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Build Habits that stick
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How To Build Habits That Stick

If you talk to Abbie Smith-Ryan, Director of Human Performance at the University of North Carolina, she’ll tell you that “move more, eat less” is some of the worst fitness advice anyone can give.

It’s not that exercise and a good diet don’t work, it’s that knowing what to do is much different than knowing how to effectively do it.

Very few goals have an “easy button.” (Although, if you struggle eating vegetables, Superfood Greens is the closest thing you’ll find to an immediate nutrient boost of the vitamins and minerals you need most.)

The same can be said about habits and rituals. While we know that setting long-term goals are great for motivation, daily habits are more effective for health goals if you want to see results.

But, just because you know create small daily processes, doesn’t make it any easier to build a habit that sticks. In fact, most people struggle to create ritual behaviors that are the foundation of successfully achieving goals.

If you’re looking to add new rituals to your life, there are 3 steps you can take to make anything stick.

Step 1: Recognize that goals are not enough

Step 2: Bulletproof your intentions

Step 3: Create strong cues, behaviors, and rewards

The first two steps set the ritual, and the last step reinforces the process to ensure that it becomes automatic. Once you apply the 3 steps to any process, making your habits stick becomes more of a formula and less of a frustration.

Why Is It Hard To Build New Habits?

Step 1: Recognize That Goals Are Not Enough

Everyone has bad habits. And if you want to change your bad habits or create a new one, the barrier is rarely your goals or intentions — it’s your system. This is why rituals are so important. They are the foundation and the first domino that will set up your improved behaviors (more on this in a moment).

Let’s say you want to lose fat. A new habit might be, “I will exercise 4 times per week.”

But, that’s not an effective habit. If you think about it, that is just another goal. A habit is much more than what you want to achieve, it’s the exact process of how you will achieve it.

Once you have identified your vision (exercise 4 times per week), then you need to build a system or structure that will make it easier for that goal to become a reality. This is how rituals are formed and how — eventually — you make any habit stick and become automatic. Habits are meant to be easy, but if you’re only thinking of them as goals, it’s going to make the process harder.

Why Do Some Habits Fail?

Step 2: Bulletproof Your Intentions 

We’re taught to “go big or go home” or “swing for the fences,” but this is the opposite of how successful habits are built. Before you can form a ritual, it’s important to simplify your goals — and then build up to more audacious hopes.

Using the example above, let’s say you wanted to exercise 4 days per week. Oftentimes, you might create goals that have many hidden barriers.

For instance, if you wanted to exercise at a gym (travel barrier), with a trainer (cost barrier), 4 times per week for 60 minutes (time barrier) includes many details that can easily undercut your success.

Instead, see if you can achieve the goal in a situation with as few limitations as possible. An example would be committing to exercising 4 times per week for just 30 minutes at any location.  Once you can do this, then it’s easier to add complexity. If you’re not convinced, imagine you wanted to save $50,000. Is it easier to do it all at once or with small savings built up over time?

It might sound counterintuitive, but make the changes you seek almost comically small at first. This is how high-performers climb the fastest. They understand that sometimes you have to go slow if you want to move fast.

The most successful people typically break down everything into micro-steps that make it almost impossible to fail. When you can’t fail, you can go fast. When you go fast, you build momentum and see changes quicker, and then dominos drop one-by-one.

How to Master Any Habit

Step 3: Create Strong Cues, Behaviors, and Rewards

When it comes to building effective habits and rituals, it’s important to include all 3 pieces of the habit loop (you can learn more about how to build rituals here).

MIT researchers found that you want to create a new habit, you must make sure it includes:

  1. The cue
  2. The routine
  3. A reward

If you can attach a habit to an action or behavior to your routine, then it’s easier to make your new habits automatic. That’s why rituals are so powerful and used by so many high-performing individuals in sports and business.

Going back to the workout example, if you want to become more consistent with your workouts, a popular ritual is to pull out your workout clothes the night before and put them in an area where it’s impossible to avoid.

As James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, has pointed out, visual cues can be incredibly effective at reinforcing new behaviors.

Our Chief of Nutrition is a big believer in writing every day. Instead, of a visual cue, he rewards himself with coffee. The catch: until he writes 1,000 words, he can’t have a drop of coffee. The idea being that the ritual of daily writing will make him a better communicator, and the reward of coffee will hold him accountable.

Whatever ritual you choose, make sure it’s followed by behavior, and then reward or recognize that you successfully completed the task. That type of reinforcement will help you stay consistent, and eventually — without even realizing it — your rituals and behaviors will stick.