On a scale of one to ten, how sick are you of setting goals and falling short? The key to achieving your goals—especially those big hairy ambitious goals that really matter to you—is to hammer away at them bit by bit, in small steps taken daily. Success, as the saying goes, is doing a few simple things really well everyday. To put it another way: when you know how to form a new habit that’s related to a goal you’re working towards, then you can see yourself inching closer to success through the actions you take on a daily basis.
And a new habit, once you’ve successfully installed it, is easy-peezy to execute because you’re doing it automatically without thinking about it, just like you drive your car and brush your teeth.
In this piece, I’m going to share 10 simple steps you can start implementing immediately towards forming any new habit you want.
Let’s dive in…
Contents | Available Versions: Article, Podcast (2 Parts)
- 1. Form One New Habit A Time.
- 2. You Don’t Need Super-Human Willpower To Form A New Habit…
- 3. Leverage Mini-Habits to Get Started.
- 4. Attach New Habits To Pre-Established Habits.
- 5. Make Habits Time-Bound Rather Than Outcome-Bound.
- 6. Make If-Then Plans To Overcome Obstacles.
- 7. Setup Habit Ramps.
- 8. Perform Habits at The Same Time Everyday to Form Them Faster.
- 9. Implement Rewards.
- 10. Measure Your Progress.
1. Form One New Habit A Time.
One of the most common reasons people fail at reaching their goals is because they set too many to begin with. Then they try attacking them all at once and burn themselves out within the first month.
You can cook an egg if you go outside on a sunny day and hold a magnifying glass over it. This is because the magnifying glass harnesses the power of the sun’s rays and puts them towards a singular aim—cooking that egg.
But if you go outside and repeatedly wave the magnifying glass side-to-side over the pan, you’ll never cook that egg.
That’s what happens with most people—they’re unable to build habits and achieve their goals because they’re outside waving that God damn magnifying glass over a pan full of uncooked eggs that they’ll never be able to enjoy.
A better way to approach your goals, and the habits you’ll need in order to achieve them, is to harness all your energy and focus towards approaching each of them one at a time.
Note: I’ve included an “Actionable insight(s)” area at the end of each step to help you take these big ideas and put them into practice within your own life.
- Choose your goal: What’s one major, long-term goal you’re absolutely dedicated to achieving over the next 12 months or more?
- Choose your habit: What’s the ONE new habit you can form, such that by forming it, you can achieve or exceed your goal? Take a moment to figure it out and write it down.
- Next, learn everything you possibly can about how to do it right. Go deep.
- For example, one of my major habits is writing. I do it every single day no matter what. Most of what I write, I never publish. And that’s fine with me, because I can’t get the good stuff without cranking out the crappy stuff first. I write every day because my ultimate goal is to continue growing as a writer for the rest of my life. No matter how great I think I might be, there’s always room for improvement.
- The key here, is to identify a habit you can do all the time. It needs to be something you can incorporate into your schedule and execute on a daily basis, no matter what. Eventually, it’ll be something you can do easily, without thinking about it. At this point, you’ve got the habit installed, so it requires minimal effort to execute and you can put it on autopilot. And if you want, you can now begin forming another new habit.
2. You Don’t Need Super-Human Willpower To Form A New Habit…
… But you do need patience. And discipline. But only until you’ve “installed” or formed your new habit. Once you’ve made a habit out of something, you can simply put it on auto-pilot — no more willpower necessary.
But how long, exactly, do you need to grind it out until you can confidently call it habit?
Researchers tell us it takes 66 days, on average, to form a new habit. But this is the average number of days, which means it took some people longer and some people less.
Bottom line? Building good habits takes time and energy. This is why it’s so important to work on one at a time. But it’s also important to give yourself enough time. Some habits are easier to form than others. And everyone’s different.
Personally, it takes me about a month or so to form a new habit. This doesn’t mean I’m perfect at it. It simply means I’m willing to do it without resistance after about 30 days of effort.
- Dedicate a minimum of 30 days towards your chosen habit. But even more importantly: choose a time-frame and stick with it.
- During this time, it’s important to put your full focus and energy towards doing it consistently.
3. Leverage Mini-Habits to Get Started.
“Mini-habits” are tiny daily routines, rituals, or actions that take just a few minutes to perform, but can compound over time, delivering huge returns in the overall quality of your life. They’re one of the best ways to form major habits, because mini-habits can be built upon—bit by bit—over time.
And if you suck at starting, you’ll find that mini-habits are helpful with getting you to take action towards making progress on your goals…
Mini-habits are all about incremental improvement—opting for the gradual and granular approach to success…
For a lot of us, the idea of taking “massive action” can feel intimidating. (e.g. “How am I supposed to take massive action if I can barely get my ass off the couch?”)
But by nudging yourself forward with tiny actions taken daily, you’ll eventually succeed.
Since the reason you want to form a habit in the first place is to achieve or maintain a given goal, doing something—even if it’s little—is exponentially better than getting overwhelmed at the sheer enormity of your goal and giving up because of it. Incremental steps will ultimately lead to success. Taking any kind of action is better than taking none.
Mini habits are called “mini” because they have a low level of commitment:
- Doing just five pushups a day.
- Walking just five minutes a day.
- Waking up just 10 minutes earlier.
Let’s say you want to start a journaling habit. If you think about journaling several pages a day, you can easily become overwhelmed and convince yourself to abandon it all together before you ever get started. Or, you might be pumped up about writing page after page for the first week or two, but life gets in the way and you get out of the habit.
But what if you just journaled five sentences a day? That’s manageable, right? Of course!
That’s the power of a mini-habit—the low level of commitment required to execute it makes it easy to do over and over again until it becomes automatic for you. And once it’s automatic, you can decide if you want to maintain this mini-habit or challenge yourself to create a full-on habit out of it (e.g. writing a page a day instead of five sentences a day; waking up 20 minutes earlier instead of 10)
Consistency is key when it comes to forming new habits. Mini-habits make your ambitions more approachable, which makes it easier to get started and remain consistent.
- If getting started and staying consistent is a problem for you, ask yourself this: “What’s a mini-habit I can start doing right now that’s so small it’s impossible for me to fail?” Choose something stupid-simple, something you know you can do everyday no matter what (often times, once you start, you’ll find yourself doing more than you intended.)
- Keep in mind, you can build upon your mini-habit and turn it into a major habit if you choose.
4. Attach New Habits To Pre-Established Habits.
When I first began the habit of going out for daily walks, I wasn’t sure how I’d fit it in. It seems easy enough: go outside and walk for 15 minutes every day. But my efforts would fail time after time as I tried fitting it into my schedule. If it’s easy to do, then it’s just as easy not to do.
Eventually, I smartened up and realized if I really wanted to make a habit of this, I needed to attach to a habit I’d already established.
Since I’ve been in the habit of waking up and working out every morning for over a decade now, I was able to attach my new habit of walking outside for 15 minutes to my pre-established habit of working out.
Now, everyday after the gym, I take a walk before I walk inside my house. It’s automatic.
- Pick a strong habit you’ve already established in your life, and attach your new habit to that one to make it easier to form.
- Some examples:
- “Every morning, after I brush my teeth, I’ll grab my journal and write down three things I’m grateful for.”
- “After I drive the kids to school, I’ll drive to the gym before going home.”
- “After I write down my top three tasks for today, I’ll read a book for 30 minutes.”
5. Make Habits Time-Bound Rather Than Outcome-Bound.
It can be tough to stick with a new habit if you feel demotivated to do it consistently.
If you promise yourself you’ll read 20 pages a day, but you keep getting side-tracked and you miss the mark, you’ll feel bad about yourself for being unable to stick with it.
In situations like these, it’s helpful to give yourself a block of time to work on your habit rather than focusing on the outcome you’re working toward.
For example, instead of reading 20 pages per day, consider reading for 20 minutes per day. This way, you’ll be more likely to do it to completion, which will lead to a shot of dopamine in your brain, which will lead to you feeling good about yourself, which will lead to you sticking with your new habit over the long run.
- Think about the new habit you want to form and carve out a block of time in your calendar to work on it everyday or for specific days of the week. Literally block out the time on your schedule.
- For example:
- If you want to get into the habit of reading more, schedule 20 minutes of reading time on your calendar each day.
- If you want to work out more, schedule a 60-minute block of time to exercise everyday.
- If you want to maintain a tidy house, schedule a 30-minute time-block to work on, say, cleaning and organizing as much of your kitchen as you can today. When the timer goes off, you’re done. Keep this up a few days a week, and eventually you’ll be able to tell all your friends about “the life-changing magic of tidying up.”
Working with a time-bound approach can help you achieve your goal and form the habit of maintaining them, all while feeling productive along the way… And isn’t that better than trying to clean and organize the whole house in one fell swoop and feeling like a failure because you couldn’t do it?
6. Make If-Then Plans To Overcome Obstacles.
You can only reach a destination if you know how to get there. That’s why planning is so important—solid plans help you stay the course and take the steps you need to achieve success.
But no plan is perfect.
That’s why it’s helpful to throw an if-then component into the mix as you work towards forming new habits. If-the planning is simple: “IF I am in this situation, THEN I will take this action.”
- IF I don’t have time to make green juice in the morning, THEN I’ll DoorDash it from the juice bar near my house.
- IF I need to work late and can’t make it to the gym, THEN I’ll do 50 air squats, 50 burpees, and 50 pushups in my office.
Life happens. And when you’re forming a new habit, all sorts of random, unexpected things will pop up that you weren’t anticipating when you decided to start working on making this new change in your life. This is why you need to plan for unexpected obstacles and setup a few systems to deal with them when they arise. Doing this will ensure you remain consistent and keep crushing it with your new habits.
- Consider the obstacles that may get in your way as you work towards forming your new habit. Make an if-then plan for as many of them that you think may come up, and you’ll be prepared and protected against pitfalls as you progress towards your goals.
7. Setup Habit Ramps.
Habit ramps are small cues in your environment that trigger a habit or make them easier to execute.
For example, your environment has a massive influence on your habits. So, if you want to form better eating habits, you’ve got to make it easy to eat good stuff, and hard to eat bad stuff. A popular way to do this, is to purge your pantry of junk food…
Although this is a good start, it only addresses the “make it hard to eat bad stuff” part of the equation.
Okay, so you purge the bad stuff. Then what?
If you want to make it easier to eat good stuff, then it’s a good idea to introduce a habit ramp: prepare healthy options in advance and make them easy to access. Throw away the chips and dip, and replace them with celery sticks and almond butter.
Here’s another example of a habit ramp: since I workout first thing every morning, I always go to sleep with my workout clothes on (habit ramp #1).
Before I go to bed, I also place a liter of water (habit ramp #2), a shaker filled with my pre-workout powder (habit ramp #3), and my daily vitamins (habit ramp #4) on my bedside table.
This way, as soon as I get up, I can slam that liter of water with my vitamins and pre-workout drink.
My gym bag is also ready to go and at the door (habit ramp #5).
Once I get to the gym, I know exactly where I need to go because I’ve pre-planned each and every workout I’m doing that day (habit ramp #6) so I don’t need to run around from one workout station to another like a lost child.
Can you start to see the magic of having habit ramps in your life?
They make it so much easier to take action. And you can setup as many as you want.
- Think about the new habit you’re working to form in your life. What are some simple things you can do—what are some habit ramps you can setup—to make it easier on yourself to build and maintain this habit over the long run?
- Setup as many habit ramps as you see fit to form and maintain your new habit.
8. Perform Habits at The Same Time Everyday to Form Them Faster.
When you do something matters just as much as what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. Performing a habit at the same time everyday makes it easier to lock that habit in over the long-run.
Your body doesn’t know anything about time and it never knows what time it is—time is a concept created by the brain. Cavemen never knew what time it was, but they still went to sleep and got back up at roughly the same time we do today.
Your body doesn’t revolve around time—it revolves around rhythm.
For example: Your body naturally wakes itself up when it’s around light; and naturally starts to put itself to sleep (by producing melatonin) when it senses there’s a lack of light (e.g. night time.)
Another example: I take my vitamins and drink my green juice at the same time every day because, over time, my body begins to expect those nutrients to enter my body at those time-periods.
One more example: 8am—12pm is the four-hour block of time in which I’ve found that I can perform at my peak. During this time of the day, I’ve got the highest levels of energy and mental clarity—it’s my period of peak performance. Because of this, I block this time of day out on my calendar on a daily basis to focus on my O.B.T (One Big Thing) — my most important thing I’m working on for that particular day.
Bottom line: Your timing triggers a habitual response in your brain and body. If you do something at the same time on a regular basis, it’ll be easier to form it into a long-term habit.
- Which time of day is best for you to work on the habit you want to form? Identify it, put it on your calendar, and protect that time-block like your life depends upon it.
- For more on the power of timing, checkout my article/podcast about Daniel Pink’s book, When.
- Get my audiobook summary of When by Daniel Pink on Audible here.
9. Implement Rewards.
Habits stick because they create cravings.
Imagine this scenario: every afternoon for the past year, you’ve bought and eaten a delicious chocolate-chip cookie from the café at work. You justify it a just reward for a hard day’s work.
Unfortunately, though, as a few friends have already pointed out—you’ve been looking like a fat-ass lately. So you decide to kick the habit.
But how do you imagine you’ll feel that first afternoon, walking past the cafeteria? Odds are, you will either eat “just one more cookie” or you’ll go home in a distinctly grumpy mood. Why would you be grumpy? Because if you didn’t give in to the cookie craving, it would’ve been the first time in a year you broke your habit of rewarding yourself with a cookie.
In general, any habit can be broken down into a three-part loop:
- First, you sense an external CUE, say, your clock beeps, letting you know it’s time for lunch. This creates an overall spike in your brain activity as your brain decides which habit is appropriate for the situation.
- Next comes the ROUTINE, meaning the activity you’re used to performing when faced with this particular cue. You march down to the café and get your cookie with your brain virtually in autopilot.
- Finally, you get a REWARD: a feeling of success as you bite into that delicious, warm, freshly baked chocolate chip cookie. Your overall brain activity increases again as your brain registers the successful completion of the activity and reinforces the link between the CUE and ROUTINE.
This three-part habit loop is the reason kicking a bad habit is hard — because, over time, you crave the reward at the end of a habit loop.
In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg breaks this process down in detail, citing studies on animals which have shown that once they become used to a simple cue-routine-reward habit, their brains begin anticipating the reward even before they get it.
And once they anticipate it, denying them the actual reward makes them frustrated and mopey. This is the neurological basis of craving.
But here’s the good news: cravings work for building good habits too.
In The Power of Habit, Duhigg also cites research about how people who manage to exercise habitually crave something from the exercise, be it the endorphin rush in their brain, the sense of accomplishment or the treat they allow themselves afterwards…
This craving is what solidifies the habit/routine; cues and rewards alone are not enough.
- Weave a reward system into your process to help you lock-in your new habits and celebrate your successes (both big and small) along the way. What are some ways you can reward yourself with something you crave for successfully executing a habit?
- Keep in mind that what you reward yourself with doesn’t have to be big. But it does need to be something you crave. It can be as small as giving yourself 20 minutes of social media after 90 minutes of deep work. It can be rewarding yourself with a nice night out with your family. Or, it can be a delicious protein shake you remind yourself you’ll get to enjoy after you crush your workout.
- A reward can be anything you want it to be, so long as you’re clear about what it is, it creates a craving when you think about it, and you reward yourself with it regularly after executing a habit or completing an action.
10. Measure Your Progress.
If you’re working hard at forming an exercise habit, grab a calendar and draw a big red “X” on each day you workout.
If you’re forming the habit of eating healthy, maintain a journal that tracks your eating habits, or maintain progress with an app like MyFitnessPal.
Some folks do well when they declare their goals publicly—this is it, the stakes are in the ground.
Another great way to form new habits is to involve others. This can be especially powerful if you involve others with similar goals as yourself.
For example, if you want to form a new gym habit, it helps to have a gym buddy to hold you accountable when you don’t feel like showing up.
If you’re not into buddy systems, there are other ways to crowdsource the occasional kick in the ass that all of us need from time to time…
Apps like “SPAR!” work well for this—allowing you to join habit-building “challenges” with other people from around the world who’ve got similar goals as you do. Each day you do the activity from your challenge, which is a growth-oriented daily habit of some kind—like doing 50 push-ups, or writing 500 words—you post a video check-in with your group. But here’s the catch: you’ve gotta put some dough on the line when you join a challenge. If you fail to check-in, you pay a pre-set amount (something like $5) to your group’s pot — when the challenge is over, the winner gets all the cash.
- What gets measured gets managed. Anytime you’re working on anything meaningful, be sure to track your progress to ensure you’re progressing forward… And, if you’re not, be flexible enough to adjust your path until you are. What’s one way you can begin tracking your progress?
- It’s also important to have support when you’re pursuing goals and building habits. What’s one big way you can bring people (in person or online) into your life to hold you accountable as you form new habits?
Here’s a quick recap of this massive piece on forming new habits:
- 1. Form One New Habit A Time. It’ll help you stay focused.
- 2. You Don’t Need Super-Human Willpower To Form A New Habit… You just need enough to get you going; once you’ve built your habit, you won’t need willpower anymore.
- 3. Leverage Mini-Habits to Get Started. Incremental improvement can compound over time.
- 4. Attach New Habits To Pre-Established Habits. Leverage the momentum of current success to spur future success.
- 5. Make Habits Time-Bound Rather Than Outcome-Bound. Chunking actions down into manageable blocks of time will feel better and help you form habits more easily than trying to do it all at once.
- 6. Make If-Then Plans To Overcome Obstacles. Preparation beats perspiration.
- 7. Setup Habit Ramps. Setting the stage makes it easier to act, which makes it easier to form new habits.
- 8. Perform Habits at The Same Time Everyday to Form Them Faster. When you do something matters just as much as what you’re doing.
- 9. Implement Rewards. Cue + Routine + Reward = Form New Habit
- 10. Measure Your Progress. Stay on top of your new habit and be flexible.