Updated: Aug 12, 2022
Habits are everywhere. They can useful and have a purpose (brushing your teeth every night), but also can be damaging or plain simple get in the way of your growth (eating too much processed and sugary food). One key characteristic of successful, fulfilled people, is their ability to set clear goals and develop the habits necessary to reach these goals, over and over again.
Before we begin to unpack how a habit can be changed, let’s quickly understand what a habit really is. Generally we can say it’s just “something we do repeatedly without giving it too much thought” - and in that second part of not giving too much thought lies the secret to changing it. At some stage in our life we started doing it, perhaps for a while it was a useful habit but now is obsolete - but since we don’t think about them, we just keep doing them - when instead we could be doing something else that supports our goal.
To walk you through the five steps, let’s use the very bad habit of checking your smartphone immediately after waking up, however you can apply the method to any habit you want to change.
Checking your phone first thing in the morning has a series of terrible effects on us. It immediately robs you of an empowered mindset, and turns you into a reactive state of mind. It does this by either showing us other peoples lives (social media), creating urgency for other’s people’s agendas (email) or activates our “lacking” mindset by being advertised to. And this is without considering the bunch of popup notifications from various apps you may or may not even really use, but still claim your attention.
Not the most focused way to start the day, is it? What if instead you could start the day intentionally focusing it towards the mindset you want to carry trough the day? Towards an emotion that you want to feel more?
Let’s go through the steps:
1. Find a solid, meaningful reason to change
Have clarity of what benefits you get from replacing this habit, what is the upside from dropping this habit? What will you gain from implementing a more desired one?
Do it for somebody else, not just for you. Which person you deeply care for will also benefit from your creating this new habit?
Bringing another person into the equation (they actually don’t need to know) increases the likelihood of success, so be clear about who and how they would benefit. For example, not checking your phone right after waking will allow you to be more attentive around your partner and kids at the breakfast table, something they will love!
2. Find the trigger of the undesired habit - what is it, that makes you act this way and do this thing, and when?
These triggers can have several forms, an action immediately preceding (e.g. waking up), a social situation (e.g. with friends), at a specific location (e.g. when driving), a feeling or emotion (e.g. when bored) and time (e.g. early in the morning).
On this one you would want to be as specific as possible, it will be easier to develop a new habit if you are able to name the trigger with as many characteristics as possible. In our example, the trigger is waking up in the morning (time and action specific).
3. Keep it short
The habits must be well defined (both the outgoing as well as the new one to be implemented), describing the trigger and resulting habit or reaction clearly. Vague language doesn’t help, especially when we are first implementing this system.
We are using the very specific example of “not checking my phone right after waking up each morning”, we could add another condition such as “for the first 30 minutes” or whatever seems right for your lifestyle or work. Another common example could be “I will stop tailgating or honking after the driver who cut into “my” lane when driving”.
4. Practice, practice, practice
Just like everything in life, practice over and over, without seeking to “nail it” right from the beginning or looking for perfection in your behaviour. In the case of our early morning phone checking example, every day is a new opportunity to practice - use it!
“Practice makes Progress”
5. Plan for hiccups
Humans, their minds and bodies do not like change, so you can be sure to find resistance, from yourself and from others of your change involves interaction. That is normal, and will push you back, distract or even make you want to stop, so best to have a plan of what to do to maximize your success rate. Factor some unsuccessful attempts in - be kind to yourself, and definitely don’t beat yourself up!
A couple of tips that can help reminding you to implement the desired reaction:
If your trigger is location based, how can you reduce its triggering effect? Have a visual reminder at that location to stay on task (e.g. a post-it note on a spot you walk past to triggerland).
Is your trigger action based? For our example, waking up is the action that triggers the reactive check of your smartphone, socials, email, etc. What if you put a sticker on the phone’s screen to remind you of your commitment?
Time based trigger? Set an alarm around that time to encourage the more positive action in that flailing hour.
Trigger is a situation? Plan ahead, as this can be more difficult, for example if you know you will meet up with friends that are heavy drinkers, and you are trying to reduce your alcohol consumption. You can warn them ahead of time, make sure there are alcohol-free options available or avoid those meetings altogether until you are more confident in drinking less.
Is the behaviour triggered by a feeling? Probably the hardest one to counter, for this situations it is best to have unwavering clarity of what action you will take as an alternate to the usual one (see the sentence to piece it all together).
So how do we piece it together?
Since we know the reason to change (more present around loved ones from the early hours, reduce our sense of having to respond, not being in others peoples agenda and no anxiety from seeing everyone else’s amazing fake lives on social media), we know the trigger (waking up), we need to find the desired habit to replace it with. This is a personal one, so I will go with getting out of bed and making myself a coffee, before stepping into the shower.
Or in a very mantra-like format, I would say “When I wake up every morning, instead of checking my phone immediately, I will get out of bed, have a big glass of water, prepare coffee and get into the shower.”
Since I will most likely forget to do this on a few mornings, I will set a reminder every night to repeat this sentence 5 times, and put an elastic band around my phone as a physical reminder to put the phone down if I grabbed it again on autopilot the next morning.
Use this format of “Instead of ______ (bad habit), I will ______ (desired habit)" for any habit you want to change, after following the five steps outlined above.
Is changing your habits high on your priorities list?
I created a 12 week High Performance Mindset Coaching Program to help you develop the habits of a High Performer, and take decisive action towards reaching your full potential, whether in business, sport, career or life in general.
Want to find out more? Reach me on this email and let’s have a chat to find out how I can help!
NOTE: The method outlined above is based on Michael Bungay Stanier's "The Coaching Habit" methodology (https://www.mbs.works/), great book for anybody wanting to coach more!