Building Good Habits – An In-Depth Strategy Guide To Changing Habits

how to build good habitsBuilding good habits can be a real challenge, especially if you’re trying to replace a bad habit that you’ve come to embrace daily. We all know we should work out more, eat a little better, or watch a little less TV. We even tell ourselves we’re going to change, but change is hard. So, how do we build good habits?

I’ve spent a lot of time working on changing habits over the years and while I’m still learning, here is what I can share.

These lessons were learned through a series of failures as I made the shift from my old life of debt and the corporate world to my new life of being debt free in a tiny house as an entrepreneur. After a decade of wrestling with changing my habits, here is an in-depth strategy guide that will help you actually stop bad behaviors, build good habits, and find success.

Understanding Ourselves Before We Build New Habits

understanding ourselves

One of the hardest things to overcome in this process is yourself. If I’ve learned anything during this journey, it would be that we are really good at getting in our own way. This led me to realize a major limit to every person’s potential is self-accountability and understanding ourselves. If we can understand ourselves and be totally accountable for our own excuses, we can achieve our highest potential.

That means the key to your best life is the ability to own your own failings; doing so will bring massive success.

Being Brutally Honest With Yourself

Being Brutally Honest With Yourself

Learning to be honest with yourself is a painful process. It’s also a challenging task because we are so blind to truths about ourselves.

Being honest with yourself starts with being willing to call yourself out, own your faults, and admit mistakes. The goal is to have the clarity to see your failures and the humility to admit it to others.

The best way I’ve found to develop this is to shift your thinking by analyzing how you contributed to the failure and how you could have done better.

Having a mentality of ownership over your shortcomings is crucial to being honest with yourself. It’s important to question and understand how you could have done better, even when you’re doing well. And most importantly, when you feel that urge to point fingers at someone else, turn that finger around and point back at yourself. Ask, “what was my part in this and how can I fix it?”

Acknowledging that we can only control ourselves is one thing I’ve come to accept and equally struggle with every day. If I’m honest, I fail at it more days than not.

We have to set aside all the distractions that stand between us and being honest with ourselves in order to enter into a place of self authenticity.

Taking Time For Introspection

Taking Time For Introspection

Introspection has been a huge part of how I address being blind to my own truths. Taking the time to analyze and process our thoughts and feelings around different areas of your life is crucial. My go to introspection method is going for walks alone in the woods, for you it might be something different.

Making time to be alone with your thoughts is something that most people aren’t willing to do. In a world that is constantly in motion, I’m convinced that many consume themselves with being “busy”. Fearing that even a brief moment of stillness means we’d be alone to face our uncomfortable truths.

Slowing down and being alone with those uncomfortable truths is often the exact reason I need to go for very long walks. The time allows for the noise and thoughts of daily life to resolve themselves. Then, and only then, do I get into a space where I can actually do the real work of introspection. Your introspection can be anything that’s dedicated time alone without distractions.

destress your life

Stop Making Excuses

Stop Making Excuses

For years I struggled with making excuses and not owning my mistakes. Then one day it was explained succinctly to me by a mentor. An excuse puts blame outside ourselves. On the other hand, a response owns the failure knowing we could have always done more, then sets a plan of action to fix it the next time.

These two parts, ownership and responding with a plan to fix it, are the critical components of learning how to stop making excuses. Our default pattern should be owning the failure. Our default response should be to put a plan in place so it doesn’t happen again.

Ownership over your failings will move you forward in life in ways you can never imagine.

Getting External Feedback

Getting External Feedback

In addition to investing – a word I choose intentionally – in time alone, I also carefully choose people who are willing and able to call me out on my excuses. Friends, business coaches, business peers, and more are all resources to facilitate this.

This is a painful process and we have to be careful not to shut it down or to cause people to pull their punches. If you’re anything like me, you feel a visceral response as you get the hard truths of your own missteps.

You’ll snap to a defensive reaction; you’ll feel anger and a whole range of other emotions. I’m bad about trying to “explain” my way of thinking instead of just taking feedback, but that only serves to shut down the person giving us an outside perspective. The goal here is to take our punches, lick our wounds and use it as the fuel in our fight to be better.

Understanding Locus Of Control

understanding locus of control

In psychology there is a concept called “locus of control”, which is an important part of goal setting. Locus of control is an individual’s belief system regarding the causes of his or her experiences and the factors to which that person attributes success or failure. Locus is Latin for “location” so essentially it means where the source or location of control comes from.

If you have an internal locus, you believe your successes and failures come from within you and are within your control. An external locus of control means that any successes or failures are attributed to outside of you.

It is important to make the distinction a key part of the view we adopt, what our attitude is about it, and how we choose to move through this world. While there are things that happen outside our control, I believe it’s better to foster a worldview to have an internal locus of control.

locus of control arrowsStudies have shown those with an internal locus of control often have less stress and anxiety. Internal locus of control correlates with ambition and success in life and business.

Each person adopts a locus of control as their world view, often a mix, but I think it’s important for us to decide what that approach to life is going to be. I think if we are faced with the question of, “does my success come from things within my control or outside of my control?” we have two options.

The first is we could say most of what happens to us is outside of our control, so whatever happens will happen. Or we believe that we have control over our destiny and can effect change on our lives. When answering that critical question, I’d counter and say it doesn’t really matter.

bias towards action

Even if the source of our success or failures lies outside ourselves, I’m going to still act like I have full control over my future because the risk of being wrong is too great. This ties neatly into my earlier point of ownership.

If we act like we control our destiny, that the source of our successes (and failures) comes from within, the worst-case result will be that I believe what I do matters. The best-case scenario would be that I do have the control and I alter my trajectory of my life in a positive direction.

This isn’t to say that bad things won’t happen, that some of us get the short straw, or we’ll work hard and still fail. It is to say we have a choice. I choose to believe I have control over my life and if I’m wrong, then I’ll be blissfully delusional believing in myself.

How To Build A Good Habit?

how to bild a good habit

Building a new habit has a few key steps: determining the behavior’s trigger, building your recognition of the decision point, developing a new response, and replacing the old pattern.

The first step when trying to build good habits is to figure out what behaviors we are trying to stop or start and understand them. It is often the case that we decide to build a new good habit as a reaction to a bad habit. In essence, we are trying to replace bad behaviors with good ones.

Identify The Trigger Precedes The Habit

Identify The Trigger Precedes The Habit

When we look at behaviors, they typically start with some sort of stimulus: hunger, boredom, thirst, depression, etc. These triggers lead us to make a decision on how to address them. A habit is merely a decision on how to address these triggers, repeated until it becomes a default pattern for us.

I’ve found that understanding the trigger that precedes the habit lets you intervene before you have a chance to fall back into your less than desirable ways.

Figuring out the triggers can be complicated and messy because sometimes we don’t even understand them ourselves. Think about what objects or places were involved, the people around you, and what emotions or sensations happened at the same time. All these things build the circumstance that leads to the habit we are trying to change.

Recognize The Decision Point

Recognize The Decision Point

Now that we understand what the triggers are for our behavior, we want to boost our awareness of them. This was an important step for me when I was trying to lose weight. I was a big snacker, I’d be bored and I’d reach for snacks even if I wasn’t hungry.

Take time to understand your patterns. You can shift your thought patterns to recognize these or use things like visual cues (notes to yourself, etc.) to keep this top of mind.

Developing A New Response

Developing A New Response

After I built my understanding that my trigger was boredom, I started to recognize the pattern when I started looking around for snacks. Realizing the boredom, I then built my new habit of asking myself “are you hungry or are you bored?”
Get creative with your response and tailor it to your needs and circumstances.

Replace The Old Pattern

Replace The Old Pattern

If you just try to cut out something, there will be a gaping hole left that is begging to be filled the next time that trigger comes around. To fill that gap, try replacing the habit with something positive.

Instead of snacking when I was bored, I started drinking water… a lot of water. When I caught myself searching for snacks out of boredom, I’d drink about 25 ounces of water instead. This would make my stomach feel full long enough for me to move on to something else.

When choosing what to replace your old behaviors with, consider replacing it with things that do the following:

  • Functions off the same triggers
  • Shares similar reinforcement mechanisms
  • Are easier to do than your bad behavior

You want to make sure you are swapping apples with apples as much as possible in as many dimensions as you can. Living in an imperfect world, it’s imperative to have multiple positive replacements for a single bad habit. If you have a long list of alternatives to choose from as a response to your trigger, you’ll be able to make a better choice instead of falling back into your old way.

Building Routines To Reinforce New Habits

building routines to reinforce new habits

If you spend any time reading up on building new behaviors, you’ll quickly find a lot of talk about building routines; things like The Miracle Morning, Journaling, or other practices that bring intention into your life.

I personally don’t subscribe to building routines as a way to build new habits, but they are very effective for others. It is for this reason that I wanted to bring them up, because in the end, you want to use every trick in the book to your advantage. If they work for you, use them.

What I personally like to focus on is the triggers, because behaviors can happen any time and when life gets crazy, you might not be able to stop for your normal routine. Having an awareness of behavior triggers will let you meet that trigger head on, whenever it occurs.

Building A Strategy For Your New Habits

strategy for new habits

The odds are stacked against you when it comes to starting a good habit, so we need a plan to make it happen. Failure to plan means you plan to fail and if you’re anything like me, I’m here to win.

Taking some time up front, even just a little, will make sure you are set up for success, able to overcome barriers, and push through failures. Here are my tips around building a strategy that works for your new habit:

P.A.C.E. Planning

PACE Planning

The military uses P.A.C.E. planning to make sure when things go wrong, there still is a pathway to a successful mission. You don’t need to do anything complicated, but when you start out, mentally think through a P.A.C.E. plan. This acronym stands for Primary, Alternative, Contingency and Emergency. Primary is the ideal option, alternative is a solid second option if you can’t do the first, contingency is where it will get the job done with some hassle and emergency is the last resort with some compromises.

For example, I participated in a fitness challenge called 75 Hard where I had to do some form of exercise twice a day. My primary was to work out in the morning and then again after work. My alternative was to work out right after work, then again after dinner. My contingency plan was to do the two workouts back to back after work and my emergency was to stay up as late as I needed to in order to do two exercises.

Figure out your P.A.C.E. plan for your new habits.

Plan For Chaos

Plan For Chaos

The biggest place people fall down on building new habits is when life gets crazy. Mike Tyson said “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face” and that is equally true here. The real problem is that people make a plan assuming everything is going to go according to plan. A plan that relies on nothing going wrong is a flawed plan from the beginning.

You’re going to try to make progress, to change and build a better life for yourself, but the universe is conspiring against you. It’s a reality we need to recognize.

How are you going to handle things when life gets busy, when you’re feeling sick, when the gym is closed, when that meeting runs way over or someone hands you a piece of cake without asking if you wanted it?

Building A Plan Of Action For Failures

Building A Plan Of Action For Failures

When you first start a new habit, take time to develop a plan for if or when you do fail. You shouldn’t expect to fail, but you should plan for failure all the same.

I frequently see a pattern where people slip up one single time and then give up totally despite having come so far. It’s important to realize that a mistake for a single instance doesn’t outweigh a series of wins; even if those wins are yet to be realized.

I once was feeling down about something that happened earlier in the day while chatting with a friend. I was talking about it when they asked “Was it a bad day or was it a bad 5 minutes that you milked all day?” That really stuck with me and let me realize that if I do slip up, I need to use the energy of all the wins I’ve had up to that point to carry me through.

Be A Fire Marshal, Not A Fire Fighter

Be A Fire Marshal Not A Fire Fighter

Things will come up where we have to move quickly and drop everything to address a certain problem. In this case, you can spend a lot of time putting out fires. This will happen occasionally, but after the emergency passes, we want to think back and ask how we can prevent the scenario in the first place so next time it doesn’t blind side us.

Moving through life I’ve had to admit that some people can’t get their acts together no matter what. They live in a perpetual state of needless drama, crisis or negative space. I’ve worked on teams where they were always in a crisis and emergencies were the norm.

I’ve found thinking like a Fire Marshal to be very helpful to bring stability to the team. By the same token, after much effort, it signals to me when the fit isn’t right and I need to move on.

To my earlier point about excuses vs. responses, we want to develop a response to what happened. In the end we don’t want to be a Fire Fighter who has to put out fire after fire, we want to be the Fire Marshall who prevents the fire from happening in the first place.

Build In Buffers

Build In Buffers

Scheduling yourself back to back on your calendar is a recipe for disaster. If I’m honest I do this too often, particularly around time for traveling between appointments. We should assume most meetings will go over by 30 minutes, there will be traffic and the lines will be long at the post office. If we end up with extra time, either use it to get ahead or just relax!

Adding slack in your schedule is important and will make life less hectic and more productive. To this point, I try to make time to prep before a meeting and debrief when it’s over. It’s important to plan time for travel with traffic, assume that finding a parking place will be difficult, etc.

battle of the busy schedule

Finally, stand your ground on defending these buffer times. It can be tempting to try to fit things in these “free” times, but it will only stress you out. Hold your ground on those times and don’t offer explanations for them when people are trying to find a time with you.

Use The Tools In Your Tool Box To Build Good Habits

tools for building good habits

Building good habits is a skill we can develop. Just like a muscle, the more we use it, the stronger it gets. It’s easy to be lazy and fall back into our old ways, so we need to stack every advantage in our favor.

We’ve talked a lot about what strategies you can employ to build good habits and remove bad habits from your life. If you fall down, it’s important that you get back up and push forward. I’d say good luck, but you know that building good habits isn’t luck, it’s doing the work every single day.

Your Turn!

  • What tips do you have for building good habits?
  • What habits are you trying to break?


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