Habits. It’s the small decisions we make at every hour of the day that predict how great or little our success, productivity, and focus can be.
I choose to wake up an hour before anyone else in my house so that I can have peace and quiet to start my day. I track my daily exercise on a simple chart so that I can maintain a healthy, active lifestyle. We have a set time of day that the lights turn out in our kids’ bedrooms so that my husband and I can have uninterrupted time for conversation and productivity.
Without realizing it, my regular habits are the driving forces that fuel me towards something greater– less stress, more intentionality with work, a greater well-being overall. I’ve learned how to perform certain habits regularly, not just because I’ve done them over and over again, but because of the beneficial results that are tied to these actions.
When we develop healthy habits (particularly in the categories of exercise, diet, and sleep), we’re able to create and sustain a healthier lifestyle, which has been a personal motivator for me.
Even though I’ve developed a bank of healthy habits that I do regularly, I’ve found that beginning a new habit isn’t the hard part– it’s maintaining them.
Life happens, challenges arise, motivation dwindles and the typical 21-day honeymoon stage ends– leaving us with an outcome of whether or not the new habit will stick.
So why do we put forth this great Herculean effort when starting a habit, to find ourselves abandoning ship and giving up once those first few weeks are over?
Failing points of a new habit
I’ve had success with making certain daily habits a regular part of my life.
Several years ago after having my second baby and transitioning to staying at home, I felt the rising stress and demands from my two very small children. I knew that remaining in bed until one of them woke me up and eventually getting out of my pajamas by mid-morning was a big contributor to how the rest of my day proceeded.
So I attempted to change two small things– wake up an hour earlier than they did and get myself dressed for the day. I’m going on nearly 5 years of these habits and can say that I’ve done them about 98% of the time. These two small changes have had a significant effect on my enjoyment of this season and have become so close to automatic.
But even though I’ve found success in certain habits for the obvious benefits that they bring, I’m just like any other human and have had countless habits that start out strong but end up failing after a month.
So why do habits fail? Creating new habits are typically difficult because of two main failing points– when there’s no immediate reward (the habit loses its luster) and when we take on too much too soon (creating an unrealistic goal to maintain).
There’s no immediate reward.
Starting a new habit can be relatively easy. We set a goal. The benefits of the goal fuel us to begin since our motivation is high. But many of the habits we begin (like exercising, losing weight, or even flossing your teeth) don’t usually come with instant gratification. The reward is more long-term, so the effectiveness is only as good as the time spent doing it.
I’ve never been great at the habit of flossing my teeth. It’s a tedious task that doesn’t give an immediate reward, just sore gums. So whatever the task may be, it’s through the constant persistence of performing the habit that the reward is found.
We take on too much too soon.
Another reason habits fail is that we try to take on too much too soon. It’s a classic case of the well-known expression, “biting off more than we can chew”. The key with habit formation is to develop the muscle memory of action, not to make huge progress in one week.
I’m constantly telling my children, “slow and steady wins the race, fast and sloppy makes mistakes.” The same is true when we begin new habits– if we’re too quick to add another new habit before one is mastered, our brains will become overloaded and defeat will ensue.
In the first few days and weeks of a new habit, we’re fueled by the excitement of change. It’s easy to overcommit when you’re in this honeymoon period.
4 tips to making a habit withstand the honeymoon stage:
1. Start small.
It’s easy to think that beginning a handful of new habits will magically transform your life from chaotic to tranquil– and sometimes they do! James Clear, author of the #1 New York Times bestselling book Atomic Habits, says that in order to make habits stick, you need to start small– so small that you can’t say no.
Rather than setting a goal of doing 50 pushups, aim for doing 5 a day. More motivation isn’t what’s going to make the habit stick, it’s the consistency of learning how to perform a task until it’s automatic.
2. Be realistic.
With the saturation of social media in our lives, we’re able to witness the successes of others all around us. Research and studies that investigate the legitimacy and reality of social media have found that much of what women perceive, from Instagram in particular, leads to social comparison and body dissatisfaction.
It’s no wonder that we come up with unrealistic goals for ourselves. Instead, take time to think about the season of life you’re currently in. What small change would likely make a big impact if done well? For me, during that season of motherhood with a baby and toddler, it was having an hour of quiet time before beginning the busyness of the day.
What works for others may not be the magic ticket for you.
3. Make it visual.
One of the most effective ways I’ve found to make a new habit successful is by using a visual tracker to measure my progress.
Research shows children in a classroom are more motivated when they can see their progress, and it’s no surprise that adults are the same way. Our brains release the feel-good chemical, dopamine, when we see advancement towards our goals being met. Why else do many people make to-do lists and write down even the simplest of tasks just for the sheer enjoyment of crossing something off?
4. Prepare for challenges to arise.
When challenges come, and they most likely will, determine what you’ll do to fight back. For me, if I miss a day of exercising and therefore cannot color in that day’s box on my visual chart, it motivates me to make sure I don’t miss two days in a row.
Having one off-day doesn’t mean your habit has failed. It’s important to learn to recognize what caused you to skip that habit, and determine to change your attitude, schedule, or circumstances so tomorrow has more success.
About the Author: Mollie (and her husband, Mike) blog at This Evergreen Home where they share their experience with living simply, intentionally, and relationally in this modern world. You can follow along by subscribing to their weekly newsletter.