At one time or another we’ve all attempted to implement a new habit or drop an old one. Sometimes we succeed, but even more often we do not. When we read self-improvement books and research habits of the world’s most successful people, it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that we should drastically change everything, all at once.
Most research has shown that it takes approximately 21 days for a habit to stick and that we easily become worn out by decision fatigue. The problem with trying to implement multiple habit changes simultaneously is that the attempt to change is so overwhelming that we end up not changing any of our habits at all. This leaves us back to at the starting line, discouraged and questioning whether we are even capable of successfully changing.
Each of us has an ideal version of ourselves in our head. We anticipate the future self who wakes up at dawn, meditates daily, maintains the perfect weight, never gets pissed off, and loves deeply. The you of today likely has exceedingly high expectations for the you of tomorrow.
In an attempt to become that ideal version of ourselves, we make New Year’s resolutions to eat more vegetables, go to the gym every day, cut back on alcohol, lose weight, or anything else. We adopt the “go big or go home” mindset, aiming for the top rather than breaking down our massive, life-changing goal. Often, we also try to change multiple habits at one only to give up, telling ourselves that it’s simply too hard.
The solution is this: Change only one habit a time, and start small. If you’re somebody who hasn’t exercised in over a decade and you decide that you’re going to start working out for an hour every day, the odds of failure are high. If you’ve been in massive amounts of consumer debt for your entire adult life and want to tackle every outstanding balance by the end of the year, the chances of success are slim.
Instead, set yourself up for success. Your best bet is to choose a small goal in support of your larger goal. Your first habit might simply to put on your running shoes and drive to the gym. Once you arrive, you might be tempted to go inside. Once you set foot in the gym, you’ll likely choose to workout. But your only goal each day is to drive to the gym. That’s it.
Likewise, if you’re hoping to pay off a large amount of debt, you might begin by tracking your finances, doing nothing more than writing down all of your expenses over the course of one month. Once you have this data, you might look over it and notice how much money you spend eating out and how much interest you pay on your debt. Once you realize where your money is going, you might choose to limit your eating out and redirect that money towards paying off your debt. But your only goal each day is to jot down your purchases. It’s an easy win.
Have you ever received work instructions for a job task and silently rolled your eyes at how obvious the steps were? When working to develop a habit, we want to apply the same principle. The key to creating lasting habits is to make them idiot-proof. When you commit to the first simple step, continuing on to the next will feel like the only thing to do. And if you choose to drive home without working out, eating out after jotting down your expenses, or closing your notebook, you’ve still followed through on building your new habit.