Sometimes we wind up choosing habits or goals that we once thought were important — especially around ~New Year’s resolution~ season — without realizing we don’t *actually* want to do them anymore, Ryan Howes, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, California, tells Tameans Health.
So, do you still really want to become a morning person or does that secretly sound so awful? Do you actually want to give up coffee or do you just feel obligated to try again since you didn’t do it last year? Do you want to meditate every day or is about time you find a stress relief habit that you actually like?
You’ve probably heard various secrets and methods promising to be The Thing that finally helps you form that habit. Just do it for 30 days, and it will stick! Schedule in a cheat day! Do it first thing in the morning! Etc. etc. etc.
“Those things work for some people, but not for everyone,” Gretchen Rubin, author of Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, tells Tameans Health. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you should be able to do it a certain way.” Because if they don’t work for you, you’ll probably think it’s not possible and give up.
When was the last time you met a goal that you’d set, stuck to an ongoing hobby or habit, or finished a project? What do you think led to your success? For example, maybe the last time you were able to paint consistently was in college — and it was probably because you had a structured environment keeping you accountable. Or maybe you started working out three times a week only when your brother said there was no way you could ever do more pushups than him — and you needed to prove him wrong.
What you *might* discover is that you react positively or negatively to different kinds of expectations, specifically outer expectations (like deadlines, assignments, pressure from friends) and inner expectations (things you do for yourself for personal reasons). According to Rubin, there tend to be four kinds of people: those who respond well to both kinds of expectations; those who meet outer expectations but have a hard time meeting expectations they impose on themselves; those who question outer expectations and need to do things for themselves; and those who resist all expectations, inner and outer. (Btw, Rubin calls these the Four Tendencies and you can find out more about them here.)
Once you have an idea of which of the four camps you fall into, you have a better chance at setting yourself up for success. For example, once you accept that you have a hard time self-motivating, that could be a sign that you need to come up with some sort of accountability to keep you motivated as you try to develop this habit.
Let’s say you want to start cooking at home so you can eat more whole foods and save money, but last time you tried, you hated it. Well, ask yourself why you hated it, suggests Rubin. Did you hate having to shop and lug groceries back to your apartment every week? Did you hate having to spend time cooking when you got home from work? Did you hate having to do dishes instead of tossing out takeout containers?
Those things are different than hating cooking — and they are annoyances you can problem solve to make a cooking habit easier to develop. Maybe you invest in grocery delivery. Maybe you meal-prep instead of cooking every day. Maybe you master one-pan meals. You get the picture.
“Sometimes people think they’re being concrete but they actually are not,” says Rubin. “Things like ‘eat healthy,’ ‘practice mindfulness,’ ‘spend less time on my phone,’ ‘spend more time with my friends’ — what does that mean? Those are totally vague. You really want to break down exactly what you’re asking of yourself.”
You know the deal when it comes to goals and habits: You want it to be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. Think, I’m going to work out three times a week for three months, I’m going to read every morning except Mondays on my commute, I’m going to make my own cold brew instead of going to Starbucks and deposit the money I save into a separate account until I’ve saved $500. Don’t slack on the specifics.
It’s pretty simple: If something is more convenient, you’re more likely to do it and if something is less convenient, you’re less likely to do it, says Rubin. If you want to take your makeup off every night before bed, at least keep face wipes on your bedside table. If you want to exercise more, sleep in your exercise clothes, prioritize finding a gym that’s more conveniently located, or look into how to work out at home. If you want to want to cut back on coffee, put your coffee maker and beans away, and make tea or another replacement drink super accessible.
If you anticipate failure, you can put safeguards into place, says Rubin. For example, let’s say you want to start writing down three things you’re grateful for every morning when you wake up. Well, what happens when you wake up late and have to rush to class? What happens when you’re in a really bad mood and can’t think of anything? What happens if you lose the special notebook you write in?
If you think about it in advance, you’re much more likely to figure out how you’re going to act — and you’re less likely to come up with excuses in the moment to get out of it.
Because hey, tools can be helpful. Here are eight apps that will help you build a habit. Rubin also has an app, tied to those Four Tendencies mentioned earlier, called the Better App that has a place to join or start accountability groups — aka groups of people who can cheer you on *and* who will be checking that you’re doing what you said you’re going to do.
Some people really need accountability, but are introverted or independent, so the idea of reporting to an accountability group or telling your friends that you’re pursuing a goal is more discouraging than anything.
If you’re one of those people, you might be able to self-generate accountability by getting a little creative, says Rubin. “Think about your future self,” she suggests. “You can say Present You doesn’t want to do this thing, but Future You will be really disappointed if you don’t.”
You can also think about the value you’d bring to the world if you accomplished your goal. Like, if you’re trying to build a habit of writing every day in hopes of finishing a book, think about the people in the world who would *love* to read it. Or if you’re trying to take more pictures, just imagine how much family members will love to see snapshots of your life.
Sometimes people think if they beat themselves up, they’ll energize or guilt themselves into doing a better job, but honestly, when you act and feel like you’ve “failed,” you tend to quit, says Howes. It’s actually when you show yourself compassion — for example, acknowledging that hey, this wasn’t your best day but at least you learned a lesson during this setback — that you’re more likely to keep going. Because listen: You’re going to mess up, and that’s okay.