How to Install a New Habit – Part 1: Key Principles

What you repeatedly think and do forms the person you are. If you want to achieve a certain goal, it’s not likely that you’ll succeed unless your habits already support it.

In this article I’ll cover key strategies that have helped me set up daily habits and actually stick to them. This was truly a reason to celebrate in my small universe, since I have failed in certain habits so many times it’s not even funny. 😀 Part 2 will contain a mini-guide that outlines specific steps and examples.

Future self thinking

Think about who you’ll be and what your life will look like in 10 years. This is not your “best self”, but your most realistic projection of what kind of person you’ll be if you continue with your current habits. How has your diet and (lack of) exercise shaped you? Do you still use social media? Are you still at the same job? Who are your friends? Are you still drinking and smoking heavily?

Some day, your future self will have to deal with all the shit you’ve pulled off over years. Will s/he feel regret or gratitude?

The truth is, your choices right now determine what options you’ll have in the future. A small course correction in your 20s could have a huge impact in your 30s, 40s or later. If you’re past your 20s, don’t worry old-timer, just move the same concept up a decade or two. 😛

Now take an area that bothers you about your future self and start making long-term choices on a daily basis. Look at the choices you make today and then ask yourself what the best long-term version of that choice is. The point isn’t to always be focused on the optimal life, just to regularly step back and look at your decisions, keeping your future self in mind.

Fore a more in-depth look at the principles behind future self thinking, check out this article by Trent Hamm.

Habit change is like chess

The game of chess has an early game, a middle game, and an endgame. In the early game you set up your position for success. Develop your pawn structure, take the center of the board, put some pressure on your opponent. In the middle game you’re looking for positional and material advantage. More aggressive, but still not going for the checkmate. In the end game, you move to checkmate the opponents king.

Chess is a good analogy for changing habits. Most people do the equivalent of starting with the end game, going for checkmate without developing your position or weakening your opponent. That way, you’ll almost certainly fail. You can’t change a habit overnight.

If you hear a lot of overnight success stories, try to remember if you’ve ever seen the day-to-day process that lead to that success. You were showed the event of success, but not how hard it was to actually get there. Or that’s what I tell myself because I’ve never pulled it off. 😀

What you’re looking for in the early game, is education. Read some books on the subject of your habit and talk to people who have already succeeded. Become an expert on the topic.

In the middle game, focus on preparation. If you want to change your diet, throw away all unhealthy food from your fridge. Learn 10 new recipes, figure out your new shopping list. Tell your friends and request their support. Give yourself every tactical advantage before making the change.

Execution begins in the end game. Start a 30-day trial. If you’re having trouble here, your error was most likely in the early or middle game.

Shout out to Steve Pavlina for this analogy.

The pattern

A great research-backed tactic for diagnosing and shaping habits was described by Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit.

It has 3 steps:

  1. Cue (what triggers you to initiate the behavior)
  2. Routine (the action you take)
  3. Reward (the benefit you gain from doing the action)

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To set up a new habit, pick a cue that will trigger the new behavior. In my experience, physical reminders in your environment plus a digital one works best. For example, a post-it on your bathroom mirror and a notification on your phone.

Do the routine immediately after the trigger. Start super small. This is very important. For example, start with 1 push-up, meditating for 2 minutes or reading only 3 pages per day. It’s easy to bite off more than you can chew and give up on your habit after a few days. You can increase the difficulty over time.

Always reward yourself. You might not be used to positive self-talk but research shows that it’s important, so celebrate every small win.

Set up a system and do your routine daily.

The not-to-do list

  • Don’t start more than one habit change at a time
  • Don’t overdo your habit (start small, make tiny steps)
  • Don’t miss more than one day (stick to you schedule, reduce the difficulty if necessary)
  • Don’t rely on “feeling like it” (finish your routine in a small way, just don’t skip it)

More resources

I have two guides for changing habits to recommend.

The first was written by James Clear and you can get it from his website (free). He does a great job compiling practical, research-based advice on how to transform your habits, design your environment for success and how to get back on track when you slip up.

The second is The Habit Guide e-book ($5.99) by Leo Babauta. This is the best compilation of tools regarding habit change that I’ve come across. Leo goes over every possible obstacle you can hit and how to overcome it. It also covers a lot of popular habits, how to quit a bad habit and how to follow irregular or frequent habits.

Stay tuned for Part 2. 🙂


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