Episode: The Keys to Creating Habits that Last
Michael Hyatt: Hi, I’m Michael Hyatt.
Megan Hyatt Miller: And I’m Megan Hyatt Miller.
Michael: And this is Lead to Win, our weekly podcast to help you win at work and succeed at life. Today we’re going to be talking about the key to creating habits that last. Particularly, we’re going to be talking about the importance of your why when it comes to developing new habits.
Megan: I’m so excited to talk about this today, because I think people really want to have habits in their life, and most of us have tried to install habits, but I think a lot of us have stories of failing to permanently install habits and kind of going in fits and starts. This is the time of year we’re starting to think again about how we set ourselves up for a great new year, the next year that’s coming. I think all of us are eagerly anticipating 2021. Habits are a big part of that. Today, we’re going to get into the how-to of creating habits that really last no matter what.
Michael: One of the first things we have to say is that when you’re taking on a new habit, you have to get really clear on the motivation, because habits are hard. We’re talking about changing our behavior. All of us have had, as you said, that experience where we tried to change. We tried to either quit a bad habit or take on a good habit.
If you’re like most of us, we start with a lot of enthusiasm. We can keep it up for a few weeks. (By the way, this is why New Year’s resolutions don’t typically work.) But if we’re not really clear on why that’s important, we inevitably get to the messy middle when it becomes difficult, when we run out of steam, and we want to quit. If we’re not clear on the motive, we will quit, and that’s what makes change and habit-building so difficult.
Megan: Absolutely. Well, today we’re going to talk about how anybody can stay connected with their why by implementing these three practices. We’re talking about this one aspect of creating habits that last around connecting to your why, but there are some specific practices you can leverage that are going to make that so much easier and really put some power behind your habits.
Michael: Okay. The first practice is to identify how the habit creates meaningful change. Let me start with a story. Back in 2011, I had just started Michael Hyatt & Company, but as a preface to that, Gail and I decided to take our first ever one-month sabbatical. That was a really, really big deal. I had never done that before. I honestly wasn’t sure what I was going to do with myself.
The first day, Gail suggested to me early in the morning… We got up in the morning to do our morning ritual, and she said to me, “I really think, given this new stage in your life, this new season in your life, that you should start journaling.” I responded with an eye roll. And I said out loud, “Hey, I’ve tried that before. I’m not a journaling kind of guy. I’m a ‘take action’ kind of guy, ‘get going’ kind of guy, ‘knock out my task list’ kind of guy. I’m not a reflective kind of person.”
She said… And she used something on me that I’ve since come to appreciate and have used successfully on many people, including myself, and that’s the “Well, why don’t you try it as an experiment?” strategy. She said to me, “Well, look. I know you think you’re not a journaling person, but I’m telling you, you might find it helpful, so as an experiment, for the 30 days of this sabbatical, why don’t you journal?” I mean, who can resist an experiment? I’m just curious enough to think, “Maybe it might work. Maybe there’s some value in it.”
Here’s the thing. Initially, I was doing it for her. That was an external motivation. Now, I knew, and she probably knew too, that wouldn’t carry me through when the novelty of journaling wore off and I just had to move through it. By the way, I’ve successfully been journaling almost every day since that time, but it was not because Gail suggested it. It was because, as I got into it, I began to identify my own reasons for why it was important.
At some point (I’ve written blog posts on this), I identified what those reasons were. The principal one was that journaling gave me a very practical way to process the events of my life. Now I’m going to tell you… Megan, you’ll understand this when I say this, but as an Enneagram Three, my temptation is to live at a very superficial level and not really do a deep dive into what’s going on internally. I’m often out of touch with my feelings.
Journaling gave me a way to circumvent that kind of natural propensity and dig deeper into my heart, into my life, and to ask myself the question, “Why did I do that?” or “Why do I do what I do?” That has been enormously helpful in developing self-awareness, which, Megan, as you and I have said, is kind of the superpower for leadership in 2020 and beyond. To have self-awareness is important, but how do you break that down as a habit? Getting in touch with that why was critically important and useful for me.
Megan: That’s a great story. Last week, when Larry and I were talking about why habits are so important, I was talking about my habit of exercising every day. I exercise six days a week. This is something I’ve done with more or less consistency over the years, but probably right before COVID, I was at one of my least consistent points with that, and then like a lot of you guys, I started walking every day just to get outside when everything was happening at the beginning.
Then, this summer, I decided, “Hey, this situation is not going away anytime soon, and what that means for me is that I can’t just be in survival mode of the minimum in terms of habits and structure for my life. I really have to, instead, intentionally strengthen myself for the months ahead where we’re going to continue to go through these challenges.”
So, as I was considering what kind of meaningful change would be possible by adding a more rigorous exercise routine habit into my plan every week, for me it was about being strong. It was about being physically resilient and training my mind to be resilient also, which is one of the things I really love about fitness and about pursuing fitness. It’s kind of a training ground mentally for what we’re spending our time doing day in and day out in our professional and personal lives.
For me, I was able to connect the dots on how that habit of daily exercise made me feel empowered and not only has made my body stronger and more fit but has made my mind ready for the kind of challenges we seem to continue to face day after day after day in this challenge we’re in.
Michael: My guess is because you’ve identified your why, it makes it…I wouldn’t say easy but easier to continue with the habit, because you connected it to a bigger picture thing that’s important. I’ve done the same thing with exercise. I never exercised consistently after college. In college I did, but after college I didn’t exercise consistently until I hit about 40 years old, my early 40s. It was then that I came face-to-face with my own mortality. There’s always that time when that happens to us, when we come to realize we’re not going to live forever, and if we don’t start taking care of ourselves, we can’t just coast on the health and the youthfulness we have.
For me, that was challenging, to get up earlier than I was already getting up to get out and go for a run, which is how I began, but like you, I had to find my reasons for that. The initial reasons were not ultimately the real reasons. The initial reasons for me with health were, like, I wanted to avoid a heart attack. I didn’t want to die prematurely. It was all of these catastrophic, big kinds of things, but eventually, honestly, it was just anticipating how I would feel after the run.
Megan: Exactly. I love that part. For me, the thing that keeps me coming back is how empowered and ready for my day I feel. The quality of days I have when I exercise is so much better than on the days I don’t, because my mind is absolutely in the right place. When I show up to work, which is, of course, walking down the hallway these days…
When I walk down the hallway to work, I am ready mentally for what I’m about to do. I’m in a positive state of mind. I feel strong, I feel powerful, I feel creative, I feel innovative…all of those things. That’s really why I’m doing it. It’s not even really because of the physical benefit. It’s like the physical aspect is a means to an end.
Michael: You know, if I were a therapist… And I’m not. But if I were a therapist, I would have every client on some kind of exercise program.
Megan: Me too.
Michael: The reason I would do that is because maybe for the first time for some people, it gives them a sense of agency or power over their own life. It’s kind of like, “If I can get myself out and walk or make myself run, what else could I do? Maybe I could change my most important relationships. Maybe I could change what happens at work. Maybe I could change my income.” Anything is possible once you give people a little taste of the agency they have over their lives. I love that. Do you know the number one reason, though, why I go out and walk today?
Michael: It’s to listen to audiobooks.
Megan: Oh yeah. That’s so true. Hey, P.S. This is a pro tip for parents with young kids or a bunch of kids, like I have. That’s really my only time to read or listen to stuff. If I’m home, the kids are home. My morning ritual does not include reading. I have my quiet time, plan my day, and all that kind of stuff. I do all kinds of other things, but I don’t have time to read, so that’s it.
Michael: Me too. I literally do not read anymore in the conventional sense, and I probably haven’t for seven or eight years. Occasionally, if I listen to the audiobook and really love it and want to go back and study it, which is very rare, because I don’t really read for retention, but if I’m listening to a book and really like it, I’ll go buy the physical book or the Kindle book, but just listening to it… That’s what gets me out there walking. I love learning. To be honest, I don’t really enjoy exercise. It’s just a means by which I can listen to more books and grow and learn new stuff.
Megan: What a great reason. Hey, that reminds me of the second practice, which is to write down the reasons for your habit and revisit those every day. Keeping those things top of mind is going to help you not only push through the natural resistance that we all have toward doing things that are good for us but maybe are not inherently enjoyable, but it’s also going to remind us why it’s important and get us motivated all over again.
I have not actually written down my motivation, but I think about this every day. I do write down my motivation for my goals every day, but I’m going to add this second practice to what I’m doing, because I think it’s really helpful to note, “Hey, this is why I’m doing this. Hey, brain. Remember you like to do this, and here’s why you signed up for this in the first place?”
That will get you out the door, either literally or figuratively, when maybe you have other reasons for not doing it. Like, if we’re talking about exercise, it might be nice to stay in bed, and it’s kind of cold outside, and you want to have another cup of coffee, or whatever. If you write down why you’re doing it every day, you have the chance to choose, kind of to stand for your future self and what you really want.
Michael: I love that kind of language, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree with you here.
Megan: Oh, okay.
Michael: I love it when we have tension in these conversations. It creates drama.
Megan: Hey, if you’re listening, the truth is my dad wants to fight every time we do this. Our logo should be boxing gloves, which is funny, because we actually don’t disagree about that many things, so there’s not that much material.
Michael: I know. I keep looking for the opportunity, because I think it’s more interesting. What I disagree with… You said, “I’ve actually never written them down.” I disagree with that, and here’s why I know that’s not true. Because when you set goals…you said this kind of, but you kind of let yourself off the hook…you set either achievement goals or you set habit goals. Those are the only two kinds of goals there are.
Michael: So, everything that’s a habit right now in your life probably started out as a goal. Am I wrong?
Megan: Okay. Fair enough. Nope, I think you’re right.
Michael: So you forgot, but you’ve actually written down the reasons, because a part of our goal-setting process, which we might get into as we move toward the turnover of the year, but as we get to that, one of the things we do there is write down our key motivations. I’ve done this on every habit I’ve taken on. Now, here’s why it’s important to write it down. You might think, “Oh, well, if I know it, that’s enough.” But here’s the problem. Writing forces you to get clear.
If you don’t write it down, you can just sort of have a general sense of why it might be important, but what you need is a specific, explicit, concrete reason for why you’re doing what you’re doing. If you’re trying to start, for example, a walking habit or a running habit, you might put as your why, “Because it gives me the opportunity to listen to books.” Be that specific. Or “I enjoy the feeling of endorphins coursing through my bloodstream when I finish.” Which, by the way, who doesn’t?
Megan: It’s awesome. Hey, guys, right now, that is not to be dismissed. Who couldn’t use a big hit of endorphins?
Michael: That’s the first thing that writing down your motivation does. The second thing, though (and I think this is equally important), is we’re forgetful, so you get into the messy middle, and you forget why you’re doing what you’re doing. This is why people give up on all kinds of things. People give up on relationships. They give up on their health. They give up on hard things.
The truth is that most of the things in life that are worth doing are hard, and there’s going to be a messy middle, a place where you have to persevere, and having that written motivation so that you can go back and review it and remind yourself of why you’re in this particular challenge or doing this particular habit is extremely helpful.
Megan: I totally agree.
Michael: Let me give you an example. This may not sound like a habit initially, but trust me, it is. I have the habit of being married. I’ve had this habit for 42 years. It’s a habit that, on occasion, I’ve been tempted to quit or give up on, but one of the things I did about 15 years ago is I wrote down every reason I wanted to stay in my marriage. Now that may sound odd, but it’s like a question I gave my mind.
Sometimes when people go through a tough patch in a relationship their brain naturally goes to the place of why they should give up on this relationship. You have to be very careful about the questions you ask yourself, because your brain will serve up reasons. Like, if I ask myself, “Why do I need to get out of this relationship?” my brain will happily accommodate that question and give me a bunch of reasons for why I should get out of the relationship, but that’s not a very empowering question in most situations. Maybe occasionally, but not in most situations.
So I asked, “Why should I stay in this relationship?” and I wrote down a series of internal motivations. I said, for example, “Well, reason one, I really do love this woman. I loved her from the first moment I saw her. I was drawn to her. I felt like this was the woman I was going to marry, and honestly, she has done nothing but impress me ever since then. So I really do love her.” Now, I may not always feel that, because love in my world is a verb, not an adjective. It’s not descriptive of a feeling, first and foremost, but it’s a verb. Love is an action. I can always act with love.
I said, “Second of all, I want to learn to lead, and leadership naturally involves service, and marriage gives me the primary means by which I can learn to serve. If I can serve the people who are nearest and dearest to me, then maybe I can serve the people who are outside of that inner circle.” So, I literally wrote down 10 reasons I want to stay in this marriage.
Occasionally, when I want to give up or we’ve had a fight or I start to second-guess, I can go back and review that in Evernote, and it kind of keeps me engaged. “Oh yeah.” One of the things we so desperately need when we want to quit is perspective. If you can create that perspective before you hit that messy middle, so much the better. That’s the value of writing it down.
Megan: All right. So, the first practice was to identify how a habit creates meaningful change in your life. The second practice is to write down the reason for your habit and revisit it every day. The third practice is to take time to notice your progress and celebrate it. This is really, really important, because the desire for transformation is what gets us going. That’s why we decide to set a habit in the first place.
But noticing transformation is what keeps us going, because if we’re not making progress and calling that out in ourselves and noticing it, then what’s the point? The whole reason we got into the game is for transformation, so if we don’t take time to notice how we’re improving, then it can fall by the wayside and we can get disconnected from our original why and ultimately give up on our habits.
Michael: This is important from my perspective because it’s kind of the secret of happiness. We sometimes think happiness is a destination we reach. We’re going to get to this place, and then we’re going to suddenly be happy. But all the research I’ve read says, no, happiness comes from a sense of making progress toward a goal we find meaningful. That means the happiness actually occurs in the journey as we grow, as we develop, as we make meaningful progress.
In fact, there’s a book by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer called The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. In there they report on a study of 230 creative knowledge workers, and the research revealed…get this…the single most important factor in fostering intrinsic motivation (in other words, internal motivation) was the sense that the workers were making progress. So, noticing even small things can give you that sense of motivation. So sometimes, again, we have to remind ourselves of progress.
I don’t know about you, Megan. Actually, I do know about you because I think you’re a lot like me in this sense. Where we tend to go, like in a habit, would be, “Oh, I missed today. I’m such a loser.” Or “I didn’t fulfill that habit. I said I was going to. I’m a loser.” I get this question all the time from people who are pursuing habit goals, like, “Okay. If I have a goal that I’m going to do this thing every day for 90 days… It’s going to take me 90 days to install this habit, I think, and if I screw up on day 89, do I have to start the count all over?” No, you don’t.
This is going to be a shock to a lot of people. You don’t need 100 percent compliance with your habit goal to actually consider it installed. For example, I’ve been walking or running steadily since I was in my early 40s. Normally, I walk almost every day for two miles. Guess what. I didn’t walk today. I got caught up in something else. It was really cold out. I came up with an excuse. Now I want to tell you how much time I spent beating myself up about that: zero. Again, I’m typically walking five to six days a week, and over time (and this is a really important principle), it’s not those losses that are going to derail you; it’s the trajectory.
Megan: It’s really important. That’s a big difference in what we think. We think that if we were mapping our progress on a graph we would need to see only up and to the right. (I’m gesturing as though you guys listening can hear me, but you can probably imagine what I’m doing with my hands.) In reality, it’s much more like directionally up and to the right but up and down like crazy, like a sideways lightning bolt all the way up, and that’s just normal. The question is, though…Are you making progress overall? The answer usually is “Yes.”
Michael: That’s right. Pursuing a goal or pursuing a habit is not taking one step at a time and reaching your goal. It’s more like three steps forward, two steps back, five steps forward, one step back. It’s like you said. It’s up and down until you reach it. That’s normal, so don’t beat yourself up. Now, if I said I was going to pursue a habit goal and I went gangbusters the first week, and then I kind of fell off the wagon, and then I woke up 80 days later, yeah, I’m probably going to start over then, but what I’m typically looking for is about 90 to 95 percent compliance, and if I can do that, I consider the habit goal installed, and then I can check it off at the end.
Megan: Well, another one of the habits I’ve done… I talked about this a little bit last week with Larry. Since sometime in August I started working on this. I really felt like my nutrition was not optimal. I don’t know about anybody else, but with COVID, there are just a lot of things that took a little bit of a nosedive, and I felt like, “You know what? If I am going to be at peak performance for the duration of whatever this situation is we’re going through, I need to think about nutrition. I need to feed my body in a better way.” I’m really into making sure that’s something I enjoy, and all that kind of stuff.
The habit I adopted was that every morning (and I have done this since then), I plan what I’m going to eat for the day. I decide what I’m going to have for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack in the morning, and my commitment is that I can plan whatever I want, but whatever I plan is what I’m going to eat. Most of the time, 85 to 90 percent of the time, I’m not deviating from that. I’m sticking with what I planned.
That does a couple of things for me in terms of the why. First, the quality of my nutrition is better because I’m being intentional about it, but secondly, I get a break from all the decision fatigue of deciding four times a day what I’m going to eat. I just don’t have to worry about that anymore.
Michael: Wait a second. Four times a day?
Megan: Well, you know, like a snack.
Michael: Oh, okay. That’s legit.
Megan: Hey, some people eat more than that, so whatever works for you. Two to five times for most people.
Michael: I thought maybe you were doing “elevenses” or something. (Lord of the Rings reference.)
Megan: Right, right. No, in the afternoon. But one of the things I have done consistently with that habit is that I reflect on the progress I’m making, like how much better my nutrition is, how many more vegetables and fruits I’m eating and how much more water I’m drinking and that our family dinners are better and we’re eating out less.
All that kind of stuff is so much better because of this habit. I’m being intentional about noticing it and then celebrating those wins, not because it’s perfect, not because it’s some kind of white-knuckle rigidity. It’s not. But it has dramatically improved from where I was in August just because of this habit. I think the key to sustaining the motivation and staying connected to my why is reflecting on this progress and celebrating it.
Michael: Well, if it’s validation from your father here, I can tell you’ve been making progress. First of all, your skin looks fantastic.
Megan: Hey, thanks.
Michael: You guys can’t see it, but it looks fantastic. You’re radiant, and you seem to have more energy.
Megan: Yeah. Totally.
Michael: So good on you.
Megan: We talked about this last week, but as a leader, the number of decisions we have to make every day just about makes your head spin, especially in a season of crisis. If you can automate with habits some of those decisions… We talked about this last week, that one of the reasons for developing habits is because it simplifies your life, and that’s what this has done for me so much. I just love it.
Again, whatever habit you’re working on, this third practice, taking time to notice your progress and celebrating it… You really need to do that. If you’re a Full Focus Planner user, you can do this in the Notes section on the other side of your daily page. Just take a minute and ask yourself “What has this habit made possible in my life?” and just write a quick list. Doing that on a regular basis…maybe you do it once a week, maybe you do it once a month…will really highlight those things so you can reconnect to your why and continue down the road of staying consistent with that habit.
Michael: Okay. I want to talk about a practical way to keep track. You mentioned you could just do this in the Notes section of your planner, but we actually have two other places in the Full Focus Planner for you to track your progress. I love me some check marks. There’s something about check marks.
Megan: Who doesn’t?
Michael: Talking about noticing your progress. If I can get a check mark, I’m like a dog with a biscuit. I’ll do almost anything to get that check mark. For example, in the goal detail pages, if you have a habit goal, there’s something we call a streak tracker at the very bottom of the page that gives you the opportunity to track your progress, one little square per day for 90 days.
If you look at the monthly pages, inside those monthly pages there are these little boxes for each day where you can check those off for some habit you’re trying to record for that day, whatever it is. Take your vitamins. Go for a run. Do some reading. Meditate. Whatever it is, you can note that and visually see your progress. Honestly, that’s my favorite place to do the check marks.
So, today we’ve been talking about connecting your why or finding your why as it relates to your most important habits and why that’s so important, but we talked about three practices for connecting with your why.
- Identify how the habit creates meaningful change.
- Write down the reason for your habit and revisit it every day. You may be tempted not to do this. Trust me. You’re going to need it.
- Take time to notice your progress and celebrate it.
Meg, we have a new resource that’s coming out. Why don’t you tell our listeners about it.
Megan: Yeah. I’m so excited about this. We have a brand-new book coming out in a few weeks. It’s called No-Fail Habits. As you may have noticed, we’re doing a few episodes on habits because it’s so timely right now. You guys love it when we talk about habits, and I think that’s because there are a lot of you who are either habit skeptics, like, you want to adopt habits but you maybe haven’t been that successful before, or you’re just habit geeks and you love habits and you love adding more habits and figuring out how to optimize it.
Whichever category you’re in, this new book No-Fail Habits is going to give you so many practical strategies to develop habits, to optimize habits, pro tips. All of our best thinking on habits is in this book. You’re definitely going to want to get it. It’s going to be out in physical version or digital version and an audio version, so you can get that when it comes out in a few weeks. The best way to know when it’s available for purchase is to join our Countdown to 2021. Just go to michaelhyatt.com/countdown and you can join there.
What we’re doing is we’re having a theme each month leading up to the end of the year. This month’s theme, you may have guessed, is on habits. We’re going to be having emails and all kinds of free resources there, including a Facebook community where you can talk with people just like you about habits, about the things you’re struggling with or your best ideas, tips, and tricks. All that kind of stuff is going to be delivered through this free community, this free challenge we’re doing on Countdown to 2021. Again, go to michaelhyatt.com/countdown. You’ll get all that free information, plus we will let you know first when No-Fail Habits is available.
Michael: So, Megan, as we bring this episode to a close, do you have any final thoughts about habits?
Megan: Well, I think habits are something we all know we need more of in our lives. Especially right now, after such a tumultuous and chaotic year, we feel the need for more structure, for more routine, for more ritual, all that kind of stuff. If you feel like you’ve sort of gotten out of some of your habits or you feel the need for more habits, connecting with your why with these three practices we’ve talked about today I feel like can make your journey toward better habit adoption so much easier. This may be the one thing you haven’t unlocked so far that will unlock habits for you in the future.
Michael: Excellent. Megan, thanks for joining me today. Thank you guys for listening to us, and until next week, lead to win.