How to stick to a habit

Our brain is always looking for ways to conserve energy. It prefers to function on auto-pilot, which uses less energy than thinking and decision-making. This is why making your auto-pilot habits beneficial to you is so important. It means you don’t have to use willpower and decision-making energy to do something that benefits you.

You’ve probably heard phrases like “your habits decide your future”, which can seem a strange concept when one-off big decisions have a noticeable impact on our future, but we don’t see instant, tangible results relating to the type of food we eat or the time we wake up.

The reality is that your habits shape your behaviour, which adds up to your personality, which determines your future. So, if you want to shape your future, you have to start with your habits. 

We’ve all had difficulty sticking to habits at some point. Some we might end up keeping, some we just can’t seem to stick to. Creating new habits is a well-researched area and these are 5 of the most effective tactics you might have heard of (courtesy of James Clear’s book Atomic Habits, which I cannot recommend enough!).

  • Make it easy. If your aim is to go to the gym in the morning, get your gym kit out the night before. If mid-afternoon is when you find yourself going for biscuits or chocolate, prep a tupperware with a healthier sweet snack, like apple with almond butter, dark chocolate or yoghurt with fruit.
  • Make it obvious. Design your environment so that cues are obvious, such as a reading book on the sofa or a bottle of water on your desk;
  • Stack it alongside a habit you already do, e.g. taking a moment for gratitude before having your usual morning coffee or tea;
  • Make it attractive;
  • Start small. If your aim is to wake up at 6, start by putting your phone on airplane mode by 10pm. When this is easy to do, get into bed by 10pm. When this is easy, lights out by 10pm. Gradually, going to bed earlier and waking up earlier becomes just what you do.

Here are 5 you may not have read about. These are a few mistakes we often make and reasons we often give up on sticking to a new habit.

  • Change your intention from ‘all or nothing’ to ‘more or less’. When setting a new habit, most of us go all in. If we miss a day or don’t see immediate results, we start to fear wasted effort or failing and we abandon it.
    Let your habits be imperfect.
    Make them a ‘more often than not’ thing and the changes will be more sustainable.
  • Identify as someone who does this habit. This is THE most powerful way to change a habit. This why deleting apps or restricting yourself doesn’t work. It reinforces the idea that you need that thing and lack control around it.
  • Don’t think it will be natural and effortless. We sometimes think putting in effort effort means we lack natural ability. Our brain is always looking to conserve energy and find the easiest way to do things. This is usually your familiar habits. Creating a new habit is essentially rewiring your brain, so it will be harder before it gets easier!
  • Look to the past for evidence of times when you have behaved in this way. We always act in accordance with who we believe we are. Our subconscious looks for evidence to support our beliefs, so if you don’t currently see yourself as the kind of person who runs, your subconscious will jump straight to the times you’ve thought about going for a run and haven’t. We can override this by consciously looking for times we HAVE followed through or stuck to something and focusing on this. Also, the language we use about ourselves (e.g. “I’m not a morning person” or “I’m so bad at running”) feeds into our subconscious, so becoming aware of how we speak about ourselves is so important.
  • Normalise your habits. Often, we’re scared to be different and so we subconsciously bring our behaviour back to group level.
    If everyone around you is ordering wine at dinner, then it can be harder to be the one who opts for a non-alcoholic drink. If your friends see the weekend as a time to indulge, it can be harder to stick to your healthier choices then.
    Humans have an innate need to fit in, so we have to find ways to make our behaviour normal to us. Practising a new habit in situations where you feel less pressure is really helpful. For example, ordering a non-alcoholic drink at dinner with a good friend and gradually building up to doing this around more people.
    The people we spend the most time around do have a powerful influence over our behaviour, so if everyone around us has very different habits to the ones we’d like to adopt, we can find inspiration online (e.g. following similar people on instagram), join a relevant group or connect with new people online (I’ve found instagram to be a really great way of doing this and you never know how many new friends you might find this way!).

Having a game plan and knowing that it starts with small changes that are within your control, is incredibly empowering. And you can start at any time!

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