It’s early January, which for many people means one thing: resolving to adopt positive new habits.
But while it’s easy to come up with habits that we know will make us healthier and happier, actually sticking to them is often a different story. For many reasons – a disruption to routine, lack of motivation, life changes – breaking an old habit, or establishing a new, lasting one, is a challenge.
“We’re lazy, in a good way,” explains Paul Dolan, a podcaster, writer and Professor of Behavioural Science at LSE. Much of our brain activity is automated – it happens without us thinking about it – and our habits are embedded in the “automatic system” within the brain. “Our brains are constantly seeking to create ‘habit loops’ because it makes life easier,” continues Dolan. “This makes breaking an old habit hard, and when it comes to embedding a new habit in our automatic system, it takes a couple of months – two at least.”
Habits are something I think about a lot – the subject comes up in my coaching practice (and my own life) often, especially around this time of year. So, here are my top tips for setting lasting habits that will help you stay motivated and engaged with change, and move you closer to the life you want to live.
Consider your priorities
My starting point with any client is their priorities and values. These are the people, things, activities and ideas that you deem most important; taken together they dictate how you live your life (both day-to-day and overall). Your priorities are the foundation beneath your decisions, actions and goals and the clearer you can get on what they are, the easier it becomes to know which habits you need to build or break. So, what’s important to you? What do you wish to prioritise more or less? It could be tangible – a specific person – or something more esoteric, such as not responding to challenging situations with anger.
Define your why
Sometimes the reason we don’t stick with habits is because they don’t actually mean that much to us. Having a deep connection to your goals will help keep you focused when distractions or a lack of motivation inevitably arrives. Make sure your habits are meaningful by taking a moment to reflect on why they matter to you… What is it exactly that you hope to achieve with this habit? What is the difference it will make to your mental, emotional or physical health? Why is it important? Be specific and write it down, to help solidify the reasons in your mind and to refer back to when you’re feeling discouraged and need a lift.
To create habits that last, it can be helpful to focus less on the habit itself and more on the kind of person who embodies that habit. What you do and what you think adds up to who you are, so start thinking about the type of person you want to be and build your habits from there. This is also known as building identity-based habits. For example, if you wish to exercise more, think of yourself as a healthy, active person and then ask what that kind of person would do? This approach also helps you stay on track when feeling de-motivated, because it focuses on who you want to be as a person, rather than a singular habit.
Prioritise process over outcome
AKA: enjoy yourself. One of the key factors in defining whether you will achieve a goal and/or create habits that last is how you feel about the process. “If you get feedback that something is feeling good, experientially, you’re more likely to stick with it,” explains Professor Dolan. Search out a habit that brings joy above something that may be considered maximally efficient – for example, a type of exercise that you find pleasurable rather than something you hate but believe will get you fit quickly. Create a positive-feedback loop, enjoy the process, and you’ll be more likely to stick with it.
In order to make space for new habits or break old ones, it’s helpful to evaluate your life to see what might be holding you back and how you can let that go. Helpful questions include: is my current life in line with my priorities and goals? Are the people around me helping me move closer to the version of my life that I want for myself? It’s not easy to let go, but recognising what’s not working for you – whether that’s a person, behaviour or thought pattern – is the first (big) step in creating more space for change.
Identify cues and pinch points
One of the best ways to ensure you maintain a habit is to evaluate your current routines and lifestyle and see if there are any “pinch points” or subconscious “cues” that may disturb or inhibit your progress. These could range from a pinch point such as the gym being a long way from home (solution: find a closer gym), to the cue of always having a cigarette when you go the pub (solution: try sitting at a different table or meeting friends in a different place for a few months). Professor Dolan explains that “changing any habit requires you to disrupt an initial cue” – assess your life and see where/what you need to disrupt.
When it comes to habits, accountability makes all the difference. If it’s available to you, create a buddy system, working with a friend to keep one another accountable with frequent check-ins. If not, create a commitment system for yourself – set your own benchmarks and reward/punishment system, to incentivise yourself to follow through with your best intentions. I’ve heard good things about Beeminder, where you set goals through the app and connect a payment card – if you don’t achieve your goals, the app donates money to a charity of your choice. (To really incentivise yourself, link to a charity you deeply disagree with, knowing your money will go to them if you don’t keep up your side of the agreement!)
Don’t get discouraged
It’s glib but true – every day is an opportunity to start again. If you miss a few days, weeks or years of sticking to a habit, you can always pick it up again. Failure is a natural and important part of life, and not sticking to a habit doesn’t define you as a person. If you feel discouraged and as if you want to give up, revisit some of the earlier tips, such as defining your priorities and your why, to help inspire you to start again. Above all, stay compassionate: you’re doing the best you can with what you’ve got right now, and that’s plenty.
Lily Silverton is a life and mindset coach and the founder of The Priorities Method