How to Build Better Habits

How much better would your life be if you adopted more productive habits? We all have activities that we know will benefit us: eat healthily, exercise regularly, take action, daily meditation but our efforts to incorporate these into our lives inevitably fail. Willpower is not enough. Instead, you need to transform these occasional actions into lifelong habits – like brushing your teeth. The question therefore is “How to we turn actions into automatic habits?”

How to create more helpful habits

  1. Chaining. This method was made famous in an interview with Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld recounts the story of wanting to be a comedian and in order to succeed he knew he needed to produce new material on a daily basis. The method he used was to take a calendar with all the days printed out and when he created new material, he would mark that day with a large “X”. Over time, he would have several consecutive days of Xs. The more material he wrote, the longer his chain of Xs grew. The goal was to keep the chain whole. If he missed a day, the chain would be broken and he would have to start again. The method works because it becomes a game: there’s a powerful visual reminder of letting yourself down if you skip a day. Success is an accumulation of hundreds, even thousands, of positive daily actions and this method ensures you take each necessary step. A little added to a little soon becomes a lot.
  2. Build your new habit around a daily action. Take something you do several times a day and associate it with your desired new habit. For example, every time you enter or leave a room say something positive to yourself. Every time you make a coffee, practise mindfulness. Every time you check your Facebook profile, do 10 pushups. And so on. Pick the triggering activity that works for you and an achievable new action you want to ingrain.
  3. Act within 3 seconds. When it comes to performing your new action, you can think about it for a maximum of three seconds before having to do it. Countdown from three seconds, give a cry of frustration, swear, resent the work – whatever – get rid of that resistant energy and just start.
  4. Resist an all-or-nothing attitude. If your goal is to eat healthily and you have a bad day, don’t beat yourself up and abandon your new habit. Reset; acknowledge how far you’ve come; leave the setback in the past; and try again tomorrow. If you have been eating healthily for five days and you have one bad day, you’re still four days ahead. You’re headed in the right direction.
  5. What would a stronger version of you do? When faced with a reluctance to perform your new action, ask yourself what would a better version of you do? There will always be difficulty whenever you’re attempting something new but that’s where the value lies: who you become in the pursuit of a goal is more important than the goal itself. A better you would like be more disciplined, braver, keep their word and so on and if these actions are difficult or unpleasant to you it’s because you have, over time, strayed further than you realise from them. It’s time to reclaim these higher qualities, i.e. if you want to be a better, stronger you, do what a better, stronger you would do.
  6. Remove temptation. Willpower is a finite resource and it’s rarely a long-term solution. A better solution is to remove all temptation and take the solution out of your hands. For example, if you want to quit playing online poker, contact all the poker rooms and use their self-exclusion facility. If you want to stop eating junk food, throw out all the junk food in your house. If you want give up smoking, don’t have cigarettes in the house – that includes e-cigarettes (which is simply substituting one dependence with another).There is a story (probably untrue, but it illustrates a point nicely) that Romans landing on foreign shores would burn the boats that carried them across the seas. The message was: they would succeed in conquering their enemies or they would die. Cut off exit routes and chances to go back on the path you’ve set for yourself.
  7. Associate with new people. If you want to develop new habits, you likely need to surround yourself with new people. This can be difficult, especially if the negative people around you are family but it’s something you have to consider. You don’t have to cut people out of your life, just keep them at a distance or know to deal with them differently (e.g. take what they say with a pinch of salt) when you’re trying to instil new habits and actions. If you want to be a successful business person, associate with successful entrepreneurs; if you want to be an artist, join an artist group; if you want to be more positive, hang out with positive people. The people you associate with are one of the most powerful determinants of the habits you adopt and, as a result, the life you end up with.
  8. Concentrate on process, not events. Acquiring new, positive habits is a process rather than an event. That is, you don’t start with habit X and suddenly end up with habit Y. Rather, it’s a mixture of false-starts, setbacks, trial-and-error incremental improvements and endless adjustments through feedback. So long as you’re moving in the right direction, that you’re doing an increasing amount of things right than wrong, then you’re on the right path.
  9. Celebrate your triumphs. It’s important to recognise, celebrate and reward yourself for your successes. If possible, make sure the rewards themselves are healthy habits you want to develop – or at least not ones that reinforce negative behaviours. Sometimes, the good feeling you get from executing your good habit is reward enough. The important thing is to recognise your own progress, i.e. always celebrate progress, not the outcome. What matters is how far you’ve come, your improvements, not where you are per se. Questions to ask yourself include, “How have I improved since last week?” or “Am I a better person (artist, business person, athlete, parent, friend…) than last month?”
  10. Give yourself 90 days. It takes about 90 days of consistent action to embed a new habit. For this reason, don’t judge your efforts until after this time.
  11. Do I really need this? Before indulging in a bad habit, ask yourself, “Do I really need this?” If you have a habit of overeating, ask yourself the question before grabbing that chocolate bar. What if you didn’t take eat it? Would you die from starvation? Will the pain of going be too much to bear? Will not having the chocolate send you into deep depression? Obviously not. Habits are reflex actions. We do them without thinking (which is why they can be both powerful and damaging). If the next time you are faced with your bad habit, pause and ask yourself the question. If (as is likely) the answer is no, find something else to distract you.

Takeaway points

  1. Habits take about 90 days to form.
  2. Interrupt your negative habits by stopping and ask yourself if you really/want need to do something.
  3. Judge your performance by the overall progress you’ve made, i.e. how much you’ve improved, rather than how you are at any particular time.

Action steps

  1. Print off your year-long calendar and start chaining a positive habit of your choice.
  2. Keep a before-and-after record. Take before-and-after photos, videos, screenshots, self-interviews or journal entries. Make a note of the date. Use these as a record of your progress. It’s your overall progress – how far you’ve come – rather than where you are, that matters.
  3. Identify some people you trust to share your new habit with. These people will keep you accountable. The added pressure of not making yourself look foolish or quitting after telling these people your goal will spur you to take action and to persevere. And if you don’t reach your goal? If you put in a good showing, you have nothing to be embarrassed about.


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