Like a chump, I struggled for years trying to change my habits.
I started an exercise program or diet with unrestrained optimism, probably a dozen times. I threw away all my cigarettes and tried quitting smoking about seven times. I tried waking up early, reading more, writing daily, getting out of debt, watching less TV, and failed at all of those.
It feels horrible when you can’t stick to habits, and I constantly felt bad about myself. What I didn’t realize back then, until I started successfully changing my habits in late 2005, is that it wasn’t a matter of me not having enough discipline. It was a matter of doing habit change all wrong.
I was making some big mistakes when it came to habit change, and once I fixed those mistakes, I got immensely better at sticking to changes.
If you’re struggling with habit change, here are some of the mistakes I used to make, in hopes that it will help you too.
- Not changing your habit environment. We often rely completely on willpower to stick to habit change, but in practice that rarely works. Much better is changing the environment around you. Make it easy to do your habit, by putting your running shoes next to your bed and sleeping in your running clothes, for example, or having lots of healthy food around you, or writing out small steps you can take in your spare time to reduce debt. Make it hard to do the things you don’t want to do, by getting rid of all the junk food in your house or setting up accountability with friends with a big consequence for missing exercise or eating fast food, or put your TV in the closet or unplug your router and give it to someone to hold for a couple hours. Be smart and figure out how to change your environment so your habit succeeds, and if it fails, change your environment some more.
- You expect comfort. Habit change is by its nature uncomfortable, but most of us want to do the same things we’ve always done and never be uncomfortable. It’s why most people don’t exercise, because they dislike the discomfort. If you allow yourself to be open to discomfort, at least a little at a time, you’ll be less likely to quit. Don’t like running? Just do a little of it, and be willing to push through a little discomfort. What you learn is that there’s nothing wrong with being uncomfortable, and this becomes a superpower for changing any habit.
- You don’t start small. Most people are optimistic and try to make too big a change. There’s so many reasons to start small with a habit change that I can’t even list them all, but let’s take some of the most important. If you start small, the discomfort of change isn’t overwhelming. If you start small, you overcome the problem of inertia and not getting started. You also overcome the problem of burning through all your enthusiasm, or using up your willpower reserves. You make it impossible to say no, impossible to fail, if you start small. Some examples: meditate for 2 minutes, just get out the door and run for a minute, eat 1 vegetable a day, smoke 1 time less per day.
- You have unrealistic fantasies about the habit. When we start a habit change, it’s usually because we have some kind of picture in our heads about how great our lives will be once we make this change: we’ll be healthy and fit and sexy, our lives will be uncluttered and simple and beautiful, we’ll be happy. Unfortunately, changes in reality are pretty much never as we fantasized about, and so we become disappointed and discouraged. A better approach is to realize that these fantasies or ideals aren’t true, hold onto them loosely, and instead to an approach of curiosity: what is it like to change? What is discomfort like? How can I be happy in each step along the way, instead of only at my goal?
- You start right away. I don’t know how many times I threw away my cigarette’s at a moment’s whim, deciding that moment to quit smoking. What I realized is that starting immediately is a bad idea, because it meant I was taking the change too lightly. The habit change was as small a commitment as taking out the trash, and as easily put off. Except that if I kept putting it off it didn’t stink as much as the trash. So I learned a better way: set your start or quit date in the future. At least a few days, maybe even a week or two weeks. My quit date for smoking was Nov. 18, 2005, and I marked it on my calendar and it became important. I wrote out a plan, had replacement habits for triggers like stress and being around other smokers, set up accountability, read about it. The habit change then took on importance, and so I was much less likely to just drop it.
- You don’t have accountability. One of the best ways to change your habit environment is to set up accountability. Create a challenge and tell people about it. Set a consequence for failure — I’ve asked a friend to throw a pie in my face if I didn’t stick to a change, for example. Join an accountability group. Report daily. Ask them to not let you fail and slip away. The accountability will help keep you on track when all the other things fail.
If you can fix these habit mistakes — and they’re fairly simple to fix — you’ll be increasing your odds of success a dozenfold at least. These fixes changed my life, and I hope they change yours too.
Oh, and I rarely recommend books, but if you want to read one of the most useful books on habits I’ve seen, check out my friend Tynan’s new book, Superhuman by Habit.