You are, to a large extent, the sum of your habits.
A habit can be defined as something you have become so accustomed to doing that you now do it almost without thinking. Research suggests that as much as 40% of our behaviours every day are habitual.
Therefore, bringing about meaningful change in your life – whether you want to get fitter, eat healthier or be more productive at work – largely depends on your capacity to alter your habits.
Yet, making new habits is notoriously difficult. Fortunately, there’s a wealth of scientific research that can help.
The secret to forming new, healthy habits
The key to incorporating a new habit into your life is consistency. In fact, this is the very essence of a habit.
But how do you first do something that is not habitual over a long period, and with sufficient consistency, for a habit to form? The secret is to start small and build up slowly.
Often, when we try to bring about change in our lives we set ourselves tough goals and then rely on will power to achieve these. In doing so, we set ourselves up to fail.
Take exercise, for example. If you set yourself a goal of running thirty minutes a day, there’s a good chance you’ll do it for the first few days while your motivation remains high. But beyond that, unless you’re particularly determined, your will power will inevitably flag and you’ll miss more and more days, until finally, you realise you’ve given up.
Instead, try setting an easier goal. One that’s so easy that it takes virtually no effort at all. Returning to our example, instead of a thirty minute run, start with a five minute walk every day after work. That way, on the days when your will power is flagging, it will take minimum effort to get out the door.
Then it’s just a matter of building up. Make sure you do this incrementally, so again, it doesn’t feel like you’re making any extra effort. Add a minute to your walk each day, for example. On the days you really don’t feel like it, you can revert to the five minute walk. The important thing is that you do it.
You’ll be surprised how quickly it builds up. Before you know it, you’ll be walking half an hour a day. Then you can start incorporating some running. But again, start small and build up slowly.
By then, you will have been exercising daily for some time. Arriving home from work will become your cue to grab your runners. That’s when you know it’s becoming a habit.
What if you miss a day? That’s no problem – in fact, almost certainly, you will. Be prepared for this and don’t see it as a failure. As long as you’re back into it the following day - make sure of this - it won’t make any difference. It’s consistency you’re aiming for, not perfection.
The same logic applies no matter what habit you are hoping to build.
Want to meditate for twenty minutes a day? Start with a few minutes, then build up slowly.
Want to read more books? Start with a few pages each day, then build up slowly.
Want to work more productively in the mornings? Start with ten minutes of uninterrupted work as soon as you arrive at your desk, then build up slowly.
You get the point.
Next month’s post will discuss some different techniques that you can use to break bad habits.