Getting up early, exercising regularly, eating nutritious foods, they’re all just habits and healthy habits are as difficult to give up as unhealthy habits. So, how do you form a new habit in the first place?
Creating a new habit can sometimes feel impossible. It can seem like an insurmountable hurdle and something we just don’t have willpower to achieve. But all the habits we already have came from somewhere, so with a little thought and planning adopting a new habit can be easier than you expect.
Researchers have found it takes about 21 days to form a new habit – or break an old one – so dedication is key. Keep to the new habit as much as possible for the 21days, prioritize it and make sure you are aware and create the time and space to allow your new habit to form. It’s more likely that you will then be able to continue it without thinking after this time then. Habits which are more complex or difficult to incorporate with your lifestyle may take longer as you will have to alter more of your life to accommodate them successfully. But needing rather than wanting to create a new habit will mean you are more likely to pick it up quickly.
“The speed of new habit pattern development is largely determined by the intensity of the emotion that accompanies the decision to begin acting in a particular way,” says motivational coach Brian Turner (brianturner.com) “Any experience of intense joy or pain, combined with a behavior, can create a habitual behavior pattern that may endure for the rest of a person’s life. For example, putting your hand on a hot stove or touching a live electrical wire will give you an intense and immediate pain or shock. The experience may only take a split second. But for the rest of your life, you will have developed the habit of not putting your hand on hot stoves, or touching live electrical wires. The habit will have been formed instantly, and endure permanently.” This is also why being told to go on a diet by a doctor is more likely to yield action than planning to perhaps start eating more healthily but never sticking to the regime. But even if your new habit is not life or death, you can still form it with less effort than you would imagine.
If you want to see a change then slightly altering something you do is going to be easier and less stressful than completely changing your lifestyle or routine. “Rather than trying to do something amazing from the beginning, start small and gradually improve,” says James Clear, behavioral psychologist and author of Atomic Habits. “Along the way, your willpower and motivation will increase, which will make it easier to stick to your habit for good.”
So if you have decided to start running, first aim to go three times a week for 10mins. Then build up the minutes every couple of weeks, followed by the number of days. Or if you want to eat more healthily swap one of your snacks or meals for something more nutritious rather than banning a whole food group in one go.
“It is important to keep each habit reasonable, so that you can maintain momentum and make the behavior as easy as possible to accomplish,” adds James. “New habits should feel easy, especially in the beginning. If you stay consistent and continue increasing your habit it will get hard enough, fast enough. It always does.”
Many of us find it easier to do something for someone else rather than ourselves, we worry about letting people down or losing face. So if you are really committed to making a change tell friends and relatives your plans. The people who love you will want to see you succeed and help you on your way, so will spur you on when times get tough. They will also be ready with a gentle reminder when you try to ‘cheat’ yourself.
“Tell others that you are going to begin practicing a particular behavior,” says Brian. “It is amazing how much more disciplined and determined you will become when you know that others are watching you to see if you have the willpower to follow through on your resolution.” You may find that someone close to you has a similar goal you can buddy up with. This will give you on-going support and you can learn from each other’s mistakes as well. Check out Instagrammers who are perhaps trying to do what you are changing or who have completed the journey you have undertaken too – and think about charting your process so you can see how far you have come and feel motivated by inspiring others.
Do not expect to see results immediately! You might have planned to get up earlier every day to have more time to do things in the morning but then after the first week struggle with the 6am alarm. Don’t give up – simply look at how you can help yourself achieve your goal and you will likely be back on track soon. Then you will eventually be in a situation where you naturally wake up at that time or look forward to the alarm going off because of the benefits you are finding. “You can make incredible progress if you are consistent and patient,” advises James.
Habits are behaviours we adopt or carry out almost without thinking. They become so natural we almost sleepwalk them or better still look forward to them or their benefits. An ancient yoga technique called Sankalpa – which means intention setting – can help you get your unconscious mind on-board and give you a boost in the right direction.
“Sankalpa, is comprised of a positive statement of self,” explains yoga expert and author of Making Happy Work, Mick Timpson. “A good example of a sankalpa-based habit of forming intentions tend to be ‘I am’ statements such as: ‘I am free in mind and body’. The intention is in the present tense. In this way, we are planting seeds in the nervous system that almost tells your mind/body that your intention is coming to fruition right here, right now. The change will happen all by itself.”
When combined with meditation, so we are open and calm, this can be a far-reaching tool. “It’s far more powerful than willpower,” adds Mark. “It’s like a reboot – and from there, anything is possible.”
Just as life is not all plain sailing, so changing your behaviour and forming a habit isn’t either. There will be days where it’s harder to keep your resolve or indeed remember to stick to your new habit. Accepting this is important. “You shouldn’t expect to fail, but you should plan for failure,” says James. “Take some time to consider what will prevent your habit from happening. What are some things that are likely to get in your way? What are some daily emergencies that are likely to pull you off course? How can you plan to work around these issues? Or, at least, how you can bounce back quickly from them and get back on track? You just need to be consistent, not perfect.”
Indeed making mistakes, being forgetful or struggling will help you evaluate if there is a better way of incorporating a habit into your life and make it work long-term too. So rather than give up and think it’s unworkable, look at other ways of including your new habit into your life. “Top performers make mistakes, commit errors, and get off track just like everyone else. The difference is that they get back on track as quickly as possible,” says James. “Research has shown that missing your habit once, no matter when it occurs, has no measurable impact on your long-term progress. Rather than trying to be perfect, abandon your all-or-nothing mentality.”
If an experience is a pleasant one we are far more likely to continue with it. So acknowledge the effort you are making to better yourself through challenge and change with treats along the way at measurable intervals.
“Give yourself a reward of some kind for practicing in the new behavior,” says Brian. “Each time you reward yourself, you reaffirm and reinforce the behavior. Soon you begin to associate, at an unconscious level, the pleasure of the reward with the behavior. You set up your own force field of positive consequences that you unconsciously look forward to as the result of engaging in the behavior or habit that you have decided upon.”