Trouble getting new habits to stick? Here are 4 gaps you aren’t addressing
Does this sound familiar?
“I will start flossing my teeth twice a day starting from today!”
You are all excited and gung ho. You are determined to make it work – this time.
Fast forward 5 days later and you are all like “Wellllll, I’m kinda tired and I’ll just go to bed now. I’ve not flossed at all today but I’d be doing so in a couple of hours anyway.”
Fast forward another 5 days and you’ve completely stopped flossing.
Sound familiar? What is exactly going on here?
You are attempting to create a new habit for yourself and failing majorly at it.
With new habits, we usually start out bright and excited, determined to see it through this time!
But a couple of days down the road, your progress is patchy or you’ve completely fallen off.
This isn’t really surprising. See, new habits need time to stick.
You are doing something novel, introducing something you’ve not done before to your existing lifestyle. You need a system, a strategy and just plain old time to make those morning or evening routines, flossing, running or reading habits stick.
And sometimes getting it to stick involves doing a gap analysis to ensure that you are addressing all your habit gaps.
What is a gap analysis?
I adapted this idea from an incredible book I read recently: Julie Dirk’s Design for How People Learn. She addresses learner gaps.
But it struck me that some of these can be applied to creating new habits. Creating a new habit is equivalent to learning something new.
We usually aren’t aware of these gaps. But they do exist.
And not addressing them means that no matter what sort of strategy you use, they will either never work (ie: your habit doesn’t stick) OR you don’t see much progress.
So when you are about to start a new habit, take a look at these 6 gaps. Have you sufficiently covered them?
Trying to create a new habit is equivalent to learning something new.
1. Knowledge gap
- What information do you need to be successful?
- When will you need it?
How it applies to your habit:
This might not apply to all new habits you are trying to create. But it helps if your new habit requires some extra knowledge or prior research.
This is to ensure you start things right and that you continue on the right path.
For example, if you are trying to floss – considering these questions might help: What sort of floss is good? What is the correct flossing method?
Understanding your new habit better may also make you more engaged with it and give you that extra motivation to want to execute it well.
2. Skill and Practice gap
- What do you need to practice?
- When are your opportunities to practice?
- Have you had sufficient chance to practice?
How it applies to your habit:
Some say it takes 21 days to form a new habit, some say it’s 66.
I’m quite on the fence about the exact number of days, because I think we are all different and the days don’t really matter.
Creating and maintaining a new habit is like honing a new skill.
More importantly, before a habit starts to stick, you need to ensure that you have gone through enough practice sessions.
What do I mean by practice sessions? And why does it matter?
You have to give yourself the chance to practice and get used to this new habit before giving up. You need time to condition yourself to a new change in your life.
It is exactly like honing a new skill.
Just think about this, let’s pretend you are a beginner tennis player and you aim to reach Federer-like fame someday.
Say, you had a match with him today. Who do you think will win? Why?
If you hold all other factors constant (practice conditions, coaching staff, workout plans etc) –
It’s obvious Federer is gonna win, and the biggest reason why is because he’s had way much more practice sessions and practice hours than you have under his belt.
As a result, he is way more skilled than you are because he’s just had that much more time to practice and sharpen his tennis-playing skill.
You need to give yourself sufficient practice time to become skilled at your habit and allow it to gain momentum.
Sufficient practice sessions make you skilled at your habit, such that it becomes automatic.
The “10,000 hours of practice is needed to become world-class at any field” is a real thing.
Whilst none of us here are aiming to become world-class flossers or anything like that, in the case of building and maintaining a habit, you need to give yourself sufficient practice time to allow it to gain momentum.
Look at these practice sessions as a trial period, a settling in period before your habit gets set in stone.
3. Motivation and Learning gap
- What is your attitude towards this new habit (change)?
- Are you going to be resistant to introducing a new habit a.k.a changing course?
How will this apply to your habit:
Do you realise that introducing a new habit is equivalent to introducing a new change in your life?
Picking up that piece of floss every night requires you to readjust your bedtime/brushing schedule or even undo some current, long-standing habits with brushing.
This is the reason why habits can take very long to form, to maintain and to get rid of.
It’s a whole change process that requires undoing old habits and automatic behaviour and replacing them with new ones.
Thus, if you are creating a new habit, one thing to consider is if the new habit requires you:
- To do something already familiar to you in a new manner OR
- To change the way you do things completely
If it’s the latter, then you will have a bit of a struggle, as this requires some form of unlearning old habits and processes as I mentioned above.
You have to make a conscious effort to undo things that have been automatic for you.
Introducing a new habit is equivalent to introducing a change in your life. This is why habits take time to form, to maintain and to get rid of.
When we become proficient at something – say flossing – , the memories around this proficiency are streamlined over time, it becomes automatic.
Our brains have already gotten extremely efficient at how we access, retrieve and make use of that information around that habit.
There is existing momentum.
Learning something new messes with this momentum a little. We would thus need more focus and cognitive resources to learn the new habit and maintain it.
For instance, if you are simply changing the location for your daily jog – you’ve always been running – this is going to be easier than if you are, say, wanting to introduce running as a new habit to keep fit.
Change is a process, not a one-off event.
The former requires a slight re-adjustment whereas the latter is a change process in itself.
If you are faced with this gap, don’t give up!
Understand that new habits are like change. It is a process, not a one-off event.
It’s normal to feel annoyed, unhappy, and to fall off here and there. You need to give yourself enough time to adjust.
4. Environment gap
- What in the environment is preventing your habit from successfully sticking?
- What is needed in your environment to support your success?
How it applies to your habit:
Our environment can make or break our habits, so it’s important that we design our environment in a way that will aid habit creation and maintenance.
For instance, if you want to get in the habit of drinking water more frequently, then perhaps you need to ensure you always have a bottle of water at places that you frequently spend time in.
Design your environment in a way that cuts down decision-making and sets your new habit up to succeed
If you would like to run everyday, ensure you have your running shoes out by the door.
Successfully designing your environment will enable you to cut down on the number of decisions you have to make and the extra physical and cognitive load you need to execute it.
Putting those running shoes right by the door cuts the time you need to look for them, think about where you last kept them or having to search for it.
That’s already 2-3 steps you’ve cut down right there.
Additional decision-making or thinking steps adds cognitive load, and that makes you less motivated to carry out that habit. Especially if you tired or in a bad mood.
We want our new habits to be inducted in as smooth a way as possible into our lives.
As they can be hard to maintain, we want to ensure that we design our lives and environment in an optimal way that makes it easy for us to carry them out, and which reduces any obstacles, cognitive or physical.
Having trouble making your habit stick? Chances are you haven’t addressed one of the four gaps above.
Also, always remember to be patient and reward yourself whenever u do something right.
Rewards create positive reinforcement such that you will repeat it again.
Habits do take awhile to settle in, so definitely give yourself as much time as you need. It’s normal to fall off here and there, just give yourself the chance to get back on again.
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With 10 years of experience as a Researcher (MSc) in Psychology, Neuroscience, Mental Health, Consumer and Organisational Behaviour; I help action-oriented, time-strapped people and solopreneurs crush their inner critics, navigate toxic workplaces and relationships and build their self-esteem so that you can have the freedom, happiness and confidence you desire. I spend the rest of my time daydreaming and downing cups of tea/coffee – my life’s vice. Ask me any question and I will answer it in a post.