How to build good habits: A playbook for lasting change

Taking a long term view of success is critical. Discipline is how you get from Point A to the often elusive Point B. As Aristotle aptly put it, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Whether you’re looking to pursue a new project, like starting a business, or you simply want to change your day-to-day behaviors, habits are key. But how can we actually form good habits and make them stick?

Misconceptions on building habits

One of the big habit myths is the belief that it only takes 21 days for a habit to form. Through the use of weasel words and un-cited “research,” personal development dweebs try to sell programs on this magic 3-week span.

Actual research on the subject shows this popular belief just isn’t true: how “long” it takes to form a habit depends on the individual, the habit being formed, environmental factors, etc.

Like most research, it’s far more messy, and doesn’t make for great book titles like 21 Days to Blah Blah Blah…

Furthermore, this outlook on habits (“I just have to get to X days…”) diminishes the real benefit of forming a habit in the first place: to change your lifestyle, which ultimately leads to a more rewarding day-to-day.

Reaching an imaginary number of days is not how you get results.

That rant aside, let’s look at proven techniques on forming habits that stick.

Micro Quotas and Macro Goals

Motivation is interwoven with the goals you make and the habits you plan to form in order to achieve them.

In a fascinating study on motivation, researchers found abstract thinking to be an effective method to help with discipline. In the most basic sense, “dreaming big” is pretty good advice after all.

However, many of us tend to have a problem with setting up grandiose plans and subsequently becoming intimidated by our own lofty expectations.

Since a variety of research around the self-determination theory states that creating intrinsic motivators (being motivated to do things internally, not through punishments or rewards) is an essential process of setting goals that stick, you need to find a way to balance this need to dream big with your day to day activities, which often do not result in quick, dramatic changes, but eventually will over time.

The best way to do this is to set “macro goals” and “micro quotas.”

  • Goals should be the big picture items that you wish to someday accomplish.
  • Your quotas on the other hand are the minimum amounts of work that you must get done every single day to make it a reality.

Writer/developer Nathan Barry has made for a great case study of the use of these quotas as someone who forced himself to write 1000 words per day come hell or high-water. The result was 3 self-published books resulting in thousands of dollars in sales.

Quotas make each day approachable, and your goals become achievable because of this. You might be surprised to find that setting extremely low quotas is actually a great way to begin.

Consider this excerpt from Stanford psychologist B.J. Fogg on how he started his flossing habit:

For me, cracking the code on flossing was to put the floss right by the toothbrush, and to commit to myself that I would floss one tooth — only one tooth — every time after I brushed.

I could floss them all if i wanted to, but the commitment was just one tooth.

[This works] because I was training the behavior. Maybe once every few weeks, I’d only actually floss one tooth, but a majority of the time I’d end up flossing them all.

Professor Fogg’s entire system on Tiny Habits is built around this principle that it’s better to set micro quotas to get out of the analysis phase and right into the action:

Planning, Triggers, and Behavior Change

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.

— President Dwight D. Eisenhower

What does planning have to do with habits?

As I mentioned above, motivation is a key part of the formation of any habit. The step that many people skip when they fantasize about building a certain habit is they never clearly answer why they want it.

It may seem like a small detail, but it plays a huge role in keeping motivation over time. You see, a variety of research shows us that excessive fantasizing about results can be detrimental to the stickiness of any habit. When you charge headlong into a new habit without clearly defining your goals, they will start to weaken, and it will be very difficult to stay consistent.

But we also know that positive visualizations can be motivating and inspire us to push ourselves, so what’s missing?

According to this study from the UCLA, the mistake is in what we visualize. Researchers found that those participants who engaged in visualizations that included the process of what needed to be done to achieve the goal (ex: fantasizing about learning another language, and visualizing themselves practicing every day after work) were more likely to stay consistent than their peers.

The following were the two reasons why the visualization process worked:

  • Planning: visualizing the process helped focus attention on the steps needed to reach the goal.
  • Emotion: visualization of individual steps led to reduced anxiety.

In essence, trying to ‘reinvent’ yourself all at once can be the source of failure, and it’s probably why New Year’s Resolutions hardly ever stick. It’s better instead to visualize the process of you getting to a very achievable goal.

A variety of research on If-Then planning (or implementation intentions), suggest the tactic of creating a strong linkage between a specific situation and a reactionary action.

Over time, practicing these “if this happens, then I will…” moments can cause them to become automatic, which is great for building habits.

While the jury is still out on whether or not you should use time as the trigger (some say yes, others no), more concrete examples come from studies such as Experiences in habit formation and research on action repertoires, which show that the most effective triggers come in “chains.”

In other words, following up on an already existing habit (ie, eating lunch, arriving home, etc.) with a new ‘link in the chain’ is a great way to get a habit started. For instance, instead of “I will keep a cleaner house,” you could aim for, “When I come home, I’ll change my clothes and then clean the kitchen.”

The former study noted that regular habits with little wiggle room work very well to add ‘links’ to. So you can create systems like, ‘If it is lunch time, Then I will only eat meat and vegetables’ (much more concrete than “I will eat healthy!”).

Some published examples from Columbia’s Motivation Science Center show quite promising results from the use of ‘if-then planning’ and how it ties into the brain’s preference for contingencies:

A recent review of results from 94 studies … found significantly higher success rates for just about every goal … including monthly breast self-examination, test prep, buying organic foods, being more helpful to others, losing weight, recycling etc.

The if-then technique is also effective for when you don’t want to do your habit.

One of my favorite examples comes from the book Making Habits, Breaking Habits, which lists the following:

If I feel too tired to practice the piano after work, then I will first listen to some inspirational music to help motivate me.

Simple, but proven effective for those moments where mood, fatigue, and motivation begin to wane.

Eliminating “Ahscrewit!” Moments

One very powerful way you can put “If-then” planning into action is to set up plans for those “Ahscrewit!” moments that sabotage your fragile new habits.

An “Ahscrewit!” moment is any specific instance where you throw your arms up in the air and say, “Screw this, it’s not worth the effort!”

There’s another more scientific phenomenon known as the “What the Hell Effect” which also helps to explain habit failure and how seemingly small individual moments play a role—when we slip up just a little from a rigid schedule on a new habit, we are far more likely to “abandon ship” and give up on all of the progress we’ve made! (Anyone on a failed diet has seen this happen).

Take for instance, this study on the what the hell effect, which examined the likelihood of people to over-eat when they thought they blew their daily caloric intake limit:

When the cookies were weighed it turned out that those who were on a diet and thought they’d blown their limit ate more of the cookies than those who weren’t on a diet. In fact they ate over 50% more!

On the other hand, when dieters thought they were safely within their limit, they ate the same amount of cookies as those who weren’t on a diet. This looks a lot like the what-the-hell effect in action.

In other words, minor setbacks and frustrating moments are habit killers: they give us excuses to skip our habit or trick us into thinking it’s okay just to blow the whole thing off when we mess up.

Take a close look at your routine, particularly at moments right before starting a new session for your habit, and decide what is giving you “analysis paralysis,” or the internal struggle in your mind to do or not do something.

Ramit Sethi has described how he tackled one of these insidious moments in his quest to go to the gym more often in the mornings:

Motivation alone has very little to do with successfully changing  behaviors. When I sat down to analyze why I wasn’t going to the gym, I realized: my closet was in another room. That meant I had to walk out in the cold, in my boxer shorts, to the other room, shivering while I put on my clothes.

It was easier to just stay in bed.

Once I realized this, I folded my clothes and shoes the night before. When I woke up the next morning, I would roll over and see my gym clothes sitting on the floor. In fact, I couldn’t get up without stepping on them! The result? My gym attendance soared by over 300%.

Identify where exactly ‘getting started’ falls apart for you and try to create shortcuts so that the uncomfortable moment is lessened, such as how Ramit made getting ready easier for the gym above.

For those “what the hell moments,” some startlingly simple advice is to just focus on the total days you’ve done your habit, rather than the fact that you broke the chain.

Being too hard on yourself for messing up isn’t healthy. In fact, this study shows that self-blame is definitely counter-productive. The study examined studying habits in particular, and had this to say:

Forgiveness allows the individual to move past their maladaptive behavior and focus on the upcoming examination without the burden of past acts to hinder studying.

You shouldn’t let the fact that you slipped up, or that you don’t want to do something make you feel bad.

The Power of Being Boring

When it comes to habit formation, the greatest gains are made with early repetitions.

Take, for instance, this excerpt from The Willpower Effect:

Behavioral economist Howard Rachlin proposes an interesting trick for overcoming the problem of always starting a change tomorrow. When you want to change a behavior, aim to reduce the variability in your behavior, not the behavior itself. He has shown that smokers asked to try to smoke the same number of cigarettes every day gradually decrease their overall smoking— even when they are explicitly told not to try to smoke less.

In other words, reducing variability (and tracking progress) is a great way to become more consistent. Being ‘boring’ really is great for getting habits to stick!

Ok… so some explanation is needed here. It’s not that your life shouldn’t be exciting (good habits are desirable because they give you a better life), but rather that when you have an overabundance of options, it leads to demotivation (after all, Choice is demotivating).

Take, for instance, this quote from President Barack Obama:

You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make too many decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.

Making too many decisions about mundane details is a waste of your mental energy. The concept of “ego-depletion” posits that your willpower is like a muscle in that it can be worn out.

Making too many decisions is a part of this problem: Baumeister’s research on mental energy suggests that acts of self-control and self-regulation deplete mental resources in future activities. In addition, Kathleen Vohs and collegue’s research on self-control found that making repeated choices depleted the mental energy of their subjects, even if those choices were mundane and relatively pleasant.

If you want to be able to have more mental resources throughout the day (to form habits!), you should identify the aspects of your life that you consider mundane — and then “routinize” those aspects as much as possible. In short, make fewer decisions.

In essence, part of habit formation is having the mental energy needed to commit to the new habits. This is why you should constantly look for shortcuts (for instance, the triggers we mentioned above) that prevent you from having to use willpower and off the cuff decision making (as strange as that may sound).

For lasting change, the steps you take must ultimately change your environment and schedule.