Improving your daily routine does not require an iron will.
There's no shortage of advice on why you should study the habits of the highly successful with a view to following them yourself. As most people find, however, changing a habit or developing a new one is quite hard. Aside from the obvious challenges involved in waking up at 4 am or exercising for three hours every day, it may just be that misconceptions about how habits work are holding you back. Here are some of the most common myths about habit change:
WILLPOWER IS CRUCIAL
Many people think of habit change as an arduous personality transformation, whereby you turn yourself into the kind of person that resists urges, has clear priorities, and finds the energy to pursue them. But instead of relying on willpower, author Charles Duhigg suggests a different approach.
In his book The Power of Habit, he breaks up behaviour into its three component parts: the cue, or the trigger that sets the sequence in motion; the routine, or the behaviour itself, which can be either positive or harmful; and the reward, the result that your brain gauges to find out if the entire sequence is worth repeating and turning into a habit.
As a large body of supporting evidence has shown that willpower is a limited resource, focusing on the cues and rewards makes change more manageable. If you want to quit smoking, for example, try doing it while on holiday. As you won’t be faced with many of your usual triggers, it will take less effort to break a bad habit.
IT TAKES A MAGIC NUMBER OF HOURS
Author Gretchen Rubin says the single thing holding most people back from success may be trying to find a one-size-fits-all recipe.
This includes the assumption that it takes a prescribed period of time to break a habit or build a new one. Depending on who you ask, it can take 18, 21, 30, or even 66 days to form a new habit.
But this number is not really helpful for anyone trying to enact change. “Some habits form instantly, some resist for months and months,” Rubin explains in her book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives.
There is also no specific set of habits that will lead to success. “In fact, you can point to a hugely successful person who had just about any set of habits you can think of,” she says.
TAKE ONE STEP AT A TIME
Several authors suggest starting slow and taking one step at a time to make habit formation more attainable. But attacking a problem with all of your resources can sometimes be the best choice, according to Linda Formichelli, author of Commit.
Forcing initial progress can let you see measurable results quite early. This will boost your motivation to get past the initial resistance, she says. And while this may be hard to sustain in the long run, this initial phase can be a good way to discover which strategies are the ones that work best for you.
Quantify your results
Whether you are trying to keep better track of your expenses, manage your diet or learn a new language, Strides is an app that can help you monitor your goals. Its emphasis on design makes it easy to sort your ambitions into easy-to-use graphs and displays to track your improvement. It also lets you customise values and dates depending on the goal you’re trying to achieve. Triggered alerts won’t let things slip from your mind without holding you accountable.