The Journey of One-Thousand Miles
Most of us are familiar with the timeless expression "the journey of one-thousand miles begins with a single step." While most of us aren't interested in this goal (certainly not me), we all have some goals that feel equally out of our reach.
Some goals are too big to be achieved in a single day, week, or even year - so how do we stay on the path to success? Timeless anecdotal evidence and modern research suggest that developing healthy habits is the most important component in reaching our goals over time. This post will cover the basics of developing habits, tips for staying on track, and some modern tools for success.
Starting New Habits is Hard
Walking one-thousand miles isn't the focus for most of us, but we all have goals: losing twenty pounds, touching our toes, or walking ten miles. Most of us are able to take the first step toward a goal by starting a new diet or exercise program, but we tend to quickly fall off and feel like we're "spinning our wheels" again. Daily habits give us the power to tackle our lofty goals in bite-sized segments.
Research indicates that habits develop over roughly three weeks of daily practice, so how do we get through those first few weeks?
Setting Goals and Rewards
When starting a new habit, it's essential to be clear about your goal with as many numbers as possible, for example: I want to walk five miles in three months and I can currently walk two miles. When you break your goal down with numbers, you can set smaller goals along your timeline (for example, adding one mile per month).
Smaller goals are especially helpful for keeping yourself focused on the current week while knowing that your small victories will add up to your larger goal, because you did the math! Your daily habits should line up with the sub-goals that you establish: if I want to walk one mile farther each month, I should set up a daily walking routine where I plan to add a few hundred feet each day.
Each goal should be associated with some sort of reward to encourage similar behavior in the future. For some people the satisfaction of checking off their goals will be enough, but the rest of us could benefit from a new pair of walking shoes (or maybe an ice cream cone).
Tools for Success
One you have your goals, sub-goals, and daily habits established, you need to write them down somewhere - the best person to keep you accountable is you. Some people are more visual than others and might use a big, bright calendar with checkboxes. Others might benefit from using a daily planner with some extra space to write down thoughts or feelings from the day.
For those of us who tend to put our entire lives in our phones, worry not. Writing everything down in your phone can be cumbersome, so there are some convenient apps to help you keep on top of your habits. Some of my favorite habit-tracking apps are HabitHub and Loop, which store large amounts of data about your routines and track success over time.
Were you able to make it through your first three weeks? Congratulations! Research suggests that you can now carry that habit forward with less effort, and you might even begin to feel strange for skipping a day. As the weeks and months pass, it's important to periodically reassess your larger goals based on how you're feeling. Remember to keep the process engaging and sustainable, even if that means toning down your daily habits to keep yourself successful - consistency is key.
Starting new habits is challenging, but it can be even harder if you're in the wrong mental space, lacking a strong support system, or unable to financially afford your daily habits. If you're consistently unable to maintain a habit through those initial three weeks, it's okay to take a step back and reconsider your desired habit, the goal you're aiming for, or maybe even your motivation for reaching that goal - you may have to scrap your goals altogether and re-prioritize before returning to them.