Get what you want by forming new, healthier, smarter habits to create a better you.
It’s the New Year, so that means the vast majority of us are rushing to Google for answers. How do I lose weight? How do I land my dream job? How do I save money? How do I actually achieve my goals this year?
It is possible and you can do it. They key is formulating and following a simple and clear step-by-step plan to make what you want a reality. Of course that sounds easier said than done, but with a few scientifically proven methods, you may surprise yourself as to how easy achieving goals can be.
This year, get what you want by forming new, healthier, smarter routines and habits to create a better you. Here’s how it’s done.
Make it so easy you can’t say no. – Leo Babauta
“Start small” is a trite and tired aphorism for a reason: it works. Let’s be honest, you’re probably not going to jump from the delicious gluttony of the holiday season straight to a restrictive diet of 1200 calories a day. You’re not going to wake up tomorrow morning and run 10 miles your first day out.
And you shouldn’t. Even if you manage that kind of amazing feat once, it’s not likely to become a sustained habit. Making such extreme changes – especially physical ones – may even be risky for your health.
Instead, if shaping up is your goal, wake up tomorrow morning and do five push-ups (or whatever “starting small” means to you). That can be difficult for those of us who have lived through glory days of powerlifting, marathoning or otherwise cultivating enviable waistlines and muscular definition. But it’s key to start small, not just for the sake of your physical health.
If you set yourself small, very achievable tasks, the likelihood that you’ll complete them is that much greater.
Start small for weight management: eat only vegetables and lean protein for dinner. After one month, change your lunch to vegetables and lean protein only, too.
Want to start eating vegetarian or vegan? Want to cut out sugar? Follow your new diet 4 days a week. After one month, follow your new diet 6 days a week. After another month, switch completely to your new lifestyle.
Want to learn to speak Spanish? Memorize 2 new words a day. After one week, increase to 4 new words a day, plus twenty minutes a week of listening exercises.
Start very small to give yourself a foundation of achievement and you’ll find motivation for building upon this foundation.
American transcendentalist Henry Thoreau once wrote, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” He’s absolutely right – dreaming big is important. But make sure that you take the necessary small steps to building a solid foundation.
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Practice your habit first thing in the morning
You don’t need a scientist to tell you that willpower isn’t easy, but that’s exactly what this study did. It found something slightly disturbing.
The researchers tracked judges who spent their days ruling on probation hearings – should the prisoner be granted or denied the right to be released from jail on probation? Any outside observer would hope that judges rule each case under equal circumstances – and perhaps in their conscious minds, they do. But the reality is that judges grow tired and demotivated just like the rest of us do.
“Without self-discipline, success is impossible, period.” – Lou Holtz
As it turns out, in the very first hearing of the morning, a judge is 65 percent more likely to grant a prisoner probation. This number decreases throughout the morning, and then spikes again after lunch, leaping back up to 65 percent.
While this might be upsetting news for our legal system, we can take other lessons from this study as well. Willpower fatigue is a real, measurable phenomenon. As the day goes on, we’re progressively less likely to achieve what we swore we would the night before. Even if you don’t consider yourself a “morning person”, give it a try and see if the science is right. Set out first thing in the morning to practice your new habit and you’re much more likely to get it done.
Cue, routine, reward
You might also think of this as “reminder, routine, reward”. Whatever helps you remember this important process, use it. The suggestion originally comes from Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit. He advises that a cue (or reminder) is something that prompts the positive behavior. The routine is the behavior itself. Finally, the reward is the benefit you reap from successfully completing the behavior.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? But how does it work in practice?
Imagine you walk in the front door every day and you’re greeted by your roommates. Together, you break out the snacks and wine, chatting about your office crush, complaining about your boss, and opening another bag of chips. As a reward, you enjoy the socialization and relaxation that comes from spending time with friends and consuming alcohol.
Now imagine that after returning home from a long day at work, your roommates and you throw on some sneakers and take an easy jog around the park. Together you chat about your days, the jobs you really want and the weekend’s upcoming events. As a reward, you enjoy the socialization and relaxation of exercising and spending time with your friends – same as if you had spent your evening snacking and drinking, but without the hangover and junk foods.
It helps tremendously if a behavior you want to perform is sandwiched by a reminder and a reward. If every time you get home from work, the first thing you do is change into your running clothes, it becomes routine – it feels strange if you don’t do it. And if you experience the reward of socializing with friends and the high-inducing endorphins that come after a group run, you’ll reinforce repetition of the behavior for the future.
Create “behavior chains”
In a slight variation from the “cue, behavior, reward” method, “behavior chain” simply means that you do the same thing the same way every time. Research has found this to be a simple way to form new habits, and the experiences of many successful people throughout history and around the world has also shown it to be true.
Cultivating regular, consistent routines is not easy – but that’s exactly why you should do it the same way every time. Whether you’re eating an egg, toast and coffee every day for breakfast just like Abraham Lincoln, going for morning bike rides with your wife like Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, or drinking coffee in the same diner booth every time like David Lynch, create your own behavior chains to keep your progress towards your goals on track. Once you’ve completed the new behavior chain for a few weeks, it will feel like second nature.
Visualize the process
In a study by UCLA, researchers found that the old advice to “visualize yourself achieving your goals” really does help – but only if you visualize in a certain way. In order to successfully cultivate a new habit or reach a new goal, you must have a very clear, visualized idea of how you will achieve said goal.
For example, researchers found that of those American students who visualized themselves speaking French fluently, some really were more likely to learn French successfully. So what was the difference between the two groups who visualized themselves achieving their goals?
The unsuccessful group spent more time thinking about the end goal and the reward that the end goal brings – vacationing in Paris, chatting with a local at a romantic roadside cafe, etc. The successful group, on the other hand, spent time imagining purchasing Rosetta Stone DVDs, finding language exchange partners and leaning over textbooks putting new vocab to memory.
In other words, if you want to achieve the goals you have in mind, think concretely and specifically about the process you need to undertake in order to achieve the goal. Precise process and routine habits are the key to success. They may not be as sexy as the reward that comes later, but the process and behaviors are the only way you’ll get there.
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People author Stephen Covey wrote, “Begin with the end in mind.” Like Thoreau’s advice above about castles in the air, he makes a good point. You need to dream big in order to achieve big things. However, the Chinese have a similar saying that makes the opposite point: if someone calls your dream a “castle in the sky”, it’s not a compliment – it means there’s a long, long way between your current reality and your forecasted goal.
The Chinese have a point. It’s one thing to have a dream, it’s quite another to take the steps to get there. If you’re really determined, make sure you form the habits you need in order to walk the path to your goal.