“The difference between an amateur and a professional is in their habits. An amateur has amateur habits. A professional has professional habits. We can never free ourselves from habit. But we can replace bad habits with good ones.” – Steven Pressfield
You’ve decided to create a new habit to curtail your recent indulgence for over-eating. Your children have even made a passing remark, noticing your ‘winter weight,’ which has slowly crept up on you in recent times. The café lattes you sneak in throughout the day have become an unnecessary luxury. You’ve conceded defeat – it’s time to trade in the coffee card for the gym membership.
It must be said that forming new habits is challenging, since it disrupts both mind and body’s natural state of equilibrium. While the rational mind is quick to affirm an emphatic YES to the new habit, the emotional brain is not quite as enthusiastic to your new laid plans.
With any luck you’ve given it considerable thought, along with your strong emotional desire to make the change. Oftentimes, we have very little idea on the journey ahead until we embark upon it. In my early adult life I was at the mercy of my habits, given my susceptibility for my emotions to prevail. A number of well-intentioned habits were met with resistance mid-way, due to unreasonable expectations on my behalf.
As I approach middle age, I have had the good fortune to establish sound habits in various areas of life that continue to serve me well. Moreover in my work as a health and self-empowerment professional, I trust that my clients have benefited from my wise counsel and steep learning curve over the years.
I wish to outline five key points valuable for forming and maintaining new habits. Combined into your daily routine, they simultaneously shape the underlying desire to achieve lasting change.
“Our character is basically a composite of our habits. Because they are consistent, often unconscious patterns, they constantly, daily, express our character.” – Stephen Covey
- Understand the change cycle: Having worked in collaboration with a sports psychologist in recent times, I have come to understand the importance of the change cycle in forming new habits. Undoubtedly as you adopt new habits, you will be met with inner resistance since you are disrupting the mind and body’s stability. Knowing the six stages of change in advance, affords you realistic expectations of the journey ahead. A relevant piece of trivia: 33% of people who undertake a fitness membership cancel or seldom attend after the third month. Knowing people’s motivational habits wane over time, gyms purposely lure you into signing twelve month contracts paid in advance, with petty exit clauses.
- Have a compelling reason: Avoid starting a new habit with the belief it is the right thing to do. Remember the conscious and emotional brain have different agendas, despite your best intentions. You will undoubtedly be met with resistance as the going gets tough since internal conflicts are bound to arise. It is advisable to adopt a purposeful intent why you wish to pursue the new habit. Motivational speaker Jim Rohn once quipped, “We must all suffer one of two things: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret or disappointment.” We all know the pain of discipline bears lighter on our conscience than the pain of regret. Reconnecting with your WHY? will help you connect with your conscious and emotional intentions. Connecting with your original intention to start a new habit is paramount for success. As the journey gathers momentum, setbacks and inner resistance are often enough to derail your progress.
- Chunk it down: Break down the goal into smaller goals. Pursue one habit or goal at a time, until you have become proficient with it. For example if your intention to ‘get fit’ means undertaking an exercise program, you might start with a series of gentle long walks early in the morning to test the waters. Don’t have ambitious expectations of how your health journey might take shape. Starting slow with the intention to gain momentum may be far more useful in the long run than quitting altogether. Allow the strength of the goal or habit to propel you towards action. As the saying goes, slow and steady wins the race.
- Manage your environment: Remove temptations that are likely to derail your progress. If your new habit is to curb eating unhealthy foods, be sure to have your fridge and pantry stocked with healthy food options. Whilst this may seem trivial, during times of emotional need, the conscious brain becomes irrational leading to the probability of cheating. Therefore keep temptations out of sight where you can. Similarly, avoid falling into the lure of rewarding yourself with food. Your mind is incredibly astute at recognising this, having undergone thousands of years of evolution – it will find ways to use the rewards against you. Opt for rewards that are non-food related such as; massages, buying a new item of clothing, music, etc. It is important to factor resistance into the equation since you will invariably become unstuck at times. Do not be hard on yourself when/if this occurs. Use the time wisely to regroup and continue pursuing your habit.
- Commit to the habit: Time to put the pedal to the metal! Smaller victories achieved early in the habit-forming period adds crucial momentum to your habit. Undertaking daily activity for an entire month is a timely approach for forming sound disciplinary behaviour. Daily action is paramount for maintaining impetus, rather than intermittent application. Aim for at least a 90%+ strike-rate during the initial month. I find it useful to use a range of tools as motivational aids. I purposely place coloured post-it notes around the home in places I often frequent. I use Evernote on my phone and PC and a neat iPhone app called Checklist One to motivate me. Do not fall victim to the technology, rather use it as support to help you stick to your newly laid plans.
As a final thought, setbacks are unavoidable at times throughout the habit forming period. Make a public declaration of your intended habit to a friend, work colleague or loved one. Make yourself accountable to someone that is likely to offer much needed support or who has walked in your shoes. Offer to return the favour. Being accountable to someone affords you a sound reason for keeping your word. This makes it all the more worthwhile for adhering to your habit.
In leaving, resist over-thinking or falling victim to your emotions as the going gets tough. Your mind will naturally find excuses to jeopardise your progress. Do not buy into the excuses.
Remember why you set out to form the new habit in the first place.