How to Build Good Habits

Writing in calendar

Training regularly is a habit. Relying on motivation will usually not get you the results you want, because motivation is often flaky and short-lived. What you need is consistency: habits and discipline. This is what will actually result in long-term progress.

Some people say it only takes 21 days to build a habit, others closer to 60. For me, to make something actually permanent and automatic, it takes about 3 months. By that point it feels more like a normal part of my life, and takes much less effort.

Start small

When you’re starting something new, it’s easy to get overly excited and try to do the best you can. For example, if you’re starting to work out, you set yourself a goal of going to the gym for an hour five times a week. The problem is that once the initial burst of motivation fades, that habit is very unlikely to stick. As soon as you feel tired, you’ll miss a day, then a week, and before you know it you’ve fallen off the wagon. A much better approach would be to start with something manageable, for example a short walk every day.

You can’t optimise a habit that doesn’t exist. Once the habit is truly established (consistent, i.e. you don’t miss days just because you don’t feel like it), you can step it up. This doesn’t mean you can’t do anything beyond your habit goal, but don’t consider it mandatory quite yet.

Make it easy & appealing

In line with above, to establish a habit, you want to make it as easy as possible to perform. The more obstacles, the less likely you are to be succesful. Set up your environment in a way that makes it easier to follow through and harder to fail. For instance, if you’re trying not to eat sweets, don’t store any at home.

Make performing the habit appealing and satisfying. This doesn’t mean you have to reward yourself every time. It can be something simple.  For example, if you’re trying to establish a habit of journalling daily, buy a nice notebook and pens that will be a pleasure to use.

When you’re trying to build good habits, doing them should be a reward in itself, even if it doesn’t always feel like it in the beginning. Having additional rewards for success or punishments for failure has rarely worked for me, because I don’t always follow through with them properly. But if you need additional motivation to stick with something, it might be worth a try.

Ideally, you want to create a positive feedback loop. If doing the habit is easy and relatively pleasant, you will actually do it. This will bring its own benefits, plus you will then feel good about doing it. This will help you stay motivated until the behaviour becomes automatic.

Tracking

It’s hard to know if you’ve actually improved something without measuring it. I like to use an app for habit tracking (HabitBull), but you can easily use pen and paper too.

Seeing your success chain can help you stay on track and feed into the positive feedback loop mentioned above. On the other hand, it’s easy to rely on that too much. It can feel like one failed up ruined your streak, and then what is the point of continuing? I fell off the wagon many times when such a thing happened, until I established the concept of 90% success rate (or somewhere in the 80%-99% range, the exact number doesn’t really matter). This means that I consider my habit succesful as long as I perform it 90% of the time. A failed day is nothing to worry about, I just get back on track the day after.

Any app or tracking method I use needs to support that kind of functionality. For example, on HabitBull you can specify that you want a habit to be done any 6 days in a week to still be considered a streak. Getting used to that concept in general helped me be more rational about other less flexible trackers too. For example, when I accidentally miss the rare day on Duolingo, and it tries to get me to pay £13 to repair my 91 day streak, I just ignore it and start again the day after.

When tracking, be specific about what you’re trying to achieve. “Eating healthier” is not a something you can easily measure. “Eat at least 5 vegetables” is a lot better.

Resources

Some of the books on this topic that I’ve read and liked:

Still on my reading list are:

I tried to read High Performance Habits by Brendon Buchard, but gave up about 100 pages in, because it was just unnecessarily verbose and very long. There was some good info in there, but you can look up in cliffnotes online.

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