Three Secrets to Establishing New Habits

It’s easier than you might think to change your life

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Photo credit: iStock

By Adrian Shepherd

Last week Ricky Rosen kindly interviewed me for his Nervous Habits Podcast. It’s always a pleasure to be invited to share my thoughts in print or via audio.

We talked about what got me into productivity, some strategies to help people make better use of their time, my experiences from living in Asia, and habit building.

Despite chatting for over an hour, we barely scratched the surface, but I think people will get a lot out of it when it drops in the coming weeks. I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

As it happened, the very next day, I came across an article that talked about how people in England had changed their lives during COVID-19. According to the article, 43% of the 2,000 British adults surveyed felt that had “changed their ways for the better.” More specifically, about two in five feel their new habits have helped their overall well-being. And finally, that they “hope” to continue their improved habits once they return to their old routines.

I respect those people who have taken advantage of their lockdown but ensuring that a habit sticks is harder than most realize.

Psycho-Cybernetics written by Maxwell Maltz in 1960 became the gold standard for habit building for the whole self-help movement. Tony Robbins, Zig Ziglar, Brian Tracy are just a few of the big names that based their work around what Maltz talked about.

Just one problem. Turns out he was wrong.

Maltz believed it took 21 days to establish a habit. When I first started teaching habit formation with clients and based on my own experience, I decided to go with 30 days for two reasons. First, the longer, the better and second, because you can simply change 30 days to a month which makes it sound more palatable. Unfortunately, it seems I was off by about a month.

Phillippa Lally and her research team at University College London decided to figure out just how long it actually takes to form a habit. The results of her team’s study were published in the European Journal of Social Psychology and the results were clear — 66 days.

The key to habit formation is twofold — patience and trickery. 66 days of dedicated effort to establish the habit and as much trickery as we can to make it as easy as possible to adopt.

There’s a reason going cold-turkey fails for so many people, it’s painful. Few people can stick with it. Most of us are weak. Mentally and physically when it comes to doing the hard things. We all want the easy way. The only problem with that is that the easy way is often the wrong way.

Reading for 10 minutes a day for 66 days is tough. Scrolling through our Instagram feed is easy. Preparing healthy food for 66 days is tough (and can be more expensive). Picking up Burger King at the drive-through is easy. Working out for 20 minutes every day for 66 days is tough. Watching another of our favorite shows on Netflix is easy. Riding our bike to the office for 50 minutes each day is tough. Jumping in our car and driving 10 minutes there is easy.

When working with clients on fixing their habits, I find that we need to employ a few simple tricks. Three of my favorites are baby steps, momentum and distraction.

BABY STEPS

A few years ago, I was got up to a 4-minute plank each day, and then, I stopped. With Covid-19 keeping the gyms closed and my martial arts training stopped I figured why not get back into it. So, 12 days ago, I started with a minute. Then implemented baby steps moving up to 1:15, then 1:30, then 1:45, and now I’m up to 2:00. Every four days, I’ll continue to add another 15 seconds.

MOMENTUM

Experience has taught me that momentum is the key to habit formation. It’s not about the amount, but rather that the habit sticks which is why I like to make things super easy to begin with. Once the habit is formed, or you feel comfortable enough, you can start adjusting the amount.

There’s nothing worse than trying to establish a hard habit. Most people fail in the first few days. Most of us don’t have the mental fortitude or patience to see things through. Our brain is incredibly creative in finding ways of NOT doing things. Baby steps make it easy, and momentum keeps us going.

Don’t change your diet overnight, adjust is slowly. Reduce your potions almost unperceivable. Don’t try and run a marathon tomorrow, start with a walk around the block. Don’t spend eight hours studying Russian tomorrow, aim for 5 minutes. Then, consistently, over time, adjust it and quite quickly you’ll be surprised how quickly we reach our goals.

DISTRACTION

For those who have never done planking, it’s tough. Most people will be drenched in sweat doing just two minutes starting out if they can make it that far. It’s remarkably effective as an exercise. However, from 1:30 on, I noticed that one of the problems was focus.

Since I need a stopwatch to keep track of the time, I came up with the idea of using YouTube to keep my mind off the pain while taking advantage of the time stamp. I would simply choose a video I wanted to watch and then when the timer hit 1:00 I’d plank. Now it’s become a 2-minute ritual. Doing planking with YouTube makes the time fly past because my mind isn’t focused on the time, but rather the enjoyment of the video.

The story was previously published on The Good Men Project.

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