Before you started reading this message, you might have had a specific habit in mind that you wanted to kickstart with these lessons. While we will cover this in the next two lessons, today we’ll start with something far more important: choosing the right habit.
When people feel pumped up to make a change, they often want to take action right here, right now. Consequently, they spend too little time thinking about taking the right action and instead focus on how to take it—even if it isn’t the optimal action for their current situation.
For example, you might have had an idea to start exercising more often, so you came up with a habit to attend a fitness class at your local gym.
All is good if you enjoy this type of exercise. However, many people don’t choose fitness classes because they’re interested in it. They do it because that’s what you’re expected to do: go to the gym and exercise using complicated equipment or participating in boring fitness classes. Before they even started, they had already ensured they would fail: nobody is capable of sticking to a habit that isn’t compatible with their lifestyle, preferences, or existing routines.
Furthermore, if you haven’t specified the outcome you want to achieve through your new habit, you might engage in a habit that isn’t optimal for this result.
For example, if you want to start exercising more often because you want to lose weight, then you’re actually pursuing the wrong habit. Exercise itself does help lose weight, but it’s your diet that determines 80% or more of how much you weigh. The correct habit, in this case, would be related to fixing your diet, not exercise (you can add exercise as a second habit to aid in weight loss).
Your exercise for today is to answer the following three questions:
What’s the result you expect to get out of your new habit?
Be specific and honest with yourself. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing what some might call vain outcomes like looking better or making more money.
What’s the best vehicle to help you achieve this result?
Spend some time doing research: it’s better to postpone implementing your habit than introduce the wrong habit that won’t lead to the results you’re after. If you want to pick up a new sport to get toned and look sexier, sumo wrestling won’t be the right fit for you.
Does this specific habit fit with your lifestyle?
Make sure that the habit you want to introduce fits well with your lifestyle and/or you find it interesting or otherwise exciting. It doesn’t make sense to try to form a habit that feels like a chore from the get-go.
A habit consists of three main elements. James Clear, a writer and researcher on behavioral psychology, habit formation, and performance improvement, calls it the 3 R’s of habit formation: reminder (cue or trigger), routine (action), and reward.
You come up with a reminder to perform the routine, then you perform the action (engage in the habit) and get a reward.
Let’s cover them one by one:
Depending when and where you can engage in your habit, a reminder might be:
- a specific time of day or week like six in the morning or every Tuesday,
- a specific place like your home office,
- a specific habit like drinking morning coffee.
Choosing the right reminders will help you automate engaging in the new habit. If, for example, you decide to head for a run each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 6:30 am, you already have a system in place. Instead of thinking when to go for a run, you now have a structured week.
The most powerful reminder is linking your new habit with a routine that already exists in your life. For example, if you drink coffee every single morning, then you can easily link it with a habit of expressing gratitude for five things in your life.
Routine is practising the habit. It’s important to specify what it means to engage in your habit. “I’ll exercise for 30 minutes” is too vague. Will you go jogging for 30 minutes? Have a weightlifting session? Go rock climbing? Perform a stretching routine? Go surfing? Be specific.
Start as small as possible to reduce initial resistance. Instead of going with 60 minutes of exercise, start with just one, five, or ten minutes. Gradually increase it as engaging in the new habit gets easier for you.
Rewards are essential to help you keep going, and they’re particularly crucial when working on habits that produce delayed results (like dieting or exercising).
Come up with at least one little reward you’ll get after engaging in your habit and one reward you’ll give yourself each week. Ideally, your reward should encourage you to keep engaging in the habit and it should never jeopardize it, such as getting a cookie for each day of healthy eating.
A little reward can be something as simple as acknowledging that you’ve made progress and expressing gratitude for it. A weekly reward can be something bigger: perhaps a massage, watching your favourite TV show, having a (healthy) meal at a restaurant, or hanging out with your friends.
Your exercise for today is to design your new habit. Pick a reminder, describe your habit and choose a reward.
You know the result you’re after, you know what habit will take you there, and you know how to design it properly. Now it’s time to take action and get started. What to do?
You’ve been given all the right tools you need to kickstart your habit. Now for this knowledge to actually make a difference in your life, you need to engage in your habit.
It doesn’t matter if your action is imperfect. It doesn’t matter if the first action you take isn’t exactly the same as the habit you described yesterday, as long as this action gets you to start doing something.
Here’s where so many people fall into a common trap.
What you’re after is initial momentum. The thing about momentum is that it builds up gradually with even the smallest action; similar to how a snowball is formed. You can start with a tiny amount of snow and end up with a huge snowball you can’t even push—but the first action has to be about forming the ball, not reading how to do it or shopping for the best mittens.
If you want to start jogging for thirty minutes three times a week but don’t have running shoes yet, run in any other shoes you have (okay, perhaps not in your high heels or brogues) or just take a walk. Don’t make the mistake of going shopping for jogging shoes first: more often than not, it will give you a false sense of accomplishment without actually doing the required work.
If you want to start waking up early, set your alarm clock now and ideally, schedule something you need to do in the early morning to ensure that you’ll actually get up.
If you want to start working on your side business, don’t just buy a business book: start the actual process of researching possible business ideas and take action on one of them (research in itself is not a real action).
Be on the lookout for any of the following:
- Postponing action because you need to buy something to get started (you can always start with what you have),
- Putting things off because you need to do research first (perform some research if you need, but then take action—even a little one—anything to get you started),
- Not implementing your habit until somebody else is ready (if you want to start exercising with your friend, you should still be able to do it by yourself),
- Waiting for a specific day of the week (even if you plan to engage in your habit every Tuesday and today is Friday, you should still start today and then again perform the habit on Tuesday),
- Any other type of waiting or justification for not taking action, unless it has to do with something far more important than the new habit in itself (health and family is more important than everything else).
This concludes our three day introduction to kick-starting a new habit. The information I’ve shared with you will help you get started on the right note if you don’t fall into the trap we’ve just covered.