So far in this series we’ve talked about simplifying the complexity of nutrition and fitness. Today we’re digging into another topic that I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time reading about, studying, and applying – habits.
Over the years I’ve found three things to be critical in creating new habits and killing bad ones.
Make it easy to succeed.
There a couple components to making a habit easy to succeed.
First and foremost, you have to make the habit a small improvement. If you’ve been sedentary for a decade, and you try to create a new habit of running 6 times per week, you’re probably going to fail.
That’s just too big of a jump at once. Habits should be almost embarrassingly small and easy to accomplish, because when you do this you create momentum, and once momentum gets a hold of your life everything becomes easier. If you want to become an early riser, start by waking up 15 minutes earlier than usual for a week. Then make it 30. So on and so forth. If you want to go from sedentary to fit, start by walking for 15 minutes every day. Then walk for 30. Then go for a one mile slow jog. Let momentum take care of the rest.
The second component to making it easy to succeed is preparation. Let’s say you want to start a new diet. Prep your meals on Sunday for the week. Why? Because if you don’t, and that lunch time hunger hits as it always does, it will be so much easier to skip your new diet if it means you have to put in work to do it. If instead you had a meal ready to go that you can throw in the microwave, sticking to your new habit becomes easy.
So make it easy to succeed by starting small and preparing in advance for the habit.
Make it difficult to fail.
This may seem like the same thing in reverse as the first point, but it’s not. Making it difficult to fail means removing the possibility of failing without significant effort.
For instance, if your goal again is a new diet, remove all of the food from your house that doesn’t fit within that habit. You will inevitably get cravings for foods you shouldn’t be eating, but if they aren’t in your pantry then you remove the possibility of acting on that craving.
As another example, if working out three times per week is a new habit you’d like to create, make it difficult to skip your workouts. Schedule those workouts with a trainer if you can afford it, or with a friend if you can’t. It’s easy to bail on a workout when it only impacts yourself, but if you’re negatively impacting someone else (the trainer or friend by bailing on them), you use guilt to your advantage by sticking to your new habit.
You should also schedule the workouts on your calendar, just like you would any other appointment, so that it becomes time that is difficult to intrude on. You wouldn’t skip your dentist appointment just because you’re busy at work, and you should treat your workouts the same way if you’re trying to create that habit.
Stack your habits.
Stacking your habits means combining a habit you’re trying to create with a habit you already do on a regular basis.
For example, let’s say you’re trying to start a habit of journaling for five minutes as a way to reflect and recap your day. What do you already do each night that you could stack this new habit next to? If you sit on the couch each night to watch an episode or two, keep your journal on the ottoman. That way every night when you sit down to watch tv, your journal is there waiting for you to use it.
I recently used habit stacking to create a habit I’ve regularly failed at in the past – vitamins and supplements. Historically I would just tell myself I’m going to start taking vitamins and supplements everyday, and I maybe did it for a day or two in a row. But then I’d quit, because I hadn’t found a natural way to integrate it into my regular routines. So this time around I placed the vitamins and supplements right next to the food I eat for lunch. That way, every time I go to make my lunch, my vitamins and supplements are sitting right there for me to take. And it’s worked nearly perfectly. Taking them has simply been a new habit that’s been “stacked” on top of my existing routine of eating lunch.
Most of our daily lives are made up of habits. And if we want to improve our days, and in turn our lives, we should start by the habits within them. By making it easy to succeed, difficult to fail, and stacking new habits with old ones, we can start to use the compounding benefit of improved habits in our favor.
Tomorrow is the final essay on this 4-part series of making the complex simple, and we’ll be digging into our mindset.