The good news about habits is that they can be changed, added, modified or broken. There are countless tips and tricks out there for creating new habits, but many experts agree that these three things are helpful for introducing new habits into your day-to-day life.

Jay Thompson is a former brokerage owner who spent six years working for Zillow Group. He retired in August 2018 but can’t seem to leave the real estate industry behind. His weekly Inman column publishes every Wednesday.

Back in June I wrote about the aftermath of having my phone stolen. In short, I was basking in the glorious solitude of not always being tethered to a phone, the internet, email and social media.

Once I got past the trauma, drama and weird tics and twitches that complete exclusion from mobile devices initially produces, there was an eerie calm that came over me. I swear, it was like my other senses — sight, smell, taste and touch — were heightened.

I wanted this newfound feeling of detached bliss to last forever. After all, do we really need to be connected and plugged in 24 hours a day, seven days a week?

Having my phone stolen forced me to use it less, to discover life without it. I was guided into building a good habit. Every day without my phone provided me fresh insights, and motivation, to take this newfound freedom and make it a regular part of my day.

Then I returned home, where the replacement phone awaited activation. It sat there, silently calling me. Pulling me back toward the dark side of “always on-ness.”

I tried. Really I tried to resist the call. I ignored it. I piled crap on top of the phone. Avoiding it seemed the best solution.

Yet it called me. Over and over, it called.

About 36 hours into it, I was broken. The phone was unboxed, booted up and activated.

And just like that, I was sucked back into the interwebs. The social swill. The 24-hour news cycle. Having the best intentions mattered not. It was like the past week or so without  a phone, and all the glorious advantages that come from being phoneless, never even happened.

I was back to my old habits.

It happens all the time, to all of us.

At one point or another, we’ve all pledged to turn the tide, do something new or improved for our body, mind or soul.

New Year’s resolutions are the worst. For some reason the random flipping of a calendar page motivates us to make a change. Stop smoking, lose weight, work harder, work less. The list is virtually endless.

What happens to most of those resolutions?

They fail. Around 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail by the second week of February. Statistically, there really isn’t much reason to even try. Failure is eminent.

But wait! Sure, 80 percent of resolutions fail. But that also means 20 percent succeed (or at least make it past February). And surely there are things that can be done to increase the success rate.

Fortunately psychiatrists, philosophers, and all sorts of other folks have been debating and dissecting human behavior for centuries and there are some tried-and-tested ways to help establish new habits.

It’s hard, really hard, to develop new habits. It takes dedication, it takes repetition, it takes time.

Speaking of time, it’s past time to dispel the myth that it takes 21 days to develop a new habit. This seems to have started with Dr. Maxwell Maltz’s 1960 book Psycho-Cybernetics.

Maltz, a plastic surgeon, noted that his patients took a minimum of 21 days to get used to the results of new surgical procedures. Over the years, that observation was twisted by many into, it takes 21 days to form a new habit.

Simple fact is, you can’t really put a timeline on a habit change. A lot depends on the person, the habit and the situation at that time.

3 ways to build good habits

The good news though, is that habits can be changed, added, modified and/or broken. Although there are countless tips and tricks out there for creating new habits (or breaking old ones), many experts seem to agree on three things that are consistently helpful for introducing new habits and behaviors.

1. Start small

For most people, a new habit means going big, going all-in from the get go.

  • “I’m going to lose 50 pounds.”
  • “I’m going to exercise five days a week.”
  • “It’s time to eat healthy. No more carbs, fat, sugar, (insert evil food type here).”
  • “I want to write a book.”
  • “No more coffee.”

You get the idea. Those are big goals, quite likely bigger than you realize until you try doing them.

Rather than setting the BHAG (big hairy audacious goal) right upfront, try starting off smaller.

Let’s take that “I’m going to exercise five days a week” goal. It’s admirable. Probably quite a healthy thing to do.

It’s also a very difficult thing to accomplish.

Five days a week, of say 30 minutes exercise time, is quite a commitment. Add in preparation time, post exercise showers, getting to and from the gym, spin class, jogging path, whatever — you’re looking at a solid five to six hours a week to meet this goal.

That’s a lot of time. And it requires a daily dose of motivation to boot.

And you’re probably going to fail at executing this goal.

So start smaller. Commit to exercising just five minutes a day. Or exercise 30 minutes twice a week. By starting off smaller, you’re setting yourself up for success, you’re limiting failure opportunities. You can always add more time or more days later.

The human mind needs small wins to succeed. No one likes failure. Failure is a huge demotivator. So set yourself up for success in the beginning by slicing off smaller portions of your ultimate goal.

2. Enjoy the habit

Think positive. Stop with the negative waves. Your new habit is a good thing. Don’t look at your new habit as some chore, some duty you have to complete. Instead look at it as a positive thing.

Let’s say you want to start a habit of sending five personal notes to your database every day. One way to look at this is that it’s a hassle. You’ve got to clear some time, drag out the notecards, find a pen that works, look up addresses in your database, blah blah blah. All those tedious little tasks.

Or you could look at it like you’re inviting people to work with you, improving your business, building on your future. Rather than dread writing daily notes, look forward to it.

Maybe this is the time where you kick back with that morning cup of coffee to reflect on what you want to say in your notes. Maybe you appreciate that it was easier to write today’s batch than it was last week. It’s OK to look forward to this daily ritual as a fun thing, not some chore that has to be checked off.

3. Be prepared to slip up

You will slip up in your efforts. It’s a given. The sooner you realize this — and plan for it — the better.

Failure doesn’t mean you throw in the towel and give up. I’ve failed to stop smoking dozens of times. Now you’d think that someone who suffered a massive heart attack at 51 would be well-motivated to quit smoking, and I am exactly that.

Yet, I’ve slipped on multiple occasions.

No one needs to tell me how freaking stupid that is, believe me, I know. But rather than hang my head in shame for failing to quit, I suck it up, and I quit again.

What do I do whenI slip up? I recommit myself to my goal. I don’t beat myself senseless for failing. I learn from my past mistakes, I put things in place to address what I’ve learned and I move ahead.

There are things that can help when you slip. Keep a positive attitude. Seek out an accountability partner. Commit to “not missing twice.”

Don’t miss twice can be very effective. It’s OK to miss that spin class, just don’t miss two in a row.

Did you somehow find yourself in the drive-thru ordering a Double-Double at In-n-Out? It happens to the best of us. Enjoy that gooey, drippy, delicious cheese, and don’t have another one for the next three weeks. It’s not going to kill you, and it’s not a reason to throw your diet and exercise goals out the window.

Start small.

Celebrate the wins.

Refocus. Don’t beat yourself up for the failures.

Find something you need to do in your life or your business and commit to doing it. Take it slow, give it time, and you can create good habits, lose bad ones, and enjoy life!

Jay Thompson is a real estate veteran and retiree in Seattle, as well as the mastermind behind Now Pondering. Follow him on Facebook or Instagram. He holds an active Arizona broker’s license with eXp Realty.

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