3 gentle tactics for creating habits that last

Over the past five months I’ve been working through some habits challenges with the crew in my Better Than Yesterday group. Carly and I also talk a lot about habit formation on the Straight and Curly podcast.

Unsurprisingly, there’s one topic that continually comes up in the conversations we’re having: motivation.

What is motivation?

It’s most basic definition is:

A reason or reasons for acting or behaving in a particular way.

A more psychology based definition is:

The process that initiates, guides and maintains goal-oriented behaviours.

Now here’s the problem with motivation. While I agree it can be very useful in getting us started with something (the ‘initiates’ part of the definition above), we run into some serious trouble when relying on it to guide and maintain our goal-oriented behaviours.

Here’s why.

Starting a new habit involves overcoming discomfort and feelings of deprivation. For example:

  • There’s the discomfort you feel getting out of bed at 5am because that’s the only time you have available in your day for exercise.
  • There’s the deprivation you feel passing on the melting moment you’re used to having with your 10am coffee every day.
  • There’s the fear of missing out you get when you close Twitter and Facebook in order to actually do some work.

Relying on motivation to offset discomfort and deprivation might work on the first day. It may even work on the second. But by day three, motivation’s lost its mojo and its power. That’s the point where you start negotiating with yourself: “I’ll just sleep in today and start again tomorrow”.

So if we can’t rely on motivation to help form a new habit what can we rely on? I have three tactics to offer:

1. Start small

And when I say small I mean smaaaaaaaaaaall. I have heard an example of someone wanting to start the habit of flossing once a day; they started by flossing just one tooth. Yes, that’s right – one tooth? Why? Because it is such a tiny thing, requiring such little effort, it would be ridiculous if they didn’t do it.

What if you wanted to start a daily writing habit? You could set yourself the target of writing 100 words a day. That’s like 2-3 paragraphs. You don’t even need a computer for that – you could write 100 words on the back of a napkin in your lunch break.

If you want to start an exercise habit, set yourself the target of walking for 10 minutes each day. Or get a Fitbit and set yourself the target of walking 1000 steps a day (this is tiny – the Fitbit crew want everyone to walk 10,000 steps a day).

If you want to start eating better – why not start each day with a green smoothie. Don’t fret too much about what you eat for the rest of the day for now … just start your day well.

Whatever your end goal is, start with something tiny and make it non-negotiable that you do that thing every single day.

2. One thing at a time

Don’t try to create more than one new habit at a time.

Creating new habits is already hard and there is no magic time period for how long it takes. (The harder it is to make a habit automatic, the longer it will take to create. Something like ‘drink a glass of water each day on waking’ can become a habit quite quickly, something like ‘quitting sugar’ takes longer.)

I get that when we’re on a health kick, or a productivity kick, we all want to make ALL THE CHANGES HAPPEN RIGHT THIS SECOND.

What we forget is, in the same way lots of little things can quickly add up to something big on the negative side of the ledger, (ie that one little croissant we ate every day on our month-long European holiday) … so too can they add up pretty quickly on the positive side of the ledger.

Give yourself at least a month to get a habit started and ingrained before attempting to start a new one. You will be pleasantly surprised how quickly each month passes and how fast a host of great new habits becomes part of your days.

3. Be kind to yourself

Here’s the thing. You will fall off the bandwagon. You will have a day, or even a week where everything goes to poo. And this is where most people get down on themselves for being useless, decide they have no self-control or motivation and therefore decide there is no point keeping going.

Please don’t be this person. A bad day is just that – a bad day. It is not an indictment on you as a person nor is it an indication of your general uselessness.

Life – she is a roller coaster. So, roll!