“Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.” – Mark Twain
I’ve learned a lot about changing habits in the last 2 1/2 years, from quitting smoking to taking up running and GTD and vegetarianism and waking early and all that. I could go on, of course, but you get the picture.
I’ve not only learned a lot about what you should do when changing habits, but through my failures, I’ve learned about what not to do.
And trust me, I’ve had lots of failures.
I’ve found failures to be just as important as successes when trying to learn how to improve, especially when it comes to changing habits. It’s not an easy task, and I’m sure every one of us has tried to quit something and failed, or tried to do something positive and failed. The key, of course, is to not just give up after failure, but to reset your resolve, to analyze what went wrong and why, and to plan to overcome those obstacles the next time.
I’ve done that, with one failure after another, and would like to share a few things I’ve learned to avoid when trying to change a habit.
“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.” – Jim Ryun
- Taking on two or more habits at once. We’ve all done this. I want to learn to wake early, and to start running, and to eat healthier, and to be more organized, and to write every day … all at once! But no matter how much enthusiasm we have for all of these goals, taking on even just two habits at once is setting ourselves up for failure. I’ve tried it. Many times. It’s certainly possible, but it’s not for those of us who have difficulty changing habits (I think that’s nearly all of us). I would estimate that you triple or even quadruple your chances of success if you focus on one habit at a time, for one month at a time. Devote all of your energy to that habit change, and once it’s on autopilot, move on to the next one. Knock ’em down one at a time.
- Not committing a plan to paper. It’s easy to wake up, jump out of bed, and yell out loud, “I’m going to make a change today!” Who among us hasn’t done that? (Side note: if you don’t live alone, your housemates or family members might not appreciate all the yelling.) But just telling ourselves, whether out loud or quietly in our heads, that we’re going to change isn’t enough. You have to write down your goal. Write a start date. Write an end date (30 days is a good time frame). Write down exactly what you’re going to do. Write down how you’re going to be accountable, what your rewards are, what the obstacles are, what your triggers are. More on these below. Main thing: put it on paper and stick to the plan (don’t file the plan in your inbox, you piler you!).
- Being half-committed. I’ve done this a few times myself: I will say, “I think I’ll quit smoking today.” Then I’ll throw away my pack of cigarettes (this should be in past-tense as I don’t smoke anymore, but I’m too lazy to go back and change the tense). Then I’ll go for as long as I can (often half a day!) and then cave in and go buy another pack. Then I feel guilty for a little while until I half commit to quit again. That doesn’t work. You have to commit Big Time. That means tell the world about it. Seriously — put it on your blog, tell your family, friends, co-workers, your butcher, the guy from your high school who you say hi to when you run into him at the grocery store and who you call “buddy” because you forgot his name. The more people, the better. Publish your entire plan. Put up a sign on your desk and refrigerator. Make a solemn promise to your child (this worked for me when quitting smoking).
- Not having support. There will be times when you falter, almost invariably. Who will you turn to when you need encouragement? If you don’t have a good answer to this, you need to think it through. If you have a significant other, that’s a good choice, but have more than one supporter. Maybe your mom, your sister, your best friend, your boss. Maybe an online friend or three. Best yet, join a support group or an online forum full of people doing the same thing. Make the commitment to them, and ask them to help you when you hit rough spots. Make a promise to call them if you do. Put this in your written plan.
- Not thinking through your motivation. In my experience, what people call discipline, I call motivation. Why are you disciplined enough to do something? Because you have the right motivation. When you lose the motivation, you lose the discipline. Before you start your habit change, think through your motivations. Why are you doing this? What will keep you going when you forget your reasons? Public commitment is a big motivator, of course, but you should have internal ones too. Write these down in your plan.
- Not realizing the obstacles. Every habit change is a path littered with obstacles. Unfortunately, when we hit some of these, we often quit. Or we’ll try again, but hit the same obstacles again and again with the same result. Instead, think it through, and anticipate your obstacles. If you’ve failed before, think about what obstacle stopped you. If you’ve never done this habit change before, do some research and read about others who’ve succeeded and failed at it, and find out what obstacles you should expect. Then make a plan for what you’ll do when you face the obstacles. For example, I have a hard time eating in moderation when I go out. What will I do when I go out to eat? What are my strategies? I have to think these through before actually going out, because when the urge hits and you don’t have a plan, you’re too late.
- Not logging your progress. You can change habits without keeping a log, but a log just increases your chances of success — and why wouldn’t you want to do that? Things are hard enough without using all the tools at your disposal. A log helps you succeed because it reminds you to be consistent. It keeps you aware of what you’re actually doing. It motivates you, because you want to write good things in that log. It helps keep you accountable before the people you’ve made a commitment to.
- Having no accountability. Speaking of accountability, it’s the second half of the all-important public commitment. It’s not enough to make a big announcement on your blog and not follow through. For example, I announced my plans to get in shape earlier to all of you … but I also created a small training blog (or “tralog”) that will help keep me accountable. I report my progress daily, whether I fail or succeed. Take a look at my “tralog”. Even if you don’t have a blog, you have to set up a system where you remain accountable — maybe post your log up at your workplace, or email your progress to people, or just report to them daily in person.
- Not knowing your triggers. This is an important key to changing habits. Every habit has at least one trigger — an event that immediately precedes the habit. Some habits have more than one trigger — for example, when I smoked, my triggers included waking up, eating, sex, stressful events, going out drinking, etc. Each time these events happened, almost without fail, I would smoke — either that, or I’d get the urge to do so. The more consistent the link to the trigger, the stronger the habit. So when you try to break a habit, you have to know all of your triggers (log it for a few days) and then create a positive habit to replace the negative habit for each of the triggers. Running, for example, replaced smoking when I got stressed. For positive habit changes, such as exercise, you need a trigger that will happen every day (or as often as you need it to happen). For exercise, you could exercise right after your morning coffee (if you have coffee at the same time every day already) or right after work, if you get off work at the same time every day. Put your triggers in your written plan, and be very very consistent with them — when the triggers happen, do the habit immediately, every single time. The less consistent you are with your triggers, the weaker the habit will be.
- Not doing your reading. With every habit change, I find it important to read as much as possible about it, before and during. I will do my research, to find out strategies for success, potential obstacles, good tools that will help me be successful. And I’ll still read about it during the habit change — blogs, magazines, books, forums, success stories — to help motivate me.
- Changing focus too soon. Often we’ll start a habit change, and within a week or two change our focus to something else. Well, the habit probably isn’t firmly ingrained by then, and so we’ve wasted all that time trying to form a new habit and then abandoning it before it’s on autopilot. Instead, stick to this habit for at least 30 days, and be consistent as possible.
- Not being consistent. I’ve mentioned this a couple times now, but it should be addressed because it’s important. If you attach a habit to a trigger, you have to do the habit every single time, immediately following the trigger. If you do it sometimes and not others, you will not have a habit. Try not to miss a single time if possible, because once you miss once, you’ll be tempted to miss another time, and then a third, and then you’ve got nothing.
- Quitting after failure. However, if you do miss once, or twice or three times, don’t give up. Just figure out why you missed, and plan to beat that obstacle next time. Then be as consistent as possible from then on out, until the habit is ingrained. If you quit, you’ve let the failure beat you. But if you reset your resolve, and learn from your failure, the failure then becomes a positive thing that helps you to succeed. As I’ve said before, I see failure as a stepping stone to success.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle