“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.” – Jim Ryun
Failures are just as important as successes when trying to learn how to improve, especially when it comes to changing habits. I’m sure every one of us has tried to quit something and failed, or tried to do something positive and failed. The key, of course, is to not just give up after failure, but to reset and analyze what went wrong and why, and to plan to overcome those obstacles the next time.
1. DON'T TAKE ON TOO MUCH AT ONCE: Most of us have done this — I want to wake early, to start running, to eat healthier, to be more organized, and to write every day … all at once! No matter how much enthusiasm we have for all of these goals, taking on even just two habits at once is setting ourselves up for failure. It’s certainly possible, but it’s not for those of us who have difficulty changing habits. It's estimated that you triple or even quadruple your chances of success if you focus on one habit at a time, for one month at a time. Devote all of your energy to that habit change, and once it’s on autopilot, move on to the next one.
2. DO YOUR RESEARCH: With every habit change, it's important to read as much as possible about it, before and during. Do research to find out strategies for success, potential obstacles, good tools that will help you be successful and keep you motivated.
3. COMMIT YOUR PLAN: It’s easy to wake up, jump out of bed, and yell out loud, “I’m going to make a change today!” Who among us hasn’t done that? But just telling ourselves, whether out loud or quietly in our minds, that we’re going to change isn’t enough. You have to write down your goal. Write a start date. Write an end date (30 days is a good time frame). Write down exactly what you’re going to do. Write down how you’re going to be accountable, what your rewards are, what the obstacles are, what your triggers are: put it on paper and stick to the plan.
4. BE FULLY COMMITTED: I’ve done this a few times myself: I will say, “I think I’ll quit smoking today.” Then I would throw away my pack of cigarettes. Then I would go for as long as I can (often half a day) and then cave in and go buy another pack. Then I feel guilty for a little while until I half commit to quit again. That doesn’t work. You have to fully commit. That means tell the world about it — put it on your blog, tell your family, friends, or co-workers. The more people, the better! Publish your entire plan. Put up a sign on your desk and refrigerator. Make a solemn promise to your child (this worked for me when quitting smoking).
5. LOG YOUR PROGRESS: You can change habits without keeping a log, but a log just increases your chances of success — and why wouldn’t you want to do that? Things are hard enough without using all the tools at your disposal. A log helps you succeed because it reminds you to be consistent. It keeps you aware of what you are actually doing. It motivates you, because you want to write good things in that log. It helps keep you accountable before the people you’ve made a commitment to.
6. THINK THROUGH YOUR MOTIVATION: What people call discipline, I call motivation. Why are you disciplined enough to do something? Because you have the right motivation. When you lose the motivation, you lose the discipline. Before you start your habit change, think through your motivations. Why are you doing this? What will keep you going when you forget your reasons? Public commitment is a big motivator, of course, but you should have internal ones too. Write these down in your plan.
7. REALIZE THE OBSTACLES: Every habit change is a path littered with obstacles. Unfortunately, when we hit some of these, we often quit. Or we’ll try again, but hit the same obstacles again and again with the same result. Instead, think it through, and anticipate your obstacles. If you have failed before, think about what obstacle stopped you. If you have never done this habit change before, do some research and read about others who have succeeded and failed at it, and find out what obstacles you should expect. Then make a plan for what you will do when you face the obstacles.
8. KNOW YOUR TRIGGERS: This is an important key to changing habits. Every habit has at least one trigger — an event that immediately precedes the habit. Some habits have more than one trigger — for example, smoking triggers included waking up, eating, stressful events, etc. Each time these events happened, almost without fail, I would smoke — either that, or I would get the urge to do so. The more consistent the link to the trigger, the stronger the habit. So when you try to break a habit, you have to know all of your triggers (log it for a few days) and then create a positive habit to replace the negative habit for each of the triggers. Running, for example, can replace smoking when stressed. For positive habit changes, such as exercise, you need a trigger that will happen every day (or as often as you need it to happen). For exercise, you could exercise right after your morning coffee (if you have coffee at the same time every day already) or right after work, if you get off work at the same time every day. Put your triggers in your written plan, and be very consistent with them — when the triggers happen, do the habit immediately, every single time. The less consistent you are with your triggers, the weaker the habit will be. If you attach a habit to a trigger, you have to do the habit every single time, immediately following the trigger. If you do it sometimes and not others, you will not have a habit. Try not to miss a single time if possible, because once you miss once, you’ll be tempted to miss another time, and then a third, and then you’ve got nothing.
9. DON'T CHANGE FOCUS TOO SOON: Often we start a habit change, and within a week or two our focus changes to something else. The habit most likely isn’t firmly ingrained by then, and so we’ve wasted all that time trying to form a new habit and then abandoning it before it’s on autopilot. Instead, stick to this habit for at least 30 days, and be consistent as possible.
10. DON'T QUIT AFTER FAILURE: If you do miss once, or twice or three times, don’t give up. Just figure out why you missed, and plan to beat that obstacle next time. Then be as consistent as possible from then on out, until the habit is ingrained. If you quit, you’ve let the failure beat you. But if you reset your resolve, and learn from your failure, the failure then becomes a positive thing that helps you to succeed. Failure as a stepping stone to success.
11. HAVE SUPPORT: There will be times when you falter, almost invariably. Who will you turn to when you need encouragement? If you don’t have a good answer to this, you need to think it through. If you have a significant other, that’s a good choice, but have more than one supporter. Maybe your mom, your sister, your best friend, your boss. Maybe an online friend or three. Best yet, join a support group or an online forum full of people doing the same thing. Make the commitment to them, and ask them to help you when you hit rough spots. Make a promise to call them if you do. Put this in your written plan.
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