Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Unfortunately, not all habits are good, and, as a result, they can hinder excellence. Ultimately, your situation in life is the result of what you do or don’t do every day.
It goes without saying that bad habits can block success. The challenge is finding ways to overcome self-defeating behavior. If you’ve ever tried to break a bad habit, you know it’s not easy, and, yet, many people will tell you that all it takes is willpower. The truth is, new habits are more easily formed if you don’t have to exert a lot of thought or control. An easier way to develop a new habit is to use the repetitive actions you already do and don’t have to think about (habits) and link them to the new actions of the habit you want to form. Here are tips on how to do that.
5 Tips for Developing Productive Habits
- Decide what new habit you want to form. You can’t achieve anything if you don’t know what your end goal is. So start by deciding what new regular action you want to take. Maybe you want to get up earlier. Perhaps you want to change your morning routine, doing yoga before having coffee or doing work before answering email. While it will be easier to change one habit at a time, write down all the habits you’d like to develop. Once you create one, you can move on to the next.
- Select an activity you already do as a trigger to do the new action (habit). Remember, it’s hard to change a habit if you have to force your will on it. Attaching a new action to an existing habit is much easier. For example, if you want to stop opening email first thing in the morning, use the action of sitting down at your desk as the trigger to the new activity you want to do (i.e., start working). You can put a sticky note on your chair or computer screen as a reminder until the action becomes habit.
- Reward yourself. Most habits develop because there is a payoff—we get something good or avoid something bad. The payoff reinforces the action (or inaction), for good or bad. The sooner you’re rewarded, the more likely the action will be reinforced. When you succeed in following through with your new action, you feel in control and positive. However, depending on your new goal habit, it might take longer to experience positive reinforcement. When that happens, you need to build in a reward to help you stick to it. Try to avoid a materialistic reward, since you’re not bribing yourself. You trying to elicit a positive emotional response to following through. For example, you can give yourself a high-five or do a happy dance.
- Be patient and forgiving with yourself. Even using this action-trigger method to develop new habits, you may struggle initially. That’s okay. It’s hard to break a habit. Routine makes life easy because we don’t have to think about it. But because you don’t think about it, it can be difficult to remember your goal was to break out of routine. So when you forget, be patient and if you make the wrong choice, forgive yourself, and then get back to working on your new goals. Just because you failed once or twice or a hundred times, doesn’t mean you should give up. Each moment of every day is an opportunity to start over and try again.
- Make sure your new goals work in your favor. It’s possible that the new habit you form ends up working against you. For example, you may discover that putting off checking email means you miss important messages, in which case, a new habit of working first, email second, might not be a good one. To make sure your new habits are moving you forward to your goals, evaluate their effectiveness. Consider the payoff and any negative results you’re getting.
Developing a new habit doesn’t require Herculean willpower and self-control, but it does take planning, self-awareness, and mindfulness. Having a trigger, a built-in reward, and some practice will help develop new routines that will become a habit.