Hardwiring Habits: simple steps to real change

image of Lego people climbing a rainbow staircase

This started out as an attempt to write about New Year’s resolutions. How often we make them and fail to keep them, etc. etc. Most resolutions are attempts at building a new habit into our lives or getting rid of an old one – and that’s easier said than done.

Very quickly I realised I was being a poor follower of my own usual advice by focusing on the negative. What we have here instead is my guide to giving your resolutions the best chance of success.

It’s important to note that there’s a distinction here between building new habits and removing old ones. The advice below is firmly for the former. In my opinion it is easier and more motivating to add positive habits to your life than it is to give things up. The latter immediately comes with unpleasant connotations – of missing out on something, going without, being worse off. If you can reframe your intentions so that you’re adding something new and wonderful to your life, you’ll be going in with a much more positive approach.

One Thing At A Time

I’m going to lay down one hard and fast rule here: don’t try to introduce more than one habit at a time. Building habits is hard, it requires time and energy. Pick one, get it firmly entrenched in your life, then work on another one. You’ll achieve more in less time than you would starting by multiple habits at once. The aim is for them to be permanent fixtures in your behaviour. Master one, then turn to the next.

Simple Steps to Starting Right

When I’m planning to introduce a new habit – any new habit – these are the steps I take to make sure I’m giving myself the best chance of success.

Ask yourself the important questions

Do I really want to make this change? If you have any doubt about whether you want to make this change, focus your energy on something else. Without a conviction that this is something you really want to do, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Does this fit into my life? Think about the time/energy/money/attention you can realistically devote to your new habit. If it seems even vaguely unmanageable, break it down into smaller steps. You can always increase what you invest into it later once the habit is firmly established, but over-reaching initially is going to seriously lower the odds of you seeing your resolution through. And if it doesn’t fit, be honest about it and find something that does.

Planning for Success

Once you’re sure you want to do this, make a plan. Even ten minutes spent planning for success will make all the difference to your habit change. With a little bit of forethought, you can avoid many of the problems that might have scuppered your previous attempts.

To help you on your way, I’ve put together a planning sheet on Google Docs for your new habit. Click here to download.

Consider how your previous attempts at this (or something similar) failed before. Thinking about what went wrong last time can be a major help in preventing the same thing happening again. Then devise a strategy to handle those problems differently this time. Working out how to overcome difficulties when you’re actually experiencing them will be much harder than having a strategy in place beforehand.

Make it easy on yourself. Remove unnecessary challenges by making your environment conducive to your new habit. If you want to eat more vegetables, make sure you have a good supply in the house (frozen and tinned veg are amazing for this). If you want to go to the gym, pick one that’s easy to get to (there are more ideas about picking the right gym here). If your goal is to do yoga every day, set up your mat somewhere in the house and keep the space clear and ready for action.

Now that my bedroom has my favourite gym equipment in it, I have way less of an excuse to not work out at home ><

Give yourself a trigger. Linking your habit to something you already do every day will instantly help it to become part of your routine. It could be something you do as soon as you wake up, straight after breakfast, as soon as you get in after work or after you brush your teeth at night. Associating it with something you already do without conscious effort acts like an anchor point, giving your new habit something firm to attach to.

Know when you’re succeeding. Without something to aim for, establishing new habits can quickly be demoralising. However, all-or-nothing thinking is not your friend either. You need your new habit to be scaleable so that you stay motivated. Start small with frequent, achieveable goals. Hitting them will give you the boost you need to keep going. Remember, you can always add more detail to your habit later on.

Be accountable. Tick things off a list, tell a friend, post on social media. Whatever gives you a sense of satisfaction and the encouragement you need to keep going. Schedule check-ins with yourself so that you can monitor your progress. And if you’re not progressing, be honest! Reflect on what’s not working and change it.

Visualise your future success and work backwards. Imagine yourself in a year’s time. You have stuck with your new habit and achieved the goals you set yourself. What steps did you take to do this? Which challenges did you overcome? What had you achieved at three months? Six months? Thinking this through can help you to go in with a success mindset.

My fitness goals for 2018 – reverse-engineered from the annual goal to quarterly, monthly and weekly actions. I use Asana to track what I’m working on.

Then… Just F*ing Do It

Once you know you really want to do something, and you’ve made your plan for how you’re going to do it, the real work starts. The best advice I can give is to just f*ing do it.

Our brains are hardwired to stop us from changing our behaviour. Doing new things makes us uncomfortable, particularly if we find them difficult. We tend to think of people who successfully take on new habits as having more willpower than us, or finding something easier. We can all think of a million reasons why we can’t do something but other people can. Ultimately we need to be able to sit with that discomfort and those doubts, and Do The Thing anyway. It’s hard, and horrible sometimes, but afterwards you will feel great about it.

What’s great is that the more you do this, the easier it gets. We tend to think of willpower as being the magic ingredient in behaviour change, but I think the real magic is in persistence. Habit building isn’t something that people are either good at or not – it’s a skill which everyone can practice. Practice takes time and effort, but it’s time and effort well spent.

For more information about making new habits with F*it Swansea, click here.

Many thanks to Kit and Daniel for all they have done in teaching me about habits, consistency, goal setting and getting back up again when I fall <3

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