I once believed that forming and maintaining new habits required brute force of willpower. I would berate myself for being weak-willed any time I failed to create a new habit. I would assume that I simply hadn’t tried hard enough.
What I didn’t recognize is that there is a repeatable formula for incorporating new habits into your life.
It took me years of failure, followed by years of success in numerous areas of my life, but I discovered seven straightforward steps to form any new routine I desire. I have used this process to develop and maintain several habits spanning years, including the following:
- I’ve leveraged these steps to lose seventy pounds and keep the weight off for eight years and counting.
- I have written for 406 days without missing a day.
- I overcame my terror of public speaking, and I’ve live-streamed for 930 consecutive days to date.
- I’ve maintained a daily exercise routine for over four years.
Creating and maintaining new habits and routines is a skill that is accessible to anyone, not just to Type-A personalities or individuals with superhuman willpower.
1. Define your specific desired outcome in setting your habits.
I love teaching and mentoring others. I have mentored numerous employees over my twenty plus years of owning businesses and dozens more outside of the business arena. Most people stumble at the outset in figuring out the correct habit to take on, in order to accomplish their desired goals.
We take on new habits to achieve results because we want something new in our lives that is presently missing. We are far more likely to continue our habits when we see that they help us obtain the things we desire.
Vague or generic goals lead to indeterminate outcomes, and success or failure can feel dependent upon your feelings about your results at any given time. Measurable goals and results, especially when stated in specific numbers, provide objective outcome metrics. You either meet your number, or you don’t. There is no grey area or second-guessing.
Failing to meet your number provides an opportunity to look at why you were not successful and gives you a way to take different actions in the future.
Specific goals will help you determine which habits to take on and the numbers associated with them. For example, people take on the habit of exercising for many different reasons. One person may desire to get in shape to run a marathon, while another wants to bench press 300 pounds.
There are several different numbers that you can assign to an exercise habit. You may measure how many times you exercise each week, minutes of exercise, heart rate while exercising, number of reps, amount of weight, distance run, etc. Assigning and tracking numbers will provide a way to measure your success and determine where you need to make adjustments.
You will feel more engaged and motivated by being as specific as possible with your desired habits and associated goals.
You can also choose to do something simply because you enjoy it. I have several habits in my life because I find them interesting, challenging, or enjoyable. Reading, drawing, carpentry, and playing video games are habits and hobbies that I do only because they improve the quality of my life.
Sometimes, it is beneficial to take the focus off of yourself.
I tried unsuccessfully to lose weight for over ten years. I initially wanted to lose weight because I knew that I should, and because of vanity. It was only after I realized that I was on a trajectory to have a potential heart attack, die, and not be around for my loved ones that I successfully lost weight.
We will often do things for other people that we are unwilling to do for ourselves, and there is nothing wrong with using this fact to your advantage. Likely, I would never have been able to overcome my terror of speaking live without a well-rehearsed script, if I had only been doing so for myself.
I have learned what it takes to live a fulfilled and contented life, and I want to share that knowledge with at least one million people before I die. As soon as I took on that mission, I realized that being able to speak publicly was the least of my worries. My mission became more significant than my fear, which enabled me to take action, despite my feelings.
2. Determine which small actions to take first.
Big goals seem less daunting when broken down into small habits. I took on two habits when I began my weight-loss journey: I stopped eating ice cream, and I committed to eating only half the food served at restaurants. I built upon these small habits, and I didn’t overwhelm myself by trying to change my lifestyle radically, all at once.
My eating habits look radically different today than they did eight years ago. Back then, I ate out at least once every day. I ate fatty red meat and foods full of cholesterol. I drank Diet Cokes, regularly consumed junk foods full of sugar, and often went back for seconds.
Today, I’m a pescatarian. I rarely eat out, I don’t drink sodas, I would get sick to my stomach if I tried to eat an entire candy bar, and I love fresh fruits and vegetables.
Transitioning my lifestyle took time, and the habits I have around eating evolved over months and years. I doubt I would have successfully kept my present-day habits from the outset, so starting with your smallest manageable habit is the perfect place to begin. Allow your habits to grow with you as you master each new habitual action.
3. Examine your thoughts about the actions.
The stories you tell yourself about the actions you want to take and about who you are, will make or break your habits. My internal conversations were the thing that caused me to fail 99 out of 100 times.
On rare occasions, our circumstances will prevent us from following through with our commitments. However, the vast majority of the time, our conversation about our circumstances is what causes us to fail.
I began livestreaming and sharing something of value from my day as a way to overcome my terror of public speaking. You can see my discomfort and fear in my body posture and hear it in my voice on that first video. My conversation about livestreaming had been that I could not go live and be scared out of my mind while doing so.
Furthermore, I did not believe I was capable of speaking extemporaneously. I knew that plenty of other people could, but I did not think that I was someone who could do so. I also looked at public failure as something from which I would not be able to recover.
Three internal conversations prevented me from speaking publicly:
- I can never speak in front of an audience as long as I remained terrified to do so.
- I will not be able to talk about a subject matter or create a conversation without notes.
- I will be too embarrassed to ever show my face again if I make a mistake.
I was only able to begin livestreaming daily once I recognized these conversations were blocking me from taking action. Then, I created new conversations, which I’ll share in the next section.
There have been plenty of circumstances in my life that I could have used as an excuse to break my habit of daily livestreams. My wife and I have traveled around the world since I began livestreaming, but from many different countries around the world, I never missed a day.
It was not easy or convenient to keep my commitment. I had to shoot a video in a crowded airport between long-haul flights on more than one occasion. I even shared something of value every day that my dad was in the hospital and ultimately, on the day he passed away.
Whatever your commitments are in life, your circumstances will provide plenty of reasons for you to break them. You can not control all of your circumstances, but you can manage your conversations and your actions.
4. Rethink your disempowering conversations.
Rethinking disempowering conversations is the most effective way to improve your ability to form and maintain new habits. I begin this process by identifying what reoccurring thoughts I am focusing on.
For example, here are some of the typical conversations that I used to entertain that caused me to give up on sticking with new habits:
- I’m not the kind of person who can do this.
- I’m a night owl; I always have been.
- I’ve tried this before and failed.
- I never keep my promises to myself.
- I can’t follow through.
- I lack the willpower to be successful.
- I have to learn more before I can take action.
- This is too difficult.
- The world is against me.
Here is the thing about negative thoughts: they will pop into your head uninvited and unannounced. We can not prevent random thoughts from occurring; they are the brain’s way of looking out for danger and seeking justifications for not exerting effort.
Our brains may generate these negative thoughts, but that does not make them real. As reasoning beings, our job is to question these thoughts and consider what else might be true about ourselves and our circumstances.
Our internal conversations are not the only dialogue we engage with daily. We live in a society, a work environment, and belong to a circle of family and friends. As I began to lose weight and become healthy again, I heard several negative conversations from my community.
One person, with real concern on their face, asked me if I had cancer! My business partner began telling people that my weight loss and focus on becoming healthy was proof that I no longer cared about the business. Even my grandmother told me that I was getting too skinny.
There are numerous reasons that people in your life may push back on your desire to improve yourself. Most people will make comments out of concern, but these concerns will be theirs, not yours. It’s also possible that people will act out of selfishness because they resist change, are confronted by something they see in your new habits, or feel like they will lose something if you change who you are.
Any one of the expressions of negativity or concern expressed about my weight loss could have derailed my commitment, had I made it mean something about me.
Even the media you consume creates a conversation. I got rid of cable television around the time I decided to lose weight. It’s no wonder that I allowed myself to become obese when I saw food advertisements when I was most likely to eat mindlessly.
Pay attention to the conversations that television, magazines, podcasts, and social media inject into your life. If they do not help you, and especially if they hinder your ability to keep your habits, cut them out.
5. Commit to taking action.
I can always tell when I have fully committed to mastering a new habit and when I’m lying to myself. Commitment looks a certain way in both your thinking and out in the real world. Commitment is easy to recognize and create when you know what to look for.
I begin by looking at my thinking about the habit and what story I’m telling myself about my commitment. I envision what it will be like when it is next time to act on my habit. Am I willing to take action even when I do not feel like it, or am I already making excuses and looking for a way out?
What do my conversations about this habit with other people look like? Have I told anyone else what I am taking on, or have I kept my commitment to myself, so that no one can hold me accountable?
A healthy dose of stress can be an excellent motivator. Deadlines (and penalties for missing them) exist for a reason — they work. Americans pay their taxes, not out of a sense of duty, but because of an April 15th filing deadline. Stores run sales for limited times as a means to propel customers into making purchasing decisions.
I’ve found self-induced stress to be one of the best motivators to keep my habits. I don’t keep any critical habit private, and the more critical the habit is to me, the more people I tell about it. Keeping my word is important to me, so the more people I tell that I will do something, the more likely I am to keep my word.
I have learned to build in accountability, not to run from it. I make sure to build in extra external accountability regarding any habit that I want to shore up my level of commitment to keeping.
You don’t necessarily have to tell the entire world at first. You can begin by creating an accountability buddy with whom you can report regularly. Make sure you choose someone who will not judge you for failure but who will also not shy away from asking you about your commitments.
Even if you start small, I encourage you to discover the power of accountability by sharing your commitments with others.
6. Schedule the action and set a reminder alarm.
Your life is already full, and you are already spending all of your time engaging in habitual actions. You don’t have any extra time laying around in your day, even if you aren’t spending all of it as expediently as possible. Forming a new habit necessitates that you exchange it for something that you are already doing.
Creating and living by a daily schedule is one of the most powerful ways to build and maintain habits. You will likely fail to keep your new habits if you do not create a specific time and place, with a reminder. Learning to plan out my entire day and put it in my calendar revolutionized my life.
I used to resist scheduling because I related to my calendar as restrictive and a necessity of the business world. I don’t like to be told what to do, even by my self. That way of thinking enabled me to fritter away my time instead of making the most of it.
I’ve since learned to see a full calendar in a different light. I no longer relate to a full calendar as a sign of obligations. My calendar, filled out completely, is a sign of freedom and an indication that I am living my life intentionally.
I have external obligations on my calendar, but I also get to decide how I spend all of my time. I schedule my important activities, but I also schedule my free time. I get to designate blocks of time dedicated to the things I want to do. I now even schedule phone calls with my friends.
You will never miss another habit if they are all in your calendar and you have alarms set when it is time to take action. Scheduling also allows you to see potential conflicts before they occur and to make any necessary arrangements to keep all of your commitments, personal and otherwise.
7. Act when the alarm goes off.
Sometimes, I don’t feel like taking action when my alarm goes off. I may be deep in my writing or having fun playing a video game. I tell myself that I’ll get to the next thing in just five more minutes. That typically doesn’t work out in life the way it does in my head.
I have an Apple Watch, and it’s great at tapping my wrist to notify me of my calendar events. I also use the watch to track my physical activity. I play the game of trying to close my calorie, exercise, and standing rings each day.
It is not uncommon for me to spend an entire hour sitting and writing. When this occurs, my watch taps me at fifty minutes past the hour and gives me a ten-minute warning to stand up and move around. I’ve noticed that if I ignore the warning, there is a high likelihood that I will fail to stand. The longer I wait to stand, the more certain it becomes that I will miss my window of opportunity to get my standing credit.
I’ve discovered that the same is true for all of my habits. The longer I delay taking action, the less likely I am to take action. Learning to develop a bias for action will greatly improve your productivity, and you will decrease the time you spend worrying about or dreading an action you find uncomfortable.
By leaping into action immediately, you may be able to bypass your brain’s resistance. By the time your thoughts turn to excuses for not taking action, you will already halfway done.
Some things to keep in mind about forming and maintaining habits.
You are creating a new you as you take on new habits. Your experience of yourself and your life will alter as you become proficient in your new activities. Your likes and dislikes will shift over time; mine certainly did in my weight-loss journey.
Whatever difficulty, discomfort, or struggles you initially experience, it will not always be that way. The person you are developing yourself into by consistently keeping your habits is not the person you are today. What is impossible today can become routine tomorrow.
The other thing I have frequently experienced in forming new habits is failure. I didn’t begin working out and never look back. I had to restart the habit several times before I stuck with it.
Remember, failure is a performance issue, not a personal issue. You can fail, but you are not a failure.
Don’t place too much emphasis on habit streaks. I only mention mine to show what is possible. The danger in relying on streaks is that it can be discouraging if you mess up.
I had over a year-long perfect streak of closing my rings when I first got my Apple Watch. Then I missed my calorie goal by one single calorie!
I was furious at myself, and my motivation plummeted. I wanted to give up completely out of disgust. Fortunately, I have an amazing wife and accountability partner who refused to allow me to give up. So, consecutive streaks are fun to rack up, but they say nothing about your ability to show up tomorrow and take action.
Partner up if possible. My wife is an integral component of my success with maintaining habits. She began livestreaming a couple of weeks before I did, and we keep each other motivated. She is also my exercise partner and food accountability buddy. As the ancient African proverb says:
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Setting yourself up for success is also important. My wife and I have exercised for over four years, in part because we do our workouts at home. For $99 a year, we have a streaming service we use to follow along with our workouts anywhere in the world. It doesn’t get any easier than being able to exercise in your bedroom or hotel room; no gym required.
The steps outlined here are all straightforward and simple. That doesn’t mean they are easy initially, but neither was learning how to talk, walk, read, or many of the other things you have accomplished in life so far. Start small, be kind to yourself, but don’t delay your dreams any longer.