7 Tips for Habit Forming
During my Master’s degree at Indiana University, one of the teachers I studied with was Dee Stewart. During our first lesson, I played Ride of the Valkyries and after I put my instrument down, Dee was silent for what felt like an eternity. The tension continued to build until I finally broke - “what did you think?” With a stern look on his face, he proceeded to say, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
As I reflect back during my time with Dee, this quote stands out amonst the rest.
If I’m being honest, I didn’t think too much of the quote. I was young, immature (still am - who is ready for the new pokemon game?), and had a hard time understanding bigger life concepts. So I thought cool, habits! I’ll just play trombone everyday and everything will work out. If only it were that easy..
But as I grow older, gain more experience in life, and reflect, the more I realize how powerful this quote is.
What are habits?
A habit, by definition, is a regular tendency or practice that is hard to give up. They are ingrained and automated, so unless you are mindful about your habits and are open to change, they tend to run the show!
Because habits can dictate our behavior, they also can dictate success around your goals. For example, habits can support you towards a goal (such as pain-free performance, effortless playing, lose weight, feel physically or mentally better, etc.) or habits can lead you away from your goal.
So theoretically, if you have a set of habits that are supporting your ultimate goal (professional musician, win a job, live a healthier lifestyle), success is inevitable.
But creating habits can be a challenge! Many people think habits can be deleted like a poorly written sentence or simply stopped because you are aware of the behavior, but that is far from the truth. So let’s clarify an important concept - a bad habit cannot be “stopped,” it can only be replaced by another habit, good or bad.
And it’s not enough to simply make the decision to change a habit. Changing habits, just like improvement, growth, or the stock market, takes time. A 2009 study (http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.695.830&rep=rep1&type=pdf ) suggests that it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit. It also suggests it can also take an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic.
Another study in 2012 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3505409/) suggested that habits take at least 66 days to form, giving more evidence to the 66 day guideline.
If we go off of these two studies, there is a large range from 18-254 days to form a habit - what a range! But why is there a scale? Habit forming is influenced by many underlying factors, such as environment, support systems, commitment, accountability, and difficulty. Some people may be able to fully commit and show up for themselves everyday and form their habits quicker than those who may struggle to implement and fully embrace the change. This isn’t meant to put anybody down, but rather show that there are many factors that can influence forming new habits.
With that said, here are some tips and guidelines that can help you integrate more habits into your life.
1. Commit to the habit
In my opinion, this is the most important step. Change requires commitment. Commitment also requires change. If you truly want something to change, you have to deeply commit to yourself, the habit, and the process. You must hold yourself accountable in whatever way that you feel like you need. It will look different for everyone, but commitment is key.
2. Know your ultimate goal
Guiding yourself through these prompts may seem simple, but can help ingrain a deeper sense of purpose and drive to the habit you are trying to build.
Why do you want to build this habit?
Is this habit replacing another habit - if so, which one?
How is this habit going to support you in the future?
What would life be like once this habit is ingrained?
What can you do to help hold yourself accountable and encourage you to fully commit to the habit?
Are you ready to fully commit to this habit? If you feel any resistance, don’t ignore it! Observe and see if you can figure out why there is resistance showing up.
3. 2-day rule
This rule is a guideline that can be helpful for times when life isn’t going your way. Maybe you need a day, don’t have time to do your habit, or you flat out forget - that is okay! The most important thing is to get back on track on day 2. As soon as you take 2 days off it becomes much harder to motivate yourself to get back on track. Why? You lost momentum and you started building the habit of NOT doing the habit! In my opinion this is one of the main reasons people fall off implementing new habits or routine.
4. Track your habit
This is a simple yet effective tool that can guide you, motivate you, and hold you accountable. Why? To quote Brene Brown, “the mind makes up stories in the absence of data,” and the data does not lie! Having tangible and numerical data can also be a great tool when you go back and reflect on your journey at various points throughout the year.
5. Set up your environment
Your environment is key. It has a drastic effect on health, learning capacity, and motivation (amongst other things). For example, if you are trying to lose weight or eat less sugary foods, but your pantry is full of double-stuffed oreos, cookies, and other sweets, chances are, it is going to be much more challenging to set those boundaries with yourself.
Let’s take another example, if you are trying to drink water within the first 5-10 minutes of waking up, but you have to walk all the way to the kitchen, grab a glass, fill up the glass, and drink the water, that is a lot of steps, especially for someone who doesn’t normanlly drink water first thing in the morning! Rather than have steps that can be a potential barrier on the hard days, set up a glass of water next to your bed the night before so right when you wake up, BOOM, the glass of water is waiting for you.
What about integrating a movement practice? If you are trying to move before you go to bed, set up your yoga mat, SMR balls, or whatever you use on your bed after you wake up. This will literally force you to make a choice - do I move my equipment to sleep, or do I hold myself accountable, do a little movement, then go to bed? Remember, integrating habits are choices that you make.