How To Make Habits Stick

In my previous post I talked about habits vs motivation and the difference between the two. In this post I’m going to show you how to make habits stick, so that you get long lasting results.

Whilst motivation gets you started on your quest and gets you going, it’s the consistent habit of going to the gym everyday, writing 500 words a day, or calling 5 prospects a day that gets you the toned physique, your book written or your first million dollars in sales.

Motivation gets you going, but habits get you results.

We all know that when we start out on a quest we are very motivated, well at least we are at the beginning. We start out on our path to forming new habits, but typically something happens along the way and before you know it you’re back to your old ways, doing the things you always did.

So if you’re going to create lasting change, you need to do something differently.

How to Make Habits Stick


Right now, your life today is simply the sum of all your habits. Whether you’re fit or out of shape, it’s a result of your habits, successful or unsuccessful, a result of your habits.

What you spend your time thinking about and doing ultimately forms the person you are.

So quite simply, if you want to change any aspect of your life then really need to change your habits.

Habits, good or bad aren’t formed overnight. For many years I, like many others, believed that habits took 21 days to form. At the time, I didn’t know that it was wrong because many “guru’s” often quoted the same figure.

The 21 Days To Change A Habit Myth


It turns out thought that the 21 days that are so often quoted as fact, originated from the findings of a cosmetic surgeon in the 1950’s by the name of Dr Maxwell Maltz. Maltz discovered that on average, patients typically took about 21 days to get used to their new face.

Over time, “about” got quietly dropped and forgotten about. And for those making a living on selling habits and change you can see why. Because 3 weeks sounds long enough to sound plausible, but short enough that people don’t say “you can forget that”.


But what Maltz actually said was:

“These, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”

So if it’s not 21 days then how long is it?


Well, the truth is it depends.

It depends on you, the habit you choose to adopt or change and let’s say “external factors” being present or not.

In fact research conducted by Philippa Lally a Medical Research Council PhD student in a 2009 study [How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world] showed that in a group of 96 volunteers, the time it took for the volunteers to reach 95% of their asymptote of automaticity (i.e. form a new habit) was between 18 and 254 days.

On average it takes 2 months (66 days to be exact) to form a habit <–Tweet this

4 Step Plan To Make Habits Stick


So if you’re not going to get side tracked from making your habit stick, then you’re going to need a fool proof way to make your habits stick. So here’s my 4 step plan for how to make habits stick:

Step 1: Change Only The Habits You Care About


Firstly, you should only work on changing the habits that you actually care about. Sounds obvious I know, but so many people work on the habits that they think they should be working on rather than things they really want to. Or worse they work on changing habits that other people want them to change.


Consequently, if you’re not that bothered deep down about changing an existing habit then chances are you’ll give up on it at the first hurdle.


So decide what you really want to change and why you want to do it.


Only when you’re convinced that this is the right habit to set about turning into your new habit should you proceed to step 2.


Step 2: Set a Trigger For Your New Habit


Relying on your memory or just motivation on it’s own to get you through are sure signs that you’ll fall off the wagon and fail to embed your new habit.


Consequently the key to embedding your new habit is to form a trigger. A trigger is simply something that sets off a memory or a reaction to a certain event. A trigger is usually activated through one of the 5 senses; smell, touch, hear, taste, sight or event or location based.


So the next step is to form a trigger is key to embedding your new new habit.


For example if you were looking to form a habit around exercise, you might set time aside first thing in a morning to work on your new habit. Or maybe leave your running shoes by the front door so that you can’t avoid seeing them in a morning.


A good trigger makes it easy to start by making it part of something that you already do.


For example, flossing teeth. The best time to form a habit around flossing your teeth is to do it just after you’ve brushed your teeth.


The best way to set up a new habit is to look at the all the things you do each day without fail, then build your habit around that.


For example say that you want to build flossing into your daily teeth cleaning routine. You could have “after I brush my teeth, I’m going to floss for 1 minute”.


So to work out which of your daily activities you’re going to attach your new habit to, simply list out all of the things you do each day, for example:


  • get up
  • exercise
  • have a shower
  • get dressed
  • eat breakfast
  • read the paper

you get the idea.

Choose which activity you’re going to associate with your new habit then add the habit to your existing routine. Then when you get to the activity that you associate with your new habit you simply carry it out.

Step 3: Start With The Easiest First


Whilst most people focus on making and embedding massive changes, the key to realise is that lasting change is a product of consistent daily habits, not one off “transformations.”

Therefore, if you want to start a new habit and start seeing the benefits of the change. Then you will find it easier to start create lasting change by focusing on something simple and straightforward.


In the words of Leo Babauta:


“Make It So Easy You Can’t Say No”

Leo Babauta <== Tweet This

And the best way to make something so easy is to start small. For example reducing your sugar intake could mean that “when you have a coffee, you have half a spoonful of sugar instead of a full size one.”

Therefore, if you want to start a new habit and start seeing the benefits of the change. Then the advice is that you will find it easier to start create lasting change by focusing on something simple and straightforward.

In other words focusing on something that is “so easy you can’t say no”.

Step 4: Set A Reward

Finally, to cement the change in your life you need to recognise you’ve done it. So just like you might produce a reward chart for a child to cement a good behaviour, you should find some way of acknowledging you’ve done something and “tick it off”.

When I’m trying to form a habit like drinking more water I set up a little “task” on an application like Coach Me and “check-in” every day when I’ve completed it.

Once you’ve completed your new habit number of times it might be worth treating yourself to a new item or doing something different once you’ve completed an activity a certain number of times, to acknowledge to yourself that you’ve actually achieved something.

Finally, you will have seen that the key to getting good results from a changing a habit is to actually form an easily repeatable process.

If you enjoyed this post, I’d be very grateful if you’d help to spread the word by emailing it to a friend, or sharing it on Twitter or Facebook. Thank you!

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