How to Build a New Habit

Once, a friend of mine decided that she was going to try her best to become a vegetarian. She enjoyed success for just shy of a week before caving and giving in to her cravings. Nothing she ate had meat in it. Meatless meatloaf is apparently a thing. She began to feel like she was truly saving animals and doing “good” in the world. On day five, she caved at a fast food restaurant.

The looks of both guilt and delight on her face as she bit into the burger really hit home and reminded me of many of my personal failures when it came to setting and completing habitual changes in my own life.

Ever since that day I have tried and tried again to make lifestyle changes, and after years of failed experiments, I think that I have finally figured it out. I’ve attempted many things over the years, from tackling larger habits like smoking and drinking soda to the smaller stuff like making my bed every day and putting laundry up as soon as it’s out of the dryer. Throughout all of these failures, and a few successes, I have discovered a foolproof method to make almost any behavioral change a lasting personal habit.

Surprisingly enough, it all boils down to three simple steps.

Motivations vs. Dedication

My friend failed at becoming a vegetarian because the motivation that she was using was not enough to drive her all the way to the habit forming goal she desired. She thought that it would be a healthier alternative, would save a few “cute” animals, and at the time it was one of the bigger fad diets.

She never stood a chance against that greasy hamburger, because she never really decided to change. To her, it was just something new and fun to try. In all honesty, it’s more than a decision to change that is required; you have to really need to change. While motivation is great, dedication is the true key to successful habit-forming.

The difference between motivation and dedication is sometimes hard to discern. In reality, motivation is like thermite: a substance with an extremely high-temperature burn that lasts only seconds. Just like thermite, when motivated we are geared up and ready to go, but burning at such a high pace generally leaves us burned out fairly quickly. Dedication, on the other hand, is more like burning an oak log in a fireplace. Oak burns hot enough to warm a house, but slow enough to do so for hours on end and long into the night.

In the words of Simon Sinek, ”Start with why.” You have to weigh the balance as to whether this is something that you want to do, or if this is something that you absolutely have to do. If the latter is the case, then you should really try and get as much motivational leverage on yourself as possible. By doing all of this you have forced out all the habits that you would have tried, failed, and never tried again. In doing so, you have made it more likely for the habits that remain to become just that, ongoing daily habits.

One great way to make a final decision is what sales people call the “Ben Franklin close.” Take a blank piece of paper and draw a line straight down the middle. On the left side of the line, write all of the benefits that would come from forming the new habit you wish to form. Once that is done, move to the right side of the page and list all the ways, if any, which forming this new habit will negatively impact your life.

Now, imagine you are older. The further forward you can imagine, the clearer the results will be. Foreshadow as if you decided to never make the change in the habit and allow yourself to feel any pain, discomfort, emotional distress, or even loss. If the thought of that much suffering is too much for you, then your choice to change that habit is for the greater good of your body, mind, and soul. With that decision to change step one is complete.

The decision has been made and you can’t wait to make your new habit a reality. While the preparation is there, it takes a lot more than that to form a habit. It is like joining a special force detachment of the military. You can hear the stories and pass all of the tests, but day one of training and more than likely you will ring the bell. Preparing for something is only a small part of the puzzle.

You can’t form habits in a day.

Trust me, I tried and fell flat on my face.

Patience is a virtue because some habits can take a long time to truly engrain into your lifestyle.

Start Small

Always start small when trying to implement any new habit. Baby steps are crucial in making lasting changes to your lifestyle. If the habit you’d like to learn is cooking instead of going out to eat, try just making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to begin with. When I first started cooking for myself, I had to drop all preconceived notions about what actually constituted cooking.

I had to force myself to believe that making a bowl of cereal was “cooking”. As I got better about my habit, my definition of cooking broadened to, over time, encompass cooking full-three course meals. The objective is to find the smallest starting point that you can think of and then find something smaller than that to start with. If you are really committed to the formation of this new habit, you can no longer allow excuses and procrastination to derail you from your goal.

Give It Time

As stated earlier, habits can’t be formed in a day. There are studies that have proven that it takes at least three weeks to ingrain new habits in your mind. With that being said I would always try and push for upwards of thirty days before declaring any trial a failure or increasing the scope of what the habit entails. Every month is a nice mile marker for reevaluation, improvement, or pulling away from new habits.

Charles Noble said it best; “First we make our habits, then our habits make us.” Make habits within your habits to help you accomplish your goals. Little things like setting out your workout attire in a place where you will see it in the morning can be a powerful motivator if exercising daily is a habit you want to form.

While you may want to boast that you are trying something new, don’t. Not telling anyone about your progress makes the satisfaction of reaching your goal and being able to proudly exclaim that you accomplished it in its entirety makes you more apt to push forward and realize success.

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