Before Enlightment: Making a Habit Stick
Updated: Jan 13, 2021
By Amanda Lim & Maria Luedeke of the Butterfly Project
The secret to making a new year’s resolution stick beyond the second week of February (which research shows is when 80% of people drop theirs) is no secret at all: just keep at it. Every great goal achieved is simply the sum of repetitive, goal-supporting actions.
When resolutions fail, it’s for three reasons—because they are too dramatic, too vague, or too inconvenient to become habitual, and habitual behaviour is the ultimate proof of a true lifestyle change.
Take exercise, for example.
Most folks who want to improve their lives with movement will set goals that sound like this: “I want to run a marathon,” “I want to get stronger,” or “I want to go to the gym every day.” While at first glance these may seem like noble goals, upon closer examination, none are habitual. Running a marathon is a one-time event that for many, actually dissuades a long-term love of running. Getting “stronger” is an arbitrary measure that, unless undertaken with a specific end point in mind, likely won’t provide the long-term motivation to actually make noticeable gains. And while increasing exercise frequency is a good start, to say you’ll go to the gym every day is unrealistic, and the first day that you don’t go, the chain is broken and the momentum is lost.
So how does one go about actually making lasting lifestyle change? The key is to build consistent, realistic, measurable habits.
James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, defines habits as “the small decisions you make and the actions you perform every day.” The keywords here are small and every day. For a behaviour to become habitual, it has to be so small as to go almost unnoticed at first in your daily routine, yet important enough that its absence would make a difference in how your day pans out. For example, sleeping in your workout clothes doesn’t actually get you to the gym, but it removes one barrier to entry the next morning when the alarm goes off, and it might just give you the extra push to roll out of bed and move. The smaller yet more effective the action, the better—the key is that you decide to do it every single day.
To that end – once you’ve established a small daily habit, how do you turn it into a big result?
Let’s run with the above example: exercising more. You might start with sleeping in your gym clothes, which means you actually hit the gym three days a week instead of one or two. Next, you hire a personal trainer (what Gretchen Rubin, author of Better Than Before, calls an “accountability partner”) to help you add a fourth session, you’re paying for it so you have an incentive not to skip! From there, you realise that you could take your regular 9am Monday meeting via phone with a headset; that previously sedentary hour turns into a 60-minute walk. Suddenly, you’re working out five days per week, lifting weights, and getting 10K daily steps—and it all started with the daily decision to swap out your PJs for exercise gear.
Stack, Compound, Snowball for Success
Again, the best habits with the most staying power start small enough to stack, compound, and snowball into something meaningful. Make sure you align your daily actions with your longer-term goal, don’t be afraid to “course correct” when old habits are no longer working, and do try to “habit stack” new behaviours onto existing ones to better ensure their success. The journey of a thousand miles truly does start with a single step—but the secret to reaching the destination is to take 999 more of the same!
Amanda Lim, Peak Health Consultancy, and Maria Luedeke, Aspire Counselling, are the co-creators of The Butterfly Project.
Maria is a mental health counsellor and psychotherapist with nine years of experience. She believes in melding mind and body self-care for holistic wellness.
Amanda has been a certified personal trainer and nutritionist for 14 years. She’s passionate about women's health, prenatal and postpartum wellness, and helping her clients develop lifelong fitness & nutrition solutions.