5 Common Mistakes That Cause New Habits to Fail

Depending on where you get your numbers, somewhere between 81 percent and 92 percent of New Years Resolutions fail. 1

Translation: At least 8 times out of 10, you are more likely to fall back into your old habits and patterns than you are to stick with a new behavior.

Behavior change is hard. No doubt about it.

Why is that? What are the biggest reasons new habits fail to stick? And what can we do to make positive changes easier?

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but after two years of researching and writing about the science of behavior change, let me share the most practical insights I’ve learned so far.

PROBLEM 1: Trying to Change Everything at Once

SOLUTION: Pick one thing and do it well.

The general consensus among behavior change researchers is that you should focus on changing a very small number of habits at the same time.

The highest number you’ll find is changing three habits at once and that suggestion comes from BJ Fogg at Stanford University. Let’s be clear: Dr. Fogg is talking about incredibly tiny habits.

How tiny? Suggested habits include flossing one tooth, doing one pushup per day, or saying “It’s going to be a great day” when you get out of bed in the morning. So, even if you keep your new habits that small, you should work on no more than three habits at a time. 2

Personally, I prefer to focus on building one new behavior into my life at a time. Once that habit becomes routine, then I move on to the next one. For example, I spent six months focusing on going to the gym every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Once that felt like a routine, then I moved on to my next habit, which was writing a new article every Monday and Thursday. This time, I spent eight months focusing on the new habit until it became part of my lifestyle. Next, I moved on to flossing every day. And so on. You get the idea.

BONUS SOLUTION: Pick a keystone habit.

Still struggling? When in doubt, pick something that could potentially be a keystone habit.

A keystone habit is a behavior or routine that naturally pulls the rest of your life in line. For example, weightlifting is my keystone habit. If I get to the gym, then it creates a ripple effect in other areas of my life. Not only do I get the benefits of working out, I enjoy a wide range of secondary benefits. I focus better after the workout. I tend to eat better when I’m working out consistently. I sleep better at night and wake up with more energy in the morning.

Notice that I didn’t try to build better habits for my focus, my nutrition, my sleep, or my energy. I just did my keystone habit and those other areas were improved as well. This is why keystone habits are powerful. They cascade into other areas of your life. You’ll have to figure out what your keystone habit is for you, but some popular examples include exercise, meditation, or budgeting your monthly finances.

Further reading: Keystone Habits: The Simple Way to Improve All Aspects of Your Life

PROBLEM 2: Starting With a Habit That is Too Big

SOLUTION: As Leo Babauta says, “Make it so easy you can’t say no.”

If you were to map out the motivation needed to perform a habit, you would find that for many behaviors it looks like this:

habit motivation

In other words, the most difficult part of a new habit is starting the behavior. It takes a lot of motivation to head to the gym for a workout after an exhausting day at work, but once you actually begin the workout it doesn’t take much willpower to finish it. For this reason, one of the best things you can do for building a new behavior is to start with a remarkably small habit.

New habits should be non-threatening. Start with a behavior that is so small it seems easy and reasonable to do it each day.

  • Want to do 50 pushups per day? Start with something easy like 5 or 10.
  • Wish you would read more books? Start by reading two pages every night.
  • Want to finally start meditating? Meditate for one minute each morning. After a month, you can move up to two minutes.

Further reading: How to Build a New Habit. This is Your Strategy Guide.

PROBLEM 3: Seeking a Result, Not a Ritual

SOLUTION: Focus on the behavior, not the outcome.

Nearly every conversation about goals and resolutions is focused on some type of result. What do you want to achieve? How much weight do you want to lose? How much money do you want to save? How many books do you want to read? How much less do you want to drink?

Naturally, we are outcome focused because we want our new behaviors to deliver new results.

Here’s the problem: New goals don’t deliver new results. New lifestyles do. And a lifestyle is not an outcome, it is a process. For this reason, all of your energy should go into building better rituals, not chasing better results.

Rituals are what turn behaviors into habits. In the words of Tony Schwartz, “A ritual is a highly precise behavior you do at a specific time so that it becomes automatic over time and no longer requires much conscious intention or energy.” 3

If you want a new habit, you have to fall in love with a new ritual.

Further reading: Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead.

PROBLEM 4: Not Changing Your Environment

SOLUTION: Build an environment that promotes good habits.

I have never seen a person consistently stick to positive habits in a negative environment. You can frame this statement in many different ways:

  • It is nearly impossible to eat healthy all of the time if you are constantly surrounded by unhealthy food.
  • It is nearly impossible to remain positive all of the time if you are constantly surrounded by negative people.
  • It is nearly impossible to focus on a single task if you are constantly bombarded with text messages, notifications, emails, questions, and other digital distractions.
  • It is nearly impossible to not drink if you are constantly surrounded by alcohol.
  • And so on.

We rarely admit it (or even realize it), but our behaviors are often a simple response to the environment we find ourselves in.

In fact, you can assume that the lifestyle you have today (all of your habits) is largely a product of the environment you live in each day. The single biggest change that will make a new habit easier is performing it in an environment that is designed to make that habit succeed. For example, let’s say that your New Year’s resolution is to reduce stress in your life and live in a more focused manner.

Here is the current situation:

Every morning, the alarm on your phone goes off. You pick up the phone, turn off the alarm, and immediately start checking email and social media. Before you have even made it out of bed, you are already thinking about a half dozen new emails. Maybe you’ve already responded to a few. You also browsed the latest updates on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, so those messages and headlines are swimming around in your mind too. You haven’t even dressed yet, but your mind is already distracted and stressed.

If this scene sounds familiar and you want to change your habit, then the easiest way to do it is to change your environment. Don’t keep your phone in your room. The phone is the thing that causes all of the problems, so change the environment. Buy a regular alarm clock (shockingly old school, I know) and charge your phone in another room (or, at least, across the room away from your bed).

You can change the digital environment too. Turn off all push notifications on your phone. You can even remove your email and social media apps from the home screen and hide them somewhere else on the phone. I deleted all of my apps from my phone for a month just to see how it would go. I missed them very little.

If your environment doesn’t change, you probably won’t either.

Further reading: This Simple Equation Reveals How Habits Shape Your Health, Happiness, and Wealth

PROBLEM 5: Assuming Small Changes Don’t Add Up.

SOLUTION: Get one percent better each day.

If you listen to nearly anyone talk about their goals, you’ll hear them describe the minimum that they want to achieve.

  • “I want to save at least $5,000 this year.”
  • “I want to read at least 30 books this year.”
  • “I want to lose at least 20 pounds before summer.”

The underlying assumption is that your achievements need to be big to make a difference. Because of this, we always talk ourselves into chasing a big habit. “If I want to lose at least 20 pounds, I need to start busting my butt and working out for 90 minutes a day!”

If you look at your current habits, however, you’ll see a different picture. Nearly every habit you have today, good or bad, is the result of many small choices made over time. It is the repeated pattern of small behaviors that leads to significant results. Each day we make the choice to become one percent better or one percent worse, but so often the choices are small enough that we miss them.

If you’re serious about building a new habit, then start with something small. Start with something you can stick with for good. Then, once you’ve repeated it enough times, you can worry about increasing the intensity.

Build the behavior first. Worry about the results later.

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Footnotes
  1. There are several studies and articles quoting either a 90 percent or 92 percent failure rate. I’ll go with the 81 percent failure rate, which comes from a research study by psychology professor John Norcross. He tracked the success rate of New Year’s resolutions over a two-year span.

  2. I think BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits program is great. I believe it is also free, so you can’t beat the price.

  3. Quote from Tony Schwartz featured in the book, Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career