“Wow! You must have great self-control to avoid eating sweets.” “I can’t find the willpower to get to bed on time and get enough sleep.” “I just don’t have the motivation to go for a walk every day.”
How often have you heard or said words like these? It’s a common misbelief that in order to form new habits we must have excellent self-control and will-power. While sure, those things can be beneficial, they are not the sole thing that help you create a lasting habit. You can stop saying you’re a failure because you didn’t have the self-control to resist the cake at the birthday party or the willpower to go outside and workout after work.
So why build habits and what does it take to create a new one?
Habits make life simpler and more automated. When we get distracted, tired, or overwhelmed we fall back on our habits, whether good or bad. We start doing the things that are easy and automatic. These things worked for us in the past and gave us some kind of reward, so our bodies naturally seek to repeat them. At their best, habits make it possible for us to stick to our best intentions.
Habits begin with a cue, something that prompts you to act in a way that will bring satisfaction. It’s dark in a room (cue) so you turn on the light (habit) and now you are able to see (reward). Repeating this process over years makes flipping the switch when you enter a room automatic where you don’t even think of it anymore, but there was a time when you had to learn the habit of turning the light on so you can see. The cue (environment, feeling, etc.) makes you crave something and your body turns to the easiest thing to earn that reward.
At its most basic, to learn a habit all you need to do is repeat something and get rewarded for it. Each time you do something, it becomes easier and more automatic. Think of the first time you drove a car. You most likely cautiously buckled your seatbelt and adjusted the seat and mirrors. Then with your foot firmly on the brake, you carefully moved from park to drive and slowly started rolling forward. Fast forward a few years and the process is quicker- you just hop in the car and go, singing to the radio, not thinking about what you’re doing at all. The more times you do something, the less mental effort and time that it takes. Eventually, that action takes very little thought and becomes a habit.
Pair that repetition with reward, and you have the key to developing new habits. Rewards are a pretty simple concept- If we do something and it makes us feel good, we are likely to repeat that same thing. We want to feel good, and we want to feel good immediately. In our minds, we think long-term rewards will help us stay consistent. We make deals with ourselves that if we lose x amount of weight in a month, then we’ll reward ourselves with a trip to the spa. Or if we workout 4 times a week for a month, we’ll reward ourselves with a new workout outfit. In reality, these long-term rewards aren’t motivating enough to develop consistent habits. We might keep that behavior for a short period of time to earn the reward, but then fall back on old ways. On the contrary, we need to reward ourselves immediately after the habit in order to make it long-lasting and eventually spontaneous. Habits are formed when things are easy and rewarding.
So try it out. Start small. Pick 1-2 habits you want to implement or change and focus on those. The ultimate goal may be drinking half your body weight in ounces of water daily, but maybe start with drinking an extra glass a day. Make it easy to win and easy to repeat and then add more. If you miss a day, accept it (everyone makes mistakes or gets off track at some point) and then make sure you hit the habit the next time. Never miss twice. Be patient and consistent. You can do this! We’re rooting for you!
-Find a time of day that is uninterruptedly yours and focus on building your habits there.
-Make it as easy as possible to do the habit. (Keep a large water bottle full and with you to make sure you drink enough, keep tempting foods out of the house)
-Change your environment. Eliminate cues that lead to poor habits and add cues that lead to positive habits. (Hide the TV remote so you can’t plop down and start binge watching or sleep in your workout clothes so you are immediately ready to train when the alarm goes off.)
-Find ways to truly enjoy the habits you’re working to build. (Smile while training, make your body associate dopamine with the habit)
-Try replacing a bad habit with a new habit. (Instead of opening up Facebook when you get the urge, read a page of a book.)
-Pair an established habit with a new one. (Everytime you walk into the living room, do a push up. Every time you pick up your phone, take 5 deep breaths.)