Most of us started the year with some resolutions, or simple decisions about habits and lifestyle as the case may be. You do not want to go through the months either giving up along the way or not entirely achieving the set goals. Sticking to the plans to take up new, positive habits or to get rid of old, toxic ones is not as easy as saying or writing them down. There’s good news though: all of your habit goals are attainable. It only takes yourself and adetermined mind.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence therefore, is not an act, but a habit.” These are sobering words from Aristotle, and an astute reminder that success doesn’t come overnight. On the contrary, it is discipline that gets you from Point A to the often elusive Point B.
In our day-to-day lives, habits can often be tough to build, as there are plenty of distractions that can lead us off and right back to our old ways. To alleviate some of those troubles we can examine some academic research on motivation, discipline, and habit building, and break down their findings into practical steps that any aspiring habit-builder can put into place.
1. Make “micro quotas” and “macro goals”
In a fascinating study on motivation, researchers found abstract thinking to be an effective method to help with discipline. In the most basic sense, “dreaming big” is pretty good advice after all. And since a variety of research around the self-determination theory shows us that creating intrinsic motivators (being motivated to do things internally, not through punishments or rewards) is an essential process of building habits that stick, you need to find a way to balance this desire to dream big with your day-to-day activities, which often do not result in quick, dramatic changes.
The answer is to create what they call “micro quotas” and “macro goals.” Your goals should be the big picture items that you wish to someday accomplish, but your quotas, are the minimum amounts of work that you must get done every single day to make the bigger goal a reality. Quotas make each day approachable, and your goals become achievable because of this.
Writer/developer Nathan Barry has made for a great case study of the use of these quotas as someone who forced himself to write 1000 words per day come rain or sunshine. The result was three self-published books resulting in thousands of dollars in sales.
2. Create behavior chains
Creating sticky habits is far easier when we make use of our current routines, instead of trying to fight them. The concept of if-then planning is built around environmental “triggers” that we can use to let us know that it’s time to act on our habit. Also known implementation intentions, this tactic involves picking a regular part of your schedule and then simply building another link in the chain by adding a new habit.
For instance, instead of “I will keep a cleaner house,” you could aim for, “When I come home, I’ll change my clothes and then clean my room/office/kitchen.” Multiple studies confirm this to be a successful method to rely on contextual cues over willpower. So the next time you decide to “eat healthier,” instead try “If it is lunch time, Then I will only eat meat and vegetables.”
3. Eliminate excessive options
According to a variety of research on self-control, there is great power in being boring. Take, for instance, Barack Obama’s insistence on never wearing anything but blue and gray suits. According to the president, “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make too many decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
The president’s belief is well supported by the research—Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues’ study on self-control found that making repeated choices depleted the mental energy of their subjects, even if those choices were mundane and relatively pleasant. According to the Harvard Business Review, if you want to maintain long term discipline, it’s best to “Identify the aspects of your life that you consider mundane — and then routinize those aspects as much as possible. In short, make fewer decisions.”
For lasting change, the steps you take must ultimately change your environment and schedule. Stop buying snacks if you want to stop snacking (no willpower needed), pack a very similar lunch every day of the week, and embrace the power of routine to get the necessary done each day.
4. Process plan
The step that many people skip when they fantasize about building a certain habit is they never clearly answer why they want the change to occur. It may seem like a small detail, but it plays a huge role in keeping our motivation up over time. A variety of research shows us that excessive fantasizing about results can be extremely detrimental to the consistency of any habit.
According to this study from UCLA, the mistake is in what we visualize. Researchers found that those participants who engaged in visualizations that included the process of what needed to be done to achieve the goal (ex: fantasizing about learning another language, by visualizing themselves practicing every day after work) were more likely to stay consistent than their peers (that visualized themselves speaking French on a trip to Paris). The visualization process worked for two reasons:
- Planning: visualizing the process helped focus attention on the steps needed to reach the goal.
- Emotion: visualization of individual steps led to reduced anxiety.
5. Eliminate the limitations from backsliding
New habits are often very fragile, so we must eliminate any source of friction that may lead us astray. These are the specific moments where you find yourself saying, “Screw this, it’s not worth the effort!” A more scientific take on this phenomenon is called the What the Hell Effect, which explains why we are so likely to abandon ship with a new habit at the first backsliding. For lasting change, the steps you take must ultimately change your environment and schedule.
In general, you’ll find that these steps above fit almost any habit. The specifics, however, may take some work.
You might have to experiment before you find the right cue that reminds you to start a new habit. You might have to think a bit before figuring out how to make your new habit so easy that you can’t say no. And rewarding yourself with positive self–talk can take some getting used to if you’re not someone who typically does that.
It’s quite a process but worth the while, my friend.