You may have heard it takes 30 days to create a new habit. Well, it’s not as simple or as difficult as that. If you have managed to create a new habit simply by doing it for 30 days, congratulations. Repetition is important, but most of us fail well before we get to the 30 days, and even after the 30 days it may still not be an ingrained behaviour.
Whether it’s exercising regularly, eating less sugar, or meditating, even though I know all these things are good for me, and they are all enjoyable (except eating less sugar, let’s be honest), my success in actually doing them on a regular basis is sporadic at the best of times. Why do willpower and motivation evaporate so fast?
Not surprisingly, scientists have studied this topic extensively. Stanford University’s BJ Fogg, and Columbia University’s Heidi Halvorson have compared the effectiveness of many different approaches to find what works with goals and habits. The truth is, willpower and motivation alone won’t cut it – for most of us they wax and wane like a lunar cycle on speed. And rather than aiming for a set period of time (and in my case failing by day three), there are some tested ways that make it easier to follow through on the habits we want to create.
It may help you to know that their advice is to start small and prioritise. Don’t try to become the perfect human overnight.
The strategies for breaking a habit
Create the right environment
No one would seriously try giving up sugar while working in a lolly shop. We need to make it easier for ourselves by reducing the friction between us and the new behaviour and increasing it between us and the behaviour we want to avoid. For example, to help me eat less sugar, I no longer buy chocolate or biscuits at the supermarket (and avoid shopping when feeling tired or emotionally needy – my sugar/treat trigger).
Any treats we have for the kids are kept in the garage – adding a barrier by making them harder to get to. And I have plenty of non-sugary treats or snacks handy instead.
Plan it out
“Deciding in advance when and where you will take specific actions to reach your goal can double or triple your chances for success,” says associate professor Halvorson of Columbia University’s Motivation Science Centre.
To make it easier to exercise in the morning, I put my workout clothes next to my bed including my socks, shoes, headphones and water bottle to avoid the distraction of having to make decisions or look for anything. I have also agreed to meet my friend at the corner of our road at 6.45am and I don’t want to stand her up!
Most of us struggle to ditch those unwanted habits because ‘eat no junk food’, or ‘stop procrastinating’ are too vague as goals. What behaviour will you replace the unwanted behaviour with?
In my case, instead of checking social media I will meditate for one minute or walk outside and pat the dog.
Don’t just start small. Start tiny
Even dramatic transformations begin with small steps. How often do we put off doing something because we don’t have time? So start that new habit with the micro-version – the one-minute meditation, the seven-minute workout, the $5 a week automatic savings deposit.
Remind and pair
Set a visible reminder to prompt the behaviour and pair it to something you already do habitually. For years I never flossed regularly except for the week before seeing the dentist. Then I started putting my dental floss on top of the toothpaste tube so I had to move it to brush my teeth.
The way our brains work means that even though we may know this new behaviour is good for us, we are more likely to keep doing it if we feel how good it is. Experiencing positive emotion either before, during or after doing the new behaviour helps wire it in to be more automatic, and can be as simple as celebrating our success by saying, “Yeah, go me!”.
Be the behaviour
We’re more successful at habits when we believe they are who we are (and if they are meaningful to us – we’re not doing them for someone else’s approval). So when I resolutely ignore the plate of brownies offered to me, I tell myself “I’m not a sweets person” and to help with my exercise habits I tell myself “I’m an active person”. We want good habits to become part of our self-identity.
Plan to fail
We will all fail at some point. Self-compassion and a plan will get us back on track faster than beating ourselves up. Try making the behaviour even smaller or pairing it with something else, and remember to celebrate the new achievement no matter how small. When I’ve missed my scheduled exercise because I got busy (‘no time’ is so often the new habits handbrake), I know I do have time for just one push-up.
Making tiny goals and habits feels more manageable to most of us. Isn’t it great to know you don’t need 30 days and a huge plan? Armed with that good news, what tiny action have you got time to make right now?
Get into some brain-training literature to understand your habits and how to undo them.
● Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg (Random House, $38).
● 9 Things Successful People Do Differently by Heidi Halvorson (Harvard Business Review Press, $30).
● Heidi Halvorson’s ‘How Successful People Reach Their Goals’ on proven tactics to get to where you want to be.
● Founder of Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab BJ Fogg’s TEDx talk on forgetting big changes, and starting with tiny steps instead.
● Best-selling author and workplace wellbeing teacher Michelle McQuaid’s podcast with BJ Fogg, an experimental psychologist and director of the behavior design lab at Stanford University.
For more inspirational reads, pick up your latest copy of NEXT magazine, on sale now.