In life, there are challenges. Most of these challenges require a lot of hard work. Whether you want to be shredded or filthy rich or impact the world in a certain way, nobody wants to force themselves to do hard work for a long duration of time because it very quickly becomes not fun and is a surefire way to be unhappy forever.
But you still need to do hard things for a very long time in order to get the results you want, so is there a way for us to easily build good habits where it doesn't feel like we're working hard at all? The objective of this is to try and make what would be normally classified as "tough" habits to build as easy as flushing the toilet or brushing your teeth.
Below is what's worked for me to build habits and is roughly the guidelines of the book Atomic Habits.
Nascent habits are extremely difficult to nurse. As such, you'll need to execute your new habits in these steps.
- Trigger - something to remind you to do the habit. This part is crucial because it's very hard to remember things with everything that goes on in our lives, especially if the habit is new and thus prone to be forgotten about. I'll outline some concrete examples of triggers below, but they can be anything from an object that's obstructing your path to a calendar reminder.
- Do the habit upon encountering the trigger.
- Reward yourself for doing the habit. This part is extremely crucial because you want your brain to associate the reward with the habit. The theory here is akin to Pavlovian conditioning where Pavlov's dogs would salivate upon hearing a bell ring even when no food is presented – they salivated because they've been conditioned with many repetitions beforehand where food is presented when a bell is rang. Thus, make yourself Pavlov's dog and reward yourself when you finish your habit.
Start REALLY Small, and Progressive Overload
Progressive overload is the weightlifting concept of adding reps or resistance as your muscle adapts to an exercise so you keep making forward progress. Here, you'll create a habit with very humble targets and then progressively improve those targets each month.
If you're taking on a new task and you promise yourself to work only an hour a day on that task...you're a fucking saint.
Whatever your ambitions were for your starting point, just divide that by 10 and start there. Want to do an hour of work a day? Start with 6 minutes a day. Each month, add 6 more minutes a day.
So month 1, you'd do at least 6 minutes of work, month 2 you'd do at least 12 minutes, month 3 you'd do 18 minutes, etc. This is crucially important because again – nascent habits are extremely difficult to nurse. It's very easy to find an excuse at the beginning not to do 1 hour of work, but it's very hard to find an excuse not to spend 6 minutes doing some work (because that would be very sad). Anyone can afford 6 minutes a day – wake up 6 minutes earlier.
Another reason why this is so important is because if you really don't feel like doing this habit and it's just painful to do, you're only spending 6 minutes forcing your way through it instead of 1 hour...and after you do your habit you'll reward yourself so it's all worth it.
3 things to keep in mind when applying this principle to your habit building:
- Make your starting point for your habit really, really small. Work for 5 minutes a day if taking on a new project. Do 1 pushup a day if you're wanting to start doing bodyweight exercises. Read one paragraph a day (or even one sentence) if you want to pick up reading. Forward progress is much more important than starting big. Keep it small and you'll get consistency. Start too aggressive and you'll burn out and hate it. Making your starting point small makes it so that the picking up of this nascent habit becomes very easy. But you must commit to the 6 minutes a day. Too busy? Do the 6 minutes anyway. Too tired? Do it anyway. Going on a flight? Wake up 6 minutes earlier and do it. Going into surgery that day? Do it before surgery. Absolute commitment is required here to make the habit work.
- The guideline for yourself is the minimum you should do each day. If you aimed to do 1 pushup a day and you stop there, you should never feel guilty about it. If you feel gung ho and want to do 50 that day for some reason, go for it. But if the next day you want to revert back to 1 pushup a day, that's 100% good. The point of this is to very, very, very slowly ratchet up your minimum over time so that in the long-run the habit pays dividends.
- Deploy patience – you'll very slowly add more workload to your habit each month. As such, if your original goal is do a minimum of 1 hour a day of work, and you start with 6 minutes a day, and adding 6 minutes a month, you're going to have to wait until 10 months to start doing a minimum of 1 hour of work a day. But like in the previous point, on days you want to do more, you can.
What Habits To Pick
Since generating a habit takes a long time, you likely want to pick habits that you hypothesis would have maximum ROI to your quality of life.
What Habits To Drop
If you realize that having a particular habit will not actually yield the results you want (i.e. you picked up running because you wanted more muscle, but then you later on realize that running is anti-muscle-building), then stop. But if you want to drop a habit because you're a crybaby, then keep going.
Make sure to track whether or not you've done your habits in some app or spreadsheet. This is so you know if you're actually following you habits so you can take a step back and understand how feasible it is for you to actually execute your habits (and what's stopping you from executing your habits). I'll show my case studies below and then present to you a spreadsheet that I've been using the past couple years.
- Trigger - put a book on top of my laptop the night before so I can't actually open my laptop without being reminded that I need to read that day.
- Habit - read X number of pages a day. X defined in progression below.
- Reward - watch 1 entertaining YouTube video.
Progression: Started at reading 5 pages a day, minimum. Increase 5 pages per quarter until 20 pages a day.
I find that more than 20 pages a day is fairly difficult for some books (Ray Dalio's Big Debt Crisis, for example) so I am happy to keep it to 20 pages a day to have a 1) good trade-off of learning bite-size pieces of information and 2) not take too much of my time.
I was on and off e-commerce for maybe half a year and it was really hard to pick up and build a habit, until I did the following:
- Trigger - I'd open up all the relevant tabs the night before (Shopify, Facebook Ads, etc) so when I wake up my laptop from sleep the next day, I am overwhelmed with e-commerce related tabs. This way, I can't forget about e-commerce and accidentally procrastinate.
- Habit - work on E-commerce X minutes a day.
- Reward - watch 1-2 entertaining YouTube videos, mostly in the category of luxury home tours (since my personal motivation for this was $$$$$$, I wanted to indulge in virtual materialism after I did e-commerce to remind myself what will lie ahead if I just kept at it).
Progression: Started at working on e-commerce 5 minutes a day minimum, add 5 minutes every month.
No saturation point yet.
Note that both rewards are the same for e-commerce and reading – you don't have to make shit complicated. You can change your rewards any time you want to. Most important is to get started.
- Trigger - Calendar reminder.
- Habit - Walk X minutes a day.
- Reward - I find that walking and soaking in the sun is quite rewarding in and of itself so I didn't have a separate reward.
Progression: Walk 5 minutes/day minimum. Add 5 minutes every month. Saturation is 30 minutes/day.
- Trigger - My gratitude journal is next to my nightstand so I see it every morning when I wake up.
- Habit - Write X things I am grateful for.
- Reward - Look at how my stocks are doing (this is very addictive in nature and gives me a dopamine hit every time I open Robinhood/E-Trade. I realize this is unhealthy and so I'm leveraging this as part of my 'reward' for this habit).
Progression: Write down 3 things I am grateful for each day, minimum. Add 2 more things to write each year.
Saturation point: not sure, but I wanted this habit to just be a very quick jolt in the morning to put my brain in the right place.
Tracking Your Progress
I use a very simple spreadsheet below, where the columns are my habits, and the rows are the dates. I put a "1" if I did the habit that day and a "0" if I didn't. The comments column is for debugging and post-mortem for if I failed to do a habit that day. What caused me to not do the habit? Is there a way to remind myself better to do the habit? Is the habit still feasible? How can I re-arrange my day so that this habit is done the next day?
I also have a row to grade my progress for the year so I can keep myself accountable and game-ify it. When you have a habit that's 99.3% or 100%, you really don't want to accidentally miss your habit for a day and make that score drop down to 93% or something as that would be devastating. The pain of lowering my scores is much less than the pain of forcing myself to do the work that day.
Ultimately, you can track your habits however you want but make sure to track it – otherwise you can't see if you're fucking up, and likewise you can't pat yourself on the back if at the end of the year you see that all your scores are 90%+. Use a spreadsheet, find an app, do whatever you need to do to track your progress!
Cutting Yourself Some Slack
At the beginning of the habit where you're still struggling to remember to do the habit or if it's 'hard' to keep up with the habit, never cut yourself any slack. Double the work the next day or come up with some Puritan punishment for yourself for missing the habit.
Once you've gained some momentum on the habit (say you haven't missed a day in the past 90 days) - then you can be more confident that if you miss a day that it's quite easy for you to get back on track and resume the habit. At this point, punishing yourself isn't disciplinary but is just masochistic so there's no need for that. You're probably safe to cut yourself some slack after the 90 day mark as a rule of thumb but you can probably start cutting yourself some slack when the habit 'feels' as automatic as brushing your teeth.