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Developing new habits and eliminating bad ones can be extremely difficult. When we’re building new habits, we’re essentially rewiring our brain with new pathways. Thanks to greater understanding of how our brains work, we can use science to help us create habits that stick!

Step 1. Preparation

Your ‘Why?’ Statement

Why do you want to commit to your new behaviour?

Keep coming back to your why statement to increase your feelings of purpose and progress.

To clarify your ‘why?’ statement, ask yourself:

  • What are the proven benefits of this behaviour?
  • What would be the most important advantages of this for me?
  • What would my life look like if I developed this habit?
  • How would developing this habit make me feel?

Is this something you really want to do? Ask yourself: if other people’s opinions didn’t matter, how would you want your life to change?

Overcoming Obstacles

We establish a new habit quicker if we anticipate and plan actions for overcoming obstacles.

The biggest obstacle we encounter is often our own thoughts – our mind gives us reasons not to take action or try to make changes. We might find ourselves thinking things like:

“I don’t have the energy”, “I don’t have the time”, “I’ve tried before and didn’t succeed, so what’s the point?”, “It’s not that big of a deal”, “I’m not motivated enough”. These are called ‘reason-giving’ thoughts.

If we’re committed to developing a new habit, planning how to deal with our reason-giving thoughts is an important step to long-term success. It’s also important to note that we can’t rely on our feelings of motivation to take action. As an emotion, motivation naturally fluctuates, and we can’t rely on it to help us achieve our goals.

A zebra crossing is a good analogy for how to treat reason-giving thoughts. When we arrive at a zebra crossing, we see the cars but walk anyway. Similarly, when we decide to build a new habit, we notice our reason-giving thoughts but can take action anyway.

Overcoming obstacles using ‘if…then’ plans

A useful method for overcoming obstacles is the ‘if…then’ planning technique. Here are some examples:

  • If I feel unmotivated to exercise, then I will take action by putting on my exercise clothes and running for 10 minutes.
  • If I don’t have the time to fit in my relaxation practices, then I will assess my schedule and find a way to prioritise it.
  • If I don’t feel I have enough energy to socialise, then I will go for one hour and see how I feel.
  • If I feel like eating ice cream, then I will have frozen yoghurt instead.
  • If I wake up too late to meditate before school, then I will do it before bedtime.

Accountability

Consider whether you want to use accountability practices to help you cultivate your new habit. Leo Babauta from Zen Habits once told his friends that he’d sing Japanese karaoke if he skipped a day of his exercise habit. Finding an accountability buddy where you can support and encourage each other is another option which might help you develop your new habit quicker.

Step 2. Trigger

Like motivation, memory is fallible. We cannot rely on our memory to remind us about our new desired behaviour – science shows that habits require a trigger.

Triggers can be:

  • Time
  • Things you do every day (e.g. brushing your teeth, making your bed, having a coffee, catching the bus to school)
  • A location
  • An emotional state (i.e. boredom, anxiety, sadness, tiredness)
  • Other people (i.e. surrounding yourself with people already doing this habit can be a trigger)

Step 3. Behaviour

You’ve prepared for your habit and you’ve identified your habit trigger – next is planning the action itself. As Leo Babauta of Zen Habits says: “Make it so easy you can’t say no.”

He recommends starting with a minimum viable habit and building up in increments from there. For example, instead of planning a 20-minute meditation habit, starting with a minimum viable habit of five minutes daily is likely to be more effective. Minimum viable habits are also great for consistency. When life gets in the way and we’re at our 20-minute daily goal, we can maintain consistency by carrying out our minimum viable habit of just five minutes.

Step 4. Reward

We know habits are formed quicker when we’re able to pair that behaviour with stimulation of our brain’s reward centre. Our brain detects that if a behaviour is desirable and then changes the neural pathway in a way that makes the behaviour more likely to occur in future.

Here are some tips:

  • Tracking your habit provides a rewarding sense of accomplishment and progress. You can download a habit tracker app on your phone, or use a worksheet, calendar or journal.
  • Self-praise – positive self-talk can stimulate our brain’s reward centre, so be sure to praise yourself when you complete your behaviour, and regularly remind yourself of your ‘why’ statement.
  • Financial rewards, such as putting spare change into a money jar when you carry out your behaviour can stimulate your brain’s reward centre.

To build habits that stick, we need to experiment with and optimise this four-step system so that it fits our own personal goals. If your trigger isn’t always working, test another one. If your minimum viable habit is too ambitious, reduce it. If you keep being held back by a particular obstacle, experiment with if…then plans to overcome it.

Research shows that slipping up doesn’t significantly impact your habit formation process, so don’t be discouraged if you miss a day or two, just try to get back on track as soon as possible.

It’s important to remember that change doesn’t happen overnight. It takes an average of 66 days to build a new habit. The time it takes will differ for each of us, and it depends on how complex the habit is we’re developing.

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