Creating and sticking to new habits can be easier said than done. Especially at the start of a new year, or even at the start of a week, you set out with all good intentions. You’re an ambitious business owner after all, you have goals and you want to achieve them. You feel motivated and enthused but then something happens, you notice things start to slip and the excuses start coming in. You miss a day, and then a week and before you know it, you’re back to square one.
It has been said that only 9% of us will keep new year’s resolutions and that 91% will fail within the first 12 months. So why is it so hard?
Habits are simply sequences of behaviour that are repeated and become automatic, subconscious and effortless.It is said that 40% of actions we perform each day are based on habits – they dominate our lives, from brushing teeth, to driving, to turning on and off lights, we couldn’t live without them. They have an evolutionary role – to save energy and perform tasks more efficiently.
Creating new habits requires creating new neurological pathways in our brain which is why repetition is so important. There is lots of research out there- some say that it takes 21 days to create a new habit, others say it takes 250. The reality is that it completely depends on who you are and what habits you are trying to create.
Because our lives are a manifestation of our habits, they have the power to help us achieve our goals and ultimately change our lives. So where do so many of us go wrong? And why is it so hard to make habits stick?
The first thing to be aware of is the Habit Forming process aka The Habit Loop. It has four important phases:
- cue/ trigger
- action / response
It is important to understand that we need to have each of these to build and sustain new habits and that if the cues in our environment stay the same, the actions stay the same and the rewards stay the same, any sort of behavioural change is going to be near impossible.
Based on scientific research, here are my top six reasons why you might be struggling to make a habit stick.
1) YOU ARE RELYING ON WILLPOWER ALONE
We often put our failures down to a lack of motivation and willpower. Although they are important and certainly a part of creating new habits, they are not enough alone.
Contrary to what many might think, willpower is not a skill, it is a muscle, and therefore just like all our other muscles it can get tired and exhausted if we use it too much.
This is called the Willpower depletion theory and relates to the idea that that willpower is connected to a limited reserve of mental energy, and once we run out of that energy, we’re more likely to lose self-control.
That is why if a new habit requires practising a lot of restraint, you will be much less likely to achieve in the long run and be more likely to rebound. Motivation and willpower alone is great at doing hard things once, but it won’t last!
2) YOUR HABITS AREN’T SPECIFIC ENOUGH
How often do you say you want to do ‘more’ or something – drinking more water perhaps, or doing more exercise? This seems obvious but it is surprising how many people set these goals for themselves and then wonder why it hasn’t happened.
Hundreds of studies have found one simple, practical strategy that will double or even triple your chances of successfully creating a new habit… it is called “implementation intention”.
All you need to do is simply devise and write down a clear plan that states exactly when and where you intend to carry out this behaviour e.g. I will [BEHAVIOUR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].
Of course there needs to be some level of desire if you want to make a sustainable change. But researchers have found that what creates desire and turns it into action is not your level of motivation, but rather your plan for implementation.
The goal is to make the time and location so obvious that, with enough repetition, you get an urge to do the right thing at the right time, even if you can’t say why.
3) YOUR GOALS ARE UNREALISTIC
This is probably where people go wrong the most. Enthusiasm for creating changes in your life can often lead to creating too many goals simultaneously or simply making them too big. But the easiest way to change your life and create sustainable change is with one tiny habit at a time.
Of course you want your long term goals to be aspirational but in terms of the day-to-day habits that you want to put in place, they must be achievable if you want them to be sustainable.
That is why a habit that involves restriction or deprivation never works and almost always ends in rebound because it requires too much willpower and therefore can’t be sustained.
See your habits as building blocks – identifying one tiny thing at a time. Once that is fully integrated you can then work on the next one. There is no need to revolutionise your life, and tiny changes that you repeat over and over is what leads to the big results, even if you don’t notice the change happening.
4) YOU’RE IGNORING YOUR ENVIRONMENT
There’s a saying that ‘the environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behaviour – we choose products not because of what they are but because of where they are.’ Cues are the first step to forming a habit and the majority of our cues come from our environment. So if you want to make a habit a part of your life, make the cue a big part of your environment.
Your current environment will be filled with 100’s or even 1000’s of cues and triggers that are holding your bad habits in place and potentially stopping you from putting new ones in place. So the first step is to become more aware of what your triggers are, then you will be more likely to do something about them, whether it is removing temptation and eliminating exposure to cues that are causing bad habits, increasing your exposure to things that will create good ones.
For example, if you want to start doing more at home fitness classes, it is useful to think about your home having “one space for one use” and creating an environment where everything has its purpose. So is there somewhere you can allocate to your workout zone? What can you put in that zone to make working out more enticing? Can you exercise mat be ready and visible or even rolled out ahead of a workout? Is your workout gear laid out the night before so you can put it straight on first thing in the morning? Do you have a sound system with some of your favourite music playing in the background?
The key here is to set up your environment in a way that supports you, so that there is no room for excuses because doing the things you want to do is easy.
5) YOU’RE NOT HOLDING YOURSELF ACCOUNTABLE
There is a difference between setting a goal or deciding you want to put a new habit in place, and then actually committing to doing it. I’ve been there – the excuses crop up, you decide you’ll put it off until tomorrow or next week, and then feel like you’ve let yourself down.
Well, research has found that the key to behaviour change may all come down to asking a simple question – called the question-behaviour effect. Instead of saying or telling yourself what you plan to do e.g. “I’m going to go to the gym later” you ask yourself a simple question e.g. “Charlotte, are you going to go to the gym later?”
It’s important that the question encourages a definitive yes or no answer so that it does not allow for any form of clarification or excuse and it therefore serves as a reminder to you of the intention that you have set.
The reason this questioning is said to be so effective is down to a theory called cognitive dissonance, which is the mental state of conflict in which your ideal self doesn’t match up with your real self i.e. who you actually are. The response of ‘yes’ is more likely as it eases the discomfort of not living up to your ideal self and once you have made this commitment to yourself, the likelihood that you will actually do it increases. The question simply reminds you about who you want to be and encourages you to set the intention to walk the right path to get there.
This form of questioning is said to be more effective and powerful in terms of holding yourself accountable when administered by computer or pen and paper – if you can find a way to integrate that into your intention setting.
6) YOU AREN’T MANAGING YOUR STRESS
Change is never instant and building healthy habits into your life is always part of a bigger plan. That is why the ability to delay gratification is an important factor in being able to achieve your goals. BUT when we are stressed our ability to delay gratification is considerably reduced and you are much more likely to act on impulse and do the things that aren’t good for you, but that give you that instant reward and dopamine hit (for example, sugar, caffeine and alcohol fixes). It’s quite simple, stressed people make bad choices.
So the key to building sustainable habits is to not only focus on the habit, but to also focus on the stress! Keeping stress levels low is particularly important in the critical early phase of habit formation. So consider all the things in your life that help to manage stress including sleep, exercise, nature, meditation and other stress reduction techniques. When we feel good, we are much more likely to commit and to inevitably achieve our goals.
So there you have it, the six reasons you may be struggling to make your habits stick and also six simple strategies you can put in place to make your chances of success much more likely. Don’t let the statistically high likelihood of failure put you off trying.
Our lives and our overall wellbeing is essentially a manifestation of our habits, so understanding where are are across all aspects of our lives is key to creating sustainable changes. It is why I am constantly monitoring well being alongside business goals with my clients. As well as this we also do specific wellness check-ins and I’d love to share with you the template that I use with my clients which will allow you to reflect on and rate many areas of your life and well as identify what you’d like to move away from and start adding into your life. There’s even a handy habit tracker so you can hold yourself accountable and be able to tick things off when you’ve been successful. If you’d love the wellness check in and habit tracker, please send me a message and I’ll email it straight over to you!