“How do I create a new habit for some new behaviours?” a client asked after receiving recent feedback. He was told that his team wanted more positive feedback. He also felt he should be spending more time on their development rather than just getting the work done and driving for results.
Creating a new habit is just learning to do something new and doing it without having to think about it. It’s the 4ᵗʰ and final stage in what psychologists call The Stages of Learning:
- Unconscious Incompetence – you don’t know what you don’t know
- Conscious Incompetence – you’re aware of the new behaviour, and not good at it yet
- Conscious Competence – you’re aware of the new behaviour, and it takes effort and feels forced
- Unconscious Competence – you’re no longer aware of the new behaviour as it’s habitual, and you’re on autopilot
How Long Does It Take to Create a Habit?
This is often asked as we ideally want instantaneous results. If you google it there’s a common belief/myth that it’s 21 days. A 2009 study by Phillippa Lally and her colleagues at University College London indicated that on average it took 66 days for participants to achieve “automaticity” for behaviours such as eating a piece of fruit or jogging daily. The range among participants was 18 to 254 days – encouraging and disheartening. The good news from the study was that you can miss a day and not jeopardize the creation of the habit.
The truth is that it depends. It depends on the habit you want to create, the frequency of practising it, the consistency of practising it, your propensity to habitual behaviour and most importantly, how much you care about making the habit. Habits are designed to be hard to break so complex ones might take more time to form.
Neuroscience of Habits
Our brains are designed to create habits; they search for ways of saving effort, to reduce processing of only one thing. Habits save us time and thought power. As something becomes more and more habitual or automatic the less and less our brains actually think about it. The brain does this by ‘chunking’ – translating a series of behaviours into an automated procedure.
Imagine if every time you brushed your teeth you had to remember to uncap the toothpaste, spread the paste on the bristles, turn the electric toothbrush on, brush every surface of your teeth, spit, rinse the brush… You’d be exhausted even if you only brushed once per day and not the recommended 3x a day.
How to Create New Habits
The focus here is on creating a positive, new habit. This isn’t about breaking a bad habit or changing an existing habit. The more of these tips you follow, the greater the likelihood of success.
- Define the new behaviour and habit you want to create and keep it simple. It might be giving positive feedback once per day, or sharing your opinion, listening more, exercising, eating healthier in one way, or reflecting weekly. Start small. If you make your goal too big too fast it’ll too big a mountain to climb. Make the decision to do this new behaviour.
- Define the (contextual) cue and (internal) reward. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit. He describes the ‘Habit Loop’ as cue -> routine -> reward and it’s a craving that powers the habit loop. Habits create neurological cravings. Define a cue that’s in your environment or context that prompts you to do the new behaviour and then get an internal reward. When you perform this loop over and over a habit is formed when just seeing the cue starts the craving for the reward, so you’ll then perform the routine to satisfy the craving and get the reward. For example, when you hear a notification on your phone, the brain starts anticipating the reward (distraction, key info, attention). If the craving is not immediately satisfied, you become anxious and distracted until you check your phone. If the notification is turned off, you can focus for longer.
- Write it down. Writing something down makes it real and not just another fleeting thought. Also, it engages your sight and hand movement, and these two senses process and aid memory.
- Create a reminder or structure to support yourself. Doing something new is by definition something we don’t currently do so we need to create reminders. Use a post-it note on your monitor or a prop on your desk. For example, in the case of my client, a wrapped gift on the desk would be a reminder of giving positive feedback (it comes from the expression that feedback is a gift).
- Schedule it. Put the performance or action of your habit in the diary. What gets planned gets done.
- Do it daily or multiple times a day if appropriate. The more you practice something, the better you feel, and the more ingrained it will become.
- Be compassionate with yourself. It’s about trying, not perfection. You will make a mistake or forget and that’s ok, it’s new. When your child fell after their first steps you cheered, not jeered.
- View it as an experiment, trial, or play. This removes the need to succeed as experiments are about learning and modifying. And play is fun so how can you make it enjoyable?
- Notice who does it well and take what works. Role models are always useful to observe and learn from – they can be people you know or those in the public eye or on the internet.
- Be accountable to someone. Share your goal with someone, a coach, friend or colleague. Someone who will motivate you and potentially see you in action trying the new behaviour and encourage you.
- Visualize the process of success often. Use your imagination to regularly create the image of successfully doing the new behaviour, not just the result or outcome of the behaviour. Research indicates to visualize the process of getting to the goal and what you actually have to say and do, not just achieving the end result. The concept of visualizing the process also reduces feelings of anxiety.
- Write down the downsides of not creating this habit. This helps remind yourself why this habit is important. Refer to this list when motivation is lacking.
- Make your environment conducive to the new habit. If you want to exercise in the morning, lay out your exercise clothes where you must step over them when you get out of bed. If you want to eat better, don’t have junk food in the house.
- Learn from missteps rather than abandoning the practice. Be forensic about figuring out what went wrong. What part of the routine or habit isn’t working, and what’s preventing you from doing it? This will help you address the root cause.
- Chart your progress visually. Every time you do your new habit put a gold star on your diary, calendar, or board. You won’t want to break the cycle of getting a gold star (or checkmark or happy face) on each day’s entry.
- Celebrate! No matter how small it is, celebrate each time you’ve done it, give yourself a reward. It could be taking a few seconds when you give yourself your gold star (see above) for an inward smile. We are so good at beating ourselves up for doing things wrong, catch yourself doing it right (even if that’s just making the attempt).
What habits would benefit your leadership, effectiveness and impact more?
Book a complimentary coaching session with me here to figure out which behaviours would improve your and your team’s performance and how to start the process.