Achieve Your Goals by Creating Habits that ACTUALLY Stick
The key to achieving your goals is improving how you develop and reinforce new habits, even when motivation and willpower lag, which they ALWAYS do. The good news is that successful habit formation is a skillset that can be learned. Here are 4 key ways to create new habits so they actually stick!
As we enter the second half of 2020, how many of you have kept your New Year's resolutions? If you are anything like me, maybe you set several goals aimed at improving some aspect of your life. Perhaps it was a health and fitness goal or a commitment to enhance your productivity, work-life balance or even grow your business.
Since 92% of all New Year’s resolutions fail, my guess is that many of the goals that you started making progress toward with high levels of energy and intensity may have lost steam somewhere along the way. If this is your experience, know that you are not alone and it doesn’t mean that you are somehow uncommitted or lack discipline in any way. So why does this happen and how can we do a better job of achieving the goals we set for ourselves and also sustain the changes we know will improve our lives and careers in some way?
Fundamentally, New Year’s resolutions are really about forming new habits that support your longer-term goals. When we start building a new habit, we tend to be highly motivated and assume that our current level of willpower will sustain this new change. However, like our brain's mental energy, our motivation and willpower will naturally ebb and flow over the period of time that is needed for successful habit formation, which is approximately 2 months. This can be even longer when the behavioral change is hard and we are not yet seeing the fruits of our efforts. This explains why you may have been initially energized to wake up and exercise at 5:30 a.m. those first couple weeks only to find yourself hitting the snooze alarm more frequently until that once hopeful early morning exercise routine has all but disappeared.
The problem in forming new habits that stick is that motivation is unreliable and willpower is an exhaustible resource.
So, for a new habit to actually stick, we need to find ways to sustain the desired habit during this fragile, yet necessary, 2-3 month habit formation process. Our brains dislike change, so it will naturally resist. However, the brain is much like a muscle and can change and strengthen over time with sustained and repeated effort (scientists call this process neuroplasticity). In other words, the key to successful habit formation is changing how we develop and reinforce new habits, even when our motivation and willpower lag, which is often the case. The good news is that habit formation is a skillset that can be developed over time. Here are some key ways to increase your success in making new habits actually stick:
Don’t Break Your Streak - One of my goals over the last few years was to develop a regular meditation practice. I had made several attempts during the past few years to meditate for at least 30 minutes a day only to give up as my motivation lagged or life "just got in the way." I knew from research the many benefits I'd reap from regular meditation, but just couldn’t seem to keep it going. Then a friend told me about a meditation app that worked for her, so I decided to give it a try. That was nearly 6 months ago and since then I’ve developed a consistent meditation habit that is part of my daily routine – I honestly can’t imagine NOT doing it!
What made the difference in my success? Consistency rather than intensity. The motivation for me during the beginning was not so much the benefits of the meditation practice itself, it was that I didn’t want to break my streak. This is because the app tracked how many days I didn’t miss a session. It didn’t matter if I meditated for 1 minute or 30 minutes – it all counted toward my streak. My motivation for continuing my practice is now more related to my enhanced levels of focus, peace and self-compassion. However, if I’m being honest, what also keeps me consistent is that I still just don’t want to break my streak!
Establish Mini-Habits: One of the main reasons most New Year’s resolutions are destined to fail is because they are often too big and grandiose. Many of my clients’ professional goals can feel so weighty that they end up procrastinating or giving up completely because they are so overwhelmed by the process. Take the example of writing an article for a legal or industry publication. Rather than expecting yourself to rely on motivation to write daily for an hour or more, consider breaking it down into a smaller and more manageable writing habit that is nearly impossible to fail. This could look like writing for 15 minutes a day or even just writing one paragraph or sentence per session.
The key to success with mini-habits is keeping them small enough so that they are easy to do and you won’t need to rely on motivation and willpower to get you started and keep you going.
The likelihood is that once you begin this mini-habit, you’ll probably be motivated to do even more because motivation often follows action. This is what happened for me with my meditation habit. My only requirement was that I had to open the app and do at least one minute of meditation per day – just enough to be able to get my "check mark" on the app for the day. However, even when I wasn’t in the mood to meditate and only planned to do the minimum, I often found myself motivated to do more once I started.
Try Habit Pairing: Research demonstrates that brain neurons that fire together wire together. This means that one of the best ways to develop and sustain a new habit is to pair the desired habit with something you already normally do or enjoy. You probably have already paired habits like this without realizing it. Think about the process of brushing and then flossing your teeth or checking your email after sitting down at your computer each morning. Many of these habits (good or bad) are ones that tend to follow other habits. So, if one of your goals is to establish a more consistent reading habit, one way to develop it more successfully might be to listen to audiobooks while walking the dog or during your commute into work. One great structure for pairing a desired habit with one that is already established is as follows:
After I sit down at my computer, then I will list my top 3 priorities for the day.
Enlist an Accountability Partner: Having someone help keep you accountable for the desired changes you've committed to during the habit formation process can be very helpful in making habits stick. You can recruit friends, family or other colleagues to join you in developing your new habit, or in serving as an accountability partner to help you sustain momentum, especially when your initial motivation and willpower begin to dip. For many people, having an exercise buddy is a great way to stay on track when you just don’t feel like working out. Or perhaps consider asking a colleague to remind you of your commitment to end work at a particular time each day to help reinforce your goals around greater work-life balance. The enlistment of an accountability partner creates a subtle, but powerful social commitment that can dramatically increase your odds of success. In my role as a professional coach, I often serve as an accountability partner to clients who want to develop more positive habits and empowering behaviors that are critical to reaching their goals.
These are just a few small ways you can be more successful in creating habits that support your larger goals. If you’d like more information on how to develop positive habits or ways I can help you with any other career-related goals, please contact me. You are also welcome to schedule a complimentary coaching session with me to experience how coaching can help you "get out of your own way" so that you can achieve your goals and realize your full potential.
Jill Lynch Cruz, PhD, CPC, GCDF, SPHR
Executive Coach & Career Development Consultant
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