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How to Get Habits to Stick

Add it to your calendar, reward yourself, and "habit-stack"- three ways to get those New Year's Resolutions to Stick.

Starting January 2nd, I ask nearly everyone I meet whether they have set any New Year’s resolutions. About 80% say yes. Nearly all of them are tied to some aspect of personal wellbeing. The most popular are food and diet related goals, from Drynuary to no sugar to cutting out eating chips. Others include getting at least 8 hours of sleep, a 30-day yoga challenge, and the $5 challenge. Behavior change experts often hate the idea of New Year’s Resolutions. BJ Fogg, who inspires much of WeSpire’s behavior change framework, once said, “#1 way to feel awful in early January: New Year’s Resolutions.”

I’m one of those New Year’s resolutions people. Yes, I know better, but I just can’t help myself. There is something about the transition from one year to another that prompts reflection on the past year to assess what’s working, what’s not and recalibrate. This year was more pronounced because of the decade marker. I have used the The One Thing model for several years so have a number of habits tied to goals. New Years just prompts me to step back and ask, “Do these still make sense?” Many still did. Some did not. But I also found several areas where I needed to bolster a habit or add a new one. Which is why I’m cutting carbs in January, committing to 15 minutes a day of dance practice, shutting my computer promptly when the kids wake up, calling my parents more, doing outreach to prospects and customers first thing in the morning for 50 minutes, and and being proactive about date night. Given that 80% of resolutions fail by February, I’m basically setting myself up to blow it on all fronts. 

However, I do have an advantage this year. I heard James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits speak and read his book this fall. Much of it reinforced what I already knew about behavior change, but he covered in-depth the real-life practice of habit formation. One of my favorite concepts is habit stacking. It’s where you take a new habit and tie it to an existing habit: after doing [old habit], I will do [new habit]. He swears by it. So the “call parents” habit got stacked with the “on the train home from work” habit and the “dance 15 minutes” habit got stacked onto the “say goodnight to Quin” habit.

Another way to make habits stick is to add them to your calendar. You make appointments with your habits. So a recurring date night with Mr. Stevens just got added to 52 weeks of 2020. It will inevitably be moved and sometimes cancelled, but the default is that Wednesday night is date night (see previous post about the power of defaults). Workouts are on the calendar. The work outreach routine got stacked AND calendared, as the immediate activity for an hour prior to leaving for work. That has the added bonus of ensuring a seat on the train to work, making my “read one thing from my read- this- someday” folder habit much easier.

Clear also shares advice for habits that involve short-term sacrifice for longer-term benefit. Habits need to be enjoyable to last and avoiding things we like is hardly enjoyable. His recommendation is to come up with an immediate reward every time/day you are successful. For example, all of us carb, chip, alcohol avoiding people should give ourselves a prize every day we go chip/drink/carb free. Depending on your motivational style, it could be as simple as a gold star on a piece of paper to putting $5 in a jar towards something you’ve wanted to splurge on. 

I definitely feel like my likelihood of success is higher with these approaches. However, inevitably curve balls for the best planned, stacked, and rewarded habits hit. Work travel, getting sick, or an emergency pops up. Clear offers a simple rule:  Never Miss Twice. If he misses one day, he tries to get back to it as quickly as possible, noting that the first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It’s the spiral of repeated mistakes. “Missing Once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit,” he advises. He also cautions against skipping something because it won’t be perfect — and to do it even if you can’t do the full amount. “Just don’t put up a zero” is his mantra that I invoke when my knees ache.  

Whether you made any resolutions or not, learning to get habits to stick gives you a superpower that many people don’t have. Don’t be afraid to start small. BJ Fogg’s new book is called Tiny Habits for a reason. Just like the idea of compounding interest, small habits done everyday lead to exponential impact. Whether you are trying to eat more plants, get better at your job, lose weight, or learn a new skill, find that small thing to do everyday. Stack it to something you already do. Add it to the calendar. Reward yourself when you do it. Find people to share it with and hold you accountable. By sharing my desired habits with you all, I just increased the likelihood of success. Thank you. Feel free to share yours with me!

Quote of the Week:  “Design your life to minimize reliance on willpower”. – BJ Fogg

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