Two-thousand-twenty-one is just around the corner. Maybe you’re planning your New Year’s resolutions, maybe you’re making a “21 for 21” list, maybe you’re identifying your one-word theme for the year. (I’m doing all these things, by the way.)
Or maybe you’re starting to think about changing an important habit. That’s a worthy goal.
Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life. We repeat about 40 percent of our behavior almost daily, so our habits shape our existence, and our future. If we change our habits, we change our lives; if we cultivate habits that are good for us, we’re far more likely to be happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative.
To change a habit, it’s important to set ourselves up for success. I think that often, the reason that people fail to master a habit is because they’re using an approach that, sure, works well for other people, but not for them.
Someone who’s an abstainer tries to be a moderator.
Someone who’s an abundance-lover tries to assume the habits of a simplicity-lover.
Someone who’s a night person tries to wake up with the morning people.
There’s no magic, one-size-fits-all solution for mastering habits. You’re far more likely to succeed when you change a habit in a way that’s right for you.
Which leads to the question…how do you know what’s right for you?
Here’s an important, helpful clue: ask yourself, “Is there a time in the past when I succeeded with this habit?” You can learn a lot from your earlier successes.
When I was writing Better Than Before, my book about habit change, I realized that solutions from the past often suggest solutions for the present.
For instance, I have a friend who, for eight years, went walking almost every morning with a neighbor. Then the neighbor moved away, and my friend stopped walking. The lesson: she needed accountability. (The Strategy of Accountability)
Another friend, a longtime smoker, kicked the habit the day he found out that he and his wife had a baby on the way. He thought, “I’m a father now. No more smoking.” The lesson: his behavior changed when his identity changed. (The Strategy of Identity)
Another friend had to pack up her elderly parents’ belongings so they could move to a smaller place. To occupy the hours as she worked, she got the audio-book of Stephen King’s The Stand (Amazon, Bookshop). She was so riveted by the book that she finished the project days ahead of schedule. The lesson: she should pair an activity that she had to do (like packing) with an activity she wanted to do (like listening to an audio-book). (The Strategy of Pairing)
So ask yourself, “When did I do well in the past?” Was there a time when you ate healthfully, exercised regularly, read a lot, played the guitar, saw friends, spent time in nature? What’s different now, and what’s the same?
As you reflect on your life, and to your past successes, you may find it difficult to tease out the aspect of a particular situation made it easier—or harder—to master a habit. If you’re having trouble pinpointing the key element, consider my list of the 21 Strategies for Habit Change.
Now, you may think, “Twenty-one strategies! That’s overwhelming.” Yes, 21 may seem like a lot, but it’s actually helpful, because you can see which ones work for you, and which ones don’t. For instance, if you’re a Rebel, you’re not likely to use the Strategy of Scheduling, but the Strategy of Identity would work well. Or if you’re an Obliger, the Strategy of Clarity will be much less important than Accountability. It’s important to know ourselves.
In fact, the first two Strategies relate to Self-Knowledge…
The Four Tendencies: To change your habits, you have to know yourself, and in particular, your Tendency. (Don’t know if you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel? Take the free, quick quiz here. More than 3.2 million people have taken the quiz.)
Distinctions: Knowing yourself is so important that it’s not enough to know your Tendency, you must also recognize your Distinctions. (For instance, are you a Marathoner or Sprinter? Under-buyer or over-buyer? Finisher or Opener? Novelty-lover or Familiarity-lover?)
Pillars of Habits
Monitoring: You manage what you monitor, so find a way to monitor whatever matters.
Foundation: First things first, so begin by making sure to get enough sleep, eat and drink right, move, and un-clutter.
Scheduling: If it’s on the calendar, it happens.
Accountability: You do better when you know someone’s watching—even if you’re the one doing the watching.
The Best Time to Begin
First Steps: It’s enough to begin; if you’re ready, begin now.
Clean Slate: Temporary becomes permanent, so start the way you want to continue.
Lightning Bolt: A single idea can change the habits of a lifetime, overnight. (Enormously powerful, but hard to invoke on command.)
Desire, Ease, and Excuses
Abstaining: For some of us, moderation is too tough; it’s easier to give up something altogether. (Works very well for some people, and not at all for others.)
Convenience: Make it easy to do right and hard to go wrong.
Inconvenience: Change your surroundings, not yourself.
Safeguards: Plan to fail.
Loophole-Spotting: Don’t kid yourself. (The funniest strategy. I love collecting loopholes.)
Distraction: Wait fifteen minutes.
Reward: The reward for a good habit is the good habit, and that’s the reward to give yourself. (The most misunderstood strategy.)
Treats: It’s easier to ask more of yourself when you’re giving more to yourself. (The most fun strategy.)
Pairing: Only do X when you’re doing Y. (Simple but surprisingly effective.)
Unique, Just like Everyone Else
Clarity: The clearer you are about what you want, the more likely you are to stick to your habits.
Identity: Your habits reflect your identity, so if you struggle to change a particular habit, re-think your identity.
Other People: Your habits rub off on other people, and their habits rub off on you.
So as you think about what you’d like to achieve in the future, think back to what you achieved in the past—and try to recreate the circumstances that allowed you to succeed.
If you’ve tried and failed in the past, if you’ve broken countless New Year’s resolutions, don’t beat yourself up! Don’t get discouraged. There are so many ways that we can achieve our aims, and you may be trying strategies that just don’t work for you.
We can all achieve our aims, but we all need to do so in the way that’s right for us.
What’s an example of when you did a good job of mastering your habits in the past? What clues does this memory hold for you now?
Want my free Checklist for Habit Change? Or my Habits Manifesto? They’re here.