Putting a new habit is fairly easy. We’re all able to stop smoking for a day, start running for a few days or even to eat really healthy for a week.
But after a few days or weeks, something seems to get in the way. And we STOP. Our addictions or laziness get in the way. So much so that we don’t even understand HOW we even managed to do things differently for a while.
That’s it. WE DECIDED TO RELY ON OUR WILLPOWER to create lasting habits. But that’s not a SUSTAINABLE way to change your lifestyle.
Willpower is a LIMITED RESOURCE. And if you really want to CREATE LASTING HABITS, you’d better put a WHOLE SYSTEM in place that will help you stay on track, no matter how much willpower you have left.
Here are the 7 steps I recommend for anyone who truly wants to create lasting, sustainable habits.
And, of course, I’m a huge friend of real-life examples. I find that concepts get clearer and become more inspiring when there’s a story behind it.
So I’ll illustrate the steps by using a few of my struggles and successes.
Step 1: Cultivate Your WHY
We’ve all been able to implement some HABITS successfully in the long term. But we’ve also all FAILED at keeping other habits without really understanding WHY.
And that’s exactly where I’d like you to start!
WHY do you want to implement a specific HABIT?
If you’ve been struggling to put a habit in place or to make it last in the long run, let me ask you this question:
Is your WHY strong enough?
Failing To Have A Strong WHY
I’ve always been passionate about languages. And for years, I used to consistently learn a new language all the time.
I learned Russian, Chinese, some Greek, some Romanian…
It didn’t really matter WHICH LANGUAGE. What mattered to me was that I KEPT LEARNING SOMETHING NEW, all the time, immersing myself into new cultures and mindsets.
I never really thought about WHY I was having this habit. It was more like a hobby and therefore wasn’t really difficult to do on a regular basis.
Until one or two years ago.
It’s now become quite hard for me to stay on track and keep learning Mandarin on a regular basis.
This forced me to ask myself WHY I would still want to be learning a new language all the time.
That’s when I realised that my needs and wants have shifted.
I’m currently building a business where I literally (have to) learn NEW THINGS ALL THE TIME.
So my need and craving for learning NEW things are not as high as they used to be.
On top of this, the reason WHY I want to learn new languages is to immerse myself into a new country, culture and society. Which means that my motivation to learn the language as a priority over other things is not as high as long as I’m not PHYSICALLY in the country.
And the last thing that really weakens my WHY when it comes to the habit of learning a new language is my current NEED FOR personal growth and a healthy lifestyle.
I currently want to learn more about meditation, yoga, healthy food and exercising.
And I know that I only can focus on so many things at once, especially when putting in place NEW HABITS.
So you know what I’ve decided?
To focus on the NEW things I’m learning and do THAT WELL. Instead of forcing me to have a strong WHY for a habit that simply doesn’t mean so much to me at the moment anymore.
Building Up a Strong Why
There’s one crucial habit for which I had to BUILD A REALLY STRONG “WHY” over the years: HAVING A HEALTHY DIET.
It took me a really long time to realise how important eating healthy was for me.
In the past, I’d always feel like I was INVINCIBLE. I did understand that eating healthy would have invaluable long term benefits, but it just all felt SO FAR AWAY that my motivation to create a lasting habit was not enough.
Even after I started having more severe health issues related to bad eating habits, I’d still subconsciously wish that they would go away.
I did not want to give up on MY SUGAR, my glass of WINE, or my BELOVED PASTA.
And for some time, I even lived in the illusion that SPORTS and EXERCISING could totally compensate for all of my food excesses.
But I was wrong. And it probably took me around 10 years to figure that out.
Now, in my early 30s, I decided to build a STRONG AND SUSTAINABLE “WHY” around having a healthy diet and exercising routine.
This STRONG “WHY” that I am still perfecting is the very reason for not pushing too hard on my new language learning habit.
Why do I want to EAT HEALTHY?
- Stop living in PAIN.
- Be FULL OF ENERGY as opposed to feeling tired most of the time.
- Become FITTER right now. I want to be able to take on sports challenges again.
- Remain FIT FOREVER… I’d like to increase my odds of getting older AND still in great shape.
So WHERE ARE YOU AT WITH YOUR WHY?
I’ve written more about this step in my other article Are You Trying To Change Too Many Habits At Once? I’d recommend you read it if you are struggling to put new habits into place.
Step 2: Change Your Identity
YOU ARE WHAT YOU DO.
When you are trying to CHANGE or IMPLEMENT new habits, you are LITERALLY CHANGING WHO YOU ARE.
And that’s NO EASY TASK!
This is also the very reason why you should take your time to go through STEP 1 above over and over again.
By implementing a new habit, you WILL cause an identity shift, which will most probably NOT ONLY affect you, but also your close friends and family at least.
So, be sure to ask yourself whether this new habit is helping you become the person you want to be.
NOW, assuming you’re all set and know for sure that this is the direction where you want to go, take a bit of time to reflect on your current identity.
Is there any PART OF YOUR IDENTITY that may REBEL against this new habit?
Say you want to quit smoking. Maybe you will HAVE THE IMPRESSION that you look less cool and relaxed than before. Or maybe you will feel less sociable because you used to go out and smoke with your friends during a break.
Those are all MENTAL IMAGES OF YOURSELF that are strongly correlated to your behaviour and habits.
You’ve got to be AWARE of this mind game and have your WHY ready to answer any doubts your brain will create in order to CREATE A LASTING HABIT.
I’ve struggled with this a lot when I was trying to adopt a HEALTHY DIET.
At some point, I realised that I had a REALLY HARD TIME SAYING “NO” to unhealthy food when surrounded by friends or family.
I felt SOCIALLY AWKWARD and always wanted to “please others” by eating and drinking everything normally just like the others around me.
That’s why it was SO MUCH EASIER for me to eat really healthy during the winter when there were less social events and, hence, temptations.
What REALLY HELPED me leap forward was my STRONG WHY.
When people around me started questioning my new habit, I simply answered: “I EAT LIKE THIS BECAUSE I DON’T WANT TO LIVE IN PAIN ANYMORE”.
Everyone can understand that. And eating healthy is now slowly becoming part of my identity.
Step 3: Create The Right Environment
In his book, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones*, James Clear states that the people who seem to have the MOST WILLPOWER are actually those who BARELY USE ANY WILLPOWER AT ALL.
One main component that helps seemingly strong-willed people CREATE LASTING HABITS is THEIR ENVIRONMENT.
You can modify your environment in order to make it an ALLY in your quest to live a healthier, better life.
Hide Negative Reminders And Create Obstacles
Let’s tackle the things you DON’T WANT to be doing anymore or the things that hinder you from creating your lasting habit.
For instance, I currently would like to reduce the time I spend watching Netflix.
The first thing I should pay attention to is to make sure that I CLOSE the Netflix tab after I’m done watching anything.
If I wake up fresh and ready to start a productive day BUT stumble upon the Netflix logo on my tabs, it will distract me FOR SURE. Even on a subconscious level. And the probability of me hitting play soon is rather high.
So, that’s the first step, to SIMPLY MAKE THE NEGATIVE REMINDER INVISIBLE.
But in my case, part of my negative reminder is my computer! That’s because I use it both for work and leisure. For my brain, it can be hard to separate everything neatly at times.
Netflix is always just one or two clicks away.
So another step I can take is to PREVENTIVELY CREATE AN OBSTACLE TO MY NEGATIVE HABIT.
In this case, it could be through…:
- blocking Netflix for certain times of the day. There are apps that will block certain websites for you for a set amount of time so that you can focus.
- having a second computer that’s ONLY for leisure. Clear separation helps your brain a lot.
- having my partner change the Netflix partner without telling me what it is. That would be the most extreme option because I could only watch Netflix with my partner. But why not?
This practice can also help you when it comes to BAD Food Habits
I feel like NOT ENOUGH PEOPLE use this easy low-hanging fruit.
Be sure to ALWAYS HIDE bad food or drinks. If they’re constantly in your vision field, I guarantee either your consumption will go up or you will DEPLETE YOUR WILLPOWER which you could have used for other, more important situations.
To create an obstacle, I would simply recommend going to the supermarket with a full belly and NOT BUYING bad foods in the first place.
That way, when you’ll have a craving you will AT LEAST be forced to go out to get the food. And on the way there you will have plenty of time to reflect on what it is you are doing.
Make Positive Reminders Visible And Eliminate Obstacles
Now the same logic works in reverse for POSITIVE reminders for your new HABITS.
In my case, I’d like to LEARN more about meditation and yoga instead of Netflix-ing.
But at the end of the day, I’m often tired and switching to automatic brain mode.
I literally FORGET what it is I wanted to do and head straight to Netflix.
What can I do to make the whole process easier and create a lasting habit of LEARNING instead of WATCHING Netflix?
First, I’d eliminate all the potential obstacles.
In that case, I figured that bookmarking the exact pages of the courses I want to take it very helpful.
To make it more visible, I often leave about one tab open in the background so that I get REMINDED that I want to go ahead and learn more when I have the time to.
And of course, the same logic goes for HEALTHY FOOD.
To improve your chances of eating more of the good stuff, you should prepare some veggie sticks, a small salad or a smoothie in advance.
I found that very often, I would LOVE to eat something healthy but it’s just so much work that I go for the unhealthy stuff first.
And once you’ve got everything ready, put those VEGGIES well in sight!
The best is to have them in front of everything else in your fridge so that they’re the first thing you see when you open the refrigerator.
Step 4: Plan Ahead, Be Specific
Now that you’ve worked on your WHY, reflected on your IDENTITY and modified your ENVIRONMENT to create a lasting habit, it’s time to take action.
And that’s when we often face some sort of a BLOCK.
We decide to go for a run first thing in the morning. But we don’t.
We plan on starting the day with a healthy smoothie. But we don’t.
Well, because when creating a NEW HABIT, we need to be VERY PRECISE about exactly WHAT we will do, WHEN and WHERE we will do it.
That’s why, for instance, I personally find it much easier to start a new habit that flows into my MORNING ROUTINE.
Because I have good control over it. If I get up every day at 7 am, I know that what’s included in my morning routine until 8 am will GET DONE.
But the rest of the day is NOT necessarily under my control. Not to mention that even willpower decreases during the day.
So simply DECIDING to do 10 minutes of meditation tomorrow WILL NOT BE ENOUGH FOR IT TO HAPPEN.
Instead, the following declaration will REALLY help me get started:
I will do the 6-phase meditation of Vishen Lakhiani at 8 pm tomorrow, sitting on my couch in the living room.
Now it’s all very precise, and I will increase my chances by setting an alarm clock right before 8 pm.
Pay attention to the fact that I did not simply declare “I will do 10 minutes of meditation”… I figured that “meditation” is too vague when you are a beginner or starting a new habit. You want to already have figured out WHAT type of meditation or which guided-meditation EXACTLY you want to do.
And what about the time I set? Deciding upon a precise time at night may be difficult if you are meeting with friends or working later than expected.
Instead, pick a PRECISE MOMENT when you will DO your new habit.
For instance, right after I have brushed my teeth before going to bed.
Visualisation To Create Lasting Habits
During my 20s, I was exercising a lot. I was doing sports almost every day, first thing in the morning.
Many people around me found it incredible. They asked me how I managed to have such a strong WILLPOWER, in order to get up at 6 am and hit the gym right away.
Just like James Clear explained in Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones*, it was NOT WILLPOWER. It was a HABIT.
But whenever this habit PAUSED for a bit, because I was on vacation or moving to a new place, I had to find a way to build up the habit again.
And I noticed that I was managing to put this habit back in place QUICKLY because I was using VISUALISATION.
I would sit there PLANNING MY NEXT DAY and think about how it was going to start. Seeing myself…
- getting up and brushing my teeth.
- putting on my sports clothes and running shoes.
- taking my backpack, which I would have prepared the night before.
- and getting out in the cold, dark weather walking to the gym.
It seems like nothing special, but this intuitive visualisation always helped me CLEAR any obstacle out of the way.
I would remember that I needed to pack for the gym. I got mentally prepared for the cold, dark weather outside at 6 am in the morning. And I would check HOW to get to the gym. That’s especially important when you move to a new place or have a new gym.
Our natural tendency is to be rather LAZY and protect ourselves from unknown situations. And the brain is VERY good at stopping us from doing what we RATIONALLY WANT to do.
Not being sure of how to get to the gym is a perfect PRETEXT not to be going at all.
So, visualisation can help you CLEAR OBSTACLES beforehand but also MAKE THE SITUATION MORE FAMILIAR, for your brain to have an easier time going through the whole actual process.
Step 5: Create Incentives
You’ve come this far, BUT you keep quitting this great new habit that you are trying to put in place FOREVER.
Very often, it’s funny how we do all this work, only to KEEP REWARDING OURSELVES with or for our bad habits.
We want what FEELS GOOD.
So, if you try to stop smoking just like that, the chances are high that it won’t work.
So far, you’ve made SMOKING THE REWARD ITSELF. And you are quitting a highly addictive substance that appears to relax you WITHOUT EVEN compensating for it?
FAILURE is the only outcome possible.
So it’s important to think about possible SUBSTITUTIONS and INCENTIVES to make the process easier for you.
That’s why some people start eating more and gain weight when they stop smoking. They automatically compensated their frustration with food.
When you try to quit smoking, you could REWARD YOURSELF differently when you need to take a break. You could take a quick walk outside or do a short breathing exercise. But you could virtually do anything that is not bad for you and fills your needs in that particular situation.
INCENTIVES are also of great use when trying to IMPLEMENT A NEW HABIT.
If you find it hard to motivate you to go out for a run in the morning, you can DECIDE to grab your favourite coffee to go on the way back home.
Step 6: Start!
For some of you, planning ahead and visualising your new habit will hopefully be enough to make you take action.
Others might still have problems to just get started.
In order to give you the final PUSH to start, here are a few things you can do:
- commit to your NEW HABIT in front of others.
- use the momentum of a new time cycle: a new day, new week, new month, or new year…
It turns out to be easier to START a new habit with a new time cycle. You shouldn’t rely only on this but it’s a great source of additional motivation.
- use the 5-second rule.
Whenever you are ABOUT TO DO THE RIGHT THING but end up getting lazy instead, count back from 5 to 0 and move. It will help you trigger the right impulse. Read Mel Robbins’ book The 5 Second Rule: Transform your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage* if you need more information and kickass motivation.
Step 7: Stick To The Long-Term Vision
No matter how hard you try, some habits will be difficult to sustain.
Take a step back and ask yourself: am I trying too hard? Am I trying to do too much at the same time? Is it the right habit at all for me?
REMEMBER: your habits are a big part of WHO YOU ARE. So, pick wisely and be kind to yourself.
If you are SURE that the new habit fits perfectly into your LONG-TERM VISION, consider focusing on just this one habit for a while until it really sunk in and BECAME INTEGRANT PART OF YOUR ROUTINE and IDENTITY.
That’s what I’ve done with my healthy eating habit.
I was getting easily distracted or overwhelmed when trying to put too many healthy habits in place at the same time.
And I figured that my eating habits were not right and impacted me the most.
So, at some point, I decided to focus on that. NOTHING was as important as giving my body the RIGHT FUEL.
And that really fit my long-term vision of being a healthy, energetic person that my friends and family can rely on.
HOWEVER WELL it all plays out for you, I’d like to challenge you to ALWAYS STAY PLAYFUL.
Creating NEW LASTING HABITS shouldn’t turn into daily frustration.
Don’t beat yourself up. Accept that there is a learning process.
It’s FUN to change habits, and it’s ok NOT to get it all right the first time.
Try to GAMIFY the whole process. You’re like a detective that is trying to figure out the best way to make progress.
Be CREATIVE. It will make for good stories, I promise…