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Legendary investor and leader Warren Buffett once claimed, “The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken,” warning against the dangers of falling into self-destructive habits. This sobering statement against the dangers of bad habits does, however, have a flip side – when the habit is a positive one, it has the potential to ensure long-term success and build steady leadership.
In recent years, successful business leaders around the world have begun sharing habits that have contributed to their success. Some, such as Mark Zuckerberg’s habit of writing one thank you note a day, are quite inspiring, while others, such as Steve Job’s habit of eating only carrots for weeks at a time, are rather unusual. When navigating the complexity of an entrepreneurial life style of working within a family business, hacking the adoption of good habits and discipline can have a crucial effect on success. But how can we actually form good habits and make them stick?
In this article, we examine five scientifically proven steps that you can take in order to develop a good habit.
1. Know yourself
Did you know that it takes a stunning 66 days to form a habit? That’s according to a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology in 2009. When researchers instructed participants to repeat an action such as waking up at 6am every day for breakfast, drinking two cups of water after lunch, or doing fifty push-ups right after waking up, the results were stunning. Contrary to the popular belief that it takes 21 days to develop a habit, it took on average 66 days for the participants to begin doing the tasks automatically without thinking.
The shocking realisation that it takes more than two months might discourage most people from ever thinking that they can develop any new habits, but on the contrary, it helps us better understand what we are up against and help us form a plan that works.
2. Create big goals
According to a 2006 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers divided participants into two groups. In the first group, the participants were asked to give very abstract reasons why they wanted to achieve a certain goal, such as maintaining good health. The second group was asked to give specific reasons on how they would maintain their physical health. The participants were then told to squeeze a handgrip as long as possible, saying that the longer that they could squeeze the grip, the more helpful it would be to their health. Surprisingly, people in the group who were encouraged to give abstract answers were able to hold on for sixteen seconds longer than those in the other group.
What the researchers found was that people who set abstract, longer-term, and bigger goals displayed increased self-control, greater physical endurance, and less susceptibility to temptations. This means that when we make the choice to develop positive habits, we are more likely to do so if we fantasize about building those very habits and setting large goals for ourselves.
3. Start with tiny steps
At its core, habits are routine, automatic, and sequential movements of our bodies. When the brain takes a sequence of actions and convert them into an automatic routine, it goes into the unconscious portion of the brain. According to Stanford professor and researcher Dr. B.J. Fogg, this is best done by doing one tiny step of the habit at a time. For instance, if the ultimate goal is to floss your teeth every day, you start by simply flossing one tooth per day. Sounds silly? In his book Tiny Habits, Dr. Fogg explains that when we are overloaded with choices, options, and decisions, the likelihood of making any effort towards developing a new habit practically falls to zero. Which means that when we want to start a new habit, we have to make the first step so easy and simple that you can’t NOT do it.
The science backs it up. In a study titled Healthy Habits, volunteers who wanted to lose weight were either told to repeat 10 simple diet activities while the others were told to do whatever they could to lose weight. After just 8 weeks, the first group lost on average 2kg, or five times as much weight as the second group, suggesting that habit-forming is most effective when done in simple steps and by repetition.
4. Create triggers
One of the biggest reasons that people fail to carry out their plans such as New Year’s Resolutions or start new habits is that eventually, they simply forget. And herein lies the problem. We can dream big and begin taking small steps towards our goals to our heart’s content, but sooner or later, it gets lost in the frantic pace of our lives. According to science, the trick to overcome this is to pick a regular part of our existing schedule and create “triggers” that tell us when it’s time to act and add the new habit. For instance, if one wants to get in the habit of reading 20 minutes per day, instead of thinking “I will read 20 minutes a day”, you should be thinking “Every day after lunch, I will read 20 minutes.” This process is called If-Then planning – “If this happens, then I will…” – and it has been proven to be incredibly powerful in forming new habits.
According to a study by Peter Gollwitzer, an NYU psychologist, 91% of people who used an if-then plan were able to begin exercising regularly, versus 39% of those who did not use this strategy. In fact, a review of 94 separate studies on the use of this technique found significantly higher success rates of implementing just about any habit imaginable, ranging from recycling more to avoiding stereotypical thoughts. So if you are finding, day after day, that too many goals have gone unaccomplished, triggering the if-then technique is a great way to get a habit started.
5. Avoid the “What the hell effect”
So you’ve set big goals, started taking small steps, and have created smart triggers to begin your new positive habit. But inevitably, you are bound to fail. For instance, you may resolve to exercise every day. And it all goes great, until day 10, when you are too tired to be bothered to go to the gym. Suddenly, you realise you failed in your habit, and you throw up their hands in despair and think, “If I’m going to fail, I might as well go all the way.” And a flood of chicken wings, pies, and donuts follow. Described by Psychology Today as the “What-the-hell effect”, the phenomenon explains how a small slip up in a rigid schedule for a new habit can cause people to abandon the habit altogether.
In a 2010 study published on ScienceDirect, two groups of dieters were given pizza and then cookies. In one of the groups, the participants were told that their pizzas contained more calories than was allowed in their diet plan. Shockingly, the participants in this group ended up eating so many cookies that they ate 50% more than the control group that wasn’t even on a diet. In other words, the emotional reaction to minor setbacks can be incredibly destructive when developing a new habit.
According to the study, the best way to succumbing to the “What-the-hell” effect is to simply focus on the successful days you managed to implement your habit, instead of reminding yourself that you broke the plan. The simple act of framing your goal into a long-term perspective is enough to overcome this effect and extend the string of successes into truly developing a positive habit.