It’s a funny thing at this time of year how many of us automatically go into the mode of setting hugely ambitious goals for the coming year.

I’m sure you know the kind of thing, ‘I will wake up at 5.30am and exercise for 40 minutes every day from now on’. Or is it just me?

One of the questions I had in my mind for years and years was about whether it is more effective to do something for longer – say an hour once a week – or to do something every day for just ten minutes. Take exercise for example. I’m an all or nothing person and I reasoned, surely it would be more effective to go on a really decent run once a week or so, instead of ten or fifteen minutes running each day. This was the approach I adopted for years.

It turns out that I was wrong. The science of behaviour change tells us that the most consistently practiced behaviours are the ones that we do automatically, every day. And the reason is somewhat intriguing.

Research has found that process of decision making takes willpower, and willpower is a limited resource that can quickly get depleted if we rely too heavily on it. Habits, however, use up much less mental energy.

Very little, in fact, because we’re travelling down well worn paths that are familiar and so we barely use any brain power to complete them.

Once I started to think about this, it made sense. I’ve never needed to think ‘when will I brush my teeth today?’, because it’s such an ingrained habit that I’ve been doing – or someone did for me when I was very young – twice a day, morning and evening for as long as I can remember. And even on the nights when I’m totally exhausted and just want to crash into bed, I never miss brushing my teeth because it would feel so wrong. It’s so much part of my routine that I don’t give myself a choice, I just do it. I reasoned that although it’s hard to set up good habits, it’s probably worth it.

So in 2018 after learning this new information I experimented with a very simple idea- do a little of something every day, at the same time each day, in the same order and after some time it will become a habit. 

Even better if I can attach it to a habit I already have in place. Then it is much easier to do that ‘thing’ for longer, whether it is exercising, meditating, cooking from scratch, spending time with a loved one, or whatever.

For some people, this kind of pattern comes very naturally, but for me it didn’t at all. It was a long, hard slog, because on the planning versus spontaneity spectrum I am very firmly at the latter end.

‘Routine’ to me smacked of boredom, lack of novelty and generally something to be avoided.

What I found, though, was a revelation.

For the first time in my life I was consistently achieving the goals that I set myself. By easing myself into new habits ever so gently it was like I was tricking myself into a new behaviour. And this had an extremely motivating effect, a bit like a runner’s high, I wanted more and was able to build on the earlier goals by expanding them. One example – I wanted to do some basic morning strength exercises so I started with setting myself the target of doing these for three minutes immediately after my meditation practice. Five months on and I’m consistently doing twelve minutes of strength training each day.

For years I was down on myself because I never managed to achieve my targets. I would set myself big, visionary goals and then a couple of months on feel really disappointed with myself for not achieving them. I could do well for a few days, sometimes even a couple of weeks, but it would soon start to feel too much, too exhausting.  With this new method I was achieving more and using less energy at the same time.

Which is why I am a convert to the power of establishing habits and making them a part of a daily routine.

These are my mantras for this coming year.

Break it down. Start small. Build a habit.

I’d love to hear from you. What are your top tips to achieve your goals?