Inside: How to create a chain reaction of good habits. Learn why healthy habits are far more effective at making lasting change than willpower, motivation, and self-control. Habits are what turn hope into action.
Have you ever tried to make a change, but no matter how hard you tried or willed yourself to change you lost steam or couldn’t seem to make it stick? You might have assumed you just don’t have enough willpower or self-control and instead of making that positive change you were so excited about, you ended up just feeling worse about yourself.
What if I told you that willpower is overrated and that self-control, while often helpful, isn’t the magic elixir that will help you bring positive and sustainable change to your life?
People living aligned with their values and meeting their goals don’t rely on their self-control or internal motivation alone; they rely on systems that keep them on track. Systems made up of habits. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits wrote on Twitter: “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.“
Habit formation is the process by which behaviors become automatic, for good or bad. Sometimes this happens without trying, but to make changes that push us out of our comfort zone or challenge us, and to walk out the vision we have for our life, we must be intentional about how we spend our days. We need to learn how to create a chain reaction of good habits.
Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.Jim Rohn
The Power of Good Habits (Why We Need Habits)
I’ve heard it said that ‘hope is not a strategy.’ But when we’re clear on our vision, we embody it and put hope in action, and this is, in fact, a powerful strategy for handcrafting a life that feels like home and helping build a world we want to live in.
For fun, ponder for a few minutes what “hope in action” looks and feels like in your life. To me it means taking the big picture vision and breaking it down into practical action. John C. Maxwell writes, “You’ll never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret to your success is found in your daily routine.”
Habits make up the little routines and rhythms that have become so second nature, we don’t even realize we’re doing them much of the time. If you were to look at your daily rhythm right now, you’d probably find that your days are already filled with little habits that keep you from constantly having to pause and debate or make decisions.
Maybe you put your purse in the same spot when you come home every day so you always know where to find it. It’s likely that you habitually put your seatbelt on before putting the car in drive so you will be safe and avoid getting a ticket. Or perhaps every morning you fill up a 2 liter bottle with water to ensure you stay hydrated.
Habits are essentially little systems that make your world run smoothly and efficiently and when utilized well can help you achieve your goals, keep you mentally and physically healthy, foster peace and calm in your home, and create a life that honours your values and ideals.
Habits are one way you can show up for yourself, to befriend yourself with compassion and consistency. They will help you take care of yourself well when you are in hard seasons or experience low motivation. Well-established habits hold you up when you otherwise feel like you might fall. They offer safety and comfort of routine.
The most successful habits are those that really align with your core values and who and how you choose to BE in the world. They support you in living a full and awakened life in every season.
The capacity to walk away from existing goals that no longer serve us can be courageous, smart, and strategic. There’s a time to grit. And there’s a time to quit.Susan David
Healthy Habits versus Unhelpful Habits
All habits are helping meet a need, whether it is a good habit or not. Opening Facebook to scroll while sitting at a red light might be answering a boredom problem. Likewise, running the dishwasher and setting coffee up for yourself before bed are meeting a future need for clean dishes and hot coffee in the morning — a bright start to your day. Humans look for those hits of dopamine, so habits that make us feel good often stick.
Because of the effectiveness of habits, unhelpful habits can be difficult to break cold turkey. Many people have more success crowding out old habits with new, compelling ones, rather than focusing on eliminating something that feels deeply ingrained.
For example, if you want to stop biting your nails, you might keep a little tub of cuticle cream nearby. When the urge to bite your nails comes up, instead rub cuticle cream into each nail bed massaging it into each finger. It feels nice (hello, dopamine!) and provides a similar stress relief.
how to create a chain reaction of good habits
We’ve established that healthy habits are important, but how can we get started and make habits stick? There are lots of studies and resources available and many great approaches. I’m going to share nine tools and tips for making healthy habits stick or help you learn how to create a chain reaction of good habits.
1. Habit Tracker and Streaks
“Depending on what they are, our habits will either make us or break us. We become what we repeatedly do.” – Sean Covey
Habit trackers are tools that help you visually see and check off a desired habit over a period of time, usually 21-60 days. You might track things like whether you drank enough water, exercised, read, practiced piano, or got enough sleep that day. Habit trackers serve as accountability and also give that satisfaction of checking off a box that some people love so much. (My Purposeful Printable Pack includes two Habit Trackers.)
Another similar idea are streaks, often used in apps or games. The goal is not to break the streak. These can be highly motivating … until the streak is broken, and then some people have a hard time starting over. If using an app that counts your streaks, you might also consider habit tracking so you can see the whole picture, and see that you still achieved a lot even if you missed a day here and there.
2. Habit Stacking
Stacking habits is a great way to build on your already established healthy habits and turn them into systems that will help you succeed. James Clear says in his book Atomic Habits, “Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results. You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
Let’s say you already have a habit of setting coffee up every night so it’s ready to press start in the morning. Habit stacking might look like deciding to start the dishwasher after you set up coffee each evening and then you might also always unload the dishwasher in the morning after you start brewing the coffee. If you always do it after an established habit, then you’ve taken the mental load of remembering the new habit off your plate.
3. Make a plan or intention
This seems simple, but habits don’t become habits if we don’t make a plan to achieve them. This could look like, Tuesdays on my lunch break I’ll text a friend to check in and see how they are doing. Some habits aren’t on a schedule, but in response to events.
If you struggle with saying yes too often and easily, then you might work on a habit like this: When an invitation to a social gathering comes up, I will respond within the hour and let them know I will check with my spouse and see what our day/week looks like. That buys time to decide and lets them know that it depends on more than just availability that day, but on the balance of our schedule as a whole.
4. Try on a new identity with your healthy habits
“The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. It’s one thing to say I’m the type of person who wants this. It’s something very different to say I’m the type of person who is this.” James Clear
Studies show that people who change their beliefs about themselves by taking on the identity of what they want to become, have better success at achieving their goals. So if your broad goal is that you want to read more. You can narrow that down to a smaller more tangible goal and use identity language.
For instance, “I want to become a person who reads 20 minutes every day.” And then you would ask yourself what would a person that reads 20 minutes a day need? Interesting books they are excited to read, time set aside for reading, a space to read. And rather than just reading more, you become a person who reads 20 minutes every day. It’s a part of who you are, so you are more likely to continue it.
Find ways to identify with habits you want to form. You don’t just want to run, you want to be a runner, you don’t just want to knit, you want to be a person who knits, you don’t just want to be kinder to yourself, you want to be a person who stops her negative self talk in her tracks and replaces it with kinder truths or affirmations.
5. Minimize triggers for bad habits
When trying to stop a bad habit and replace it with a better one, it can be helpful to realize what environment, activities, company, or other triggers tend to lead to the unwanted behavior. If you want to be a person who arrives on time to work every day (notice the identity language), then you need to examine what is happening on days you are late for work.
Do you tend to be late when you’ve stayed up past a certain time, gone out for a drink with friends, or when you haven’t planned what you will wear? Where it is in your control, try to eliminate the triggering circumstances and then start working on building systems and habits that will help you succeed.
6. Maximize your environment for Better HABITS
In the same way that you can eliminate triggers for bad behavior, you can use your environment to help you form better habits through visual cues. If you want to eat more fresh produce and cut down on processed foods, keep a bowl of cherry tomatoes or clementines on the counter and either keep processed foods out of the house or in a space you won’t see easily.
If you want to create a better bedtime routine and stop falling asleep to the television, one easy solution is to take the television out of your bedroom. Your environment now lines up with your goals. Visual cues that remind you to practice desired behaviors and keep you from being tempted by unwanted behaviors are so simple, but so powerful!
7. Treat yourself (temptation bundling)
Not all temptations are inherently bad. Sometimes we just need some better boundaries around them and this is where temptation bundling can be a really fun way to help you to stick to your habits. Think of some of your greatest guilty pleasures or the things that you’re tempted to do instead of your to-do list. There is power in this little list.
When you want to add a habit in that you really don’t like doing and can’t tie it to a deep value or identity, but it still must get done, try tying your dreaded task with an indulgence. Saving a favorite show, podcast or audiobook to only watch or listen to when you’re exercising is a great motivator to get moving. Or likewise, you could save a special small treat only to enjoy when you pay a bill or do a dreaded admin task, like make a return to the store before the return by date expires.
Another note, don’t be afraid to find ways to make tasks more fun. Make returns with a friend. Crank up your favorite playlist while you sort bills. Try zumba or frisbee golf or a trampoline workout. Buy a favorite juice just for taking your daily vitamins.
8. Bite-sized new habits
James Clearly suggests that any new habits should take two minutes or less. So if you want to start the bigger habit of showering and get dressed for the day every morning, whether or not you are leaving the house, (this might land best with the work from home crowd), then you could start with the habit of turning the shower on to warm up when you get up to use the restroom in the morning. That’s it.
If the calming sound and feel of the warm water entices you to get in and shower, great. If not, you can still check it off in your habit tracker that you started the shower each day, successfully. And then once that feels like a habit, stack on the habit of throwing your pajamas in the dirty hamper while the water runs.
Baby steps until eventually the tiny habits work up to the bigger habit of showering and getting dressed each morning. Sometimes, or in some seasons, seemingly small or basic tasks feel overwhelming. Be kind to yourself as you work slowly toward getting back to the basics. And celebrate tiny steps along the way.
9. Know your WHY
Octavia Butler said, “Forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not.” If you want to make a change, you need to be clear and honest with yourself about what is motivating you to make the change…or find a reason that you connect with. If your doctor says you need to start exercising for better heart health, it’s okay to admit that better heart health isn’t a very exciting or tangible motivator. But you can probably find some more motivating reasons to exercise if you think about it.
Maybe you want to be able to push your granddaughter on the swing at the park without getting winded or to be able to join your teenager on a weekend hike. Find your why and you’re far more likely to stick with your healthy habits. You can even put your why on a sticky note as a visual reminder to stay motivated.
If you’ve struggled to make meaningful change to your life or routines, be gentle with yourself. Change is hard and we are hardwired to resist it. You don’t need more willpower or self-control. You don’t need to suck it up and try harder. You need better systems, built on small habits that support you and who you are working toward becoming.
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Stop trying to measure up, keep up, or conform to someone else’s mold. Work with your unique wiring and move at the pace of your nervous system in every season.