It’s arguably the top advertising slogan of all time. The message is simple: If you want to make a change—if you’re going to be happier, healthier, more successful—just do it. And yet, when it comes to changing behavior, it feels a little more complicated than “just doing it.” Nearly everyone in the world wants to change or improve some part of their lives, but research suggests only eight percent will achieve their goal. What’s the hang-up? What makes behavioral change so hard and, subsequently, so unlikely?
Most of the difficulty can be attributed to the challenge of starting healthy habits and kicking unhelpful ones. Our brain is hardwired to connect the behavioral dots between the rewards it wants and the actions necessary to get those rewards. A habit is nothing more than a choice (or series of choices) we make that, when repeated over time, we stop consciously thinking about but continue to do so we receive a reward. The formula in the brain looks like this:
When I experience CUE, I will do ROUTINE to get a REWARD.
Once locked on this pattern, behavior tends to be remarkably persistent and unlikely to change. This unconscious response mechanism is so efficient that psychologist Wendy Wood says, “We spend a shocking 43 percent of our day doing things without thinking about them.”
Knowing how to build better habits is fundamental to making progress in our professional and personal life. The following is a quick guide for how to build new habits in this unusual season.
Start Small. When thinking about habits we want to break or create, we often say, “I just need more motivation” or “I wish I had more self-control.” But how often have we pictured a big goal when making those statements—the kind that has us doing 100 sit-ups or reading for 30 minutes each day? We can trouble-shoot this thinking by picking a practice that is so easy we don’t need extra motivation or super-human will power. Rather than starting with 100 sit-ups, start with 10. Rather than reading for 30 minutes, start with 5. The foundation for behavioral change isn’t starting big, it’s just starting.
Increase Incrementally. The showstopper for most behavioral change is that people try to do too much too quickly. Discouraged by the distance between their desired result and where they are now, people don’t celebrate the small improvements. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and our future self won’t be either. We can add 10 more sit-ups and 5 more minutes of reading every few weeks. Along the way, our self-control and motivation will increase, which will create a transformational snowball effect over time. One percent improvements add up surprisingly fast.
Break Habits into Chunks. As our incremental changes add up, they can become more difficult to sustain. As 5 minutes of reading turns into 15, it may seem less convenient to do that at one time. Likewise, as 10 sit-ups become 40, our bodies may find it more difficult to perform. To address this, we can chunk our habits into smaller, bite-size segments, such as reading in three 5-minute sessions or performing 20 sit-ups in two phases.
Prepare for a Slip. Top performers commit errors, make mistakes, and get off track, just like everyone else. The difference between those top performers and those we would consider below average is that top performers get back on track quickly. They stay in the gym to get up shots after a tough night on the court. They dissect a failed project and explore how they can improve moving forward. They don’t have an all-or-nothing mentality, and neither should we. We shouldn’t expect to fail, but we should plan for the possibility and try to prevent it. We can help ourselves to do this by considering several questions:
- What could prevent this small habit from happening?
- What is likely to get in my way?
- What daily activities/situations could pull me off course?
- How could I work around those disruptions?
- If I get off track, what can I do to help myself get back on track as soon as possible?
Final Thought: Have Patience. Being patient with ourselves may be the most crucial skill to master in the development of a new habit. Habits develop when we are consistent and patient. Perfection is not required. So, let’s give ourselves a little grace.