We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
A habit is an automatic behaviour repeated on a regular basis. It’s our brain’s smart way to work less to perform routine actions so we can invest more into new activities that expand our knowledge. However, forming a habit isn’t easy. No wonder habit-building tips abound on the internet, but how many times have you come across them and thought, “Ok, I’ve tried all this and it doesn’t really work for me. Now what?”
I know I have. Many of these articles assume there’s only one right way to build habits, and they don’t take into account differences between personality types. For example, some of us might do very well with written reminders on post-it notes, while others will forget to look at them. Some might respond well to an alarm; others will be ticked off and ignore it.
The good news is, there are many habit-building hacks, each of them catering to a different personality type. As a personality and general psychology nerd, I put together seven tips (plus one!) based on the science of habit formation, the MBTI, and the Four Tendencies theory. You have plenty to try out!
#1 – Start from 1%
We often have a “go big or go home” attitude towards habits. If we don’t go to the gym for an hour every day, we fail. If we don’t eat healthy food at every meal, we fail. If we don’t go the extra mile at work every day, we fail.
In fact, 1% is all we need to make progress. 1% of an hour (60 minutes) is 0.6 seconds, just over 30 seconds. That’s about how long it takes to do one set of push-ups (between 10 and 20, depending on your fitness level). Try to do a set of push-ups on Day 1 and to increase the effort by 1% every day, adding different exercises as you work up to longer sessions. On Day 2, you’ll be exercising for one minute; on Day 3, you’ll be doing it for one minute and 30 seconds; and so on. Set a final goal, like a specific length of time: using the push-ups example, it would take 66 days for you to work up to 40 minutes of exercise.
When you eventually reach the goal, maintaining that standard will be a lot easier than telling yourself today, “I must exercise for 40 minutes every day starting now.” Not only will you be more fit on Day 66, which will enhance your workout performance, but you’ll have also already formed the habit of exercising bit by bit.
Recommended by habits experts like James Clear, this strategy is great if you’re the kind of person that focuses on the bigger picture and the final goal, not so much on the process. On the other hand, it may not be a smart choice if you feel like you’re not doing “enough” in the days leading up to Day 66. I like routines, for instance, so I prefer to meet the same goal on a consistent basis instead of changing it daily.
#2 – Don’t Overpromise
This can work wonders for you if you don’t feel comfortable with big, long-term changes until you’ve tried them. You can also think of it as a slightly different approach to Tip #1.
You may get impatient with 1% increments and think you’d be better off handling a bit more. At the same time, doing it forever looks daunting. A good compromise is to commit to doing the same thing every day for at least 30 days. At the end of the 30 days, feel free to drop it.
Chances are, the habit you’re trying to build is something you believe is good for you, like talking to a friend for at least 10 minutes a day, following a healthier diet, or going on a walk. Each of these examples benefits a component of your health: your emotional health, nutritional health, or physical health.
In this case, implementing the habit for 30 days will somehow enhance your life, so you’ll want to stick with it in the long-term at the end of the trial period. If you don’t, then it may not be for you, in which case you’ve invested no longer than a month in it. It’s a win-win situation!
#3 – Set Yourself a Challenge
Some people don’t see the point doing something just because others “say so”. If someone tells them smoking is “bad for them”, in the best case scenario they’ll ignore them and in the worst case they’ll get angry and maybe smoke one more cigarette that day just to spite their interlocutor.
If you don’t respond well to external pressure, you might set yourself up for success with internal pressure, that is by challenging yourself. Can you stop smoking for a month? After a month, can you do it for another? Make the decision to try it because you want to see if you can, not because you’ve been asked to, and give yourself several milestones to reach to keep yourself interested.
#4 – Do It with Someone Else
If you see yourself in the personality type described for Tip #3, but a self-imposed challenge doesn’t provide enough motivation for you, another effective way to form a habit is to do it with somebody else. This might seem like a hassle or a limitation, but you don’t need to involve the other person to any great degree.
If you don’t want a gym buddy, it can be equally helpful to ask a friend if you can let them know that you’ve gone to the gym on the day you plan to. You can still work out on your own, then text them about your accomplishment. It can be something as short as “I did it!” Make sure to choose a supportive friend, who’s going to reply with an encouraging emoji or “Well done!”
Knowing someone else is waiting to hear from you will help you stick to the plan. You never know – your determination may even spur them to make a positive change to their life! So you can hold each other accountable and turn it into a motivation game.
#5 – Find Your Why
When someone recommends a new habit of any sort, your first question is, “Why?” When they can’t explain it other than in vague, meaningless terms, you lose interest and wave them off. If that sounds like you, try to find the answer for yourself before you dismiss the thought. Inquiring types like you enjoy research, so digging deeper into a topic might lead to the discovery of just the right reason to motivate you.
For instance, your friend tells you their personal trainer recommended resistance training, but they can’t explain why that would be beneficial because they didn’t ask the trainer, like you would have done. The prospect of raising and lowering a potentially dangerous hunk of iron in a sweaty gym doesn’t appeal to you much and you’re not interested in building muscle.
However, after some research, you find out that strength training helps prevent sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass due to ageing) and osteoporosis (a medical condition that makes your bones brittle and fragile). What’s more, it can boost your brain function even in small doses of 20 minutes at a time. There are many benefits that have nothing to do with turning into a mountain of muscle, if that’s not your jam, and one of them could be the push you need.
#6 – Follow Only One Rule
You may be a “go-with-the-flow” kind of person. Plans give you headaches, and you prefer to have a loose idea of what you want and have to do, then get to each task in your own time, taking as long as you need. As a result, any advice along the lines of “Make a to-do list” or “Do this at 6:15pm for 30 minutes every day” will go right over your head. Fortunately, forcing yourself to adopt a stricter mindset than what’s natural for you isn’t the only way to success. In fact, it may well be a guaranteed way to long-term failure and frustration.
You can thrive following a single habit-forming rule: take action once every day. Decide what “take action” means to you and stick to it. For instance, if you want to walk more and you decide “take action” means “go for a walk”, then do that once every day. That’s all. It doesn’t matter when you do it or how long the walk is, even if it’s just a five-minute stroll; there’s no need to track anything. Just keep in mind that it should happen at some point.
When you come back, mark your success in a visual way, for example ticking the day off on a calendar. If you can see your chain of accomplishments get longer and longer over time, you’ll be more encouraged to keep going.
#7 – Stay Focused
Some people are fountains of ideas, but they can’t stay with one for very long before they have another and drop the first. It’s hard for them to reap the benefits of any of all these wonderful, half-finished projects and it’s particularly challenging to build habits, which are dependent on repetition.
If you feel like I’ve just described you, then what you need is a physical reminder of your current goal to help you stay on track. In fact, more than one would be even better! Stick post-it notes to your computer or laptop screen, set up a reminder on your phone calendar, etc. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination – and you have plenty of that!
When the reminders start to blend with your furniture – it happens to everyone – it will be useful to take time to journal and write down why you want to build this new habit. A couple of minutes is all it takes to describe the reasons you decided to embark on this project and the results you hope to achieve. Getting excited about your idea all over again will give you the confidence boost you need to maintain focus.
Bonus Tip – Change Your Environment
This bonus tip is backed by science, though not necessarily personality-related, unless you’re one of those people who like to be on the move often. In that case, you’ll love this one!
According to a number of studies, we perform our habits the same way every day if we are always in the same environment. For this reason, a new environment is a great opportunity to develop new habits.
If you have a holiday coming up, you might consider implementing a new habit during that time, like eating a piece of fruit every day. When you get back home, bringing your new habit into your old routine will be easier than starting from scratch.
The downside to this method is that you can’t exactly go on holiday, change jobs, or move to a new town every time you want to build a habit, but it’s worth a try when the opportunity presents itself. In all other cases, try the previous tips and find out which one suits you and your lifestyle.
In Future Episodes:
As a small trans guy with “hardgaining tendencies”, I know how frustrating it can be to make slow or no progress in the gym. Next week, I’m going to cover the basics of nutrition and exercise for other hardgaining brothers and sisters out there!
Which tip do you think best suits your personality and why? Let me know in the comments below!
Update 08/02/2019: This article was also published on The Galleon News.
A personal trainer who likes superheroes, bread, lifting weights, and studying “fitness stuff”.
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