I’ve had numerous readers tell me that they Suck at Habits. And I totally get that, because in 2005, that’s exactly where I was. I sucked at habits.
The good news is that I found a smarter way.
I learned to understand that habits are a set of patterns that I just needed to repeat until they became more and more automatic … and that setting up the right environment is everything.
Let me repeat that: setting up the right habit environment is everything.
If you suck at habits right now, that’s because your environment is set up for you to fail. It’s incredibly hard to defeat a hostile habit environment.
So the first thing to know is that you don’t suck, your environment does. You just need to learn to set up a better habit environment.
I also learned that I was often failing because I didn’t believe in myself — I would give up when things got hard, because deep down I didn’t really think I was going to succeed. I didn’t believe, because past evidence from repeated failures told me I most likely wasn’t going to succeed. I had proven to myself over and over again that I sucked at habits, and this belief got in the way of future habit successes.
What’s the way out of this negative feedback loop? You change the message. You tell yourself you’re going to succeed no matter what, and that your past failures don’t count because this time you’re going to put everything you have into it, and not allow failure. You change a habit that’s so easy to do that you can’t possibly fail … and then you let that habit success redefine your belief in yourself.
So the second thing to learn is that you can create a belief and trust in yourself if you make success your only option.
It turns out that the same set of actions will address both of these two things: 1) setting up the right habit environment, and 2) making habit success your only option, so that you can start trusting yourself.
Let’s look at those actions.
The Right Habit Environment & Creating Trust in Yourself
I could write a whole book on setting up the right habit environment, but for now let me give you these basic tips:
- Start super small. If you want to build trust in yourself, you need to start with something incredibly easy, something you won’t fail to do. Most people ignore this advice, and fail, and then don’t believe in themselves. I’ve said it on this blog for the last eight years, but that’s because it’s so fundamental: you have to start small. Super small. If you want to run, form the habit of getting out the door and running for 2 minutes. Set the bar for success as low as you can. Start by drinking a glass of water each day, or stretching for 1 minute, or doing 1 pushup, or flossing 1 tooth.
- Progress gradually. If you start super small, it might seem silly. But remember that you’re building trust in yourself, and setting yourself up with the right habit environment. What you want to do from there is only progress very gradually — make it so slow that it seems too easy to add more. Don’t challenge yourself, but make it a sure thing. Each step along the way, the new level of your habit becomes your new normal. And you’ll be amazed at the magnitude of successful change this can bring.
- Create public accountability. Eventually, you might build so much trust in yourself that you won’t need accountability — but in the beginning, set yourself up with the right habit environment by creating public accountability. Tell people you’re going to do your new habit, and ask them to hold you accountable. Maybe even set up a consequence for failure. Report to them regularly, or have a public log. Trust me, with an environment like this, you’re much more likely to succeed.
- Be all in. One of the mistakes I used to make was to only half commit myself. Tell myself in the morning that I was going to do something, and by the afternoon (or at best, a week later), I’d quietly let myself off the hook. This only caused me to trust myself less. Now, when I really want to succeed, I commit myself fully, in my own head. I tell myself that I’m absolutely going to do this, and I won’t let myself fail. I make myself an unbreakable vow. Then I do my utmost to honor this commitment to myself.
- Journal your habit. This is an optional step, but it really steps up the habit change by helping you to learn everything you can from your experience. As you go through the habit change, you reflect on how you’re doing, what obstacles come up, what your rationalizations might be, where you can improve. Even just 1-2 sentences a day, or a few sentences every other day, can be a major factor in success.
- Do a weekly review. If daily journaling is too much, I’d highly recommend a weekly review. Just take a few minutes once a week (set a reminder), and type up a few notes about how your week went: how did you do with your habit? What got in the way? What can you do differently this coming week to overcome those obstacles? This way, you improve at the habit each week, even if only a little.
- Set up unmissable reminders. When people start a new habit, they often forget. So a key part of your habit environment is setting up phone/computer reminders, but also put up something visual in the place where you want to remember your habit. If you want to floss, put up a big sign “FLOSS” on your bathroom mirror, so you can’t miss it.
- Don’t give yourself an option. This is something I’ve discovered about myself: if I allow myself to ask each day, “Should I do my habit now?” then some days, I’ll be very tempted to say, “No.” So it’s much, much more effective to not even ask the question. Just do the habit, without question. No option, no choice. Just one choice: do it.
- Notice your negative self-talk and rationalizations. Mindfulness is incredibly important in habit change, and one of the best uses of it is to start to notice the tricks my mind starts to play on me. Notice when I have the urge to procrastinate or quit, and realize that it’s OK to have these urges, but that I don’t have to automatically follow them. I can pause, and think about it for a little bit, and sometimes not follow the urges. I can also notice the rationalizations my mind makes for not doing the habit (and our minds are very good at this!), and see that my mind is just uncomfortable with this new habit and is trying to weasel out of discomfort in any way it can.
- Do it with someone else. This is a habit environment change that few people take advantage of, but it really creates an amazing experience that makes you much more likely to succeed. If you go for a walk (your new habit) by yourself, that’s really cool, but if you go with a friend, you’ll enjoy the conversation, look forward to your walk each day, and will be very unlikely to skip it, because you know that your friend is waiting for you in the park. If you don’t have anyone to do the habit with you in real life, look for a group or partner online, or find a coach.
- Savor the habit. This is a step that many people skip … they just do the habit like it’s a chore they have to get through before the next thing on their list. But this is a huge mistake, because then in your mind, this habit change is a chore, and eventually you’ll want to give up this chore, because you think it’s optional. Instead, see the habit as a treat for yourself. It’s a little time to yourself, a time to practice mindfulness, time to relieve stress, time to take care of yourself. Smile, breathe, and savor every second you do the habit, and just maybe, you’ll look forward to doing it tomorrow.
How many of these habit environment changes have you tried? Are there any here that you can use to make your next habit change more successful?
Most importantly, if you “suck at habits,” can you use these tips to start building trust in yourself, so that your habit changes are odds-on favorites for long-term success?