A Formula for Creating Good Habits and Meeting Your Goals
Actions you can take to stay motivated to change
Posted January 11, 2020 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
Goals are well-intended but easily forgotten. How you spend most of your days defines your life, not the moments on the weekend you remember to exercise, eat consciously, or call a friend.
Goals get lost under the weight of emails and texts, looming deadlines, conflicts you dread handling, urgent problems that must be addressed, and people who must have your attention right now. You then say things like, “As soon as I clear my list, I’ll have more time.” Cleared lists and freer times never come.
Change requires you to create new habits of repeated behavior.1 George Bernard Shaw said, “Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” You must have a clear picture in mind of the outcome you desire to continually make the right choices until your new habits sink in.
Your brain thinks in pictures
The most profound insight I recall from my master’s degree in adult learning was how the brain places information into maps and pictures for quick recollection. We not only retain pictures of past incidents, but we capture pictures of what we believe will happen in the future. Our future visions are generally built from the past unless we conjure up new pictures that we believe are possible to create.
These new pictures of who we can be and how we can modify our everyday world are called visions. Visions that capture our hearts can motivate us to stay disciplined with our actions until they become habits.
Visions offer the payoff for discipline
Your picture of a good day at work or a new morning routine must be inspiring, not exhausting. You must see yourself enjoying your time while doing your new habits, or at least be happy with the visual results of your hard work. See the new shape of your body, your experience of good health, your enjoyment with people you choose to spend time with, or the peace of mind you experience watching the sunset on another good day.
Close your eyes and see if you can see and feel yourself thriving with your new habits. Always include how you feel as well as what you are doing when you re-create yourself and your days. Consider these questions:
- What new behaviors would you love to make into habits?
- What emotions do you want to experience more of in your days?
- Who do you want to hang out with when you have the choice?
- What do you long to do to maximize your health and sense of well-being?
- What common activities do you want to do more of that bring you joy or fulfillment?
- What can you do more or less of to increase your hope for the future?
- How do you want to feel this day next year? What will you be doing to create this feeling?
Record your pictures so you have physical as well as mental reminders. Write your vision in a journal, create a poster of pictures from magazines and downloaded from your cell phone, or create short videos of you describing your visions that you can play to yourself when needed.
Visual reminders should be the feel-good payoff for the change you want to make.
Using keywords to recall your pictures
I learned about the power of using keywords from a professional golfer. In pressure-packed moments where he had to perform well, he found that thinking of one well-chosen word would bring his brain back into focus.
You can use one well-chosen word, or keyword, to keep from talking yourself out of exercising, from reacting when your boss or family member ticks you off, or when you think of doing one more thing even though your workday has ended. Using one word can activate your recall and put elements of your vision into play.
Choose one word that summarizes your vision.
After you end a visioning session, declare one word that sums up your vision. Did your vision focus on you being persistent, courageous, patient, or thoughtful? Choose one of these words to be your keyword. Say it out loud. Write it down. Put it in your car, tape it to your cell phone or laptop, make it your screensaver or set it to show up as an appointment on your calendar.
When your day starts to spin out of control, take a breath, center yourself in the moment and say your keyword to yourself. Your vision should flood back into your brain.
Document the evidence of your success
To create new habits of behavior, your brain needs consistent evidence that your goal is achievable and worth the effort. At the end of our days, we tend to focus on what didn’t go well. We forget to notice what we did well, especially the little steps.
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If you only focus on the difficulties in re-creating yourself, your brain will support you by giving you more reasons to forget your visions and goals. Without consistent evidence that you can succeed, your brain will fabricate rationalizations for maintaining the status quo.
You must take charge of your thoughts at the end of the day. Take at least five minutes after you stop working or before you go to bed to acknowledge the shifts, changes, and even the baby steps you made to make your vision a reality. Document your progress in a journal. Appreciate what you repeat. Try to write at least five things you are glad you did. At least once a week, tell a friend about your good moves to celebrate your growth.
Remember to chunk your big goals into small behaviors that will move you forward to achieving your goal one step at a time. For example, if you are trying to improve your relationships by being a better listener, you might start with the practices of releasing a full breath before you respond to a question. Follow-on steps might include 1) noticing and shifting your emotions to feeling curious after your breath, 2) making sure you have fully stopped walking and working to be present with people you talk to, and 3) seeking to understand more clearly what people need before you respond.
Take time with each step. Don't be impatient. You are making shifts in your routines and behaviors, not drastic changes.
Then show your brain that you will succeed, little by little over time. Documenting evidence daily that you are changing can help you become the person you want to be.
Research shows that creating habits can take anywhere from a few weeks to months.2 Create visions to maintain the desire that will keep you on track.
 Neal, D.T., Wood, W., and Quinn, J.M. (2006) Habits—A repeat performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 15(4), 198–202
 Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C., Potts, H., & Wardle, J. (2010) How habits are formed: Modeling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 998-1009.