How To Build and Maintain New Habits: 2 Authors Share Powerful Insights on Creating Long-Lasting Habits
“If you pick the right small behavior and sequence it right, then you won’t have to motivate yourself to have it grow. It will just happen naturally, like a good seed planted in a good spot.”
— BJ Fogg
Today, I would like to share an excerpt from Petr Ludwig and Adela Schicker's book 'The End of Procrastination' on how to build and maintain new habits.
Building Habits: How To Train Your Elephant
Recently, one of my colleagues trained for, and then ran, a 70 mile-long mountain ultra-marathon. Just a few years ago, he didn’t run at all, and in fact, running was a sport he didn’t like. I now consider this formerly irresponsible procrastinator to have one of the strongest willpower muscles of anyone I know. By gradually building habits, he was able to get his elephant into gear.
Many things you need to do in life are unpleasant at first.
This results in emotional aversion, which paralyzes you and causes you to put things off. Even if reasoning tells you that a certain task must be done, negative emotions will discourage you from doing it. Your elephant will see it as an obstacle and will become afraid. The greater your aversion (the greater and more complicated the task is), the greater obstacle it presents to the elephant.
Emotional aversion is an obstacle that leads to paralysis and the inability to perform rationally planned actions.
Many important things in life lie on the other side of these emotional barriers, and therefore you need to learn how to overcome them.
- How can you handle aversion?
- How can you even learn to like unpleasant activities?
- How can you learn to gradually catch your flow while doing them?
To overcome paralysis, you need to start by setting the bar as low as possible so that your elephant is not afraid.
Then, teach your elephant how to go over this low obstacle. You can accomplish this through regular repetition. Usually actions need to be repeated twenty or thirty times.59 It will then become an automatic activity for the elephant; you will have learned a new habit. You will feel no aversion to doing it; it will be like brushing your teeth.
Once you begin managing your new habit, you can slowly raise the bar. This way you can learn to overcome the obstacles that initially caused aversion and led to paralysis.
This is how I started writing this book. I told myself that every day I would write only two paragraphs. For me, and particularly for my elephant, this amount of writing was acceptable. If from the very get-go I told myself that I would write several pages or even an entire chapter, it is quite likely that you wouldn't be reading this book right now.
Creating habits isn’t about quantity; it’s about small steps and regular repetition.
By taking small steps, you can make big changes. Long ago, Japanese samurais used a method of gradual, constant learning to overcome even the most unpleasant of things. They called it kaizen.60
By making gradual increases once you learn a new habit, you can strengthen your willpower muscle.
As you slowly raise the bar, your willpower will gain strength. The more powerful it is, the easier it will be for you to overcome more and more obstacles.
If you want to start running, it wouldn’t be the best idea to go out and run two miles.
Setting the bar too high will most likely frighten your elephant; you might go running once or twice but that would most likely be where your running career ends.
If you want to make a habit out of running, you have to start out with as little to overcome as possible.
Go outside and run a few hundred feet every day. Or just put on some athletic clothes, go outside, then come back in. There is always a step that the elephant will be comfortable taking.
If you can repeat this small step a few times, your elephant will grow accustomed to it and you will be able to start lengthening your runs.
You can use this method to teach yourself how to run almost any distance. Since you will begin catching flow while running, you’ll start enjoying it.
Learning how to wake up early, eat healthily, exercise regularly, or eliminate bad habits can all be achieved by taking small steps, too.
Gradual changes are more pleasant than sudden, radical shifts. They are more enduring, and therefore the odds of success are much higher.
Because you only have one willpower muscle for everything, if you train it to perform one activity, you can use its strength to do other things as well. My colleague, who trained his willpower by running, now uses it at work every day.
How to Not Disrupt Habits and How to Maintain Them
Habits can be disrupted fairly easily by vacations, sickness, or just plain forgetfulness. When this happens though, you need to know how to get back to your habit as soon as possible. After a pause, many people have a tendency to make a critical mistake that scares the elephant and causes them to fall out of their habit: they will want to start where they left off before the pause.
For example, after being sick you will want to go out and run the two miles you had worked yourself up to. However, immediately returning to the same level of intensity is a jarring shock that can elicit aversion in your elephant.
So once you break a habit, you should return to setting the bar as low as possible. After doing a few repetitions, you will be ready to begin increasing your performance once again. When it comes to building habits, changes always need to be made slowly.
 Lally, P., Van Jaarsved, C.H.M., Potts, H.W.W. & Wardle, J. How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology. 2010, 40th ed., no. 6, pp. 998-1009.
 Maurer, R. & H Hirschman, L.A. The Spirit of Kaizen: Creating Lasting Excellence One Small Step at a Time. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013, ISBN 00-717-9617-7.
Imai, M. Kaizen: The Key to Japan's Competitive Success: 1st ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 1986. ISBN 00-755-4332-X.
Excerpt From The End of Procrastination by Petr Ludwig and Adela Schicker. Copyright © 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Essentials.
About Petr Ludwig and Adela Schicker
Petr is a science popularizer, entrepreneur, and consultant for Fortune 500 companies in Europe. He explains crucial and difficult things simply and easily. Peter helps to improve intrinsic motivation, efficiency, and the happiness of people at work and in their personal lives. In his book and talks, he transfers the knowledge of neuroscience and behavioral economics into practice.
Adela is a personal growth consultant and motivational speaker. She is an avid traveler having lived long term in 11 different countries in 4 continents. A vast number of different learning and working environments has given her a keen eye for people’s talents and has made her a highly effective networker. Armed with these skills together with scientific knowledge, Adela is focusing on helping companies, and individuals create and pursue their visions.
To learn more about Peter and Adela, visit www.procrastination.com.