Creating habits is a skill, just like learning a new sport, and when we practice, we get better. Here are eight research-based steps for creating new routines.
1. Contemplate a change you’d like to make in your life. What do you need to be healthier and happier? For example, one of my clients wants more energy to accomplish her goals; to feel better she’ll need to get more sleep, which affects our intellectual ability, our physical health, and our emotions. Habits like sleep, exercise, or meditation—anything that creates a platform for more good habits—are what Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, calls a “keystone habit.” Which of your routines has the power to change your mood or outlook on life?
2. Do your homework. We know that people go through stages when they are making changes, and before we spring into action, we need to prepare. So if more sleep is your goal, maybe you need to read up on what it takes to get a better night’s rest or buy a new pillow.
Caution: Research shows that you will probably feel tempted to stop here, after you’ve bought the book and the pillow. Feel good about getting started, but please don’t stop before you’ve actually begun.
3. Make your goal public or find a friend to hold you accountable. This is where that post-Memorial Day FAQ (“What are you doing this summer?”) comes in handy. Telling lots of folks what we are shooting for can dramatically increase the odds we’ll actually do it. For starters, comment here to let us know what habit you’d like to get in this summer.
4. Make a list. Write down all of the small changes you’ll need to make in order to reach your goal. For example, if you are trying to get more sleep, you might want to stop drinking coffee after 11:00 am, turn off the computer at 9:00 pm, get the kids to do their own laundry so you don’t have to do it after-hours, get in bed by 10:00 pm, read a book instead of watching TV in bed, etc.
5. Pick a super-easy first step. Look at your list: What is the easiest thing on it? Now, what one tiny step can you take toward that already-small thing? Maybe it would be easy for you to go to bed 10 minutes early tonight, or to replace your afternoon coffee with decaf. Do the thing that is easiest and most appealing to you.
6. Anchor that first step within an existing routine. In other words, add it to something you already do habitually. The trick is to work with the same cue that triggers the existing habit. You already are in the habit of putting toothpaste on your toothbrush at night; if you want to start flossing, your super-easy-first-step could be to get the floss out with your toothpaste.
7. Visualize success. Spend a few minutes every morning thinking about your goal. What will prevent you from succeeding? What exactly will you do when you face the obstacle you imagine? Now, revel in how you will feel when you do succeed. Soak up those warm feelings.
8. Celebrate each time you do this ridiculously easy thing every day for a week. Got into bed 10 minutes early tonight? WHOO-HOO! Have a little party in your mind. (I learned this, and a lot more, from Stanford’s BJ Fogg. I cannot recommend his free 3 Tiny Habits program highly enough.)
When you’ve accomplished one small thing, choose an equally-unambitious next step. You are more likely reach your goal by taking a series of teensy steps than if you try to do it all at once.
The key to successfully changing your life in a summer? Practice. Practice creating new habits by mastering one ridiculously easy behavior at a time, slowly making them automatic.
Here is the really good news: Your good habits are contagious, highly likely to spread to your friends, your family, and especially your children. So consider that good night’s sleep a contribution to the greater good.