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How long does it take to make a habit? Is it takes 21 days? Or is it 66? Or just 18? The truth is that even if we manage to establish a new habit, making it stick long term can still be difficult. Life happens and throws us off track but luckily, there are things we can do to establish long-term habits. Habits that lasts a lifetime!
The key is to acknowledge that we’re not all the same, and the strategies we need to employ to continue a habit long-term differs between different people. Some people do great with external motivation, someone who keep tabs on them, whilst others hate the feeling of being told what to do.
By exploring and breaking down how different personality types establishes, and continues, habits long-term we can understand what strategies we need to employ to successfully establish long term habits in our own lives. And why what works for us, may not work for our friends or loved ones.
Establish Long-Term Habits with The Four Tendencies
There are many ways of classifying personality types, but when it comes to habit creation and maintenance, Gretchen Rubin’s The Four Tendencies is a good place to start. What she explores in this book is how people react to inner and outer expectations.
Do we thrive under pressure from our boss or does that make us want to rebel?
Will a commitment to ourselves to go for a run on Saturday morning actually make us do it?
Depending on how we respond to inner and outer expectations Gretchen divides us into four categories (tendencies):
Responds well to both inner and outer expectations. I’m personally an upholder – I can push myself almost too far all on my own, but I am also very keen to meet external expectations from my boss, my partner and my friends and family.
Questioners questions all expectations independent on the source of the expectation. They need to think it through, internalise it and make sure that it makes sense. They really make all expectations inner expectations.
You may want to make your boss happy, but more than that, you want to make sure the request makes sense before comitting.
Obligers will do almost anything to meet outer expectations. They will always go that extra mile to make sure they don’t disappoint anyone. Anyone but themselves that is. They struggle to meet their own expectations and will therefore need external support, external expectations, for what they want to achieve.
If you keep promising yourself to start exercising or go on a diet but it never happens, because your time and energy is always taken up by everyone else’s needs and wants, then this might be you!
Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. Creating long-term habits is the most difficult for rebels as they want to feel free, unshackled, able to make their own choices moment to moment.
A good friend of mine is a rebel and with me being an “upholder” I often feel like our brains work completely different! Not bad different, just different. And it’s fascinating.
Starting to Create Long-Term Habits
Now that you’ve considered your tendencies, if you respond best to inner or outer expectations, or if you are a rebel that want to avoid expectations at all costs, you can use this to establish how to start to create, and maintain, your new habit.
Outer Expectations and Long-Term Habits
If you respond well to outer expectations, you need to create those outer expectations for anything you want to achieve. Let’s say you want to start running 3 times a week. You can keep telling yourself that you should go running, that you want to go running and then you can beat yourself up for not going running.
Or you can find someone to be accountable to. Someone that you don’t want to let down. You can try:
- A running buddy that will be disappointed if you don’t show up.
- Having an accountability buddy, a friend or loved one that you call once a week and give a report of your running progress.
- You can put a habit tracker on the wall in the kitchen where everyone can see it and ask a loved one to give you a gold star every time you go for a run.
- You can pay a coach to perform the role of the person setting the expectations.
- There are countless fitness communities online where you can find accountability buddies, post videos of your workout or in other ways be accountable to others.
Inner Expectations and Long-Term Habits
If you respond well to inner expectations, you will want to be accountable to yourself. To check in on yourself that you are doing what you set out to do. Let’s use the running example again. You can:
- Keep a habit tracker to track for yourself that you are doing the habit. It doesn’t need to be visible to others though, a habit tracker app or a tracker hidden inside your wardrobe door will work fine.
- Set a weekly reminder on your phone to check in with yourself. Are you running? If not, why? What will set you up for success next time you encounter a similar situation?
- Keep track of the outcome. Can you run for longer? Is your resting heartrate changing? Your blood pressure going down?
If you’re not served by outer expectations, try to avoid being accountable to others. The feeling of doing something to please someone else may well make you rebel and want to do the opposite. Even if it was your idea in the first place!
Establishing Long-Term Habits as a Rebel
If you don’t like expectations at all, changing and establishing habits can be more difficult than for people who do thrive under inner, or outer, expectations. But all is not lost!
A rebel wants to make choices in the now. To determine what best serve them in any given moment. So how do you make that choice? What will make a rebel go for a run in the morning?
The answer is purpose and values. A rebel needs to be clear on the underlying aim with going running. And that needs to be something they want more then sitting on the couch. Truly want it. That way, more often than not, they will make the choice to go running, as that is what serves them best in the moment.
We can all learn this from the rebels, because we all need a purpose when establishing long term habits. If we want habits that lasts for longer than until we run out of willpower.
We all need that inner compass. We need to know why we are doing what we are doing. And that why needs to be something we really want!
Establishing Long-Term Habits
It’s easy to see how we can use inner and outer expectations to establish habits in the first place. But then, why do we slip after a month, a quarter, or a year?
There are three main reasons to why we break a habit of a lifetime:
1. You Remove the Expectation
We tend to believe that once a habit is established, we don’t need to maintain it any longer. It is now automatic. Yay! I’ve become a runner! I no longer need my accountability buddy or my habit tracker.
So we stop doing what made us establish the habit in the first place, and sooner or later, life throws us a curve ball, and we don’t go running that day. Or the day after.
To avoid this pitfall, continue what works. Once a habit is established you might not need to track it every day, or to phone your accountability buddy once a week. How about switching to monthly chats? Put a monthly or even yearly reminder in your phone to check in if you are still on track?
With an established habit you don’t have to focus all your energy on maintaining it, that’s the beauty of habits! But be aware, life can break any habit unless you check in on yourself every once in a while.
2. You Reach Your Goal
Consider a rebel who wants to become a life-long runner. They’re trying to come up with a goal, a reason for running that will keep them going. That will make them chose to go running more days than not. They consider either:
“I want to run the London marathon.”
“I want the health and stamina that comes from a lifetime of running.”
Both goals can work wonders in establishing the habit. But what happens once the rebel has completed the London marathon? Once the goal is fulfilled? Will they continue to make the choice to go running?
Having value-based goals, goals that’s about who you want to be, not what you want to achieve, is a big help for all of us in establishing long term habits that can last a lifetime.
If you’re considering how to lose weight long term…
“I want to be healthy for my kids.”
Is almost always going to be a better long term motivation than
“I want to lose 10 pounds.”
Goals that has a time of accomplishment can be a great way to get started, to get your motivation up, but be wary of what happens next. Will you still be a runner, if you completed the London Marathon 2 years ago but haven’t gone for a run since?
3. The Habit No Longer Serves You
Not all habits should last a lifetime. If you run regularly to stay healthy for your kids, there may come a day when your body gives up on you and running is no longer a great activity. Does that mean that you fail if you stop running?
Not at all.
Go back to the underlying goal, the underlying value, to be healthy for your kids. Can you achieve that in another way? Maybe it’s time to find another good habit to start; take up swimming or start walking every day?
If your habit slips, don’t berate yourself or call yourself a failure. Examine why you are no longer doing the habit. Did life come in the way, but you want to take it up again? Great! Examine what happened and how you can react differently when that situation (inevitably) comes up again. Re-establish your value-based goals and your expectations.
Or did you stop because the habit no longer serves you? It no longer takes you where you want to go? Consider your underlying goals and values. Have they changed? Do you have to pivot to continue become who you are becoming?
Or is the value-based goal the same but the habit is no longer taking you there? If so, consider what you can do instead. What other habit can take you to where you want to go?
Establishing Long-Term Habits that Lasts a Lifetime
Long term habits are not limited to long term health-habits. The same process works for long-term financial habits, study habits, sleeping habits or any other habit you want to establish.
Some habits should be for life, others serve us well for a time and then we outgrow them. Both is fine. Both is right. But don’t let all your hard work establishing good habits fall to the wayside because of complacency. Because you can’t bother to check in every once in a while.
Schedule that phone date with your accountability budy. Set that reminder. Take 5 minutes every month to consider where you are going, and you will start feeling secure that you’ve got this life thing. You are living intentionally. Your life is not just happening to you.
Who will you become?
Atomic Habits is one of the most important books about habit creation, and thus a key resource for personal development. It includes a powerful insight to the power of habits, how to design systems that works for YOU, and how to master the tiny behaviours that lead to remarkable results. If you haven’t checked it out yet, this is a game changer.