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Whatever you want to accomplish – pay off debt, fund a vacation, lose weight – the key is to set a goal, right? Visualize what you want to accomplish, then go for it.
But then why do over 90% of New Year’s resolutions fail?
The answer is pretty simple. It’s really hard to set a target weight, or a debt-free date or a dollar amount and maintain the motivation to keep pushing towards it.
But wait. Businesses set goals all the time.
Yea, but businesses have departments, and team leaders and status meetings.
When you and I stand on the scale in our PJ’s, who’s gonna help us get to our goal weight? Or our debt free date? Setting a goal on your own requires willpower and sacrifice, even on our bad days.
And even if you achieve your goal… then what?
What if you pay off your student loan or your $2000 credit card balance? Or you starve yourself to lose 20 pounds in time for beach season.
What’s to stop you from running up more debt? Or gaining a pound or two each week until you’re right back where you started?
Instead of setting a goal, which you may or may not achieve, what if you could change your mindset and become the type of person who’s conscious of your health all the time.
What if you had control of your money, where your savings would tick up a bit each month, and you wouldn’t blink an eye over a a $900 car repair?
Developing habits – whether it’s with your money, your health or your relationships has an exponentially more powerful impact on your life than setting goals.
Table of Contents
Why Is it So Hard to Develop Habits?
Have you ever tried to make some kind of improvement in your life and felt totally frustrated almost from the start?
I remember trying to get back into running. I’d go out at night, so nobody’d see that I couldn’t make it around the block without walking. I was frustrated that I let myself get so out of shape. I wanted to just walk home and quit.
Or when our debt was out of control. We were struggling to meet our bills each month, and even when we targeted a certain account to pay off, some expense always seemed to put us behind the eight ball again.
Or even launching this site. I had no idea how to buy a domain name, what a plug-in was, or even how to include a photo in my article. I was lost, and it seemed like it’d take an eternity until I’d feel comfortable.
It feels great to target some area for improvement, but sometimes setting a goal right off the bat can be frustrating enough to cause you to give up.
Because we expect change to come quickly. And when it doesn’t, we get discouraged and start to lose our motivation.
- “I’ve worked out for two weeks now. Why aren’t my pants looser and my arms more defined?”
- “We’ve used a budget for a month now, and we haven’t banked any more savings yet.”
Change that results from our habits doesn’t happen in a linear, one-for-one fashion. But your efforts aren’t wasted.
Each time you repeat your habit, you’re building the momentum of many small improvements until you reach a plateau.
Journalist and photographer, Jacob Riis said
“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter, hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will crack in half, and I know it was not that last blow that did it – but all that had gone before.”
Maybe you’ve created a new budget and as you look over your expenses, you decide to finally cancel cable or switch insurance carriers. But the money you save goes right to your $3000 credit card bill. You’ve started the habit of managing your money, but it sure doesn’t feel victorious yet.
Or you vow to lose 20 pounds. So you start tracking your calories, and walking every day at lunchtime. But two weeks later, you’ve only lost two pounds.
We live in such a results oriented, do it now society, that when we can’t see tangible results within a few weeks, we assume something’s wrong.
You’re putting in the effort, and it’s frustrating when you don’t see results in the time frame you expected.
So what’s the secret to sticking with new habits?
How to Adopt Habits That'll Last
Usually, we think of improvements in terms of goals.
- I want to develop a side business that generates $1000 a month by the end of the year.
- I want to lose 20 pounds in the next 90 days.
- I want to have a better marriage.
But goals are about what we want to achieve. They don’t address how we’ll achieve it.
It’s great to start with the end in mind, and visualize what you want to achieve. But to actually get there, you’ll want to focus on your systems. The things you’ll repeat each day.
- If your goal is to generate $1000 a month as a freelancer by the end of the year, your system might be to pitch at least 5 people a week until you fill your schedule.
- If your goal is to lose 20 pounds, your system might be to keep healthy foods in the house, to plan your meals, and to workout for 30 minutes, five times a week.
- If your goal is to have a better marriage, your system might be to dedicate TV and phone-free time each night, and schedule a date night once a week..
In James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, he says you may not notice a change right away, but as you repeat your habit week after week, “you’ll gradually begin to identify as the type of person who values that lifestyle“.
The key, he says, is that you can elect to do whatever you want, but “each time you choose, it’s like casting a vote for that type of person.”
Each time you call a prospective client, you’re voting for the type of person who takes charge of your finances and builds wealth.
Each day you walk at lunchtime and say no to that donut, you’re voting for the type of person who values health and fitness.
And as you spend more undistracted time with your partner, you’re voting for the type of person who values your relationship.
You wouldn’t call yourself a chef because you attempted a soufflé once. Or a plumber because you’ve unclogged the toilet a few times.
But each time you walk at lunchtime, and each week you tweak your budget, you’re shaping your identity. You’re developing the self image of a healthy person, or a wealth builder.
Focusing only on a number on the scale might get you to your desired weight for your sister’s wedding, but then what?
If you’ve attained that weight by a combination of fasts, and haphazard workouts, you’re more inclined to celebrate with a week-long pizza and beer binge.
The good news is that you don’t need to be perfect. If you can practice the habits of the person you want to be the majority of the time, you slowly prove to yourself who you are.
Eventually, your choices become easier. You’ll celebrate your friend’s birthday with a big piece of cake, but on any other day, you know exactly what you’ll be eating throughout the day.
And when you get a raise or a bonus, your first inclination won’t be to run out and buy a new living room set. It’ll be to raise your savings contribution, or maybe pay for a course.
Your first step isn’t what you want to accomplish. It’s who you want to be.
Methods to Create Better Habits
According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habits: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, about 40-45% of the things we do each day are the result of habits.
We roll out of bed and follow routines getting dressed, eating, commuting, working, and probably most of our free time.
You can use your existing habits to help build new ones, but here are some other ways to adopt habits that’ll change the trajectory of your life.
Environment Plays a Big Factor
Since vision is one of our most powerful senses, your environment is a big catalyst of behavior. But rather than being a victim of your environment, you can take steps to control it.
- If you pass your favorite clothing store, or the drive-through donut shop on your way home from work, change your route.
- If it’s difficult to concentrate working from home, consider your location. Try using your rooms for a single purpose – entertainment in one room, bedtime in another, eating in the kitchen, and working in a distraction free area.
- Try putting your workout clothes out where you’ll see them as soon as you get home.
- Plan weekends with your habit in mind – if you’re trying to develop a budgeting and debt payoff habit, plan activities where you won’t be tempted.
Money and health/fitness are the most popular New Year’s resolutions, but usually, over 90% of those resolutions fail.
It’s likely because we take on too much, too soon. When you suddenly commit an hour gym visit 4 times a week, or try to retool your finances in a few sittings it can become overwhelming.
Set the bar low and ease into it. Your aim should be to gradually incorporate the habits of someone who manages their health, or their finances. Not to make a big transformation in a few weeks.
If you’re going to the gym or working out at home, focus first on incorporating the routine into your day, rather than piling up your reps, weights or cardio minutes.
Try just a 20 minute workout. Once it becomes routine, and you’re feeling stronger, you’ll want to challenge yourself a bit more.
To develop better money habits, take it a step at a time. Document your regular expenses one night, then write out a budget on another. Zero in on certain expenses one at a time. Set a reminder to review it the same time each week.
It may take several months, but gradually you’ll see small changes as you zero in on certain expenses. Maybe you’ll start to see your net worth tick up a bit each month. Or just move from a negative to a positive.
If you want to begin a habit of journaling or writing, there’s no need to sit and stare at a blank screen, pressured over what to write.
Commit to just 2 or 3 sentences for a few weeks. Once the habit develops, so will your writing.
The idea is to not browbeat yourself into a habit, but to ease it into your routine where it doesn’t throw other things off.
A 1% improvement each week that you can maintain, will have a much bigger impact than a quick 10% improvement that fizzles out.
Automate Where You Can
More choice isn’t always better. Studies have shown that when we’re faced with tons of options to choose from, a common reaction is to make no choice at all.
It’s nice to have some unplanned time where you can enjoy a little variety. But there’s also a lot of productive habits you can automate that’ll shorten your to-do list and lower your decision overload.
Automating your employer’s savings program is a given, since they’re probably matching a percentage of your contribution.
But most people don’t bother setting up a dedicated emergency fund, even though it’s a key to making your budget predictable.
A simple smartphone app like Digit can work wonders to automate the habit of building your emergency fund.
Automate Food Shopping
Paying for anything you can do yourself may seem wasteful, but what if you could spend $7-$8 to have a week’s worth of groceries delivered?
Not prepared food with expensive packaging, but the same groceries you’d spend 90 minutes of your day shopping for. In fact, some food stores offer online shopping free of charge, so you can just select what you need and go pick it up in minutes.
Is there a more productive activity you’d be able to do during that that hour or two?
Use Scripts to Help Forgetfulness
It’s frustrating to arrive at work, only to realize you’ve left your employee badge at home, and embarrassing to have security call your manager. At least I’ve heard it is.
Reciting your own ‘walk out the door’ script like – ‘wallet, phone, badge, keys, lunch’ might seem silly, but it works.
Use Habit Stacking
Habit stacking is a method to make it easier to adopt a new habit by doing it every time you do something else.
Instead of trying to remember a new task, associate it with something you do regularly.
Habit stacking works really well when you build a routine for a particular time of day.
- When you go to bed, or wake up each morning.
- When you leave the house, or arrive home.
- When you go to the gym.
- On your lunch break.
“When I’m ready for bed, I’ll lay out my work clothes and workout clothes.”
“Each morning I wake up and walk into the bathroom, I’ll weigh myself.”
“Each week as I review my budget, I’ll check my calendar to see if any expenses are coming up.”
“When I get to the gym, I’ll do 20 minutes of cardio, 30 minutes of lifting, and 10 minutes of stretching.”
“Each time I go to X function, I’ll introduce myself to 3 new people.”
Keep a Habit Log
Try borrowing from Jerry Seinfeld. Each January, he’d hang a year-at-a-glance calendar, and for every day he wrote new material, he’d get to mark a red ‘X’ on that day.
Once he started building a string, his desire to never break the chain increased, and he never missed a day for years. It helped him fight procrastination, and obviously helped to hone his craft.
Use your planner, or print a simple calendar that you keep where you’ll see it every day. Just a simple mark is enough to track your progress until your habit becomes instinct.
- Try starting a chain of writing in your journal, or writing new content.
- Tracking expenses.
- Meditation or working out.
- Break a project down to small daily tasks and mark your progress.
- State what you’re grateful for.
- Note each day that you’ve stayed within your target calorie count.
- Or each day you’ve done a particular task for your side hustle.
Pairing something you need to do with something you want to do is a good way to make a habit of something you might not ordinarily do.
James Clear used the example of how ABC television promoted their 2014-2015 Thursday night lineup of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder.
ABC encouraged viewers to make Thursday night all about relaxation, and encouraged people to enjoy the shows with popcorn and wine. The idea was to equate relaxation and fun with watching ABC’s Thursday night lineup.
Maybe you can try this to prod yourself into doing something you might ordinarily avoid.
Like a 30 minute wine/snacks/budget review on a Tuesday night.
Only listening to your favorite podcast or audiobook while you’re on the stairclimber, or walking outside. Or doing laundry.
Do at least 100 sit-ups during each Netflix show.
Each time you’re successful in lowering a bill, paying off an account, canceling cable, switching insurance… celebrate with an ice cream date or drinks and apps.
Breaking a Bad Habit
Some of the habits we’d like to eliminate didn’t just materialize. There was a cue that prompted us to start it and keeps us doing it. If we figure out the cue, it’ll be easier to break the habit.
Maybe you order too many clothes online, and your cue is the email you receive from various stores. We usually agree to subscribe with the idea that we’ll receive discounts and “save money”.
But I just did a little email check. Today is October 9th and I’ve received 46 emails from Banana Republic since September 1st. That’s more than one every day!
And since every store seems to want your email these days, I’d say that’s one cue that can be eliminated pretty easily.
If you’re distracted easily when you’re trying to focus on an assignment, what do you shift focus to? Is it one of your 12 open browser tabs, the TV, your phone, someone in the area, thirst?
Maybe you tip-toe into the kitchen at night for water, then grab a spoon and attack the ice cream. Keeping a bedside water bottle may eliminate that cue.
Or maybe your concentration dips when your room is colder or warmer, or the clothes on your floor remind you that laundry needs to be done.
For me, stress and overwhelm is a cue that prompts me to search for chocolate anywhere I can find it. But I find that most of my stress comes from procrastination and disorganization. So if I’m more disciplined about scheduling and getting things done, I can eliminate that cue. Usually.
Is there something you seem to do on auto-pilot that you’d like to eliminate? What pattern can you spot? Are you in the same place, doing the same activity, thinking about the same thing?
We can build in incentives and associations to develop good habits in almost any area of our life. But no matter how seamless we try to make it, there’s still a certain amount of willpower involved when you first adopt a habit.
And since our willpower is finite, trying to improve several areas at once is unrealistic. You wouldn’t want to start losing 20 pounds, practice the guitar each night, hit the gym 4 times a week and call your mom regularly, all in the next 90 days.
Try to incorporate one habit at a time until it becomes a part of your identity. It may take someone else 30 days to establish a habit, and you 60. It doesn’t matter. Ease into it gradually, and assume you’ll have setbacks now and then. Even plan a cheat day.
You don’t need to be perfect, just consistent. Remember, it’s not the overnight, leaps and bounds improvements that make the biggest impact on your life. It’s the 1% improvements.
The trajectory is what counts.
As James Clear says, “Be the designer of your life. Not just the consumer of it.”