6 simple ways to develop new habits

Do you have goals? Things you want to achieve one day? I do. I have measurable goals mapped out in all areas of my life for the next 15 years. These are then worked back in greater and greater levels of granularity to goals in 5 years, 1 year, 6 months, 1 month, 1 week, and so on. And that’s good. Goals are good, planning is good. Effective people plan.

But on their own, goals are not enough.

Goals are targets – measurable aspirations of the kinds of people we want to be, careers we want to have, holidays we want to enjoy. However, goals are only achieved by taking diligent and consistent ACTION, every day in the right direction. In other words, you will only hit the targets that you set yourself in life by developing the right HABITS.

If you haven’t read it, I recommend James Clear’s seminal work “Atomic Habits” (Kindle version here). In it, the author explains in detail how the habits we adopt daily affect our chances of success in life so much. My favourite quote in the book, which I’ll paraphrase, is this:

“We don’t rise to the levels of our aspirations, we fall to the level of our habits.”

In other words, you can have the loftiest, most far reaching goals in the world (and please do!) but there will be pitfalls on the journey. It’s the consistent and concerted action taken every day that will draw you towards achieving those goals, come rain or shine. Giving up sugar is easy on days when you’re alone and focused on the fitter, healthier person you want to become. When you’ve had a bad day and everyone in the room but you has an ice-cream, it’s another matter entirely.

So think about the things that you need to start doing, stop doing or maybe continue to do in order to be the person you want to grow into. My six top tips for effective habit development are:

1. Start small

We’ve all done it. Got to January 1st and vowed to join the gym and go every day! Or pulled on our trainers and run 3 miles four days on the trot! Then we get the crash. We get tired, injured, bored and simply can’t push through. We give up. So, rather than binge and then bust with your new habits, start small. Want to take up running? Run just five minutes a day but every single day. Want to get stronger? Do five push-ups every single morning. In and of themselves, this won’t have a tremendous physical impact. What it will do incredibly effectively though is build the habit of daily exercise. The habit of someone who takes their fitness seriously. Before you know it, you’ll be running 15 or 20 minutes or doing 20 to 30 push-ups, but if you’re having a bad day then going back to 5 minutes, or 5 reps is enough. The habit is more important to build than the volume of the action itself.

Similarly, as with examples above, don’t start with ten new habits you’re trying to develop. Overwhelm will win the day. Start with two or three and keep going until you have them cracked (see point 5) and only then add more to the list.

2. To start doing something, make it easy to do

This sounds laughably obvious, but we are inherently a bit lazy and easily distracted! So if you want to start the day with a green smoothie not a bowl of Sugar Puffs, get everything ready the night before. Aspire to go running or workout in the morning before work? Put your running or yoga gear where you’ll see it as soon as you wake up, even sleep in it if it helps (I actually know someone who has done this!) Make doing the right thing easy. And it’s counterpoint is also true…

3. To stop doing something, make it hard to do

Again, not exactly rocket science, but if you’re trying to quit smoking or sugar, don’t have cigarettes or biscuits and chocolate in the house! I was losing far too much of the day to social media browsing so removed the apps from my phone. Sure I can pull up Chrome and log in there, but I have to type in my user name, open my password manager, copy and paste my password etc. It’s not impossible, but I do it far, far less! Making doing the wrong thing even a little more difficult, greatly increases your chances of success.

4. Link habits to other things you already do every day

This is a superb tip in “Atomic Habits” and also B.J. Fogg’s outstanding “Tiny Habits” (Kindle version here). Link the things you need to start doing to activities that you already do daily. Want to floss your teeth more? Do it straight after brushing them. Want to start planning your day more effectively? Do it in the car straight after dropping the kids at school. I used to cycle to the office daily and built a push-up habit by anchoring them to the daily actions my commute entailed. Put my kit on in the morning: 10 push ups. Got to the changing room at work: 10 push-ups. Showered and changed: 10 push-ups. Then the same in reverse on the way home. The result – at least 60 push ups every single day. Just by using existing embedded habits as the anchor.

5. Track your habits

One of the most powerful self-development tools I have ever started to use is a habit tracker. For years I had a monthly tracker written out in the back of my journal or notebook. Nowadays, it sits as part of my spreadsheet-based “Daily Log” (of which, more another time). Each evening, I run down my list and for each behaviour I’m working on make a tick for each where I’ve been successful. As the days go by and the total number of successes builds, two things tend to happen: you get a small, happy rush of dopamine (the body’s reward chemical) and you feel much less inclined to break the habit and upset your successful streak. Success compounds into the likelihood of greater success.

6. Reward yourself

People are simple creatures really. If there’s the chance of a reward, we’re much more likely to do something we don’t really want to. So build on this with your habit tracker and set yourself reward thresholds. Ten days without cigarettes? Maybe use the money saved to treat you and a partner to dinner out. A month-long unbroken streak of any single habit? Perhaps a new book, dress, night out, whatever your budget and aspirations allow. The important thing though, is to make the reward as near to immediate as possible – humans are generally not great at delayed gratification. A holiday in six-months time is probably less motivating for most than a brand new shiny thing right now!

So where do you stand on habits? Do you know which you need to build into your life? Have you started working on your habits and are you tracking your progress?

It almost seems too straight-forward to be true. In principle it is indeed simple, but in application there will definitely be challenging times! However, all of those little efforts, day by day will build up into some incredible transformations in your life. I am far from having this cracked myself, but I promise you this: the development of great habits is genuinely the surest path, maybe the only path, to long-term, and embedded success.

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