On a daily basis, habit drives us to do what we do—whether it’s a pattern of thoughts or behavior that occurs automatically. But what if we could harness the power of our habits for the better? Imagine a life where you have a habit of completing projects, eating well, keeping in touch with family and friends, and working to your fullest potential. When you have a foundation of good habits, you’re setting yourself up for a full, healthy, and successful life.
I’ve used these principles to establish the lifestyle I have now—as a fitness expert, author, public speaker, owner of a fitness studio and a fitness lifestyle company, and as a wife and mother. If I hadn’t established positive habits, I couldn’t do half of these things, at least not with my sanity intact! Here are 7 steps to changing your habits that will, in turn, change your entire life.
1. Identify your Keystone Habit, and focus on it.
In one of my favorite books, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg outlines the importance of identifying your Keystone Habit—the habit you identify as the most important thing you can change about your life. To find out what that is for you, ask yourself, what constantly gnaws at you? Is it something you do that you want to stop, or something you don’t do and want to start? The keystone habit is different for everyone, and it may take a few sessions of deep thinking to pinpoint exactly what that habit is. Whichever habit you’re working on, pick one at a time. More than one at a time will be overwhelming and will increase your likelihood of failing to improve any habits. But don’t believe you can only change one thing about yourself; it’s actually the opposite. Working on this one Keystone Habit can have a positive ripple effect into the rest of your life as well.
2. Identify your current routine and the reward you get from it.
Let’s say you want to build a habit of getting to the office a half hour early each day. You want to do this because you think the extra quiet time in the morning will help you to be more productive, and that productivity will be rewarded by an increased sense of job satisfaction, and an overall better work environment. Currently, you get to the office just on time. Your current routine is to leave your house in a rush, at the exact time you’ve calculated that (without traffic or incident) will get you to work on time. Your reward is spending some extra time at your house in the morning, spending an extra half hour sleeping or “charging your batteries” for the day ahead.
3. Consider the challenges.
Challenges are often cues that push you to fall back into old habits. In the example of getting to work earlier, your challenges may lie in your sleep patterns the night before, or in coordinating schedules with a partner. These challenges will not magically disappear so you need to take them into account. But don’t let the presence of challenges, or worry that new challenges will come up in the future, deter you from establishing your new habits. If your challenges include coordinating with other people, make them a part of your new routine, as I’ll explain later. Right now, simply identify what the challenges or obstacles are.
4. Plan your new routine and pinpoint the reward.
Old habits never disappear; they are simply replaced with new habits. In the example of getting to the office earlier, the new routine involves leaving the house a half hour earlier. If the old habit was rewarded with the thought that you’ll have more energy for the day by staying in your house longer, the new habit needs to focus around the idea that more rest doesn’t necessarily mean more energy. In other words, you’ll want to address what you think you’ll be giving up by replacing the old habit.
5. Set up a 30-day challenge.
In most cases, our failure to curate good habits simply comes from not sticking to them. Plenty of studies show that habits, when performed daily, can become part of your routine in as little as 21 days. So set a start date and launch your plan of action for a trial 30-day period.
6. Power through setbacks.
Sometimes, it’s not just willpower that runs out. Sometimes we are swayed from our paths by life “getting in the way” of new goals. If something sways you from your challenge, the best course of action is to evaluate the situation and see how you can get around, over, or through that obstacle. However, once a new habit is established, it actually becomes our default setting. If your usual habits are healthy, then stressful times are less likely to throw you off from your usual routines. In other words, we’re just as likely to default to healthy habits as we are to self-sabotaging habits, if those healthy habits have become a part of our everyday routine.
7. Hold yourself publicly accountable.
Your support network is the most valuable tool you will ever have access to. Whether it’s your best friend, your partner or your Facebook posts, being accountable to someone other than yourself will help you stick to your goal. Just keep in mind that “accountable” isn’t the same as “announcement”. Anyone can tell the world they’re going to get up early from now on. But, if that person has a team of supporters behind them, whom they regularly update, they are more likely to stick with their new habit during times when they are establishing their new habit and motivation is running low.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle
If you could just pick one or two (or seven) habits to create in the next few months — habits that will have the most impact on your life — what would they be?
I often get asked this question, because people are overwhelmed when it comes to starting positive life changes.
They ask me: what one or two habits should they start with?
It’s not an easy question. There are so many changes I’ve gone through, from quitting smoking to simplifying my life to reducing debt to many more. And they’ve all seemed life-changing, and they’ve all seemed important.
But if I were to start again, and had to pick one or two, it would be the one or two listed below. The list that follows is in order of what I think I’d do the first 6-7 months of changing my life … but realize that every person is different. No one should follow my choices exactly — you’ve got to figure out what works for you.
That said, if you followed the program below, and worked to develop these habits, you’d probably do pretty well.
“Men’s natures are alike; it is their habits that separate them.” – Confucius
How to Develop the Habits
I’ve written a number of times about developing habits, but here are the basics:
The Seven Little Habits That Can Change Your Life
OK, so now you know how to form a habit — and remember, only do them one at a time — but you want to know the seven little habits. Here they are, in my order of preference (but yours may be different):
1. Develop positive thinking. I put this first because I think it’s the keystone habit that will help you form the other important habits. Sure, positive thinking by itself won’t lead to success, but it certainly goes a long way to motivate you to do the other things required.
I learned this when I quit smoking — when I allowed myself to think negative thoughts, I would end up failing. But when I learned how to squash negative thoughts and think positive ones instead, I succeeded. This discovery lead to me practicing this over and over, until I was able to form just about any habit I needed. It’s been invaluable to me, and I think it could be to most people.
Focus on this habit first, and you’ll have a much easier time with any of the others. Start by becoming more aware of your negative self-talk — do a little tally sheet throughout the day, marking a tally each time you notice a negative thought. Soon you’ll recognize them, and you can squash them.
2. Exercise. People who’ve been hearing me harp on about exercise might roll their eyes. Sure, exercise is healthy and all that, but how exactly is it life changing? I’m glad you asked:
3. Single-tasking. The opposite of multi-tasking — you’ve heard me harp on about this one as well. Why is it life-changing? A couple powerful reasons:
4. Focus on one goal. Just as focusing on one task at a time is more effective, and focusing on one habit at a time is more effect, so is focusing on one goal at a time. While it might seem very difficult, focusing on one goal at a time is the most powerful way of achieving your goals. When you try to take on many goals at once, you’re spreading thin your focus and energy — the two critical components for achieving a goal.
What if you have 5 goals you want to achieve? Pick one to focus on first. Break it into a mini-goal you can accomplish this month, if it’s a longer-term goal. Pick an action you can do today. Keep doing this until the goal is accomplished — do an action every day, finish the mini-goal, pick the next mini-goal to work on. Then, when your One Goal is completed, focus on the next goal.
Some goals are ongoing ones — like blogging every day, or exercising every day. In those cases, turn them into habits — focus exclusively on turning the goal into a habit, until the habit is ingrained. Then focus on the next goal.
5. Eliminate the non-essential. First, identify the essential — the things in your life that are most important to you, that you love the most. Then eliminate everything else. This simplifies things and leaves you with the space to focus on the essential. This process works with anything — with your life in general, with work projects and tasks, with emails and other communication.
This will change your life because it will help you to simplify, to focus on what’s important, and to build the life you want.
6. Kindness. Yes, kindness is a habit. And it can be cultivated. Focus on it every day for a month and you’ll see profound changes in your life. You’ll feel better about yourself as a person. You’ll see people react to you differently and treat you better, over the long run. It’s karma.
How do you develop the kindness habit? First, make it a goal to do something kind for someone each day. At the beginning of the day, figure out what that kind act will be and then do it during the day. Second, each time you interact with someone, try to be kind, be friendly, be compassionate. Third, try to go beyond small kindnesses to larger acts of compassion, volunteering to help those in need and taking the initiative to relieve suffering.
7. Daily routine. It’s so simple, but creating a daily routine for yourself can make a big difference in your life. The best routines, I’ve found, come at the start and end of the day — both your workday and your day in general. That means, develop a routine for when you awake, for when you first start working, for when you finish your workday, and for the end of your evening.
How will that change your life? It will help you get a great start to your day, and finish your day by preparing for the next day. It’ll help you firmly root the productive habits you want to firm in your everyday life. It’ll help you focus on what’s important, not just what comes up. It’ll help you make sure you get done all the things you really want to make sure gets done everyday. And that can mean a lot.