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Just the other day I was thinking about my “Engineering Habits” guide, a short PDF I wrote a few years ago around creating habits. I reread it, and need to update, however, I have been trying to create a new habit in the evenings, but have consciously kept failing at – so this spurred some thought around why habits fail in the first place.

I figured I would jot a few notes with a few reasons behind why new habits fail and potentially a few suggestions on what I could do. Generally, I love writing. I do not consider myself good at it,, but it is one of my vents when I need to jumble through thoughts, hence it turned into a blog post and perhaps it may be useful for you. To me, on a personal level, the best part about it is – self reflection.

Anyway, did you know that research suggests that roughly 8 out of 10 times we are likely to fail and fall back into old habits rather than being able to stick with new ones? Where do I take this number from? John Norcross, is a psychology professor who conducted a 2-year study with 200 participants and came to this conclusion.

Now I would agree for the most part. I believe that we as humans, at least a majority of us, have trouble creating better habits, let alone new ones. There is lots of material out there on creating habits, as well as some good books. I may throw up Engineering Habits again once I have updated it.

Working through my new habit creation that I’m looking to implement on a routinely basis I asked myself why is it so hard to create new habits? Is there anything you (I) can do about it?

I believe many of us often ask these questions when it comes to forming new habits. We struggle with ourselves internally and I would assume most of us have an inner conversation about whatever it may be we are trying to successfully implement in our lives. Nonetheless, after pondering about my own dilemma, I do believe that there are a few things one can do to minimize the risk of falling back into old habits.

Here are three things I think are worth sharing.

1st Problem: Doing Many Things At Once!

I am very guilty of this. On a personal level, I love diving into many things at once and keeping myself “busy”, which may lead to becoming unproductive to a certain extent, however, over the years I have learned that you can’t excel at it all – especially when you are trying to tackle it all at once. You need to go bite-sized. Small chunks. I consider myself a jack-of-all-trades. When I come across problems, like how to fix a car motor or install a toilet or fix up a bike (which I consider myself an expert at now), I’m the type of guy that will go find out how it’s done. I just love learning. But the thing is you cant go learn everything at once.

The same is true when it comes to changing behavior. You need to change a small number of habits at a time. BJ Fogg at Standford University says three habits at once is the maximum, and when he speaks of three he really means three tiny ones! Flossing one tooth, a push up a day, and so forth. That is incredibly small to begin with, however these are the small steps you will need to carry out in order to guide you to positive change in creating a meaningful ritual within a new habit.

The problem we face, is we want change, now, fast. Today.

We are conditioned for this in everything. Yet, that is not how it works and it takes mental toughness to understand that. The point I want to make here though is not about how small the habit is, my point is that you need to focus, and I mean be laser-focused on just a single thing. That is what I have been personally working on over the years. Crafting specific changes into habits to become successful. I do one thing at a time. I went swimming 1x per week until it became natural. Up until this summer, I changed my nutrition and ate near vegetarian for nearly a year and a half. I did this by consciously removing meat a meal at a time. Start with the small things and then move on once that new habit sticks like glue.

Solution: Select 1 thing to change and do that until it’s automatic and you do it well.

2nd Problem: The Environment Stays The Same

If you want to make a positive change to any specific habit or routine you are also going to have to change elements of your environment. A few years ago, my wife and I remodeled our bedroom in Valencia. We simplified. We wanted our bedroom to become an oasis of peace, calm, and relaxation. All the clutter out. Prior to that, we had a clothes racks that were always full. Things lying around on tabletops, etc. However, in order to bring about a change we knew that we needed to first change our environment before changing our evening bedtime habits.

I find that often times it’s in our human nature to neglect the fact that our environment actually influences us and our behavior. The actions we carry out are automatic responses due to the areas we find ourselves in. Take your home as an example. How often do you get up and walk through your home thinking about how certain setups or layouts affect the way you execute daily routines, from breakfast to getting your kids ready for naps, cooking, cleaning, TV time, etc.? Probably not that often. You may come across moments where you think hanging up a picture somewhere or moving a table “over there” may seem cooler, neater, or more intuitive, but it’s not a thought that goes through your head all the time.

Therefore I say you can make the assumption that the lifestyle you live today is largely due to the fact that the habits you have are by-products of the environment you live in every single day. Don’t believe me? Give this some thought?

  1. You want to eat healthier but are consistently surrounded by junk food. Whether that is your local eat out place or your bad choices when grocery shopping. The fact that you have chips in your cupboard is going to lead you to eat them at some point.
  2. You’d like to appreciate life more, however, are surrounded by naggers. This rubs off. No matter how tough you think you are, if you are consistently surrounded by negativity, you too will be negative. It’s the environment you are in.
  3. You want to focus on one thing – like finishing your garden or sewing a dress. However, if you are consistently confronted with all the noise of today’s world from text messages to phone calls, from emails to video chat along with everything else digital (TV and so forth) how can you focus on that single task at hand? You need to make some environmental change choices.

The list can go on and on, but you get where I am heading with this, no?

No change in the environment regardless of how simple and stupid that change sometimes may mean, can often be the difference between success and failure.

Solution: Create an environment that spurs positive habits

3rd Problem: Wanting A Result, Not A Ritual

Here is the problem with this, and this is one thing I personally dislike most when speaking with so-called professionals at seminars, and others who believe to have the answer to creating good habits.

First off an example – I recently attended a leadership seminar and the first question that came up was – what do you want to achieve? I was like, really? I listened in a bit longer and after about 20 minutes figured this no longer was worth my time.

You see the problem with this is that we as a society are molded into becoming results-oriented individuals. I heard it at work every single day. We want outcomes in business just the way we want outcomes in our habits because we want to see results. The problem with this type of thinking is very simple. Goals do not produce results. You can write down any goal you want on a whiteboard and look at it every single day. But simply wanting that goal will not deliver you any results. The catch here is the lifestyle. The way you live is not a goal. It is a process. So when it comes to creating habits you should not focus on results, you need to focus on the process that creates rituals. When you can implement those lifestyle changes then you’ll notice that those rituals have turned your behavior into positive habits. In the words of Tony Schwartz;

“A ritual is a highly precise behavior you do at a specific time so that it becomes automatic over time and no longer requires much conscious intention or energy.”

If you want a new habit, you have to fall in love with a new ritual.

Solution: It’s all about the behavior, not the outcome.

In Closing

Now there are a few other things that come to mind when it comes to new habits failing, however, you will find those in my guide “Engineering Habits.” Once I have updated it, I’ll put it back online to download. It’s been downloaded over 3,500 times from the time I initially released it. There are a lot of great books and experts like BJ Fogg or James Clear. I just try to break it down into my laymen’s terms.

That being said, I hope this spurs some thinking to your thought process next time you want to change or create a new habit (like myself):

  1. Focus on 1 thing
  2. Create a positive change in your environment and
  3. Look at the process of behavioral change, not the result.

Make it happen.