7 Steps to Make Building a Habit Easier

Are you trying to quit a habit or build a new one? Do you have behaviours you would like to change? Have you struggled with forming habits in the past?

Habits are defined as “an acquired mode of behaviour that has become nearly or completely involuntary”; “something you do often and regularly, often without thinking about it”. They’re useful because they make specific behaviours – such as working on a new skill or eating healthy foods – a nearly automatic processes.

Habits save you the time and mental energy of convincing yourself to do what’s good for you. Whenever you’re considering doing something you want to do but know you shouldn’t – like ordering a burger or skipping mediation – and when you’re trying to convince yourself to do something good for you – such as studying or exercising – you’ll have a conversation with yourself about the different pros and cons before making a decision.

But when a behaviour is habitual, you don’t need to have these discussions with yourself because you’ve memorised the different arguments. You already know you can’t justify choosing the easy option and although it takes a little motivation, doing what’s good for you is worth the effort.

All habits – whether you’re trying to quit a harmful behaviour or start doing something good for you – require behavioural change. Building a habit is a similar process to accomplishing a goal. You’ll need willpower and motivation to begin, and good techniques and the right mindset to maintain. There will be a period where you have to use a lot of willpower to motivate yourself, but in time the new behaviour will become much easier.

Many people are told that building a habit takes 21 days. But according to research, habits can be formed in as little as 18 days, or take over 254 days. And quitting something often takes even longer.

The amount of time you’ll need before your new behaviour becomes second nature depends on variables such as:

  • How much effort the new habit takes – drinking more water is easier than quitting alcohol
  • Your belief in your ability to change
  • Your ability to manage your environment
  • How long you’ve had the habit you’re trying to give up or replace – if you’ve stayed up late since your teens, you’ll likely struggle to become a morning person
  • How much your habit is part of your identity – thinking of yourself as a smoker means you’ll have to sacrifice this identity in order to quit

While some of these variables are beyond your control, the following steps can help you manage them and make your habit easier to build.

Step 1 – Getting the right mindset

To be able to accomplish a goal, you must believe you can change.

Some people don’t think they’re capable of changing. They believe they’re born with a set of pre-programmed skills and these are the only abilities they’ll ever have. If they’re struggling to learn something new or modify their behaviour, they see this as a sign they aren’t capable of what they’re trying to achieve.

When you don’t think you have the ability to change, you won’t stay committed because you believe you’re attempting the impossible. But when you know you can change, you accept you’ll struggle, but that doesn’t mean you should quit – it means you have to keep working hard and eventually you’ll succeed.

Before beginning a goal, ask yourself if you truly believe you’re capable of changing and learning new skills. You’ll have to be completely honest with yourself and challenge any beliefs that could hold you back. You may even need to unlearn some long-held assumptions about what you’re capable of. But understanding that you can change and grow is incredibly empowering and will give you more confidence and a greater sense of control over your life.

You can train yourself to adopt a mindset that helps you build a goal.

Step 2: Understand why you want to change

What are your most meaningful reasons for wanting to change? Why is accomplishing your goal important to you? What would be the most motivating reasons to push yourself to succeed?

In order to stay motivated and committed, you need to know why you want to change. Having powerful reasons and a clear understanding of how changing will improve your life, as well as an appreciation of the costs of staying the same, can be highly motivating.

To identify or better understand your most meaningful reasons to change, consider your core values. Core values are the beliefs and principles that guide your decisions and behaviour. They’re the ideologies you want to demonstrate and look for in others because you think they’re necessary to living a full and satisfying life.

You can greatly increase your motivation by considering how your goal aligns with these values. For example, if someone who values family wants to quit drinking, they could motivate themselves by thinking about how drinking keeps them from participating in some family events. Someone who values independence could motivate themselves to save for a car by thinking about how free they’ll be with their own vehicle.

You can also increase your motivation by thinking about the effects of changing or staying the same. To better understand what you could gain or lose, visualise yourself one year from now where you’ve accomplished your goal:

  • What will your life be like?
  • What will be different?
  • What will have improved?
  • How will you be honouring your values?

Then consider your life where you haven’t accomplished, or even attempted, your goal:

  • What will your life be like one year from now if nothing changes?
  • How would you feel about yourself?
  • How will you feel physically?
  • If you want to stop a harmful behaviour, what has it cost you so far and what it will continue to cost you in the future?

Having a vague desire to change is enough to contemplate adopting a new habit or quitting a harmful behaviour, but it’s not enough to keep you motivated long-term. In order to stay motivated long enough to build a habit, you have to understand why you want to change.

Step 3: Make an emotional connection

You need to have a reason to want to change. Without wanting to change – rather than just logically believing you should change – you’re relying on willpower to motivate you.

Everyone has two parts of their brain: the logical rational part, and the primitive emotional part. The primitive emotional part of the brain is far more powerful and takes much less energy to use. The two parts of the brain have been compared to an elephant and his rider – they work well together when they agree on what they want, but when the elephant wants something different, there’s very little the rider can do to stop him. So to turn a behaviour into a habit, you have to give the elephant a reason want to change. Convincing the rider only works until the elephant loses interest.

You can use the motivation you identified in Step 2 to engage your emotional brain (the elephant) and think about why you emotionally desire the outcome, rather than reminding yourself of the logical reasons you should want to change.

If you have to learn a language for your job, instead of thinking about this process as something you have to do, ask yourself what benefits you’ll enjoy. If doing well at your job is important to you, you could remind yourself that although you don’t like studying languages, it’s necessary to excelling in your career. Or instead of reminding yourself about health statistics you aren’t experiencing to get yourself to quit smoking, focus on the negative consequences you’ve personally experienced.

Emotions are far stronger than logic and willpower, so you’re more likely to succeed in building a habit if you can give the emotional part of your brain a reason to want to change.

Step 4: Frame your goal as a behaviour to accomplish, not avoid

How you think of your goal strongly affects your mood and, therefore, your ability to succeed.

There are two types of goals: approach and avoidance. Avoidance goals are giving something up, such as quitting smoking, spending less time on social media or not making unnecessary purchases. Approach goals are adopting a new behaviour, such as meditating, getting to work earlier, or exercising more regularly.

Most people are happier and more likely to succeed at approach goals because working towards an outcome is more encouraging than telling yourself you’re not allowed to do something. Approach goals add positivity to your life, rather than taking away something you enjoy. You can celebrate your accomplishments and observe your progress, which is a rewarding experience.

Avoidance goals often cause anxiety, stress and tension. There isn’t something you can do to feel accomplished – there’s only a behaviour you have to avoid or else you’ve failed, meaning there are just negative outcomes and no rewards. You can miss the behaviour you’re giving up and feel like you don’t have anything to replace it with.

Fortunately, most avoidance goals can be reframed as approach goals by choosing to replace your harmful behaviour with a beneficial one. You could commit to going to bed at a set time rather than telling yourself you can’t stay up late scrolling through Facebook, or that you have to start drinking water instead of telling yourself to stop drinking Coke. This way you’re giving yourself goals to accomplish rather than pressuring yourself not to fail, which gives you a better chance of long-term success.

Step 5: Manage your environment

Your behaviour is influenced by your environment. These influences can be subtle, but understanding what affects your decisions allows you to change your environment in ways that makes your habit easier to build.

Managing your environment means removing any obstacles or temptations. People usually make decisions based on what’s easy and convenient, so find ways to make the behaviour you want to do the easy and convenient decision. If you’re quitting smoking, get rid of not only cigarettes but also your lighters and ashtrays so you would need to replace or find them as well if you decide to smoke. If you want to start going to the gym, keep your gym bag in the car. If you’re learning a new language, book your classes in advance. Make the behaviour you’re trying to adopt the easier and natural decision.

If you can’t remove what you’re trying to quit, hide it and make it more inconvenient to get to, such as putting your partner’s chips at the back of a shelf where you can’t see them if you’re trying to eat healthier. You may have to avoid the places, people or any other contexts that will tempt you until your behaviour has become habitual, such as not going to barbeques while you’re still learning how to make better decisions about what to eat.

Thinking you can trust yourself not to give into temptation, including the temptation to not bother, is a mistake. People who successfully changed their behaviour long-term rarely stop managing their environment because life is easier when you don’t have to use willpower to keep yourself from making a bad decision.

If you don’t change your environment – especially if you’re trying to quit something – you’re relying on willpower. Since everyone has a finite amount of willpower, this isn’t a sustainable approach.

Step 6: Build self-confidence

If you’ve tried changing before and failed, or you’ve never challenged yourself like this before, your confidence in your ability to succeed may be quite low. You could worry you’re not capable of changing and the thought of what you have to do feels overwhelming.

When you have low self-confidence, you tend to undermine your abilities, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your level of confidence determines whether you’ll start at all, how much effort you’ll put in, and how long you’ll persevere. In order to build your confidence and give yourself the best chance of success, start small. You might not feel capable of reaching your final goal, but you can believe in your ability to take small steps each day.

Set yourself a goal so small and simple it seems ridiculous. If you’re trying to quit smoking, you could begin by committing to counting to ten before lighting a cigarette. After a week you could start counting to twenty. If you want to be more social, your goal could be saying hello to someone every day, such as a cashier or someone online. Your next step could be saying hello then asking how they’re doing. As you become comfortable with the small tasks you set yourself, slowly add more.

When you’re giving yourself a task, rate your confidence in your ability to accomplish it on a scale from one to ten. If you give yourself anything less than a nine or a ten, you should set a smaller goal. Don’t tell yourself to do something you might not do, as not meeting your goals can become the norm.

Because you have control over your actions but not the outcome, base your goals on actions, not results. If you want to become a better football player, you could commit to practicing a certain amount of time per week or mastering a kicking technique, rather than giving yourself the goal to score the next time you play. You have control over how much you practice, but not how the next game will go. Measuring success by the amount of time you spend practicing gives you complete control over your ability to succeed or fall short of your expectations.

Many people find following through on their goals easier when they have someone who holds them accountable. This could be a friend interested in building the same habit (who you also hold accountable), or simply someone close to you who knows what you want to accomplish and why. These people can celebrate your successes with you and encourage you to keep trying when you’re struggling.

You should also be accountable to yourself. Measure what you do each day so you can accurately gauge your progress and have evidence that you’re improving, or realise when you’re not putting in as much effort as you used to.

Keep your progress slow. If you try to advance too quickly you can become burnt out and give up. This may be frustrating, but sustainable progress is more likely to be maintained than quick and dramatic changes. If you take on too much at once, you could be successful for a while when your motivation is high, but as you lose interest you’ll have less motivation and staying committed will take more and more effort until you stop trying.

As you meet your daily goals, you’ll gain confidence in your ability to follow through on the challenges you set yourself. As you set and accomplish more and more small goals, your belief in your ability to succeed will grow and you’ll feel capable of taking on even greater challenges.

Step 7: Plan for mistakes

Making mistakes and having days where you feel like you’ve failed are inevitable, so you should mentally prepare yourself for these challenging times.

Setbacks can be very discouraging and not meeting your objectives can make you feel like a failure; you could even think you should give up. But one, or even many, mistakes doesn’t mean you can never accomplish your goal – you just had a moment of weakness, didn’t prepare for certain challenges, or you took on too much at once. You may need to change your environment, plan ahead better, or rethink your expectations to do better next time.

Mistakes don’t have to be viewed as entirely negative if you’re committed to learning from them. They can teach you a great deal about what you need to prepare for and be aware of. If you pay attention to what causes you to make mistakes – instead of shaming yourself or forgiving your actions without reflecting on them – you can plan how you’ll avoid repeating the mistake.

Changing is a lifelong process. That doesn’t mean it will always be hard, but that there will always be the possibility of slip-ups. Don’t be defined by your mistakes but by how you overcame them.

Building a habit isn’t straightforward, but with commitment and an intentional approach, you can be successful

Habits take motivation and willpower at first, but as you learn how to manage your environment, enjoy your progress, and know which obstacles to anticipate, they’ll become easier to maintain.

This may take longer than you want it to. If your habit isn’t easy and you’re like the majority of people, you shouldn’t get frustrated if your new behaviour doesn’t feel automatic after 21 days. You’re not necessarily doing anything wrong or incapable of changing – you just need more time. There won’t be a clear moment when your behaviour becomes habitual; the changes you’re trying to make will become a habit over time, likely without you realising.

If you try a method or technique and it doesn’t work for you, don’t get frustrated and think you should give up. Techniques that work for the majority of people might not work for you so you should try a different approach. Most people like Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin but if you don’t, that doesn’t mean you’re bad at listening to music; you just have different tastes.

Everyone is capable of change and building new habits. It may take effort and you can’t know how long it will take, but if you’re determined and have a well-planned approach, you can change your behaviour.

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