“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”- Aristotle
Habit forming is a topic that’s close to my heart.
I was able to go from being an unhealthy university student, heading down an uninspiring career path, to someone who enjoys great health and is following their passion, simply by changing my habits.
The journey wasn’t all plain sailing, and I made a whole load of mistakes on the way. But I stumbled forwards, and in the process I learned a thing or two about what it takes to form habits that are not just health promoting, but are lasting and sustainable too.
Here’s five of the most important lessons I picked up along the way:
1. You need a big reason why
Often when we set out to form a new habit, we don’t do it for the right reasons. We subconsciously compare ourselves to others – friends, athletes, celebrities. We think that they have a perfect life, and that we need be more like them.
When we don’t consider what we truly want for ourselves, the changes we’re trying to make are not aligned with what we believe in. By doing this, we’re living a lie. When the going gets tough, we are not motivated to stick to the habit or behaviour, because deep down we don’t really care all that much about it.
This creates discomfort, and sometimes illness. We become dis-eased. That’s what I experienced at university. I was studying for a subject that I wasn’t all that interested in, in a strange place far from home, that I didn’t really want to be. I wasn’t living true to myself, and I paid the price with a load of mouth ulcers and chronic fatigue. It was as if my body was reminding me that I was not being true to myself, and it was only when I started living in accordance to what I believed in that my health started to improve.
When you decide you want to make a change, or bring about a new habit, try your best to make sure it’s coming from an authentic place. Be honest with yourself. Make sure you’re doing it for you, or for a cause you care about, not because you feel like you have to for someone else, or for some fake idea of perfection. This goes for both little habit changes, and big life decisions. They’re the same thing really.
Examine your values, and set goals that are aligned with them. Sometimes the changes we want to make are for the better, but not necessarily that important to us. If your highest value is your family, but you want to eat a healthier diet, perhaps think about how you eating a healthier diet could benefit your family. Maybe it means you can spend more quality time with them or look after them better. This ‘reason why’ would likely give you more motivation to stick to the habit than if you were eating healthily just to lose a little weight.
2. Shortcuts rarely work
We’re the generation of life-hackers. Every day we see new articles, books and videos promising the shortcut to the beach body, or the secret to happiness. In reality, things don’t work like that. Shortcuts are hardly ever sustainable solutions.
Sometimes we feel that introducing drastic changes is the only way to reach our goals. We see the nicely written narrative in the media about the dude who changed his diet overnight, and lost a hundred pounds in weight. However, that’s seldom the reality. Every overnight success story has years of hard work behind it. Those big changes you see are made from a combination of hundreds of tiny steps. They’re made by committing to the long haul and focussing on the journey, rather than trying to take a shortcut to the destination.
All too often we try to make the big transformation, and it lasts about a week or two, before it all comes tumbling down. We bite off more than we can chew, and end up right back where we started, just with less self-esteem. I fell victim to this when I started to change my habits. I tried to make several big changes all at once, but inevitably they never lasted. Success only came when I checked my ego, and began making small, incremental changes.
Think about what is the smallest thing you can do today to get you a little closer to your goal? Maybe it’s walking two hundred metres every day if your end goal is a 20-mile hike. When you’re feeling comfortable with that, you can then take it slightly further. Maybe that means three hundred metres, or five hundred.
You increase your chances of success by building gradually, and also by sticking to one habit change at a time. For every extra habit you try to introduce or get rid of, you’re making things more difficult for yourself. Again, take your time, and commit to the long haul. Perhaps have an end goal in mind, but don’t fixate on it. Do what you can in the moment, and enjoy the process.
3. A support network is important
When I first decided to change my habits, I did a lot of it solo. I struggled through, because I had a big reason why, but things became way easier when I finally plucked up the courage to ask others for help.
We often view asking for help as a sign of weakness, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It takes strength to admit that you can’t go it alone. We’re social animals, and our greatest work is often produced by a combination of interdependent individuals coming together with a common goal.
Don’t be afraid to get assistance. Tell a close friend or family member about your new habit that you’re working on, and get them involved with the process. Build accountability around your next step, rather than the end goal.
Agree to keep them updated with weekly progress reports, and set consequences and rewards. If you achieve your weekly goal, perhaps you get to see that film you’ve been waiting ages to see. If you fail, maybe you have to pay your buddy some cash, or sing a song in public. Consequences like these work for some people, but not for everyone, so do what feels right for you.
4. Triggers and reminders can be crucial
Our habits are ingrained from years and years of repetition. When we try to introduce a new behaviour, even if we’ve made it simple, built a good support network, and we have a great reason why – sometimes we simply just forget. We’re on autopilot most of the time, and the habit doesn’t register on our radar until it’s too late.
That’s why I like to use triggers. I have a note on my desk that reminds me to go through my morning routine or stretching and meditation before I start working. Some people like to put a food pyramid on their fridge prompting them to make wise food choices, or put their running gear out the night before to use in the morning. These little reminders don’t guarantee success, but they do make it a little more likely.
5. Failure is not our foe
We’re brought up in a culture that fears failure. You only have to look to school sports to see it. In a lot of places everyone gets a medal, there are no winners and losers, and it’s the taking part that counts. I’m not sure that’s a healthy message to spread to our children. They’re shielded from the truth, which is that in the real world, we fail all the time.
But it’s ok to fail! In some respects, you learn a lot more from failing than you do from succeeding. You get to figure out where you went wrong, improve, and come back as a stronger version of yourself. Failure is only a negative thing if you fall off the horse don’t get back on.
You’ll likely fail a few times when you try to change your habits, like I did. But it’s not the end of the world. It’s just a sign, telling you that you probably made the change too difficult for right now.
Don’t beat yourself and repeat the same old negative story in your head about how you’re good for nothing and will never be able to change. Treat yourself as you would a good friend. Go back to the drawing board, make the change a little easier, then go at it again. Embrace failure, and think of it as a necessary stepping-stone towards success, rather than something to be feared.