Forming Good Habits on the Path to Health, Happiness and Self Actualization
Forming good habits is key to achieving health, happiness, your best self and just about any other meaningful goal. In this post, I’ll share a simple approach that I’ve fine tuned through trial and error that has helped me form good habits, break bad ones and be a more productive, happier and better person.
From my days as a Psychology teaching assistant at Georgetown to months practicing yoga and meditation in ashrams in India, I’ve been a long-time student of myself, studying how I work and how to create the conditions that allow me to flourish. Here’s a process that I developed that kept me thriving while in the hurricane of founding and growing a venture-backed tech company in San Francisco.
- Identify Your Keys
- Identify Your Distractors
- Set up Simple Yes/No Goals to Track
- Track Every Day
- Make It Social
Identify Your Keys
Make a list of the things that you need to do to be living your optimal life. Tip: I like to think about the things I would do if I had to repeat the same day over and over again forever.
- Spend Time in Nature
- Spend Time being Mindful
- Spend Time with Loved Ones
- Be Creative
Now take that list and remove all of the things that you already do regularly (meaning you’ve already developed good habits around). The remaining are your Keys. These will change over time so don’t stress too much about getting it perfect. I currently have good habits around spending time with loved ones and working on creative projects so I removed these from my list.
- Spend Time in Nature
- Spend Time Being Mindful
Identify Your Distractions
Now make a list of the things that distract you from your Keys or lead to unhappiness — the energy sucks, the bad habits.
- Compulsively checking my phone and social media
- Going to bed too late
- Unconscious video watching
- Eating refined sugar
- Drinking alcohol
Set up Simple Yes/No Goals to Track
It’s possible to make things super complicated or super simple. Choose simple — it will be much easier to remain in the good habit of tracking.
When I first started tracking my goals, I made it too complicated. I tracked the amount of time I spent exercising, the time I went to bed or the number of times I checked social media. Don’t waste your time being that specific. Instead, figure out how to track using simple binary (yes/no) goals. For me, measuring the amount of time I spent exercising turned into a ‘Exercised for 30 Minutes,’ the time I went to bed turned into ‘Went to bed before 11’ and the number of times I checked social media turned into ‘Checked social media twice per day.’
Craft your goals so that you log every positive action. For example, if you want to drink less alcohol, make the daily goal ‘Did Not Drink Alcohol’ instead of logging when you did drink alcohol. This hacks the way your brain works by providing positive reinforcement increasing your chances of making the behavior habitual.
I’ve found the sweet spot to be between 3 and 5 goals at any given time. Any more and you are likely to lose momentum. I recommend starting off with the 3 most important goals and adding one at a time once you’ve established consistency. Whenever possible, create goals that can be executed every day. This helps form and reinforce habit.
Another great tactic to maximize the chance for success is to front-load as many goals into your morning routine as possible. This enables you to take care of these important items prior to getting caught up in your day. Examples: Morning Meditation, Morning Exercise, No Phone Use for 30 Minutes After Waking Up.
Track Every Day
Get into the habit of tracking at the end of every day. The process of having to go through your list and celebrate your successes and face your failures is powerful. Don’t avoid it. I found that on a few occasions that right before I stopped achieving my goals, I stopped tracking every day. It was like I was subtly letting down my guard. Be diligent in tracking — the habit of tracking is one of the most important that you can develop.
This is where technology can be really helpful. I’ve tested out tracking apps and would recommend Coach.me or Strides which gives you the ability to set up custom goals, set up reminders and socialize your progress.
Your goals will change over time. As you develop good habits, some of the Keys will fall off the list and you may develop new bad habits that you’d like to change. I recommend reviewing at the beginning of each month.
I’ve found that by being more aware of my Keys and Distractions, I end up refining them as I develop a deeper understanding of how they operate and impact my well being and productivity. For example, initially, I had ‘sleep 7 hours’ as one of my Keys but over time realized that the key driver of getting a good night sleep was the time I went to bed so it evolved to ‘Going to Sleep before 11.’
Make it Social
I’ve found that finding others with similar goals and interests helps me stay motivated. There’s lots of research to support this — those who socialize their goals tend to have a better chance of achieving them and creating durable habits. Use social tracking tools to get positive reinforcement and hold you accountable.
- Track the smallest number of variables possible. This will increase your chances of success. When Keys or Distractions can be combined or generalized, do it. For example, you could list watching Netflix and TV as separate distractors or list them as one. List them as one if it doesn’t reduce your chance of success.
- Find activities that can satisfy multiple Keys. Outdoor yoga, kitesurfing, trail running, surfing and rockclimbing are all high leverage activities that satisfy all three of my Keys (exercise, connected time and spending time outdoors). I find that spending 30–60 minutes doing any of these is nearly as satisfying as meditating, hitting the gym and hanging out at the beach.
- Use this as a process of self discovery. Most people don’t know what actually makes them happy and unhappy, productive and unproductive, stressed or peaceful. You may find yourself executing on all of your goals but still failing to feel the way you want or expect. This is normal. Dive into the discomfort, unhappiness or restlessness to find out why. Revise your goals. Trial and error is a powerful teacher.
Happy habit forming!