The Secret to Building Habits: Start Small
The Habits of Health are built around the simple truth that the majority of the choices that affect our health are performed unconsciously. Somewhere along the way the behaviors that lead to disease became a part of our lifestyle—late night television watching, reaching for candy bars when you feel stressed, spending the majority of the day sitting—and over the years those choices add up to extra pounds and a state of sickness.
Changing these behaviors takes time. Just as eating one cheeseburger doesn’t make you unhealthy, skipping one cheeseburger won’t make you healthy either. If you can consistently make the healthy choice over the course of months and years, you can radically change the course of your health. You can potentially live longer and live a richer, more active life.
The latest research on habit development suggests that it takes about 66 days to change a habit. After working with hundreds of clients, we also know that one of the best ways to ensure success is to approach change in small doses. If we ask you to transform your eating habits and your movement habits overnight with a new diet and a five-day exercise program, the learning curve is simply too steep. It’s not practical, and it’s radically unfair.
Our brains are simply not wired to manage extreme, sudden change.
So we start with small, bite-size habits. Ideally, these habits are so small that they seem impossible to get wrong.
For example, if your ultimate goal is to get 10,000 steps in a day and your current reality is one of near-complete inactivity, we might start with the goal of getting 50 extra steps a day, perhaps by walking the dog or parking just a little bit farther away at work. That’s not so bad, right? You could be about to go to bed, realize that you haven’t done your extra steps, and take a few quick minutes to get your steps in by walking up and down your hallway.
If you do this for 66 days, that extra activity will become a habit.
Here is the big secret though: If you skip more than two days of your new behavior, start your 66-day count over.
If you miss one day, the world won’t end, but you should do everything in your power to make sure you get back on the horse that second day. Set reminders in your phone. Hang post-it notes on your bathroom mirror. Ask a friend to remind you. Pull out all the stops to keep the progress you’ve made.
If you start small enough, creating these new habits incrementally should not be intimidating and should not be a source of anxiety. Identify your larger goal, and then break it down into a habit that’s small enough for you to manage with relative ease. Don’t load yourself up with multiple challenges. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Start small, enjoy your success (because every victory matters!), and begin a long-term sustainable transformation.