I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about building up new habits, and attempting to do so. From my own experience, there are three things that contribute to my success in building a new habit more than anything else.
Habits are “learned dispositions” (Wood & Neal, 2007, p. 844) or behaviors that, with enough repetition, become automatic. — CHIRr
We aim to build habits because we want those particular behaviors to become automatic. Although research has shown that skipping one day here and there won’t stop a behavior from becoming a habit, daily repetition is what will help the most. In fact, there’s actually a curve in the process of making a habit automatic, which means we see the biggest gains in the early days of repetition, and much smaller rewards for repeating the behavior as it becomes more automatic:
So if we’re really serious about building a new habit, we need to practice it daily, especially in the early days.
Carve out a specific time to do it every day
One of the best ways I’ve found for making sure I repeat a new habit each day is to carve out a specific point in my routine where I do that activity. Since I got a piano a few months ago, my practice has been fairly higgledy-piggledy. Many days I didn’t practice at all because I never happened to find time in my schedule where I was in the mood. It wasn’t until I set aside a specific time (right after lunch) to play piano that I started doing it almost every day without fail.
One of the great things about setting aside a specific time to repeat a behavior is that you can feel it becoming automatic. Each time you do it, you reinforce it as a habit, and it’s easier to do it again the next day. If I go a week without playing piano now, it’s a lot harder to pick it back up.
Choosing a time of day for your habit will depend on your own schedule, but here are some ideas to get you thinking:
- Want to drink water every morning? Do it at whatever time you wake up
- Want to go to the gym every night? Choose a time in-between work and dinner
- Want to read more? Go to bed an hour early each night to read your book
- Want to learn another language? Set aside half an hour at lunchtime
Put what you need in plain sight
This helpful tip was something I stumbled upon by accident. When I moved house a few years ago, I happened to sit my makeup on a small shelf right over the bathroom basin, simply because that was the spot where it seemed to fit. I didn’t think about the placement of it very much, until I noticed a few weeks later that I was wearing makeup almost every single day. For some people that’s normal, but I’m a once-in-a-blue-moon kind of makeup person. And maybe not even that often.
So to be suddenly applying makeup every day without even thinking about it was a big deal. It didn’t take me long to realize why this happened: I stood in front of the bathroom basin to get ready to leave the house every morning, and seeing the makeup sitting right in front of me made me think, why not? I’ve always claimed that applying makeup is too much effort to do every day, but when it was easily accessible to me, and I got a visual reminder by seeing it every morning, it suddenly became a lot easier to do.
Of course, applying makeup every day isn’t the kind of habit I wouldintentionally create, and I’m happy to not bother with it more than once-in-a-blue-moon again now. But this can apply to building up almost any other habit:
- Want to take the rubbish out every night? Sit the bin by the door
- Want to eat fruit for breakfast every morning? Leave it next to the coffee machine before you go to bed
- Want to drink more water during the day? Fill water bottles and leave them at the front of your fridge
- Want to go for a run every day? Sit your running shoes next to the front door
Stack it onto a habit you already have
Another trick that I did without realizing is to stack my habits. Now that I know how powerful this can be, I try to work it into my plan for every new habit I start building.
I mentioned before that I set a time each day to complete particular habits—stacking works in a similar way, only it uses a habit you already have, rather than a time of day. Here are some examples to make it a bit more clear:
- I read a Paul Graham essay every day after my first bathroom break
- I check my letterbox any time I leave the house (it’s next to my front gate)
- I read every night as soon as I get into bed
Each of these conscious habits is stacked on a subconscious habit—something I’ve been doing for so long that it’s automatic. I use the subconscious habits as triggers, and stack on top of them whatever behavior I’m trying to make automatic. Here’s how those examples break down:
You probably have more existing habits to stack new ones onto than you realize. Here are some that I haven’t used yet:
- Closing or shutting off my computer at the end of the day
- Eating dinner
- Brushing my teeth
- Making a coffee in the morning
- Checking my email before I get up
- Getting out of bed
I’ve found that starting with just one new habit is important, because it’s easy to get overwhelmed by trying to keep up with several at once. Whenever I pick something new I want to do every day, I find a time of day that will suit it, think of something I do automatically at that time of day already, and put something visual in plain sight to remind me.
The way I like to think of it is this: future me will be busy, tired, lazy, or a combination of all three. She’s going to need as much help as she can get to keep up this habit every day. By stacking it against something she’ll do automatically at a convenient time and putting a visual reminder in plain sight, I’m making it as easy as possible for her to remember to repeat that behavior daily. I’m sure me in the distant future will appreciate it, when I get there and find out I’ve built a whole bunch of healthy habits this way.