The 5 Keys to Forming Any Habit

by Diane Berenbaum

Many of us struggle with our habits—sticking to them, staying motivated, getting started, dealing with distractions. However, to change our habits is to change our lives. If we can’t make habit changes, we may get stuck in our current way of doing things, which might not be so helpful in the long run.

So, if we want to lose weight, beat procrastination, write a book, get fit, live mindfully…we need to develop habits.

According to Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits, the process is simpler than most people realize. Simple, but not easy. You need to be committed and really want to make the change. Otherwise, you might quit when things get difficult.

Babauta suggests that you choose one habit for now. You may want to change a bunch of things. I know I do! But, don’t ignore his advice. Later, you can add more. For now, focus on just one. With that in mind, follow his recommended steps:

1.    Start small. This is the most important thing: Do one habit at a time, and do it super small. How small? You can meditate for two minutes. Or, write for five minutes, do five pushups, or eat one vegetable a day.

If you start small, you remove the resistance to starting, which is the hardest part. I used to tell myself, “Just put on your shoes and get out the door,” and that’s how I formed my running habit, and I ended up running several marathons and an ultramarathon because of this small habit. For drawing, just get out your pad and pencil.

2.    Remove choice. Don’t think about it—make a decision ahead of time to do it every day at the same time for at least a month, then each day.  Don’t make it a decision. Just start. Have a trigger that’s already in your daily life (like waking up, brushing your teeth, starting the coffee maker, eating lunch, etc. and use that as the trigger for a when/then statement: “When I wake up, I’ll meditate for two minutes.” 

Put written reminders near where the trigger happens. The main point is: make the decision to do it every day, and then just do it…ultimately without thinking.

3.    Get some accountability. Have at least one person you report to; you can call him/her an “accountability partner.” Or, it could be a group of friends, or a running/exercise friend. (I have two friends who always reach out on Saturday morning to see if we’re ALL going to exercise class that day! It’s amazing how we all chime in, first thing in the morning, to declare our intentions.)  

It doesn’t matter how you set it up. But, having someone to report to means you are much more likely to push yourself past resistance when it comes up.

4.    Make it fun and focus on the positive. Don’t just do the activity.  If it feels like a chore, then it won’t become a habit. Instead, figure out how to make it fun, engaging and/or invigorating. Can you find joy or exhilaration in the middle of your workout, or while cooking or creating a new deliverable for your organization? The habit is much more likely to stick if you focus on the elements you enjoy, rather than just checking it off your to-do list.

5.    Be committed. Consider why you are doing the habit. Reflect on this during the first week, as you do the habit. Are you doing it to help others? Or, will it help you with self-development, so that you can be healthier or happier? If you’re just doing it because you “think you should”, or because it “sounds cool,” you won’t push past the resistance.

Start with the first item, and add as many of the other four as you can during your first two weeks. You’ll increase your odds of success with each one.

You can change your behavior by consciously doing something new repeatedly, until it’s a habit. And, one habit done daily—small steps with intention and friendly support—can make all the difference in the world.

Charles Duhigg, a reporter for The New York Times and author of The Power of Habit, and Smarter Faster Better.

Diane Berenbaum is a long-time contributor and former editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter. She has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® .
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