How do you create a habit that sticks? Habit creation as the basis of a life coaching journey
Updated: Jul 20
Have you ever tried to create a habit and ended up failing after the motivation was gone? I think that has happened to every human being.
“So, how do I create a habit that sticks?”- is the question that I have been asked a lot as a life coach in Denver.
Motivation comes and goes. I want to talk about a more sustainable way that does not rely on motivation. The secret ingredient is changing your identity first before changing any habit.
There are 3 simple steps on how to make this happen:
Know the result.
Prove the identity to yourself.
So often we are going through the motions without actually knowing where exactly we want to end up, without knowing what exactly we want to have in the long run. We put in an exact address in our navigation system, not just the name of the city alone. Right?
So it is crucial to get crystal clear about what it is that you want to achieve. It is actually one of the first things that I talk with clients about as a life coach. Clarity around the outcome is something that sounds so simple yet has a profound effect on my work as a life coach in Denver.
Ex: I want to completely quit smoking in 3 months.
I want to lose 10 pounds in the next 12 months.
Ask yourself, what do you really want to happen 1 year from now?
Have you ever been asked a question on how you made something happen and you answered: That it is just who I am. There is huge power in this statement. What was actually driving you is the desire to be consistent with who you believed yourself to be at that time. It's like there was no other option for you, right?
Look at the areas of your life where you feel successful and notice what type of person you are being when it comes to that area of your life. I bet you have strong principles, values, and qualities around that life zone. Just notice that, appreciate that and now we can use that in other areas of your life.
Just by being aware of what strategy made you successful can be a useful tool in other areas of life.
It is time to figure out who you need to become to make that new goal happen.
Who is the type of person that can do this?
What are his/her qualities?
What are his/her top values?
What are his/her top principles?
Once you answered these questions continue the sentence: I am the person that (Blank).
Ex: I am a non-smoker.
I am a person for whom health is a number one priority. I am a foresightful, health-conscious, and disciplined person.
As a life coach, I always hear that people want to have lasting changes in their lives. We know that we can make a real difference only when we are able to stick with something for a long period of time. As you did the previous identity exercise you might have been feeling a slight shift of perspective that is a little bit shaky and unstable. That is normal. Our job here is to make it stable. You need to make yourself believe that it is real. The only way to make this happen is to be clear on what action backs that belief up and take that action.
Imagine a table that is standing on its legs. The top of the table is your belief about yourself, that self-identity that we were talking about. For example, the belief is: I am a person who is health-conscious. The Legs are the actions and beliefs that back that belief up. For example, I research nutrition every day for an hour, I read the labels on each product I purchase, I prep my food beforehand, I do not eat fast food, I exercise every day, etc. The more legs you have and the thicker they are the more stable the belief is. More legs equal more actions, and the legs become thicker with the more self-acknowledgments, time, and effort you put in. The longer you do it and the higher your effort, the thicker the leg. So now we need to decide what legs you need to back a particular belief up.
Decide what habits you need to create in order to prove your identity.
Ex: I go to non-smoking restaurants because I am a non-smoker.
I do deep breathing exercises to calm myself down when I am stressed because I am a health-conscious person.
What are the action steps and habits YOU need to create in order to confirm that you are the type of person you want to be?
The strongest force in the human personality is the need to stay consistent with how we define ourselves.
So many people start acting big, then lose motivation and stop taking action. The idea here is to set yourself up for success. Remember it all starts with your identity. It is better to start small and start proving to yourself that you can make it happen. What counts is the number of repetitions, not the quality and intensity.
What is the SMALL step that YOU are willing to take next week?
I highly encourage you to stop here and take action. Spend a week taking those small steps. Information only has the potential to change. Change comes from action. Read part 2 only after you have taken some action.
So if you are reading this then you probably took some action, got some momentum and you are ready to dive deeper.
So what is inside each habit and how can we reinforce it? That is another common question that I hear about habits, working as a life coach in Denver.
There are 4 parts in each habit:
Let’s assume that you want to become a healthy person and you create a habit to eat more fruits and veggies.
To empower this part of the habit you need to make the reminder of that habit visible. That will increase the likelihood of you remembering the habit and/or will increase the amount of time you do it throughout the day.
- Have a plate of fruits in the kitchen, in the office, in your living room, etc.
- Have your running gear by your bed in the morning, have your running shoes by the entrance door, etc.
You need to spend some time making the habit attractive. We naturally pulled towards the exciting things. It is easier for us to stick with a colorful and exciting movie for a few hours than to read a not very interesting book. So we need to add some colors to build the habit. There are 2 ways you can do this:
#1. Adding what you already enjoy doing.
- If you like listening to music you can add that piece to your run or studying.
- If you like nature you can go and study there.
#2. Reframing the experience
- “Eating healthy food is energizing me”, instead of “eating healthy food is boring.”
We like the phrase “overnight success.” I personally believe that it doesn’t exist. It takes time to build a city, it takes time to become successful, so does a habit. It is important to focus on the number of repetitions in the beginning, not the difficulty and quality. It is essential to make this really simple and easy and then SLOWLY build over time.
Also, it is super helpful to break your habit into 2-minute chunks. Start with the first 2 minutes for the first week. It can be putting your shoes on and getting outside.
- Have 30% of your meals green.
- Do the first 2 minutes of your exercise routine every day.
Bonus tip: Never miss a habit twice in a row. Life happens. You can miss that exercise one morning but never fail twice in a row. What you do twice creates a bad habit. if you missed that exercise one time, you will need to do the following one for sure.
Reward yourself after you complete the action IMMEDIATELY! You need to do that in order to link pleasure to the habit. If you do so you will have less resistance when starting next time. Also, it is a great time to reinforce your identity that we talked about in the first part.
There 2 ways to reward yourself:
#1 External reward.
- having a massage after a workout
- jumping into a jacuzzi after a healthy meal, etc.
Tip: Make sure your reward doesn’t create identity conflict.
- You want to become a health-conscious person. You create a conflict when after a healthy meal you have a super non-healthy dessert as a reward. In this case, I would suggest finding a better alternative for the reward.
#2 Internal reward.
Pull out your desired identity phrase: I am the person that (blank). We created it in the first part. You can reinforce the belief and reward yourself now by confirming your identity.
- I am a runner. My 2 min run today confirms that I am becoming a runner.
Tip: allow yourself to feel the positive emotions that come with this victory and with the confirmation.
The external reward usually works better at the beginning of habit creation and internal rewards more towards the end of it.
So that is how you create a new habit in 4 steps.
Now that we’ve discussed how to create a good habit, what about destroying a bad habit?
There are 4 steps on how to do that:
Make it invisible.
It is essential for you to get triggered less because I believe that willpower is like a muscle. If your “discipline muscle” is not very strong yet you need to do fewer repetitions at the begging.
Example: hide the unhealthy food, do not buy unhealthy food in the store (go there when you are full).
Make it unattractive.
There is some compelling association to every habit that you need to work with. The key here is to make it less attractive so you are pulled less toward it and pulled more towards the ability to say NO.
How? - Celebrate your NOs to make it unattractive.
- Make the habit boring.
-celebrate immediately every time you say no to an unhealthy food.
-celebrate immediately saying NO to opening the time-wasting application on your phone.
-make your phone screen black and white.
Make it hard.
It is important to make the process difficult so you have to do more to get it. You will end up creating the association that eating junk is difficult and inconvenient because it takes an extra effort to get it from the top of a shelf behind all that stuff that is there on that shelf. Over time that will decrease your desire to do it.
-put your junk food on the top shelf.
-unplug your TV.
Make it unsatisfying.
It is important here to teach your body and mind that there are consequences for not sticking to the plan, for taking steps that are not consistent with the desired identity. Usually, we are very aware of what long-term consequences can be if we stick to that bad habit. That is great and also for your nervous system you need to create an immediate feedback loop at the moment. For example, when you eat junk food it makes your body feel a sense of comfort and pleasure. So it perceives it as a good thing. But if you would call your accountability partner and tell what you just did, that would create discomfort around that habit. In this case, your body would learn that it is a bad thing for you and you will need to fight less with your body later.
-give 5 $ online donations for every 15 min you spend up after 10 pm.
-write a text to your accountability partner immediately you have done something that was against your plan.
Here is my take on habits. My belief as a life coach that at the core of each habit is identity, so I encourage you to start with that and then build from there. I also believe that your life is built with SMALL wins, not with overnight successes so be realistic with yourself along the way. Rome was not built in a day.
You’ll never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret to your success is found in your daily routine.
James Clear (2018) Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Habits and Break Bad Ones.
Dennis Guyvan, a life coach. He provides individual life coaching sessions in Denver and Chicago, and worldwide via video and phone calls. Schedule your free 20-minute coaching consultation with Dennis Guyvan.