I’ve forever been the sort of person who needs to set and work towards goals. Whether it’s at work, at home or in my fitness routine. I find I need to be working towards something, otherwise, I just feel like I’m drifting. Now goals are great when it comes to getting you started on something, but the real challenge is keeping going. In the beginning, you have all-star motivation. Let’s face it, the beginnings of most things are one of the best parts. It’s new, it’s exciting, it’s novel, and more importantly, you’re full of hope. So much hope. It’s no wonder you feel so motivated.
Fast forward a few weeks, a month, a few months, suddenly, the reality of whatever it is starts to set it. And that hope that got you so pumped in the beginning, is long gone!
So, how do you keep going when achieving anything worthwhile takes a significant amount of time. Whether it’s better health, a better level of fitness, a promotion, or building a successful business, it all takes time. So the question is, how on earth do you maintain this all-star motivation throughout the whole process?
In my quest to find the answer, the secret to the fountain of endless motivation, I’ve read an incredible book, which has completely opened my eyes.
The problem with goals
The thing about a goal is that it’s a destination. It is something to be reached. You have either achieved your goal or you haven’t, and you typically won’t be happy until you do.
but when you do, other problems can come up, like you move the goal post, or things aren’t quite how they thought you’d be when you finally achieve it. So focusing on goals alone can set you up to fail, or at last to struggle.
Habits, on the other hand, are an ongoing process. They’re not about the destination, but about the journey and if you can break down every goal in your life into a number of habits and focus on building those, the reward is in the process, not the result. So, maybe you can be happier sooner. Result!
Building atomic habits and why you need to
In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear shares “easy and proven ways to build good habits and break bad ones”
But why is this important?
A habit is “a routine or behavior that is performed regularly, and in many cases, automatically.”
As someone who loves a routine, I’ve built up a number of habits over the years, some good and many bad, simply due to the fact that being in a routine means you do things over and over again, which ultimately moves them from conscious action to a habit.
Since doing something enough times will eventually make it become a habit, then it stands to reason that you can build habits without even thinking about it, whether it’s good or bad. What’s more, habits have a compounding effect. This means that the impact of your habits gets bigger over time and this is why you need to pay attention to what you do and why you need to read this book. Because your habits will eventually have an impact on you.
Think about it, most things happens over time, you don’t just suddenly anything. We only see the result, but the route to getting there is always much longer.
You don’t wake up with a hole in your tooth out of nowhere, you eat sugar for many years and a hole develops over time, you don’t suddenly stop fitting into your favorite clothes, you make certain choices over and over again that ultimately lead you to that point and you don’t just suddenly speak another language, you commit to hours of learning and practicing over a period of time. Nothing is instant.
In short, your daily habits, however seemingly small they are now, will ultimately have a huge impact on your life.
But if you’ve ever tried to make any kind of positive change stick in your life then you know that building new habits is hard and breaking old bad habits is even harder. While I’ve been able to build some good habits in some areas of my life, in other areas I continue to struggle because I wasn’t fully aware of all the elements involved when it comes to building good habits or breaking bad ones… that is until now.
Why do we build habits?
The reason we build habits is because our brains process such a high amount of information that it needs to manage this information as efficiently as possible. When you come across things for the first time, it takes a lot of energy to process this information as you learn ( we all know how tiring it is after the first day at a new job!)
Over time, you learn the best way to do things, the things that work and the things that don’t. Things that don’t work get discarded and what works sticks with you. If along the way you do something and it leads to a reward, anything that makes you feel good for any reason, your brain takes note of all the events that happened before this reward, so that you know what to do in future in the same situation. That’s how habits form.
Over time, you know instantly what to do to get the result you want, and with that, it takes your brain much less energy to perform that same task as there’s no need for any new learning or trial and error.
Why habits don’t stick and how to build habits that do
Every habit is built in the same way, through four steps which happen in the same order:
Your mind is continuously on the lookout for rewards, or for the signs of a reward. Rewards might include money, praise, love. The cue is the trigger which tells your brain that there is a reward in sight.
The cue triggers the next stage of the process, which is craving. This is when you get a feeling of desire for the reward. Your past experiences and associations determine which cues will lead to a craving. The same cue could mean completely different things to two different people and what might lead to a craving for one person might not for another. It all comes down to what you associate the particular cue with.
The response is the action you take as a result of getting the craving. This is the actual habit that you perform.
It’s important to note that the chances of you taking the action depends on how much effort it will take. The more effort required the less likely you are to take action.
Finally, once you take the action ( response), you get a reward. This is the end goal of any habit as it satisfies the craving. The reward is the thing you really want- it could be the feeling of satisfaction, the end of anxiety, the feeling of being loved, the feeling of power or control.
The great thing about understanding how habits actually work and what purpose they serve is that by knowing this, you can start to look at your habits, especially the ones you’re trying to stop and ask yourself, what is it that you’re after? What reward do you get and how does it serve you. More importantly, if the habit isn’t very good, there might be other ways that you can get the same reward that might be less detrimental to you.
How to make your habits stick
What I really loved about this book is that it gives solid actionable tips that you can apply to your everyday life in order to help you build better habits and make them stick.
In summary to make your habits stick you need to:
Make it obvious
This part is all about your cues for performing the habit and the book explains many different tactics you can use to make it as obvious as possible when it’s time to do the thing.
Make it attractive
If the thing you need to do seems like a real drag, then you’re not going to do it. Simple as that. Or you might start off doing it, but you won’t stick with it.
For example, if you hate crowds and you want to get fit, then you probably don’t want to plan to go running through the busy streets, the chances of sticking with it are really slim. So you need to try and opt for things that are more aligned to who you are and more attractive to you in the first place.
Building habits that work with your natural personality rather than going against it will help you to succeed for the long haul.
Make it easy
Just like you’re unlikely to take an action if something is really unappealing to you, you’ll also not take action if the thing you need to do is way out of your ability range. If you’ve never run before but want to eventually run a marathon, you might not want to start off with a 10K, you need to start with something a little easier. Or a lot easier, depending on where you’re starting from.
Finally, in order to make a good habit stick, you need to
Make it satisfying
According to the book, the cardinal rule of behavioral change is that what is rewarded is repeated and hat is punished is avoided.
If you get no satisfaction from doing the thing then you’re not likely to do it again. Where’s the reward in that?
A big run might be painful, but if you feel calm, super relaxed or even on a high afterward, then you’re more likely to go again.
This is what makes “quitting” or stopping doing things really hard to turn into a habit. If you don’t build something into it that will satisfy you, then you won’t stick with not doing it for very long because you’ll still be in search of some satisfaction!
There are many different ways that you could build satisfaction or reward into your habits. For me, charting my progress tends to be really effective. This has worked great for me in my mission to not drink alcohol lately. It made going 6 weeks actually quite enjoyable. And it all came down to not wanting to ruin my streak.
My biggest takeaways from the book are:
Goals tell you what direction to go in. They’re a good start but it’s good habits that are the vehicle that will help you reach where you’re trying to get to.
When it comes to building habits, start small and keep it simple. You can increase things, make things incrementally harder and more challenging over time. But don’t make things hard for yourself from day one, or you’ll never get started.
When it comes to sticking with your habits, everyone’s different and you can use trial and error. try one method and if you find it’s not helping you stick with it, you can change to something else, you will find the right way for you.
Which leads me to number 4. When building habits, do it in a way that works with your personality, not against it, I know I mentioned this before, but it’s so important I had to mention it again.
And finally, never give up. One thing that I haven’t covered here is the fact that of course, you’ll slip up. The beauty of habits is that if you have an off day, or you slip up, you just get back on it. It’s about the process and what’s great is that if you stick with your habits, eventually you’re bound to achieve your goals, however many little slip up’s you have – as long as you don’t give up.
What to do next
Do I need to say it? Read the book. You might think it’s simple common sense, and some of it might be. The thing is, just because things are simple, doesn’t always make them easy. Or we’d all be our best selves by now.
If I haven’t convinced you that this book is a must read then consider this
We are what we repeatedly do.
And this shapes who you become. So,who do you want to be?