Ever wonder why it’s so dang hard to change habits even when you really, really want to? You know that the habits you have impact your life, yet, you find yourself going back to old habits so easily.
Everything you have or don’t have in your life is because of habits you’ve developed. The goals you want to accomplish are dependent on your habits.
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Here are some examples:
- If you want to lose weight, a habit of eating candy after every meal is not helpful.
- If you want to lose weight, creating a habit of walking every day is helpful.
- If you want to save money, a habit of constantly buying things on Amazon and Etsy is not helpful.
- On the other hand, a habit of thinking through your purchases before you make them is helpful.
You get the gist.
Since habits are behaviors you do, why is it so hard to change them?
Why can’t you just do something else?
It’s because they’re automatic. They become shortcuts that your brain triggers for you to do based on predictable routines.
Consider how many things you do throughout the day where you’re not even paying attention to what you’re doing. You’ve done them so many times that you don’t even need to think about them. What do you do when you get up in the morning? Notice that most likely you do the same thing every day.
You have a routine that you follow, a habit. A fun and silly activity to try is to shake this up. If you usually brush your teeth before taking a shower, try doing the shower first. It feels so WEIRD.
You form these routines or habits to save mental energy and to pay attention to what really matters each day. Your brain learns habits so you can do them automatically without thought. Because of this, your brain feels like you need to participate in the habit in order to survive. It’s like your brain says “you do this all the time so obviously it’s important we keep this up!”
It doesn’t matter how damaging your habit is to your health or your life, your brain will keep you doing the habit because it’s safe, it’s how you do things. Stopping the habit behavior feels uncomfortable and unsafe.
Understanding how habits are formed and how they stick around can help you to understand what you need to do to change them. In the book Atomic Habits (which is EXCELLENT), James Clear writes that every habit you have follows a pattern, which he describes as: reminder, routine, reward.
First, something happens in the world. In psychology speak we often call this a prompting event.
I have a habit of eating something sweet after dinner. When I notice a taste in my mouth after dinner, I start to crave sweets. The prompting event for me is the taste in my mouth. This triggers me to crave sweets. Once I feel that craving, I go and eat the sweets. In other words, I perform the habit or routine. This is rewarded and leads to me performing the same habit in the future. (Rewards: candy tastes good, I get rid of the taste in my mouth).
So, what’s the big deal?
A lot of the time, habits are small things.
Eating a few pieces of candy after dinner isn’t going to make a huge difference in my weight, right?
Well, here’s the thing… as Darren Hardy describes in The Compound Effect, it isn’t the one time you eat the candy that will make a huge difference. But if you eat the candy every single day that adds up to a lot of calories over time!
Think about your most important goals. What habits do you have currently that get you closer to those goals or that push you further away from those goals?
If you’re trying to write a novel, then playing Animal Crossing on your new Nintendo Switch will probably interfere with that. (This is another example of mine! I’ve been playing lots of Animal Crossing lately). If you have a practice where you get up and write something every morning then you’re moving toward your goal.
Most people want to improve their lives in the areas of love, money, and health. People want to feel connected to others and have better relationships. They want more money and they want to look and feel better. Each of these areas of life are affected by the habits a person has.
How To Change Your Habits
The first thing you need to do if you want to change your habit is to become aware that you have a habit in the first place. That’s why I asked you to look at your goals and what behaviors you’re doing that impact your success in reaching those goals.
Weight loss programs usually have you track what you eat and your exercise so you can gain better awareness of how your eating habits impact the number on the scale. It’s interesting how many times people bring up that they don’t know why the scale isn’t moving and it turns out that they have a habit they barely recognize of nibbling and munching little bits here and there throughout the day. It all adds up.
Once you become aware of a habit you want to decrease or one you want to increase, the next step is to start tracking that habit. You want to get very aware of when you do or don’t do the habit A simple way to do this is by using a habit tracker.
In addition to a simple tracker, it’s important to reflect on whether there is something that is common between times when you act on your habit. Where were you when you performed the habit? What was going on? How did you feel? What thoughts did you notice? The more information you have, the easier it will be to change your habit.
Understanding what happens before you perform the habit helps you to understand the cues that cause you to want to perform the behavior. These cues cause a craving and these cravings can be very powerful. Since you typically end up performing your habits over and over again, it can be very hard to do something different.
A key consideration in success in changing habits is to make a commitment to change your habit. You have to commit to stopping the behavior (or to doing a new behavior). To go even further, you have to commit to being the type of person who does not have habit you want to change (or who has the new habit you want to start).
Habit tracking is important here since habits are automatic.
What’s a Habit Tracker?
A habit tracker is usually some kind of list where you can check off whether you performed your target habit. Here’s an example of a sticker I made:
I’m working on increasing exercise each day so am cultivating the habit of exercise. As you can see in the above picture, I checked off each day I exercised last week. This gives me a visual representation of how successful I’ve been at doing my new behavior that I’m trying to create into a habit.
Here are some ideas for how you could use a habit tracker:
- Use a monthly calendar and put an X on each day that you perform your new habit.
- Create a habit tracker in your bullet journal. I created a habit tracker sticker to use in my journal so I don’t have to draw it every time.
- Use a planner with a habit tracker built in (like this one I have in my Etsy shop)
- Use an app on your phone. I use one called Streaks which gives me reminders to perform my new habit.
There are various other ways that people have worked on tracking habits but in general these revolve around measuring whether you did the habit each day.
The key to any habit tracker system is that you want to be able to actually see your habit tracker so that you have a reminder or a cue that you should be doing your new behavior. As mentioned, apps are amazing for this.
Seeing your habit tracker also is super rewarding because you can see how far you’ve come. It’s awesome seeing that all your little boxes are filled in for the week, showing you reached your goal of doing the new behavior each day.
We all love visual cues! If you’ve ever worked to fill all the circles on an Apple Watch you’ll know what I mean.
It’s important to refrain from making this process overwhelming.
How to Track Your Habits
I recommend you track anywhere from 1-5 habits. If it’s a really important or complex habit, maybe you just focus on the one. Three is always a good number because it is generally pretty easy to remember your three things.
I don’t recommend having a page full of multiple habits to remember to do each day. I see this on Instagram all the time in bullet journal posts and that’s not sustainable. It’s hard enough to remind yourself to do one habit, let alone 25! You won’t change your habits if you’re too overwhelmed!
I created a habit tracker sticker for use in an A5 journal that has the ability to track five habits all at once. Although I recommend sticking to 3, I realize there are times when you want a few more so I added a couple.
I use this tracker to ensure that I’m focusing on creating certain habits each day, including: writing in my journal consistently, reading, exercising, and doing something creative. Sometimes I’ll add a task such as “no spend” depending on what’s going on at the time.
Other ideas of things you might wish to track in a habit tracker include:
- Going to bed on time
- Waking up on time without pressing snooze
- Eating fruits and vegetables
- Practicing gratitude
- Flossing your teeth
- Doing household chores
- Taking vitamins
- Giving someone a compliment
- Saying something nice to yourself
- Planning for your next day
- Sticking to your to do list
- Minutes exercised
- Avoiding sweets
- No spend
- No smoking
Once you think about your goals and how your behaviors can either move you toward or away from completing those goals, it becomes easy to think of habits you could focus on
How Long Should I Track a Habit
There’s a lot of stuff out there that says things like “you can create a habit in 21 days” (or 66 days, and on and on)…but the thing is that it’s going to depend a lot on you.
How consistent have you been with the habit?
Is the habit one you’re finding easy to change or hard to change?
The truth is that you should track your habit until the new behavior feels very natural and you don’t really have to think about it any more.
This is embarrassing but I used to be TERRIBLE at flossing my teeth. I’d be super lazy and just want to go to bed. But one day I was listening to a podcast and the guest said something like “you don’t have to floss your teeth, unless you want to keep them” or something like that. That one statement got me thinking. That day I started to floss my teeth and now I can’t go to bed without flossing my teeth.
This is a great example of how the stories we tell ourselves affect us. If I don’t floss my teeth I tell myself a gross story about the food rotting between my teeth and it grosses me out so I floss.
I don’t have to track that habit because it’s just part of who I am now.
Once a behavior becomes part of your identity, it’s ok to stop tracking that habit. If it isn’t a part of who you are as a person and you still need to think about it, then it’ll be important to track that habit, especially if it’s something you really want to have in your life.
Unfortunately there are connections in your brain formed by your habits, so going back to old habits is super easy. If the new habit is not a part of your identity, then it’s really easy to revert back to old behaviors.
Case in point! My husband and I did the keto diet for a while. We did so well with this and not eating sugar became a part of our identities.
It wasn’t so much that we had to fight eating sugar. We took up the identity of “I don’t eat sugar.”
It was very easy while we were living from that identity. But, at one point we started to slide back to the old identity. I just wanted fruit! I talked myself into being able to have some fruit. Well, there went the slippery slide back into eating sugar and gaining back the weight.
How Do You Stick With It Long Enough To Change Your Habit?
Eating sugar was super rewarding.
How do you stick with a new behavior when the habit you are trying to change is so rewarding?
You have to find a way to have your new behavior feel rewarding. This could be by tying it to an important “why” or it could be by giving yourself a reward for participating in the new behavior.
Having a strong why can help you stick to your habit. You might want to lose weight so you can spend time playing on the floor with your kids or so you look good in cute clothes. You might want to write your novel so that you can finally make a living as a writer. Whatever it is, having a strong why can help you to stick with your goals.
Your why is personal to you. It doesn’t have to be something like “if I make money I can donate to all the homeless shelters,” though if that is your why then you are awesome. It could be that if you make more money you can have a fancy kitchen or if you lose weight you’ll look sexy.
Reminding yourself of this can be helpful, which is why I have a “notes” section on my printable planner stickers. Sometimes a little reminder can help you remember why you are forming a new habit.
You also want to have something more immeidate to reward yourself when forming a new habit. Otherwise the reward (sweets) now is much more powerful than the weight loss you’ll experience in a year.
If you’re like me, checking off items on your to do list feels awesome. Well, you can feel the same way about checking off a habit on your habit tracker. It can be rewarding to see that you created a habit streak. Seeing you exercised 5 days in a row is pretty awesome and can help you feel like changing your habits is doable!
Books Related to Changing Your Habits
I’m one who likes to read all the things when I’m focused on something like changing my habits. I’ve put together a few recommendations which you can see below:
Marlena is the blogger behind apenandapurpose.com, where she writes about using journaling for self improvement and reaching goals in life and business. Using her experience as a Licensed Psychologist with a Master’s in Business, she teaches people how to break through negative thoughts and fear to do what matters. For more about me read my about page.