If you’ve ever tried to change one of your ingrained habits (or add a new, healthy habit) you know that it isn’t always the easiest change to make. Habits are difficult to break and failure is common. No matter what the positive habit is that you’re trying to incorporate, whether it’s making better dietary choices, committing to an exercise routine, starting a business, making responsible financial decisions, practising gratitude, simply setting aside time for yourself each day or something else entirely – how successful you are on this journey will depend on your consistency over the long-haul.
Consistency is found in those small, repetitive, seemingly unimportant decisions you make each and every day – and they apply to every aspect of your life. These decisions make up your physical, emotional and mental health, the health of your relationships, your work-life, and even your finances.
One of the biggest myths out there when it comes to forming positive habits is that it “takes 21 days to form.” Certainly you’ve heard that “statistic”, right? The thing is, this misconception sets us up for unreasonable expectations because how long it really takes to form a new habit depends on a variety of factors- from the habit being formed, the individual attempting the habit, environmental factors and so on.
Beyond that, focusing on this thought process, “I just have to get to 21 days…” takes away from the real benefit of positive habit formation: a long-term, rewarding lifestyle change. With that, if you are ready to make some positive change in yourself and want to truly set yourself up for success, here are the steps to conquer habit change.
1. Start with a Single Habit at a Time. Habit change isn’t easy and yet so many of us try to jump right in and change everything all at once. No matter if we’re talking about our nutrition, exercise habits, tackling debt or anything else- trying to go all in and make a multitude of changes at one time is simply setting yourself up to fail. Pick one habit to focus on for now and then you can build upon it later.
2. Break It Down. Take that habit and break it down into smaller, easy to reach, strategic goals. Make the goal so small and easily attainable that you can’t possibly fail, then, once you have mastered it, step up to tackle something a little harder. If, for example, you want to start working out: you don’t want to schedule yourself for 7 workouts your very first week. Start small, start with one to two days – or smaller- start with 5-10 minutes each day. Whatever you choose, make it something you can easily handle, and then build upon it.
3. What’s Your Why? This is an important question to ask yourself when embarking on a new habit or changing an old one. Why is this important to you? Knowing the driving force behind your desire to change will help you when your motivation begins to wane. Sit with this question a while and make sure you come out with a really clear, honest reason.
4. Identify Obstacles.
You likely already know exactly when and where you might trip up on the road to forming this positive behaviour. For example, if your habit is to start eating healthier, and your small goal is to cook dinner at home at least 4 nights this week, but you know you haven’t gone to the grocery store yet and you pass your favourite drive-thru on the way home from work…. This is an easily identifiable obstacle that could get in your way. Once you’ve identified potential barriers, think about how you can be prepared to overcome them. In the above example, you can plan and prep your dinners for the week so that once you arrive home, all you need to do is cook/heat it up. You’ve made it easy for yourself to bypass the obstacle. Knowing your plan ahead of time leaves you prepared.
5. Make a Plan. This is where you make a commitment to yourself! Write it down and make a plan. Grab a notebook or your planner or type it out on your phone. What is the habit you want to change? Then, in as much detail as possible, write down your Why. How will you break your goal habit down into small, meaningful goals that are easy to reach and bring you closer to your new habit? How long will you successfully complete each goal until you move onto the next? What are a few obstacles that might get in your way and how will you address them when the time comes?
6. Track Your Habit
A habit tracker is a simple way to help you track your adherence to your small habits and visually see your progress. There are plenty of apps that can help you with this, but if you’re a pen to paper type of person it’s just as easy to set it up in your daily planner. Set it up so that all you have to do is add a checkmark or an X under each day or each time you perform your habit. If you decided you would make a morning smoothie on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday instead of stopping at Starbucks, and you completed this week successfully, each of those dates gets an X. A tracker can be powerful because it provides real-time feedback on your success, creates a visual cue that reminds you to complete your habit, adds motivation when you see your habit streak get longer, and it just feels satisfying to record your success each day.
7. Celebrate Wins
It might feel silly to congratulate yourself on seemingly small victories but make a commitment to do it. Celebrating small wins makes you feel good about your successes and give you the confidence to go after something bigger. Positive reinforcement helps keep you in forward motion instead of slipping back into bad habits. Take some time at the end of each day or week to call out your wins and reward yourself for them.
Forming new positive habits takes time, and knowing that going into it will eliminate some of the resistance you feel when you get to that “21 day” mark and don’t feel like you’ve cemented this habit into your lifestyle. Habits are for the long-haul and your patience and consistency will pay off. Habit change might not be easy, but you can do the best to set yourself up for success by following these steps!