How to create powerful habits according to the experts
If I can give up my lifelong love of coffee, you can create any habit you really want! No problem!
We all want good habits but struggle to stick to them. Like New Year’s resolutions, we start off well intentioned and motivated only to give up a few days or weeks later.
According to the experts, the reasons people fail to create habits are for the following reasons: they don’t really believe in the habit; they underestimate the power of habit creation; they don’t make the habits automatic; they start too big; they don’t anchor them; they don’t make them pleasurable; and they are impatient.
Believe in the habit
Since the age of 14, I drank black coffee. It became my personal theme, my identity. After all, one of my favorite songs was “Black Coffee” by Ella Fitzgerald.
I would start the day with an entire four-cup Italian Moka pot of black espresso. The day would continue with more black coffees and espressos: 9am, 11am, after lunch at 1pm, and at around 4pm for a pick-me-up. The daily total was 8 servings of 90 to 120mg of caffeine.
For years, I had suspected that coffee might be the cause of some of my anxiety, intestinal troubles and weight gain, but whenever I spoke to friends and acquaintances about quitting coffee, they would say:
“But coffee is good for you!”
“Coffee has so many anti-oxidants.”
“You have to keep at least one vice.”
“I could never live without my morning coffee.”
“You’re being a perfectionist.”
Researching the benefits of giving up coffee, I found just as many websites touting the benefits of coffee as its dangers. Many doctors were cited as saying that up to five coffees per day was okay. And I figured since I was drinking little black espressos, like the Italians, that they only counted as half. The only voice of reason was my son, who was adamant about my quitting. Suffice to say, I ignored him.
Then, nearly two months ago, I said to my personal trainer Caryn that I often felt acidic, nauseous and tired and that this caused me to snack in between meals. I was trying to lose those last 10 pounds and the weight was not budging. My gut felt bloated and sore. I thought I might have Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
“If someone told me that coffee was ruining my life, I would quit,” I said.
Caryn looked at me and without a pause, she said.
“It is ruining your life."
I looked at her, and said: “Really?”
“Yes! You have tried everything else to feel better,” she said. “Your exercise regimen couldn’t be better. Your meals are super healthy. Your coffee is all that’s left.”
That day, I quit coffee with one little relapse a week later that brought the nausea and acidity back.
Now, I have more energy. I am less anxious. I sleep better. I no longer feel like I have to snack to get rid of nausea. My gut is improving and flat. And, I can resist those cravings for carbohydrates in the evenings. I have lost four and half pounds or two kilos without changing my meals. I now believe that coffee was bad for me and was ruining my life.
In the book Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey show how beliefs and mind-sets—aka immunities—can prevent important changes from happening. According to research they cite, only one in seven heart patients actually make the habit changes necessary to save their lives. Why? All seven have a desire to keep on living. So, why do the six not change? The answer lies in their belief system.
Identify the habits you want. Make sure that the habits you choose are things you want to do, not the “shoulds” or “coulds.” These are things that give you pleasure and that would increase your energy.
Get clear on your belief around the habit you want to create. Why do you want to make the change? What will the change bring you? What will you have to give up to create this habit?
Realize the power of habit creation
There is power in creating habits. If we start taking our medication regularly or stop smoking, these habits can save our lives. Also, know that habits can actually change your brain. In his popular book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg recounts the story of an unhappy, overweight woman who hated her job and smoked cigarettes. She changed her habits by moving to the desert, stopping smoking and picking up jogging. One year later, brain scans showed actual physical changes. The same went for alcoholics who replaced alcohol with frequent AA meetings. These recovered alcoholics were able to show brain changes in their scans as well.
Make them automatic
Habits can simplify your life in that they free you up from making too many decisions. The part of the brain that makes decisions, the prefrontal cortex, gets tired as the day goes on. David Rock in Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long describes the importance of the prefrontal cortex and its diminishing energy throughout the day. If you use up all your decision-making energy on unimportant things, you won’t have any energy left for important things during the course of your day.
The best example of someone who understands this concept of saving decision-making energy is founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, who is famous for wearing grey T-shirts every day. He says he does this to minimize the number of decisions he makes in order to save energy for important things, like “serving more than a billion people.”
Duhigg also cites the rat in the maze experiment as proof that by automating a habit, we save brain energy. A rat and a piece of chocolate were put at opposite ends of a maze. The scientists monitored the mouse’s brain activity while it sniffed and looked for the chocolate. The brain activity was significant during this search. The scientists repeated the experiment over and over again and noted that the rat’s mental activity decreased each time he was put in the maze, as his brain got used to the process. After some time, the mouse whisked through the maze as if on autopilot, his brain barely making any waves.
Wouldn’t you like your morning routine to be like that… easy, as if on autopilot?
Start small and anchor them
Dr. BJ Fogg, a Stanford University teacher and behavior scientist, has studied habits and created what is known as the “Tiny Habits” program. His premise is that habits that are small and easy to accomplish don’t require a lot of motivation. On the other hand, habits that are difficult require a lot of motivation.
You need three things, according to Fogg. You need motivation, ability and a trigger. A trigger is another habit that you already do. And this is where you anchor your new habit. So let’s say you always pee first thing in the morning. This act of peeing could be your anchor or trigger for a new habit, like weighing yourself or meditating.
Then, you can piggyback habits on each other once they’re established.
Here’s a video of BJ Fogg explaining how just flossing one tooth can begin the habit of flossing.
Fogg counsels to start with three habits. Some say, as does Leo Babauta in his Zenhabits blogpost on creating habits, to start with just one habit at a time, but Fogg says you can start with three.
“And, in fact, I believe you should work on multiple habits at once because that’s how you learn what matters,” Fogg writes. “There’s a reason you work on three new behaviors rather than just one. When you focus on three new behaviors, you learn how habits work.”
Make them pleasurable
Besides giving us a sense of control, habits can feel good. Starting off the day with a healthy delicious breakfast is pleasurable. A meditation practice—once established—creates clarity and relaxation. Exercise feels great once the body gets used to it.
The reward is key, according to Duhigg who writes about a three-step process to creating habits: queue or trigger; process or routine; and then reward. Whatever habit you adopt needs to bring you a similar pleasurable reward to the habit you are trying to replace.
Duhigg talks about the trigger aspect in habit changing. For example, it could be that you smoke to deal with a stressful event. What other activity could you choose to replace the cigarette?
I replaced coffee with tea. I start the day with Monks’ Tea, a blend of black and green tea. After that, whenever I would normally have coffee, I replaced it with green tea. I realize now that what I really wanted was something hot to drink, and even hot water does the trick.
My coaching school advises to write a list of 20 habits you could create and then to narrow the list down to 10. My list looks something like this:
1. Meditate 20 minutes every morning upon waking
2. Do 5 minutes of exercise every morning within 30 minutes of waking (start with 5 push ups)
3. Take vitamins and minerals
4. Drink 1 liter of water minimum
5. Drink tea instead of coffee
6. Cook green leafy vegetables every evening
7. Be in bed by 10pm (to wake up by 6am… I need 8 hours of sleep)
8. Walk minimum 10,000 steps per day (I use a Fitbit)
9. Acknowledge my children every day
10. Read 10 pages per day
How long until the habit becomes automatic?
A 2009 University College London study “How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world” by Phillippa Lally, Cornelia H. M. Van Jaarsveld, Henry W.W. Potts and Jane Wardle concluded that the median time frame to create a habit was 66 days with a range of 18 to 254 days, depending on the complexity of the habit being formed.
The easier the task, the shorter the amount of time we will need to “automatize” the habit; the harder the task, the longer we will need. The more complex the tasks, the more thoughts are necessary, and therefore are less automatic.
Interesting to note, the study also concluded that if you miss a day or two, your success in creating the habit would not be “materially affected.” “Some missed opportunities will not derail the process,” the study states.
So don’t worry if you miss a day.
I’ve created a 66-day tracking chart. (You can download it from this site for free.) Check off your progress each day.
Creating habits is trial and error. It’s a work in progress. Don’t be afraid to modify your list as time goes on. Make sure you pick habits that have an impact on your life and that are small and easy to do.
1) Really believe in the change you want to make
2) Start small; if you want to start flossing, floss one tooth. If you want to start push-ups, do two. A walking routine? Go out for a five-minute walk.
3) Pick a trigger: after you brush your teeth; after you go to the bathroom in the morning; when you come home from work.
4) Track it
If I can give up my lifelong love of coffee, you can create any habit you really want! No problem!