I know what you’re thinking. I could get fit, write a book, travel the world, and do all the things I want—if I could actually stick with those little habits that I know will help me reach my goals.
How do I actually stick with them though?
In this article I want to share with you five interesting habit facts that I pulled from over 50 research studies on how to create, and stick with, your habits.
The Five Habit Linking Strategies
Meta Habit #1: Always Link a Habit to an Event
Have you ever thought about why brushing your teeth, for example, is such a consistent habit?
It’s because you do it at the time and the same place every day. You’re in the same bathroom probably, and you do it at the same time of day, whether that’s 10:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m (or another time altogether).
Your best chance of actually sticking with a habit is if you do it at the same time and the same place. A lot of the habit research shows that sticking with habits is much easier, and more consistent, if they’re linked to what’s called “events.”
Events can be as simple as rituals already in your schedule (waking up, or going to bed), meal times, or even transitional periods (like leaving the house or getting off work).
Here are some ideas for how you can do that:
- Building the habit of eating more fruit. Link this to an “event” in your schedule already – like breakfast or dinner. It’s much easier to add a small fruit dish to breakfast, if you already eat breakfast, than trying to randomly find a time to eat fruit.
- Building the habit of stretching. Try linking this to your morning routine of drinking coffee. While the coffee is brewing, take five minutes to stretch out the tightest parts of your body.
- Building the habit of meditation. Link this to the ritual of waking up in the morning. When your alarm goes off, shake it off, get up, and then sit down on the edge of your bed for one minute in order to do your meditation. It’s much easier than “trying to find time” to meditate otherwise.
Meta Habit #2: Always Be Mindful of The Cue
One of the biggest reasons why habits are difficult to keep up with on vacation, for example, is because of the lack of cues.
One of the key things in sticking with a habit or triggering it is a cue. The cue could be negative. For example, we feel stressed out, and then we eat junk food. Or, the cue could be something like feeling it’s time to go to bed, so I’m going to brush my teeth and read a book.
But the problem is, for example, when our routines change.
My normal habit “link” to exercise is going straight from work to the gym. I just stop by on my way home.
However, when I’m on vacation, since I’m not working, there is no “leave work” cue, and as a result, there’s no ritual surrounding exercise.
If your cue is leaving work or school, what happens when you’re on vacation and you’re not working or studying? You’ve lost your cue, the positive prompt to help you stick with that habit.
So, one of the reasons why sticking with habits on vacation (or the weekend) is difficult, is because we’ve changed our rituals.
In my opinion, this is one of the best reasons to actually come up with a morning or an evening routine. (Here’s a good starter guide to focus on regarding morning routines).
Even when you’re on vacation, or if it’s the weekend, you still have a morning and you can still link a habit to begin when you wake up.
Meta Habit #3: Habits Perform Better Than Goals (For Reaching Your Goals)
Habit-based approaches to reaching your goals are more effective in research than goal-based approaches to reaching your goals.
If you focus on the habits that will get you to your goal, you’re more likely to reach your goal than if you just focus on goal setting.
One study in particular compared this habit-based weight loss versus a control group. After eight weeks, the habit group lost 4.4 pounds compared to .8 pounds. After 32 weeks, the people in the habit group lost an average of 8.3 pounds.
The habit group were the people focused on changing specific daily rituals to reach their goals instead of just saying something like, “I want to lose 30 pounds.”
This group outperformed the goal setting group almost every time.
Meta Habit #4: Make Sure Your Self-Image is Aligned With Your Goals
Our self-image predicts whether or not we stick with our habits.
If you’ve been following my stuff for a while, you know I’m a big fan of Dr. Maxwell Maltz and the idea of the self-identity.
In one study on anorexics, researchers found that anorexics had an extremely high relapse rate even after formal treatment, and they were actually unnaturally resistant to improving.
The researchers concluded that one reason was because of their self-image. They still legitimately believed that they were unhealthy or overweight or whatever was the underlying psychology behind it.
So, if our self-image is not aligned with who we’re trying to be, or who we think we can be, it makes it very hard to stick with that habit in the long run.
Meta Habit #5: Extrinsic Rewards Can Actually Worsen Your Motivation in the Long Run
When I say extrinsic rewards, it means going to the gym and then saying something like, “I’m going to have a cookie because I just did my workout.”
The reason is that the more you have to reward yourself for doing a behavior, even if it’s something that’s going to advance your life, the less you tend to like it.
If you didn’t like the activity in the first place and now you have to use a reward to do it in the second place, well, where’s the motivation to actually do the habit, just for the sake of doing the habit?
That’s why with my clients, I try to focus so much on getting people to do exercise that they love, or pursue paths that interest them.
If you have the intrinsic motivation and you love the process of doing (eating right, going to the gym, meditating, walking, etc.) then you don’t need a reward. The process is the reward.
And since the process is the whole game of life, the more you can do that, the more you’re going to have the kind of fortitude to stay committed in the long haul and reach your goals.
The very act of loving the process more than loving the outcome is the hardest, most important skill to build.
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