How to Build Habits Without Relying on Willpower

Habit change is hard. And it takes longer than you think. But by getting a few tried-and-true, backed-by-science strategies under your belt, you'll be well armed to make the changes you desire this year.

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Photo by Prophsee Journals on Unsplash
Photo by Prophsee Journals on Unsplash

You may have set some intentions for this year already. You might have created some plans. And now it’s time to make ‘em happen.

You may be trying to form new, healthier habits. Or you might think that your intention has nothing to do with habit building. But if you’re thinking that, I’d like to challenge that notion.

As it happens, 40% of our daily actions are based on habit. 40%! That’s a lot! This means you may have habits you’re not even aware of, pushing you forward every day (positively or negatively).

So, chances are, if you’re attempting something new things year, you’re going to be running up against habit change.

And habit change is hard. Change is hard.

And when we expect it to be easy, that’s when we run into issues.

Like most things, expectations matter more than we think.

So, if you’re gonna be working on some new habits, let me arm you with some info and strategies to make it just a little bit easier.

Because I’ll tell you something:

Willpower is not enough. Motivation is not enough.

So, what is? Science.

Let’s talk about the science of habit building.

How long does it REALLY take to form a habit?

You’ve probably heard that “it takes 21 days to build a habit”. But that’s just not true.

In reality, studies show that it takes, on average, 2 months to build a habit and that it can take up to 9 months. So, to reset expectations, on average, it’ll take about 3x longer to build a habit than that silly 21 days number you keep hearing about. That’s 2 months (at least) of concerted effort.

Often, we give up on a habit after just a week or 2, assuming that if we are 100% yet, we just can’t hack it. The truth is that we just need to keep at it a bit longer.

Do all habits take the same amount of time to form?

Nope. Habits are different. Some habits may be easier to form (like taking your vitamins daily) and others (like changing the way you handle email) may take significantly more time and effort.

How do I know when a habit is built (and I can stop working so hard)?

This is a bit of a strange way to put it, but I’ve always found that you know when a habit is built when you switch from feeling proud every single time you do it to missing it (or maybe even feeling a little guilty) when you skip it.

For instance, when I first started running about 8 years ago, for almost a year, every single time I went for a run I felt a huge sense of pride. Then, at one point, I simply started to feel like I’d missed something if I skipped a run. The run had become a clear part of my routine that created a hole when missed, instead of being something I was actively (and effortfully!) trying to add to my daily routine.

Ok, ok, but HOW can I make it easier to form a new habit?

Yep, we’re getting to the good stuff now. Here are some of the most effective strategies you can apply when you’re actively trying to build new habits. These are strategies that’ll help you side-step willpower and motivation altogether.

Will all of them work for you? Probably not as we all have different brains and circumstances. But I bet there’s at least one strategy below that will work well with who you are to help you build and solidify those new habits with a little less effort than you thought.

CONVENIENCE

Make the new habit as convenient as possible.  Remove any friction you can. Think about the barriers and do what you can to remove them.

  • For example:
    • If you are trying to run in the mornings, set your running clothes and running shoes out next to your bed at night. (Or sleep in your running clothes!)
    • If you are trying to eat more healthily, stock your fridge with ready to eat fruits and veg and put them at eye level.

STACKING

If you’ve already got a very strongly held habit, try stacking another habit to it in time. Piggy-back off the work you already did to build the new habit.

  • For example:
    • If you are trying to drink more water, plan to drink a glass of water directly after brushing your teeth every day. (Double up on strategies by making it convenient as well and make sure you’ve got a glass that lives right next to your toothbrush.)
    • If you’re trying to start taking vitamins regularly, take them when you walk your dog in the morning (and store them next to the leash).

PAIRING

The strategy of pairing works well for habits that are good for you but maybe not so fun. By pairing, you’ll associate something you really enjoy with a habit you are trying to build.  

  • For example:
    • If you’d really like to start going to the gym more frequently, only allow yourself to watch your favorite TV show while on the treadmill.
    • If you’d like to keep your house a bit tidier, only allow yourself to listen to your favorite podcasts while you are tidying up.

DON’T BREAK THE STREAK

Many apps (Snapchat, Duolingo, etc.) use this strategy to get you logging back in, day after day, because you don’t want to break that streak! Use this trick of human nature to your advantage.

For example:

  • If you’re trying to meditate daily, mark off the days when you do meditate and don’t break the streak. (Take it a step further and consider rewarding yourself if you can keep a streak going for a week, a month, or more.)

How could you keep track?

  • If you’re using TickTick (my favorite task app) already for your tasks, just enable the Habit tracker to track progress and keep that streak going.
  • You could also use habit tracking app (like HabitBull) to track your habits, or your journal or bullet-journal, or even a wall calendar to mark off the days that you complete the habit.

SCHEDULE/ADD TO YOUR TASK LIST

Add the behavior to your task list or calendar (if it’s a time-based habit). This serves both as a memory aid, and helps ensure you actually make time for the new habit you are trying to build.

  • For example
    • If you are trying to exercise more, add the time you will exercise to your calendar as an appointment. 
    • If you want to eat healthy lunches, add a daily task of packing your lunch.
    • If you want to start cooking from scratch nightly, block off the time on your calendar both to do the grocery shopping and the actual cooking.

Which strategy will work for you?

I’m not sure! Pick one that seems appealing and try it out. Experimentation and iteration are key here. Habits take time and work. But by applying one (or more) of these science-backed strategies, you’ll be in a better position to make it happen!

What’s next?

This is the first of a series on habit formation. In my next post about habits, we’ll be talking about strategies for breaking those pesky negative habits. Stay tuned!

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