As self-development author John C. Maxwell said, “You’ll never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.”
Most of us already understand the power of habits. We know that our habits largely determine our daily actions, and our daily actions (or lack thereof) determine the results we achieve.
However, the problem for most people, my past self included, is that building strong new habits isn’t necessarily easy. More often than not, new habits fail to stick.
Fortunately, there’s a habit-forming process I’ve discovered after years of trial and error. When you follow this process, forming new, long-lasting habits doesn’t have to be this huge obstacle anymore.
#1: Start Small — Increase The Load Over Time
One of the most common mistakes people make with building new habits is that they take on too many different habits at the same time. When that’s the case, the gap between your current level of performance and the desired level of performance is too big to maintain.
As Archilochus said centuries ago, “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”
It’s kind of like going to the gym for the first time while trying to lift the heaviest weights available — it’s not the best way to approach a workout. Most people understand that, when it comes to weightlifting, you first need to build up your strength over time before you can lift heavier weights. This exact principle applies to forming new habits.
First of all, start building one habit at a time instead of trying to take on six different habits at once. When you try to build six habits (or even three habits, for that matter) at the same time, it will eventually overwhelm you.
In the beginning, you might be super motivated. But, when this initial motivation has worn off (which it does quite quickly), juggling many different balls at the same time is bound to go wrong.
What tends to happen is that, as soon as you drop the ball with one habit, the rest of the habits tend to follow. This is what I call the ‘negative domino-effect’. It’s a trap I’ve fallen into many times in my lifetime…
Let’s first make sure we master one habit instead of trying to overhaul our entire lives at once. For example, when you feel you’ve got a good grip on daily exercise, you can add daily meal-prepping to your routine. Step-by-step, habit-by-habit, you can change your entire life.
Second of all, start small with this initial habit. When you want to build the habit of daily exercise, for example, don’t expect to make this habit a success when, from the get-go, your standard is to exercise for two hours each day.
A two-hour daily exercise is a big barrier that one day is bound to go wrong if you haven’t built your ‘level of training’, as Archilochus said.
In the early weeks of building this habit, there’s going to be at least one day in which you’re tired, unmotivated, or lack the time to perform this two-hour workout. When that happens, you run the risk of falling into a downward spiral again.
Realize that, in the beginning, it’s not about the workout — it’s about building the habit of getting yourself to do the workout. Once you’ve established the habit of getting yourself to do the workout, you can focus on increasing the intensity of your workout.
Therefore, in the beginning, it’s best to make the barrier to perform the habit quite low, so that it’s easy and non-intimidating. This way, you won’t drop the ball, and you steadily build the habit of getting yourself to perform the desired habit.
Instead of doing a two-hour workout each day, start with a 15-minute home-workout routine. This can be done even on those days where you’re tired or don’t have a lot of time. In other words, a lower barrier leads to a higher success rate. And a higher success rate leads to a stronger habit.
Once you feel like the habit of doing a daily 15-minute home workout routine is relatively easy for you, you can increase the time or intensity of the workout. Again, build your ‘level of training’ over time so that you become unstoppable.
Nevertheless, start small and increase the load over time. It’s the most sustainable and fail-proof way to build new habits.
#2: Schedule The Desired Habit
As author and entrepreneur Ramit Sethi said, “Show me someone’s calendar, and I’ll show you their priorities.” If you’re serious about building a specific habit, schedule it in your calendar. Really, your calendar is your best friend.
Once you schedule exactly when you’ll perform a specific habit, it’s no longer an abstract wish, but it’s a specific action-plan. It’s an appointment you’ve made with yourself — and you should honor this appointment just like you do when you’ve made an appointment with someone else.
In fact, a study in the British Journal of Health Psychology showed that creating a specific plan for when to perform which tasks or activities (in other words, scheduling) increases the success rate of following through with the activities from 34% to 91%. In other words, you triple the odds of success merely by scheduling your habits.
Right now, I’m building the habit of doing a 15-minute kettlebell home workout in the morning (because, lockdown life). To make sure I actually do it, I’ve scheduled it in my calendar as a repeated activity that pops up every morning at the exact same time.
As I review my calendar both in the evening and the morning, I’m constantly reminded that I have this appointment with myself — it primes my mind for actually doing the workout.
All in all, if you’re serious about building a specific habit, schedule it in your calendar. When you know exactly when you’re going to perform which habit, you’ve created a true action-plan that, according to research, makes you three times as likely to follow through with it.
#3: Design Your Environment For Success
Most people rely too much on their willpower for building new habits and too little on their environment. However, designing your environment to make the desired habits easier is one of the most powerful (and underutilized) actions you can take when it comes to habit-forming.
As humans, we are a sponge to our environment. Whether we’re talking about our social, physical, or digital environment, it doesn’t matter — we soak up the energy, cues, and standards of our environment. That’s just how we’re wired. When it comes to forming new habits, we can use this to our advantage.
You see, most people don’t curate their environment well enough, which is why it works against their desired behavior. For example, you want to live healthier, but there’s always a stash of cookies or donuts easily within reach.
You want to read more books, but distractions such as Netflix, social media, or YouTube are more dominantly present in your living room than your books.
You want to wake up earlier, but your alarm clock is right next to your warm, comfortable bed, so all you have to do is turn to your side and hit the snooze button.
You want to work on lower your anxiety, but your phone still sends you push-notifications from the news, showing you all the negative, chaotic things happening in the world.
You see where I’m getting at? In each of these cases, the environment makes the desired habit more difficult to perform. Our own environment is working against us.
But what if we would flip the switch? What if our environment is designed so that the desired habits are easier to perform than the undesired behaviors?
For example, if your goal is to wake up earlier, put your alarm clock far away from your bed so you can’t roll over and snooze that easily. Instead, you have to get out of bed to turn it off. And once you’re already out of bed, you’re much more likely to stay out of bed.
If your goal is to build a yoga routine for at home, make sure your yoga mat is already laid out somewhere, and your workout clothes are already prepared the night before.
If you want to build the habit of doing deep, focused work each day. Turn your notifications off and remove the most distracting devices (such as your smartphone or tablet) from your work environment.
And if you want to eat healthier, keep a fruit or vegetable bowl easily within sight and within reach to eat healthy snacks instead of high-sugar of high-fat snacks.
Nevertheless, do anything you can to optimize your environment — whether social, physical, or digital — so that it makes the desired habit much easier to perform and the undesired behaviors much more difficult to perform. There’s no need to make things harder than they already are.
#4: Track Your Habits
I find that the mere act of tracking my behavior improves my behavior. That’s why I’m a big fan of using a habit tracker — and why I track my daily habits, weekly habits, and monthly habits on one sheet. This gives me a complete overview of my real performance.
Every day I get to mark a habit a success, it sparks some positive momentum that helps me keep going strong. Each day I have to mark a habit unsuccessful, it serves as a real reminder to pay more attention to this habit.
Besides, as I’m confronted with my actual performance, I can no longer fall into personal biases or blind spots that, in the past, would sometimes lead me to believe I was doing better than I actually was.
All in all, tracking your habits is one of those simple actions that make a big difference in your overall performance. You can use habit-tracking apps such as Habitica or Simple Habit Tracker — or, if you’re like me, you just use old-school pen and paper.
#5: Practice The Two-Day Rule
Life is messy, and you have to accept that you’re not going to perform each desired habit every single day. There will be days where ‘life’ happens and you won’t be able to complete a certain habit. That’s completely okay.
When that happens, your main objective is to make sure you don’t fall off the bandwagon a second day in a row.
Missing a habit one day is not that big of a deal, but missing a habit two days in a row starts a negative spiral that might lead to a third, fourth, and fifth day. This is exactly how habits are broken.
Therefore, practice the ‘two-day rule’: Never miss a daily habit two days in a row, or else a negative spiral has been initiated.
This is precisely why tracking your habits is so important. Through habit-tracking, you have an accurate overview of your actual performance instead of some sort of a mental image of how you’re doing. You can instantly see which habit should be completed today to avoid breaking the ‘two-day rule’. This way, you ensure you keep it a strong, daily habit.
#6: Practice Habit Stacking
Habit stacking is one of the smartest habit-building hacks I’ve ever come across. Habit stacking, which I’ve learned from James Clear in his book Atomic Habits, is the act of placing a new habit right on top of an already existing habit.
For example, if you want to add journaling to your daily routine, you can add it right on top of an already existing habit. Let’s say your 10-minute morning meditation is already a strong habit, your rule could be ‘right after performing my morning meditation, I’ll journal for about 5 minutes’.
If you want to start taking cold showers, you can add it right on top of your daily exercise if that’s already an existing habit.
If you want to consistently take your vitamins or supplements, you can add it right on top of your already existing habit of having lunch.
And if you want to build a daily gratitude practice, you can add it right on top of the daily habit of putting your kids to bed.
As James Clear said in Atomic Habits, “The reason habit stacking works so well is that your current habits are already built into your brain. You have patterns and behaviors that have been strengthened over years. By linking your new habits to a cycle that is already built into your brain, you make it more likely that you’ll stick to the new behavior.”
This is also why morning- and evening-routines are so powerful. Essentially, these routines are a series of many different habits stacked on top of each other. Instead of performing these habits scattered throughout the day, you can complete them in one efficient flow.
#7: Get An Accountability Partner
Habits are so much easier to build when you’re not doing it all by yourself. The problem with going at it alone is that, in most cases, we are our own worst enemy. We sabotage our success by accepting our own excuses, by letting ourselves off the hook, and by believing our own limitations.
This is why we need to surround ourselves with like-minded, inspiring individuals who have high standards. These people help us elevate our own performance and productivity.
If you truly want to raise your level of performance, I would highly recommend getting an accountability partner or joining a mastermind.
My personal accountability partner is Corey Fradin, and he checks in on my progress on a daily basis. It’s one thing to cheat myself out of doing certain actions, it’s another thing to confess this to my accountability partner.
So, if you want to build strong new habits, find an accountability partner and grow together. Keep each other motivated and consistent. Not only does this increase your odds of success, but it also makes the process a lot more fun.
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