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How to succeed with habits

Last month in the Flourish Club, we all participated in a 21 day habit challenge where we took three weeks to create and try to embed a new habit.  I am an expert in habits.  I wrote an essay about them when I was in training as a coach and I've read Atomic Habits by James Clear several times.  So, I had this challenge nailed.  Or ... more accurately ... I knew what to do in theory.

But knowing is not as good as doing.  We learn by doing.  And this is what I learned.

My 21 day habit challenge

The habit that I wanted to embed was a daily guitar practice.  I tend to practise the guitar in big chunks and always practise the songs I want to play, not the exercises that will actually make me a better player.

So, I wanted to implement a 10 minute session each day where I would practise my scales and other dexterity exercises.  James Clear advocates that there are four rules to making a habit stick:

  1. Make it obvious
  2. Make it attractive
  3. Make it easy
  4. Make it satisfying

In order to make the habit obvious, I decided to "stack" it into a routine that I already have in the morning.  Every morning I get up, feed the animals, lift some weights and have breakfast.  During the challenge, I was going to play the guitar after my weights each morning.  This helps you to embed the habit into a routine that already exists.

In order to make it attractive, I used a technique called "habit bundling".  After the 10 minute practice (the habit I should do) I get to practise a habit that I want to do.  I decided that my reward habit after guitar practice would be to do Wordle.  This was a double-whammy prize because it also got me out of a bad habit - which was doing Wordle on my phone in bed before I get up!!

In order to make it easy, I employed two techniques.  I made sure that my guitar was in the same room as my weights so that it was really easy to pick up after lifting.  I also made the practice time relatively short.  You should always start a habit in a short burst to make sure it sticks.  You then increase the time later if you need to.

In order to make it satisfying, I needed a dopamine hit.  That came from filling out my habit tracker, ticking off each day and seeing my habit streak.  What can I say, I'm easy to please :)

What I learned

So, how did I get on?

Well, I managed to do my guitar practice on 17 out of the 21 days and my longest streak was 7 days.  So, not perfect but not bad at all.

The first learning for me was the this: on the days I missed, I didn't give up the Challenge.  Another James Clear tip: it's OK to miss one day but don't miss two.  This is a pretty good mantra for any habit as it keeps you motivated to get back to it.

The second learning for me was to analyse what had happened when I did miss a day and to tweak the habit accordingly.  So, for example, it turns out that I don't lift weights every day.  If I have a really busy morning or a lie-in at the weekend, I skip the weights and consequently I skipped the guitar practice.  So, I tweaked: practice after breakfast - I NEVER forget to eat breakfast!!

The final and best piece of learning was this: you can make a real difference to your practice in just 21 days.  My pentatonic scales have never been so slick.  James Clear talks about the "valley of disappointment" quite near the beginning of making a new habit where you don't seem to be making any progress.  This is the point at which a lot of people give up.  By committing to 21 days, I was able to see the exponential improvement that occurs a bit further down the line.

What you can do

Pick something that you'd like to improve or a goal that you're working towards that needs consistent action.

Write down what the habit is, how frequently you commit to doing it and exactly when you will do it.

For example, run for 20 minutes, 3 times a week, at 7.30 am on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Now, consider the four laws.  How can you:

  1. Make it obvious - eg put your running gear by your bed the night before and put it on as soon as you get up
  2. Make it attractive - eg reward yourself by taking time to make your favourite coffee when you get in from your run
  3. Make it easy - eg maybe start with a 10 minute brisk walk before building up to a 20 minute run (think couch to 5K style)
  4. Make it rewarding - eg download a habit tracker app and earn rewards for consistent streaks

Accountability makes a huge difference too. 

Why not drop me an email and let me know what habit you'd like to embed and I'll check in on you after 21 days to see how you're doing!


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