Habits- How to form and stick to new habits

picture:skeeze (CC0 Public Domain)

Humans are extremely habitual creatures. Most of the actions we take are coming from habits. While there are certain habits that benefit us, there are also certain habits that do not benefit us at all. How to let go of old habits, how to form new ones and how to stick to the new habits, will be discussed in this article.

Only 5% of your actions are conscious actions. The other 95% of your actions are totally unconscious actions coming from habits. While this fact may not be so exciting to hear when you have a lot of bad habits, it’s actually a very fascinating fact when you look closely:

  • You don’t consciously think of brushing your teeth in the morning, you simply do it.
  • You don’t have to worry about how to place one foot in front of the other, you simply do it while walking.
  • You don’t have to consciously blink your eye to have a clear vision, you simply do it.

So isn’t that fascinating? That most of the heavy daily lifting is done by habits? That you don’t really have to consciously think about taking certain actions because it’s a trained habit? Maybe you are not so excited right now. But that is ok and understandable if most of your habits are destructive. Because to a degree you feel powerless to your habits. You feel like you can’t really control the way you behave because it is so impulsive. But you can actually start using this segmentation of the human mind to your benefit. You can start to develop new habits that benefit you on your journey. And then 95% of the heavy lifting work you otherwise try to do with will-power will be done for you.

Your mind is like a computer.

Your mind basically is like a computer. All you have to do is decide what programs (aka habits) you want to install, install them (form a habit) and then letting your mind do the work (acting the habit out). The reason this is still so challenging for  most people is that they don’t understand the dynamics of the human mind that play into this process. But once you understand them, it will be easier for you to form new habits and to stick to them.

New is always scary

Everything new is scary for the human mind. There is always a certain amount of fear whenever you do something different. And that is a fact you have to accept and be prepared for. Because this literally means that whenever you are trying to let go of an old habit and developing a new one, your mind will fight it to a certain degree. Because your mind currently knows how to survive in this situation you are in. Even in the most destructive behavior coming from a habit, your mind knows how to keep you safe and how to make you survive. And this knowing how to survive, even with the shittiest and most damaging behavior, is safer than anything new and unknown.

So when you go about to form new habits, you have to be aware of that fact. You have to be aware of the fact that there will always be a certain turmoil in your being. This can be in the form of negative thoughts, fear, self-blame, seeing how everything was better with the old habit and so on. When these things come up, it is super important not to take them as cues that you should not go this way. More-though it’s a cue for you to relax and have compassion for yourself. You know this is something new and this can be challenging, and that is ok. So relax but don’t stop the process. Keep going and instead of fighting this survival mechanism understand it and use it as a sign of progress.

How to let go of old habits

Old habits can be challenging to let go of. Often, they are so deeply rooted in your being, you basically acted on them for years, that is can be hard to let go of them. And that is ok. Until this point, having this habit always had a purpose. But you simply now choose to let go of that habit. The best way to let go of a habit that is no longer serving you is to start questioning that habit and to become aware of the downside of acting that habit out.

An easy way to go through that process is to answer a couple of questions on a sheet of paper. So take out a sheet of paper and on the top, write down your specific habit. Be as specific as you can. Don’t just write “sometimes overeating” rather say “eating when I am not hungry” or “eating late at night”. To help you with that,  here are some examples:

  • using my phone in the morning- more specific: Checking my phone in the first 5 minutes after waking up while still lying in bed
  • Watching too much porn- more specific: watching porn at least 5 times a week in the evening and whenever I feel emotionally low
  • Eating too much fast-food- more specific: eating pizza whenever I am in a rush or whenever I feel emotionally low

When you are ready and you have your habit, answer these questions on the same sheet of paper:

  1. How is this habit serving me?
  2. What emotions/what need gets fulfilled by acting on that habit?
  3. How am I trying to run away from myself or from my feelings when I am acting on that habit?
  4. What would a person I look up to think about having this habit? (write down the person and then the statement)
  5. How is this habit not serving me? What is the downside of this habit?
  6. If I could let go of this habit with the blink of an eye, would I choose to do so?

The last question is a very powerful question. You can ask yourself this question with any habit you have. If the answer is yes, then this habit is not serving you and you should work on letting go of it. Below you will find example answers for two of the above habits.

Example I

Habit: Checking my phone in the first 5 minutes after waking up while still lying in bed

  1. It makes me feel important and it sparks this adrenalin and excitement of seeing messages. It serves me because it makes me feel good when I have a lot of good messages.
  2. The feeling of being important, the feeling of someone caring about me.
  3. I am trying to escape the emptiness that comes when I wake up in the morning.
  4. Bill Gates: The morning is the most important time of the day. Here you set yourself up for the whole day. I would rather spend some time appreciating my partner or what I have then checking my stupid phone.
  5. Whenever I have bad or no messages, I feel bad immediatley. Furthermore, I sometimes forget the time and then I easily spend more than 30 minutes lying in bed and just checking my phone. Also, I am not appreciating my partner enough in the morning. My phone becomes more important than my partner who is lying next to me.
  6. Yes.

Example II

Habit: Watching porn at least 5 times a week in the evening and whenever I feel emotionally low

  1. It brings me relief and helps me to distract myself.
  2. The feeling of relief, having no mind/ no thoughts, being absorbed in one thing, having a clear focus.
  3. I run away from my feelings and I search for relief through porn.
  4. My mum: Honey, you can’t run away from your feelings. They will always be there. Porn is not good for you.
  5. I waste a lot of time. I become sexually numb. I have trouble getting aroused with a real sex partner. I still feel the pain I was trying to run away from.
  6. Yes.

Now, it is very important to understand that having that habit serves a purpose (see answer Nr. 1 and 2). So the habit is not bad. It simply has a downside to it and you can now choose whether you want to keep tolerating that downside or not. That’s why It is crucial to decide to let go of a habit (answer Nr. 6). After that you have to form a new habit (we will do that next) where the needs  you have (Nr. 2) are getting met. So you are not simply trying to get rid of a habit. You are just going to replace this habit you have with a new one where the needs you have are being fulfilled so you simply no longer need the old habit. Because the truth is, all the needs you have are valid. And you have to work on meeting those needs. If you simply try to get rid of a habit, without working on fulfilling the needs that that habit fulfilled, you will most likely backlash. Thats why your next step is to replace the old habit with a new one.

Replacing the old habit

To replace the old habit, you will need the answers from Nr. 2 “What emotions/what need gets fulfilled by acting on that habit?” Look at the answers and especially look at the emotional needs that are being met. Now try to think of a different way to meet these emotional needs. What do people usually do to fulfill these needs? (Without thinking of a specific habit yet.) Here are some examples:

Example I Need: the feeling of being important, someone caring about me.

Q: How can I fulfill this need? What do people usually do to fulfill this need?

A: Being important: People go out and create something that has an impact on other people, that way they can feel important.

A: Someone caring about me: What I really want in this situation is that I take care of myself. I try to make it about other people, but what I really want is that I take care of myself.

Example II Need: The feeling of relief, having no mind/ no thoughts, being absorbed in one thing, having a clear focus

Q: How can I fulfill this need? What do people usually do to fulfill this need?

A: Relief: I can work on finding relief from my emotional pain, to do what I can find ways to resolve the pain I feel inside.

A: Having no mind/ no thoughts, Being absorbed in one thing, having a clear focus: I could start a meditation practice.

Now that you have these answers you can think of a habit that you can create to replace the old one with. What is important here is that the new habit is doable for you in exactly the situations where you acted on the old habit before. To come up with a new habit, you simply put all the answers you have together and think of a habit that resonates with you. For example:

Example I: A new habit could be that the minute I wake up in the morning I bring all my focus to myself and I tune into how I feel after the sleep. Then I bring up the feeling of gratitude and look at myself and my environment and see what I am grateful for this morning. I promise myself that I will take care of myself throughout the whole day (this fulfills the need of someone taking care of me). Then, I tune into myself and I think about something I want to do today that involves helping other people (this fulfills the need of being important).

Example II: The best habit I can develop is, that whenever I feel the urge to watch porn, I set myself a timer and meditate for 15 minutes. In that meditation, I focus on all the emotions that come up and I try to simply be present with them. That way I am fulfilling all the above needs: relief, no mind/no thoughts, being absorbed in one thing and a clear focus.

If you can’t come up with a new habit, try to ask a friend what creative idea he/she has to fulfill these needs. Also, don’t be shy to include other people in the new habit. For example: if you feel the need to be heard, make a deal with a friend that your new habit is to call that friend whenever you feel the need to be heard.

Now, that you have your habit it’s just about replacing the old habit. So whenever you feel like going after the old habit, just replace it with the new. This can be challenging sometimes, but especially in the challenging situations, it’s important to act on your new positive habit.

Forming new habits

If you don’t have a habit you want to replace and you simply want to form a new habit, this part will help you with that. When forming a completely new habit, it’s important to create a lot of intrinsic motivation to act on that habit. To do that, answer the following questions:

  1. What area of my life do I want to improve?
  2. What action can I take that is fun and exciting for me to do to improve this area of my life?
  3. What makes it different for me from other actions I could take?
  4. Is that action exciting for me in the long run even though it can be challenging at some times?
  5. How do I feel before taking that action?
  6. How do I feel during the action?
  7. How do I feel after taking that action?
  8. What is the benefit of taking that action?
  9. What effects will acting out that action consistently have on other areas of my life? (What areas and what effect? Be specific.)
  10. Look at all the answers and ask yourself: Do I want to make this action a long-term habit?

Here again, it is super important to consciously decide for the action that will turn into a habit. If the answer for No. 10 is no, think of another action you can take. Because ultimately you have to come up with an action you are excited about doing in the long run.

Here’s one example:

  1. My fitness
  2. I love many sports but running is very exciting for me.
  3. Other sports I have to spend a lot of time to improve and be fit, but running is an easy sport. Also, I can practice running from everywhere and anytime. So it’s very flexible and easy to do.
  4. Yes.
  5. Stuck in my day, stuck in my head.
  6. The challenge, freedom to run wherever I want.
  7. Exhausted but super satisfied, proud
  8. I will have good fitness in the long-run with little time effort. I will lose weight and get into a better shape. I will have a strong heart.
  9. I will get fresh air (good for my health) and I will explore the environment (adventure). Also, I will get a nice tan from running outside all the time, this will affect my looks.
  10. Yes.

Now, that you have all your answers, come up with a very specific habit. Use specific days, times and circumstances. For example, “I will go for a 3km run from Mo-Fr every day between 8 am and 10 am”. It’s really important to be as specific as possible: If you just say I will run every day, you will probably delay the action. That’s why in this example, there is a specific distance, time of the week and time of the day.

Furthermore, it is important that you decide on something that is doable for you in the beginning. The beginning phase of developing a habit is always a bit challenging, that’s why it’s better to go a little slow and realistic on that decision. After the habit is developed, you can always do more.

Sticking to the habit

Coming up with a new habit is quite easy, but the real challenge comes when you start to stick to the habit. Generally, I encourage you to work on one habit at a time. Making this one habit last, is all about taking action and being persistent. To help you with that, here are some tips:

  • Take the action the first time it comes to your mind, don’t think about it too long. Use the momentum.
  • The initial idea of “this is challenging” will be rewarded with an “amazing that I did that” in the end
  • Always recognize and appreciate yourself for taking the action the minute you finished the action
  • Always focus on the intrinsic motivation
  • celebrate the feeling after completing the action

Generally, studies show that it takes between 14-30 days to create a new habit. But because it is a long-term habit and you are highly intrinsically motivated, you don’t really care how long it takes because you want to do it forever, right? 😉

When you have to force yourself

Sometimes, the habits you try to develop come from a state of pain or are not in alignment with your highest desires. If that is the case, you tend to really have to force yourself to take the action. Especially the habits coming from a state of pain do usually not work in the long-run. That’s why it’s good to question yourself in the beginning to really find out what your true motivation is.

  • Why do I want to have this habit?
  • What do I promise myself to get?
  • Am I trying to run away from something? If yes, how am I trying to run away from something (and from what)?

If the answer to any of these questions comes with a negative feeling inside, then I really encourage you to work on that something you try to get rid of or the thing that is causing you pain and that you are trying to improve. Because the general rule is: Any action coming from a state of pain creates more pain. So any habit you create from a state of pain creates more pain.

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Habits are easy (and when to drop them)

Generally speaking and coming from my experience: Developing new habits is easy. If the motivation is the right one, the habit is coming from a state of joy and love and the habit is in alignment with your highest desires, it’s easy to execute on that habit. There is no need to force or push yourself. Doing the new action will be totally natural for you because it is more a sign of expansion and love for life. So if over the next 14 days you can’t find any joy in the new habit and you just have to force and push yourself, reevaluate that habit and question your true motivation. If you then decide to drop the habit, that’s totally fine. Then that habit did not serve you.

In the end, life is supposed to be easy and fun. Habits are supposed to assist you on the journey towards an amazing life. So don’t create a new area of struggle or punishment with the new habit. Be nice and genuine to yourself.

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