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Habits are behaviors we perform on a daily or otherwise regular basis. They’re not just any behaviors, though. A behavior is a habit if some component of it is at least somewhat “automatic.”
Some studies estimate that habits make up 40% of our everyday behavior.
With a habit, there’s some cue that triggers a behavior. For example, if you eat at the same time every day, time is the trigger, eating is the behavior—that’s a habit.
Habits are reinforced by rewards. Sometimes the rewards are easy to spot. Take our eating example: the pleasure of eating food is the reward.
Sometimes the reward is not so easy to spot. If you’re in the habit of checking your phone every time you’re bored, the reward is a bit more subtle—and there’s a good chance it’s relief from the anxiety of your own thoughts. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
What Habits Are Holding You Back in Life?
How to stick to good habits
So, from above, we can say that a habit is formed when three things come together:
CUE > BEHAVIOR > REWARD
The more often the cue, behavior, and reward occur in close time and proximity to one another, the stronger a habit becomes.
This is true whether we’re aware of it or not. Hence, bad habits often can easily form if we’re not careful.
Conversely, to create a new, healthy habit—or even to break a bad habit—you’ll want to be as intentional as possible with all three parts. That is, you can manipulate your environment to introduce cues (cues) that you can then intentionally start to associate with a desired behavior and reinforce it all with a predetermined reward.
You might, for instance, get home from work (cue) and put on your workout clothes to go for a run (behavior) and when you’re finished, relax with an episode of your favorite show on Netflix (reward).
So it’s pretty straightforward, but of course, we have a way of sabotaging ourselves when it comes to doing things we know we should do, but just don’t feel like doing them.
So here are a few tips on getting this to stick:
1. Start stupidly small and increase in tiny increments
Leo Babauta has a saying when starting a new habit: “Start so easy you can’t say no.”
Want to go on a jog 5 times a week? Start with putting on your shorts and lacing up your shoes the first day. That’s it. You can’t say no to that! Then maybe go outside after you gear up the next day. Can’t say no to that either. Then maybe walk one block the next day. C’mon, you can walk for a block!
Pretty soon, you’ll realize you’ve done everything you need to start a jogging habit and it won’t seem like much work at all to just…jog.
Want to floss every day? Start with flossing one tooth. Seriously. A couple of days later, add a second tooth. Then add a third, fourth, fifth…before too long, it will start to seem incredibly dumb that you’re not just flossing all of your teeth, and so you’ll “just do it.”
2. Focus on building the habit first and optimize later
At first, your aim in creating any new habit should simply be to create a new habit. I know that sounds stupid and circular and like I’m talking to you like a child, but it’s incredibly important: Focus your energy on just showing up.
If you want to go to the gym regularly, focus on going to the gym regularly and that’s it. You just have to go, you don’t have to worry about what exercise you do while you’re there. Hell, you don’t have to worry about doing anything at all other than just going to the gym! Just show up and walk around.
The thing is, if you focus on just getting to the gym, once you’re there, you’re much more likely to say to yourself, “Well, I’m here, may as well do something…” And that takes very little extra effort once you’re there. But getting to the gym takes the most effort at first. So focus on that.
What you’re doing is focusing on the behaviors that enable your desired habit. If you put yourself in situations where you’re more likely to succeed—you guessed it—you’ll be more likely to succeed.
The process is the goal, not perfection
When you fall off track—and you will—don’t beat yourself up. The goal isn’t to be perfect. Those who develop solid habits do so not because they are 100% perfect in their execution, it’s because they’re able to consistently correct their course when they get off track.
It’s okay if you missed a workout. Try not miss two in a row. It’s alright if you ate that sleeve of Oreos yesterday. Focus on not eating that jar of Nutella today.
But even if you missed two or three or nine workouts in a row or you ate six pints of Ben and Jerry’s in an hour—that’s not an excuse to give up. You’re not broken, you’re not stupid, you’re not weak. You’re just early in the process.
And that’s the point: it’s a process.
More articles on Self-Discipline and Sticking to Habits
- How to 80/20 Your Life
- The “Do Something” Principle
- How to Stop Procrastinating
- 10 Reasons Why You Fail
- The Responsibility/Fault Fallacy
- How to Make Your Own Luck
- 3 Important Life Skills Nobody Ever Taught You
- Analysis Paralysis (Subscribers Only)
- How to Become a Better Learner (Subscribers Only)
- How I Quit Smoking For Good (Subscribers Only)
- Winning the Mental Battle of Weight Loss: How One Man Lost 266 Pounds
- How to Be Patient in an Impatient World
Habits vs Goals
A lot of noise is made about setting and achieving goals in our society. We set professional goals, revenue goals, fitness goals, and so on.
And while I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with setting goals, I think they are way overrated.
For one, a lot people seem to think that if they hit some goal they’ve set for themselves, then they’ll be happy. They want to lose 20 pounds, earn a million dollars, fight a bear on Mount Everest—or whatever. That’s just not how it works.
Goals are simply the destinations at which we wish to arrive. And while it’s obviously important to know where you’re going, it’s useless unless you have a way to get you there. And in the game of life, habits are the monster truck 4×4 that get you to where you want to go.
Think of it another way: let’s say you set a goal to save $5000. Well, I mean, good for you, but then what? Without a system of saving towards that goal, you’re bound to be as broke as you were yesterday, just as you’re not going to make it to a destination without a mode of transportation.
So instead, you might figure that you want to save $5000 in one year. That’s $416.66 per month. But you get paid twice a month, so you decide after each paycheck, you’ll save $213.33 per paycheck. You then go and set up automatic withdrawals from your checking accounting to a savings account.
There, you now have a habit in place that regularly moves you to your goals.
But having a plan and system in place is only the start of it, of course. We all have good intentions with our habits and we all fall short at times.
A lot of this is due to the way in which we approach trying to adopt new habits. We think in terms of goals and destinations and results instead of focusing on the admittedly more boring day-to-day system of habits which are truly what move us towards the lives we want to live.
More articles on Cautiously Setting Goals
- Your Goals Are Overrated
- 3 Important Life Skills Nobody Ever Taught You
- In Defense of Being Average
- No, You Can’t Have It All
- The Most Important Question of Your Life
Where to Start: Compounding Habits
All habits are not created equal. And I don’t mean there are “bad” and “good” habits (though that is true). I mean some habits can help us improve in a single area of our lives while others can have a multiplication effect across several or even all areas of our lives. I call these “compounding habits” because their effects compound across our lives.
For example, exercise helps you maintain a healthy body weight, but it can also give you more energy and focus throughout your day, it improves your mood, helps you sleep, and so on. All of these benefits have their own ripple effects across your life: you’re more productive at work/school, you’re more pleasant to be around when you’re with friends, family, and significant others, you look and feel healthier, and so on.
Then there are meta habits. Like compounding habits, meta habits can have a ripple effect across multiple areas of your life, but they also compound on themselves.
For example, learning how to learn better. Or the mother of all meta-habits: creating a habit of forming new habits.
If you’re trying to figure out where to even start, I recommend focusing on one single compounding and/or meta habit. After you nail that down, forming additional habits becomes easier and easier.
Further Reading: Your Goals are Overrated: 6 Fundamental, Compounding Habits.