Updated: Apr 30
HOW TO SUCCESSFULLY INSTALL ANY HABIT FOR LIFE
Do you ever wonder why some people find it so easy to stay dedicated to their training or healthy lifestyle, while others struggle to get off the couch two days in a row? Regular exercise and a healthy lifestyle in general are just like any other habit. And just like any other habit, they need to be developed over time. Yes, it takes time. But the good news is: everyone can do it. There is nothing special about the weirdos like us who get up day in and day out before dawn to go for a run. We built a habit through relentless practice and now it’s part of who we are. And if we can do it, you can do it, too.
How to build a habit?
Follow these four steps and you can install any habit (including regular exercise):
STEP ONE – THE TRIGGER: A trigger is something that initiates an action. The simplest thing to do is to set your alarm an hour early and do your exercise first thing in the morning. This method is good for a couple of reasons. First of all, if you plan your training session fist thing in the morning, there is less chance that something else will come up. Since you’re just starting your day (I don’t even look at my phone before I finish my session or I keep it on air plane mode if I use it for music or as a timer), there’s really nothing to stand in your way. By the time evening comes, a million unexpected things could’ve happened, all perfect excuses for skipping your training. So set the alarm, get out of bed and go for a run. Or whatever other activity you prefer. If you’re still not convinced about training in the morning (just don’t tell me you’re not a morning person, because that’s another very simple habit to install), you can set any other trigger during your day (the start of your lunch break, arriving home after work...)
STEP TWO – THE RITUAL: Once you set your trigger, the next step, naturally is to perform the action you want to encode. It is very important not to let anything come between the trigger and the ritual. If your trigger is your alarm clock in the morning, get out of bed as soon as you hear it, because if you don’t, you will give time for the little devil on your shoulder to talk you out of it. If your trigger is the beginning of your lunch break, as soon as it starts, grab your gym bag and go lift some weights. Don’t let anyone stand in your way. Whatever they want, it can wait. Let everyone in your surroundings know about your new ritual so they can support you instead of standing in your way.
STEP THREE – THE REWARD: Rewarding yourself for a desired behaviour is an effective way of installing a new habit (it is, after all, how dogs are trained, too). Your reward could be anything, from a protein bar after your gym session, to a nice cup of cappuccino or a massage during the weekend. As long as you make sure it is in accordance with your goals. If you want to install the habit of healthy eating and you reward yourself with a Big Mac after each run, you can’t expect great results to follow. Sometimes a physical reward is not even necessary. Often, if you really wish to change your life and become fitter and healthier, the satisfaction of finishing a training session is more than enough. Because when you act as the person you wish to become, your brain gets the pay-off in a form of pride or self-respect. And often, that is all you need.
STEP FOUR – REPETITION: And here we come to the last step of the process: repetition. There is no shortcut to this one. If you want something to stick, you need to do it over and over and over again. This is where most people fail. They try for a week, but they don’t see results, so they give up. They try for a month, but it’s still hard, so they decide they just aren’t made for it, they just aren’t a morning person, or it’s simply not in their genes. As I said before, excuses do not breed genius. Remember this: just because you couldn’t accomplish something in the past, doesn’t mean you cannot accomplish it today. The odds are, you just didn’t stick to it long enough before.
So how long does it take to install a new habit?
Well, according to the latest research, (brace yourselves and please don’t stop reading after this) 66 days. Yes. Just over two months. If this seems like a lot to you, look at it this way: it will be hard for two months. But it will work. I guarantee you. And after that, you will have the habit for the rest of your life. Because guess what! Getting rid of an already installed habit would take you another 66 days in the opposite direction! And you’re not gonna do that, are you?
How does this process look like?
The whole process actually consists of three different phases (3 x 22 days).
PHASE 1: this is the destruction phase. In order to install a new habit, you first need to get rid of the old one. And that’s exactly what happens during the first twenty two days. This is also the hardest part. You will be challenged in every possible way. You will struggle. Often you will think it’s impossible. You will want to give up. It is crucial that you don’t. It will take a lot of willpower, but it will be worth it. Remember why you started.
It is in the moment that you face your deepest weakness that you receive the chance to forge your greatest strengths (…) To continue at a time when you ache to stop. To advance when you long to quit. To persist in the instant when you feel like giving up is to claim your membership among the great warriors… - Robin Sharma
PHASE 2: This is the messy part. It is called the installation phase. You are still getting rid of the old habit, but you’re also beginning to build the new one. This is confusing and, often, frustrating. Some days, you will feel great, others you will feel horrible. But, by now, you know what you need to do. So keep going. It will get easier and now, from time to time, you can sense it. There are days when your new habit seems so natural, like you’ve been doing it for your whole life. Hold on to that feeling, because that’s exactly what you’re working towards. But, you’re not there yet.
PHASE 3: This is where it all comes together – the integration phase. You have successfully destroyed the old habit, you have built new neural pathways in your brain and wired in a new habit. In this last phase things are getting easier with each day. The new habit is integrating into your lifestyle.
So what happens after the 66 days?
You reach the point of automaticity. The behaviour you were struggling so much to stick to, now becomes automatic. At this point doing the action is easier than not doing it. And here’s the best part: since your habit has become automatic, you no longer need any willpower to perform it. It will come naturally, without any effort. And that means, you can now use your willpower for something else, like installing another great habit.
And that’s how habits are born. I’m not gonna say it’s easy. But it’s not that hard either. Anyone can do it. The only thing you have to do is stay consistent. Keep going. Trust the process. And 66 days from now, you’ll thank yourself.
A bit of extra advice
1. Don’t try to install several habits at once. If you want to lead a healthier lifestyle, don’t try to get into a regular training routine, eat a healthy breakfast, cook lunch from scratch, drink two litres of water a day and meditate every evening after reading five chapters of a book. One thing at a time. It is natural to be impatient, and when we make up our minds to make a change, we want it all! But that’s a recipe for failure. Installing just one habit takes a lot of willpower by itself. So pick one, do it for 66 days, then move on to the next one. Trust me, your patience will pay off.
2. If possible, try to work on your new behaviour in the morning. I already mentioned some of the benefits above, but here’s another one: willpower weakens once you get tired. Each morning you wake up with a full battery of self-control. As you go through the day, making hundreds of decisions, you slowly exhaust that reservoir, making it harder to resist temptations. So if you’re really struggling to stick to a behaviour, do it in the morning, when you’re mentally the strongest.
And that’s the big secret to how some people become so successful in anything they put their minds to. It is not the talent, not the genes and not because they are better than you. It is the small, but significant efforts they put in regularly, that over time lead to great results. And if they can do it, you can do it to.
To regularly do that which is hard but important is how warriors are born