“You will never change your life until you change something you do daily.”
~ John C. Maxwell
When Fall rolls around, much like New Year, I find myself doing a mini “reboot” of sorts. For me, as kids head back to school and all the tomfoolery of summer fades away, I want to hone my habits and get back on track where I may have begun to wander.
When you look at the statistics on New Year’s resolutions, they clearly are not as effective as we'd like. Only about 8% of those who make New Year’s resolutions keep them. So if they don’t work in January, they aren't going to work in September. Given that, let’s look at some useful “best practices” that can help us to follow-through and attain what we desire.
When I think of follow-through, I ultimately bump into my own relationship with my willpower. But there is more to it than simply deciding something and then trying to brute force our way through with sheer willpower. For the last several decades, researchers have learned a great deal about our ability to control our behavior. They call this ability “self regulation.” And it turns out that it is key to our pursuit of happiness. People who have high levels of self-regulation tend to be more successful, have higher self-esteem and have better relationships.
Although self regulation can keep us on track for long term goals, it can also falter if we rely on it too heavily. Self-regulation is a limited resource, much like energy. When depleted, we can get off track, falling into old habits and forgetting our new goals. So, what strategies can we use to avoid a faltering will? How can we reduce the toll on our self-regulation? The answer lies in forming good habits. Scholars tell us that forming habits allows us to put some behaviors on “autopilot” which, in turn, reduces the day-to-day toll on willpower. According to studies led by Wendy Wood of Duke University, forming habits is less stressful and requires less mental energy than deliberate goal setting.
My number one recommendation is to look at your goal and turn it on its ear – turn it into a new habit. Ask yourself, what habits can you form that would support your goal? For example, rather than have the goal of losing weight, resolve to walk 10,000 steps every day. Rather than resolving to write a book, resolve to write a minimum number of words each day. Rather than resolving to learn to play the guitar, resolve to play for 20 minutes or more each day. Since our days are built through our habits and our lives are built from our days, we can become that writer, musician or size 6.
That begs the question, how do we form habits? Science helps us here too.
Starting the Habit Habit
When you’re beginning any new habit, it’s important to start STRONG. Habits should be launched aggressively. And then once launched, avoid missing an opportunities to reinforce our new habit.
That does not mean that our new habit has to be a huge undertaking. In fact, there is often merit in starting small. If there is something we do everyday, in a year, we will have done that habit at least 365 times, which can translate to big gains. How small you start really depends on you. But, if you are having trouble with motivation, start really, really small. Think baby steps. When I was having a hard time getting a meditation practice going, I finally relented and chose the baby step of doing just 1 minute a day. This was something my brain didn’t resist. I found that more often than not, my 1-minute extended to a longer meditation.
100% commitment to a new habit can also reduce our pull on self-regulation, as habit decreases conscious attention required. I love the quote by Jack Canfield, author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, “99% is a bitch. 100% is a breeze.” I know that it’s certainly true for me. When I used to say I was going to work out five times a week, there was a decision point every day. Was today an exercise day or not? Since I have decided, rain or shine, I do some exercise every single day, I don’t have to even have the conversation with myself. As I climb on my treadmill, I might decide to do more or do less, but regardless, I am doing it every single day. It has made all the difference. Let’s face it, the more details we hand over to automation the more we are set free to work and lives.
Secure One Habit Before Starting Another
There isn’t agreement across the research on how long it takes to secure a habit. What we do know is that simpler habits form more quickly than more challenging ones. In a study at the University College London, 96 participants tried varying new daily habits. Researchers found that the less challenging habits took about 21 days to form, while the more difficult took more than four times the amount of time. The average was 66 days. Regardless of how long it takes for you to form your new habit, we do know that habit formation is more successful if we secure one habit before adding to that habit or starting another. So be sure to give yourself time for your habit to become automatic.
This is certainly not meant to be a comprehensive list of tips around building good habits. A quick search on Amazon yields thousands of titles related to habits. But the tips I’ve shared come from empirical study, so you can put some faith in them.
I hope you consider habit formation as a way to building “the you” and the life you desire. Aristotle tells us “We are what we repeatedly do.” So, let’s make our days count by repeatedly doing what works for our lives.
About the Author
Donna Hemmert is co-founder of Positive Voices, an online platform that showcases leading experts who bring cutting-edge tips and science-based solutions to the masses to help them live their best lives. Donna has been an executive leader in the Internet industry for over two decades driving marketing programs and forming strategic multi-million-dollar partnerships in high-tech companies (including Optiview Technologies, Netscape Communication, PSINet and recently Intelishift Technologies). Donna’s passion is helping people improve their lives by understanding and practicing the behaviors that enable community. She lives outside DC in Northern Virginia with her family where they love to enjoy the great outdoors.
Baumeister, R. F., DeWall, C. N., Gailliot, M., & Oaten, M. (2006). Self-regulation and personality: how interventions increase regulatory success, and how depletion moderates the effects of traits on behavior, Journal of Personality, 74 (6), 1773-1801.
Guise, S. (2013). Mini habits. Smaller habits, bigger results. Amazon Distribution, Leipzig.
Krech, Gregg (2014-11-16). The Art of Taking Action: Lessons from Japanese Psychology (p. 53). ToDo Institute Books. Kindle Edition.
McGonigal, K. (2011). The willpower instinct: How self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it. Penguin.
Tangney, J., Baumeister, R., & Boone, A.L. (2004). High self-control predicts good adjustment, less pathology, better grades, and interpersonal success. Journal of Personality, 72, 271-324.
Wood, W., & Neal, D. T. (2007). A new look at habits and the interface between habits and goals. Psychological Review
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