Why Establishing Habits Ensures Long Term Success

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Have you ever started the year with the best of intentions but seem to fall short a few weeks in? Are their habits you’ve wanted to establish or break for a long time but never seem to be able to stick the landing? Did that happen for you this year? If so, you are not alone. According to a study by Phillippa Lalla, it takes between 18 and 254 days to establish a habit. If time is any indication, you can see how the unpredictability of length as well as the length itself cause many people to fall short.

I have tried and failed to establish many new habits, not knowing why I regularly failed. The biggest of all – the desire to quit drinking. When I think of my strategy for implementing new habits, it always starts with the best of intentions. I feel incredible for holding myself accountable for a set number of days but almost always, something in my life happens that gets me off track. I create excuses to let the new habits fall by the wayside for another time. What I have come to realize after spending time researching ways in which to become more deliberate with my attempts, is that the framework in which you establish is what determines whether or not you are successful.

Habits are much more easy to establish than break. As James Clear outlines in his book, Atomic Habits, humans are programmed to prioritize immediate rewards over delayed rewards (p193). When it comes to habits already formed, we know the reward from the given habit and seek that instant gratification. We seek out that immediate dopamine strike. For habits we want to break, we are less familiar with what life will be like when the habit is broken. As such, we are drawn to continue the habit because of the predictability of maintaining the habit, even if it does not align with our values.

When thinking of ways to successfully change or integrate new habits, momentum is the key. I’ve found that when you think in bite-sized chunk at each touch point, it is much easier to continue on your new path. Sticking to one habit change isn’t necessary here, rather focusing on small items of change across multiple target points is what sets the strong foundations of bigger change.

You will hear from many people that you should only change one habit at a time. Although I understand the rational here, my quest to quit drinking requires a bigger lifestyle overhaul. It requires:

  1. An understanding of the why.
  2. A change in many lifestyle choices.
  3. An understanding of how I define myself.
  4. A change in who I surround myself with.

As I set myself off on the quest to break the habit of drinking, I knew I needed to gain a better understanding of the why (the cue or the trigger). I drink to cope with anxiety. In moments of feeling overwhelmed, a drink quickly subsides these feelings. I drink after a hard day of work as a way to relax. I drink while I travel to help pass the time. I have a drink when out for dinner. I drink because it is available. I also usually don’t stop at one. Although I don’t drink to get drunk, I have a drink almost every day.

Luckily, I see a life without drinking and it doesn’t look scary to me. The first area of change is in how I define myself. Spending time understanding the traits that define me currently as well as the traits I want to be defined by is a great place to start when desiring to become a better person.

The second area is in who I surround myself with; my tribe. As I’m sure you’ve heard, ‘You are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with’ or ‘show me your friends and I’ll show you your future’. The intent of these sayings are to show that you are influenced by the people you surround yourself with and if you truly have a desire to change a habit or introduce a new one, you will need to look deep to see how the people you surround yourself with impact your potential of success.

Thirdly, in the quest to live a healthier lifestyle, I knew I also needed to change my environmental factors that made drinking easy. Establishing a barrier to entry by not having drinks in the house is one of the main steps for me to ensure success. In those fleeting moments where you want a drink, not having one in the house means you have a moment of pause to find something else. If you truly want a drink, you need to leave the house. By creating that barrier, it is much easier to say no.

Beyond introducing a barrier, making sure you don’t leave room for old habits to sneak in is important too. I found I would give myself permission when it is okay to drink, like when out of the house. This way of thinking simply invites the old habit to creep in. Alternatively, it makes more sense to consider, what will I replace the liquid with? What are options that can leverage the habitual nature of getting a drink and turning that act into some other act you can leverage? For me, I got an espresso machine as a way to help kick the old habit by introducing and learning a new skill set.

Lastly, in the quest to establish new habits or break old ones, I’ve realized awareness and a focused awareness is the key to success. When you make the good habit as easy and frictionless as possible and do so with intention, the new habit is much easier to implement. For me, habit tracking has been my way of keeping the quest for habit change to be top of mind. Changing this habit is a on-going battle and by having regular check ins allows you to see what is working and what is not working . This habit tracker acts as a daily check in where I can track my journey. By doing this, you can quickly gain momentum and be able to look back and see your progress. Sure, you may have days you slip but the key is to leverage the successes and learn your triggers and take action.

Additionally, here is a great episode of the Ted Radio Hour from Emily Balcetis, where she says the key to better motivation is simple — just focus on the finish line.

As a call to action, I would love to challenge you to pick one habit you have always wanted to break and work with me in my quest to quit drinking. If you are interested to join in on the journey, comment below or reach out on twitter and lets work together on our quest to modify our habits!