Habits are the foundation upon which your life rests. The fulcrum around which it turns. The big gravitational pull in the middle around which everything orbits.
Your life comes to be defined by the things you do most repeatedly. Sometimes a major event makes you change course. But habits build up in your life with compound interest. Small actions done over and over and over again add up to be a big deal.
One workout might not make much of a difference to your physical fitness. But the routine of regular exercise, in the long run, makes an enormous difference. The formation of a workout habit pays off in a major way.
One cigarette doesn’t do that much to your lung functioning. But a habit of smoking cigarettes certainly does.
Lives are made wonderful by great habits and miserable by destructive habits. Your repeated behaviors can shape your day to day happiness. Outside events affect us and we’re not always in control of everything. But we can be in control of the habits we choose to engage in, and that will go a long way to determine how our lives play out.
Habits also change our character, for better or worse. What we do most often gives form to who we are as people. Different kinds of habits will change us in different ways. What kind of person do you want to become?
How to Take Control
There are some tricks at becoming skillful with your habits. It’s always a work in progress, but if you’d like to create good habits, here are three awesomely effective starting tools to help you:
Forming a new habit almost always comes with rocky transitions. We start and stop; we do well for a couple days or a week and then drop the ball. Often we find ourselves discouraged when this happens. We may give up on our new habit altogether.
This is an incredibly easy way to make things nice and smooth. Simply start with tiny commitments.
Truly make your habit a commitment. Plan out when you’ll do it and stick to the plan. But don’t make a huge, grandiose, over-ambitious plan. Just plan to do a tiny bit.
The point is to make sure we don’t overwhelm ourselves. Make your habit so easy that you have no excuses.
Let’s say you want to start writing every day. Find a block of time when you can write. Then, commit to writing for just five minutes. That’s it. No more.
If after five minutes you get into it and want to keep going, then great! But commit to just five minutes. Do the same thing the next day and the next.
If today you end up doing twenty minutes because you were loving it, don’t feel like you have to do the same thing tomorrow. Tomorrow is a fresh slate where you still only need to do five minutes if that’s all you feel like.
Maybe after a solid two weeks, up your game and commit to seven or ten minutes.
If you want to start doing yoga every day, commit to just two poses a day. That may only take one minute.
If you want to start exercising, commit to a small jog, or ten pushups, or a couple squats.
If you want to eat healthy, introduce a tiny serving a vegetables to your daily diet.
Start tiny and progress slow. It may not feel significant at first, but consistency is what matters most. If you actually do that tiny bit every day then progression will come naturally. You’ll have great chances of forming a habit that sticks.
Setting triggers is another essential for habit building. This is all about making it easy to start the activity.
There are two aspects of setting triggers. The first is physically setting up your environment so you can start the habit immediately at your planned time.
Priority number one for me is morning yoga, so my yoga mat is always set up in my room. I sweep it regularly to make it clean and inviting for myself. I never put anything on it so it’s always ready for me to use.
When I wake up it’s right there ready to go. I have no good reason to put off starting a couple postures.
If you want to exercise tomorrow, then tonight lay out your workout clothes somewhere visible.
If you plan to cook then wash the pots and pans you’ll use well beforehand. Then when the moment comes you can jump right into cooking, and you won’t be discouraged by the need to clean stuff first. Sometimes I hide the ones I want to use from my roommates so I know they’ll be clean the next day for me D: I know, I know, it’s a little bit evil. But it helps me eat healthy 😀
Whatever your desired habit, find a way of preparing your environment so that there aren’t any extra chore-like things you need to do before starting the actual habit. Make it so you can jump into the good stuff!
The second aspect of setting triggers is “tying” your new habit to an already-established habit. This is sometimes called making your old habit the “cue” for the new habit.
Do your new habit either immediately before, during, or after the old one. This way, every time you go through this existing part of your routine, you’re reminded to do the new habit.
For example, my writing habit is tied to my coffee habit. I’ve been having coffee every morning for years. I love it. Now I make it a rule for myself that I can’t take my first sip of coffee until I’ve started writing my first sentence of the day.
At the very least, this gets my writing started. It gets my browser open and my fingers on the keyboard. From there it’s a lot easier to just keep working, and in the meantime I get to enjoy my coffee!
Maybe you want to start a de-cluttering habit, but as it is now you never set aside time to clean. Hopefully you already brush your teeth every day (if not, please, start). Every day, before you brush your teeth, clean one quick thing. Just put one thing away, or wipe down one surface. Then go brush those pearly whites.
It won’t be a deep clean. But if you’re guaranteed to clean one thing every day, that will go a long way to keeping your place nice.
When you tie a new habit to an old one, it makes things easier because you’re already in “routine-mode”.
Imagine following through on an exercise habit after you’ve already been home from work, on the couch watching TV, for an hour or so. That’s a difficult proposition. You’ve settled into “lazy, do whatever” mode; it’s hard to reset your mind and body away from that.
But if you’re already going through the motions of an old routine that’s become second nature to you, then from that space of mind it feels much smoother to jump into another activity.
Find an old habit that you’re already doing every day, and position your new habit right next to the old.
In my experience having an accountability partner has been the most effective habit-setting technique.
What’s an accountability partner? Easy: a partner to keep you accountable.
You share your plan with someone, and then regularly update them on how things are going. You may allow them to dish out consequences if you don’t follow through, or maybe you just let them make fun of you.
My homie is currently my accountability partner for writing. Every day I text him about whether or not I wrote. I have a stated goal with him of finishing one article per week, so I’ll also update him on how much writing I’m actually getting done.
So far just regularly talking to him about my writing has been enough to keep me mostly on track. You may find the same.
Or maybe, if you don’t stick to your habit, you’ll allow your friend to punch you in the stomach. Or you have to buy them a drink this weekend if you drop the ball. Or give them a dollar for every day you skip.
Maybe if your friend is fun, they’ll let you punch them in the stomach if you do your habit every day for a month. Or maybe they’ll order you a pizza. Making it a game with penalties or rewards can be fun.
Even without the consequences, social reinforcement is a powerful motivator. You don’t want to tell your roommate that you’ll workout this week and then look like a lazy chump when you don’t do it.
We would rather be seen as committed, hard-working, and admirable. It’s a great feeling when you can honestly tell your accountability partner that you fucking did it.
Find someone to report to. Give them a plan specifying when you’ll do your habit. How many times this week? On which days? At what time on those days?
Then, let them know how often you want to keep in contact. I recommend starting with daily updates, and then scaling it back to weekly once the habit is well-established. Let them know what time to expect a text or call. Tell them to contact you if you don’t hit them up within ten minutes of that time.
Then just stick to it! Keep in touch with that person. Soak in their praise when you’re doing well, and be a good sport about letting them rag on you when you’re slacking.
I wish you luck my friend. Sticking to wholesome habits long-term is pretty damn tough.
But with a few good tricks up your sleeve I’m sure you’ll do great.
Oh yeah, you’ll struggle. Stumble. Stop and get back up again. That’s all a part of the process.
But over time you’ll become a stronger person. Even better yet you’ll reap the rewards of all the work you put in.
This is the first of many pieces I’ll write on how to optimize your habits. There’s a lot to cover in this territory and mastering this discipline will totally change your life.
I can’t wait to write more about it 🙂
For now, keep me posted! Leave comments about how you’re doing, what you’re struggling with, and all the questions in the world about what I’ve written here.