Five Counterintuitive Ways to Instill a New Habit

Starting a new habit is nothing short of easy. A Google search for “How to Build Healthy Habits” yields 163 million results in 0.6 seconds. Why do so many get it wrong despite the widespread availability of resources?

My time working as a life coach helping clients design behavioral changes has enabled me to pinpoint the five primary reasons some succeed at anchoring constructive habits while others don’t. While this list isn’t exhaustive, it can be a wonderful place to start.

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Lao Tzu

Start Small

This is the most familiar, yet that’s where many people fall short. I guess it’s because of the emotion that usually accompanies the desire to form a new habit. If there’s one thing to remember from this article, let it be this: never start a habit with macroscopic and abrupt change. James Clear, in his New York Times best-selling book Atomic Habit, argues that tiny changes work because they are easy, attractive, and obvious. Not only are those incremental routines more sustainable, but they also compound to massive gain over time. Starting small increases your odds of success, which lays the foundation for future wins. Remember success breeds success, so why not give yourself a chance to succeed right from the beginning?

Tie Your Habit to an Existing One

We are creatures of habit. Research in neurobiology, cognitive psychology, and others show that 40 to 95 percent of what we do is habitual. Our thoughts, words, the time we rise and slumber, the way we tie our shoelaces, and so on. That richness of habits gives us an invaluable opportunity to create fresh ones. How? By tying them to your existing habits. Do you want to start a daily five-minute meditation? Add your new mindfulness habit right before the shower. That way it becomes almost effortless. The bottom line is to set your new habit up for success by incorporating it into your routines.

Find an Accountability Partner

Part of why many fail their habit-building endeavor is a lack of motivation. The remedy is to get an accountability buddy. A study conducted at North Carolina State University found that participants enrolled in a fifteen-week online weight-loss program lost more with an accountability buddy than their counterparts. Gretchen Rubin in her book Better Than Before also notes that accountability is crucial to maintain and break habits.

Why is an accountability partner so important? Robert Cialdini in his famous book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion found we have a tendency to remain consistent with our commitments once we have made them. So, if you are serious about instilling your new habit, you must start your search for a trusted accountability pal. Once you have given them your word to commit to your goal, you will go to great lengths to be consistent. Nobody wants to be labeled as lazy and deceitful. Would you agree?

Allow for Cheating

Reading this subheading may give you the impression I am some sort of lunatic, excessively naïve, mistaken, or a combination thereof. Who advises people to overindulge? Allowing for cheat days involves granting yourself calculated permissions to break your habits. Experts agree that those moments of indulgence beget a sense of agency essential to increase your odds of holding to your habit. You have an upcoming family gathering and you know full well, your relatives won’t let you get away with your daily push-ups goals. The best to do is allow yourself the right to stop momentarily. Why? Because missing your target without having planned it will create remorse and frustration which could trigger a downward spiral. Before you can say, Jack Robinson, one week has passed, you have done nothing.

It’s not only about cheat times but also about giving yourself a break. You don’t have to stick to your mindfulness habits 365 days. Nobody is perfect, no plan is foolproof. So, instead of chasing perfection, focus on the slow and steady improvements.

Reward and Punishment

There can’t be successes without failures. That’s a fact, regardless of whether you agree with it. While I write an article to help increase your chance of success, I acknowledge you may stumble. This makes adding rewards and punishments as part of your habit formation strategy a must. Decide how you will celebrate your wins and what corrective measures to take when you break your habits. Never let accomplishments and failures go unnoticed. They matter.

You have the tools, now go out there and design constructive habits!