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You’ve probably heard the 21-day rule about habits… But that’s not exactly accurate.
Regardless of time, it’s more about the approach when it comes to habits, so let’s discuss the 3 most effective strategies I’ve found that truly work when trying to form new habits, as well as some advice for the “all or nothing” achievers out there who feel like if they don’t make it stick the first time, it’s all over. This is for you!
Intentions Behind Habits
Getting really clear on WHY you want to form a new habit will not only keep you connected and motivated to follow through on it, but it also feels better in the long run when it’s tied to a deeper goal or value you hold. If you decide you need to start waking up earlier just because some influencer told you that you need to in order to be more productive, it’s not likely you’ll want to follow through long-term on that.
But if you want to wake up earlier because you know you actually love mornings when you make the effort to get up, and love the feeling of having your coffee quietly while you journal before anyone else in the house is up… well, that’s so much more powerful and motivating, right?
So anytime you want to take on a new habit, take a few minutes to really get clear on the intention behind it. What value will it add to your life? How will you feel if you implement it and stick to it? Is it for you, or is it to please someone else?
So get super honest with yourself about where this desire stems from, why you are yearning to create this new habit, and if you haven’t yet, tie the habit to something deeper that will help you stick to it, even when you’re tempted to quit.
Have you heard of habit stacking before? It’s one of my absolute favorite ways to make small and tangible changes with my habits. It’s another process I learned from James Clear in his book Atomic Habits, and basically it goes like this: every time you do something that you do every day, aka an existing habit, you add on the new thing you WANT to do and you create an opportunity for it to be super obvious and easy to remember.
So say for example: if you want to be better about taking your vitamins, you could stick a pill box right next to your favorite cup that you always fill with water in the morning so that every time you’re filling up your water cup, you remember to take your daily vitamins. The filling of the cup triggers the habit that you want to follow it!
You want to stack the new behavior next to your regular, routine behaviors so that it almost tricks your brain into considering it a part of the routine quicker. It’s also a lot easier than trying to fit in a new habit randomly throughout your day at different times of the day, some days doing it in the morning and other days leaving it until the afternoon or evening. If you can stick it into the same spot every day and stack it on top of another habit you’ll be more likely to stick to it.
I’ve found this to be most effective with small changes I want to implement into my life like drinking more water or spending 10 minutes each day learning or actually taking my vitamins consistently. If you’re trying to kickstart a larger habit like spending an hour writing a few days a week or shifting your screen time habits, the next two tips will probably be even more helpful for you.
Share Your Goal
Keeping our goals a secret it actually a sneaky deception we start to believe in, probably to protect our egos from being bruised, when in reality, you actually have a 65% chance of completing a goal if you commit to it out loud with someone else, whether that’s a friend or even in a social media post.
I’ll take a 65% chance of success that comes just from admitting the thing you’re attempting to do. That number is according to a study from The American Society of Training and Development, and they also found that you have up to a 95% chance of completing a goal if you set an “accountability appointment” with someone.
That means if you set regular check-in discussions or updates with someone you trust to keep you accountable, you’ll have almost a 100% chance of sticking with your goal. Isn’t that incredible?! That’s why people hire accountability and business and life coaches!
Because it forces them to get clear on goals and then check in every so often to see how their progress is coming. If you can push past the fear of failure, accountability can do wonders for sticking with something you want to achieve.
Accountability can come from non-human sources, too. I’m here to rep human connection first, but if that’s a teensy bit too intimidating to get you off the starting line, opt for a different kind of accountability. You’ve seen the giant water bottles with hash marks for every water-drinking milestone of your day, right? Something about those little benchmarks and not wanting to fall behind on your water intake is enough to keep you accountable to your new habit.
Our brains love a hit of dopamine — that naturally occurring feel-good chemical that comes when we do something, eat something, see something, feel something, or otherwise experience something that we enjoy. So how do you get that dopamine hit from a new habit that might actually be somewhat unpleasant (say, for example, adding a high intensity workout to your daily routine?) Well, it could be as simple as crossing the item off your list or filling in the accountability bubble in your planner, but it could also be arranging for something you LOVE after your workout. An uninterrupted hour of guilty-pleasure television after the gym sesh? A massage at the end of the week if you hit all of your workouts? Get creative and reward yourself.
If you want to form a new habit of getting up early, that habit won’t be sustainable if it’s added to your life without recognizing how it impacts everything else — a habit of waking up earlier probably means going to bed earlier, or eliminating your afternoon coffee so you get more restorative rest allowing you to wake up with your alarm (or even before it).
I find it helpful to scribble out a list of the habit-supporting things I can do to give myself the best chance to stick to the new habit through that 21-day phase and beyond. Leave your yoga mat next to your bed, pick out your gym clothes the night before, heck, even just put a sticky note somewhere unmissable that reminds you to do the ‘thing’, and then rip it down with a celebratory cheer!
Remember that small steps, too, are so much better than no action at all. If you have a big goal like spending your entire weekend off of email or social media, it helps to start small and build up to something as substantial as that. Start with taking half a day and fill your time you would be spending online doing something else that fills you up. Once that feels normal and routine, make it a full day. Then after a while, add on another day.
And remember that some backsliding is to be expected and is completely a normal part of the process. It’s just a part of trying something new, so don’t trick yourself into thinking that failing once or twice means the habit won’t ever stick and you won’t ever follow through. All it means is that you’re human. Nothing more, nothing less. The quicker recovery you have, the easier it is to get back on track. That means staying OUT of judgment of yourself and instead simply acknowledging: hey it didn’t happen for one day or one week, but that doesn’t mean I can’t pick up where I left off tomorrow.
The Big Picture
Stay connected to that inner WHY— the reason you wanted to pursue this new habit in the first place. If you can go into each new day acknowledging that intention and keeping it front of mind, then you’ll have a much easier time finding motivation to continue on with your goal.
And remember, it’s GOING to take time. How much time is uncertain… could be 21 days, could be 210. But if you focus on taking it just one day at a time and work on small, incremental bits of progress, you’ll find yourself tracking toward a new habit that makes you feel incredible from the inside out, and that’s an amazing thing that you should be SO proud of!