How to Build a New Habit … and Make It Stick for Good
I’ve tried my hand at building lots of new and different habits over the years. Good habits, obviously. Habits I hope will help me strengthen my business, improve my health, and enjoy a more rewarding day-to-day experience.
A few of the daily habits I’ve worked to develop include:
- Creative writing
- Walking after dinner
- Practicing the piano
- Practicing Spanish
- Writing a poem
- Keeping the house tidy
- LinkedIn networking
I could probably double that list if I gave it some thought.
Some of these habits have stuck. And some haven’t.
One of the obvious reasons they haven’t all stuck is that there are too many of them. I have about five hours of daily habits listed there. Add in a four- to six-hour work day and time for meals, and things start to get pretty crowded.
But it’s interesting which habits have stuck and for how long.
For example, I’ve kept a daily journal for a full month — multiple times — and I enjoyed doing it each time … but not enough to stick with it indefinitely. Journaling, for me, is more a short-term experiment I engage in periodically than it is a full-fledged habit.
I also spend a half hour stretching every morning … and I’ve been doing that every day for about four years now.
Writing a poem every day … I like the idea, but have never been able to get into the groove.
Writing creatively for 45 minutes to an hour every day, on the other hand … that’s one thing I do most of the time. I’m not quite as reliable with that as I am with stretching … but I do pretty okay.
So, what makes a habit stick?
Having tried on various habits for size with differing degrees of success, I have a pretty good idea of why some habits take … and others just don’t.
They Must Have a Compelling Purpose and an Obvious Benefit
If you want to turn something into a long-term habit, you need to have a compelling purpose behind why you’re doing it. And because someone recommended it in their blog just doesn’t cut it.
It does help to have a handle on your compelling purpose before you decide to implement a habit, but it isn’t required. Sometimes the compelling purpose becomes clear after you’ve done something for a while.
That’s how stretching has been for me. I didn’t actually set out to make a habit of stretching every day.
I suffered from a bout of thoracic outlet syndrome four years ago. I won’t bore you with the details, but basically my left arm would occasionally become suddenly and unexpectedly weak … and things like driving or typing would leave my entire left arm tingling its way toward numbness.
It didn’t hurt, but it was annoying as all get out. After a lot of massage therapy and too many chiropractic adjustments to count, I hadn’t experienced much improvement. So I looked up stretching exercises online and started doing those every morning.
But here’s the thing about me and stretching. If I stretch one arm, I need to stretch the other arm. And then I feel like I need to stretch my legs. So, what started out as a series of three stretches grew into a full-body stretching routine.
Within a few weeks, the tingling in my arm was gone (yay!). But I also noticed stretching in the morning helped me feel more alert … I suffered from fewer of the aches and pains that come with sitting hunched over a computer each day … and I just really liked it.
And then, the kicker. For a week, I decided I could use that time better doing something else. So I started skipping the stretching. In no time at all, I was tired and cranky and sore. I went back to stretching and my mood immediately became sunnier … and my body happier.
That was my compelling purpose. Stretching is a habit that stuck, because I feel better and work better when I do it.
Journaling, on the other hand, is something I enjoy. But, unlike many people who find journaling to be life-changing in a positive way … I don’t notice much difference when I journal and when I don’t. My purpose behind journaling (when I do it) is usually that I read something recently about how amazing it is for creativity and mental health. So I do it for a bit, and it’s fine … but there’s not enough impact to form a compelling purpose.
So, when you start out to build a new habit, think about your purpose behind doing it. What benefit do you hope to gain? And then pay attention to whether or not it’s fulfilling that purpose and delivering the desired benefit.
If it is and you recognize that it is, keeping it as a habit becomes easy. If it’s not — and you’ve honestly given it time to deliver — then consider dropping it to make room for a different habit that may have a better result.
The Cost of Not Doing It
A clear purpose and an obvious benefit will go a long way toward helping you stick with a new habit.
But what really cements it is the cost of not doing it.
A habit that’s going to stick has a definite, noticeable impact when you don’t do it.
For me, creative writing is like that. If I don’t make time to write creatively almost every day, my self-esteem takes a hit — I like myself better when I’m writing than not. My creativity slips. And I feel out of sorts. I don’t get depressed or even sad. I just feel like something is off.
But when I’m writing every day — or even every other day — my work goes better, I get into the flow of projects easier, I come up with ideas faster, I feel more energetic, and I feel more comfortable in my own skin.
The cost of not writing is high. And it doesn’t take long for me to notice when I’m neglecting that habit.
On the other hand, another creative outlet — playing the piano — just doesn’t have the same effect. I enjoy playing the piano, and I never regret having made the time to do it. But, if I don’t make the time for it … I don’t feel a negative impact. So it doesn’t stick as a habit in the same way daily writing does.
Making the Time
So far, we’ve been talking about what makes a habit “sticky.”
But even if everything is in place for a new behavior to become a habit, you still need to get it to the point of being a habit.
I’ve found a couple of things make the biggest difference when it comes to giving a new habit the best chance of sticking. The first is to be realistic about the time commitment.
Maybe the new habit you’re looking at forming will only take 10 minutes out of your morning. That doesn’t sound like a big deal. But if your mornings are already rushed, how likely are you to find 10 extra minutes?
It may mean having to get up earlier … or cut out other activities … or delegate something to someone else. Is that something you’ll do and stick with?
If you can’t clearly see how to make time for a new habit, chances are you won’t stay with it long enough to realize the obvious benefit and feel the cost of not doing it.
Use Effective Triggers
Besides having enough time to dedicate to your new habit, the next obstacle is remembering to do what you want to do when you want to do it.
How many times have you decided to make something a habit, only to get to the end of the day and realize as you’re falling asleep that you forgot to do it?
Setting a reminder on your Smartphone is one way around this, and it works really well for some people. For me … let’s just say I’m really good at ignoring reminders on my Smartphone.
What has worked well for me is connecting my desired new habit with a triggering event. So for stretching, my trigger is breakfast. Right after breakfast, I transition into stretching. For creative writing, my trigger is the end of my work day. After I complete my work for the day, I make tea and move to a space I have reserved just for writing. For going for a walk, my trigger is finishing dinner.
Once you’ve set a trigger, you’ll have to be deliberate about it the first few times. But after a week or two, your brain will start to automatically transition into your new habit before you even realize what you’re doing.
I often find myself getting my stretching mat out after breakfast without even making the conscious decision to do it. It’s just ingrained.
Developing positive habits can have a huge impact on your business, your health, and your overall outlook. When you choose the right habits — the ones that have a clear purpose and an obvious benefit — and then make the time to do them and tie them to a trigger, you’ll set yourself up for success.
What about you? What strategies do you use to develop positive habits and make them stick? I’d love to hear more about it in the comments below.
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