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Developing and Maintaining Habits

Every year, we decide this is the year we are going to start ______ (enter major habit change) and for many of us that lasts maybe a month or less. Why is that? Well, we are not really taking the steps necessary to turn those “habits” into truly automatic routines that don’t even require mental thought.

There are plenty of books and articles out there about forming habits but my favorite has been Atomic Habits by James Clear. He describes the habit formation process in such a simple way that anyone can understand and apply these principles.

Another great resource is the book The ONE Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan.This book is mainly about focusing on the right things at the right time but there is a lot to learn about how to built habits. Also, check out their resources and podcast for a lot more information.

I have found that the more drastic my “goal” is, the least likely I am to stick with it. At the same time, if the “goal” does not excite me enough I tend to fall off track pretty quickly. When I am trying to develop a new habit or change something about what I do on a daily basis, the most important thing I need to do before I even start is to ask myself…

why am I doing this?

Building a new habit takes a lot of mental effort and if you are not being intentional with your actions it will be difficult to make it happen. New Year’s resolutions are extremely popular, but in reality we should strive to create a more long term solution to our problems. Personally, I don’t really make New Year’s resolutions, rather I take a look at my current habits and see if they are giving me value or if they are not. Additionally, I see if there are new, and simple, habits I can add to my day-to-day.

Why Should we Focus on Small Habits?

There is a lot of research and plenty of articles and books on this subject proving that the most effective way to develop a new habit is by starting small and gradually adding to the routine. For example, you wouldn’t start training for a marathon by running 26 miles on day one. Instead, you would run one mile on day one and increase as your cardiovascular strength increases.

Make it so easy you can't say no.
—Leo Babauta

Simply speaking, it is better to learn how to build habits than the habit itself. By starting small, there is no added stress to your current routine, meaning it won’t require additional motivation to develop the habit and as we know we tend to lose motivation pretty quickly.

By starting small we are ensuring that we are not surpassing our motivation limits. Another great example would be to think about it in terms of saving money. I personally have automated balance transfers right after I get paid each month. If that amount would be 30% – 40% of my paycheck I would struggle to maintain those savings at this point in my life. Instead, I transfer a smaller amount and with time I will increase that amount until I reach my savings goal.

Small changes are often not seen but can bring incredible results on the long term if you are consistent.

Incorporate New Habits with Current Routines

Another important concept to develop new habits is to look at what you are currently doing in your day-to-day life and try to incorporate new habits within your routine. In the early stages of trying to develop a new habit, we have a lot of motivation but not enough ability for long term success. We tend to prepare well and make sure our environment is perfectly crafted to make sure doing our new routine is as easy as possible. But with time, our motivations starts to diminish and we are only left with our newly developed habit. This can be troublesome if we didn’t set a solid foundation when developing the new habit

The Fogg behavior model is very interesting to me and it gives a very different way of thinking at our behavior. It says that Behavior = Motivation * Ability * Trigger. As I mentioned before, our motivations will tend to be high on the early stages and will lessen as time goes on. Another important factor to consider is our ability to perform the task. As humans we like to be comfortable and minimize change. Similarly, we are discouraged when the task we are doing is either too hard or too easy.

The Fogg Behavior Model was a recent discovery but I think it brings the habit formation together nicely. A new habit is hard to form and the more we incorporate these new habits with current habits, the easier we will develop the new routines.

The 2-Day rule by Matt D’avella

I am not sure if Matt D’avella actually came up with this idea but I heard it from him first. It is as simple as it sounds, don’t skip your habit 2 days in a row. After you have developed the habit, done all the hard work, and are in a good routine day after day, there will always be something that will try to make you lose motivation. As we know, after a few weeks is when most New Year’s resolutions start to fade away. The excitement of something new starts to wear off and we are left with the boring part – A simple routine.

I am someone who constantly needs new and exciting things happening and I get bored really easy. Throughout the years, I have learned that getting bored is not bad, it is just part of the process to get somewhere. Think about the last road trip you took. I bet the first half hour to an hour was pretty exciting, right? What about hour 5 or 6? Not so much. But that is how you make it somewhere. Same thing happens with our habits. I always get excited about doing something new but eventually it will become normal and boring.

Now that you are a few weeks into developing the new habit, it will start feeling “boring” and hopefully a little more automatic compared to when you started. The two day rule is a simple yet powerful one if you are committed to sticking to your goals and it can be applied to so many areas of our life. Remember boring is what gets you to your goals. Boring just means that you have stuck with your habit long enough for it to really start changing your behavior.

Developing habits is a hard task but it is what allow us to perform at higher levels. Making an action automatic reduces the mental effort and gives our brain a sense of control over what we are doing. There is no better time than right now to start a new habit or if you are currently working on your New Year’s resolutions I encourage you to look at why and what you are doing to ensure you are successful.

Check out the Podcast episode on this topic here

Until the next time – Let’s continue Engineering our Future