Tips for Successful Habit Building
A simplistic view of habit building success is that the things on your list actually happen, doing a desirable activity more than normal is a fine achievement in itself. Basic habit tracking enables this, and the long term sign of success, the transformation, is when the thing becomes habitual. This means it is highly likely to happen and feels easier, which could mean less effortful, more enjoyable or just more often remembered.
Having successfully worked with coaching clients to build habits and achieve what they are looking for, here’s what I’d recommend.
Carefully thought out habit building activities are key to success, to be motivating they should be challenging and valuable, but not so huge or difficult that they’ll be avoided. The ubiquitous SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely) mnemonic provides a useful checklist and is helpful for figuring out what to adjust to make better progress.
I believe it’s important activities are authentic, don’t judge them through another’s eyes (especially not some mythical social media standard), only you know where you are starting, what you are facing and what you want to achieve.
It’s not just about what the habit is, but when it begins, or more precisely the cue. A habit can be disrupted or created by recognising a cue, and introducing an alternative activity. So perhaps a cue, like lunch time, which leads to a social media session that lasts just a little too long, could be replaced with a habit like ‘At twelve thirty take ten minute walk outside’.
I'd recommend printing the builder (on recycled paper of course) and putting it somewhere you’ll trip over it. If you read the previous paragraph carefully, you’ll recognise this is a cue, a cue to use the habit builder. This will also remind you what you've achieved and what you set out to do. The printout could go on your laptop, on the fridge or in your desk drawer just try different places until you find what works.
A paper copy has other advantages, it cuts out the distractions of devices and has everlasting batteries and subscriptions. As a side note, researchers found For habit tracking apps both these are detrimental to habit formation , and one survey found 74% of users stopped using health apps after just 10 uses, and that the dependency on devices "introduces fragility in users' attempts to change their behaviour, as they often abandon the app and subsequently disengage with their new behaviours." 
The Rownham Coaching Habit Builder is minimalist by design, but doesn’t have to stay that way. An advantage of paper Habit Builders is that they are easy and cheap to customise, pour your creative talents into them, drawings, stickers, graffiti, motivating quotes. You can jump beyond the 2D world and track with objects too, throw counters into a pot, move sticky notes, find what works for you.
There are many ways to track and build habits, they suit different goals, personalities and thinking styles. When getting going it’s important to choose something and get started, once it’s in use you can reflect and learn. It’s fine to switch approaches and try something new, sometimes it’s the novelty that leads to success, rather than one approach being better than another.
The important themes here are to make it your own and notice what works for you in your unique situation.
Stick with it
Fill in your builder daily. It becomes difficult to remember, and perhaps easier to cheat, if filled in days after, and you deprive yourself of that instant reward for a job well done. Habit building takes time, so expect to use it for at least two months, and never take your hard won progress for granted. Choosing habits, monitoring them and reflecting on progress is a valuable habit in itself, a trait that benefits in many ways. Part of the aim is to get good at habit building, so that principles can be applied to new areas. Charles Dugg has a good article about this, and his book ‘The Power of Habit’ is well worth a read.
What we’re interested in is self measurement of achievement, so see if you can find someone to work with you, a little help from a coach or accountability buddy goes a long way. A surprising finding from my coaching sessions is that progress conversations can be effective without knowing what the actual items being worked on are.
Of course there will be occasions when you don’t do that activity, or stop using the Habit Builder, that’s fine, you’re doing these things because they are worth it, not because they are easy. What you do next is what counts, forgive yourself, check direction and look for signs of success. James Clear suggests a ‘never miss twice’ rule.
I recommend what I call ‘Rest, Cheat or Treat’ days, sometimes all three at once. These planned breaks make some habits more likely to sustain. On these days take a break, reward yourself or do less of something. The rule is to book cheat days in advance, and not have too many, weekends are of course popular. In terms of building mental and physical fitness these are your recovery periods and vital to sustain long term training.
Habit Builders and trackers are a productive way to support personal development and take conscious steps towards goals. Even the attempt to define and monitor habits is valuable, raising awareness and encouraging effort. With time and dedication all those small steps can add up to significant change. So what are you waiting for? Plan it, Print it, Personalise it, Stick with it…good luck!
Ref 1 Hermsen, S., Moons, J., Kerkhof, P., Wiekens, C., & De Groot, M. (2017). Determinants for sustained use of an activity tracker: observational study. JMIR mHealth and uHealth, 5(10). https://doi.org/10.2196/mhealth.7311.
Ref 2 Renfree, IM., Harrison, D., Marshall, P., Stawarz K., & Cox, A., (2016). Don’t Kick the Habit: The Role of Dependency in Habit Formation Apps. https://doi.org/10.1145/2851581.2892495.