How to make a new habit

  • March 20, 2020
  • LPT, Running
  • Christophe

“I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself.”

Oscar Wilde

I’ve woken up this morning annoyed with myself. Why? We all get good advice from time-to-time but we’ll rarely do anything with it besides maybe pass it on. However, for me, I’m now in my mid-forties, and when I look back I can see a lot of very good advice I’ve received over the years but didn’t follow. I wish I had done and am left with many regrets. So, this is day one of the first personal blog I’ve ever had, and it’s time for change. 

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

Chinese proverb

In hindsight, probably the best piece of advice I ever heard was the old Chinese proverb “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” There is a lot I’d still like to do and a lot I’d like to learn. Sadly, however, I didn’t start 20 years ago or even yesterday. A new habit or a big change in our lives is not like a switch or something that happens overnight. Rather it’s made with a thousand little steps – just like the climb from Malc’s big Field up to Shatton Moor at the start of the Wolf’s Pit Fell Race. The first of these steps, and the most important one, is the decision to act on that decision every day until it’s become part of you. The time to start is today because one day this will be 20 years ago. Not tomorrow, not Monday, not New Year’s Day – today. For me, one of my main motivations is that I just don’t want to wake up feeling annoyed with myself for things I could easily have changed or things I should have done – or worse, opportunities that have now gone forever.

“But wait”, i hear you say, “we’ve also made lots of good decisions over the years! Shouldn’t we not be too hard on ourselves?” Yes, you’re right, however, could you have done more? As we get to our ‘middle-age’, and even more so as an endurance runner who will commonly push out bodies to our physical limits, we feel things not working quite as they used to. For example, we notice that it starts to take longer to recover, and we’re not as fast as we were, we get little niggles in the knees and pains in the hips where we didn’t used to. And then more annoying little injuries that just don’t go away any more. We realise that we’re getting older. For me, more and more I feel that life is short. Opportunities are often doors that one day close forever – you blink and they’ve gone. One of the worst feelings is one of regret. My advice is to get yourself into a position where you have as few regrets as possible.

What habits do people want to make?

According to recent research from YouGov, 1 in 4 of us made a New Year resolution for 2019, and of those resolutions, a year on, only 1 in 4 of those people actually managed to keep all of their resolutions – were the rest of the people overly optimistic with what they could achieve?

So, only 1 person in every 6 of the adult population actually made a resolution and kept it for a year. But for 2020, 27% of people were still intending to make a new resolution, so it appears that people are willing to try again… but are they willing to try a different approach?

The top New year resolutions made for 2020

  • More exercise or improve fitness 47% (health related)
  • Lose weight 44% (health related)
  • Improve diet 41% (health related)
  • Save money 31%
  • New hobby 18%
  • Cut down alcohol consumption 16% (health related)
  • Give smoking or vaping 14% (health related)
  • A career ambition 11%
  • Decorating or home improvement 11%
  • Cut down on social media use 7%

Full results can be seen here

With 5 out of the top 7 New Year resolutions related to health, we can see that this is very important to large proportion of people. Cutting down what you eat should be easy, shouldn’t it? Stepping out for a regular walk or job is cheap and accessible too. So why are so many people failing? I think it’s due to not understand how to establish a new habit, being overly optimistic about how much we can change all at once, and failing to plan properly.

How to make a new habit

Over recent years, although I have a lot of regrets, I’ve also made some very positive changes myself such as completely cutting out refined sugar (including all cakes, fizzy drinks, sweets, Easter eggs, chocolate, etc.), studying French everyday, giving up red meat completely, and giving up all alcohol. These habits are now part of me and not something I need to try at anymore. Here is what I’ve learned from my successes and failures:

  • Anchor the new habit in an existing one. This is in my opinion the most important factor in successfully forming a new habit. Our days are already filled with habits (both good and bad) that it’s useful to think of them like dominoes – each one following another – for example, getting up, showering, having a coffee, going to work, having lunch, Tuesday evening run, and the list goes on. But where does the new habit fit in? If you can, try using your existing habits to ‘anchor’ the new habit. For example, if it’s press-ups every day you’re wanting to do, maybe anchor that after your morning coffee and before your shower.
  • Pick your battles – make sure whatever you’re hoping to achieve is realistic. There are some wildly optimistic changes that we’d never hope to achieve for various reasons. Make sure whatever you choose to change, it’s going to achievable and be something you can actually integrate into your life.
  • Just start now and plan as go – don’t spend time trying to get everything planned properly before you start or you may never get started. In other words, watch out for the little ways that you sabotage yourself from starting.
  • Pick one new habit at a time – don’t try to change too much at once and don’t be tempted to start too many new habits at once. Giving one new habit your full focus not only means you’ll be more likely to do it, but you’ll also have more confidence in your ability to do it making the next one more likely to succeed too.
  • Be prepared to change course. Some habits, as much as we’d like them to become ingrained in us, just don’t fit in with our lives. Change if you need to, but whatever you do, don’t just do nothing.
  • Take everything day-by-day but commit to an initial minimum of 30 days. I’m sure you’re familiar with chunking – apply it to new habits too.
  • Don’t imagine that your self-motivation is going to strong or consistent enough to carry you onward. You already have lots of daily habits so instead, include the new one in an old one to reduce the reliance on will-power alone. For example, if you want to work out every day and you also already take a shower every day – combine the two into one; 20 minutes of core exercises and a shower before breakfast every day.
  • Plan for obstacles such as birthday, holidays, nights out, Sunday mornings, etc. Make contingency plans for anything that might get in the way well beforehand. However, the most dangerous of obstacles is yourself. Be aware and take control of the little voice that tells you things like ‘just one day off is fine’
  • Create accountability – this one works amazingly well for me. For example, maybe have someone who is on your site to support you and make public declarations. You’re much more likely to succeed if you’re being observed and have accountability. There will also be people who won’t or can’t support you – stay vigilant
  • Set milestones and reward yourself. Pick a treat, set a point, work towards that, repeat. However, avoid ad-hoc treats. Also, remember alcohol is the number one enemy of will-power and motivation for most people!
  • To build or not to build a new identity? This is a difficult one for me to recommend but it certainly works for some people. The main reason I struggle with it is having seen people who have committed to year-long gym memberships or turn up to Park Run wearing hundreds of pounds of new gear, it may not work but have the opposite effect and simply cause someone to ‘give up’ if things don’t go according to plan. We’re all human and all suffer from the same weaknesses & fallibility. Making too many big changes too quickly is one of the ways to fail and this, in my opinion, should be done gradually and also broken down into tiny little steps. Someone who has never run before needs to start by increasing their walking distances first – they’re not going to be an elite endurance runner overnight just because they are wearing the right kit.
  • Be honest with yourself and learn from your past failures

So let’s get started. Today. Now.

Is there anything you’ve always wanted to be able to do? Maybe learn to play the piano? Or learn to speak a foreign language? Maybe run a marathon? Get to your ideal weight? Start with a specific, realistic and achievable target and get started today working towards it – one tiny step at a time. In a week, a month, a year, even 20 years you’ll be glad you did.