Make Your Habits Stick (For Real, This Time)

Make Your Habits Stick (For Real, This Time)

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an action but a habit.


The path of self-improvement is wrought with trial and error. One of the ways we err is making the decision to add a new healthy habit to our routine, doing it with fervor for a handful of days, and then falling off the wagon. We’re gung-ho on January 1st, but by February we’re back on the couch eating Cheetos and bingeing on Netflix.

Why does this seem to happen time and again? Because we’re not as good the Tim Ferris’s and Tony Robbins’s of the world? Because we have no willpower and are basically just lazy schlubs?

The good news is—no. Greatness is possible. And I’ll tell you how, because that’s how much I love you.

In Heidi Hanna’s book Recharge, she states that “any change—even positive change—is seen as a potential threat to the brain because it requires more energy expenditure than the status quo.”

Your brain is biologically wired to conserve energy for possible threats throughout the day. Therefore it prefers to use autopilot as often as possible. Meaning that your current habits save you a great amount of mental energy. (Some of them—like drinking booze or comfort eating—also trigger the brain’s reward centers and create an irresistible feedback loop).

So if positive change requires energy and the brain isn’t a fan of hard work, what’s the secret to making healthy resolutions stick?

Choose Tiny Habits

The number-one-most-important-do-NOT-disregard-this secret to healthy habit formation is to start small. As Leo Babauta of Zen Habits fame says, “make it so easy you can’t say no.”

You want to begin by changing your behavior just slightly, so you don’t overwhelm your system. I get it, we all want to dominate the world, but if you currently enjoy couch potato-status, telling yourself “I’m going to train for a triathlon” is going to be much more difficult to attain than “I’m going to jog for 3 minutes today.”

For one thing, the energy it takes to get started (known as activation energy) in scenario one is infinitely greater. And two, the goal of “training for a triathlon” is poorly defined. How does one begin? Are there downloadable training schedules? Where is the nearest pool? Is special equipment required? No matter how motivated you feel when you declare “I’m going to train for a triathlon,” motivation, like muscles, gets fatigued. And without clearly defined action steps, broken into tiny increments, you’re likely to wind up back on the couch.

This doesn’t make you a lazy schlub. Just human.

Now doesn’t that feel better?

So solve this problem by picking a new habit that is easy enough that you don’t need a lot of motivation to get started.

Find Your “Why”

For every healthy endeavor you want to pursue, answer this question: What are my core values and how do they play a role in wanting to create this new habit?

Studies show that in order to activate the resources necessary for goal pursuit, it is essential to know the specific motivation underlying your desired result. When you perform a new habit with a certain long-term outcome in the forefront of your mind, you create a neural connection that associates that behavior with that outcome.

It follows logic then that if you have strong emotional ties to wanting to achieve something—if you can feel, see and taste what it would be like to achieve your goal—the more impact it has on your subconscious willingness to perform the task.

As Danielle Laporte says, “Everything we do is driven by the desire to feel a certain way. Everything. You’re not chasing the goal itself, you’re chasing the feelings that you hope attaining that goal will give you.”

So what feeling do you want to have…after you compete in your first triathlon, for instance? Triumph? Power? Strength? Do you want to know that you accomplished something incredibly challenging, thereby making you the badass you always believed yourself to be? Do you want this so you can inspire your children to shoot for the moon?

Now that’s a powerful “why.”

Don’t Beat Yourself Up

Elite athletes and successful entrepreneurs fall off the wagon just like everyone else. It’s crazy-making to try to form a new habit with the expectation of being perfect when people who have been doing this for years make mistakes on a regular basis. It’s essential not to judge yourself or self-flagellate when you make a mistake, and instead focus on getting back on track as quickly as possible.

Don’t let a cheat day gone wild derail the entire good intention. Self-improvement isn’t a destination. You’re never done. So pick yourself up, give yourself a little “everybody’s human” pep talk, and start again.

One of my favorite reminders of this comes from Voltaire:

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Oh, how I need to remember this on the regular. It may not be perfect—hell, it may not even be close—but it’s better than Cheetos and Netflix.

Celebrate Small Wins

The key to making your habits stick is to give yourself rewards. Kind of a no-brainer right? Work hard, get a prize?

But because we’re focusing on small goals, sometimes celebrating them gets lost in the shuffle. Don’t let it. Celebrating the victories along the way = more dopamine in your brain. And dopamine is what helps us feel pleasurable, energized, motivated and satisfied. Bottom line? More is better.

And again, prizes.

So here’s your homework in all its glorious simplicity:

Step One: Each day, focus on getting 1% better. That’s it. Just 1%.

This approach is known as kaizen—a Japanese word for continuous improvement. In the business world, its opposite is radical innovation. Applying this to habit forming, kaizen is “jogging for three minutes today” (and consistently throughout the next week), while the radical overhaul is “training for a triathlon.”

These small changes won’t seem like much at first, but that’s the point. Slow and steady wins the race, my friend, and baby steps are far less likely to knock you off the wagon than giant leaps.

Step Two: Keep track of your results.

The easiest way to do this is to download my Habit Tracking Worksheet. Keeping a record of daily accomplishments keeps your habits in the forefront of your mind and allows you to make tweaks when something isn’t working.

Don’t resist this step because it feels rigid. It’s absolutely necessary for success.

After all, James Clear has this to say (and he wrote the book on Habit Formation so that basically makes him new-age Yoda):

“We don’t build new habits in the hope that our lives will become fully automated, repetitive and robotic. We do it because habits are a tool for helping us do the things that make us come alive more frequently and more consistently.”

In other words, healthy habits are an essential ingredient to happiness. And so are the celebrations you grant yourself along the way.

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