Here’s the great thing about habits. They make action almost effortless. When we open our inbox or pull out our phone, for instance, our fingers, mind, and body know exactly what to do. The emails, texts, and messages almost start to write themselves.
Here’s the bad thing about habits. The bad ones are hard to break, and the good ones are hard to build. This is especially true for those of us who work in the knowledge economy. Our success is due to an extensive web of habits that help us stay sharp, productive, and add value for our clients.
Some of these habits serve us and others subtly erode our mental and emotional wellbeing, which can have real consequences over time. Responsiveness, for instance, is a must for anyone in professional client services, including (and perhaps, especially) lawyers. And yet when we’re responding to emails in the middle of the night or at the beginning of a wedding ceremony, this virtue quickly becomes a vice.
If you’re like most people, you probably have a few ideas about some new habits you could build that would radically improve your work and your life. And since we’re at the beginning of 2020, you might even have a list of things you’ve resolved to change in the coming months.
But you may have also found it challenging to turn these ideas into actual habits. You may notice that the idea of a morning workout program, a daily meditation practice, a new diet, or a time for distraction-free work is easy. The daily practice is where it gets difficult.
Four Strategies for NOT Building a Habit
There’s a lot of talk these days about how to build habits. You should set reasonable goals, have a cue, and make sure that you have some source of support. But we think it’s just as important, if not more so, to also consider how not to build a habit — to really see the clever ways in which we undermine our own efforts at self-improvement.
So here are our top four strategies for how to maximize your chances of failing to build a new habit. Just do the opposite of everything we mention here, and you’ll be in great shape for the new year.
Tip 1: Set Wildly Unrealistic Goals
This is one of the real keys to not building a habit. If you’re new to running, set your sights on an ultra-marathon at high altitude (I’ve heard great things about the Leadville 100). If you’re new to meditation, try working starting off with a 3-month silent retreat in rural India. By setting wildly unrealistic goals you virtually ensure that all your hard effort and discipline will result in failure.
Tip 2: Don’t Tell Anyone
Secrecy is another pro tip. If you want to start doing yoga, make sure nobody knows. Don’t go with a friend. Don’t even let anyone you know see you walk into the yoga studio. This is really the key for taking away all forms of support and accountability. By following this strategy, no one will ever ask you how that yoga commitment is going. No one will ever invite you to come with them to a class. You’ll never be reminded of your goal to create this new habit.
Tip 3: Go Big On Day 1
Want to get stronger? Try dead-lifting 500 pounds. Want to get faster? Try running a mile at 4-minute pace. Gradualism is overrated. If you want to fail successfully, it’s important to go all in on
Tip 4: Amp Up Your Inner Critic
This might just be the most important tip. You know that small part of you that says, “I can’t do this.” Well, see if you can give that voice a megaphone. Model your inner critic after a masochistic middle school gym teacher. No matter how well you do, remind yourself that it’s never enough. Forget your victories and spend your days dwelling on losses. This is the key psychological tactic for undermining the momentum of discipline before it has a chance to build.
Noticing Barriers to Change
It goes without saying that these are not the things you should do to build new habits. And yet these are the things that many of us do every day to get in our own way when we’re trying to build new habits.
So just as it’s helpful to follow the standard tips for habit formation — setting reasonable goals, starting slow, creating accountability, and being easy on yourself — it’s also helpful to see when you slip into these four traps that sabotage even the most well-intentioned attempts to change.
Noticing these patterns and even laughing at them is one of the real keys to building new habits.
So next time you’re struggling to not pick up the phone, to wake up early for the workout, or to order the salad, check to make sure that you’re not slipping into these common traps. Then see if you can use that awareness to create a new habit, one day at a time.
Editorial note: A version of this piece was published by the Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute (www.legalexecutiveinstitute.com)