Want to change your behavior? Learn to build sticky habits.
Making changes in your life can seem a daunting task.
Joining a gym is easy. It doesn’t take much effort to start reading a book or kick off a diet on Monday either.
But, as the week progresses, it becomes harder to find the motivation to cook a healthy meal. You can’t find the willpower to open a book instead of watching yet another episode of your favorite Netflix show.
Despite your commitment, you fail to stick to your new habits.
But willpower and commitment have nothing to do with achieving change. What you need is to build sticky habits.
It was Will Durant — not Aristotle — who said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
This article is going to give you 9 steps to build habits that stick. They have proven to work for me and hundreds of teams I’ve coached.
Habits are automated behaviors we do every day without noticing it. Building them requires time and purpose. But once they stick, you can achieve almost everything.
Step 1: Own Your Change
“Always be a first rate version of yourself and not a second rate version of someone else.”
― Judy Garland
Sticking to a habit seems pretty tough. Indeed. It’s not easy — but you can do it. It all starts by owning the change you want to create.
I can’t stress this enough. Most people fail to change because their goals are not theirs. They want to copy other someone else’s habits or to please other people.
Don’t let external pressure define how you live. The struggle to get social approval is creating unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression. Improving your habits should be a fun experience. It shouldn’t add more stress to your life.
External inspiration can be a good motivator. Seeing your neighbor running every morning can inspire you to train for a marathon too.
But, think twice before you embark in a new habit. Do you really want to do it? Or do you feel pressured because everyone else is doing it?
If you don’t own your goals, you will never succeed. To make them stick, new habits must be yours, not someone else’s wishes.
Step 2: Upgrade Your Mindset, Upgrade Your Habits
“If you are down, be good to yourself and listen. If you are up, be good to others and share.” ―Waylon Lewis
Change is not about willpower or personal strength. The struggle to achieve new behaviors happens in your mind. Overcoming procrastination is an emotional battle, not a productivity one.
Developing sticky habits requires upgrading our mindset.
The stories you tell yourself about yourself define what you are capable of (or not). We are victims of our own fantasies. As Carl Jung wrote, “The most important question anyone can ask is: What myth am I living?”
Your mindsets are the lenses through which you see the world. Your thoughts, beliefs, and expectations shape your life. They filter the choices you make every day — without you noticing it.
Face your resistance. Which beliefs are saying “no” to your desires? Your past influences you, but it shouldn’t define you. That you failed once or twice doesn’t mean you always will. We learn to walk by standing up every time we fall.
Perfectionism is the enemy of change. The only way to learn something new is to do it. You will always suck at the beginning. That’s okay. Let go of trying to be perfect. Let the path unfold.
Be kind to yourself. Building new habits is not a linear path. Self-compassion is the key to help you overcome failure or procrastination.
Change takes time. Be patient. But, most importantly, enjoy your journey. Aim for consistency and improvement, not perfection.
Step 3: Focus On Your Dream, Not Your Goals
“I kept believing and dreaming. “If you keep believing you can go really far in life.”―Roger Federer
Most people fail to achieve their goals. They focus on the target instead of activating the law of attraction. Goals help us track progress, but they don’t spark desire.
What is the best exercise for you? The one that you actually do. As Nir Eyal explains on his blog, attempting to incorporate habits that we have to instead of want to, doesn’t work.
Reactance is a psychological phenomenon that describes our tendency to resist doing things we feel coerced to. When we focus on habits we hate, we create negative self-feedback.
For habits to stick, you must enjoy doing them. That’s the problem with goals — we focus on the end destination, not the journey. Do things you love. And learn to love what you do.
Discover how to make new habits more enjoyable.
Good habits liberate the best version of ourselves. Focus on becoming a better you, not the goal. Instead of “I’m going to lose 10 pounds in a month,” think of, “I will feel energized by exercising three times a week.”
See it until you make it. Visualize what you want to achieve. See the change you want to become. Visualizations propel your mind into action. See the new you unfold.
Roger Federer won Wimbledon after a 5-year drought on majors. Many non-believers have written him off and expected Federer to retire. But Roger kept believing and dreaming. Until he made history once again.
Having a strong purpose and passion drives action, not a target.
Step 4: Go Slow to Go Fast
“Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.” ―Warren Buffet
To achieve significant, sticky habits, you must build your way up through more manageable behaviors. Building momentum is more important than the initial achievement. Go slow so you can then go fast.
Changing your life means changing small day-to-day habits. ‘Minimum Viable Changes are small doses of tiny changes that can create a big impact. MVCs are easy to put in place, generate less resistance, and build momentum faster.
An MVC is small but also enjoyable. It doesn’t require a significant effort on your end. Cutting a new habit into smaller chunks makes it easier to achieve it.
Let’s say you want to meditate every day. Carve 5 minutes each morning to start building the routine. Or, if you want to read one book a month, start by reading four pages every day.
Don’t get obsessed with the outcome. When you build the right cadence, results will start to pile up unnoticed.
Success breeds success. Start addressing the small things that you feel more confident about. Focus on building chains of habits until they become too strong to be broken.
Step 5: Replace Existing Habits with New Ones
“It is not a daily increase, but a daily decrease. Hack away at the inessentials.” ― Bruce Lee
Time is limited. And so is our willingness to do more things. Many people fail to achieve new habits because they keep adding more and more tasks. Until they burn out.
Self-control is the mental power we all need to drive change. It’s critical to resist distractions or to keep going in spite of failure or frustration. But it is not limitless.
Research shows that self-control is an exhaustible resource. As the Heath brothers explain on Switch, what looks like laziness is always exhaustion. Too much self-improvement can wear you out.
Rather than adding new practices, replace old habits. One of the best ways to replace bad habits with good ones is to treat them like old clothes, as Keshav Bhatt wrote here. When a t-shirt is no longer useful, you replace it with a better one.
Also, it’s more motivating to start a new behavior than to stop doing something else. Instead of “I’m going to stop eating sugar,” think, “I want to start eating more mindfully and take care of my body.”
Replacing behaviors is about simplifying. You focus on what you want to start doing, rather than on the loss — your old habit.
Step 6: Get an Accountability Partner
“The price of greatness is responsibility.” — Winston Churchill
No one changes the world alone.
Most people fail to change when they try to do it on their own. Peer to peer support is an effective way to improve our habits. It means getting help and advice from someone like you.
Get help from someone who “has been there, done that.”
Peer to peer support increases your chances of success. Having a goal with a clear ‘when’ and ‘how’ augment your chances of succeeding are 50%. Having an accountability partner increases your odds to 95%.
An accountability partner is your duo. This reciprocal relationship complements your skills. It’s about two people who meet as equal to provide each other with feedback and support.
Find your partner in crime. It could be a friend, colleague, spouse, or family member.
Your accountability partner sees what you are missing and keeps you on track. Most importantly, it’s your go-to person — s/he has your back.
Use this tool to design an effective accountability partnership.
Peer to peer support not only increases your chances of success. It will help you fortify new habits, so they stick longer.
Step 7: Don’t Fool Yourself
“Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others.” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky
Self-improvement can be deceiving. Our perception of progress can blind our self-awareness.
For example, people who start exercising more often tend to overeat. They unconsciously believe that the effort they put gives them permission to indulge.
Many of us fall prey of moral licensing. We have a psychological tendency to splurge in one area of our life when we’re being good in another.
Research shows that people that buy green, environmental-friendly products are more prone to cheat. And those who believe multivitamins provide significant health benefits usually exercise less than the rest. And are also less likely to choose healthy food.
Keep your bias in check. Working with an accountability partner can help you uncover your blind spots. Don’t turn progress into overconfidence.
Step 8: Design the Right Environment
“It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable.”― Moliere
Set yourself for success. Remove distractions and create the right influence.
Don’t underestimate the power of your environment. External stimuli easily influence our minds. Research shows that shifting from 12-inch plates to 10-inch ones decreases calory consumption by 22%.
Design the right environment for the area of your life you want to change. If you want to get fit, show up at the gym or join a group, and exercise together. If you want to stop snacking, remove all temptations from your pantry.
Don’t get too comfortable either. Turn a familiar place into an unfamiliar one. Make some tweaks to create positive stimulation. Change your workplace from time to time.
Residents of Okinawa, Japan live seven years more than the average American. They also have one fifth the rate of cardiovascular disease. One reason is that Okinawans don’t have easy access to chairs. The natural discomfort of sitting on the floor makes them get up and go for a walk — up to 30 times each day.
To be more productive, cut distractions that take away your focus. If your phone is an issue, silence all alerts, remove frivolous apps, or keep the device in a different room.
Step 9: One Habit at a Time
“Focusing is about saying No.” ― Steve Jobs
Never underestimate your inner strength. But don’t become overconfident either. Avoid the temptation of trying to incorporate too many habits at once.
Imagine that you want to learn a new language. Learning several at the same time can be confusing. You would probably end mixing words or confusing the different grammar and sentence structures.
The same applies to build new habits. Repetition, consistency, and focus are vital to building familiarity. Master one before you add a new one to your repertoire.
This rule applies to all aspects of your life — fitness, professional, family, health, hobbies, etc.
Never break the one habit at a time rule. Avoid adding a new behavior before one has stuck.
Putting It All Together
Building sticky habits requires a method and time. Be patient.
Become your own measure of success. Don’t compare your initial progress to what someone accomplished after years of practice.
An accountability partner will increase your chances of success. It will not only keep you focused but also remind you to treat yourself kindly.
Unexpected events will always get in your way. That’s life. If you feel you are falling behind, remember the “Go slow to go fast” rule. Go back and rebuild momentum. Turn small little changes into big sticky habits.
Become the best version of yourself — one habit at a time.