An image of a black chalkboard, with the words "forming habits" printed on it with white chalk, is used to illustrate the concept of forming behavioral habits.

Knowing how to create good habits can help you build your dream massage business. Here, we will look at the power of habit and how to develop habits, using the latest research and advice.

We are creatures of habit; in fact, habits account for 43% of our actions, according to Wendy Wood, habits performance researcher and author of “Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick.” If you find the idea of being on automatic pilot for almost half of your waking life worrisome, think about how habits can be helpful, like brushing your teeth in the morning.

What is a Habit?

A habit can be defined as a short cut to repeat a behavior that was done in the past. For example, to avoid ants in the kitchen in the spring, Davita starts taking out the kitchen trash. If Davita continues to take out the trash, at some point, she won’t have to remind herself to do it. It becomes an automatic behavior.

A habit can move you toward or away from a goal. For example, Barak established a habit of walking his dog, Freddie, every morning to support his health goal. But at night, he mindlessly eats chips while watching his favorite TV shows.

If only Barak had more self-control he could stop eating those chips, right? Wrong. Like walking Freddie, eating chips is a habit, too.

“People who score high on self-control don’t achieve successes in life by exerting control,” Wood explains. “They are not practicing self-denial by white-knuckling through life. Instead, they know how to form habits that meet their goals.”

A solution to Barak’s chip-eating-while-watching-TV habit is to switch the chips to carrots or another healthy food that is crunchy and fun to eat.

Looking at life through a habits lens can be liberating. If your business is not all that you want it to be, it’s not because you are a flawed individual who lacks self-discipline; it’s that way because you don’t understand how to hack into your brain’s habit system to make habits work for you. Let’s start hacking.

Here are three research-backed essentials needed for developing habits: Goals, rewards and cues. They all are involved in repeating a behavior which leads to the creation of a habit.

But remember, getting the “next time” in takes more than self control. If you ever made a New Year’s resolution to work out at the gym, you may have noticed the first day was easy because you were highly motivated. But the subsequent days become harder, especially if your goal is broad, like “I just want to look and feel better.”

Set Achievable Goals

Katy Milkman, Professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of “How to Change: Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be,” advices to set concrete goals that are challenging but achievable. A concrete, New Year’s resolution goal for our gym example is “I will fit into my favorite summer shirt in four months.”

Milkman also advises to give yourself a pass when you mess up. Why? To avoid the what-the-hell effect. Kelly McGonigal, author of “The Willpower Instinct,” explains the what-the-hell effect as “feelings of shame, guilt, loss of control and loss of hope” that cause you to give up on your goal entirely.

For example, Anton’s marketing goal is to contact a potential referral source five days a week for six months. Anton nails the goal two weeks in a row, but at the beginning of week three, he misses a day. In Anton’s mind, he broke the streak. Game over.

But is “all or nothing” thinking helpful? Anton has 10- plus days in on building referral sources. And at the end of six months, even if he is 50% successful with meeting his goal, he will be much better off than stopping after two weeks.

Last, be flexible as to when you are working on accomplishing your goal. Milkman and her colleagues found that people who are paid to exercise whenever they could fit it into their schedules had more gym visits than people who were paid to exercise within a specific timeframe each day.

Attainable but challenging goals with some flexibility built in won’t be enough to keep the repetition going. You will also need rewards.

The Reward Process

To repeat a behavior there must be reward—and that reward must be immediate. The reward to the brain is dopamine, Wood explains, and dopamine “works for a short amount of time tying together that information in memory.”

That means if your marketing goal is to post about your business on Facebook five times a week, a reward of a shore trip at the end of a year is less effective for establishing a posting habit than giving yourself 10 minutes of free time after you post.

BJ Fogg, behavior scientist at Stanford and author of “Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything,” describes the reward process in terms of emotions. He explains emotions that produce a positive feeling are the key to making a behavior a habit. The stronger the emotion during and/or after the behavior you want to repeat, the more likely you will repeat the behavior and rewire your brain.

The good news, according to Fogg, is the reward can be simple, like congratulating yourself on a job well done. Your brain will remember that good feeling from the self-congratulation and will want it again in the future.

But what happens when life gets busy? The good feeling from the behavior you want to become a habit may get obscured by other feelings more powerful. Having cues in your environment will help you stay on track.

Cues Trigger Action

Cues are reminders in your environment. They trigger you to repeat a behavior. For example, flushing a toilet could be a trigger for washing hands.

Here’s an example of using a cue to trigger a business behavior: Tara wants to write a business to-do list every morning. Her morning routine is to make a cup of coffee and then watch the morning news. To cue herself to make a to-do list, Tara puts a blank sheet of paper and pen by her coffee pot at night. When she goes to make a cup of coffee, she sees the blank paper and is reminded to make her to-do list before she starts her day.

Tie a Habit to a Business Goal

Now you know how to create a habit that supports accomplishing a business goal. But which goal should you go after? Business coach Mike Precopio suggests this goal: Define and market your unique selling proposition (USP) goal.

According to Precopio, who was interviewed for this article, you can figure out your USP by asking yourself, “Why do people choose me? Is it convenient hours, solutions to certain physical problems, customer care or something else?” Once you understand your USP, you now have the messaging to sell your services.

Let’s play this out and create a habit that supports a USP goal. Lei has been in practice for 3 years. Her business is okay but not great, and she wants to take it to the next level. The next level for Lei is to have a consistently full schedule.

Attainable Goal: Lei doesn’t like marketing, but she recognizes that it’s important if she wants a steady flow of clients. She writes this business goal down: I will grow my practice by 50% in eight months through defining my USP and utilizing that information to market my business.

Context: On a normal day Lei arrives at her office 30 minutes before a massage. It takes her 15 minutes to get ready for the massage. The extra 15 minutes she spends on Instagram or texting, which she recognizes could be used for her business goal. Next, Lei makes a habit plan to reach her goal.

Cue: Before she leaves after the last massage of the day, Lei puts a note on her chair with USP written in big bold letters. The next day after Lei is done getting ready for her first client of the day, she goes back into her office to enjoy some downtime on her phone, but what does she see? The USP note on her chair, cuing her to work on her business goal.

Reward: Lei begins defining her USP by creating a survey that she is going to hand out to clients, eliciting their feedback as to why they like coming to her. But before she starts, she sets her phone’s timer for 10 minutes. Why not 15 minutes? Because 5 minutes is for her reward—free time to have fun on her phone after she has done her task.

You Can Do This

If all of this is sounding doable, it’s because it is doable. Researchers have given us a playbook to create habits that move us toward achieving our goals.

Whichever business goal you pick, remember that it must be attainable. Reward yourself during or immediately after the behavior that supports your goal. Have cues in your environment to help you remember to do the behavior you want to repeat.

Then get of your way, use the power of habit, and let that part of your brain that does things without you knowing it build your business like nobody’s business.

Mark Liskey

About the Author

Mark Liskey, LMT, CNMT, is a massage therapist, business owner, teacher and blogger. You can access his free, massage-business crash course on his business page.