Imagine you’ve decided to quit sugar completely. To kick off your new changing habit, you’ve decided to do a Whole30 and reset your body’s cravings by denying it sugar and anything related to sugar for 30 days. Now imagine that on day one you open up your cupboard and have to reach past your husband’s Milanos to get to your Seaweed Snax. That first day was fine, you just pushed those cookies out of the way.
But on day 10 you were just so tired, the baby had already barfed on you twice and your preschooler peed her pants and it’s 3pm and you just want a frickin’ break already. Do you think you’ll be able to push past those cookies now?
Here’s the thing. Changing habits is far more susceptible to environmental factors than internal motivation or drive. In other words, it’s not you, it’s them. No matter how determined you are to avoid sugar, exercise, meditate, lose weight, go to bed early, etc., if the world in which you are changing habits doesn’t change, the new habit won’t stick.
To create healthy habits that stick, we need to create a W.O.R.L.D. in which there is no other option than to stick to that habit.To create a healthy habit that sticks, we need to create a W.O.R.L.D. in which it will thrive. Click To Tweet
Changing Habits by Changing Your W.O.R.L.D.
While we’d like to just decide we’re changing habits and do it, it’s an unfortunate reality that we can’t just drop a healthy habit into an unhealthy environment and expect it to thrive. We have to prep the soil, make sure the environment is right for growth, and tend to it carefully until it takes root.
Basically we need to create a W.O.R.L.D. in which that habit can flourish. What does that mean?
Waterfall changing habits
Develop neural pathways
W – Waterfall Changing Habits
The unfortunate reality is that we can’t just change one thing in order to create a healthy habit. Habits depend on a whole chain of behaviors that needs to adjust when something new is thrown into the mix. That’s why we need to take a waterfall approach to changing habits, focusing on the whole chain, not just the desired behavior.Habits depend on a whole chain of behaviors, a waterfall, that needs to adjust to change a habit.Click To Tweet
Say you want to create the habit of healthy sleep. First, identify all the behaviors that would support that healthy habit: regular exercise, regular bedtime and wake up time, no alcohol, no sugar, no devices after 8pm, setting the mood for sleep 30m-1hr before bedtime.
Now put them in causal order. Basically, identify your waterfall chain reaction. For our sleep example, that would probably be:
(1) regular wake up time,
(2) regular exercise,
(3) avoiding sugar,
(4) avoiding alcohol (particularly before bed),
(5) avoiding caffeine,
(6) no devices (including TV!) before bed and,
(6) good “sleep hygiene” setting the mood for bed 30m-1hr before.
The reason I say this is the causal order is because if you don’t have a regular wake up time, your day starts out in chaos and in chaos it is much harder to do any of the other healthy habits. Then if you don’t exercise, your body won’t be tired when it’s supposed to be. After that, even if you do exercise, if you pile sugar or alcohol on before bed, your sleep will be disturbed. And so on.
Once you get the chain, start at the beginning and focus on the first behavior for 5 days. Then add the next behavior for 5 days, and so on. This is waterfalling. By the end of 30 days, you should have the healthy habit of sleep dialed in, and will have created a healthy environment for other habits too!
If you need some help visualizing this waterfall download my free printable here. A visual tracker like this is very helpful for keeping yourself accountable and feeling a sense of accomplishment as you maintain your streak.
O – Overcome Potential Obstacles
But how do I focus on all of these behaviors and keep them up? One of the best strategies is to plan for failure. We do this by creating if-then scenarios that will keep your streak going even if the worst happens.
So again with the sleep example, say you’re working on avoiding alcohol before bed but it’s Mom’s Night Out and you want to let loose. Create an if-then scenario so everything doesn’t go to hell.
If I drink tonight, I will still wake up at my regular wake up time tomorrow.
Or if I drink tonight, I will not drink again for the week before bed.
Or if I drink tonight, I will stop at 9p and switch to water.
And so on. Make sure you create a fall back so that even if you’re not perfect, you still keep your streak going.Plan for failure so that even if you’re not perfect, you still keep your habit streak going.Click To Tweet
R – Recruit Help
Habits are very difficult to change in a vacuum for a vast majority of people. Most people need some form of accountability, whether it’s external or internal.
For those that do best when someone else holds them accountable, then create that situation. If you’re working on a regular wake-up time in the example above, make a date with a friend or even with your preschooler in the morning. Promise to meet up for coffee, a phone call check-in, or a game of CandyLand every morning at 8am.
For those that do best when they hold themselves accountable, a habit tracker will do wonders. If you’re techy, try some of my Top 5 iPhone Apps to Help You Thrive. Several of these will help you set and track habits and they are all free to use so just enter your email below to download a list.
L – Link Habits Together
This is one of the most effective habit formation strategies I have found. Basically, you link your new habit together with an already established habit that you enjoy. So if you’re missing your TV shows because you’re working on “no devices before bed,” link watching TV with exercise. The only time you can watch TV is when you’re on the treadmill or elliptical. That way you reinforce your exercise habit and don’t feel like you’re totally depriving yourself of TV.
Another example would be to link good sleep hygiene with reading. Promise yourself that if you get into bed 30 minutes before your appointed bedtime, you can read one of your favorite books for 30 minutes. That way you’ll look forward to getting ready for bed instead of dreading flossing.
D – Develop New Neural Pathways
But why is it so hard to do something new? The reason is neural pathways. Over the course of your many years here on earth (I’m guessing) your brain has become very efficient. It has built the fastest roads between action and reward that it can muster. These neural pathways get stronger and faster the more you do something.
So say you always eat a cookie at 3pm. That neural pathway between action and sugar high is very strong. We need to create a new neural pathway that is even stronger to overcome the old one. The reward has to be just as “good” for your brain and the old pathway should be made basically inaccessible by changing your W.O.R.L.D.
One of the best ways to do this is to start small and build. That’s why we don’t start with “sleep more.” We start with “wake up on time” and waterfall from there. If you link wake up on time with, say, have a cup of coffee, then your brain will feel rewarded and that neural pathway will start to be built.
We need to make our new behaviors so easy to do that it’s actually hard to say no to them. So if you’ve got your wake up time down and you’re working on exercise, sleep in your yoga clothes and put your running shoes right next to the bed. That way you have nearly no choice but to put them on immediately and start moving.We need to make our new behaviors so easy to do that it’s actually hard to say no to them.Click To Tweet
Another idea would be to promise yourself that you’ll just get dressed for exercise at an appointed time and go to the gym or walk out the door if you’re a runner. Once you’re standing on your porch in your running shoes, you will feel silly if you just walk back inside without exercising. So you promise you’ll at least run to the end of the block. Once you get that momentum, it’s like a habit snowball that will carry you to your goal.
If you create a W.O.R.L.D. in which your new healthy habits can’t help but take root, you will be successful. The key is to stop pretending we can just drop new behaviors in the middle of unhealthy environments and expect them to thrive. Change the environment and your new habits won’t feel like work. They’ll just feel like a natural progression of your day.
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