We’ve all been there.
We wake up one morning and realize that we’ve repeated the same day, over and over. Wake up, go to work, eat dinner, go to bed. Maybe we sprinkled some family time in there. An occasional trip to the gym. But we long for so much more. More time. Time for self-care. Time to work on that dream project that we’ve thought about for so long. But we feel stuck. We are on a hamster wheel and we don’t know how to get off.
What we don’t realize is that repeating the same day, day in and day out, is simply a habit.
According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, habits are a three step loop. First, you are given a cue (for example, a time of day like 3pm), you perform a routine (walk to the vending machine), and you receive a reward (candy bar).
Understanding how habits work is a key to understanding how to change habits. Once you change your habits, you can take control of your life and your time. And finally reach those goals that you’ve dreamed about for so long.
Here are 10 tips for how to change habits when you feel stuck.
1. Start with awareness
You march through your day without a thought, because it has become a habit. But take some time over the next few days to write down everything you do during the day, and when. Include the time you spend on your phone (many phones now have a Time Tracker on them). You might be surprised at what you see.
Are you spending more time on activities than you realized? Are you mindlessly performing tasks that you don’t need to perform? Once you see a few days in black and white, you can better understand what you are doing. And how each habit does or does not align with the larger goals of your life.
2. Stop saying YES to everything
Another parent at your child’s school asks you to make brownies for the bake sale, and you say yes. Even though it means that you will have to stay up late, and be too tired to go to the gym the next morning. Or the marketing team asks you to sit in on the 2pm call even though you’re not on that project, and you say yes; even though it means you won’t finish a big report today. And will have to use some family time over the weekend to get it done.
Saying yes is a habit. The cue is someone makes a request. So, of course you say yes. And the reward is that you get to avoid a feeling of guilt. Or you get to enjoy feeling needed. But the habit is not serving you. Because you are pinging around like you’re in a pinball machine. And you’re not getting to all the things that are important to you.
The next time someone asks you to do something. Take a minute. Break the habit loop. And actually think about the request. Before you respond.
3. Figure out what is important to you – and what isn’t
Let’s say you find yourself spending a lot of extra time volunteering at your kid’s school. Time that is spent away from your children and your job, and doesn’t improve your health.
But when you sit down and think about what is important to you. You realize that you need to prioritize work, family life, and a health goal. So how does that volunteer time fit in? Is it important to you, or not? You realize that much of what you do is not related to your own personal priorities.
We are all busy. But we need to learn how to change habits that involve doing things that don’t align with our larger goals. So it is important to take the time to figure out what your larger goals are: family, work, health. Or, work, health, and writing that book you’ve dreamed about.
Be mindful of what is important to you. So that you can prioritize your days accordingly.
4. If you don’t have a productivity system, create one
A productivity system doesn’t have to be complicated. It does have to be something that works for you. Basically, a productivity system is a way to make sure that:
You are doing tasks that align with your goals
You know what those tasks are
You know when you are going to do them
Everyone has a different system. Some love to use beautiful paper planners, others prefer an app on their phone. It doesn’t matter how you want to do it. But you need to take control of your own schedule.
5. Start slow – 1% change a day can add up to powerful results
When something is a habit, it is well ingrained into our routine. We perform a habit almost mindlessly. So, when we think about how to change habits, we need to start slow.
James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, talks about the 1% rule. He says:
Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. They don’t seem like much on any given day. But over months and years their effects can accumulate to an incredible degree.
Basically, you only need to figure out how to change habits by 1% per day to see a significant benefit over the course of a year.
So start with one, small habit. When it’s 3pm and you find yourself walking to the vending machine, make your way over to the water fountain instead. Or, go outside and walk around the block. Pick one thing and make a change. And then go from there.
6. Stop listening to all your negative thoughts
Change is scary. The idea of doing something new, or something that people could judge, can make your heart pound and make your mouth dry. To your body, it feels exactly the same as if you are a caveman being chased by a tiger. So your brain wants to respond the same way. It wants to run away and hide.
But guess what? Those thoughts are a habit, too. The trigger is that you want to try something new. The routine is to tell yourself you can’t do it. And the reward is to stay in the same routine. One that is safe. Where you might not make any progress toward your goals. But you won’t be eaten by a tiger, either.
So the next time you hear that voice in your head telling you that you can’t do it. To run away from the fear. Remind yourself, it’s a new habit, not a tiger.
7. Make a plan for when things do go wrong
The psychologist Peter Gollwitzer came up with the powerful concept of “if-then planning.” The basic idea is this: make a plan that says, if X happens, I am going to do Y.
Gollwitzer showed that this behavior has can have a huge impact on the success of changing habits.
Let’s say you usually sleep until the last minute before you have to get up for work. But you are looking to start a habit of running in the mornings. And your plan is to run 2 miles tomorrow morning. But when you wake up, it’s raining or snowing. Enough that you don’t want to be outside. What do you do?
Without an if-then plan, you will probably roll over and go back to sleep. But if you made a plan the night before. If the weather is bad, I will go to the gym down the street. And run on the treadmill. The reward will be that I get to watch 30 minutes of a”guilty pleasure” TV. Then, when you look out the window and see the rain, you know exactly what to do. And you won’t fall back into your old routine.
8. Focus on your effort
Here’s a secret about everyone you know. Everyone has failed. Everyone from Steve Jobs to the co-worker in the cubicle next to you.
But what makes the difference is how you manage that failure. Do you take failure as a reason to give up? Or do you reframe it as a learning experience? Accepting failure is a way to stay in that rut. To keep doing what is safe. Even though it doesn’t make you happy. Accepting failure is a habit.
But if you can focus on your effort. Your attempts to change. Then you can continually learn from any missteps. And keep moving forward.
Carol Dweck found, in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, that the most successful people in the world focus on their effort, not on the outcome. That they frame failures as learning experiences. And, as she says in the book:
John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach, says you aren’t a failure until you start to blame. What he means is that you can still be in the process of learning from your mistakes until you deny them.
9. Celebrate small wins
One of the most powerful ways to reinforce how to change habits and make new ones is to give yourself a reward. As Charles Duhigg wrote in The Power of Habit:
Studies of people who have successfully created new exercise routines, for instance, show they are more likely to stick with a workout plan if they choose…a clear reward, such as a beer or an evening of guilt free television.
So don’t downplay any positive changes that you make. Reward yourself and celebrate.
10. Keep trying
Let go of the idea that you need to be perfect at this, or that you need to do it all at once. Learning how to change habits takes a long time and will need to be refined continually.
But when you are feeling down or frustrated, remember this is not about getting on or off a wagon. If you slip up, that doesn’t mean you need to give up and fall back into your old habits.
There is no wagon. There are just good days and bad days. If you keep your bigger goals in mind and remember how you long to find more time, work on that side project, or focus on your health, you can do it.
Keep going and find what works for you!
Article by Deb Knobelman, Lifehack