6th December 2016
“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit forming is what keeps you going.”
― Jim Ryun
In our series of posts about creating accountability in your life and business, we’ve now talked about the importance of self reflection, and we’ve talked about creating a vision and setting goals to reach that vision.
Now we’d like to talk a little bit more about the nitty-gritty details of how you can go about achieving those goals on a day-to-day basis. What it boils down to is quite simple, really: it’s all about consciously developing habits – i.e. habit forming (there is a big difference). Those little things we do throughout our day, regularly, even mindlessly—commonly known as our habits—are the building blocks that make up our lives and our very selves.
And with 2017 now right around the corner there’s no better time to start planning your new year’s resolutions.
What exactly IS a habit?
Before we can start work on changing habits or forming new ones, it is helpful to consider the actual definition of a habit—What are they? How are they formed and broken? What causes us to develop certain habits? Habits are tricky little creatures; it’s sometimes hard to define exactly what a habit is. They look different for every individual, and there is no easy formula for changing all our daily habits and routines. They also have a negative connotation (see the official definition below) but if you become more aware of them, and the power of habits, there’s very little you won’t be able to achieve over the longer-term. Tom Corley’s book Change Your Habits, Change Your Life, is a testament to that, exploring the specific habits that transformed everyday people into millionaires.
noun: habit; plural noun: habits
A settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.
Done constantly or as a habit.
Having said that habits can be scientifically studied, and there has been various research done on the science behind what precisely defines a “habit” and how we can develop routines to change existing ones and form new ones. While there’s not just one correct answer on what constitutes a habit, there are various theories behind the construction of habits that help to explain why and how habits are formed. For example, Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, has written a bit about how habits work, and according to him, a habit is basically the product of a little cycle that we go through many times every day. That cycle looks like this:
Trigger → Routine → Reward
So let’s expand on this a little more. The trigger is some sort of regular cue that prompts your brain to go through a typical routine. For example, maybe you’re trying to break a caffeine addiction, but somehow you still find yourself stopping in at Starbucks every day on your way to work. In this case, the trigger may come from the fact that you drive by Starbucks on your commute—you see it and you feel the need to pull over and buy a coffee because it’s what you’re used to. And that’s the routine part of the habit. Your trigger is to see Starbucks, your routine is to then go in and buy a Starbucks drink. And the reward? Drinking that coffee after you’ve bought it, of course.
The triggers for our habits can be rooted in many different things. Often, they are emotional. This is how many people begin smoking; you may feel stressed or anxious, which cues you to move on to your routine of pulling out a cigarette and lighting up, and as you smoke the cigarette you have the reward of easing your stress (although of course this is short-term).
With bad habits, such as smoking, drinking, or unhealthy eating to ease stress or negative feelings, the “reward” will usually be short-lived, quickly replaced by a sense of guilt or shame at having carried out a habit that is not truly beneficial to you in the long-term game.
It’s important to understand this cycle, because being able to isolate and understand the initial cues and trigger—as well as the reason behind why you’re feeling that trigger—is the first step to being able to change your routine. In our first example about stopping for Starbucks, once you can isolate your trigger—driving past the Starbucks shop each day—changing the habit might be as simple as just taking a different route to work so as to avoid the trigger to purchase Starbucks.
Learning which habits to nurture
It’s not enough to know how or why a habit is formed; you must also know which habits are worth forming and developing in your life. You can start by looking at the common habits of other successful people—such as this list of 5 Daily Habits of Successful Entrepreneurs.
Like all things in life, the habits that you need to focus in on are going to be a bit different depending on your priorities, vision, and goals. Some good habits will be easy for you to form, while others may be a bit more of a challenge—and the things you struggle with probably won’t be the same as what everyone else struggles with.
There are some general things to keep in mind as you determine which habits to start nurturing in your life. For reference, check out these 20 Habits of Successful Entrepreneurs — a list of 20 of the most common habits among all successful entrepreneurs across different fields and stages of their success.
One simple method for learning which habits to develop is Stop, Start, Keep:
What should we STOP doing?
What should we START doing?
What should we KEEP doing?
You can download a free worksheet tool to help you or your business teammates discuss this “stop-start-keep” method here.
Once again, we find that our skill of self reflection is crucial here—knowing yourself, your priorities, your strengths, and your weaknesses are key to knowing the actions that work for you and the ones that don’t. Now let’s take a look at some of the general things that you might want to stop doing, as well as some things you might want to start doing.
Some things you might want to stop doing:
- Constantly checking social media. Not only is it a time waster, it inevitably causes you to compare yourself to others—or rather to the limited image that you see of them on social media. When you see the “perfect” picture that people choose to portray of themselves online, you may often find yourself feeling like you just don’t measure up in comparison. Social media can be good, but when you’re mindlessly scrolling through your Facebook or Twitter feed, it decreases productivity in your life—and the average person spends about 1 hour and 40 minutes on social media every day.
- Is it time to cut out any mindless media consumption. Think about how much time you spend with the TV or radio on in the background of your day, whether it’s turning on the TV as soon as you get home from work or keeping the radio on every time you’re in your car. There’s nothing particularly wrong with listening to the radio or watching TV, but when it’s usurping your life without you even being conscious of what you’re consuming, that’s when it gets potentially problematic.
- Eating poorly. We’re not here to dictate your diet, but healthy eating habits go a long way towards an overall healthy body. And when you’re functioning at your physical best, that’s when you’ll be most able to pursue success in every area of your life.
- Spending too much time on anything that doesn’t match up with your long-term goals or the things that excite you and motivate you. Of course we all have to do things sometimes that aren’t particularly fun, exciting, or pleasant for us. You might not enjoy going to the dentist or washing your car, but it has to be done from time to time. I’m talking about the things you choose to do that are distractions from your overall vision (such as buying Starbucks everyday when you’re trying to save money for a trip around the world). If it’s just a pattern that doesn’t need to be in your life, then it’s time to ditch it.
Some things you might want to start doing (if you’re not already):
- Meditating. You might think that meditation is only for the “spiritual” types and the “hippie” types, but that just isn’t true. Science is starting to show many benefits to time spent in quiet meditation; it helps to clear your mind and refocus your thoughts in order to be your best you each day. In fact, Inc.com has published an entire article on how science has shown that meditation can help to improve a business.
- Journaling. Maybe you’re not a writer, but it’s still worthwhile to spend a bit of regular time in journaling. It might just be jotting down a few things you’re grateful for each day, or you might actually take the time to write down details from your day and week—such as thoughtful reflection on what you’ve done well that day, and what you’d like to do better. There’s no right or wrong way to keep a journal; no matter how much journaling you do or what particular methods you follow, the simple act of keeping a journal will help to improve your writing skills and to improve your self-awareness.
- Practicing mindfulness every day. Even if you don’t take the time for a formal meditation practice each day, there’s no reason why you can’t take a few minutes every now and then throughout your day to be mindful and aware of your surroundings, your emotions, and your actions. Doing these quiet check-ins with yourself is a good way to ensure that you stay on track at sticking to your vision.
- Exercising. You might not be one of those people who wants to spend two hours in the gym every night, and that’s fine. But there’s really no reason to live a completely sedentary life, when study after study has shown that regular exercise is crucial to maintaining your overall mental and physical health and wellbeing. Just 20-30 minutes each day of physical activity a day is enough; it doesn’t have to be a huge time commitment.
For a few more ideas about the sorts of habits you should be focusing on and how to go about doing that, check out Steve Scott’s site Develop Good Habits, it’s full of all kinds of great habit related resources and advice.
Perhaps most importantly…be aware of the good habits that you already do, and KEEP doing them! “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it”—whatever you’re doing that works well for you, prioritize those habits and keep them as a key part of your daily life.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Don’t try to change your entire lifestyle overnight! You will just find yourself becoming overwhelmed and discouraged whenever you can’t keep up with the dozens of new changes you’re trying to implement in your life. Instead, pick one new habit to start forming in your life and focus your energy on that. When that one new routine feels solidified in your life, then you can add another good habit to focus on, and so on and so on. Remember, even the most successful people once started out small, and gradually built up from there—no one gets a million Twitter followers overnight.
The best way to start is with habits that will make you happier in your everyday life. Career happiness coach Vicki Morris wrote a great book on this called Happy Habits about building energy-raising habits into your home and work life.
I’d also highly recommend meditation and/or mindfulness as one of the most important habits to start cultivating right away—because you have to be mindful and aware of what you’re doing in your daily life in order to recognize the negative patterns and to start replacing them with positive patterns. That all starts with mindfulness. Hugh G. Byrne’s The Here-and-Now Habit is the best place to start with practical advice on how to break bad habits by being more mindful. Trying to change your other habits before you’ve developed a mindful nature is kind of like trying to fix symptoms instead of finding a lasting cure, but if you can start developing mindfulness at all times it will lead you to greater productivity in everything else you do.
Not convinced? Maybe this list of 10 Famous Entrepreneurs That Meditate can change your mind.
How long does it take to form a habit?
There are a lot of numbers thrown around when it comes to how long it takes to make (or break) a habit. Many people say that a new habit can be learned in a month (an idea that seems to have been popularized by Maxwell Maltz’s book Psycho-Cybernetics, where he writes that it takes most of his plastic surgery patients about 21 days to get used to seeing their new faces). But according to this article in ScienceAlert, the average amount of time it takes for a new habit to form is about 66 days, while individual times could vary anywhere from 18 days to 254 days.
So the reality is that there isn’t a cut-and-dry, set-in-stone answer to the question of how long it takes to form a new habit. Read more from Hopes & Fears in “How Long Does It Really Take To Break A Habit? This article mentions how there are a lot of variables that come into play when breaking a habit/forming a new habit—for example, you might think you’ve got the new habit down pat, whenever an old stressor re-enters your life and triggers you to start doing the original, bad habit again.
Notice one of the most important things this article mentions? The best way to get rid of negative habits in your life is to focus on replacing them with POSITIVE ones! Do not waste time by focusing on the negative and beating yourself up about it. Instead, track your positive habits, and focus on spending more and more time on the positive each day. You can’t really “break” bad habits unless you’ve formed better ones to take their place.
Another thing you’ll want to pay attention to in the Hopes & Fears article is the mention of how the time it takes to make or break a new habit will be different for every individual person. We’ve talked a lot throughout this blog series about the importance of individuality; how each person’s goals, routines, visions, dreams, and self-reflective practices will look a bit different depending on their own unique personalities and traits. Well, it’s the same when you’re trying to figure out how long it will take you to form a new habit. Some may be particularly ingrained for you (because you have had them so long they are habitual), while others may not be. M.J. Ryan’s book Habit Changers gives you 81 mantras designed to help you break bad habits by rewiring your brain using one line aphorisms like:
- You can’t say yes if you can’t say no
- Handshake your fear
- Stand where you’d rather not
If you only stop for that pricey artisan coffee once a week or once a month, it will probably be easier for you to cut it out of your life quickly than for the person who stops for coffee every single day. Don’t judge yourself based on other’s successes; instead, learn to critique yourself based on your own strengths and weaknesses.
Develop a Daily Routine
In Derek Doepker’s book The Healthy Habit Revolution, you can learn how to create new habits in just 21 days only putting in as little as 5 minutes a day.
As you start pinpointing which habit forming you need to be incorporated into your life as well as which bad ones need to be cut out and replaced with new habits, the key to actually changing is to make them a part of a daily routine. After all, that’s essentially what a habit is—just part of a routine.
So decide how you will start your morning—whether it’s with meditation, a mindful breakfast, an informative podcast on your commute to work, or something else—and stick to it. Make it a routine. Make health maintenance a routine—going to the gym after work, having a healthy snack in the afternoon to give you a boost for the rest of the day, whatever you need to do to maintain your own well-being—plan for when you will do these things throughout your day, and then make them a core part of your daily routine.
Compare your own routines to the daily routines of successful entrepreneurs, and make changes where you need to in order to be successful yourself.
We’ll cover the subject of tracking and monitoring habits with more depth in our next blog post.