Blog · Oct 26, 2018

Creating New Habits and Making Them Stick!

Alison Price is a Senior Performance Consultant for Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?, performance coach, author and chartered psychologist. Over the years Alison has become fascinated about the question: how can you experience well-being whilst pushing yourself hard to achieve? She has seen first-hand that people struggle to have enough hours in the day to progress exciting goals, make time for the people who matter and enough ‘you time’, whilst fitting in all those daily chores.


You might have observed the problem of feeling really motivated to make a change – to exercise more, to use your mobile less, to plan work better etc, etc.- but despite best intentions you’ve not being able to do it.  You are probably really motivated to change and have wanted to change this facet for a while, but you can’t start or sustain what you want to achieve.  Why is this?

It quite possibly isn’t motivation…people generally have very good intentions.  We want to improve on the things that matter most to us, feel committed to trying to make everyday changes to our lives.  Indeed we might even change our behaviour for a time, but then we can quickly slip back to old habits and ways of working.  Let’s take flossing teeth for example – how many of us only floss our teeth during the week before we go to the dentist and give up shortly afterwards? How often do we start a new year with a set of intentions that we know will make a positive difference but see them quickly ebb away

So, we want to change, but we can face a situation where we can only temporarily sustain positive changes.   That’s where habits come in.  Researchers at Duke University have found that 45% of what we do every day is the same.  Our habitual behaviours are the building blocks of our everyday work and life.  Sometimes we make the same mistakes day after day (such as always leaving a bit too late for work or failing to keep to time in meetings) and other times we take the same positive actions everyday (such as sitting down first thing and reviewing what’s on our work to-do list radar).  The key questions to ask yourself are:

1) Are you getting the results you want in work and life on a day to day basis, and,

2) Are your repetitive behaviours helping or hindering you?

The challenge is that our habitual behaviours are run by our subconscious brain.  Habits are learnt behaviour patterns which proceed automatically in response to relevant cues, such as time of day.  A fantastic article by Rock and Schwartz discusses this in more detail and describes how change is pain.  When you are forming new habits, you are literally re-wiring your brain, and it is hard work!

However, if you are perpetually getting suboptimal results, and those results are driven by suboptimal behaviours, it is worth putting effort into making permanent behavioural changes and forming better habits.  So how do you increase the chances of forming a new positive habit?  Here’s three tips.

A great time to change is when you are changing anyway.  Let’s imagine you are moving to a new house, changing jobs, or your child is starting school.  You are forming new habits anyway, so you might as well be conscious about setting up the right habits.

Next, be conscious about your environment.  For example, if you are trying to eat more healthily, then you can make it easy for yourself to access the right food.  When you are tired and hungry, your brain will be urging you to go for a quick fix (to grab a chocolate bar / bag of crisps / piece of toast).  So, you can set up your environment to make it harder to access the things you don’t want to eat, and easier to access the things that you do.  The same applies to any habit you want to change.  For example, how can you set up your working environment in a way that limits distractions when you want to focus?  That might mean working in a different environment for short periods – I’ve discovered that I’m exceptionally productive when I work from my local coffee shop, particularly when I deliberately disconnect from the Internet for a while.

Finally, it’s worth being aware of a concept called ‘activation energy’ – the amount of energy needed to get started on a task.  Research has shown that your brain has a spike of activity (effort) when you start something, but once you are started, your brain displays much less activity.  So, the hardest part is the first part.  This is something you will be aware of if you’ve had to drag yourself off the sofa to exercise but have found it easy when you are there!

So, be aware of just how important it is to start something, because the chances are, if you can get that far with a task, you will keep going.  The more often you do a task, the less effort it will then take to get started again. At WIMTBGF? we use ‘the 10-minute rule’ to make a start on a task or project that keeps slipping off the to-do list. Make a start for just 10 minutes rather than keep putting it off. It makes the whole starting process feel much more manageable and often, with the breakthrough made, the 10 minutes turns into a longer session.

Finally, remember that if you slip up today with a habit that you are trying to change, remind yourself that tomorrow is another day, and another opportunity to practice getting great results.  You haven’t failed, you’ve just had another opportunity to learn! Get curious about why it did or didn’t work out yesterday…and try something different the next time.

WIMTBGF? coaching and consultancy work supports behavioural change and the formation of key habits linked to practical everyday achievements in the workplace. We increase performance levels in order to improve results.

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