There's an old idea in personal development -- probably first espoused by Dr. Maxwell Maltz -- that it takes 21 days of doing something every single day to make it a habit. As far as I can tell, there's never been a thorough scientific study to prove that it's 21 days (instead of 17 days or 35 days or whatever), but let's proceed as if it's basically true: You repeat a new behavior enough times and it becomes second nature.

The big question then is . . . how do you get yourself to repeat it enough times? That's what we're talking about today. 

Make the Decision Once

Don't try to establish a bunch of new habits at the same time. You can make sweeping changes in your life -- people do it all the time -- but from what I can tell, you're likelier to succeed by tackling one new thing and giving yourself enough time to build new habits around it. Once you've got a grip on that one, you can move on to the next thing.

So decide what needs the most attention first. It could be your nutrition, your workouts, your finances, your housekeeping, your time management, your career, or your relationships. You won't have to think very long to figure out what the #1 area to improve should be -- it's probably staring you in the face. 

And then decide to change it, starting with a simple new habit.

Two key words here:

  1. Decide. The root of the word means "to cut off" -- as in, you're cutting off other options. Do it once: "My weight is a problem for me. So I'm cutting off the option of doing nothing about it." Set your mind to it.
  2. Simple. If you launch into some elaborate new scheme that has you trying to build Rome in a day -- or 21 days -- you're setting yourself up for failure. Keep it simple. Something like "I'm going to monitor my calorie intake for 21 days, and help reduce my intake by bringing salads to eat at work." 

Deciding means committing. And keeping it simple means you can stick with the plan much more easily.

Build Support Structures

Now, set up some simple, powerful routines that will help you carry out your decision on a daily basis. Staying with the example of monitoring calories and eating salads, you could do this:

  • Bookmark a nutrition site that will help you with calorie calculations. Make it the homepage on your browser. Download the app to your phone.
  • Make a date with your spouse to go to the local farmer's market each Saturday to stock up on vegetables.
  • Set your alarm to go off 15 minutes earlier each morning, and use that time specifically to make your salad for the day. Or set aside time on Sunday to prepare enough salads for the whole week.
  • Go to the library and check out a book with recipes for many different kinds of salads.
  • Buy yourself a nice pocket notebook where you can jot down what you eat throughout the day. 

You get the idea. If someone says "I should eat salads at lunch" and leaves it at that, they're relying on willpower -- and magical thinking -- to make it happen. That's a recipe for failure and disappointment.

But when you take several simple, clear steps to support your decision, it becomes much easier to ignore your old ways of doing things and stick with the new ways long enough to engrain them as firm habits. 

Success Is One Step Away

What all this really means is that you're only one moment away from success. If you decide right now to do something that points you in the right direction, that's a success. If you decide to do something in the next moment that reinforces it and makes it more likely that you'll repeat the good behavior -- that's a success.

Every little win counts. The little decision you make now paves the way for the next little action, and the next, and the next . . . which gets you rolling toward your destination. 

Progress in the right direction is success. That's true over the next 21 days -- and for the rest of your life.

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Tim Walker, Life Balance Blog for CareOne Debt Relief Services Tim Walker

Tim is a writer, marketer, and social media pro living in Austin. He joined CareOne's blogging team as a contributing writer for the Life Balance blog in 2009. As a blogger who has personally overcome debt challenges, he draws from his own experience to provide tips on living a balanced life and keeping fit. You can read more of his thoughts (on fitness and everything else) at his personal blog, What I've Learned So Far. Compensated Blogger for CareOne Debt Relief Services.

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