Simple ways to create intentional habits that stick

Are you someone who sets goals but doesn’t really stick to them? If your answer is yes, then read on…the answer might be in your daily habits.

If you’ve ever tried to set new habits (in any area of your life) I am willing to bet a few things became apparent very soon in the process:

  • you’ve probably realised committing to something is damn hard!!! (especially when there are so many distractions around)
  • getting rid of bad habits is tricky
  • you need to figure out where the motivation will come from – hint: Motivation is fickle

For some of us it helps to have accountability partners, announce it on social media or have a particular time frame in mind. But the questions most of us don’t ask are: What drives us to change? If we figure out those drivers or values would we be able to commit on a consistent basis?

The answer is a resounding YES. I’ve seen it many times in my workshop sessions, when people realise their WHY. Once that happens they connect to it emotionally and as such become more aware of the fact that any type of change requires time and consistency. You don’t run for 30 minutes and expect to come back home looking totally different, do you? But if you run for 30 minutes 5 days a week for a month and eat healthy, by the end of the month you will start noticing some results.

Likewise with habits, it takes time, it’s the compounding effect those heathy habits and small changes will have on your life during a period of time and if practised consistently.

I know….you were hoping for the magic pill!

Let give you an example to show you this stuff actually works…I love reading (a bit of a bookworm) but I just didn’t get the chance to read as much as I wanted. For many years I kept saying I want to read more (vague!) but I was a bit flaky – you know the usual excuse – time. A couple of years ago, I made a list with all the books I’ve read during that year and to be honest, I wasn’t really impressed with that number (13 to be precise for 2017). So for 2018 I decided to set intentional goals (emphasis on intentional) that had a specific outcome and came up with a system that would help me achieve that particular outcome. So I said to myself: “I want to read 2 books a month” (quite an ambitious jump considering how my reading game was the previous year). Every day no matter how full on the day was, I’d read – it didn’t matter if it was just a page. To my surprise, I’ve read 46 books that year. I am not saying this to boast or to trigger you – though that might happen! – but just to make you understand this:

When it comes to setting goals we fail not because we don’t want to change but because we don’t have the right systems in place. We don’t set intentional goals that we can measure.

As James Clear puts it in his book Atomic Habits:

…a slight change in your daily habits can guide your life to a very different destination. Making a choice that is 1 percent better or 1 percent worse seems insignificant in the moment, but over the span of moments that make up a lifetime these choices determine the difference between who you are and who you could be. Success is the product of daily habits—not once-in-a-lifetime transformations

It took me a few good years to get to a point where I understood the gains of incremental change over time!

Atomic Habits – James Clear

So how can you set goals that you actually stick to? 

Decide what’s important to you 

You want to do everything, right? Exercise, eat healthy, sleep better, learn more, find the love of your life, progress in your career, travel the world, make tonnes of money, go on more adventures…But realistically can you do all of that at once?

Reminds me of this Bill Gates quote: 

Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.

Something that I found helpful was to split things in different areas of life (personal, business/career, financial, social), reflect over them and ask questions that help me understand where I am and what I can add/remove to help me feel better (this is related to your values too, but more on that in a future blog post).

I.e. I’d ask: How do I want my life to look like? What’s important to me? Who are the people I want around? What sort of work do I want to do? What lifestyle do I want to have? Where do I want to travel? (I realise this one is a bit obsolete due to what’s happening in the world right now) Why do you want to feel healthy and energised? What impact would that have on your life?

I am a life long learner so learning alongside with having a positive impact are things that are very important to me. I’ve discovered that there’s a way I can combine this with the work that I do so I have set goals and created habits to facilitate that. If I want to write more blog posts, it just means that I’d set a non-negotiable timeline (once a week I’d post something regardless of what’s going on in the background) Being strong and healthy is important to me and as such I commit to a number of workouts a week regardless of how motivated (or not!) I feel.

Think about brushing you teeth (I’d hope it’s a non-negotiable!) you just do it because you understand the long term effect this will have on your hygiene.

It’s worth mentioning that if you pick a few habits and execute those well, chances are it will have a positive ripple effect in other areas of your life – i.e. If you choose to exercise, chances are you’ll eat healthier, sleep better and drink less. As a side effect, you’ll feel more energised and focused which in turn positively affects your mental health and of course the way you show up in your personal and professional life. 

Create a system that helps you achieve your goals 

Have you heard this saying before? How you do anything is how you do everything (I actually don’t know who said it first and the internet is filled with memes of the same quote but attributed to different people)

I must admit, until I read Atomic Habits, I didn’t realise that what enabled me to stick to my good habits was that I had a system (a set of healthy habits) in place that allowed me to be consistent. I was totally oblivious to that (I also like discipline as I feel like it impacts decision making and it’s helping me become better at that). I recall every time someone would ask: “How do you manage to exercise and eat healthy on a regular basis?” I’d say: “I just do it, it’s simple” – in retrospect, that must have been a pretty cocky answer! But at the same time it is as simple as that – you just do it as the famous Nike slogan goes. The trick is to focus on doing as the results will come in time.

Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress. A handful of problems arise when you spend too much time thinking about your goals and not enough time designing your systems. James Clear 

Goals focus on achieving specific results, whereas systems focus on outcomes — a way of being, thinking and feeling that you strive to cultivate in your life. A system is simply a collection of good habits that enable you progress.

And remember…..falling off the wagon is totally normal, life happens, you won’t feel 100% every single day of the year and that’s okay. Being consistent in your approach is what will impact your results.

Change your identity

Another aspect that comes into play when we’re trying to change our habits is the fact that our old self will still get sucked into the old mentality. Changing your identity is an approach that is quite impactful. According to James Clear, there are 3 significant layers when it comes to changing your habits, as following: 

The first layer is changing your outcomes. This level is concerned with changing your results: losing weight, publishing a book, winning a championship. Most of the goals you set are associated with this level of change.

The second layer is changing your process. This level is concerned with changing your habits and systems: implementing a new routine at the gym, decluttering your desk for better workflow, developing a meditation practice. Most of the habits you build are associated with this level.

The third and deepest layer is changing your identity. This level is concerned with changing your beliefs: your worldview, your self-image, your judgments about yourself and others. Most of the beliefs, assumptions, and biases you hold are associated with this level. 

Something that I found particularly interesting was this study conducted by Boston College and the University of Houston who found that volunteers who said “I don’t skip exercise” instead of “I can’t skip exercise” worked out more often. The researchers write that “using the word ‘don’t’ serves as a self-affirmation of one’s personal willpower and control in the relevant self-regulatory goal pursuit, leading to a favourable influence on feelings of empowerment, as well as on actual behaviour. On the other hand, saying ‘I can’t do X’ connotes an external focus on impediments.

Remember…the words we use matter and are very impactful, they can alter the chemistry in our brain.

So if your goal is to become a healthier version of yourself, be careful of the words you use. Do you say I “can’t” have the cake or I “don’t” want the cake. Like everything we do in life, it boils down to mindset and perspective. Essentially identity change boils down to this – changing who you are to who you want to become. Instead of being someone who reads you become a reader, instead of being someone who writes you become a writer. And as a reader or a writer (or whatever identity you want to create) you read or write every day and this then becomes a habit.

If you want to stick to healthy habits the main takeaway points are: 

  • Set intentional goals that have specific outcomes
  • Focus on becoming 1% better at something – you’ll become 37x better at that particular thing by the end of the year
  • Implement a system (set of good habits) that allows you to stick to your new routines
  • Change your identity 

And remember:nNew goals don’t deliver new results. New lifestyles do.

A lifestyle is not an outcome, it is a process. For this reason, all of your energy should go into building better habits, not chasing better results – Atomic Habits