Life is all about improvement. Some of us seek to improve our relationships, others our professional life, some others seek to improve spiritually. But wherever you look, and whomever you examine, you’ll invariably see the same thing— a struggle for improvement.
And I say struggle for a reason. That’s exactly what it is.
Because whenever we embark on a quest of building habits and improving ourselves, we inevitably get stuck. We say to ourselves, “I’ll go to the gym from seven to nine every morning.” But three days later, we’re punching snooze and telling ourselves it’s OK, we “deserve” a break. From there, it’s a slippery slope back to square one.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
It’s entirely possible to build habits that actually stick. In fact, there are probably healthy habits that you have already adopted. How were these different than your other good intentions? Why did these specific actions form into solid, permanent habits?
To find out, let’s look at the four stages critical to building habits that stick.
Stage One: Goals
This is where all improvement truly begins. Here is where you take one of your dreams, one of your visions of yourself and determine a real, tangible step towards realizing it.
For example, let’s say you have a vision of yourself as an organized, punctual, neat individual. You’re always on top of deadlines, always have a clean work area, you always know where everything is. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, becoming this person will be a lot of work for most people. To put your best foot forward, set a small, achievable goal— the first building block in a chain of healthy, self-reinforcing habits.
You might decide to make your bed every morning for the next 60 days. Or perhaps to clean your work area at the end of the day. These are real milestones that you can reach. And I can’t stress enough how important it is to start with a clearly-defined goal. Without one, the next three stages will lack direction and before long you’ll find yourself falling back into your old patterns.
Stage Two: Micro-Habits
At this stage you’ll start building habits slowly, piece by piece. You’ll start with the smallest possible component of the goal you established in the previous stage and commit to making it a reality. It’s important that you keep these small and 100% manageable.
If we continue our example from the previous stage, you might start making your bed by taking a tiny action. Immediately after switching off the alarm, you might commit to removing the pillows and blanket from your bed. That’s all. It’s quite easy to accomplish. And once done you continue your routine.
By building micro-habits in this way, you give yourself the confidence and momentum needed to continue adding tiny actions to the overall routine. Which brings us to the next stage…
Stage Three: Routines
You likely already have routines built into your life. Nearly everyone has a morning routine, a certain way of waking up and getting ready to embrace the day. At this stage, you’ll begin stringing micro-habits together to create a single routine.
As an apprentice bed-maker, you’ve now mastered the pillow removing micro-habit. After it’s become routine, start adding a blanket straightening micro-habit. Remember, the key is to keep each new addition tiny enough that you don’t need much motivation or effort to accomplish it. Once mastered, roll it into the routine and move forward.
Stage Four: Behavior
Behavior, the fourth stage of habit building, is where you take the final step and make a habit part of your life. The routines you’ve been building are beginning to take shape. You’re now at a point where you can look back at your original goals and see yourself on a clear path to their completion.
In the behavior stage, your habit is now permanent. It’s part of you. Sure, you’ll probably slip from time to time, but it’s not likely that you’ll quit your new habit altogether.
Now, with all of the above in mind, think about the last time you unsuccessfully tried building habits into your own life. What made the experience so unsuccessful? Was it a lack of a clear goal? Did you bite off more than you could chew by setting large micro-habits? Or did you fail to add to your micro-habits and roll them into a single routine?
If you’re interested in the idea of micro-habits, I’d highly recommend checking out this Ted talk by behavior researcher, BJ Foggs.