Karl* wants to get back into the habit of running regularly. He’s gained about 10 pounds over the last 2 years, and where he used to regularly hit the trails about 5 times weekly, lately he’s “just not motivated” to get out the front door.
Do you have anything like this in your life? Do you have a habit or routine you’d like to start, but either you just can’t seem to get traction, or you start but find the habit impossible to maintain?
I certainly do. Let me give you a personal example. I’ve always wanted to become a “journaler,” routinely writing about my days, what I’m learning, what challenges I’m facing, memorable events, interesting conversations, and the like. I’ve heard it’s helpful for learning and progressing past challenges, and can be good for dealing with stress. I’ve tried several times to make journaling a habit, but I’ve never been successful. I’ve never been able to make it stick.
Contrast that with my morning “wake up” exercise routine. I decided about a year ago to do 5 minutes of exercise every morning to help me energize for the day and to help with my sleep. I’ve now gone over 200 days without missing a morning.
Why are some habits successful and others not? What is the difference between success and failure? What can you do to be more successful creating new habits in your life?
Researcher BJ Fogg created a simple and elegant model of behavior that can serve you well. He writes extensively about habits in his recent book, but for today I’d like to hone in on one small piece of the model and give you two practical suggestions you might try.
Briefly, the model states that 3 things need to come together for an action or behavior to happen:
Most people rely on motivation to try and start new habits. The problem is that motivation, or willpower, is unreliable and often runs out before you want it to.
Dr. Fogg has observed in his research that people are more likely to have success working on increasing ability and creating good prompts. For today I’ll discuss 2 ways to increase ability to help dial in habits.
Let’s come back to Karl and his running habit. Karl might remember his past when he was running 25-30 miles per week. To him, when he thinks about going for a run he’s thinking about running 5-10 miles and being out for an hour or more. In his current situation, that feels like a lot of effort, and it’s taking a lot of motivation to get out the door. So much motivation, in fact, that he’s not getting off the couch.
To make it more likely that he can get his exercise routine dialed in, he’d be well served to make his initial routine easier to accomplish. Two ways he might do this are with “tiny habits” or “starter steps.”
Dr. Fogg emphasizes that it is important to celebrate when you accomplish your goal. This can be a simple fist pump or shout out (“I’m awesome!”) but it should be done right away.
Once the easier version of the habit is becoming more ingrained in your routine, you can work on making it bigger or increasing the number of steps.
Think about your own desires. Is there a habit you’ve been trying to start that feels really big? Really hard? Is there a way you could focus first on a tiny version of that habit? Or a starter step?
I hope you’ll pick a habit or routine to work on this week, and that by making your desired routine easier to start, you’ll gain traction where you’ve been slipping before.
Dr. Topher Fox
*names changed for privacy