Developing a habit can be a time-consuming and difficult process.
According to research, you can expect habit formation to take between 18 to 254 days or an average of 66 days, while many new year's resolutions are abandoned by the second week of February.
Even if you know what habit you need to develop, what strategies are most effective, and what tools would help you, knowing isn't enough to sustain your habit.
And since you're reading this, chances are that you want to develop the right habits with the least amount of friction, challenges, and obstacles along the way.
If you want to make sure that your habit-formation efforts aren't put to waste, continue reading for the 7 biggest mistakes people make when developing habits and how to avoid them.
Mistake #1: Not relating your habit to your unique why
We all know examples of good habits, right?
You have exercise, reading, eating healthily, planning ahead, maintaining personal hygiene, organizing your space, and many more. But when it comes to habit formation, it takes a lot more than simply knowing what to develop and it's not even enough to know the generic "why."
One of the biggest mistakes people make when developing habits is failing to recognize their unique "why."
For example, exercise is good habit to develop because it will make you fit and healthy (the generic "why"). But it would be more powerful and motivating to consider the the specific reasons you need to get started on it.
Perhaps you don't want to feel exhausted or lose your breath whenever you travel or go sightseeing with your family.
Maybe you want to be fit enough to play with your children or grandchildren in 10, 20, or 30 years from now.
If you're being honest, you might want a toned and strong body just in time for beach season.
Now these are your real, personal "whys" and keeping these in mind will help you:
- focus and say "no" to distractions,
- overcome obstacles such as procrastination and laziness, and
- be consistent in developing your habit in the long run.
Mistake #2: Not starting small
When it comes to developing the right habits, it can get overwhelming really fast.
Because the right habits are oftentimes tiring, uncomfortable, and complex, simply thinking of the process alone will make you feel unmotivated and more likely to procrastinate on it.
This is why it's a big mistake to not start small.
Ask yourself what the smallest possible step you need to take is in order to get the habit going every single time.
In terms of exercise, this could be as simple as changing into your workout clothes. In terms of reading, this could be grabbing the book from your shelf and sitting down in a corner. In terms of writing, it could be the small act of turning on your laptop, closing your phone, and setting a timer.
This way helps you get started on your habit quickly and eliminate all possible excuses.
Mistake #3: Not tracking your progress
A habit is not something you do once and expect to reap the benefits from it immediately. It's an on-going process which means you'll need to dedicate a considerable amount of time, energy, patience, persistence, and other resources to see it through.
And because no one wants to put in effort for nothing, tracking your progress can help you be smart about the process by letting you know what's working and what's not.
Depending on your habit, consider tracking the following:
- frequency (ex. reading three times a week versus every day)
- speed or efficiency (ex. running 2 miles a day at 10 minutes per mile)
- effectiveness (ex. writing and actually publishing blog posts weekly)
- your progress (ex. exercising 20 min. the 1st week, 30 min. the 2nd week, 45 min. the 3rd week, and so on)
- the time of the day (ex. meditating in the morning versus in the evening)
- tools (ex. using a pomodoro timer to help you focus on a single task)
- music or sounds (ex. journaling with Spotify or Noisli in the background)
- distractions to avoid (ex. notifications, Netflix, email, etc.)
- weather conditions or temperature (ex. jogging out in the sun or rain)
- location (ex. at home, at a cafe, along the beach, in a park, in the car, etc.)
It's important to note that recording your habit and making the data actionable are two different practices.
That said, tracking has the potential to help you tweak your habit to make it easier to start, more enjoyable to do, and even exciting to maintain.
Mistake #4: Not setting up an accountability system
The same way that students submit homework to get good grades, employees do their jobs to earn a salary, and we pay Netflix every month to keep watching shows, accountability systems are powerful forces that help us do what we're supposed to do when we're supposed to do it.
Without accountability, it'll be much easier for us to blow off our habits, give in to temptation, and choose to do other things instead. Accountability systems can help us stay on track and deliver on our commitment by putting more skin in the game.
Depending on the habit you're developing, you could increase accountability by getting a partner or a coach, joining a support group, establishing rewards for when you successfully develop your habit, or setting up consequences in case you don't follow through.
Mistake #5: Not considering your environment
Even if you're very determined, there may still be external factors that will prevent you from developing your habit.
For example, even if you're trying to eat healthily, your home may still be filled with tempting snacks such as chips, pastries, and sugary drinks.
Even if you're trying to read, you may still be surrounded with distractions like TV, games, and social media apps.
Even if you're trying to quit smoking, your friends may be inadvertently tempting you whenever they light up themselves.
Even if you're trying to focus on work, you may still be interrupted by your boss, colleague, or coworker.
For this reason, consider your environment and find ways to eliminate/avoid/manage the external factors that may distract you or deter you from developing your habits.
Mistake #6: Not planning ahead
Similar to #5, it's important to acknowledge that you will most likely encounter obstacles along the way. These are inevitable as you set out to develop your habit especially in the long run; however, it's possible to plan and prepare for what to do if and when those unexpected circumstances happen.
Try using If/then statements by filling in the blanks: If ______, then I'll ______.
For example, if it's raining outside and you don't feel like jogging, then simply work out at home instead.
If a coworker or friend asks a favor from you while you're working, then you can politely say "no" to them or ask them to wait (provided it's not a real emergency).
If you have a family engagement or night out with friends, then you can read 2x longer the next day instead.
Usually you can plan for weather disturbances, distractions, and appointments, but for real emergencies, you can make up for missing your habit at a later time instead.
Mistake #7: Not being in it for the long term
Unfortunately, one of the biggest mistakes people make is giving up before their habit is fully developed.
Many people go at it full force for a few weeks (read: new year's resolutions) and get frustrated when they don't immediately get the results that they expected.
By definition, a habit is a regular behavior, pattern, or practice acquired through time and repetition.
This means that it's a long-term process that's impossible to be developed with a short-term way of thinking.
Once you reframe your mindset to be in it for the long haul, you'll be:
- less prone to making excuses,
- less susceptible to giving in to distractions,
- more resilient when faced with challenges,
- more solution-oriented as opposed to problem-oriented, and
- more focused on long-term achievement over short-term satisfaction.
No one ever said habit formation is easy. You'll face a lot of internal and external challenges and constantly be tempted to give up along the way. But unless you want to waste all the time and effort you've already put in, consider identifying possible mistakes and working on solutions to avoid them. Doing so will give yourself the best chance to develop the right habits, make them stick, and experience all its longterm benefits.