In life, there are things you want to do and goals you wish to achieve that seemingly require you to become a different person altogether.
Imagine you've set yourself a goal to drop a habit or achieve some new milestone. Starting off, you're surging with motivation for the first two weeks, then slowly you trail off-track until you eventually completely stop.
When you give up on a new habit it's often because it's simply easier than consistently pushing yourself. Inaction and avoidance are more attractive to your brain than the amount of effort that is required by sustained action.
In many cases, the action of change causes so much friction or pain that doing nothing is needed to restore comfort.
Why is change so hard, and what can you do to make it easier?
Your brain hates expending energy. It loves doing things that are so easy and comfortable that they can be done on autopilot.
All actions and behaviours you do reinforce how easy it is to perform them again in the future. The easier and more enjoyable it is to do something, the more likely you are to repeat it. Over time this repetition becomes effortless, familiar and comfortable.
Actions you'd like to repeat in the future can be structured into routines, and routines that are repeated enough will can eventually become effortless habits.
Building blocks to create change
Let's look at the difference between a routine and a habit, and break down some of the essential components involved in the conscious creation of habits that will introduce change in your life.
Who do you wish to become and why?
Example: By June 1st I will cook dinner at home every weekday because I want to be healthy and share more quality time with my family.
- Specific and actionable.
- Small enough to be attainable.
- Specific enough to not require thought.
Focus on who you want to be instead of what you want to achieve for better results.
- SMART - Specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-based
- OKRs - Objectives and Key Results
- BSQ - Think Big, Act Small, Move Quickly
An action or sequence of actions that you carry out the same way every time.
Examples: Following a specific dietary plan or getting up at 7 am every other Sunday to go hiking.
- Actions are done to produce specific outcomes. Even if it's uncomfortable.
- Slow and analytical.
- Routines can become habits over time.
A signal or context cue that you always associate with an action, habit or behaviour.
Examples: A local park that reminds you of walking your dog or a certain time of day that you always start craving a coffee.
- Visual pointers.
- Time of day.
- Multiple factors combined.
A series of actions that are carried out without thinking about them.
Examples: Picking up your phone as soon as you wake up, nailbiting when stressed, always getting the same food order from a particular restaurant.
- Easy and rewarding.
- Feels like you're on autopilot.
- An impulsive response to a situation.
- Based on your immediate desires.
- Set in action by triggers.
Creating a habit
You can't force change with willpower alone. Again, your brain hates expending energy. Convince your brain that the change isn't a big deal by performing enjoyable routines enough times to become effortless habits.
- Set your goal.
- Create a routine that includes triggers and actions.
- Use the triggers to start the routine and repeat it regularly. Multiple times per week or every day.
- Make the routine enjoyable by rewarding yourself during or immediately after.
Example routine: becoming healthier
- Goal: becoming someone who goes to the gym regularly to feel healthier and be less prone to injury.
- Trigger 1: a tasty pre-workout shake (prepared the night before) drank at 6 am every morning while wearing your favourite activewear.
- Routine: A pre-planned workout schedule in a workout app that doubles as a habit tracker.
- Trigger 2: playing a kick-ass playlist of your favourite music while working out.
- Reward: Get a coffee from your local coffee shop immediately after the workout.
How long will routine → habit take
New habit formation ranges from 18 to 250 days. On average, it takes about two months for a new behaviour to become automatic.
The reason why turning routines into habits vary so much is that it's based on what the behaviour is, the environment you're in, the type of person you are, your stress levels and many more factors.
Consider following an approach like Atomic Habits to make it easy and enjoyable to introduce a new habit.
Getting started and keeping it going
Starting is usually the easiest part of introducing change, especially in the first week or two. Continuing to put in effort every day is the hard part.
Embracing the hardship of change instead of running away from it transforms who you are. You give meaning to the struggle by becoming someone you're proud of — this, in turn, makes it easier to keep going.
By voluntarily accepting the effort of change day after day you will sharpen your skills, fuel your purpose, and build the strength to persist.
Consider that all small improvements can compound and extend into life-altering growth in the long run. Ultimately, it's better to improve a little at something than to change nothing and remain unhappy.