You’ve probably noticed that I recently switched to writing about everything under the sun to writing about one particular topic. That’s right, I’m covering all there is to cover about habits now.
See where I’m going? You are almost like a rainy cloud that I have a ~50% chance of predicting what you’ll do next.
So, let me guess. You will…
Read the next sentence.
Ha-ha. I got you.
But on a more serious note. If you forever wished to have good lasting habits in your life, but always found it hard to make habits stick. This strategic guide will show you why we often fail to establish healthy daily routines and what we can change in our approach to develop vigorous habits.
It all starts with what habits are.
Well, most likely “habit” means something in another ancient language, like Greek or Latin, but who gives a damn because our understanding of habits is good enough – I don’t have to cite Plato or Aristotle to help you conceptualize the idea of habits.
So, here’s our common understanding of what habits are:
Habit is something that a person does often in a regular and repeated way.3
That’s what the dictionary says.
A more coherent explanation of habits is based on the science paper I mentioned above. The scientists there say the following about our daily routines:
Habits are automated response dispositions that are cued by aspects of the performance context (i.e., environment, preceding actions). They are learned through a process in which repetition incrementally tunes cognitive processors in procedural memory (i.e., the memory system that supports the minimally conscious control of skilled action).
You didn’t get it, right? Me either!
To unpack that. I must share an example:
Habits mean suddenly dropping what you’re doing and impatiently reaching for your phone that’s inside your pocket. You do this with haste, so you can see what God-given piece of information arrived at your phone and produced a beeping sound while reaching the destination.
Habits are also the unconscious selection of the largest beer plus the most fat-intensive meal when you are seated at a restaurant without even looking at the menu. Yes, you simply automatically order junk food because your brain is predisposed to want sugar and artificial additives – both of which taste delicious.
And (also) habits are certainly your almost magical levitation towards in front of the TV right after work.
Why Developing Healthy Habits is Hard?
If you are a normal human being. And by normal, I mean you often forego future rewards in order to obtain a less rewarding but more immediate benefit (i.e., instant gratification). You probably realized that your desire to design a dreamy lifestyle – the one you see on social media, fit body, flat stomach – is an impossible dream.
Not that you don’t know what to do – you do. But you don’t know how to maintain your focus on the actions that matter.
Since it’s hard to get up and exercise while the whole neighborhood is still cuddling with their pillows and the only noise you hear when you get up that early is the noise of your snoring spouse – or crickets, if you happen to live somewhere near nature. You continue to chase self-help books on habits. Imagining that the true to sustained good behavior is some magical mantra hidden in the pages of modern literature. So, you pile books on your nightstand, waiting for the encoding towards the ultimate daily routine to slam you in the face.
Alas, the only thing you find is references that “good things take time.” That “you have to embrace the struggle.” That “the struggle to perfect a skill is the only way to perfect a skill.”
“Not good enough,” you say.
“There should be – there must be – an easier way. After all, I can order a cab with a push of a button. There should be a seamless way to transition from a round shape to a sculpture-like being. I just have to find the right teacher.”
So, the quest for a better life continues in the land of online shopping.
Fortunately, for the people producing content and capitalism – not you. There is no shortage of short tips and products on building good habits. You just have to have enough time to waste and money to spare.
In an attempt to download the software for having good habits into your mind faster. You purchase The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Get the title in audio as well. You schedule an appointment with a tattoo artist to engrave your body for extra mantra points with a maxim of some sort: “Good habits. Good life.” Then, you enter social media, follow the people who post every hour, and have a blue dot (plus, turn on the notification). Fail to start reading the book – but who cares, you listen to the audio version at 3X speed.
Personally, my observation in relation to building good habits – and things that require lasting change. It’s that there is a huge difference between what is presented as an image online and the amount of work that is required to reach this image.
The self-help community endlessly talks about how you can do it. How doable it is to create a better lifestyle – it’s simple, you just “have to have gratitude, dude!” However, in reality, things look far from simple.
So, we condition to think that a good life should be easily reachable – you buy a book, download a PDF, or join a gym membership. And when it’s not, this dissonance between the image portrayed by modern folks and reality makes us think that the problem is somewhere in our execution – not in what the authors are saying. That we are not meant to have a healthy lifestyle.
With all that being said, if you are a parent. A husband/wife. If you work a regular 9 to 5 five job that requires maneuvering in the busy city for at least half an hour in a given direction to arrive (or depart) from your mentally exhausting job. And if your current habits are making you sad, regardless of how many instructional videos you’ve watched in the past. Sit comfortably while I walk you through the main strategies needed to build habits.
Building Habits Strategies:
1. Decide What Type of Person You Want To Be
Habits have the power to change your life. But only if you are willing to change as a person.
Some people pursue good habits out of a pure desire for a positive change. Many others, do it in hopes that their good behavior will eventually sustain itself.
That’s why, the usual path of obtaining habits is based on reaching a momentary state of awe. You give yourself a gym membership, only to find out that going to the gym is not as easy as you imagined.
It requires shifting from a person who simply wants to look good. To being a person who wants to be healthy.
The difference is huge. The first focuses on fast results – outcome-based habits. While the other person rethinks his position in the world – identity-based habits.
When you focus on building an identity of a person who eats well and never misses a workout. It will be much easier to resist the never-to-be-fully-extinguished appeal of an unhealthy lifestyle.
2. Start Incredibly Small
The concept of habits is rooted in the belief that it takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit. And when this happens, we imagine that the struggle will disappear. That the boulder we need to carry around will lighten up.
“Ah, I just need to do this thing for 66 days” – how long it takes, on average, according to researchers, to form a new habit in their life.4 “Then, I’ll just wake up and transport myself to the gym.”
We think that passing this imaginary checkpoint of a habit becoming automatic will simply make us mere spectators of a person who regularly exercises.
That’s why the internet is crowded with answers to moronic questions like:
- How do habits become automatic?
- Does it take 7 days to form a habit?
- Can we quit any habit in 21 days?
- Does it take 28 days to form a habit?
We so badly want to believe that it’s easy and fast to acquire new habits that we are willing to believe the first article that agrees with our preconditioned belief.
But my habits dojo is reluctant to agree that at some point in your life a certain behavior – or at least a behavior that leads to good outcomes. Will lead to no conscious awareness and an automated manner.
For more than 3 years now, I cease my sleep at around 05:00 AM. I do this so I can get up, exercise, and then write. Does it happen without any effort? Absolutely not. There are days when I want to give up and sleep for the whole weekend.
So, the second strategy in relation to making new habits is about understanding the following two:
- Creating a healthy daily routine will always cost you resources.
- It’s much better to start small (embrace micro habits).
If there are habits laws. One of the rules should definitely be: Start with the bare minimum. Not on the impossible maximum.
Usually – again, because of our desire to get quick results – we start a new habit with fury and at max capacity.
Rather than starting with 10 minutes workouts. You jump deep. Deep into the melee of aggressive martial arts and fitness workouts. However, since the hardest part of your current daily routine required only the mental battle of figuring out which show to watch. You quickly drain your willpower. Then, the common thing happens: you abandon the behavior altogether.
So, if you want to run. If you want to write. Rather than starting with running a marathon or starting a book. Run 1 mile and write for 30 minutes every day.
3. Design Your Environment
An interesting fact about the first language we learn to speak has nothing to do with our DNA. It has everything to do with the language other people around us use.
Think about it, a child in Germany will learn German simply because everyone around him uses this language. However, if, say, the child was born in Germany and then the family moves to the USA. Now, the child will most probably learn English – plus German, depending on the caregivers of the child.
This realization is simple but explains something very important about how we develop.
The surrounding environment dictates who we become and what we believe.
Similarly to the above, if you are born in India. The religion you will probably confess is Hinduism. If you happen to live in Italy. This will be Christianity.
Where am I going with this?
Your environment has a huge influence on your life.
Stash primarily junk food and occupy your house with all kinds of entertainment – video games, tablets, and VR sets. And you’ll heavily reduce your chances of going outside, not to mention motivating yourself to exercise.
Ideally, what you want to do is add friction towards activities that are hurting you and remove friction for activities that you want to develop.
For instance, you can gather your expensive entertainment system and donate it – don’t give you to your nephew, you don’t want him to die a virgin do you? Now, since your house lacks anything that could persuade you to sit on your sofa. Buy exercise gear and place it somewhere where you can see it.
a letter a text to your alcoholic friends telling them that you no longer want to be invited to the usual drinking rodeos. Once the message is sent, try to become besties with Eric from high school, who is bombarding your Facebook feed with pictures from the gym. Resist punching him in the face because of his endless monolog about how to get fit. Find another group of folks who exercise and are more fruitful companions. Apologize to your friends for calling them “pot heads”. Try to make them part of your now healthy life. Fail at this and try accepting them for who they are.
4. Never Miss Twice
Suppose you analyze the papers and documents talking about habits. You’ll notice that they all share one similarity: building habits and making them stick is about consistency.
You choose to do something, and you make the necessary changes in your life to do it daily.
But for the regular folks – the ones who are parents, have day jobs, and their usual schedule looks a lot like climbing Kilimanjaro – trying to add good habits means adding extra weight to your already heavy uphill ascend.
At some point, you’ll miss a workout. You’ll fail to read the book you’re reading.
In such moments, anxiety consumes our fragile psyche. We feel like we are not good enough. Fail to live up to our impossible standards.
Rather than beating yourself up when you do break the chain. Try to embrace the 2-day rule. That is, you never miss a habit you want in your life twice in a roll.
Say that you’ve scheduled morning learning sessions but for some reason, you’re unable to make it happen today. Don’t fret. Be a person that never misses the desired habits twice in a roll.
5. Precommitment Strategies
If you spend some time with yourself. If you realize that you are weak and likely to crack in the face of temptation. A way to increase your resistance score is by introducing precommitment strategies.
Probably none of this is particularly new to you.
For example, if you happen to prefer checking your phone instead of reading a book when your schedule says: “Read, you unintelligent reptile you!” There are many tools that will help you block websites for a particular duration.
Interestingly, researchers in the field of procrastination and self-control explain that we are willing to self-impose deadlines to focus on our goals. However, the limits we set are less effective than externally imposed deadlines.5
All of this means that we do recognize that we have a problem. We create some restrictions. But these restrictions are far from optimal.
If you want to commit to a particular lifestyle. Your motivation and commitment will be way higher if another person set your precommitment deadlines for you. Plus, if you find and join a group of people who have similar interests.
Or it other words, it all comes down to the worn-out quote about relationships:
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
What Habits To Build?
Well, after all these strategies. It’s a common thing to ask: What habits to build?
There are no clear instructions. It really depends on the persona you are trying to create for yourself. But one thing is certain, it’s surely OK to bet on the basics:
- Healthy food.
- Regular exercises.
- Plenty of rest.
- Quality time with the people you love.
- Allocating time to learn new skills.
- Access to intelligent content.
- Having fun.
Some Closing Thoughts
What type of habits do other people have?
Well, if you happen to stumble on a post documenting the habits of successful people – or more specifically, such that tracks the morning routines of successful people. They will probably crush your cringe barometer.
There is also Robin Sharma, the author of multiple preachy books, who describes his morning routine as world-class – called the 20/20/20 ritual. It consists of the following: 20 minutes of vigorous exercise, 20 minutes of reflection, meditation, journaling etc., and 20 minutes of learning.
Besides feeling awkward that intelligent people actually say such stuff out loud. We secretly think that by adopting the routines of self-made gurus, we will become optimally productive and blissfully happy, too.
I don’t want to say that the habits of the people mentioned above don’t work. They apparently do – for them. But that doesn’t mean that it will work for you.
Building habits is a personal thing that should be based on your own schedule.
It’s not about embedding one good habit and thinking it will compensate for all your other bad habits. It’s about designing a worthwhile daily lifestyle that encourages you to keep going towards better.
So, sit down with your favorite notebook and write down what habits you want to keep, what habits you want to ditch, and what new habits you want to incorporate into your life. Once you figured it out. Use the building habits strategies above to make the changes happen.
Do yourself a favor:
Join Going Further: A 13-day email series on how to keep progressing in a world tirelessly pushing toward regression. Great for people who feel stuck in the endless loop of not doing.
- Mitchell, H.H., Hamilton, T.S., Steggerda, F.R., and Bean, H.W., 1945, The chemical composition of the adult human body and its bearing on the biochemistry of growth: Journal of Biological Chemistry, v. 158, issue 3, p. 625-637.On the web: https://www.cabdirect.org/cabdirect/abstract/19451401636
- Neal, D. T., Wood, W., & Quinn, J. M. (2016). Habits—A Repeat Performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science. On the web: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2006.00435.x
- Definition of the word habits according to The Britannica Dictionary
- Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C.H.M., Potts, H.W.W. and Wardle, J. (2010), How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol., 40: 998-1009. On the web: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ejsp.674
- Ariely, D., & Wertenbroch, K. (2016). Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment. Psychological Science. On the web: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1111/1467-9280.00441