E09: How to build habits that last
This is a podcast transcript. If you would like to listen to the show in full, please find it on our podcasts page here.
On New Year’s day, most people will create resolutions and intend to follow through with them. The key to building resolutions that last is building habits that last. We will discuss how to become an outcome-oriented and purpose-driven habit builder so you can succeed at any habit you choose. I’ll use my exercise experience as an example, but the principles apply to most other habits as well.
In today’s episode:
Resolutions are habits in disguise
Bad habits got you to where you are
Replace them with positive habits
Don’t rely on motivation
Define a clear reason for change
Focus on who you want to be, not what you want to do
Visualize the outcome you desire
Use your desired outcome to build habits
Learn to love discomfort
Plan for failure
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Happy New Year!
Today we are talking about resolutions and how to build habits that stick. We are going to dive deep into the foundations of habit making. So deep, in fact, that it might be easy to get lost. In case it's helpful, I have create two worksheets and attached them to this week's blog and the podcast transcript. You can download them for free and use them to remember the talking points of this episode.
This New Year’s, if you’re planning to resolve to avoid social media next year (and I don’t blame you) be sure to subscribe to my podcast wherever you get your podcasts. I have a link to my iTunes and Spotify pages on my website, youruncommonlife.com.
Instead of dwelling on what the year that shall not be named brought us or fearing what this year may bring us, let’s remember that we’re in the driver’s seat. What can you control and change this year? Maybe your goal for 2021 is to just get through it. That’s ok. I hope you’ll still find encouragement here.
Personal growth isn’t bound by years or holidays. You won’t magically be a different person with different problems when you wake up tomorrow.
And yet, every New Year’s Day, many of us sit down to create a fresh list of resolutions. This year, up to 75% of people plan to do them. Resolutions can look like goals, visions, or habits. We’re going to exercise 5 days a week, read a book a month, keep our closet organized, be more spiritual, and be more centered. We have every intent of following through so we try to start out strong. We print our resolutions on our best stationary. We tell a friend about our plans because we heard that accountability increases the likelihood of success. To ensure we stick to it, we buy a cute exercise wardrobe and new running shoes. We watch Marie Kondo’s show on Netflix and get spark-joy happy. Maybe, if you suffer from a marketing mindset like I do, you make a powerpoint of your resolutions with an action plan and calendar, complete with graphics. No? Just me? Anyway, the year starts out with such hope. By March, what are you doing?
I wish I could say there was some easy and prescriptive way that we could all revamp our morning routine, get an hour of exercise everyday, organize our home, and revitalize our marriage or whatever else your New Year’s resolution is. The world is full of magazine headlines and blogs that promise that you’re just 3 steps away from losing 20 pounds or that happiness is found in a perfectly organized closet. If you only wore smaller jeans, you’d be content. If you just decluttered, you’d be a better mom. But I don’t believe I can give you a super prescriptive way to change your life...because it’s YOUR life. You have your own unique desires, needs, and limitations. I believe in principled frameworks that people can apply to their unique situations. I also believe that lasting change starts on the inside. Hopefully you’ll find something in today’s podcast that you can work into your life.
Even if you aren’t doing resolutions, you likely have something that you want to change about yourself. Most of us do. Changes start with habits and therefore, resolutions do, too. You got where you are because of some habits you’ve acquired. You could change what you want to change if you could just end the bad habits and add in positive ones. So, what have you been doing that’s brought you to this place in your life? Let’s say you want to be more organized. What have you been doing that prevents that? For me, I have a nasty habit of not putting things away after I use them. Or do you want to lose weight? What habits have caused you to put on weight? Identify the habits you need to undo and consider what positive habits you should replace them with. We will be focusing on the latter day - on adopting the positive habit that you want. I will regularly use exercise as an example in today’s podcast because I know it’s a common struggle for people and I have a lot of experience in that area.
We often perform habits without thinking - they are quite automatic. Therefore, undoing them can take a lot of work. It will take you at least as long to undo the effects of your bad habit as it took to get you where you are. Be patient - change takes time and there is often failure along the way. Hope is not lost though. You can still get on the path towards success. So, what makes habits stick? To the shock of absolutely no one, people are most successful at keeping habits that are enjoyable or rewarding. I won’t dwell on this because I don’t think it’s particularly helpful. You already know you enjoy doing enjoyable things and, if you had your way, everything you needed to do would be enjoyable. But that’s not real life. There are lots of things that are good for you that aren’t necessarily enjoyable. But you still have to do them. What, then? How do you succeed at adopting and keeping those behaviors?
There are the basics that we all know about making habits stick. You should be consistent. It’s ideal to find encouraging people to help keep you accountable. Don’t spend time in negatively reinforcing environments. We can’t get to all of this in one conversation so today we are going to get to the foundation of habit formation. At the core, you need a strong understanding of why you want to change, what outcome you desire, and an ability to visualize that outcome. Some of these concepts overlap but together they create a complete set of habit building tools you can rely on. Let’s go through these one by one.
First of all, motivation is fleeting.
People often think habits fail because people “lose motivation.” This is an oversimplified explanation and it is ultimately irresponsible. It implies that you aren’t really at fault for failing, but that this fleeting thing called motivation took a dip and you suffered from it. No, you didn’t lose motivation. You made a choice to stop. The word motivation is problematic for me because it has been twisted by people who use it in fluffy and toxically positive ways as though everything we do should make us feel motivated. As though motivation is a feeling or emotion. That’s dangerous because emotions are notoriously fleeting and unsteady. Therefore, I prefer to use the word “reason.” The word “motivation” actually means your reason for satisfying a need or desire. Change requires reason and discipline, not a reliance on how motivated you feel.
With that in mind, to succeed, you need a clear and strong reason for change. You might fail because your reason was weak from the start. Reasons need purpose and a defined outcome. For example, a vague and weak reason to exercise is that it’s good for you or you want to look better. A strong reason defines a clear desired outcome like, “I’m exercising so I can run and play with my children as much as they want.” You’ll see later how these clearly defined reasons and outcomes help you visualize. Visualization is another key part of accomplishing your goals.
I’m just going to say a bit about exercise here - I’m regularly not motivated to exercise. Despite having been an athlete for years, I regularly don’t feel like doing it. I do it anyway, though, because how I feel doesn’t matter because I have strong reasons for doing it. I see an outcome in my mind and I want it. Back when I was training to fight, I woke up some days, beaten and bruised, with zero motivation to exercise. Nonetheless, I did it, and pushed myself past my limits daily, because I needed to be the strongest competitor. I needed to train like no one else so that I could fight better than my opponent. That was my reason. I know that discomfort is the path to growth. Even now, as a stay-at-home mom with 20 more pounds on my frame, I have a strong reason to exercise and push myself hard. I have just come out of one pregnancy very thankful for exercising while pregnant. It kept me strong and healthy. Throughout my pregnancy with Calvin, who is now 7 months old, I never lost my balance, never felt weak, rarely felt very out of breath, and my blood pressure actually dropped despite gaining more weight than suggested. Until the day I had my baby, with 53 extra pounds on me, I could still do 15 push ups on my toes. I recovered quickly afterwards, too. I exercise hard now even when I don’t want to so that I’ll be strong throughout my next pregnancy and will recover quickly again. I visualize feeling strong while pregnant again and I want to be that person.
The dilemma of immediate vs delayed gratification.
Habits often fail because we kinda suck at delayed gratification. This isn’t totally your fault. We’re wired this way. We tend to be most successful at new habits that offer a short term payoff because we’re wired for the dopamine rush of immediate gratification, which is a highly reinforcing physiological response. But short term habits and goals create people with a short term perspective. And in order to make significant changes you need to look past this week or this month and intentionally practice delayed gratification. What is the last habit that you intentionally put into place and kept for more than a few weeks or months? What helped you keep it?
If you tie your new habit that you want to keep for a long time to a short-term goal, you are very likely to stop or alter your new behavior once you’ve achieved your goal. An accessible example is training for a 5k. It only takes a couple of months to train for one. You may be training for the satisfaction of completing your first race or of being competitive with others. When the race is only a couple months away, you can practically taste the satisfaction of achieving your goal. You feel really good about your training plan and stick to it because you have a clear and imminent goal in mind. You might reach the goal of doing your race and then plan to run after the race. But after the race is when most people slack in training again. After the race, how dedicated would you be to your running habit compared to before the race? And what if the race was not a couple months away but was 10 years away? Would you still train with the same fervor and consistency? Probably not or not very well. You’d need a different level of commitment to make it longer than a few months.
There is nothing inherently wrong with little goals like these. They can be motivating in the short term. But to succeed at pursuing long-term or delayed gratification, you need to focus less on reaching little goals and more on molding the kind of person you want to be.
Which leads us to the next point.
Focus on who you want to be.
Instead of focusing on the behavior you want to change - like running or eating better - or limiting your focus to a near term goal, get clear on how you want to change as a person. You’re more likely to succeed when you stop thinking about your behavior and external factors and start thinking about...you. Meaning, stop thinking of what you want to do and instead think of who you want to be. For example, what you want to do might be running. Who you want to be might be is a healthy person or an athlete. This shift will help you get better at making good choices daily. So think of who you want to be and give it a name that you can personify. For example, do you want to be a hard worker, an athlete, or a minimalist? Then, every time you make a choice that contends with that, remember who you are. If you are an athlete, then the next time you don’t feel like putting on your running shoes, you think “I am an athlete and athletes train even when they don’t want to.” If you are a minimalist, then every time you are tempted to buy unnecessary stuff, you might think “I am a minimalist and minimalists don’t have more things than they need.” I’ve found that actively personifying now the person I want to become has enabled me to make better choices. At first, this takes a great deal of willpower. But you might be surprised how quickly you internalize those choices such that you don’t have to think about them quite as much. Habits should become routine and focusing on who you want to be can really help make them more ingrained. If you are a healthy person, on day 1 you might be constantly saying “No, I’m a healthy person. Healthy people don’t eat donuts and sit around all day.” But if you stay consistent, by day 7, you’ll have to remind yourself less and less that you are a healthy person who makes healthy choices.
We just talked about naming who you want to be. Now we’ll dive a little deeper into what that person looks like.
Consider the kind of person you want to be in 1, 5, or even 20 years. How has that person grown in relation to who you are now? What is different about the future version of you? Hold that ideal version of you in your mind - the skills you’ve mastered, your character growth, the way your circumstances have changed - and think about how you’ll feel and what value will have been added to your life. What is the value proposition of these changes? For example, you might think that, in 20 years, you want to be physically strong and active. The value of this is that you’ll have great energy, prevent osteoporosis and other diseases, run around with grandkids, etc. Visualizing who you’ll be is the first step toward internalization. Do this over and over. Hold this ideal in your head and then work backwards from there to understand how to change your behaviors. In order to be an energetic and healthy person in 20 years, you need to start to do certain things now. Develop sustainable behavioral habits as a means to that end - as a way of bridging the gap between you today and you in the future. This is how to become outcome-oriented in your habit making. When you start with the outcome in mind, you can create a path to get there.
This New Year’s if you’ve created who you want to be in the future, you can write down habits that will help you get there. Your resolutions will be more purpose- and outcome-driven.
If you visualize your outcome - the outcome you just defined - then you can internalize it. Internalization is key; psychology 101 teaches us that intrinsic motivation is almost always stronger than extrinsic motivation. If you just do the behavior for the sake of doing it, because you believe you should do it or because a doctor told you you should do it, you will fail very quickly. This is external motivation and it’s a very flimsy foundation for lasting change. If you have a clearly defined outcome that you personally desire, you can visualize it more clearly. Visualization is a new idea to a lot of people but we all do it everyday - it is simply using your imagination to propel you toward an outcome. When you lace up your running shoes each day, you imagine playing with your kids or grandkids. When you are tired of running up the hill, you imagine how much lighter you’ll feel after your next pregnancy if you push yourself and get stronger. When I used to fight, during training I visualized every kind of exchange I could have with my opponent and imagined knocking her out. It upleveled my training from a physical experience to a mental one. It drove me to push myself harder - to always put in 1 more rep or run 1 more minute, even if I felt exhausted. Visualization helped me internalize my motivation more than anything.
You can start to see how these pieces I’ve talked about fit together to drive you toward success. There is some overlap but together they create a complete set of habit building tools you can rely on. Starting with your reason - and these are all my examples - my reason is that I want to recover quickly from my next pregnancy. Then layer in who you want to be. I want to be a warrior. Yes I find things like this very inspiring. I might call myself an athlete, a warrior, a hulk, a beast, etc. Back when I was fight training, I even said things to myself like “Hannah smash” as though I was a she-hulk talking to myself. Whatever I needed to do to get myself into that tough mindset. If I’m a warrior, what do warriors do? They train hard, consistently, whether they want to or not. That’s who I want to be. Then I consider what I want my life to look like in 20 years and the value that life will bring me. I want to be so healthy that I can hike and go on adventures with my kids and, after that, play with my grandkids. Work backwards from there to create habits. That means I need to make healthy choices every day. I need to eat a balanced diet. I need to do cardio and strength training a few times a week. And, if I ever need an extra boost of motivation to run up that challenging hill, I visualize my outcome. I visualize how I’ll feel when I recover quickly after my next pregnancy. I visualize how I’ll feel when I am 60 and can still hike with my children. I tell myself warriors don’t get to quit. And I make it up the hill. All put together, this is like a toolbox and, day after day, I can pull something from my toolbox to help me stay on track.
Before we wrap up, let’s discuss a couple areas that usually cause people to lose hope and give up. The first is discomfort.
Learn to love discomfort.
Unfortunately, discomfort is a really common reason to quit a good habit. Furthermore, a love of comfort is a huge reason we adopt bad habits. It’s why we’re sedentary, eat comfort foods, and aren’t as disciplined as we should be. We love comfort.
So many good things come from discomfort. Muscles grow when they’re fatigued, including your heart muscle. The same goes for your brain. If you want to acquire a new skill, become a more intellectual thinker, or understand a challenging topic, you have to work your brain to the point of discomfort. In order to succeed at almost anything, you must embrace discomfort.
I have some experience in this area, from training and fighting. Discomfort was necessary for survival so I had to jump in head first. Fighting was the scariest thing I’d ever done but I got to the ring and won each time because I went through months of discomfort. Discomfort made me stronger. I wasn’t always this way, though. Just a few years prior to fighting I couldn’t do a push up, couldn’t run a mile, hated feeling hurt or sore after a workout, and panicked if a volleyball came near me, let alone someone else’s fists. I was not an athletic person.
Nowadays, my sentiment toward discomfort is different. When I am really uncomfortable while working out, I often think “Good. I’m going to lean into this and go even harder because this is exactly how I get stronger.” I love finding that limit and pushing it. I’ve seen the fruits of discomfort in my life and I know it brings good outcomes so I’m all for it.
Even the discomfort of social situations brings good things so I’m trying to push myself in that way, too. I feel uncomfortable reaching out to people I barely know like neighbors or people at church. But I know I should and I never regret it once I do it - I know it always pays off in the end. Yet the initial discomfort of social awkwardness is really hard to get over.
You can train yourself to like, and even love, discomfort. Most people have the luxury of easing into discomfort. You can adopt uncomfortable habits incrementally. This is the concept of daily 1% changes. If you push yourself in little ways every day, you will end up with big changes over time. Start with a minimal amount of discomfort and slowly ramp up over time. If you want to push yourself to exercise harder, make yourself do one more rep every time you feel like you are done. We almost always have one more rep in us, especially if we take a couple seconds to breathe. Or make yourself run one minute longer than you feel like. Over time, increase it by another minute and so on. Months later, you will have increased your stamina without even realizing it. Trust me - if you do it consistently, your improvement will sneak up on you! If you want to wake up earlier, start with something small like 15 minutes. Or if you want to be more productive in the mornings, start with something manageable like making your bed.
I feel so strongly that discomfort is good for people that I want to challenge you to pick something that you’d find uncomfortable and make yourself do it daily. Something small but painful like 10 push ups the moment you get out of bed or getting up at the same time every day. As you grow in your ability to manage discomfort, you might find that you actually get better at adopting other habits that you don’t particularly enjoy.
Plan for failure.
Expect to fail. Everyone fails. I’m a recovering perfectionist. I’m so scared of failure that I often won’t start anything. That’s why it’s taken me years to do a blog or podcast. One day I just decided to do it without thinking because I knew I’d talk myself out of it if I thought too hard.
I have a lot to say about failure in my podcast titled “Say goodbye to overthinking.” It’s episode 4. In short, failure is how you learn and grow. It is not a reason to give up entirely.
To succeed, accept your failure, get back on track, and move forward. Some amount of failure is a part of life. When you mess up, you might miss out on positive outcomes for a short time while you get back on track. If you give up entirely because of that one little failure, you miss out on positive outcomes for a lifetime. Don’t be the person who loses out on positive outcomes for life. Accept your failure, make a plan to fix it, and move forward. Tell yourself, “tomorrow is a new day” and start over. It’s a reset. Don’t beat yourself up or feel guilty. Nothing was ruined...progress was only stalled for a day. Just accept what happened, recognize that it was your fault, and do better the next day.
In conclusion, remember, you should never force yourself to adopt or alter a habit just because you think you should. You will never be successful - at least, not for long. You need to understand yourself and what you really want out of life. Take some time to step back and analyze what kind of person you want to be, your reasons for changing, and then plan habits that will get you there. When things get tough, rely on your imagination and visualizations to carry you through.
Recognize that change will take a very long time and might come so slowly, you don’t perceive it. It’s hard to see the forest through the trees when you’re moving so slowly. And, without clear progress, it’s easy to want to give up. So I’d recommend journaling about your progress once a day or once a week, even. Every couple of months go back and read what you wrote so you can more readily compare how you’ve grown. Include in your journal everything we’ve talked about today. We’ve talked about a lot so I encourage you to visit the podcast transcript on my website - youruncommonlife.com/read as often as you need to decide how you want to change and why.
Happy New Year!
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