I’ve often struggled with maintaining good habits.
Exercising. Eating healthy. Waking up early. Writing every day. Meditating.
Some weeks I have no trouble maintaining a healthy habit routine, other weeks I seem to fall off the wagon. On the upside, I always have the intention to do these things. The follow through (or lack thereof) is the problem!
This week has been no exception. My diet has been atrocious. Lots of fried food, deserts and far too little exercise. To get back on the healthy bandwagon, I’ve been focusing on starting out the day the right way – with a nutritious green smoothie. I drink this smoothie 5 days a week. It’s habitual and gives me a solid nutrient-dense start to the day, regardless of whatever else happens. Next up will be combining my smoothie habit with a consistent exercise routine.
My frustrations and quest to adopt better habits has led me to research what it takes to build and maintain them. What have I found? It all boils down to this:
Habit-formation advice is ultimately simple — repeat a positive action consistently in the same context.
The application of this simple advice is the hard part. This post is a summary of what I’ve learned, with more details to help you and I do the right thing, consistently. If you apply even a fraction of the learning from this post, you are bound to see big results.
For those that don’t want to read….I created the below infographic to summarize the content in this post. Enjoy!
Habits Dominate Our Lives
Unconscious patterns rule our lives. We think we have complete control over our desire to eat the salad vs the donut, but the ingrained patterns of thinking and behavior ultimately lead us to our final action. Munch away on that bowl of greens or down the donut in one fell swoop – which behavior will you embrace?
What is great about habits are that once set, they do not require continued motivation to maintain. I don’t believe that it is possible or desirable to rely on motivation all the time. That would be silly. We need to build habits that will last for the long-term without requiring effort.
Habits are like dividends on your investments. Once you’ve built up a nest egg of good behavior, you can benefit from the continued goodness without paying attention to it.
With a quiver full of great habits, you will find a lot more time, energy and desire to do other cool stuff with your life. This makes complete sense. Habits are automatic, so while those healthy patterns operate you can go about using that extra mental and physical energy doing whatever you want. Or perhaps you will use the extra energy to just relax a bit more. Either way, life is better when you build up healthy habits.
When was the last time you spent money on a book, program or conference designed to improve some aspect of your life? The market for self-improvement is almost $10 BILLION per year in the US alone. This shows that people are hungry for change. The rest of this article is designed to show you how to change for good, with minimal effort over the long-term.
It all starts with committing to build good habits, and a willingness to invest some time and effort (dare I say “willpower”?) today so that you can live better for the rest of your life.
That’s a good trade-off, right? A little work now for a happier and more fulfilling future? I’d take that trade any day.
How We Form Habits
The ideas and thoughts that pop into my head often surprise me, sometimes scare me and every now and then totally confuse me! Our brains are infinitely complex organs. One reason I’m fond of meditation is that it allows me to better understand the craziness going on inside of my own head.
I also take comfort in the fact that there are some very smart scientists who have studied the brain and human behavior in-depth, providing simplified ways to understand things.
One model that is illustrative is the Competence Learning Model.
The model demonstrates a progression of skills from requiring lots of conscious effort at first, to eventual excellence and unconscious application at the end.
Can you think of a case where this has applied to your own life?
For me, recently I decided to switch from snowboarding (where I am unconsciously competent due to 15 years of experience) to skiing (where I was unaware of just how poor a skier I am!). I know that with time it will get easier. I just need to stick with it. I need to progress from being unconsciously incompetent (#1) to unconsciously competent (#4).
Even better, if you develop skills properly, the progression from #1 to #4 can be enjoyable.
Habits form as we adopt new behaviors that do not require a significant effort to maintain. They become second nature. Like an expert skier who won’t need to put in much effort to cruise down a powder run, an unconsciously competent person can receive more benefit with less effort. At that point, the activity can even be considered fun.
Habits Form Through Action
Habits get formed when we actually do things. Thinking about stuff doesn’t do much towards building good habits.
For example, you can read a ton of books about business and sales and think you know how to sell and market properly. You would be mistaken. You actually need to act in order to learn and grow.
A great and very specific example of this is the coffee challenge, as popularized by Chief Sumo Noah Kagan. For the coffee challenge, Noah challenges people to test their ability to “ask for something” by requesting their barista for a 10% discount on their coffee….for no particular reason. The goal of the exercise is to get people off their butt and into the real world acting out to exercise a new behavior (in this case the behavior is “asking people for a favor with nothing in return”). According to Noah, while many think it would be an easy task to carry out, actually doing it is remarkably hard.
This exemplifies a key part in habit building. You must commit to action in order to actually build a new habit. Simply pondering or thinking about something isn’t enough. Action – at regular and sustained intervals – is required.
Habits Take Time
I used to think that it took a week to form a habit. I don’t know where I got that idea. A week always seemed like a conveniently long chunk of time. If I could get used to doing something each and every day for an entire week, that habit was sure to stick around. Right?
Then I realized that a week wasn’t nearly enough time. Through my own trial and error, I saw that 10 days was a better time frame for building habits that stick. I think Tony Robbins “10-Day Health Challenge” convinced me to think that. Then came the rise of the 30-day challenge meme. Want to lose weight, meditate, get stronger, change you diet or all of the above? There are countless blogs out there tracking and reporting out the success (and failure) for an XYZ day challenge on any topic under the sun. Then, of course, there is the mythical 40-day rule. Jesus rose and performed miracles during a 40 day period. So this must be the perfect stretch of time to form a new habit?
To make things more confusing, there has been a myth – backed by science – that is takes 21 days to form a new habit. This myth is from the world of medicine, where Maxwell Maltz, a surgeon, found that it took on average 21 days for amputee patients to stop noticing their phantom limbs, signaling a change in brain chemistry. He also found that patients who had facial surgery, would identify with their new look as their own – in about three weeks. This must be the final answer! It is based on science!
The truth is that there is no specific answer to how long it takes to form a habit. The range of time required varies greatly, depending on the individual circumstance and the habit that is being ingrained. The most relevant research study examined habit building across a wide range of activities and found 66 days to be the median time required to build a new habit. But, there is considerable variance.
The lesson here is that if you can stick with a new habit for 10 weeks (66 days to be exact) you are more likely than average to retain the new habit for the long-term. Unless, of course, you aren’t average to start with, in which case it might take a lot less. If you are reading this article, chances are that means you too! You can also follow James Clear’s advice and forget about the time period, and just focus on DOING THE WORK until the habit inevitably forms.
6 Strategies To Build Habits
You can find countless examples of successful habit building. There really is no one size fits all recipe for doing so though I have found a number of common themes, from reading personal stories and reviewing the scientific literature.
Here are a few of the top strategies I’ve found to help you form habits quickly and easily. OK, I’m not so sure about the easy part, and quick is a relative term (give it 10 weeks!), but if you can apply several of these towards building a new habit you will massively improve your chances of success.
1) Be Consistent
Habits form when you continuously invest in a new behavior to the point where the behavior moves beyond requiring conscious action to be maintained. The way this happens is through repetition, in the same way that brushing your teeth is an automatic activity (at least I hope so!) born from years of repetition.
When done consistently, any new healthy habit will eventually become the norm and take little effort to continue. For example, if you are building a meditation habit, commit to meditating at the same time, for the same duration, in the same way. Over time, the habit will become ingrained more quickly through your consistent effort. Keep as many factors consistent as possible (time, duration, location, etc.) to hasten the process.
2) Reinforce Positive Actions
Forming habits for not doing something will not work. For example, let’s say you want to form a habit for eating better. Creating a habit for “not eating fried food” will not activate our hard-wired capacity to build habits. You can’t build a habit around NOT doing something. Instead, build a habit around DOING something. Back to the healthy eating example, a good habit building activity would be “drinking a green smoothie every morning” or “eating a salad with every meal” or “drink 16 ounces of water with lemon first thing every morning”.
3) Aim Small, To Get Big Results
Setting big, audacious goals works to initially motivate you. However, you can’t build habits around outcomes that are overly complex and require a huge change from where you currently are.
For example, if you want to retire early, in 10 years instead of 40 years, you should do the work to understand what that takes in terms of required savings to fund your retirement. Then, decide on the very specific and small continuous actions that will ultimately get you to that goal. An example of this could be saving an extra $100 per week and investing that in a low-cost index fund. Once this habit is mastered, you can expand on it to either increase the amount saved per week or build other money-saving habits (e.g. like cooking more meals at home) or revenue building habits (e.g. like saving up for a rental property or working on a side hustle).
Start by building habits that are very small (but in line with your big goals) and then build on those small habits. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, those small habits will multiply to become massive in no time. Just stick with it!
4) Monitor Bad Habits
Warning: this technique requires some motivation and effort.
Research shows that then you are able to detect and intercept a bad habit you can radically change behavior for the better. Simply identify a bad habit (e.g. sitting on the couch watching too much TV) while you are doing the bad habit. Once you catch yourself, identify the cue that resulted in doing the bad habit (e.g. perhaps you tend to sit on the couch shortly after getting home from work) and replace it with something positive.
In this example, when you get home from work, instead of having a seat on the couch, go out for a short walk, vacuum the floor, clean the bathroom, call a friend to say hello….do anything but sit on the couch! Over time, this interception of the bad habit will unhinge the behavior and it will release its grip on you.
I love journaling because it allows you to apply this technique at regular intervals. Keep your journal (or Evernote or whatever you use) handy during the day. When you notice a bad habit coming on, stop and write the following:
- What is the bad habit?
- What was the cue that instigated it?
- What good thing could you do instead?
- Then do #3!
5) Use Social Affirmation
We change behavior more quickly and easily when there is social pressure involved. Derek Sivers and I both do not like to share goals with others until they are well under way. However, I do rely on social pressure to encourage me to get into better routines and build habits that relate to my big goals.
When I worked at Microsoft, I used to enjoy early morning meetings, as it motivated me to get up and into the office on time. I also enjoy joining groups for yoga practice, running or cycling. Knowing that a group is waiting for me gives me the added boost to not skip out.
Even if you don’t share your bigger goals with others, find small habits you are working on, and figure out a way to connect with others to create some positive peer pressure. Join a group or club if you have to. Meetup.com is also a good resource to find like-minded groups aligned with a habit you are looking to build.
6) Apply Willpower Wisely
Let us also not forget that while habits – once established – do not require much effort to maintain – we have a special weapon in ourselves to help get the proverbial habit ball rolling. This weapon is called WILLPOWER.
Willpower is immensely powerful, but we have a limited supply of it. Spend willpower wisely by focusing your efforts on one habit at a time, and make it a small one. As you gain momentum, expand the habit to be bigger and more impactful. Build other good habits over time on top of the ones you already built.
Do These Strategies Work?
It is my belief that YES – they do. The tricky thing is that science will never provide us with a bulletproof method. You need to sort out the answer yourself through trial and error.
At best, research studies can point us in the right direction. In one study, a dozen people with very severe nervous habits (like nail-biting, nervous ticks, shoulder jerking) virtually eliminated these habits in a SINGLE SESSION by following a protocol of movements that were the reverse of the bad habit, developing awareness of the habit and unlinking it from the usual response chain, and receiving social approval for his efforts to inhibit the habit.
This doesn’t mean that building new healthy habits is easy. It does mean that the strategies can be super helpful.
Apply the strategies in this article to focus on a clear and positive habit, establish a routine around the habit, monitor progress and finally…use social affirmation to get leverage around your new behavior. You are bound to find success. Just give it time (10 weeks for good measure!).
Habit Building Resources
If you have made it this far, you are no doubt serious about building up new habits. You may find the following resources helpful in your quest:
Ben Gardner’s Health Habit Building Worksheet
This simple form was developed by Ben Gardner, a Health Psychologist, and his co-authors to help patients build healthy habits. I find that it can apply to ANY HABIT, not just health-related habits. You can read their report on building good health oriented habits here.
Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
A New York Times Bestseller on habit building, chock full of stories, anecdotes, and research-backed ideas.