Small Steps Toward Creating New Habits

“Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.” ~ Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

Today marks my first post of 2018 and it feels good. I think many of us welcome the start of a new year as it offers the opportunity to start over, renew and refresh. That is until a few weeks into January when we already find our resolutions haven’t stuck, our motivation is waning and we still have more winter to endure before spring appears.

In the past week, I have noticed a lot of the articles, posts, and podcasts use alternative approaches to the idea of ‘New Year’s Resolutions’ such as goals, habits, rituals, routines and intentions. We are on the right track with this language. A resolution can’t get us very far when it is a blanket statement without a plan of action.

As reported by NBC News, according to data pulled from Google by iQuanti, the most popular resolutions for 2017 in order of highest to lowest ranked were as follows:

  1. Get Healthy
  2. Get Organized
  3. Live Life to the Fullest
  4. Learn New Hobbies
  5. Spend Less/Save More
  6. Travel
  7. Read More

Can you relate? I am sure most of us can to some or all of these goals. The best way to start to change our behaviour and reach these goals is to create a habit.

The power of habit

Charles Duhigg, who wrote the bestselling book The Power of Habit, had a conversation with Jonathan Fields on the Good Life Project about this very topic of creating a habit. One of the most compelling arguments he makes for creating habits is that they take the exhaustive decision-making process out. In fact, he said research shows that 45% of our behavior is habit. We don’t have to decide to brush our teeth, get a shower, back out of the driveway, etc. – these have become ritualized for us.

Charles indicates that habits have 3 components:

  1. The cue or trigger
  2. The routine
  3. The reward

Tapping into this pathway will help solidify habits.

What is the benefit of habits?

Charles points out that willpower, what we need to avoid or do more of something, is like a muscle, and like a muscle, tires out. Habit doesn’t require the same muscle, so in turn, is easier to do. He gives an example of doing a job all day that is taxing in some way and then coming home with the goal of exercising. It is going to be very hard to muster up the willpower to do so after the day you endured.

What are the cues or triggers?

As Charles says, ritualizing cues will help to solidify a behaviour. The cues can either be one or a combination of the following – time, place, other people, emotion, preceding action.

Using my blog posts as an example, I have been writing and posting an article on my blog every Sunday since March 2013. This is now a habit but it definitely didn’t start out that way. Time was the biggest cue, where I committed to posting every Sunday. Emotion was the second biggest cue, where the more I posted, the more positive the emotions and motivation to continue – from the process of writing and learning, to the sense of accomplishment by trying to add some value to other people’s lives. Also, my husband Colin is actively involved in the beautifying, editing and maintenance of this website so he relies on me to have a completed article to post every Sunday. So, Sundays have become a routine posting day, and the reward has been for me, Colin and the other people that this blog may impact in some way.

What steps can you take toward creating a new habit?

Charles illustrates the creation of a new habit in his article Got a New Year’s Resolution? Here’s How to Make it Stick!. For our purposes, let’s consider a common habit that people want to make based on the most common resolution of 2017 – get healthy. So that might be to start exercising more. Using a modified version of Charles’ 3 step process, one could use the following approach:

1) Consider what exercising will look like for you. If you are just starting, or restarting, what have you enjoyed before? What is most motivating for you? Where do you like to exercise (i.e. outside, a gym or at home)? Get very specific about what you want to do, not what you should do. If you despise running, this wouldn’t be a good option but maybe walking is.

2) Consider what cues will be most effective for you. Is it an exercise buddy, bringing your gym clothes to work, booking a yoga class? Decide on the cues and plug them into your week.

3) Offer yourself a reward for the activity. For instance, my daughter saves her favourite Netflix episodes and new You Tube videos to watch when she goes on the treadmill. Now, she has created the habit of daily activity so that even without that reward she will exercise. When I started going to yoga class, my reward was to get a latte afterwards. I think rewards are much more powerful motivators than we realize.

Before you know it, whatever New Year’s Resolution you chose may become a habit, and you no longer have to deal with the decision-making process of it. Doesn’t that sound awesome and empowering!

Happy New Year & all the best in 2018.


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