“People do not decide their futures; they decide their habits, and their habits decide their futures.” (F.M. Alexander)
You are all familiar with the “New Year’s Resolution” phenomenon. Every January, the gyms are packed. The self-help sections of bookstores are wiped clean, and the air is buzzing with ambition. But already in February, and most definitely in March, the gyms return to the usual crowd, the libraries are empty, the books are collecting dust on the shelves, and people return to their regular lives without changing anything. Another unfulfilled resolution, another goal not achieved. It’s an old, familiar tale, but the question is: Where does it all go wrong, and how can we escape this horrible cycle?
In this blog post, we will talk about why it’s difficult to stay behind one’s goals and the solution to it all: habits, what they can do for us, and how to create them.
Why your plans fail
I’m guessing that your plans don’t fail because you don’t want it enough or lack willpower but because your approach to reaching your goals isn’t the right one. Here are four common mistakes.
1. You focus only on your goals
I know, you might be thinking: “You are telling me that focusing on goals is wrong!?”.
Goals are a hot topic here at A Brilliant Mind, and their importance cannot be understated. They provide us with a sense of direction, serving as beacons to guide our endeavors. It’s crucial to have a clear idea of what we want, and setting goals undoubtedly aids in keeping us on the right path. That being said, having a goal isn’t enough.
As James Clear notes: Winners and losers have the same goals. What distinguishes them are their habits.
2. Your habits don’t support your goals
When they think about their goals, many people think that success happens overnight. You have a great idea, you run a study to test it, find amazing results, publish them in a top-tier journal, and here is your career off to a stellar start. That’s a nice story but, in reality, it almost never happens like that.
Success (and failure) comes from a succession of small daily behaviors, the effects of which accumulate over time and create the desired results. Your financial situation is the reflection of all the small and large expenditures you make day after day. Your physical well-being is the consequence of the food you eat during each meal and in between. And your publishing record reflects every minute spent working on your article and perfecting your writing skills.
In other words, your financial standing is a reflection of your financial habits, your physical well-being the mirror of your dietary habits, and your career a testimony to your writing habits. If you’re failing in any of these areas, it’s in your tiny daily behaviors that you should look at.
3. You don’t identify with the habits you try to implement
Behind every behavior is a system of beliefs, and a behavior that is incongruent with the self will not last.
Let’s say you set a goal to get in shape and decide to exercise every day. It’s a good thing to have the goal but if you keep on perceiving yourself as a couch potato, you probably won’t need long to go back to the couch. Our minds work in such a way that we orient our behaviors to the image we have of ourselves.
Instead of focusing on what you want, focus on who you want to become. The more you will repeat a behavior, the more you will reinforce the identity associated with that behavior, and the more effortless the new habit will become. This is the secret of deep change.
4. From zero to hero
People frequently fall into the trap of desiring everything, and immediately. On a good day, the inclination is to go all out on everything and give 100%. If you never exercise, setting the goal to go five times a week to the gym will probably be counterproductive.
Change is not instantaneous; it requires patience and persistence. Consistently delivering the minimum effort every day yields better results than sporadically striving for the maximum output on only a few good days.
So, what if instead of visions of grandeur, you focused on getting the little things right?
How to create a new habit
That’s enough theory for now. Below, you’ll find a concise and practical guide to cultivating new habits inspired by James Clear and his book “Atomic Habits.” If you’re intrigued by the science of habits, I highly recommend his work. Now, let’s dive in!
1. Become aware of your habits
As Carl C. Jung once said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate.”
Our lives are woven from habits, whether we realize it or not. Often, we remain oblivious to the habits that shape our days. The initial step in fostering positive habits or eradicating negative ones is to become conscious of our daily routines. Tracking these habits provides a clear, objective view of our actions and their impact on our lives.
Tool: Habit Scorecard – Start by recording the various habits you perform each day. Use a plus, minus, or equal sign to denote whether each habit aligns with the person you aspire to be.
2. Start small
If you want to get physically stronger, you don’t go to the gym and load up the barbell with all the weights at once; you start with manageable loads and gradually progress. Similarly, with habits, it’s essential to begin with tasks so small and effortless that they’re nearly impossible to skip. The key is to set the bar so low that starting feels effortless, and then build momentum gradually.
Reading 50 pages of a book might be challenging, but reading a book for 2 minutes is nothing. Writing your entire PhD thesis is a huge undertaking, but doing a few minutes of free writing is easy. Think of it as your entry point. Most of the time, people give up before they start. Set the bare minimum and work up from there. At the end of the day, even if it is just for two minutes, you did your repetitions for the day – do it again tomorrow!
Tool: 2-minute Rule – The two-minute rule is pretty simple. Ensure your new habit can be accomplished in two minutes or less. This instills a pattern of consistent action and prevents procrastination. By training your decision-making “muscle”, you are training yourself to do it, instead of blowing things off for tomorrow.
3. Get a little better every day
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the same goes for your plan to improve. Aim to make incremental progress each day, and you will soon notice that these changes will compound over time. You don’t get in shape from working out once, but if you stay consistent and keep adding more weight, the results become inevitable.
Tool: The 1% Rule – Strive to improve by just 1% each time. How this is achieved depends on the habit you are trying to develop, but always add a bit more with each repetition. Be careful, however. If you feel motivated, don’t go overboard and make it feel like work. Remember, you are trying to form a habit that will serve you for years. The journey is about building sustainable habits that shape your identity and knowledge.
4. Keep track of your progress
You can’t know how you are doing if you are not tracking it. Consistency is paramount, and tracking your habits is essential to maintaining progress. It is also very satisfying to see your progress! Checking off your habit goal every day will give you that extra dopamine kick and will motivate you to keep going. Crossing it can even become more enjoyable than the habit itself!
Tool: Never miss twice – Missing a day is normal. However, make sure not to repeat it. Missing a day is a mistake, but missing twice in a row is a pattern and the beginning of a new habit. If you struggle to track your habits, there are also plenty of apps available to make it easier for you. I personally use the Habit Tracker.
5. Create a supporting environment
Your social surroundings significantly influence the development of new habits. You are influenced by the people around you, and even if it doesn’t feel good to admit it, you care about what other people think. If those around you disapprove of the habits that you are trying to implement, if they judge or ridicule you because of it, you’re off to a tough ride. On the contrary, if your friends, colleagues, family, or partner support you and set a good example, sticking to your good habits will be easy.
Tool: Group support – Join communities that encourage and appreciate the habits you intend to cultivate. If you want to exercise more, surround yourself with sporty people. If you want a healthier lifestyle, cut back on your drinking buddies. If you want to write regularly, join a writing group. Engaging with like-minded people provides an encouraging environment for growth and development.
6. Make it personal
As previously highlighted, genuine change originates from within. When you identify with your desired action, you don’t need constant external motivation. If you perceive yourself as an athlete, then exercising becomes natural. Instead of pushing a rock up the hill like Sisyphus, your identity blows wind in your back, it pushes you.
Tool: Cognitive Reframing – When trying to implement a habit, try to take into consideration how you perceive yourself, and how this new habit fits in. If you want to work out more often, start to think of yourself as an athlete. If you are learning to play the guitar, say to yourself: “I am a musician”. If you are trying to write every day, say to yourself: “I am a writer”. Even if you feel that you are none of it in a professional sense, this reframing will help identify with the habit. Embody the change by altering the way you refer to yourself and bring that energy into your actions.
Breaking free from bad habits
It is interesting how certain nasty habits slip beyond our conscious control. But what lies beneath the surface of these persistent habits? What fuels our relentless pursuit of behaviors we know to be detrimental? And how to get rid of them?
What lies underneath bad habits?
If I were to ask you why you want to eat pizza, the answer would not be: “I need this pizza for the nutrients to survive,” right? It would be, “I love pizza, it’s delicious”.
We don’t crave the habit but the emotional or psychological advantage that derives from it. We don’t seek out a cigarette per se; we want the relief it provides. Compulsively checking Instagram isn’t about watching pretty pictures, but a desire for distraction, social acceptance, and human connection. Deep within us lie those age-old desires that find satisfaction in screens, tablets and other modern-day products.
Given the ease with which we can access these instant dopamine hits, how then do we resist them?
How to get rid of bad habits
Certainly, the tools for eliminating bad habits share a striking resemblance to those employed in cultivating new, positive behaviors. As you explore the following strategies, you’ll notice their dual potential in addressing both sides of the habit spectrum. Choose the ones that resonate most with you.
1. Out of sight, out of mind
Erasing bad habits is hard, but it is especially hard in an unsupportive environment. One of the often-neglected aspects when looking at habits, is our physical environment and how it triggers our behaviors. As a matter of fact, we might be more influenced by our environment, than our motivation or willpower. So, creating a new habit and getting rid of bad ones might require some redecorating!
Tool: One space, one use – Think of your environment as a series of relationships with objects. The cues you encounter can either reinforce positive behavior or trigger undesirable actions. Arrange your space so that specific areas serve as triggers for desired behaviors. Make positive cues visible and prominent, while concealing or eliminating cues that trigger negative habits. An example would be a corner with your yoga mat and weights for training, or a clean desk with a timer, and a water bottle where you can write in peace.
2. Social pressure
Having a like-minded group can be very inspiring, aligning your own values and propelling you forward. However, it can also put you under pressure if you fail to meet those standards. True friends support your efforts but also call you out on your BS*.
Tool: Accountability partner – disappointing someone does not feel good, especially if we value that person’s opinion. So, an accountability partner is someone who is going to hold you accountable for your actions – plain and simple! It will make it harder for you to succumb to your old self and will push you to be better.
3. Make your bad habit hard
A simple truth when it comes to cultivating helpful habits says: Decrease the friction of positive habits and increase the barriers for negative ones.
Tool: Law of least effort – If it’s easy, you are more likely to do it. Simplify the path to positive habits by reducing obstacles, and making them easily accessible. Conversely, raise barriers to unwanted behaviors. For instance, remove sugary snacks from your home if you’re striving to curb your sweet tooth or place your phone out of reach during designated focus times.
4. Make a commitment
Formalizing your commitment makes it more significant. Establishing a form of contract or securing a witness transforms your commitment into a more binding pact.
Tool: Habit Contract – With this tool, you can also ask your accountability partner for help. For example, you can make a contract that if your partner sees you eating snacks after 7 p.m., you owe that person some money. You can also do it without a partner, by doing, or rather giving something up if you fail to respect the contract.
Rome wasn’t built in a day
When practicing bad habits, we often feel good about our immediate outcome, but bad about the long-term results. Short-term satisfaction merely postpones the price you have to pay from today to tomorrow. In other words, your future self will pay for it. The opposite is true for good habits: The immediate results might be unpleasant, but the ultimate outcome is satisfying. So keep in mind, that success in almost anything requires ignoring the immediate reward for the long term. Be patient and consistent.
Tip: Implementing a little bit of immediate pleasure for the habits that pay off in the long run can be very efficient. Likewise, implementing a minor consequence or punishment for habits that hinder long-term goals can also offer valuable reinforcement.
Habits are fundamental building blocks of life. Just as atoms join to form complex molecules, habits weave the fabric of our daily existence. In fact, research indicates that approximately 40% of our daily actions can be attributed to habitual behaviors.
By understanding the mechanics of habit formation and implementing strategic tools, we can actively nurture positive behaviors and pave the way for meaningful change. But remember, transforming your habits isn’t just about altering actions; it’s about reshaping your identity and moving closer to your desired self. Embrace the journey with patience and determination, allowing each small step to contribute to significant progress.
Take the first step today! Choose one habit you wish to cultivate and apply the tools we’ve explored. Join us on this transformative journey of self-improvement, and let us know how it went for you!