Step 3: Plan it out! : Habit Formation
This is the third step in the Sustainable Goal-Setting Method, a subtractive as well as additive approach to goal-setting meant to help you simplify your schedule & to-do list by focusing on what matters most. This 5-step process is designed to empower you to choose a few meaningful goals that align with your values and integrate them into your real life. If you are just now jumping these are the steps we've covered so far!
- The Story Behind Sustainable Goal-Setting
- Step 1: Vision + Intents (+ free worksheet)
- Step 2: Brainstorm + Choose Goals
Habits are the tiny but mighty actions that shape who we are. Just as a stream can over the course of thousands of years create a valley, small things we do daily can have a profound effect on our lives. For instance, studies on weight loss conclude again and again that diets only work if they help people permanently change their lifestyle: in other words, change their habits.
Habits are the backbone of Sustainable Goal-Setting. The amazing thing about them is that once they’re formed, they require almost no thought at all to maintain; and good habits have the power to positively change your life for the long haul.
Grab a notebook and a favorite writing utensil, along with all the work you’ve done from the first two parts of the Sustainable Goal-Setting Series.
Be warned: Habits are hard to establish. They require dedication, accountability and persistence to form, but once they are formed maintaining them is a breeze. Take heart: these next few steps will help!*
Step “0:” Make sure it’s a habit
Make sure what you are trying to establish is actually a habit and not a rhythm. Go back to Step 2 and review the difference. For the purposes of Sustainable Goal-Setting, I’m defining habits this way:
Habits are simple, regular, repetitive actions you do more days than not.
I’ve been trying to form the “habit” of going to the gym 3 times a week for YEARS, and yet, it still isn’t a habit because:
- It wasn’t regular: I would try to go in the morning some days and evening others. Some weeks Monday, Wednesday, Friday; other weeks Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday.
- It wasn’t repetitive: Sometimes I would swim laps; other days I would go to a class, other times I would do weights.
- It wasn’t more days than not: I was only going 3 days a week.
What I really was trying to establish was a rhythm, which requires a totally different approach. Rhythms are awesome, but they’re harder to sustain than habits. So if my goal is to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle until I’m old, I should probably make some form of exercise a habit.
If I didn’t loathe running and waking up early, I could (in theory) make it a goal to wake up at 5 a.m. and go for a jog every morning: that would be a habit.
But for me – who hates both waking up early AND jogging – a much more likely exercise habit would be …
Taking a two-mile walk with Joseph and the kids every afternoon, after Joseph gets home from work.
The simpler and more frequent the habit, the easier it will be to form.
Step 1: Understanding the Habit Loop
In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes what he calls the “habit loop,” which has three parts.
- The Cue: the signal that tells us when to begin our habit (e.g., finishing dinner)
- The Routine: the desired behavior (cleaning the whole kitchen)
- The Reward: the reason we wanted the habit to begin with (going to bed without feeling guilty)
The best way to form a new habit (or break an old one!) is to understand and proactively use this basic habit structure to your advantage.
1a. Choose a Cue
The cue is the trigger that reminds you to do your habit. The more specific and stable, the better. “Waking up in the morning,” “getting home from work,” or “putting baby down for nap” are all examples of good stable cues.
Trying to set a habit based on clock-time alone hasn’t worked for me. But, I know some people who say setting an alarm on their phone to remind them to stretch or pray works for them. Just make sure whatever cue you choose is regular and flows well with your day.
1b. Refine your Habit
Nail down exactly what action you want to take. Write it down step by step. Make sure it’s simple, and not several habits stacked on top of each other. The main reason I’ve seen people fail in forming new habits (myself included) is that the habit was more of a leap rather than a baby step.
Real change takes time. You can always add on to an existing habit later. Think about shooting for 30 minutes of writing per day rather than an hour, or doing the dishes every night instead of cleaning the whole house. It’s better to do something small consistently, than to do something grand inconsistently.
1c. Choose a Reward
Make the habit you are trying to form as enjoyable as possible. Maybe there’s something intrinsic to the habit itself you can focus on: Real Simple had a recent article that said people were way more likely to exercise regularly if they enjoyed the activity they were doing.
Or you could set the atmosphere: I like to drink a cup of afternoon coffee from my kitty cat mug while I write this blog.
Or maybe you can set a prize for completing the habit: a spoonful of peanut butter after lifting weights. Even the thrill of putting a mark on a chalkboard when you finish!
Step 2. Choose a Goal and Track Your Progress
Pick a set number of days you are going to practice your habit, and pursue that as strictly as possible. The more consistent you are, the faster you’ll form it. I’ve found that three months is about how long it takes me to form a new habit. (yet another reason why seasonal goal-setting is so fantastic!)
But there’s no magic number of days. A simple, daily habit like flossing may only take a month to form; a more complex one, like painting for an hour four days a week, may take much longer. Set a reasonable goal and assess your progress once you get there to determine whether or not you should stretch it. If it’s a big or more complex habit, choose a big reward as extra incentive!
And finally, track your progress somewhere you can see it! Either on a chalkboard or in your agenda. This is HUGE! You need to be reminded to stick with it, and it helps if other people can be brought in on the process and hold you accountable (more on accountability soon!).
Happy habit forming!
*Most of the inspiration for this post came from Charles Duhigg's the Power of Habit & Gretchen Rubin's Better than Before (with a fair share of personal experience mixed in) - these are amazing resources if you are itching to learn more about habits!