Updated: Jan 29, 2021
After happily waving good-bye to an unusual 2020, how do you feel about 2021? Have you set any goals or intentions yet? What are they? Do you want to lose weight, learn a new language, run a marathon, find a new job, or start a new business?
With all the surprises and uncertainties of 2020, I managed to feel accomplished despite failing to reach my running goals and many others. 2020 easily qualified for a crappy year because I didn't run a marathon race, let alone a personal best or a BQ (Boston Marathon Qualifier). It wasn't a huge deal as I am happy to keep these goals. Last year I charted a slightly difference course and achieved a few other personal records, including a 50km of loops around Happy Valley Racecourse, a 58km around Hong Kong island twice and a 82km loop around Lantau Island. These little achievements were all thanks to my tribe of running divas, who have kept me running and training throughout the year of covid restrictions.
Beyond Goals and Intentions
As I missed several of my 2020 goals (and I blame it on the lack of official races), I found something very precious, something less profound and far less sexy than goals - it's HABIT. I realised that taking consistent actions can be more practical and impactful than having goals and intentions alone.
Having said that, I still find setting goals an important step prior to establishing any habits. Setting intentions require digging deep down and knowing who you are and your WHY - understand ultimately what motivates you, find meaning and purpose in whatever you do. Read my blog for more on goal setting.
Goal vs Habit
What is the difference between achieving a goal and establishing a habit?
What is the difference between running a marathon versus to being a runner who goes on running rain or shine, race or not?
What is the difference between losing weight fast versus to leading a predominantly healthy and active lifestyle?
One is a short term, one-off achievement. The other grows into a lifelong practice that you do repeatedly without much of a question and it forms part of who you are - your identity. Of course the two are not mutually exclusive. Achieving a goal can often bring about lifetime, transformational changes. Also you don't have to do something every day to call yourself an athlete, a musician or a practitioner.
Why do some people only try it once and never look back? So why do some people never go back to running after a marathon? Why do some put back all the weight (and maybe more) after successful weight loss? What do you think? There can be many reasons - injuries, illness, work, families, other life commitments or priorities, got bored, or simply not find meaning in doing whatever it is. The Almighty Willpower
Running a marathon is hard. Losing 5kg in a few months during a lockdown is even harder. Achieving a goal usually requires a great deal of planning, motivation and willpower. Sheer willpower alone can help us through huge amounts of suffering, painful training or endure a weight loss programme. Except that it is not sustainable. The more ambitious the goal, the harder it is to keep up. If you cannot find meaning or joy in the process, it is easy to lose momentum and revert to the original self.
The Power of Discipline How do we condition ourselves to do something repeatedly, so that it becomes automatic and even part of our identity? Creating a habit has less to do with motivation or willpower but more to do with discipline. Motivation and inspiration may get you through a marathon or a piano exam, these are amazing accomplishments and indications of your abilities, but these alone do not necessarily make you a runner or a musician.
Reinforce Your Habit to Create An Identity
Having the discipline to repeat the actions over a long period of time can turn a practice into a habit. A simple habit can gradually reinforce itself and create the identity of a runner or a musician.
Are you a runner, a yogi, a tennis player or a musician? Can you identify with what I am talking about? So then, how do we build a new habit?
According to the book Atomic Habit, all habits are tied in a feedback loop of cue, craving, response and reward.
Let's raise coffee as an example - you feel tired (cue), you want a coffee (craving), you buy and drink a coffee (response) and you feel alert (reward). The cue prompts the cravings, the cravings makes you respond and do something that becomes a habit, the reward helps you remember that this particular action satisfies your cravings, so you will do it again.
In order to build a positive habit, we can make the cue obvious, make the craving attractive, make the response easy, and make the reward satisfying. Equally you can break bad habits by making it invisible, unattractive, difficult and unsatisfying.
Get Your System Right Atomic Habit focuses on the system rather than the goals alone. If you fail to establish a habit, the problem is not you but the system. When you focus on the system instead of the outcome, you can start enjoying the process rather than the goal. As long as you prepare the right environment for success, you don't need to wait for the outcome to determine your success or happiness.
Can you think of ways to create an environment that encourages positive habits?
Fill the fridge with fresh, whole foods instead of sweet treats, soda and alcohol
Put a book next to your bed instead of your phone or iPad
Lay out your running clothes and shoes before you go to bed
Place a glass of water or bottle next to your coffee machine
Put some dental floss next to your toothbrush
Start with One, Tiny and Easy Habit Creating a habit with the right system can be much easier than striving for ambitious goals. The few years of running has taught me to appreciate the process rather than the goal. Running is not always enjoyable, whenever I struggle to go out for a run, I remind myself that this is something I do, how much better I will feel if I just get out of the door, and I think of all the physical and mental benefits that running brings me.
If running isn't your thing, choose a different habit that is aligned to your personality and fits in with your goals.
Start with one, tiny habit that you can do right now, one that fits into your lifestyle. What can it be?
Stack Your Habits
Next, stack this new habit on top of an existing habit, so it will be easier to stick to.
Drink a glass of water before your coffee
Add a side vegetable dish when you eat out
Meditate for one minute after your workout
Write a journal or read a book before you go to bed
Do a few pushups or squats before you check social media
Initially you may not feel this tiny change or improvement. You may even miss a day. Don't worry, just make sure you pick it back up the following day. If you keep repeating a single habit for a week, a month, 100 days, a year, it will become more natural to you. Once it becomes automatic, add another layer of positive habit on top. Over time you can stack multiple positive habits to create transformational changes and a new identity.
Remember, get your system right, enjoy the process and let the system take care of the outcomes.
Find Your Tribe
Lastly and most importantly, I'd like to talk about accountability. Find someone who can provide support and keep you accountable. Get a coach, personal trainer, family, friends, gym or running buddies who can make your new habit fun and interesting. Keep a food diary, a training log. Sign up for a (virtual) race, an online challenge or an exam to make sure you keep your discipline of practice.
It's Never Too Late NOW is the time to start a new, healthy habit. The key is to start small, then make gradual changes to your overall lifestyle instead of drastic, extreme changes. Keep a sense of humour too. Don't worry about getting it right the first time. Be ready to make sensible adjustments if something doesn't work for you. Enjoy the process and the process will take care of your goals.
Hope you enjoy the post. If you'd like to bounce ideas about establishing healthy habits, or learn more about health coaching. Please reach out to me. Wishing you a successful year of positive habits.
Atomic Habit by James Clear