Sticking to a Habit: The Definitive Guide
The hardest thing for most people, when it comes to building habits, is sticking to it long enough for it to become ingrained.
It’s why most people don’t exercise or eat healthy, why people procrastinate or have clutter or debt, why people smoke and drink soda, why people don’t meditate or learn new languages or write everyday or read more books.
Simply put: if you can learn to stick to a habit, you can do almost anything. I’m a good example of that.
So how do you stick to a habit? I’m going to make this as simple as possible — let’s dive in.
Why You Don’t Stick to a Habit
The most common reasons people don’t stick to a habit:
- Habit is too difficult.
- You don’t enjoy doing it.
- Too many habits at once (habits are hard!).
- Too many other things going on.
- Changes in routine (sick, travel, visitors, big project at work).
- Not really motivated to do it.
- You talk yourself out of it.
- You miss a day or two and get discouraged.
There are other reasons too: people actively discourage you from changing, or you think negative thoughts about your ability to change, or you overdo it in the beginning and then run out of enthusiasm.
The Rules for Sticking to a Habit
Now that we know all that we’re up against, it seems pretty tough, no? Actually, it’s not easy, but it’s definitely doable. Anything worth doing is going to take some work. You just need to set your mind to doing something tough, and be OK with a little discomfort.
That said, I have a set of rules to follow if you want to actually stick to new habits. Now, you can ignore these rules, as most people do, and increase your likelihood of failure. Or you can try the rules, and see if they work for you (each person is different, so you have to figure out your own formula).
Here are the rules:
- One Habit at a Time. This is incredibly important — most people ignore it because they underestimate how much focus it takes to actually stick to a new habit. It’s easy to start a habit, or even 5 of them at once. Sticking to them is another story. Please note that this is one habit period — don’t think you can do one fitness habit, one social habit, one work habit, etc. One habit only. Do not break this rule.
- A Tiny Habit. Do not focus on results as you’re forming the habit. I recently mentioned that I’m doing 3 yoga poses every morning — doing more than an hour is too difficult for me and I tend to quit when I do long classes. Will I get a good workout with only 3 yoga poses? No! I’m not trying to get a good workout, get flexible, become more mindful, or get in shape. Eventually, yes, those results will probably come. But for now, I’m only doing one thing: forming the habit of doing yoga each day. Make the habit as tiny as possible. Whatever you think you should do, cut it in half. Then, if possible, cut it in half again. Maybe once more if your time to do it is longer than 2 minutes.
- Once a Day. You might think you can change your entire diet all at once. Not bloody likely. Only do the habit once a day, and again, just for a minute or two each day. Once the habit is ingrained, you can expand, but wait at least 3 weeks before you even consider that.
- Focus on Starting. The only thing you need to do is start. That’s the part of the habit that matters in the first month or so. Later on, you’ll run a marathon. For now, just put all your effort into lacing up your shoes and getting out the door. If you’re meditating, just get your butt on the cushion. If you’re eating healthy, just get your healthy snack (carrots & hummus?) in front of you, and take the first bite. If you’re writing, just close your browser, open a text document, and type the first sentence. Just start.
- Enjoy Doing It. It’s really important that you get positive feedback for doing the habit, right away. Many people do a habit they hate, which is built-in negative feedback, and then wonder why they can’t stick to it. Do a habit you love, or find a way to enjoy doing the habit. Focus on the positive aspects of it. Also, as my friend Tynan does, praise yourself for doing it. Feel good about doing it. This is immediate reward, and it’s necessary.
- Watch Your Thoughts. If you start to avoid the habit, or do the habit but feel discouraged, or ever feel like quitting … pay attention to these thoughts. Where are they coming from? Are you rationalizing quitting? Are you giving yourself some negative self-talk? Those thoughts aren’t real — they’re just defense mechanisms your brain uses to avoid discomfort. Let them go, and don’t let them have power over you. You can beat them with some positive self-talk.
- Don’t Miss Two Straight Days. This is the key. If you let yourself miss a day, be absolutely sure, incredibly and powerfully sure, that you don’t miss a day again. Miss a day, and let all kinds of alarms go off: you should put yourself on emergency status and do everything possible to not miss the 2nd day. Tynan suggests doubling down, but whatever you do, don’t let yourself slip up again. If you do, you are never going to get good at habits. Don’t do it.
- Be accountable. Tell at least one other person about your habit change, and ask them to keep you accountable. A group of 4-5 people is even better (as in my Sea Change Program). It increases your likelihood of sticking to the habit by about 50% in my experience.
How to Learn the Habit Skill
That might all seem like a lot to learn at once. That’s OK. We’re going to learn it simply and easily. Here’s how:
Do the easiest possible habit when you first start.
If you’re not good at habits yet (and if you’re reading this guide, you probably aren’t), then start with the most basic skills — don’t try to do ninja habit skills yet.
You want to practice the habit rules by doing something crazily easy. It will seem a little ridiculous, but spend a little time doing something ridiculous if you really want to be good at it.
Some ideas for habits to start with:
- Drink a glass of water each day.
- Put your clothes in your hamper.
- Wash your bowl when you’re done.
- Say thank you every morning.
- Drink tea each afternoon.
- Eat one piece of fruit.
- Write one sentence a day.
- Floss one tooth.
Too easy? Try something harder, and if you fail, then promise me you’ll try one of these.
If you need some help with forming habits, consider joining my Sea Change Program. I’ll give you the accountability and reminders you need, along with some guidance each month, and you can form new habits along with everyone else in the program.