How To Build Habits That Help You Achieve Your Goals

Achieving your most important goals becomes quite easy if you develop the right supporting habits. However, creating and sustaining new habits is not very easy – unless you understand how habits work and use the right strategies to form and stick to these habits

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In my last post, I wrote about how building a writing habit helped me overcome my resistance – to working on my goal of becoming a published author. You may recall that I started small – aiming at writing only 10 minutes a day, until I saw myself doing it consistently.

I made it easy for myself to do so by anchoring the habit to breakfast , a well established habit. Also, I had made it easier to write by using a writing tool that provided a simple and clean interface and eliminated all distraction.

Normally, after breakfast I would check email. By forcing myself to complete my writing quota before going online and checking email, I also rewarded myself (or exploited a craving to be more precise).

For me, the biggest resistance was in getting myself to start the writing process consistently; once that consistency was established, it was fairly easy for me to keep increasing the duration of my writing session, until I reached my target of writing daily for 90 minutes. In the future, if I find the need to increase my output, I might either extend the duration further or introduce a second session later  in the day.

How Habits Work

Building a new habit need not be difficult. But before I share the strategies, a very brief digression to understand how habits work.

In his book Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do,And How To Change, Charles Duhigg speaks about a neurological loop as basis of every habit

The Habit Loop

Every habit involves a routine (behaviour), a cue and a reward. The cue is the trigger or precursor that prompts the behaviour. A cue is usually one of these types – location, time, emotional state, person, object or a behaviour. It only requires one of these to trigger our behaviour. In the writing example above, my cue for the writing habit is a preceding behaviour – breakfast, which is a well entrenched habit – thus making it an ideal cue for my new habit.

Selecting the right reward can be tricky; to be really effective, a reward has to satisfy a deep craving. Sometimes craving is not obvious; and occasionally the craving is created by the introduction of the habit itself. In the writing example above, my reward is that I permit myself to go online after finishing my writing task. Since surfing the  web (and reading email) provides me information, satisfies my curiosity and usually entertains me, I feel a craving for it. My reward satisfies that craving.

If you followed the above, you will know that the craving is artificially created (by avoiding going online until I have completed my writing task), and that it could easily be satisfied by eliminating the very habit I’m trying to install. So this is not sustainable – until the intrinsic reward from the habit comes into play. Once writing becomes an established habit, I know that it is moving me steadily towards my goal of becoming a published author. So the “why” is really important In establishing your habit (which explains why not having a  goal is a bad idea).

So building a new habit is simple

– pick the right habit (the routine) – a habit that moves you toward your goal

– pick the right cue (location, time, person, emotional state, existing behaviour)

– pick the right reward (a reward that satisfies a craving and keeps you interested until the habit is formed and the intrinsic reward kicks in)

While this looks simple, it is by no means easy. Which is where a few power strategies come to our rescue.

Start Small

The idea is to start with a routine that is so easy, so effortless and so convenient, that we can brush aside our own resistance and see no reason to not perform the routine. This might sound trivial, but there’s a fairly powerful principle at play here. By doing the habit, albeit in a small way, we are confirming to ourselves that we ARE the person with the habit we are working on – a writing habit or a running habit or the habit of making sales calls – i.e. I am a writer, I am a runner, I am a sales person etc

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Make it Easy

Build on existing habits, eliminate distractions and temptations, reward yourself, exploit your craving. In the writing example above, we have already seen that the existing habit of breakfast makes a powerful cue. The reward initially comes from satisfying my craving for surfing the web/checking email and eventually from the intrinsic reward of moving towards my larger goal. The use of a writing software that eliminates distraction, removes the temptation of impulsively checking the web for “facts” or quickly scanning email,  helps me  focus all my attention to my routine (writing). These considerations are important in designing your habit and should not be ignored.

Consistency over Quality

Don’t try to move too fast. See whether you are performing the initial small habit consistently. The reason is this – most of the resistance we encounter is in making the start. We need to overcome the inertia. Once we get going with the task, spending additional time on it or doing it at a greater intensity is not as difficult. So, our objective is to ensure that we overcome our initial resistance and perform the behaviour consistently

Steady Growth

Once we have achieved consistency with the initial habit, we make slow but steady progress. The idea is to keep pushing ourselves, but not to do so in a way that awakens our resistance again

The Power Strategies In Action

In my previous  post, I had also shared an example of using the habit of running 90 minutes daily to progress towards the goal of running a half marathon. It would indeed be difficult to build that habit by starting with a 90 minute run on day 1.

Instead, my friend started by simply changing into running gear after his morning meditation,  and running for 10 minutes before heading back home. It took him nearly 2 weeks to feel confident that he could do this consistently.

After that he slowly increased the duration of his run – and for a while this was easier than he had anticipated. When he felt he had reached his limit (just short of 50 minutes), he decided to add walking to his practice so that he was out on the road for a full 90 minutes.

When that looked sustainable, he slowly increased the duration of running by about 5 minutes each week, and within a couple of months he was running for the full 90 minutes without a break.

The last step was to ensure that he covered a distance of 21.1 km (the official half marathon length) within his 90 minutes. Since his daily practice made him confident about his running, he paired up with another friend and that helped him pace himself.

Achieving your goals becomes simple if you can identify and create the right habits. While forming new habits is usually a big challenge, it becomes much easier when you use some simple  yet powerful strategies such as – starting small, making it easy, aiming for consistency over quality (or intensity) and pushing for steady growth.

If you follow this approach, you will soon find that you have picked up a habit of winning!

How easy or difficult is developing new habits for you?

What changes can you make in your approach to make habit building easier than it is for you now?

Image source : Scott Webb on; Guillaume on

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Narayan Kamath

I'm a Leadership Coach and Mentor. I help successful leaders take their leadership to the next level. My mission is to make positive and significant impact in the lives of at least 100,000 people by 2020 - by helping them unleash their true potential to achieve greater success and fulfilment - at work, and in life.

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