I’m a real advocate of making changes to behaviour through the use of habits. They’re very small and take very little effort – but they also achieve great results over time.
Their impact is described as the “compound interest of behaviour change”. From time to time, clients will complain that they’re finding it difficult to stick to these new habits. This is obviously frustrating and disappointing – and slows down progress towards the changes they want to make.
So in this post, I’m going to outline some of the reasons that new habits don’t stick the way we want them to.
1. It’s too big to be a habit
To work their magic, habits need to be small. They need to be the smallest atomic part of a behaviour. So small in fact, that we have no excuse not to carry them out. Sometimes though, we choose a combination of behaviours that’s just too big to count as a habit. And the friction of doing it slows us down. “I’m going to do something healthy every day” isn’t really a habit, as it’s missing the specificity that makes it easy to replicate. “I’m going to be more productive at work” falls at the same hurdle.
Instead, focus on habits that are small examples of behaviour, easy to repeat and easy to grow over time. A daily lunchtime walk is better than “Do something healthy” and identifying your three most important tasks each morning will have more impact than “Be more productive”.
2. You’re starting too many new habits at the same time
If you’re passionate about making changes in your life, it can be tempting to make lots of them. But this can actually be disruptive to your routines, undermining the power of habits. As they’re so small, habits sort of ‘sneak in under the radar’ of your awareness. But if you’re trying to cultivate too many concurrently, habits will seem like a messy hassle, and you’ll quickly feel overwhelmed and give up.
Instead, pick one habit and focus on developing it into a regular and automatic behaviour, then move on to cultivating the next one.
3. You’re forgetting the practicalities
You might read about the habits of the most famous and successful people out there, and look to copy their example. But they’re not you. They have different lives, different resources at their disposal and different expert support. What works for them may well not work for you and your life. And this applies just as much to the people you know if your own life. Don’t copy mindlessly or without considering your own life. Your commute, the school run, the timing of your lunch-break…all of these could get in the way of a new habit.
Instead, build your habits with your own life, your own responsibilities your own structures in mind. Take a look at your routines and build your new habit within these boundaries, not with an imaginary life in mind.
4. It’s not an authentic habit.
It’s very easy to get caught up in the excitement of making changes. However, these changes really need to be something we want. Something authentic and in alignment with our values and goals. We can easily copy someone else’s habit, but if it doesn’t help us be the kind of person we want to be, it’s simply going to feel like a chore.
Instead, ensure you can answer the question “Why?” when you start cultivating a new habit. What goal are you working towards? Which one of your values does this habit support? Building the habit of mindful breathing each morning is a lot more likely to take if you see it as in alignment with your focus on your wellbeing, rather than copying an online influencer.
5. You drop new habits after a setback.
It’s important to remember that life can get in the way of new habits. We might be unable to carry out the habit from time to time. This isn’t a sign of failure, but rather an opportunity to learn from experience. Don’t abandon the habit – be curious and look for ways to minimise future setbacks.
Instead, explore what got in the way. Perhaps it was a particularly busy day or an unusual one. Maybe you can use what you’ve learnt to make adjustments to the how and when of the habit. If hectic mornings mean it’s challenging to engage in your reading habit, then experiment with reading in the evenings instead.
6. You’re focusing on results, rather than consistency
With a goal in mind, it’s easy to focus on the results we’re hoping our habit will bring. But their very nature means that it can take time for the impact of a habit to become obvious. For example, going for a walk at lunchtime will do wonders for your cardiovascular health, your weight and your mental health. But not after just one or two walks. The impact of walking can take some time to show up on the weighing scales.
Instead of looking for results in the early days, simply focus on consistently carrying out the habit. And this is where habit-tracking can be a great idea. It provides you with a visual representation of the consistency of your new behaviour. As James Clear points out in ‘Atomic Habits‘, “Habit tracking provides visual proof of your hard work—a subtle reminder of how far you’ve come.”
- Ensure your habits are actually specific, ‘bite-sized’ pieces of behaviour, not complex and demanding new routines.
- Focus on adding one new habit to your routine at a time
- Design the habit with your life and responsibilities in mind
- Ensure your new habits are in alignment with your values and/or goals
- Learn from your setbacks and get ‘back in the saddle’ straight away
- Don’t expect instant results – instead, focus on tracking your new behaviour and being consistent.