What Makes Habits Stick?

Her Corner

Frederique Irwin

November 4, 2019

Last February, I embarked on a year-long program to learn more about habits: which ones matter, how to instill them, how to get them to stick. These aren’t necessarily business habits—they’re more like life habits—but, when you have them in place, everything, including your business, runs more smoothly. Think things like getting better sleep, meditating, finding ease in your life.

These are hard (and I mean hard) habits to build. As an example, I have been meaning for years to learn to meditate. I’d download the app, decide how and when I would do it, try it for a few days, and then let it go.

But six months into this program, I have found a way to build meditation into every day as something that no longer feels like an obligation, but instead like something I look forward to and even miss when I don’t get it done. How did that happen? And have I stumbled on the secret to making habits stick?

I discovered that I had the first step to creating a new habit all wrong. I had thought it was about setting a goal, making sure it was measurable, and knowing how it would be implemented.

BUT NO. THAT WAS STEP TWO.

First, I had to really identify why I wanted to implement this new habit. I had to be crystal clear about that why—how would implementing this habit help me become the kind of person I wanted to become?—so I could come back to this touchstone in moments of weakness. Starting by saying: “I want to become the kind of person who does X because Y” had been missing.

But even with the very best “why,” I still would not have been able to make a new habit stick. Because in order to stick, a habit must be stacked: Stacked on top of other simple habits, stacked on top of other things I already did, stacked on top of things that made sense. I couldn’t just force new habits into time slots that simply did not work.

Here’s an example: Had I tried to meditate in the middle of the day, I would have failed within a week. Something always comes up, meetings always get scheduled, there is simply no anchor for me in the middle of the day.

So I had to start with other simple habits. I always start my day the same way: I get up, I drink three glasses of water. I do a few other things as part of my morning routine. And then, I meditate. I plot it out the night before: Before I go to bed, I think about what I’m going to accomplish in the morning (including meditating), and I decide what time I’m going to wake up.

I’ve set up the habit’s success before I’ve even gone to sleep. The habit was stacked on top of an existing routine. I just expanded that routine, which was solid enough to support an additional, mindful activity. And that is why it has stuck.

As an adult, learning new habits is challenging, whether it is a life habit or a business habit. But there are strategies to increase the chances that your new habit will stick. If you keep getting stuck, call me. We’ll talk about habit stacking!