This article orignally published on July 26, 2012.
As the late Stephen Covey taught in his runaway bestseller, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, cultivating good habits is essential to an entrepreneur’s success. New habits are hard to master, but learning how we turn intention into reality can make the process much easier.
“The biggest problem is that we rely too much on willpower alone,” says Heidi Grant Halvorson, psychologist and author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals (Hudson Street Press, 2010). “Wanting something isn’t enough.”
Willpower is like a pool that drains during the day, then replenishes overnight. Each time you make a decision, manage stress, or do any task that is not immediately rewarding, you drain a bit of your willpower. With fewer resources at your disposal, you are more likely to give up quickly.
To successfully adopt new habits to grow your business, you need to bypass willpower. Here’s how:
1. Make a specific action plan. Good habits require planning, so we need to break them down into actionable steps. For example, if you want to prioritize your time (Covey’s Habit 3), then you might make a list of your top five goals, tack them above your desk, and check to ensure that each task you take on falls into one of those categories. “Planning in a very deliberate way takes a lot of the burden off willpower,” says Halvorson. “That’s the secret to success.”
To create your own plan, imagine that you’ve already mastered the habit you want to adopt. How would your behavior change? What would you do differently as you went about your day? Answering these questions will empower you to follow through.
2. Anticipate challenges. As you work toward a goal, you need to prepare for potential problems you’ll encounter. To ensure that old habits don’t derail your goals, create plans that outline, “If I am in situation X, then I will respond by X.”
For example, if you want to become a better listener (remember Habit 5), you might say to yourself, “If I’ve shared an idea with a group, then I won’t speak again until everyone else has responded.” When the moment arises, your brain will already know what to do, so you won’t have to make a decision. “This makes you about three times more likely to actually do it,” Halvorson says.
3. Stick with it (there are no 30-day guarantees). People will often tell you that it takes 30 days to form a habit, or that skipping a single day means you have to start over tomorrow. None of that lore is true. “There is no magic amount of time,” Halvorson says. The time you need to commit depends on three factors: how difficult the new habit is to do, how often you do it, and how much it clashes with your current habits. Imagine a piece of paper with a very deep crease. Mastering a new habit is like ironing out the old crease and reinforcing a new one–it takes time. “It will become a habit if you just hang in there,” Halvorson says.