The Richard Nicholls Podcast

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Episode 140: How To Make Habits Stick

It’s a new year!
Time to join in with the tradition that every January we draw a line in the sand and decide to do something different with our lives.
Because doing it in November or December just feels wrong!
I say every year we MUST question whether or not we really want those changes if we waited until January to make them, but there are times when the beginning of a new year will help us to start some new habits or get rid of old ones and so I’m happy to jump on the new year-new you bandwagon with some tips for you.
So, if you are making new years resolutions, these are ways to help them stick.

Firstly we need to recognise that making these sorts of changes takes willpower, it takes strength to override habits. The good news is that our strength of will can be made stronger if it’s exercised, so if you can find something that tests your self control for a few weeks whilst you make the bigger changes, you’re going to have more success.
One of the easiest ways which has been shown in many experiments to have a really good effect on boosting our willpower is using a hand grip strengthener or a stress ball to squeeze.
If you make specific effort twice per day to squeeze your hand in as tight a grip as you can for as long as you can, and you do that for a couple of weeks you genuinely strengthen your willpower and you’re more than twice as likely to still be a non smoker a month later than if you hadn’t been using a hand grip strengthener.
Proving to yourself that you can force yourself to do something that you don’t really want to have to do will build up your resilience and strengthen your self belief.
But don’t get cocky! You can’t expect to take on the world. Think of your willpower as a muscle that you’re strengthening. If you’ve never even gone jogging in your whole life you wouldn’t expect to run a half marathon, so don’t take on too much.
If taking on a big goal it’s best to simplify what it is that you want to achieve and break it down into smaller, more manageable ideas.
Take weight loss for example, let’s say you want to lose a stone. now we know what to do, we eat a bit less and move around a bit more it’s not rocket science. But look at how! Create some expectations, such as taking a smoothie into work twice per week instead of a sandwich, going for a run every Tuesday and Thursday after work.
To start off with that’s probably all you need to do to get the ball rolling. You can’t expect to suddenly develop a whole new personality overnight, just make some little changes and build on them.

This same process applies to anything that requires self control, so we can extend this to drug abuse, alcoholism, anger, impatience. The process is the same. Strengthen your self control in one way and this domino effect transfers it onto other things.

Another peculiar phenomenon is about increasing our feelings of influence on the external world, research shows that you can hold a heavy weight in your hand for longer if you’ve just given money to charity, even just £1. But you can hold it for even longer if you’re thinking about hurting someone in some way.
Bit of a weird experiment that one, asking people to write a fictional short story whilst holding a heavy weight. If it was a neutral story, they dropped the weight at about 53 seconds. If it was a story about helping someone the average was about 58 seconds but if it was a story about doing someone harm they could hold it for over 61 seconds. Strange.
Now, I don’t want you to go around being horrible to everyone but if you look underneath it all to see why these stories had an influence it seems to be about personal power, control over something or influence.
Recognising where our “locus of control” is, is vital. By locus of control I mean is it internal or external factors that dictate your life. If you didn’t get the type of job you wanted, was that because no-one would take you on? or because you didn’t apply for enough jobs? You know the phrase “a bad workman always blames his tools” that’s about our locus of control.
If the system is always holding you back, and there’s no point in applying for that job because the interviewer is just going to give the job to his nephew anyway, because it’s not what you know its who you know then your attitude is going to hold you back.
It’s like learned helplessness. Unlearn that and learn to have some influence over your future and you’ll be able to make it all stick.
Lastly it’s worth mentioning the pitfalls. Ask yourself “What is it that would prevent me from achieving my goal?” If you can anticipate what the stumbling blocks are going to be then you can counter them with a plan.
What are your excuses going to be? If you can weaken those excuses by acknowledging them first they’ll lose their effect over you. If you’re biggest stumbling block to eating healthier is that you never seem to have the time in the morning before work to prepare anything, then go to bed 10 minutes earlier, get up 10 minutes earlier and make a habit that before you go to bed you’ve already made your mind up what it is that you’ll make, because trying to make your mind up when you’ve only been awake for a short while isn’t such a good idea.
If you know what might stop you from succeeding and you can deal with it first, then you’re on the right road.