A number of clients seeking my guidance on becoming better workers, better managers, or better planners inevitably ask about how to develop positive habits… and stick with them. When I ask what they’ve done to date in developing new positive habits, and why they believe they’ve failed to maintain them, two themes arise:
- The achievers I work with take an “all or nothing” mentality to what success looks like. There are very limited ways that success manifests (usually defined by others whose approaches, priorities, and lifestyles are nothing like my clients’), and if they don’t achieve exactly what others have in the same way the others have, nothing else “counts.”
- These same achievers view their skill or habit development in isolation from other existing aspects of their lives. They’ll just have to start doing it better, and they’ll just have to accommodate it any way they can.
These are two sure-fire ways to sabotage your attempts at developing positive habits. Part of the challenge is that so much habit-forming information out there is restrictive and aggressive. A Google search on “developing positive habits” returned results with recommendations such as, “Just commit!” and “Never allow an exception in the early, formative stages!”
Most people believe that developing positive habits is a matter of flipping a switch. They haven’t done something before, and one day, they decide that they just will from that time forward. It turns out that most people believe they know exactly how to do a new thing, even if they haven’t sustained that behavior before. They believe they just need the willpower to do it.
If you do not already have the positive habit you want to have, or you are not able to sustain it, I have news for you: you in fact don’t know how to do it at all. It’s not just a matter of willpower.
Developing new positive habits is a matter of learning.
Luckily, you can learn how to do something – anything – but it requires actually going through the learning cycle. Going through the proper learning cycle will address the two big themes I listed above for why many people are not able to sustain new habits or skills.
This means you need to go through the following steps:
Step 1: Feeling. You’re stressed, frustrated, or disappointed. Maybe you are losing sleep. This is the first prompt that a change is warranted and would be beneficial. You know how things suck now, you know the habit you’d like to develop, and you have an idea of how the habit would make things not suck.
Step 2: Observing. This is the research phase, but it’s also quite deceiving or biased since we are often basing our observations on the most common results or most touted results, rather than what might actually work for us as individuals. How are others (many types of others) doing it? Is there anyone out there who is like me doing what I want to do? Can I talk to them? I am very happy for yet another 35-year-old guy writing on Medium who wakes up at 5am to go spend an hour at the gym to “get committed and stay committed” to maintain health and fitness, but that’s not the roadmap for a sustainable exercise regimen this single mom.
Pay attention to the way your life is right now. Don’t just add. Integrate.
Step 3: Thinking. This is the step most people will skip in developing new habits. This phase of the learning cycle involves incorporating observations and what you learn in Step 2 into your own experience. This step involves thinking about new behaviors relative to your existing lifestyle, work conditions and priorities. This is also the phase where you should think about potential hiccups or roadblocks, and how you might be able to resolve those. (For clues on how to do this, follow my D.A.R.T. Method of deliberate planning.)
Step 4: Doing. If you are looking to develop positive habits, remember the key word is develop. It’s not flipping a switch, or a matter of willpower. It’s going to take trial and error, experimentation, taking what works and leaving what doesn’t, in order to develop those habits in a way that works for you.
We’d never tell a kid who is learning to ride a bike to give up after falling a few times, or to quit trying to read if they can’t sound out long words. That seems silly, right? So recognize that in developing new habits, you yourself will be going through a learning cycle to integrate those new practices into your life with your already-established values and priorities.
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