How to design a new habit

As much as we probably wish we could say otherwise, the reality is simple: We’re not as in control as we like to think we are.

Don’t take my word for it — research backs me up. A study from Duke University says 45 percent of our decisions — nearly one out of every two — are habitual.

So the key to a meaningful life it seems is connected to our ability to design empowering habits.

But conventional wisdom encourages us to rely on willpower and discipline to make decisions and build habits.

And if you’ve ever reneged on a New Year’s Resolution, had one more scoop of ice cream when you swore you wouldn’t have any in the first place, or tried to power through a late-night work session only to succumb to your Netflix queue, then you know that wisdom is easier said than practiced.

Instead of relying on willpower, I’ve adopted a more strategic approach to designing habits that allow me to experience the kind of life I want to live.

First, I think about why I want to design the new habit. I focus less on the current habit because that tends to lead me into a cycle of judgment, comparison and pursuit of perfection. By connecting to what’s possible for my life and the people who are a part of it, I’m able to zoom in on why it matters to choose the new habit in the first place.

Next, I’m mindful of my triggers. In those moments where I would default to a disempowering habit, I stop, breathe and acknowledge that I’m being triggered so I can choose a different outcome. In Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More, & Change the Way You Lead Forever, he mentions an insight from The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg: “If you don’t know what triggers the old [behavior], you’ll never change it because you’ll already be doing it before you know it.”

Lastly, I practice the new habit until it becomes my default behavior. The secret is to identify the first couple of steps that lead to the ultimate habit. When it goes well, I celebrate; if I experience a breakdown, I extend myself grace as quickly as possible and recommit to the new habit.

Perhaps what’s most important when you design a new habit is to have a plan for when you default to your old behavior. Because it will happen. And if your recovery step isn’t obvious, you’ll find it hard to summon the level of willpower and discipline necessary to reorient yourself.