Most of us are aware of the impact that our habits have on the outcome of our lives. That’s why at some point or another, we’ve all attempted to make a new habit stick and become a permanent part of our identity. But usually, these efforts prove to be futile.
In fact, research has shown that just 8% of people who set New Year’s Resolutions actually accomplish them. Why does this happen? Why is it that no matter how well-intentioned we are when we make plans to change our behavior, those plans still almost always result in failure?
The answer lies in the flawed system most of us use when trying to stick to new habits. In this article, I’m going to expose these flaws so that you don’t repeat the same mistakes as everyone else and are able to change your life for the better.
Reason #1: You’re Not Being Specific Enough
The most common mistake that people make when trying to build new habits is not making their habits specific enough. In the past, when I would try to attempt to build new habits, I would write down things like:
- I’m going to go to the gym 4x a week
- I’m going to journal for 10 minutes per day
- I’m going to meditate for 20 minutes every day
Now, on the surface, these habits may seem pretty specific. After all, I’m clarifying the habit I want to develop and setting a time limit/activity level for the habit. That should be good enough right? Well, not quite. It turns out that in order to create lasting behavior change, our brain needs more information about our new habits in order to make them stick.
See, all of the habits you have right now are a result of specific environmental cues that occur on a day to day basis. These cues indicate to your brain that is time for you to perform a specific behavior. Here are a few examples:
- When you put your feet on the ground and roll out of bed (CUE), you head to the bathroom to brush your teeth.
- When you get a notification on your phone (CUE), you stop what you’re doing and check to see what the notification was.
- When you feel thirsty (CUE), you go drink a glass of water.
- When you feel hungry(CUE), you go eat something
Each cue acts as a precursor to each specific action, which is why all of the activities listed above require no willpower of self-control to accomplish. They just happen automatically once the cue shows up.
Are you starting to see the flaws in the habits that I listed above? The reason why these habits didn’t stick for me is because I didn’t give my brain enough context to act in the appropriate way. It’s almost as if my brain was saying:
“Oh, you want to start meditating for 20 minutes per day. Okay. Awesome. Good habit. But…where are you gonna meditate? When are you gonna meditate? What are you going to do before you meditate? I need answers!”
If you want to make your new habits stick, it’s imperative that you have clarity about when and where you are going to perform them. You need to give yourself a cue to take action. Formulating a specific intention doesn’t need to be predicated on time/place either. In fact, researchers have concluded that the most effective way to create an intention plan is stick your new habit after a behavior that you already perform every day. Here’s an example of what that would look like:
After I put on my clothes in the morning, I will walk over to the kitchen counter and meditate for 20 minutes.
In this case, you can clearly see that the cue for performing your new habit is a routine that you already perform every single day! (putting your clothes on in the morning) Now, your brain is no longer confused about the when and where of when to take action, because you’ve already built that into the habit itself.
Reason #2: You’re Thinking Too Big
There’s nothing wrong with thinking big. However, when it comes to habits, this mindset can get you into trouble. If you’re serious about making lasting changes in your life – you must start small.
Big changes almost never stick, and here’s why. When we sit down to write out the changes they want to make in our life, we are in a heightened emotional state. We feel a giant surge of motivation because of the excitement of potentially changing our life for the better. This heightened emotional state causes us to overestimate the level of motivation that we will feel when the time comes to actually perform the desired habit.
The most popular example of this phenomenon happens with people who try to develop an exercise habit. They will make a vow to exercise for an hour every day, but when the time comes to put on their running shoes and walk out the door, what always happens? They just don’t feel like it.
The level of motivation they felt when they wrote down their exercise intentions isn’t there, which means they are forced to rely on will-power. As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, relying on willpower is not a long-term strategy for behavior change.
So, what’s the solution? It’s actually fairly simple: Make the habit ridiculously easy to perform.
Change “I’m going to workout for an hour per day” to “I’m going to do 5 pushups after leaving the restroom”
Change “I’m going to meditate for 20 minutes per day” to “I’m going to meditate for 60 seconds per day after brushing my teeth”
Change “I’m going to journal for 10 minutes per day” to “I’m going to write three lines in my journal every day after making my morning coffee”
By reducing the habit you want to implement to it’s tiniest version, you are decreasing the level of friction that is required to perform the habit. Even though you may not feel motivated to do five pushups, it’s so easy to do that you’ll likely just force yourself to do it.
Is doing five pushups per day going to get you ripped? Absolutely not! However, if you become the kind of person who does push-ups every single day, you are slowly developing the identity of someone who doesn’t miss workouts. Once your brain has evidence of this new identity, you’ll feel a natural urge to continue the habit as you become more proficient. Soon, you’ll be doing 10,20, 30, 50, or even 100 pushups per day.
Meaningful change does not require radical change. You must make your new habit so easy that you can’t say no, and be patient enough to wait for the ripple effects.
Reason #3: You’re Too Focused on Goals
I’ve explained why goals are overrated before, but I’ll save you guys the drawn out explanation and get to the point. Here’s why goals are unreliable when it comes to behavior change:
Goals are typically focused on outcomes, such as hitting a specific revenue goal or dropping a certain number of pounds. In order to create lasting behavior change, you need to focus on who you want to become instead of what you want to achieve.
When you say “I want to lose twenty pounds,” what you’re really saying is that you want to be a healthier person. When you say “I want to write 1,000 words per day,” what you’re really saying is that you want to become more efficient and productive.
If you focused on building healthy habits like eating vegetables, exercising every day, and do you think you would lose twenty pounds? Of course you would! No matter how well-intentioned your goals are, they will remain unattainable until you change your identity. And what’s the quickest way to change your identity? By changing your daily actions.
Instead of setting goals, I encourage you to focus on your aspirations, which refer to the kind of behaviors you want to engage in on a daily basis. Examples of aspirations would be:
- I want to write 100 words per day
- I want to read for 15 minutes every morning
- I want to exercise 4x per week
Focusing on aspirations as opposed to goals will allow you to focus more energy on daily habits you can perform to help you achieve your desired identity, which will changing your behavior much easier. Not only that, but focusing on habits will make achieving your goals inevitable.