Wisdom//

6 Things You Need to Know About Building New Habits

For starters, it won't happen overnight.

Image via Mohd KhairilX/ Shutterstock
Image via Mohd KhairilX/ Shutterstock

Here at Mindmaven, we know new habits are central to the success of our clients. In fact, almost everything we teach is based on adopting new habits.

Why? Because we all share the same 24-hour days, so what sets the most productive and successful people apart is simply how they use the time they’re given. In other words, they have better habits, allowing them to make better use of their time.

What sets the most productive and successful people apart is simply how they use the time they’re given

If you’ve ever found yourself wishing there were more hours in the day, it’s probably time to take a closer look at the habits that are running your life.

After all: Habits, by their very nature, are subconscious. They happen with or without your intention. Think about it: How often do you forget to brush your teeth in the morning? Probably not often.

And if you do forget, you’ll probably notice immediately and get up to do it because you feel “wrong.” And I don’t mean “wrong” in the hygienic sense; I mean you have this sense that you didn’t do something you usually do.

Habits like brushing your teeth don’t need to be scheduled onto your calendar. They just happen, no management required, and your life (or at least your hygiene) is better because of it.

That’s the power of habits: Subconscious positive change. And yet, as powerful as they are, many of us don’t leverage them to the extent we should. Why? At least in my experience, it’s because we don’t understand them as fully as we could.

Let’s change that.

6 Things You Need to Know About Building New Habits

Aristotle once said that …

Excellence is not an act, but a habit.

The sum of our habits represent our character—who we really are—so we at Mindmaven believe more thought should be put into the types of habits we establish.

Here’s 6 of the most important things we teach our clients as they establish habits of excellence.

#1: It Starts with Understanding the Process

Before you jump into trying to establish a new habit, it’s important you understand the three-step process you’ll be going through to turn that conscious action into an unconscious habit.

Step one: Comprehension

First things first: You need to learn the process behind the action.

For example: When we’re training a client on the concept of Meeting Debriefsour unique method of capturing the facts, personal interests, professional challenges, and action items from a meeting—most of them feel a little clumsy and awkward at first.

Why? Because they’ve never done it before and they’re still learning how it works. Their brain still needs to develop the neural pathways to perform the action.

So before you focus on turning something into an unconscious habit, really focus on understanding each individual step that makes the action successful.

Step two: Repetition

Once we understand the steps behind an action, the next step is repetition. You need to repeat those steps over and over again and, each time, it’s going to become a little easier.

That neural pathway I mentioned above starts to become a neural highway; something wider, deeper, and easier for the brain to follow. Science has even confirmed that repetitive behavior changes the physicality of the brain:

A study of London taxi drivers found that their regular act of navigating the twisting streets of London led to a measurable increase in the size of the hippocampus, or the region of the brain responsible for spatial reasoning.

That’s why, in the early stages of building a habit, it’s important you never miss an opportunity to perform the action. The more you do it, the more natural it becomes for both your brain and body.

Step three: Automation

The more you repeat an action, the deeper engrained it becomes. Eventually, those neural pathways become super-highways, capable of processing each step of the habit quickly and automatically.

Think of it like the needle on an old record player that follows deep, high ruts through the same course every time and, in doing so, produces the same song time and time again.

Only major disruptions make the needle jump out of that rut and, when that happens, you notice right away and can quickly realign the needle. Much like the teethbrushing example above: When you forget to do it one morning, you know it and you feel compelled to correct it.

Once you experience this feeling, you’ll know you’ve created a habit.

#2: There’s No Hard-and-Fast Rule About Timing

I know, you’ve probably heard before that it takes 14, 21, 33, or 66 days to create a habit. And while having a specific number might be encouraging, it can also be misleading.

The truth is, there’s no “timeline” for new habits, and assuming there is can be self-defeating. For example: If you go into the process expecting the habit to be automated in 33 days and, come day 34, you’re still putting in conscious effort it’s easy to feel like a failure.

Don’t give in to that. 

The time it takes to establish a new habit varies from person-to-personand from habit-to-habit

The only thing that’s a constant is this: If you stick with it long enough, it will become a habit. It may take 7 days, or 77.

In the grand scheme of things, the exact timeline doesn’t really matter. A year from now all that will matter is that you adopted the habit, regardless of how long it took.

#3: Failure’s Just a Part of the Process

Even in deeply-engrained habits like brushing your teeth, you still miss a morning or two every once in awhile. So if this is true for already-established habits, don’t you think it’s even more true for habits-in-development?

People often don’t give themselves enough grace when developing a new habit. They’ll do great for a week or two but, one day, they forget. And all too often, their immediate response is, “This doesn’t work,” or “This habit isn’t right for me.”

A couple mistakes don’t erase the progress you’ve made. 

The only thing that erases your progress is giving up. So go into the habit-creation process with realistic expectations: You are going to miss a day or two. Or Three. Or five.

Don’t be discouraged. Again, think of the big picture. A year from now, those five missed days won’t matter. What’s going to matter is that you kept trying until it became a habit.

I like to put it like this: If you’re hiking the Rocky Mountains, you expect some ups and downs. You go in knowing that sometimes the hike is going to be easy and sometimes it’s going to be hard. It’s just a part of the journey.

The same is true for habits. When things get hard, don’t focus on the number of days you’ve faltered. Focus on the number of days you’ve succeeded, then get back to it.

#4: Action Triggers Fast-Track Habit Adoption

As we’ve already talked about, consistency and repetition is absolutely crucial when turning a new action into a habit; and one of the best ways I’ve found to increase consistency is to use Action Triggers.

Simply put, Action Triggers are habits, behaviors, and thought patterns you already do on a daily basis without needing a reminder. For example:

  • Brushing your teeth,
  • Visiting ESPN.com for the latest updates, or
  • Reading TechCrunch over lunch.

Action Triggers allow you to fast-track the development of a new habit by “piggy-backing” the desired habit onto a pre-existing habit. Here’s how it works.

Let’s say you wanted to establish the habit of sending one email a day to someone you wouldn’t otherwise have emailed. It’s something you know is important, but you’ve struggled to consistently find the time to make it happen.

Instead of trying to cram this new habit into the nooks and crannies of your day when (and if) you find time, you decide to attach it to a behavior you’re already habitually doing: Brushing your teeth.

You create an Action Trigger by saying, “When I brush my teeth in the morning, then I’m going to send an email to someone I wouldn’t otherwise have contacted.”

This might seem like a subtle difference, but it works because all you’re doing is adding an extra step onto a pre-existing habit, which is much easier to adopt and integrate into your life than an altogether new behavior.

#5: The Best Habits are Simple

Establishing new habits can be difficult, so you want to do everything you can to stack the deck in your favor; and one of the best ways to do that is by keeping things simple.

Often, people get so excited by the potential power of new habits that they go a little overboard and try to establish too many habits at once. The problem is, each new consecutive habit you introduce makes it all the more likely they other habits are going to fail.

You might have five great habits you want to establish, but keep in mind that simply adopting one new habit takes a lot of mental processing power; so focus on building one new habit at a time. Once you reach the automation stage, then you can start on another.

Also, be sure new habits only have one or two steps, max. The more steps you add to a habit, the more likely it is to fail. Break an action down to its most basic form and focus on habitualizing that.

#6: Habit Streaks are the Best Motivators

As the saying goes, the first step of any journey is often the most difficult. But once you start moving? All you’ve got to do is keep moving. That’s the power of momentum.

Think of it like a snowball rolling down a hill: Once it’s rolling, nothing’s going to stop it. And with every passing moment, that snowball grows bigger, faster, and more powerful.

When talking about habits, I like to call this momentum a “Streak.” The longer Streak you have—how many consecutive days you’ve practiced your habit—the easier it becomes to continue your Streak.

For example: If you’ve refrained from sugar for the past three months, you’re much more likely to succeed at avoiding it tomorrow than if you’d just begun the habit three days ago. But even three days in, you’re more likely to succeed than if you were one day in.

So any time you’re establishing a new habit, be sure to record your Streak. You can do this on paper, but there are also a number of great apps like Coach.meLoop, or Fabulous you can use to track your progress.

Watching that Streak grow every day can be a powerful motivator, but there’s a catch: Remember to treat Streaks like an accomplishment, not a competition. When you think of it like a competition, any sense of (inevitable) failure is going to be compounded and ultimately undermine your ability to form new habits.

So if you fail, celebrate your Streak for the accomplishment it is, then get back on the horse and keep going.

Remember: Habit Building is a Skill, Not a Gift

Think of mastering new habits as a sequence: Once you’ve learned the process behind it once, you can generally establish any and all habits you need in the future.

And here’s the best part: Building habits is a skill and, like any skill, it gets better (and easier) with use. So my challenge to you is to always be committed to mastering a new habit, even if that habit is small.

After all: Repeating even a small habit day-in-and-day-out for a year can still produce some pretty spectacular results.

Want to establish a new habit but just can’t seem to find the time? No problem: We’ve built a time management approach just for you. Check out our free eBook: Whitespace Time Management: The Proactive Entrepreneur’s Guide to Owning Your Time and Mastering Your Priorities.

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