“Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones.”
– Benjamin Franklin
- First, recognize the importance of your habits. They allow us to do many things – both positive and negative – on autopilot. Reflect on the long-term, cumulative effect each habit will have if you maintain it for the rest of your life. Will it benefit you, or cost you? Know that if you don’t deliberately alter your habits, you’ll continue reinforcing existing patterns by default.
- Tie your habit to your identity and deepest values. Think of your good habits. Usually, they are part of an identity you are proud of. For example, I exercise regularly because I’ve seen myself as an athlete my entire life; I cannot stand feeling or looking out of shape. Start with your core identity or desired identity when considering habit change – would someone who is a great husband, entrepreneur, or leader have this habit?
- Research has shown that a key trait of successful habit changers is that they believe change is possible. Find examples of people who have successfully built or changed your desired habit, and ask for their advice if possible. It’s important to have role models (and evidence) that change CAN be made. You are not alone. And like others, you too can change.
- For the first couple days don’t change your habit, just notice it. It’s critical to first become more aware of the what, where, why, when and how of your bad habit. Keep a habit log. What are your emotional and environmental triggers associated with the habit? For example, you could record the time/place, thoughts/feelings, justification and resultant thoughts/feelings of your habit. If that’s too much, just spend a couple days observing the patterns that surround the habit.
- Now, structure the environment surrounding your habit, so that changing your behaviour requires the least amount of willpower possible. This is perhaps the most important insight I had when studying habit change. A habit is an action repeated and reinforced so it is critical to engineer the situation – and feedback loops – to encourage change. Any solution dependent on willpower is bound to fail. Reward yourself for changed behaviour, no matter how small. Change the environment to minimize the triggers for your bad habit. Mentally and physically rehearse your new trigger-habit to “re-program” yourself and make your actions semi-automatic. Give your new habit the path of least resistance.
- One way to do this is to employ the “golden rule of habit change” favored by psychologists. Identify the 3 parts of any habit: the cue, the behavior, and the reward. Often the habit (a cookie run midday) masks the real reward (not hunger but an excuse to socialize with colleagues). Once you know your cue and reward, try replacing your bad habit behavior with another behavior that gets you a similar or better reward .
- Tell someone – preferably a close friend or colleague – about when and how you plan to change your habit. Studies show you are much more likely to accomplish your goals if you report to someone about how you are doing (95% success). The more specific your plan, and more social your goal, the better chance you have to change your habit.
- Start small to lessen the stakes and make change more manageable! Focus on only one habit change at a time, and make your habit change easy and actionable. One way to do this is to commit to a 10, 20 or 30 day trial of implementing your habit; after 30 days, you can go back to your old habit if you’d like. Most authors recommend 30 days for best results. Another method is stair stepping, doing a little more or a little less of your desired habit each week. For example, exercising 10 minutes / day the first week, 20 minutes / day the next, etc.
- Finally, don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s easy to get discouraged after a couple of relapses, see yourself as a failure, and give up. I tried waking up at 6am for 10 days. Screwing up a couple times brought back a flood of insecurities about my ability to change. But I was getting up early 75% of the time. My habit was actually improving, and yet here I was beating myself up. Take a step back. Are you moving (no matter how far the distance) in the right direction? Learning any new skill or habit takes trial and error, so forgive yourself, and see your slipups within the bigger picture. Change will come easier and be a lot more fun.