How many times have you tried to create a new habit or break an old one? How successful have you been and where did you go astray? Whether it’s the new year and you are thinking about new years resolutions or it’s spring and you want to fit into your shorts from last year, as humans we seem obsessed with setting new goals, but we are not always so great at the execution.
I believe it has a lot to do with discipline or lack there of. I am defining discipline as consciously doing something repeatedly in order to obtain an end result or reach a goal. Without discipline we do not get very far, but many people were not raised with strong discipline (myself included). That means at some point we have to decide if this is something we want to improve and then we have to go to work on it.
Reaching goals is often done by creating new habits or changing old habits. For our purposes here I define habits as actions we take or thoughts we repeat enough times that they become second nature. I also recently heard habits described as patterns and that resonated with me. For some reason it felt easier to think about creating new patterns and breaking old patterns than habits.
We begin to create habits when we are young by observing those around us, seeing patterns and repeating them ourselves. Over time many of those patterns and thoughts become subconscious and turn into habits, some that serve us well and others that do not.
As we get older we continue to create new habits. Like some of the habits we created when we were younger some of these serve us well like exercise, personal development reading, and drinking lots of water. These are the habits that are created through discipline.
The ones that don’t serve us are the ones we tend to create without much thought like watching TV after work, checking email at the table, or having something sweet after dinner.
Just like it takes discipline to create the habits that serve us it also takes discipline to stop the habits that do not serve us once we acknowledge what they are and choose to create new ones. An example for me recently was giving up coffee that had become such a habit it no longer served me. I was drinking it whether I needed it or not, whether it tasted good or not and I found it was actually making me more lethargic. It took discipline to break that habit because it was so ingrained in my subconscious behaviors. What I did however was replace that habit with one that served me. Replacing coffee with hot water with lemon or the occasional cup of tea.
Because discipline comes into play not only when you want to purposely create new habits and patterns, but also when you want to break the old ones I want to share five ways to create stronger discipline in order to build new habits or break old ones along with some of the pitfalls to avoid.
- Set a Small and Specific Intention
If you have tried to create new habits before and were less than successful it may because you tried to take on too much change at once. Change is hard, especially if it is something you have been doing subconsciously for a long time.
By setting a small yet specific intention you have a much greater chance for success. First of all it will be much easier and take less willpower than doing it all at once. Secondly you will be able to celebrate your victory sooner and that will spur you on to add the next small but specific intention.
Setting a specific intention could be getting up 30 minutes earlier every day, walking on the treadmill for 20 minutes a day, three times a week, meditating for 10 minutes a day, or eating dinner without dessert three days a week. This last one is the intention around removing something that is no longer serving you like dessert that may have become a habit. Often times the focus on removing an old habit is harder than the creation of a new habit.
Many say that it takes doing something (or not doing something) consistently for at least 21 days before a new habit is created or an old habit is broken. 21 days is a pretty dated number and more current studies have said on 66 days on average. That means a specific and small habit could take less time than the average. Doing something or stopping something consistently for an average of 66 days takes discipline so the easier it is to do the more likely you are to stick with it.
That means that starting small and doing what you intend to do consistently will pay off much greater than going all in and not being able to stick with it for 66 days. After you feel you have created the new small habit you can set another small specific intention for the next habit you want to make or break. After enough time they will compound into the larger goal you were setting out for in the first place.
- Know Your Why
You will need a strong why if you are going to make change. Change in habits is not easy and not always fun. Setting a specific intention is only as good as your reason why. If you don’t have a strong why it will be easy to give up when it gets tough. Simon Sinek’s book “Start With Why” is a great book on this topic. You can also find his Ted Talk here http://bit.ly/2cweLpJ
Your why could be something for you or it could be for others. Many times when someone wants to get healthy their why has to do with their kids or family. Many people only have a strong enough why to quit smoking when they want to be around to see their grandchildren. Your why could be your team, your organization, your spouse, your kids, or yourself. The point is you need to have a strong why associated with your intentions in order to stay focused.
- Create a New Routine
Because habits are activities we end up doing automatically, it is easier to create a new one when we put it into a routine. It is even better if you can put it into a routine you already have that works.
You will want to be systematic in how you do this. It cannot be willy-nilly. It has to be something you are going to do every day until it becomes a habit and the best way to do that is to build your new habit into your routine.
Pick a time that is natural for your biorhythm. If you say I’m going to start working out every day at 5:00am but you have not been up before 7:00am in years this may prove to be two new disciplines you are starting, getting up early and exercising. If your new discipline is going to be meditation or writing you need to figure out the time of day that is going to be best and if there is something you are already doing that you can add this new habit to.
Maybe you currently watch the 6:00pm news and you can add 10 minutes of meditation before you turn the TV on. Instead of creating a completely new routine you are adding a small intentional new action to an already existing habit.
Once you have the discipline of doing it daily you can start to look at a different time or location that you like better or creating new routines around it.
- Track Your Progress
Often when we don’t see immediate results it’s easy to stop what we set out to do. That is why tracking your progress is important. Find a way to measure your results incrementally. It could be as simple as writing down the time you wake up and how you feel if your new habit is around getting more sleep or getting up earlier. It could be tracking how much writing you do each day if that is the habit you are working on. If it’s a fitness goal there are lots of ways to track progress like number of steps, calories burned, minutes of exercise, etc.
The objective here is to see your progress even when it isn’t obvious. Just because you have not reached your destination does not mean you have not made significant progress on your journey. But the only way to really know where you are on your journey is if you track it.
It’s often hard to congratulate ourselves for something we’ve accomplished that isn’t yet obvious, but when you see the progress staring you in the face through your documenting and tracking you can easily say, “look how far I’ve come.”
- Find an Accountability Partner and Don’t Quit
It’s completely normal to want to create a new habit or break an old one and have trouble with it. Most people do not make big changes fast because it is hard. If it were easy we would all do it. If you find it’s difficult break your habit into smaller habits and work on one piece at a time, but just keep working on it.
Successful people do what unsuccessful people are unwilling to do and they do it longer.
In conclusion remember that building discipline is not easy and you are not alone in having past failures, which is great because according to C.S. Lewis “failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.”
Anyone who has ever succeeded failed many times so don’t let your past attempts at any goal or any new habit deter you from continuing on your path. Learn from the past, try again, do things differently, learn new things, and most importantly don’t quit!
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