Big Goals are soooooo seductive. You can see your Big Goal out in the distance and it just looks so good. you can picture how incredibly amazing your life would be if you could just reach that Big Goal.
So, in order to reach that Big Goal in the fasted, most efficient way possible, you make Big, Sweeping Life Changes.
Want to lose 50 pounds? Well then clearly you need to wipe all traces of carbs from your diet. Want to have a beautifully clean and organized home? Then spending every free moment you have judging each and every item you own on the Kwando Joy Spectrum is the only way to get there. Want to buy your first house? Then saving every penny, living on Top Raman, and making your own laundry detergent is your new lifestyle.
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At first, the sacrifices, the time, the work…it all seems doable, easy even. But eventually, the reality of the life you have laid out for yourself sets its in.
The first cracks in your Wall of Willpower might be small. You eat just a few bites of birthday cake (OMG, Sugar!!!!), you keep a few things that don’t actually spark joy (Aunt Evylyn gave you that vase, and what if she comes for a visit and it isn’t there?) You sneak a $5 latte at Starbucks (which you don’t even enjoy because you feel so guilty about it).
But sooner than you’d expect the cracks become more common. Before long, you find that you are not doing the things you said you would more than you are doing them. Your Wall of Willpower comes tumbling down around you. Defeated, you give up and consider the whole thing a giant failure…just like all the times.
This has been my story so many times. I felt like I could never make any real change in my life. Never be the person I wanted to be (now I just sound like an informercial – but I promise, the secret is not in a bottle of pills or a new set of knives!)
Then I discovered how to finally reach those Big Goals and it turns out to be deceptively easy.
The Secret to Real, Lasting, and Meaningful Change
Even though it seems counter-intuitive, the secret to real change is to trade those Big Sweeping Changes for Micro-Habits.
Micro-Habits work because they are super easy. Put enough Micro-Habits together and they compound into real change.
For example. Let’s say your goal is to get up an hour early to do an online workout. Instead of setting your alarm for an hour early, set it for just 5 minutes early.
Getting up 5 minutes earlier than usual is easy – or at least only a fraction harder than getting up at your usual time. Put on your video and do the first 5 minutes. That’s it. You probably won’t even work up a sweat.
Do that for a while until you feel ready to set your alarm another 5 minutes earlier. Now you get to see what is on the next 5 minutes of that workout video! Keep going until you’ve worked your way up to the hour that you set as your original goal.
It may take a month…it may take several. It really doesn’t matter because in the end, you will have created a rock-solid habit, which is way better than giving up in the first week. This habit is now an established part of your life, as natural as brushing your teeth. Best part? Because you used Micro-Habits to build the habit, it was easy and relatively painless.
When you’ve got one habit down, start a new one (or work on a few at the same time, just make sure that they are all super, super easy). By building multiple habits, you can reach those big goals.
Most of us think that when we reach our Big Goals, our lives will change. The essential shift is realizing that it’s actually the other way around: you need to change your life in order to reach your Big Goals.
Yes, this method of habit building takes patience. It’s not a quick-fix. But unlike sweeping life changes (which have been shown in study after study not to work for the majority of people who take them on), it works, and it is incredibly powerful.
When you go slowly, your body and your brain (and possibly the people around you) have time to adapt to the new changes. You are able to easily work the new change into your life. If there is a learning curve, you have time to plenty of time to practice the new skills.
In some ways, it is similar to how we teach our students. When you assign a research paper, the point of the paper is not for your students to get it done as quickly as possible. There are a variety of skills they need to learn along the way – finding appropriate sources, note-taking, determining which information is relevant, paragraph writing, citing quotes, organizing etc. A student who rushes the process will earn a poor grade, but more importantly, he won’t learn the skills needed to duplicate the process in the future.
Creating Micro-Habits to build bigger habits is how you learn the skills you need to make a new habit a permanent part of your life.
Strategies for Success
Making your Micro-Habits super easy and doable is the best way to make sure you will stick with it and make real progress. But there are some other things you can do to make the process easier as well.
Set Yourself Up for Success
Making changes to your environment is a great way to make habits easier to build. For example, with the getting up earlier to exercise goal, you could put out your workout clothes the night before (or even sleep in them – though personally sleeping in a workout bra does not sound all that comfy). You could also have the video set to go on YouTube, your bottle of water filled, and whatever equipment you need out and ready.
If you are cutting back on your social media or Iphone gaming, delete the app from your phone or at least bury it in a folder far away from your home screen. The extra few seconds it will take you to find the app gives you a chance to stop and make a better choice.
If your Micro-Habit is to eat less popcorn at night, buy single-serving bags or divide bigger bags into single-servings. If you pop your own, I absolutely love this stuff. Seriously, it pops into big, fluffy balls of popcorn joy).
Rather than leaving the cookies in plain sight on the counter, sock them away in the pantry behind that big bag of rice. Or better yet, a high shelf.
You can also make changes to your routine. If you always eat popcorn in front of the TV with your husband, try playing a board game instead.
If you are trying to save money by skipping the Starbucks latte on your way home, take a different route that doesn’t pass the Starbucks.
If you want to make better use of your planning time, don’t go to the staffroom where you are sure to get sucked into a time-consuming conversation.
Give Your Brain a Reward
This is different than using an enjoyable activity as a reward. This is you telling your brain that you are totally awesome because you did what you said you would. You followed through on your commitment. You did it!
This is super important because most of us tend to focus on the negative. If you do your new habit for six days and don’t do it one day, you know which day you are likely to focus on when reviewing your week. Why are we not celebrating the six days that we got it right? By focusing on the positive, you are acknowledging that you did something good, which will increase your self-confidence and make it easier to take on new habits.
There are a few ways to do this.
The first and most important is your self-talk. Just saying good things to yourself about your accomplishments will help to reinforce the habit and reinforce your identity as a person who keeps her commitments to herself. Remember, your brain believes whatever you tell it, so tell it good things!
The second is to track the new habit. There are tons of habit trackers out there – graphs, bubbles, apps, even pictures you can color. Find the one that works for you. Recording that you did your new Micro-Habit is a reward in itself, and your brain LOVES rewards. There is real power in seeing your progress and in not “breaking the chain” of doing your habit each day.
Third, visual reminders of how you are rocking it are also great. Consider stickers on your planner, an encouraging message on your home screen, or whatever reminder works for you. I am working on losing weight and I also like to paint rocks, so I paint a rock that weighs about a pound whenever I lose one. I keep my “pound rocks” near my front door so that I see a reminder of my progress whenever I leave or come home.
Stack Your Habits
The phrase ‘habit stacking’ was coined by Wall Street Journal bestselling author S.J Scott. His 2014 book Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less.
The idea is to stack a new habit onto an existing one. The existing habit becomes the cue or trigger that initiates the new habit.
For example, if you wanted to start a habit of flossing each evening (possibly because you just got that auto-text from your dentist’s office telling you that you have a cleaning in 2 weeks). It will be easier to establish that habit by using something you already do to trigger the new behavior. In this case, brushing your teeth is the natural trigger. If you consistently floss after brushing your teeth it will eventually become automatic – just another part of your routine.
You can set up all kinds of triggers in your life. Stoplights can be a trigger for deep breathing or repeating a positive affirmation to yourself. Opening the fridge could cue you to ask yourself if you are actually hungry. Picking up your phone to aimlessly scroll could be the cue to put it down and look for something in real life for entertainment.
Make it Enjoyable
As much as you can, make the new habit enjoyable. Listen to a favorite podcast while you floss your teeth. Watch your favorite series while you are on the treadmill. Even better, only allow yourself to watch that show while you are exercising. A few years ago, I used this method to watch all 7 seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the Elliptical at the Y. It definitely helped me to work out more consistently.
If there is no way to make the activity enjoyable, try pairing it with an enjoyable activity that you do immediately afterward. If you want to spend an hour correcting papers after dinner, watch an episode of your favorite show as soon as the hour is up. Or take a bath or play Animal Crossing…whatever would motivate you to finish the task at hand.
By pairing the new habit with an activity you enjoy, you are not only rewarding yourself for doing your new habit, but also giving the new habit a positive association in your mind.
And Finally, Don't Quit!
Even if your habits are tiny, there are days when you will probably mess up. Don’t beat yourself up. Figure out what went wrong and keep going. Try not to miss two days in a row. Failing is part of the process. When it comes to building a habit, consistency is more important than perfection.
If you fail over and over on the same Micro-Habit, it might mean that it wasn’t micro enough. Scale back and make it smaller.
If you are really into habit building, the gold standard in books to read is James Clear’s Atomic Habits.
As the poet John Dryden said, “First we make our habits, and then our habits make us”
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