Sticky Habits

“Sticky Habits”

I am going do a really cool mind reading trick for you. I can tell that half of you created new years resolutions at the start of the year. I can also tell that nine out of ten of you broke them!

OK, I might have cheated. Research from London University has shown that 50% of American adults create new years resolutions. It has also shown than 80% break them after the first month (and 92% after the second.)

OK, really now, I can predict your future! No, seriously, this time I can! I can do it for everyone in this room. I can tell you if you are going to need expensive dental treatment, I can tell you if you are going to put on weight, I can tell you how productive you will be at work, I can tell you how content you are going to be with your life - I could go on. And I could do all this just by asking you one question.

The question I would ask you is “what do you do every day?” 

How can I make this bold claim with so much confidence? Because I know two things, firstly that we are creatures of habit and secondly I know that little by little a little becomes a lot.

Studies at Duke University have shown that at least 40% of what we do every day is habit. A minimum of 40% of what we do every day is not the result of a deliberate decision but is done on autopilot. These habits often develop over time without our really thinking about them. Some of these habits just happen to be “good” and some happen to be “bad.” No matter what the result of these habits compound over time. Your life is the result of your habits. Let me say that again because it’s important - your life is the result of your habits. If you deliberately develop “good” habits then “good” things will eventually happen. 

“Successful people are simply those with successful habits” - Brian Tracy. People who are successful purposefully develop good habits. The author Stephen King has the habit of writing 10 pages a day, every day (including weekends and holidays.) The Founding Father Ben Franklin asked himself at 5am every day “what good shall I do today” and at 9pm “what good have I done today.” I seem to recall he did pretty well for himself. The technologist and philanthropist Bill Gates reads for one hour before bed every night. Again, someone who did quite well for himself. The singer Katy Perry always carries a toothbrush with her and brushes her teeth 6 times a day - and look at her teeth. 

You may have gathered by now I am a big believer in the power of habit. I have come up with my patent pending “sticky habits” method to help build new habits that I am going to share with you today. All you need is some sticky notes and a pen. This method combines the findings of numerous pieces of research into habits and I think it’s simple enough for anyone to follow. How do I know the “sticky habits” idea will work? Well, firstly because as I said it is based on a lot of research, but secondly I have been using it myself for years. On the first day of every month I pick a new habit to work on. The first month I work on one habit. The second month I continue working on the first habit and I add a second one. The third month I evaluate whether to continue my first habit or not and decide them to either make it bigger or drop it. 

Researchers have found there are 3 parts to a habit, the reminder, the routine and the reward. The reminder is what triggers you to do the habit, for example the new text message sound on your phone dinging. The routine is the habit itself, for example opening the message to see what it says. The reward is what we get from having done the habit, for example the satisfying the curiosity of knowing who sent you the message and what it said.

Let me share a couple common habits of mine to illustrate the 3 parts in real life. 

Every morning I go into the bathroom to get ready. The very first thing I do is brush my teeth - without fail! I never shower or shave or do my nails first, I always brush my teeth first. I do the same thing when I am in a hotel as well as when I am at home. Entering the bathroom is the reminder. Brushing my teeth is the routine or habit. Have a minty fresh mouth is the reward. Once I have brushed my teeth I get in the shower. Once I am out of the shower I shave. I’m sure you get ready in the same order too. Its a routine!

Every morning when I come in to work I fill up my water bottle, I get some coffee and then go back to my desk and check my email. Coming into work is the the reminder. Filling my water bottle and getting coffee is the routine. Having a nice drink to sip whilst I check my email is my reward.


The first step in creating a sticky habit is to come up with a reminder to ensure you do your your new routine. Pick a trigger, something that will prompt you to do your new habit. 

Some examples you might use are:

An existing habit. Link your new habit to an existing one. Do your new habit whenever you wash your hands, whenever you eat, whenever you go in the car, whenever you check facebook. Pick something you do every day already and link your new habit to that. If you are trying to correct a bad habit, existing habits make the best triggers. 

A specific time of day. Decide on a particular time of day, 6am, noon, 8pm or whatever works best for you and set an alarm or calendar reminder. Or before breakfast or after dinner. Make it a “time” you can do every day.

It could be right after your shower.

It could be before you eat breakfast.

It could be at 7.00am. 

It could be after you drink your first coffee

It could be at lunchtime. 

It could be after you have eaten dinner at night

It could be 8.00pm. 

Visual cue

Your yoga mat

Your running shoes

Your car keys

Your water bottle

Write down the reminder for your habit on a sticky note.

When I make a coffee


The next step is to pick a new habit or routine you want to develop. Pick one new habit to build. Research has shown that people have the best success rates when they only work on one habit at a time. In fact one study showed your chances of success drop by 70% when trying to create more than one habit at a time.

Habits should be small, simple and sustainable.

Start small and build it up over time. Build habits incrementally.  If you are trying to build a habit of running 5 miles a day and you haven’t put on a pair of running shoes for years you probably won’t be successful. For example: Make your first habit to walk half a mile each day. Then later grow your next habit to run half a mile. After that increase the habit after that to run a mile. Over time increase it to two miles then three miles and so on.

Make it simple. The more complex your habit is the greater the chance you will find something that “prevents” you from being able to do it. The habit of “drink a glass of water before each meal” is more likely to stick than “drink half your bodyweight in ounces in every 24 hour period.”

Make it sustainable. Make it something you can realistically do every day, not just on weekends, not just when it’s sunny outside but everyday. If you wanted your habit to be to go for a 45 minute walk at lunchtime. How long do you get for a lunch break? Could you do it every day Monday to Sunday? 

Write your habit down. Make sure you are constantly reminded of your new habit. A recent study showed that people who didn’t write down their habit failed to build the habit because they forgot about it after a week. Write your new habit on 3 sticky notes. Place one sticky note by your bed, one at your desk and one in your purse or wallet. Give yourself visual reminders everywhere.

When I make a coffee then I will practice one minute meditation


Finally, you need a reward for doing your routine. One of the best rewards is to mark down on a sticky note every time you do your habit. Take another couple of sticky notes and draw a 5 x 7 grid on them. 

This will help you with your new habit in two ways. Firstly it serves as a reward (which all habits need) but secondly it taps into Robert Cialdini's principle of consistency. The mind likes consistency and it will be motivated to continue if it sees a line of “X’s” showing all the days you have done your habit. The comedian Jerry Seinfeld started his career with the “don’t break the chain method” by writing new material every day and marking it down. He promised to himself that he would never break the chain. 

I’m sure you have heard that it takes 21 days to build a new habit. Unfortunately there is absolutely no research to back that up. What researchers from the University of London have found however is the amount of time it takes actually depends on how difficult the habit is. The average however is 66 days. So, to really ingrain a new habit it takes about two months. 

Sticky to your habit for two months and commit to never missing more than one day in a row.

If you need some inspiration on a good habit to build, here are some to consider. Incidentally these suggestions are proven “keystone habits.” Keystone habits are fundamental changes that cause a ripple effect in your life. You can of course choose any habit you want.

Heath. If you want to start getting healthy make your habit to walk 10,000 steps a day. Make your reminder to walk for 20 minutes after each meal. That alone with get you 8,000 steps. You will get in another 2,000 just in your regular day to day business. Walking 10,000 steps is considered a “keystone habit.” The idea of keystone habits comes from Charles Duhiggs book “The Power of Habit.”The idea of keystone habits comes from Charles Duhiggs book “The Power of Habit.” Keystone habits are ones that create a domino effect by causing you to make more habits.  Keystone habits are ones that create a domino effect by causing you to make more habits. Studies have shown that people lose more weight if they go for a walk after dinner every night. And as the designated washer uper at home I can tell you not only does it give you time to soak the dishes before washing them up but its also an excuse way to procrastinate doing this chore! 

Happiness. Practice gratitude. Write down 3 things you are grateful for at 8.00pm every night. This is the single biggest thing a person can do to be happy (and it’s backed by science!). Spend time at the end of the day to express gratitude. Express it in a diary, express it around the dinner table, express it in an email to yourself - whatever works for you. The most important thing is that you do express it. Be grateful for however things turn out. Look for the lesson. See the good in people. Start your day right. Get some positive input in the first hour of the day. Pick something that resonates with you. Books, music, whatever. Religion, philosophy, inspirational Youtube videos. Start the day by learning something new. If you aren’t learning you are falling behind. If you pick a topic you are interested in, it will even be fun! Avoid TV news, it is almost all negative. Decide first thing that you are going to have a good day. Find 30 minutes to get some exercise. Make it something you enjoy. Eat a healthy breakfast and pack some good snacks. You only have one body to live in so look after it. Whenever you start something pick a positive attitude. Tell yourself that you can do it. Watch your self talk. The more your mind hears something the more it believes it to be true. When you believe something to be true it affects your actions.

Wealth. If your goal is to improve your financial health track your expenditure. Everytime you spend money write down how much you spent, where you spent it and what you spent it on. Whatever is measured improves. This is another keystone habit that will make you aware of what you are spending your money on and cause you to create new habits. For example if you notice you are spending $5 at starbucks each morning perhaps you will create the habit of making your your coffee and bringing it into work.

Productivity. If you want to get more done, make the first 3 things you do every day from quadrant 2 of the Eisenhower grid. The Eisenhower grid was popularized by Steven Coveys book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” Quadrant 1 is “urgent and important” tasks (problems and crises), quadrant 2 is “important but not urgent” tasks (long-term strategic goals), quadrant 3 “urgent but not important” tasks (distractions and disruptions) and quadrant 4 is “not important and not urgent” tasks (time wasting activities.) Plan your day. Have a todo list and spend time each morning before you start work picking the most important tasks to do first.

As a quick summary. Decide on a small, simple and sustainable habit. Write your new habit on 3 sticky notes. Find a trigger or reminder for your habit. Track your daily progress on another sticky note for 2 months. Commit to never missing more than one day in a row. Reap the benefits.

Now you have everything you need to start your new habit! Cool huh!

I encourage you to start today. Managing your habits can literally change your life! Feel free to reach out to me with questions, challenges and of course successes as you work to build your new habit.