Many of us, who want to change some aspects of our lives, are full of good intentions at the outset only to find that our newly minted plans for transformation slowly but surely erode over time and we end up falling back into the old patterns. So how is it that some people manage to make a new habit stick while others find it a constant struggle?
Well, it turns out that there’s a science to habit formation and there are clear steps you can take to maximize your chances for success. Am I about to share “4 Simple Steps” to habit formation. Nope! Sorry, this isn’t easy fix territory. Forming new positive habits, or ridding ourselves of destructive habits for that matter, takes old fashioned work. What I can do however is show you how and where to focus your effort for maximum positive impact.
So, if you’ve tried and failed to change a pattern of behavior that doesn’t serve you, or you’ve never managed to adopt that new habit you know would serve you and make you happier, spend some time with me as I share the wisdom of the experts in this field.
Let’s begin by looking at someone who we all recognize as being incredibly successful, Michael Phelps. Phelps is the most successful competitive swimmer ever, winning 28 Olympic medals and 23 of those were gold! Yes, Michael Phelps has the perfect physique to become a successful swimmer but he was also trained in a very particular way by coach Bob Bowman, who started working with him when he was just 11 years of age.
If you’ve ever watched Phelps compete you’ll have seen and heard commentators speak about his strict pre-race routine. That routine and the habits that built it came through his work with Coach Bowman. Bowman spotted him at the pool and soon began working with him. Among other things, he taught Phelps how to manage his restlessness. His mother would read aloud to her son every night, a script from a book on relaxation, given to her by Bowman. It would guide him to tense a part of his body and then release it, visualizing the tension melting away as he did, until his whole body was completely relaxed. Every night, until he did this automatically, his mother read the book.
Phelps famously visualizes every part of the perfect race so that he is completely immersed in seeing himself perform at his absolute best, always. Bowman would tell him to ‘Watch the video tape’ at night before he went to sleep. That was an instruction to visualize the perfect race before he drifted off to sleep. When it came to race day, or when his coach wanted him to swim at race pace, the instruction was to “Put in the video tape”. Phelps would perform just as he had seen himself perform every single night – perfectly, to script.
Bowman also prepared Phelps for when things didn’t go perfectly. He made him swim in the pitch dark and he made him swim with broken goggles that filled up with water. That came in useful at the Beijing Olympics, during the 200 meter butterfly final, when his goggles began filling up with water right from the beginning of the race. He couldn’t see the black line at the bottom of the pool. He couldn’t see the T. He swam blind, on stroke count. He swam the way he saw himself swim thousands of times before, when he watched the video tape. He won that race and he set a new world record.
So the story of Phelps, this Olympic Giant, is inspirational stuff for sure but what has that got to do with mere mortals like you and me?
Well, quite a lot actually because Michael Phelps, like all of us, is the product of his choices. His training program and all of those training related rituals he engaged in throughout his professional career, were all originally choices, which, through consistent repetition, became habits and hence automatic.
Most of us are not training to become Olympic athletes, but all of us, I’m sure, would like to make our positive life choices, so habitualized, that they occur automatically.
And that is entirely possible, and without the training regime of an Olympian.
Let’s take a look at 4 Crucial Steps to Make a Habit Stick
So let’s start by looking at what you want to create. What is this life that you are striving for that requires you to adopt new habits and drop old ones? Surely it’s worth a moment to really think about what that looks like.
Have you ever had that niggling feeling that life isn’t quite going the way you’d planned or wished? Most of us have, but most of us spend little to no time really developing a clear view of what we do want. Then, when what we don’t want shows up we feel low or ill at ease, we feel despondent about our lives but we can’t really put our finger on what’s wrong.
Going back to Michael Phelps – we just don’t have a ‘video tape’ to watch, and boy do we need one!
Start by visualizing who you want to be and what you want to do. I know, I know, you may be panicking now because it seems like you should be crystal clear on this but you probably aren’t and that may feel uncomfortable. Drop the judgement and just take out a piece of paper – now! At the top of the page write this heading;
[YOUR NAME] is
Now just start to free write. That means write whatever crazy, and not so crazy, stuff comes into your mind when you look at that heading. There’s no judgement here. Just let whatever comes, come.
Who is your best self? How does she spend her days? Does she hike? Does she volunteer at her local seniors center? Does she go trail-running with a local club? Does she eat McDonalds and drink sodas? Does she smoke? Does she cook regularly for friends and family? Does she paint? Is she careful with her money or does she spend without checking her bank balance? Who is the [YOUR NAME] you would choose to be? Take your time. You are most definitely worth this time.
Only you get to choose who you are. Today you may not be this person who you would choose to be and that’s totally OK. Many of us made choices long ago for reasons we can no longer see clearly that have resulted in habits that may be so automatic that we hardly notice them. We’re not failing because today we aren’t who we would choose to be. We’re waking up today. And that is no small thing. That, my beautiful friends, is how great things begin.
2. Curiosity Not Judgement
Hopefully now you have written your vision of who you are. Pause and re-read it. Make a few edits if that feels right for you. Absorb what you’ve written.
Here’s the point where you can be triggered into going down the rabbit hole of,
”Who do I think I am?! This isn’t me! I can’t be her. She’s really together and accomplished and special.”
Well Hellooo Judgement! We were waiting for you to show up and hey, here you are right on cue! Just as we’re daring to dream a little bigger and better and braver you show up, like clockwork, to remind us – in no uncertain terms – that we need to get straight back in our box.
I think if this happens for you (and it happens to so many of us!), just look at it for what it is; a predictable response but one you can choose to let go. Smile if you can, acknowledge the pattern, and let’s move on, shall we?
As we acknowledge and humorously dismiss the judgement, let’s get curious. Your current reality will be different from what you would choose to be and now we need to light the path to move from one and towards the other.
The first thing to note is that it’s totally OK, great even, if your current reality self and the self you would choose are very far apart. You’ve identified clearly, perhaps for the first time, where you want to go, who you want to be. So don’t feel overwhelmed. Change takes time but the time will pass anyway. Wouldn’t it be much more fun to spend the time closing that gap? Many people never do this but wander aimlessly through life instead, always with this sense of unease and low-level dissatisfaction. That will not be you!
One thing at a time though! I know we like to think we women are just great at multi-tasking, but don’t let that fool you. That doesn’t translate when we’re looking to form new habits or reprogram old ones. We want to get singular about this and we start by looking for the low-hanging fruit, the easy win, in order to build a success foundation and gain momentum.
Identify a habit you want to adopt that you think would be attainable without having to exercise massive amounts of willpower.
Willpower you see is like a muscle and it tires. We need it to form new habits initially, before they become automatic, but we also need it throughout our day, in other areas of our work and home lives, so it tires. That’s why, when we choose an easy win habit – so we don’t overtax the willpower muscle initially. We build a success foundation first.
Now write a plan!
For example if you want to adopt a new habit of taking exercise you might decide that you would take a brisk walk for an hour 4 times a week (or whatever makes sense for your current fitness level – don’t set the bar too high!). Your plan will say which days and exactly at what time you will walk. It will say which walks will be alone and which will be with someone. Research has shown us that the more specific and detailed you are here, the greater your likelihood of getting out the door and sticking with your plan.
Research also shows us that if you have some community, even if it’s just one other person who acts as an accountability partner, your chances for success go up dramatically.
Study after study has shown that being embedded in social groups that make change easier is a massive factor influencing successful transformation. Groups nurture not only accountability but a sense of belief. We believe we can change when we associate with others who nurture and amplify that belief.
What’s the fifth factor that will stack the odds firmly in your favor?
Identifying and planning for the unexpected.
It can be really simple stuff like writing down your commitment that if it’s pouring rain you walk anyway. If there is an emergency (define it!) that prevents you from walking you make up that walk the next available day. You are best placed to see what could derail your plan, so anticipate it, identify it in writing, and plan exactly how you will address it.
Log your progress.
Maybe there’s an app for that, maybe there isn’t, but there’s always old school pen and paper. A small notebook will do the trick. A concrete visual reminder that you are moving forward is a great motivator to keep you on track, so get logging!
Don’t let a set-back derail you.
If you go off plan don’t indulge yourself with some fatalistic narrative of, ‘This always happens…I’ll never be able to….’ You are not failing, you are learning and learners are always winners. Get up. Drop the drama. Re-read the work you did on who you are. Re-read your plan. SMILE to yourself. Now, back to it!
Formula for Adopting Easy Win Habits
- Make it attainable – Don’t overstretch!
- Get specific – Times and dates
- Find community or an accountability partner
- Anticipate and plan for the inevitable blips
- Track your progress
- Drop the judgement – Get up when you stumble
3. Adopting A “Keystone” Habit
There are some choices we make that have a ripple effect. They result in us making other choices, almost automatically, and without the effort associated with that original choice. So, say we have a goal to improve our health – we’ve visualized the person we would choose to be and she is a vibrant healthy woman. So we’ve decided to begin by developing one new habit.
That habit is to drink a large glass of water every morning as soon as we wake up or get up, and before each meal during the day. We do this every day for two months. This is the only new habit we are working on attaining. After the two months this choice is pretty much automatic and the choice has become a habit – we only need to exercise minimal will-power, if any, to drink the water on schedule.
Now we review any changes and notice that not only have we established a great hydration habit but we’re also making healthier food choices and have lost weight, all without ever having had a weight loss goal. Perhaps we’re even taking a little more exercise than was our habit before. It turns out that, for us, the hydration habit is a “keystone habit”. It has had a ripple effect and impacted other choices and behaviors without conscious effort on our part. Bingo!
Sounds great right? But wait, how do we know which habits will become Keystone Habits for us? Ah…not a one-size fits all I’m afraid. Although some of us may well have similar, or the same, Keystone Habits, it’s a question of doing the work and discovering for yourself. You are the subject of your experiment and you are unique. The good news? You’re an expert on you, even though you may not be so expert on recognizing and owning all of your triggers and cravings! The key is to start small, stay curious, drop the judgement, and get up when you stumble.
4. Camouflage It!
Our brains are designed to prefer patterns that are similar to patterns we’re already familiar with. That’s something the music industry knows very well. Because a hit song is hugely lucrative, and at the root of an enormous amount of consumer spending, they’ve spent a lot of time, and money, understanding how to get us to like a song. And that research is very useful to us when we want to set ourselves up for success in adopting a new habit. Making a song a hit, making it ‘sticky’ is a technique that’s hugely useful to us when we want to make a new habit stick.
So what have the music industry learnt that we can use in our own lives? Well, when we want to adopt and make a new habit stick we need to camouflage it by wrapping it up in something we’re already familiar with and like. The music industry does this by sandwiching a target song between carefully chosen hit songs and repeating often. The tune out rate for the target song drops massively and the target song’s chances of becoming ‘sticky’ skyrocket.
This is what happened to the song ‘Hey Ya’ by Outkast. Music industry folk loved it but it sounded so different that the listening public just didn’t. They tuned out. Only when the song was relaunched and always sandwiched between two songs that were already popular, and uniquely sticky, did the public take their hands off the radio dial and listen – become familiar with – and eventually love – ‘Hey Ya’. They formed the ‘Hey Ya’ habit.
So, how do we make the novel seem familiar?
How do we make this new habit sticky?
Well let’s consider a new habit and potential, familiar ‘wrappers’. For a new exercise habit the wrapper might be a place where people are really friendly and it’s easy to make friends. That’s what the YMCA discovered when they hired two statisticians to look at why members kept coming back. It wasn’t how new or not the equipment was, it wasn’t having a huge variety of classes available, it was more emotionally driven.
“People like to be in a place where their social habits are satisfied. They want the familiar.”
So where members perceived this familiar wrapper was in place, they were more likely to show up and do their exercise. The exercise habit stuck because it was wrapped up in a familiar comfortable experience of warm friendly people.
Consider this when you’re looking at your target new habit. How can I leverage the familiar, what I’m already comfortable with and like, to tip the scales in my favor and make my new habit stick?
In conclusion, any change takes time and does require belief, will-power, work, and discipline. I can’t think of anything that’s worth attaining that doesn’t. However, it doesn’t have to be a Herculean effort when we leverage the science of habit formation to work in our favor. Slow and steady wins.
Don’t be tempted to go hell for leather and try to change too much at once. Build the foundation well, purposively, steadily and before you know it you’ll be well on your own path to transforming into your chosen you.