So you want to start a new healthy habit or trash that old unhealthy one?
The first thing you should know is that changing your habits takes willpower, and willpower is like a muscle.
As journalist Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit, "Dozens, even hundreds of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success."
In the book, he says there have been more than 200 more studies since the 1990s confirming that willpower "isn't just a skill. It's a muscle…and it gets tired as it works harder, so there's less power left over for other things." In fact, he says, researchers have found that physicians make mistakes most often after they have "finished a long, complicated task that required intense focus."
Duhigg points to a recent study that enrolled 45 students in a program focused on creating good study habits. What the research found was that not only did these students improve their study habits, but they also started smoking less, drinking less, watching less television, exercising more and eating healthier. "As their willpower muscles strengthened, good habits seemed to spill over into other parts of their lives," he wrote.
As you strengthen your willpower muscle, you’re actually changing your brain chemistry, too. As Duhigg would say, your brain becomes "practiced at helping you focus on a goal."
If you work your willpower muscle too much, it will get tired and you’ll falter in your habit shift. But as you learn to manage and be aware of your willpower, you’ll not only succeed in changing your habits, but your changes will likely lay the foundations for more and more new and healthy habits.
Here are five simple steps to help you change a habit.
Step 1: Readiness Ruler
On a 1-to-10 scale, how ready, motivated or excited are you to start X or stop Y? (1 being that you already want to quit; 10 being that you could’ve started yesterday?)
If you’re at a 3, what makes you feel more ready than a 1 or a 2? And what would get you to a 5 or a 6?
Rating yourself on a 1-to-10 scale again, how important would you say it is it for you to change? And finally, how confident are you that you can change your behavior?
Take a look at where your scores landed. What would it take for them to be higher?
Homework: Start here. Talk with your coach or someone in your life about your answers to these questions, because if you’re not ready, not confident, or not convinced that this change is important, then you shouldn’t bother trying to start or stop the habit in question.
Side note: Probably the number one habit I hear about is around losing weight. I want to take this opportunity to point out that dieting has been shown time and again to not work. Rather than focusing on shrinking the number on the scale, you’ll be much more successful if you work on building up a healthy habit instead.
Step 2: Accountability
Even if you’re ready to change your habits, you’ll likely need outside accountability from a coach, mentor or friend to help you stay on track.
Remember, you’re not just changing your habits — you’re changing the way you think. It’s hard work. An accountability partner can give you honest feedback about your progress and offer ideas to help you navigate challenges that come up along the way. They can also be a source of encouragement, helping you remember why you wanted to start or stop this habit in the first place.
Homework: Find an accountability partner who you can check in with daily and give them permission to speak into your progress.
Step 3: Barriers
If this change were easy, you probably would have made it a long time ago. But you can prepare yourself to confront your obstacles by identifying them ahead of time.
What barriers are you going to face as you try to change your habits? How can you eliminate them? When will they show up? What will trigger them?
Homework: Work with your accountability partner to brainstorm ways to overcome potential barriers.
Step 4: Link to your super habits
Brushing your teeth in the morning is one habit I hope we’re all doing. It’s considered a super-habit because it’s so deeply embedded into our routine. We do super-habits almost in a trance-like state. If you can ‘add’ your new habit to brushing your teeth, you will have more success.
For example, I wanted to add the habit of meditation to my daily routine, so I linked it to be done immediately after I brushed my teeth in the morning. 650 days later, I’m still meditating daily!
Homework: Identify a super-habit you can tie to your habit change.
Step 5: Simple and Specific
Whether you’re phasing in a new habit or phasing out an old one, keep it simple. Don’t try to make a huge change right away. Make a simple, small shift at first that you can build on later.
If your new habit is exercise, don’t start out by hitting the gym for two hours, seven days a week. Instead, find a type of exercise you enjoy and start small — for example, running for 30 minutes three times per week.
Make it simple for your brain to do. If you choose to run in the morning, put your running clothes by your bedside the night before so when you wake up, you’re immediately putting on your running gear, which makes it harder for your brain to resist the new habit.
Lastly, make your habit specific. If you’re planning to run for 30 minutes three times per week, plan to run at the same time all three days and put it in your calendar.
Homework: Pick a simple and small habit change to set yourself up for success; you can always expand on the habit once you get going. Put it on your calendar and tell your accountability partner about it. Make it specific: “I’m going to run immediately after I brush my teeth in the morning for 30 minutes, three times per week. I’ll slip into my running clothes and shoes right when I get out of bed and run a set route that will take me exactly 30 minutes.”
Start Building Better Habits Today
If you’re looking to build better habits in your life or leadership, we’ve created a new resource to help you.
Whether you’re looking to form a new habit or kick a bad one, our Building Better Habits Guide will help you check your readiness and make a plan to follow through.
Using the Building Better Habits Guide, you'll learn how to:
- Create simple and specific plans to change your habits.
- Evaluate your motivation and identify potential barriers to success.
- Learn how to hack the "habit loop" and rewire your brain to leave bad habits behind.