Habits aren’t built. They’re grown.

Joan Westenberg
The Habit Lab
Published in
5 min readMar 28, 2024


Habit building is bullshit.

We start off strong, filled with motivation and good intentions. “This time will be different,” we tell our deluded selves as we buy that overpriced gym membership, stock up on veggies, and download the latest productivity app that promises an all new approach to Kanban boards. Somehow.

And then, inevitably, it goes to shit.

It just does.

We slip up. We skip a workout. We emotionally spiral. We guiltily eat that donut at the office. We procrastinate. We fracture and fragment and fall apart. Discouraged, we wonder what went wrong. Why is building good habits so fucking hard?

The problem is this. What if you can’t build habits? Not really. Not in the way we’ve been taught — through sheer force of will, white-knuckling our way to change. Putting brick on top of brick.

What if habits aren’t built — They’re grown?

Slowly, organically, almost imperceptibly at first. Through a series of tiny choices that flourish over time.

Think about it in terms of a garden. You can’t force a seed to sprout and a sapling to grow through willpower alone. Sure, you can optimize the conditions — provide good soil, ample sunlight and water, pull the fucking weeds out every morning. But the growth process happens on its own timetable, cell by cell, day by day.

Habits work the same way. You can’t force a new behavior to take root, no matter how much you grit your teeth or beat yourself up. But what you can do is shape your environment to be as hospitable as possible to the habits you want to cultivate. To make it ever so slightly easier to make the right choice, again and again.

How? By focusing on ecosystems, not goals.

Goals are about the result you want to achieve — start a business, write a book, stabilise your income. Whatever the hell that looks like.

But ecosystems are different. Ecosystems are about the process, the daily actions and choices that get you there.

Goals have their place. They tell you what to plant. But habit ecosystems are where things grow.

Practically speaking: I want to read more books this year. And spend less time obsessing over the economy / stocks / true crime podcasts.

A habit building approach would be to force reading every day, to track my reading, to create a streak etc.

An ecosystems-based approach would be to always keep a book on my nightstand, to make it easy to read for 10 minutes while sipping my morning coffee, to set up an app to listen to audiobooks during my commute, to join a book club on Discord for hype and camaraderie. None of these actions are “working” on the specific habit. But all of them are habit creating.

The goal remains the same, but now I have a sustainable framework in place to support it, grow it, and let it happen naturally.

Growing habits organically starts small. Embarrassingly small. Want to start meditating? Begin with just one minute per day. Trying to eat more vegetables? Thanks, I hate it. But add a single baby carrot to your lunch. Hoping to write the Great American Novel? Commit to writing three sentences per day. The marginally better framework from Atomic Habits comes into play here.

These micro-habits may seem insignificant at first glance. Pointless, even. But their power lies in their consistency and scalability. A minute of meditation easily becomes two, then five, then ten. A baby carrot becomes a side salad becomes a produce-packed meal. Three sentences a day adds up to over a thousand words a year. These tiny actions create momentum and lay the groundwork for larger change over time.

Approaching habits this way sidesteps the perfectionism and all-or-nothing bullshit thinking that derails our efforts. When the bar is set at an achievable level, it’s much easier to show up day after day, even when you’re tired or busy or just don’t feel like it. And that consistency is what counts when it comes to habit formation. Take an imperfect action. It’s always better than no action at all. Even if it feels too small to post about. In fact, particularly when it feels too small to post about.

Even with a system and micro-habits in place, you’ll still face resistance. There will be days when the couch beckons more strongly than the gym, or checking social media feels more appealing than tackling your work. Temptation is a natural part of the habit-building process. Growing anything is hard work.

This is where mindset comes in. Instead of getting discouraged or beating yourself up over slips, view them as valuable data points. What triggered the urge to scroll Instagram instead of sending that email? Were you hungry, angry, lonely or tired? Bored or stressed? Simply pause and get curious.

Use that self-awareness to tweak your environment and make the desired habit the more appealing or convenient choice. Prep some healthy snacks to have on hand when afternoon hunger strikes, or use a website blocker during focused work time. Anticipate obstacles and create a plan to navigate them.

Think about identity, not outcomes. Instead of obsessing over follower counts or sales numbers, consider, “How would a founder approach this?” Take action, however small, however fucking insignificant it might seem, in direct alignment with that identity.

When you keep showing up, and when you keep reinforcing those choices, your self-image starts to shift. “I’m trying to be healthy” becomes “I am someone who prioritizes my health and well-being.” “I want to write more” becomes “I am a writer.” Those identities become self-fulfilling prophecies, gently shaping your daily behaviors and habits.

If you find yourself struggling to make a habit stick, remember: gentleness and patience, not punishment. Tiny actions, not grand gestures. Cultivate the conditions for success and trust the process. Just as a garden grows with consistent nourishment and care, so too will your habits — slowly, organically, one choice at a time.

And on the days when you falter — because you fucking will, we all do — take a breath, recommit, and begin again. There’s a certain magic in the mundane consistency of showing up, day after imperfect day.

That’s how habits take root and flourish. Not through force or willpower. Not through the shaming, broicism bullshit of the YouTube hustle shillers. Through patience, self-compassion, and a steady string of tiny choices that become their own organisms over time.

Plant those fucking seeds.

Tend to them.

And watch.

With time and care, they’ll turn into thriving habits.