I just can’t stop.
The real reason why small habits work so well is that they attack your ego. No matter how lazy you are, small habits are so pathetically simple that you almost feel obligated to do them so that you wake up with a shred of dignity in the morning.
Clarify the aspiration. Shrink the change. Get specific. If you follow these three steps, you’ll be able get off the self improvement hamster wheel and finally start re-inventing who you are.