Habit formation is the process by which an action is repeatedly done and becomes automatic. It doesn’t matter if the action is good or bad. It’s the fact that you repeatedly do it enough that it becomes imprinted in the neural pathways of the brain. Once imprinted, a habit is born. This “imprinting” explains why old habits are tough to break and new habits are hard to form. Whether you want to save money, start exercising or eat better you need to form new habits and break your old ones. The following are three key steps that can help you get started.
Self-knowledge is the understanding of one’s own capabilities, character, feelings and motivation. Self-knowledge is important in habit formation. While there are many things to know about yourself, I want to mention two for the sake of brevity. First, what works for one person may not work for another because each of us has different character traits. For example, my grandfather was the person who woke up one day and decided to stop smoking. His mentality was one of “all or nothing” and that was his approach in life. My mother, on the other hand, needed others to help her in the process of habit change. She struggled to quit smoking when my father didn’t agree to join her in the process. The next thing to know is what motivates you? Motivation comes in two forms-extrinsic (outside of you) or intrinsic (inside of you). Do you need a “Biggest Loser” contest (reward) to get you off the couch and into the gym to exercise? Or are you the type of person who looks forward to your “gym” days because you enjoy exercising and how it makes you feel? We are not born possessing self-knowledge. We develop it overtime. It requires honesty in assessing your past successes and failures to figure out what makes you tick.
Habit formation requires us to repeat an action or activity in a consistent pattern for it to stick. To be consistent we need to schedule. The simple act of scheduling an activity on our calendar commits us to that activity. When I started my lifestyle change many years ago, I scheduled my training on my calendar for every Monday and Thursday at 5pm. I didn’t “pencil it in”. I wrote it in ink. I don’t like to scratch things out and create a mess of my calendar. Yes, I have perfectionist tendencies (self-knowledge). I treated my training appointments just like my hair or dental appointments. Once I committed, it required effort to reschedule. Scheduling also made me assign time out of my busy day to the activity. I was working full time and raising two kids who played sports in high school. If you don’t set time aside in the day, you can easily fall into the “I don’t have enough time” trap.
Scheduling an activity like exercise doesn’t equal success without following through and that means being accountable. To be held accountable is to face consequences for what you do or don’t do. Due dates get us to pay bills, deadlines get us to complete projects and traffic laws get us to drive safely. Research shows that when we feel someone is watching we behave better than when we feel they aren’t. There are many forms of accountability in life. In our Lifestyle Mentoring Program, the first habit we build is to write down everything you eat. This is a powerful accountability tool if you do it consistently. A client who made this one simple change lost nearly 4 pounds in her first week. I asked what she felt lead to her success and she said that writing things down made her more aware of what she ate. People are also forms of accountability as in performance coaches and training partners. If you are extrinsically motivated then this is a great option for you. Going public with your goal or signing up with a group of friends for a marathon is another means of accountability. See our article on What isn’t measured, isn’t managed to understand how measuring metrics holds you accountable.
Does it take 7, 21 or 66 days to make a habit? I was told, “It will take as long as you want it to”. Spend some time getting to know yourself and understand your strengths and weaknesses. Ask yourself am I motivated by outside or inside factors? Whatever your goal is schedule it on your calendar and then figure out what will hold you accountable. There will be slip-ups along the way but don’t give up. Sometimes the habit is too large and all you have to do is make it smaller. Make it so small even that you cannot fail. Success in habit formation doesn’t happen overnight for many of us. It takes a series of small steps strung together to get us there.